A survey of Democratic activists in early primary states and Washington, DC, finds the vast majority of them still undecided about a 2020 presidential nominee. However, they’re considering candidates from a fairly narrow group, despite the very large number of potential candidates.
As part of the research for my book project about the Democrats between 2016 and 2020, I conducted lengthy interviews with roughly 60 Democratic Party activists in 2017 and 2018. These are people in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and Washington, DC, who have been closely involved with presidential nomination politics in previous election cycles. I’m currently in the process of following up with these respondents, and I’ll keep doing so over the next year to see how and when they line up behind a presidential candidate. For now, I’m interested in understanding where the baseline is at what we might consider the beginning of the invisible primary.
I make no claims about the representativeness of this sample. My goal is not to forecast the next Democratic presidential nominee, but rather to understand what Democratic insiders are thinking and how they go about interpreting the 2016 and 2018 elections and making choices for the next one. Below are a few lessons from the study so far.
Activists are uncommitted
Of the 38 activists I’ve followed up with so far, only six are backing a presidential candidate. Three of those are 2016 supporters of Bernie Sanders who are backing him again for 2020. Of the other three, two are backing Joe Biden and one is supporting Cory Booker. The remainder are still evaluating the various candidates.
I asked the uncommitted activists which candidates they are considering at this point. Below, I report the percentage of activists who say they’re considering various presidential candidates. (I provided respondents with a lengthy list of candidates, although a few of them mentioned people not on the list. I’ve only listed those candidates mentioned by at least 10 percent of respondents here.)
We shouldn’t confuse this list with overall levels of support. Just because Kamala Harris is at the top doesn’t mean that most activists rank her as their favorite candidate. It simply means that more of them are considering her than anyone else. This is more a measure of breadth of support than depth. Below, I’ve listed the three most mentioned candidates under consideration by state.
Again, we see Harris’s broad strength here, as she’s among the three most mentioned candidates in each place I’ve spoken to people. Booker shows up in three of them. All names show up at least twice. Indeed, one of the most surprising things here is the lack of substantial regional differentiation.
Narrowing of election narratives
When I conducted my first round of interviews, I asked subjects why they believed Donald Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton in 2016. I was given a wide range of answers at that time, including that the Democrats had a bad message, that they’d executed their campaign poorly, that they relied too much on identity politics, that they were too dependent on data, that people ranging from Bernie Sanders to Jill Stein to Vladimir Putin had affected the outcome, and so forth. But one of the relatively popular answers was that Clinton was a poor candidate.
In this recent survey, I gave respondents a variety of possible reasons for the 2016 election outcomes and asked them to pick the most likely cause. They overwhelmingly chose to blame Clinton for the outcome. This suggests that the post-election discussion and media coverage has narrowed the range of opinions on this question among activists — they have come to believe that candidate strengths and weaknesses account for the outcome, suggesting that picking a stronger candidate would yield a different result.
I also provided respondents with a range of possible explanations for Democratic victories in the 2018 midterm elections, including Democratic messaging, candidate recruitment, and Trump’s unpopularity. Overwhelmingly, they selected Trump’s words and actions as the cause for Democratic victories. Again, the belief is that the things leading politicians say and do during a campaign are largely determinative of the outcomes.
What are they waiting for?
I asked the uncommitted activists what they are waiting for before deciding on a presidential candidate. More than half said they want to meet with the candidates in person before they make a decision. This sentiment was expressed by roughly three-quarters of the activists in New Hampshire and Iowa.
Nearly half said they were waiting to see the candidates’ performances in speeches, debates, and other campaign events, while others were waiting to hear the candidates’ stances on particular issues, especially climate change. Roughly a third said they wanted to know how strong the candidates were at fundraising. Only about 10 percent of respondents said they were going to follow another Democrat’s endorsement, and most of those who said that suggested Barack Obama’s endorsement was the most important to them.
This is only a preliminary study. I specifically chose to do this relatively early in the cycle because I wanted to speak to most people before they had made a decision and then later hopefully catch them in the act of making one. But early evidence suggests that, despite this being one of the largest and most open presidential fields Democrats have faced in modern times, party activists are working to make an informed decision well before the voting starts in 2020. And while there are still a good number of names under consideration, quite a few more are not.
Update 12/19: Updated first table to include Elizabeth Warren.