Democratic Activists Seem Out Of Step With Voters So Far

Just before the now-infamous Iowa caucuses began, I concluded the final wave of my recurring interviews with early-state Democratic activists. Thirty-one activists responded to my questionnaire, and the results were consistent with my findings from December that suggested that although a considerable portion of Democrats were still undecided, many were rallying behind — albeit reluctantly, in some cases — former Vice President Joe Biden.

This is the eighth and final installment of my series about the preferences of Democratic activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Washington, D.C.1 I’ve been interviewing early-state activists on who they are committed to — or considering supporting — in 2020 as part of my upcoming book, which will look at how the Democratic Party has changed since 2016. In addition to finding out about their candidate preferences, I’ve been asking these activists who they thought other Democrats in their community might be leaning toward and who they don’t want to see as the nominee.

As in previous rounds of interviews, I once again asked the activists whether they had committed to supporting a particular candidate. Not surprisingly, the number of committed supporters in the latest round was the highest it had been since I began this survey in late 2018; 19 of the 31 activists (61 percent) said they were backing a candidate. Sen. Bernie Sanders picked up one supporter — a former backer of former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro — who said that she was influenced by the endorsements by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. She was not, however, particularly confident Sanders would win the nomination. Sen. Elizabeth Warren also gained three new supporters, one of whom was previously backing Sen. Cory Booker and two who had been undecided.2 In fact, Warren and Sanders were tied for the lead among committed supporters with five each.3

But Sanders and Warren weren’t the only candidates to gain new backers: Biden also picked up two new supporters, bringing his total to four. And one of his new supporters, a former backer of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, said that “the former vice president has what it takes to match Trump,” adding that Biden can “outwork him and beat him, especially with his foreign policy experience.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg didn’t pick up any new backers, but they were both able to hold onto their two supporters from previous waves of the survey, and Sen. Michael Bennet was also able to retain his one supporter. No other candidate had any committed supporters.

This still left a dozen activists uncommitted, however. So as in previous rounds of interviews, I also asked those who were uncommitted to tell me who they were considering supporting.4

Here we see some considerable changes from previous waves. Warren, who has been at the top of this measure in the past couple rounds, slipped. Only 11 of 31 activists (35 percent) were supporting her or considering supporting her, down from 42 percent (13 of 31) in December. And for the first time, Biden moved into the top position, with 14 of 31 activists (45 percent) supporting him or considering him, up from 12 of 31 (39 percent) in the previous wave. In third place was Sanders, with 10 of 31 activists (32 percent), then Klobuchar with 9 activists (29 percent) and Buttigieg with 8 (26 percent). (In the table below, I combined the number of respondents considering each candidate with the number committed to each candidate to show their total support.)

More early-state activists are considering Biden

Share of respondents who said they were considering a candidate or had already committed to support a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary

Activists considering or committed to candidate in …
candidate dec. ’18 feb. ’19 april june aug. oct. dec. feb. ’20
Biden 39% 34% 21% 48% 34% 31% 39% 45%
Warren 24 40 35 48 34 48 42 35
Sanders 29 29 24 24 21 24 23 32
Klobuchar 34 37 26 28 17 28 26 29
Buttigieg 17 29 45 38 31 26 26
Steyer 7 14 13 13
Bennet 12 14 10 14 10 13
Bloomberg 6 13
Yang 9 7 7 3 10 6
Patrick 3 6
Gabbard 9 9 7 3 3 3 3
Delaney 16 17 3 3 3 3 3 3

The February 2020 results are based on interviews with 31 Democratic activists who were asked about the 12 candidates listed above. The number of activists who responded in previous rounds of interviews is varied, and those rounds included candidates who have since dropped out.

Source: SETH MASKET, “LEARNING FROM LOSS: THE DEMOCRATS, 2016-2020”

Next, I examined which candidates the activists say they don’t want as the nominee. And as in past waves, former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sanders dominate this category, with 24 and 20 of the 31 activists (77 and 65 percent), respectively, saying they don’t want to see those candidates nominated. Interestingly, Warren also now has more detractors than in previous rounds. Eight of 31 activists (26 percent) now say they don’t want her nominated, up from six of 31 (19 percent) last time. Also, Biden’s negatives are up from the last wave — from five of 31 activists (16 percent) to seven of 31 (23 percent).

Finally, I asked the activists which candidate they think people in their community are leaning toward, regardless of their own preferences. Six of 31 activists thought their communities were leaning toward Warren, which was the same as it was in the last wave. And seven of the 31 activists said they thought Sanders was the preferred candidate in their area, which is up considerably from the last survey, when only three of 31 felt this way. Biden also increased on this metric from eight to nine activists saying they thought members of their community were considering him. One other activist said they thought that their community was leaning toward Klobuchar, but no other candidates were mentioned by name in response to this question.5

Overall, this last round of interviews offered an interesting snapshot of support for Biden among influential party members right before voters caucused in Iowa (where he placed fourth) and cast ballots in New Hampshire (where he placed fifth). And this support may yet serve him well in upcoming contests, but it clearly wasn’t enough to save him from some rough losses in the first two states to vote. Granted, Iowa and New Hampshire are two very white states that were not expected to be particularly favorable for Biden, but his weak showing suggests a limited ability for these activists to steer or predict actual voter behavior.

The findings also point to the interesting position Sanders finds himself in as the winner of one (or two, depending on how you judge Iowa) winner of the early-state contests. Across all the rounds of interviews, I’ve seen Sanders retain a loyal group of supporters, but there’s also consistently been a fairly large share of activists who don’t want to see him as the nominee. In other words, Sanders continues to look like a factional candidate. His performance in Iowa (he won the popular vote but not the delegate tally) and his victory in New Hampshire are not trivial, of course, but with so many party insiders uncomfortable with him, it remains to be seen whether he can expand his coalition beyond the quarter or so of voters who already favor him.

It would appear that Democratic Party insiders (or at least the group that I’ve been talking to) made a decision, although a good number of them remain undecided. But to the extent that these activists can send a signal to primary voters and caucusgoers, they have generally signaled that they’d prefer Warren — or, more recently, Biden. We’re now getting to see what those voters and caucusgoers do with the information, and these next few primaries will be a real test of the strength of both the candidates and these activists.