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Democratic Party Activists May Be Cooling On Warren And Warming To Biden

In my last round of interviews with Democratic activists in early-primary states, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, at long last, seemed to be getting traction. Forty-eight percent (14 of 29 activists I interviewed) said they were either supporting her or considering supporting her. However, the most recent results suggest that has changed. Activists still haven’t coalesced around any one candidate, but former Vice President Joe Biden has made gains in this survey.

This is now the seventh installment of my series about the preferences of Democratic activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Washington, DC.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.

Thirty-one activists responded to my latest survey, and 18 of them have declared their support for a candidate, up from 15 of 29 activists in October. Only one activist I interviewed switched their allegiance from one active candidate to another since the last round.2 However, one of the newly committed activists was actually recommitting to a candidate she had backed in a previous round: former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. (She withdrew her support in October when she felt his campaign was going nowhere, but she’s now backing him again, as she feels he has a strong platform and is impressed that he is “unapologetically progressive.”)

Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has picked up her first two committed supporters in this round. One of them was previously undecided, and the other had previously been backing former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. One of Klobuchar’s new supporters cited her Midwestern connections and her “moderate, pragmatic” style as a reason for supporting her, adding that Klobuchar was also appealing because she was “plain-spoken and direct [and a] good communicator.”

Overall, in this group of 31 activists, Sen. Bernie Sanders leads the pack with four activists committed to backing him. Warren and Sen. Cory Booker have three each, while Biden, Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg each have two, and Castro and Sen. Michael Bennet each have one.

But this still left 13 activists uncommitted. So as in previous rounds of this survey, I also asked those who were uncommitted to tell me who they were considering supporting.3 Warren still leads by this metric, as she did in October, with 13 of 31 activists (42 percent) supporting or considering her in this round, but Biden is in a close second place with 12 of 31 (39 percent) considering him. In October, only nine out of 29 activists (31 percent) were considering him. Booker, Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Sanders round out the upper tier of candidates being considered, with between seven and nine activists considering each of them. (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.)

Warren is still on the top, but Biden is gaining ground

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.
Warren 24% 40% 35% 48% 34% 48% 42%
Biden 39 34 21 48 34 31 39
Booker 45 49 47 59 31 38 29
Buttigieg 17 29 45 38 31 26
Klobuchar 34 37 26 28 17 28 26
Sanders 29 29 24 24 21 24 23
Castro 17 15 28 21 14 16
Steyer 7 14 13
Harris 61 54 53 52 38 38 10
Bennet 12 14 10 14 10
Yang 9 7 7 3 10
Bloomberg 6
Gabbard 9 9 7 3 3 3
Delaney 16 17 3 3 3 3 3
Williamson 3 3 3 3
Patrick 3

The December 2019 results are based on interviews with 31 Democratic activists who were asked about the 16 candidates listed above. The number of activists who responded in previous rounds of interviews is varied.

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

As in previous rounds of this survey, I also asked activists whom they do not want to see as the nominee. Spiritual author Marianne Williamson and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard continue to top this list, with 24 of 31 activists (77 percent) and 22 of 31 activists (71 percent) opposing them. But the field’s two billionaires, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, are also very disliked, with 16 of 31 activists (52 percent) opposing both of them, although Sanders notably still solicits a stronger negative reaction with 19 of 31 activists (61 percent) opposing him. However, this metric contains a bit of good news for Biden, who is now only opposed by five of 31 activists (16 percent), down from 24 percent (seven of 29 activists) in October and 31 percent (nine of 29 activists) in August. This doesn’t mean that Biden has pacified all his detractors, but it is telling that his opposition number has decreased while his support has slowly ticked upward; party insiders may well be warming to him.

Another area in which Biden may be building support is in respondents’ answers to my question about which candidate activists think other Democrats who are active in their communities are leaning toward, regardless of the activists’ own preferences. In October, 14 of 29 activists (48 percent) said that their communities were leaning toward Warren. But her numbers have dropped pretty significantly, with only six of 31 (19 percent) saying so now. Biden’s numbers, on the other hand, have increased from three of 29 (10 percent) two months ago to eight of 31 (26 percent). Buttigieg is showing strength here as well, with six of 31 (19 percent) saying they think their communities lean toward him; only one activist has said this in any of the previous rounds. However, seven of 31 (23 percent) maintain that people in their communities haven’t made up their minds.

Two months ago I noted that Warren’s rise was roughly in line with her rise in the polls and activist support was largely following public opinion. That lesson holds for this round as well, as Warren’s decline in public opinion polls is reflected in this survey, where many activists are less bullish on her. And although Biden did make gains, suggesting that many early-state activists may be making peace with the candidate who has been the persistent, if not runaway, poll leader for much of 2019, there is still little evidence of a consensus candidate among these activists at this stage. Once again, the main takeaway here is that it would appear that party insiders are still uncomfortable with getting too far ahead of voters. With just over a month to go before the first nominating contest in Iowa, it’s unclear how much this will change before the caucuses.

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 fact that the area is heavily saturated early primary-race media coverage.

  2. One person who had previously been committed to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke switched to Sen. Amy Klobuchar after O’Rourke dropped out. There were, however, two people who were pledged to a candidate last time did not respond this time, and conversely, three people who had not responded in the previous round said they were committed to a candidate this time. They are not included in our count of committed activists, as their support might have changed in the interim.

  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 16 presidential candidates who are most commonly mentioned in a variety of news sources and who were still running as of Dec. 2, 2019. This includes Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out on Dec. 3, but excludes former Rep. Joe Sestak and Gov. Steve Bullock, who dropped out on Dec. 1 and 2. Respondents are allowed to mention as many names as they wish, and I also provided space for respondents to write in names.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.”

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