Poll Finds Most Likely Democratic Primary Voters Want to Back Coalition Builder

April 1, 2019 by Dan McCue
Lillian Gladden, of Gardenville, Md., and other District 28 voters vote at their polling place at Hazelwood Elementary School on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

A majority of likely Democratic primary voters want above all else in 2020 to beat President Donald Trump and say the way to do it is by supporting a centrist candidate with broad appeal rather than one trying to move the party to the left.

Those are some of the results of a new poll conducted by Third Way, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“Democrats want to win. They are very focused on winning,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for Third Way’s social policy and politics program, during the unveiling of the poll results at the National Union Building on Friday.

In that sense the result of the poll of 1,750 voters, which was conducted between March 7 and March 10, was a lot like other polls that have published in these early days of the 2020 campaign for the White House.

But it was when participants in the telephone survey were asked what they believed needed to be done to win that things started to get interesting.

Asked to make a choice between a candidate who appealed to a wide range of voters, including some of those who voted for Trump in 2016, or one focused on energizing progressives and the left wing of the party, a substantial majority — seven-in-10 respondents — chose the former hypothetical candidate.

This held true even when David Binder Research, which conducted the survey, broke out a subset of voters who had actually taken to the street to protest at some point during Trump’s presidency.

“These are people we describe as the ‘resist voters’ and even in their case, a majority, 67 percent, said we need a candidate who can speak to a broad constituency,” Erickson said.

It wasn’t surprising then that when it came to issues, these same primary voter-respondents said the Democrats would be wise to focus on traditional “kitchen-table issues.”

“Overwhelmingly, people said the number one issue a candidate needs to focus on in order to beat Donald Trump is reducing the cost of healthcare,” Erickson said.

“The participants in the survey mentioned that at least twice as much as they mentioned Medicare-for-all or single payer health care,” she said. “After that came reducing taxes on the working and middle class.”

After health care costs and taxes, the survey found the Democratic voters mostly concerned with the need to address climate change; addressing the inequities of the GOP tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations; fixing the nation’s immigration system; including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; passing gun safety legislation; and getting money out of politics.

However, what was telling about the survey was that in the current political climate, respondents said they’d be willing to vote for someone they thought could beat Trump even if that individual didn’t exactly match their policy preferences.

“Sixty-five percent of all voters in the survey said that, but what was most striking was that 75 percent of people who described themselves as “strong” Democrats felt the same way,” Erickson said. “Again, it’s all about winning.”

Early Start to Election Cycle Fuels Need for Data

Of course, there are those who will be tempted to say the results are interesting, but perhaps too early to be meaningful, coming nine months before the first votes are cast in Iowa.

To those people, Ryan Pougiales, senior political analyst at Third Way, responds by pointing out that this is only first of a series of quarterly polls the organization will be conducting over the next year.

“Also, this is a pretty unique presidential election cycle,” Pougiales said. “Whether it’s negative feelings toward Trump or a desire for a fresh start, voters are already engaged. I mean, Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., had 20,000 at a campaign launch event.

“So we wanted to capture a snapshot now that will enable us to track the evolution of where the primary electorate is going over time,” he said.

Picking up where Erickson left off, Pougiales said the early takeaway is that Democratic primary voters are definitely looking for a candidate who can bring the country together.

“But that doesn’t mean they simply want someone who will stick to the middle-of-the-road. What they clearly want is someone who is more or less a pragmatic progressive, but who also has the ability to reach out to progressives and others and make them part of an inclusive coalition.”

Pougiales said another thing the survey found was that Democrats believe their candidate not only has to win, but has to win big, with a mandate.

“They really want to win, no question. I think there’s also a real sense that this is not just important for Democrats — it is important for the country too,” he said. “And I think that is what is driving this desire to build a really broad coalition.”

In assessing the field of 16 Democratic candidates who have already entered the race, the pollsters, who previously worked for the Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns, faced a quandary. Given how early it is in the race, they didn’t want to simply ask participants who they preferred.

Instead, the question was framed as, “How confident are you about candidate X’s ability to beat Trump?” with “Candidate X” replaced with each of the names of the current contenders.

“What we found, and it was expected, is that at this point name recognition is driving responses and people are still largely unfamiliar with two-thirds of the field,” Pougiales said.

“People overwhelmingly thought former Vice President Joe Biden could beat Trump, and one-in-four respondents were absolutely certain of it,” he said.

As part the question the pollsters also created a 0-to-10 scale on a candidate’s ability to beat Trump.

“Biden was the only candidate to score over seven,” Pougiales said. “Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was second, again because of name recognition — only 7 percent of respondents had no opinion on his electability, and then there were outliers, or what we at this point call ‘over-performers.’

“For instance, one-in-four respondents could rate Beto O’Rourke on the electability scale, and yet he still managed to reach a 6 on the 1-to-10 scale. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., also over-performed in the same way,” he said.

“So this is something we’ll continue to track over the next year, and we do expect there to be a lot of movement in voters’ perceptions of electability.”

Survey Finds Twitterati Doesn’t Define Voter Outlook

One of the most interesting findings in the survey was highlighted by Lanae Erickson at the National Union Building event. And it had nothing to do with the candidates.

As a Demographic question, the pollsters asked how often respondents posted to Twitter.

Surprisingly, only 10 percent of the Democratic primary voters who participated in the survey said they posted on Twitter once per day or more.

“So 90 percent of the primary voters we spoke to aren’t posting on Twitter at all, and what we saw was a really big divergence across a lot of different questions on the poll,” Erickson said.

As an example, she pointed to voters responses regarding healthcare. A vast majority of respondents — almost all non-Twitterers — preferred building on and bolstering the Affordable Care Act, rather than replacing it with a new single-payer or other system.

“With non-Twitter users, building on the Affordable Care Act won by a margin of 18 percentage points. Among Twitter folks, the options were tied,” Erickson said.

But the biggest divergence came over the question of whether or not to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.

“Most of the [respondents] who didn’t use Twitter did not want to abolish ICE. The margin was 34 percent; meanwhile the Twitterati was plus-three on the question,” Erickson said.

“Another huge distinction was when we asked survey participants if they identified as Democratic Socialists. Only about 25 percent overall in the sample said they did so, but off that number, nearly twice as many Twitter users described themselves that way compared to non-Twitter users.”

The results of the survey can be found here. Its margin of error is ±2.8 percent.

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