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Democrats Care More About Winning Than Usual

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

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Electability is a very slippery concept, especially in presidential elections, so caution should be taken when saying Jane Candidate can or can’t win a general election. Electability means different things to different people, but whatever it means to them, more Democrats than usual may be prioritizing it when deciding their primary vote in 2020.

When asked whether they would prefer a presidential candidate who “comes closest to [their] views on issues” or one “with the best chance to defeat Donald Trump,” a full 40 percent of Democratic primary voters said it was most important to them to beat President Trump, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Feb. 24-27. A larger 56 percent said it was most important to agree with their candidate on the issues, but still — two-fifths of the party’s core voters prized electability over ideological purity.

True, this is far fewer than the share of Democrats who said this in a Monmouth University poll from late January. In that survey, 56 percent chose the more electable candidate, while 33 percent chose the candidate who agreed with them on the issues. However, the difference might be due to how the question was worded. Monmouth gave respondents a choice between “a Democrat you agree with on most issues but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump or a Democrat you do NOT agree with on most issues but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump.” Given that stark choice, it’s not all that surprising voters didn’t choose the candidate who they were explicitly told would have a difficult time defeating Trump.

Indeed, compared with similarly worded questions from past NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, the share of primary voters who value electability is higher this year than it was in the last two presidential elections. NBC News and the Wall Street Journal asked the same question of Democratic primary voters in 2016 and of Republican primary voters in 2012.1 In July 2015, just 20 percent of potential Democratic primary voters chose the more electable candidate, while 79 percent chose the candidate closest to them on the issues. Five months later, the numbers were still very similar. And in October 2011, 31 percent of potential Republican primary voters said it was more important to beat then-President Barack Obama, while 67 percent picked the candidate who was a better ideological fit. However, by January 2012, the gap among Republicans narrowed to the point where it looked like this year’s Democratic numbers: 43 percent wanted to defeat Obama, and 54 percent wanted a candidate they agreed with.

Given how many Democrats see Trump as a uniquely alarming and unacceptable president, it makes sense that opponents would view it as more important to defeat him than they have other presidents. But in an era where the parties are very ideologically polarized, it’s notable that the goal can override those other considerations. That could affect how candidates market themselves to voters, leading to electability-focused pitches we’re not used to hearing in primaries. And it’s worth filing away for the next year, when we try to analyze Democrats’ motivations for settling on specific candidates.

Other polling nuggets

  • 56 percent of Americans approve of how Trump is handling the economy according to a Gallup poll. That’s the highest number the pollster has recorded on this issue since Trump took office.
  • 93 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun buyers according to a Quinnipiac poll. The policy proposal has been popular for a while — it has had between 88 and 97 percent support in every Quinnipiac poll taken since February 2013, shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre.
  • The same Quinnipiac poll also found that 44 percent of Americans approve of the way that Donald Trump is handling U.S. relations with North Korea. That’s down from 51 percent who approved in July 2018, the month after the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
  • Americans are split on whether they believe Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee. According to a Monmouth poll, 37 percent believe that he was either “completely” or “mostly” honest in his testimony while 40 percent think that he was either “just partly honest” or “not at all honest”. Responses were split along party lines, with about two-thirds of Republicans saying he was partly or not at all honest and about two-thirds of Democrats saying that he was either partly or completely honest.
  • A YouGov/Economist poll gave Americans four hypothetical scenarios in which special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found wrongdoing by the president or his staff and asked respondents whether they would support starting impeachment proceedings in each scenario. In the situations where Trump was shown to have obstructed justice or to have personally asked for or accepted Russian assistance in the 2016 election, a plurality of Americans said they would support impeachment. But when asked if they’d support impeachment if Trump’s staff had accepted Russian assistance in the campaign,the public was split down the middle. Just 14 percent of Republicans said they would support Congress beginning impeachment proceedings if Trump’s staff had worked with Russia, while more than two-thirds of Democrats said they would support impeachment in the same scenario.
  • 78 percent of Democratic voters in a Morning Consult/Politico poll said they think the U.S. needs a candidate who can “heal the division in our country by bringing people with different views together to make compromises.” Only 15 percent chose the other option, which was a candidate who “will fight back and is willing to break the rules to move the country in a different direction.”
  • 37 percent of registered voters who say they will vote in the Republican primary would like another Republican to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Fifty-nine percent said they do not want a primary challenger and 4 percent were unsure.
  • According to the same NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Republicans and Republican-leaning adults are about evenly split on whether they consider themselves to be more of a supporter of the Republican party (47 percent) or more of a supporter of Trump (45 percent). That’s a 6-point decline in support for Trump and a 9-point increase in party loyalty since January.
  • According to a Gallup poll conducted in February, 59 percent of Americans asked about conflict in the Middle East sympathize more with Israelis and 21 percent sympathize more with Palestinians. That’s a 5 percentage point decrease in those sympathizing with Israelis since last year, while the percentage of those sympathizing with Palestinians was essentially unchanged. The poll also found a steep decline in liberal Democrats’ support for Israelis. Last year, support Israelis outstripped support for Palestinians by 17 points; this year, that number had dropped to 3 points.
  • As the deadline for Britain’s exit from the European Union approaches, the latest YouGov poll finds that most people still back the choice they made in the initial Brexit referendum in 2016. The poll found that 89 percent of those who voted to remain in the EU still think that leaving the EU was the wrong choice, and 83 percent of those who voted to leave think it was the right decision.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 41.9 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.4 points). At this time last week, 42.3 percent approved and 53.3 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -11.0 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 40.1 percent and a disapproval rating of 55.3 percent, for a net approval rating of -15.2 points.

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 draft: Episode 2


  1. Their wordings were the exact same as that of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from 2019, except with “the Republican candidate” and “Barack Obama” in place of “Donald Trump.”

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.