clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Poll: Warren and Harris lead the field in likability

Do female candidates struggle to be liked? Not according to this new poll.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) poses for selfies with voters after a campaign town hall at George Mason University May 16, 2019 in Fairfax, Virginia.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) poses for selfies with voters after a campaign town hall at George Mason University May 16, 2019, in Fairfax, Virginia.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

One question has dogged the female Democratic candidates running for president far more than their male opponents: Is she likable enough?

Research has found that women, more so than men, need to be liked to be elected, as Vox’s Ella Nilsen has reported. And some polls have found women like Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren lagging behind their male counterparts when it comes to likability.

But a new national poll of 1,912 likely Democratic voters shows both Warren and Harris matching or outscoring men on measures of likability, including whether voters are excited about candidates or would like to hang out with them as friends. The poll, conducted in July by communications and strategy firm PerryUndem and provided to Vox exclusively ahead of publication, also found Warren and Harris beating some of their male competitors in terms of favorability. More than 40 percent of those polled had a strongly favorable view of Warren and 32.5 percent said the same of Harris, compared with 27.7 percent for Sen. Bernie Sanders and 24.2 percent for former Vice President Joe Biden.

When pollsters asked respondents who they’d vote for if the primary were held today, Biden still came out with a slight lead (within the margin of error) — 24.6 percent of voters said they’d choose him, compared with 22.6 percent of voters who picked Warren, the next most popular choice. The reason for this disconnect may come down to who voters believe can beat President Trump — those polled gave Biden a better shot than Warren at beating the incumbent.

In general, “for candidates who don’t fit the norm” of American politics — that is, who aren’t white men — “voters are going to have some greater skepticism that they can overcome the biases in this system,” Kelly Dittmar, an assistant political science professor and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, told Vox. “Those candidates often have to run parallel campaigns — one to prove that they can actually win an election as a woman, as a black woman, as a black man, and the other to court a voter on policy and substance.”

If the PerryUndem poll is an indication, Warren and Harris may have work to do at convincing voters they can win — but when it comes to getting voters to like them, they’re already succeeding.

In the PerryUndem poll, candidates were enthusiastic about Warren and Harris

When PerryUndem asked respondents who they’d vote for if the election were held today, Biden came out with a very slight edge — 24.6 percent said they’d vote for him, while 22.6 percent said they’d pick Warren, 16.9 percent chose Harris, and 16.1 percent chose Sen. Bernie Sanders. The gap between Biden and Warren is within the poll’s margin of error of 3.1 percent.

When it came to favorability, though, Warren was the clear winner. Asked if they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the candidate overall, 40.6 percent of male voters and 40 percent of women said they had a strongly favorable view of Warren. Harris also had a strong showing among men, with 33.7 percent reporting a strongly favorable impression, compared with 31.6 percent of women. Just 21.8 percent of men and 26.1 percent of women had a strongly favorable view of Joe Biden.

Warren also performed well when voters were asked which candidate they’d most like to hang out with as a friend. The Massachusetts senator was the top choice for 12.8 percent of voters, followed by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 12.2 percent, Harris with 11.4 percent, Sanders with 10.6 percent, and Biden with 9.9 percent.

PerryUndem also asked voters which candidate they were most excited about. Harris scored highest on this measure, with 16.9 percent of voters saying they were most excited about her, followed by Warren with 16.5 percent, Sanders with 13.3 percent, and Buttigieg and Biden tied with 12.3 percent.

Both men and women were most likely to pick Biden as the candidate they’d vote for if the primary were held today — 23.5 percent of men and 25.5 percent of women said they’d vote for him. But Warren was a very close second among women, with 24 percent saying they’d vote for her, and a relatively close second among men, with 20.9 percent saying she’d get their vote.

Black women stood out as a group with stronger support for Biden than women of other races, or voters generally. More than 44 percent of black female voters had a strongly favorable impression of him, compared with 20.9 percent of white women, 26.8 percent of Latina women, and 23.1 percent of Asian American or Pacific Islander women. When it came to vote choices, 42.6 percent of black women said they’d choose Biden, compared with 20.4 percent who picked Harris, 13 percent who selected Sanders, and 12 percent who chose Warren.

For Warren and Harris, the key might be convincing voters they can beat Trump

The PerryUndem findings run counter to a recent New Hampshire poll in which just 4 percent of voters said Warren was “likable,” and 5 percent said the same of Harris. Meanwhile, 20 percent said Biden and Sanders were likable.

The PerryUndem poll was national, so it’s possible that Warren and Harris perform especially poorly in New Hampshire. However, Dittmar, the Center for American Women and Politics scholar, noted that questions like, “Who would you want to hang out with as a friend?” are more specific than questions like “Who do you think is the most likeable?” As such, the former might be a better way of getting at who candidates like.

The enduring gap between who voters like and who they say they’d vote for may have to do with what remains a core question for Democrats this election cycle: Who can beat Trump? Of those polled, 51.7 percent said Biden could beat Trump, while 45.4 percent said Warren could.

Among black women, the gap was even bigger — 66.4 percent said Biden could beat Trump, while just 31.8 percent said Harris could, and 31.5 percent said the same of Warren.

In general, “the top priority we’re used to hearing from Democratic voters is squarely on replacing President Trump,” PerryUndem co-founder Tresa Undem told Vox in an email. “So conventional wisdom may be that beating Trump trumps Democratic voters’ own preferences.”

Beliefs about Trump are likely not the only reason for black women’s greater support for Biden, Dittmar said. In the PerryUndem poll, black women were also most likely to select Biden as the candidate who best matched their political views — 32.7 percent chose him, compared with 15.9 percent who chose Harris, the next most popular choice.

However, the ability to beat Trump is probably “part of the equation” for black voters, Dittmar said. She noted that many black voters, and black female voters in particular, shifted their support from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama after his 2008 victory in the Iowa caucus. Among those groups, support grew “as Obama became perceived as more electable or viable.”

For black female voters but also voters in general, it’ll be important to watch how beliefs about who can beat Trump change with time, Dittmar said.

But overall, pollsters at PerryUndem believe their data shows the women in the presidential race are strong candidates. According to a report on the poll by the firm, Warren emerges as the top candidate, scoring best in favorability and excitement, as well as representing voters’ political views, while achieving a statistical tie with Biden when it comes to vote choice.

“We don’t draw conclusions based on any single poll at any single moment in time,” the report states. “That said, based solely on these data, we’d venture that not only can a woman win the Democratic primary, a woman might be likely to win.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.