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The primary season has only just begun, yet analysts with Deutsche Bank said the race for the presidential nominee in the Democratic Party is looking better for health insurers.

In a research report published this week, analysts with the investment bank said that managed-care stocks are up 20% since September 2019 when U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., took an early lead in the party's primary.

Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., have called for big changes in the U.S. health care system, such as a Medicare for All proposal from Sanders that would completely eliminate the private health insurance industry.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that the election of a Democratic presidential candidate that leads to sweeping health care reform is remote," the Deutsche Bank analysts wrote in a research note Tuesday. "If a moderate Democrat were to win the White House in November ... we believe a market-based solution is the likeliest outcome, which could turn out to be a positive for [managed care companies]."

Warren seems to be fading in the polls, the analysts wrote, while questioning whether Sanders could beat President Donald Trump in a general election. As a result, the Deutsche Bank analysts raised price targets for Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group and its largest rivals, including Rhode Island-based CVS Health, which operates the insurer Aetna, as well as Indiana-based Anthem, which operates Blue Cross and Blue Shield health plans in several states.

Despite sound fundamentals, stocks in the sector now are trading below their five-year average, analysts wrote, saying "reform risk is likely the reason."

In April 2019, UnitedHealth Group shares fell 10% over the span of several days when Sanders renewed his proposed Medicare for All legislation and drew other leading Democrats to support it. President Donald Trump and other Republicans oppose the idea.

During a conference call at the time to discuss first-quarter financial results, UnitedHealth Group Chief Executive David Wichmann warned that such a change would destabilize the nation's health care system. The company's stock price that day tumbled 4% to its lowest price in nearly 14 months, even though the company's earnings soundly beat expectations.

An analyst with Cowen Research wrote at the time: "We believe the market is ascribing an inordinately high probability that some form of Medicare for All proposal could become reality."

Since the earnings release in April 2019, UnitedHealth Group shares are up about 40%.

The Deutsche Bank analysts aren't the only investors sizing up the connection between politics and health care stocks.

An analyst with ClearBridge Investments released numbers this week showing how health care stocks underperformed in 2019 but saw a turnaround in the fourth quarter. Analyst Marshall Gordon wrote that the stocks "made up ground lost earlier in the year due to political rhetoric over drug pricing and fears surrounding the proposal of Medicare for All."

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744 Twitter: @chrissnowbeck