The Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential primary process revealed the emergence of a newly powerful faction on the left: Democrats — and Democratic-leaning independents — who were not content with a slow or calculated push for increasingly progressive policy and instead advocated a quick rethinking of how the party operated.
There was necessarily a generational aspect to this, not entirely overlapping with age. Politicians who came of age in an era when sharply liberal policy was widely unpopular had to advocate for more-moderate positions than what might be expected today. But there was also a perceived or obvious reluctance from establishment Democrats to embrace the policy goals of the far left, a gap that has become only more pronounced after the 2018 midterms. (See the comments made by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) about Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), for example.)
It makes the quiet start of 2020 primary jockeying interesting. Who will emerge as the favorite among Democrats: an establishment candidate, like Hillary Clinton; or a progressive alternative, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)? Will the 2020 contest again result in a near-even draw between those two sides? More important, who will Democrats nominate?
What’s remarkable about a new USA Today-Suffolk University poll is how it approaches that question, asking Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents about a battery of possible 2020 contenders but from a unique angle: How excited were the poll respondents about a possible candidacy — or how much did they hope that particular candidates don’t run?
Consider that first question. About whom are Democratic primary voters most excited?
As of right now, they’re most excited about An Unnamed Candidate. More than half of Democrats pick “someone else” as the person about whom they’re most enthusiastic — not really a surprise, given that we can easily imagine the perfect candidate for us and our issues floating out there in the ether. Whether such a person becomes manifest before the Iowa caucuses is another question.
The only other candidate above 50 percent is former vice president Joe Biden. Interestingly, among liberals, Biden fares about as well as the Unnamed Imaginary Dream Candidate. Also interesting: More than half of liberals point to Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) as people they’re excited about, while 4 in 10 liberals say the same thing about Sanders.
Few Democratic voters are excited about Clinton or former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, but Clinton fares far worse on that “sit this one out” metric. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats overall hope Clinton won’t run, while Bloomberg about matches Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), with more than a quarter saying they hope neither candidate runs.
Again, though, self-identified liberals are hard on Sanders, with a bit over a third of the group saying that neither Sanders nor Bloomberg should run.
There’s an important aside here. A self-identified liberal is not necessarily someone who supports Sanders’s agenda. In recent years, Democrats have gotten much more likely to identify as liberals, but not all embrace a Sanders- or Ocasio-Cortez-style policy agenda.
That said, a breakdown by demographic shows energy pointing places other than Clinton and Sanders, as well. If we compare the two numbers above, subtracting the percentage who don’t want a candidate to run from the percentage who are excited about a candidacy, Biden again comes out on top. (The Mystery Ghost Candidate does especially well here; Clinton, especially poorly, in part because most people have an opinion on her.) On net, Sanders and Warren receive mixed reviews.
Harris, O’Rourke and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobucher (D-Minn.) receive net positive reviews (though only barely in the case of the poorly known Klobuchar).
Comparing self-identified liberals with moderates, those four candidates (let’s call them The Four, just for ease of reference) also fare much better among Democrats further to the left on the spectrum. Sanders does slightly better with liberals but not as well as Biden, Harris or O’Rourke.
Warren sees a 20-point gap on this metric between men and women. Women are generally more supportive of The Four, too.
The poll didn’t have a large-enough sample of black or Hispanic voters to break out, but we can compare white voters’s responses with the overall responses to get a sense of how nonwhite voters look at the candidates. White voters have a much worse view of Clinton and Sanders than do nonwhite voters.
Race was one of the defining factors in the 2016 race, with Clinton outperforming Sanders among black voters by a wide margin, particularly in the South. The other factor? Age, with younger voters preferring Sanders.
Now? Younger voters still view Sanders more positively, but they have much more positive net views of Biden (and to a lesser extent Booker and O’Rourke).
(Young voters also love The Imaginary Candidate.)
What’s important to note about these numbers is that bit of text at the left of the above graphics: Most of the candidates aren’t universally known. A third of respondents, for example, had never heard of O’Rourke. More than half haven’t heard of Klobuchar.
The important lesson from 2016 at this moment, of course, is the one we tend to gloss over: Things can change in a party primary in fairly short order, particularly in a crowded field.