The Fickle Voters Who Could Decide the 2020 Democratic Nominee

January 17, 2020by Alex Roarty, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) makes a point as former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, raises his hand during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Monica Vernon has spent the Democratic presidential race assessing an assortment of candidates from Elizabeth Warren (“sweet and relatable”) to Amy Klobuchar (“down to earth”) to Cory Booker (“impressive”).

But with just weeks before she must make a final decision in her state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, the Iowa resident and founder of a small market-research company is still not close to making up her mind.

“I’m looking at (Pete) Buttigieg and Amy (Klobuchar), (Joe) Biden, and maybe (Michael) Bloomberg,” said Vernon, who compared the primary to “speed dating” through candidates. “I’m looking at the three Bs and the A.”

Vernon is part of a significant subset of the Democratic electorate — white, college-educated and suburban — that has spent the 2020 primary season vacillating among several different White House hopefuls, liking a wide variety of them but unsure of who would best represent the party in a rough-and-tumble general election against President Donald Trump.

With the leadoff February contests fast approaching, these voters — which make up about one-quarter of the Democratic electorate, and an even larger share in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire — are on the verge of being forced to pick just one of the candidates.

And in a fluid race without a clear frontrunner, where white college-educated voters eventually land will play a major role in determining which contender emerges as the Democratic nominee.

“I was just with a bunch of friends of mine, and of the eight or nine of us who were with us, one was with Bernie, one was with Klobuchar, and everybody else was like, ‘I don’t know yet! I’m not sure yet,’” said Kathy Sullivan, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

“I just find that most of the people I talk to are undecided at this point, still struggling to make up their minds,” she said.

For several other key voter groups, support for one candidate has been relatively over the past year, such as black voters with Biden or young progressive voters with Bernie Sanders.

But white voters with a college degree have fluctuated in their support in a large field of candidates from the start of the race.

A CNN poll from March 2019, for instance, found that former Vice President Joe Biden led the pack with these voters, earning 32% of their support. But their interest in Biden dropped as the year wore on and he faced greater criticism, with just 17% of these voters supporting him by December, according to a CNN poll released that month.

Instead, depending on the moment in the campaign, many of these voters flocked to Kamala Harris’ campaign (who peaked at 17% support with college-educated white voters in CNN’s May poll), Warren (who peaked at 31% in June), and eventually Buttigieg (who reached 12% support with them in December, just 1 percentage point off his high mark).

Harris’ support would eventually dwindle into the single digits before she dropped out of the race late last year, while Warren’s slackening support (she received 25% of the voter group’s backing in December) coincided with her small overall decline in support in national surveys of the primary.

Many of those voters remain up for grabs. Janet Nelson, a 64-year-old former university researcher who lives in Charlotte, said she had liked Biden until she watched his underwhelming first debate performance, supported Harris until she dropped out, and considered backing Buttigieg and Warren before deciding neither was electable.

With seven weeks before she votes in North Carolina’s primary in early March, she’s decided to support a candidate who wasn’t even in the race a few months ago: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“I just feel like he’s the most electable at this moment, once people get to know him,” Nelson said.

Democratic pollsters describe this group of voters as relatively affluent and somewhat more likely to follow day-to-day developments in the presidential race more closely — making them more inclined to change which candidate they support.

Because of their relative wealth, they’re also a group that Democratic candidates have aggressively courted through campaign messages and email solicitations, all hoping to cultivate a base of small-dollar donors.

“The priority that has been placed during this whole contest on small-donor activity has resulted in high levels of engagement with college white voters across the country,” said Matt Canter, a Democratic pollster.

Canter added that many of these voters, who strongly oppose Trump, also still see value in compromise, and respond to candidates who make that a part of their pitch.

Other pollsters say well-educated white voters have one overriding concern: whether a candidate can defeat Trump. That makes some of these voters view the candidates through a similar lens as a pundit, trying to anticipate how other voters will perceive their successes and missteps.

“That’s creating a lot of flexibility in who they’re willing to go for,” said Mike Bocian, a Democratic pollster.

Vernon, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, resident, said trying to figure out which candidate is the most electable has made her own decision much more difficult and fluid. She said earlier in the race, for instance, a friend urged her to support Harris, but Vernon hesitated because she wasn’t sure the senator from California could defeat Trump.

“So overshadowing this very wonderful thing of deciding who’s the best person for the job, is the competing notion of who can beat this guy we got in the office now?” said Vernon, herself a candidate for Congress in 2016.

She added: “What’s happening to me is I want the best possible person, but I’m hoping and praying we can be pragmatic.”

———

©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

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