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Cory Booker Is Trailing In The Polls, But Some Democratic Activists Really Like Him

The first Democratic primary debates are nearly here, but the early-state Democratic Party activists I’m interviewing for my book on the future of the party are still largely undecided. Three more activists have committed to supporting just one candidate, but what struck me in this latest round of surveys was that some of the candidates doing well among these activists aren’t necessarily the front-runners in the primary polls.

Since December, I have interviewed Democratic activists in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada and Washington, D.C.,1 every two months to ask them about their preferences for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Previous research shows that the decisions these activists make tend to be influential on the party’s nomination, and since they are likely to give money, help organize and use their platform to sway other voters, their preferences may be able to tell us something about how the invisible primary is going. In these interviews, I’m trying to learn whether these activists are already committed to a candidate or, if they haven’t made up their minds, which candidates they’re still considering. I also started asking respondents in April who they didn’t want to see as the nominee, as a way to better understand which candidates are considered unacceptable by some of the people likely to be most engaged in the primary process.

First, let’s look at the activists who said they’re committed to a single candidate. Of the 29 activists who shared their candidate preferences with me in June, only nine say they have made up their minds. And of those nine, four support New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and two support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Some activists who had pledged support for candidates, especially Sanders,2 in previous interview rounds didn’t respond to this round.) The other three split their support, backing former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.

The activist that supports Buttigieg is based in Iowa and told me, “If you had asked me six months ago if he would be my choice, I would have laughed and said, ‘No way.’” But, the activist said, Buttigieg “is breaking the theater and rhetoric of campaigns and giving long, thoughtful answers instead of glib sound bites.” The activist who committed to support Biden is from South Carolina and named Biden’s decades of experience in public office as the deciding factor. The activist backing Castro has been committed to him since April and remains loyal.

Next, let’s take a look who the undecided activists are considering supporting. (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.)3 As you can see in the table below, perhaps one of the biggest surprises is that Booker is sitting at the top of the table even though he hasn’t seen an uptick in the polls like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, nor is he one of the polling leaders like Biden.

Early-state activists like Booker

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 in …
candidate dec. 2018 feb. 2019 april june
Booker 45%
49%
47%
59%
Harris 61
54
53
52
Warren 24
40
35
48
Biden 39
34
21
48
Buttigieg
17
29
45
Gillibrand 21
23
26
31
Klobuchar 34
37
26
28
Castro
17
15
28
Sanders 29
29
24
24
O’Rourke 34
14
15
17
Bennet
12
14
Inslee
12
14
De Blasio
14
Bullock
10
Hickenlooper 21
23
12
7
Gabbard
9
9
7
Yang
9
7
Swalwell
7
Delaney 16
17
3
3
Moulton
3
Ryan
3
Messam
3
Williamson
3

Respondents were asked about the 23 commonly mentioned candidates listed above, but they were also provided space to write in candidates not listed.

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

 

Booker went from 47 percent support (16 people) in the last survey to 59 percent (17 people) in this one — slightly fewer people responded to this wave of interviews, bolstering the effect of adding one activist to this list of those considering the New Jersey senator. California Sen. Kamala Harris is in second place, remaining pretty steady compared to previous waves, and she’s still being actively considered by 15 activists. Tied at third with 14 potential supporters each are Warren (at 48 percent now, up from 35 percent in the last round of interviews, a gain of two people) and Biden (up from 21 percent, a gain of seven people). Buttigieg is also being considered by more activists in this round, jumping from 29 percent (10 people) in the last round to 45 percent (13 people), and Castro also saw a respectable increase in support, as he’s now at least being considered by three more people than in the last round.

But most other candidates are largely treading water, and a few, like former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, appear to have lost some ground. To some extent, I think what we are seeing is a greater activist embrace of candidates in the upper polling tiers at the expense of the lesser-known candidates, although the June debates could change this.

As in the last round of this survey, I also asked the activists who they do not want to see become the Democratic nominee. I’m not seeing a whole lot of movement in this area. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard continues to be a controversial choice for most activists (69 percent, or 20 people, don’t want her as the nominee), but self-help author Marianne Williamson is a close second at 66 percent (19 people).4 And Sanders is now tied for third with Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton at 59 percent (17 people). The fact that Sanders continues to alienate many party activists probably doesn’t bode well for his chances to build support outside of his base, even though he’s doing fairly well in the polls.

Gabbard or Williamson draw a lot of opposition

Share of respondents who said they would not consider supporting a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary

Activists Oppose
candidate april 2019 june
Gabbard 59%
69%
Williamson
66
Sanders 50
59
Moulton
59
Yang 35
55
Messam
55
De Blasio
52
Delaney 38
45
Ryan
45
Hickenlooper 29
41
Swalwell
41
Bullock
38
O’Rourke 29
34
Bennet 26
34
Biden 41
31
Klobuchar 29
28
Gillibrand 26
28
Buttigieg 26
21
Inslee 21
17
Warren 18
14
Castro 15
10
Booker 6
10
Harris 3
7

Respondents were asked about the 23 commonly mentioned candidates listed above, but they were also provided space to write in candidates not listed.

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

 

As for Biden, the race’s current front-runner, the number of activists who do not want to see him win has dropped by 10 percentage points (five people) since April, but he’s still facing a sizable opposition. Some of the other candidates who have more than 2 percent of support in the polls, like Warren, Buttigieg and Harris, seem to be less polarizing options. But some candidates like Washington Governor Jay Inslee are struggling to be noticed at all — most activists don’t have strong opinions about him either way.

It is, of course, still early, and most of the activists I’ve talked to are still making up their minds, but concerns about electability may already be factoring into their decisions. In this round of interviews, I asked respondents which was more important to them: the “ability to defeat the Republican nominee” or “a commitment to long-standing Democratic goals and values.” Of the 27 people who answered this question, all but five said they cared more about beating the Republican nominee. There is evidence, too, that this may influence which candidates activists say they’re committed to versus which candidates they say they’re considering. For example, while many party activists are considering several women, no party activist has yet committed to a female candidate.5

So it may be that, even as activists are considering a wide range of candidates, they are reluctant to commit to certain presidential hopefuls, especially women, because of perceived electability problems. As one uncommitted female respondent from Washington, D.C., told me, “There is a ‘Hillary hangover,’ by which I mean a reticence to support a woman candidate after Hillary’s loss.” But then again, which candidates are seen as electable can and does change, especially this early in the presidential cycle. Stay tuned for my August survey, which will happen after both the June and July Democratic primary debates. By then, we’ll hopefully start to get a better sense of which candidates are pulling away from the pack.



From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. Although Washington’s primary election is neither early nor pivotal, I chose to interview activists from this area because of their proximity to early candidate activity and the heavy media saturation of the area with early nomination coverage.

  2. Sanders has had as many as five backers in my interviews, but three of his supporters did not reply in the most recent round. Likewise, one of Biden’s previous backers didn’t reply to this round.

  3. Specifically, I asked respondents, “Which, if any, of the following candidates are you considering supporting for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination?” I provided respondents with a randomized list of the 23 most commonly mentioned presidential candidates in a variety of news sources. I also provided space for respondents to write in names. They are allowed to mention as many names as they wish.

  4. Similar to the question in which I asked respondents about who they would consider supporting, I asked, “Are there any candidates you definitely do not want to see become the Democratic presidential nominee?” For this question, I also provided respondents with a randomized list and allowed them to mention as many names as they wished. In the last survey, I did not ask respondents about Williamson, Seth Moulton, Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell or Steve Bullock.

  5. Granted, of the nine party activists who were committed to a candidate in this round, six are men, so that might have something to do with it, too.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “The Inevitable Party: Why Attempts to Kill the Party System Fail and How they Weaken Democracy.”

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