VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — In the Trump era, the suburbs have been Democrats’ surprising superpower.
A revolt by college-educated voters, largely women, in suburbs from Virginia Beach to Oklahoma City, from Houston to Southern California, delivered the House majority to Democrats in 2018. Driven by anxiety over guns, health care and the environment, and recoiling from President Trump’s caustic leadership, suburban voters are widely seen as a critical bloc for any Democratic victory in 2020.
But there are some early signs that the rise of Senator Bernie Sanders, by far the most liberal Democratic front-runner since George McGovern in 1972, is causing stress with the party’s suburban coalition and especially its core of college-educated white women and older voters, many of whom are politically moderate.
And after Saturday night’s big win Joseph R. Biden Jr. in South Carolina, Mr. Sanders will face an invigorated former vice president as well as other moderates, like former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in Tuesday’s primaries in Virginia, Texas, and other states with swaths of suburban voters.
Anne Poague, a retired nurse who lives in Virginia Beach, in a House district that a Democrat wrestled from a Republican incumbent in 2018, noted that Mr. Trump’s top argument for re-election would be the economy — with Mr. Sanders as a perfect foil.
“People are going to say, do you want him or do you want a socialist?” she said of the prospect of Mr. Sanders as the nominee. It was “kind of scary” to see Mr. Trump congratulating Mr. Sanders on his primary wins, she said. “What does that tell you?”
In Hampton Roads — which includes Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Newport News — Democrats also picked up four Statehouse seats in November. One of those 2019 victors, Shelly Simonds, said suburban women “really generated the enthusiasm that created the blue wave.”
While some women, including many teachers, “are all about Sanders,” Ms. Simonds said, others recoil from his sweeping proposals such as a government takeover of health care. “There are a lot of women who are very protective over health care and the current status quo,” she said.
Suburban women are especially important in battleground states like Virginia, which is seen as essential to any Electoral College majority for the party in 2020. Virginia has turned sharply toward moderate Democratic candidates in recent years; the losses of Republican candidates up and down the ballot in suburbia have produced more political change than arguably any other state.
Mr. Biden’s victory in South Carolina may reset the field going into Super Tuesday on March 3, when 16 states and territories vote. Until recently, Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders have jostled for the polling lead in Virginia, with Mr. Bloomberg also contending. In his victory speech on Saturday night, Mr. Biden took aim at Mr. Sanders as a divisive figure.
“If Democrats want a nominee who’s a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat, join us,” Mr. Biden said.
No matter who the party’s presidential nominee is, Democrats feel confident at this point about winning Virginia in November. Mr. Sanders had a nine-point lead over Mr. Trump in the state in a recent poll by Roanoke College.
In a poll of likely Virginia primary voters released on Friday by Christopher Newport University, Mr. Biden, with 22 percent, narrowly edged Mr. Sanders with 17 percent and Mr. Bloomberg at 13 percent.
In a sign of Mr. Sanders’s vulnerability, a plurality of Democrats polled disagreed with some of his key positions: 44 percent said the private insurance system should be kept as it is, and only one in five supported canceling all student debt.
“It’s clear that the path to the majority for us in Virginia in 2017, 2018 and 2019 was Democrats picking candidates in the primary who could talk to independents and bring them to our side in the general election,” said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who on Saturday endorsed Mr. Biden after his commanding South Carolina win. “In order to beat Trump, we need a nominee who is inclusive and can build a broad coalition.”
In this month’s Nevada caucuses, which Mr. Sanders won easily, white women who were college graduates were his weakest supporters (though he won them narrowly), according to entrance polls.
In a head-to-head matchup between Mr. Trump and the top Democrats in a recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll, Mr. Sanders performed the worst with college-educated white women. The Vermont senator, who calls himself a democratic socialist, edged Mr. Trump by just two points, a statistical tie, among white women with a college degree. The more moderate candidates, Mr. Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Mr. Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar, all outstripped Mr. Trump by 10 points or more with the same group of voters.
However, a Fox News Poll released on Thursday showed Mr. Sanders leading among suburban Democratic voters nationally, as he was with all Democrats. He was the top choice of 28 percent of Democrats in the suburbs, ahead of Mr. Biden with 20 percent and Mr. Bloomberg at 19 percent.
There were potential warning signs for Democrats in the poll should Mr. Sanders become the nominee: Nearly one in five suburban Democrats said they would not support him against Mr. Trump in November.
“I don’t think Bernie can win,” said Pat Barner, a retiree here in Virginia Beach, the southern point in a crescent of suburbs running through Richmond to Northern Virginia, which have politically transformed the state. The State Legislature, where Democrats won control in November for the first time in a generation, is swiftly moving to enact Democratic priorities on guns, abortion, minimum wage and L.G.B.T.Q. rights.
Ms. Barner is weighing Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg. Though she would vote for Mr. Sanders if he were the nominee, she feared he could not carry the state. “We’re not that liberal in Virginia,” she said.
Mr. Sanders campaigned aggressively in the state on Saturday and earlier on Thursday, when a rally in Richmond drew a large throng of passionate supporters, mainly young people who exemplified the intensity of his support, but also its potentially limited breadth.
Glen Besa, a suburbanite from Chesterfield County, who stood out from the many college students because of his age, said his first vote was for George McGovern, the Democratic nominee who lost in a landslide in 1972 — but he rejected any analogy to Mr. Sanders. “Times have changed and we have fundamental issues that haven’t been addressed since ’72,” he said.
A state delegate from the Northern Virginia suburbs who introduced Mr. Sanders, Elizabeth Guzman, hammered an electability argument. “I was inspired by the senator and his message to run for office,” said Ms. Guzman, who was born in Peru and flipped a Republican-held seat in Prince William County in 2017. “When they told me Virginia wasn’t ready for a brown person, or an immigrant woman, you came out and proved them wrong,” she told the crowd of several thousand.
But Mark Keam, a Korean-American Democrat in the House of Delegates from Northern Virginia, offered a different perspective of immigrant voters, who have played as crucial a role in Virginia’s tilt to Democrats as have white college-educated women. Mr. Keam, a Buttigieg supporter, said many immigrants recoil from Mr. Sanders’s embrace of big-government socialism because it reminds them of homelands they fled.
“If you’re an immigrant from Asia and you came to this country from a country that was socialist, or you’re from Africa that has dictators or South America where you got your arm chopped off if you said anything wrong about the government — you’re thinking, I thought America is not this way,” Mr. Keam said.
A Sanders candidacy might threaten the 2020 prospects of two vulnerable Democratic congresswomen in Virginia who won Republican-held seats in the 2018 midterms: Representative Abigail Spanberger, a former C.I.A. officer who won a suburban district outside Richmond; and Representative Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander who won in Virginia Beach.
Ms. Luria, who has endorsed Mr. Biden, condemned Mr. Sanders recently for saying he would skip the conference of a pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Ms. Spanberger is keeping her head down, not wanting to nationalize her tough re-election race this year in a district Mr. Trump comfortably won.
“Both Luria and Spanberger would not be eager to have to be running down-ballot with Bernie,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in the state. “They’re very concerned about the socialist label.”
Democrats’ historic wave in Virginia, which has surged in three election years starting in 2017, began with grass-roots suburban groups like the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, which was once a Republican stronghold.
Kim Drew Wright, a founder of the group, said in recent days it has been an effort to keep the peace on the private Facebook page for members, where clashing views of Mr. Sanders have broken out.
“There are different various opinions all the way from ‘there’s no way he could win’ to ‘he’s awesome,’” said Ms. Drew Wright, who favors Senator Elizabeth Warren for the nomination. She said Mr. Sanders triggers fierce opinions. “He’s at the top of the page right now,” she said.