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How Will Democratic Voters Respond To The 2020 Field’s Historic Diversity?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In 2008, Democrats nominated the only black candidate in the primary field, and in 2016, they nominated the only woman. The 2020 Democratic primary has the potential for a number of firsts, including the first black woman nominee, the first openly gay nominee or the first Jewish nominee, among others. But a field that is more diverse than any we’ve seen before is also a challenge for candidates seeking to distinguish themselves, especially when many of their opponents can also lay claim to a historic nomination.

So what will it mean to run in a field both as large and diverse as the 2020 Democratic primary, both for those whose candidacies would and would not be historic?

Joining us are two first-time FiveThirtyEight contributors: Julian Wamble, a political science professor at Stony Brook University, and Carole Bell, a political communication scholar. Welcome!!!

julian.wamble: Thanks! Glad to be here. And as to your question, part of me wonders how much novelty making history has anymore for Democrats, considering that they made it in 2008 but then didn’t make it in 2016. I guess I wonder if that’s something voters still consider appealing?

meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): That’s a good point. Hillary Clinton’s candidacies in 2008 and 2016 and Obama’s in 2008 were frequently described as “historic.” I haven’t seen that word thrown around as much this cycle, but it’s still early.

sarahf: Democrats also seem to be especially concerned with defeating President Trump, so perhaps that will overshadow other considerations.

carole.bell: Yes. Anxiety and energy are both high. Part of that is about making history as well as beating Trump, and it might be why so many candidates have jumped in. But a field of this size presents challenges for all involved: candidates, party officials, donors, the press and voters. It also means that the novelty of a candidate really seems to cut both ways. Democrats are excited about turning the page after 2016, and the social identity of the candidate is part of that. But they’re also running scared after losing to Trump, which is perhaps reflected in the fact that three of the four top candidates in the horse race, according to the polls, are straight white men.

julian.wamble: I think it may be people who don’t stand to make history if they win the nomination who actually carry a greater weight of trying to set themselves apart.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Right. Take someone like Beto O’Rourke. I think he is super aware that he is a straight white male candidate, so he is trying to emphasize in his campaign that he will represent the rest of the party. He basically promised to name a woman as his VP during his first week as a candidate. Arguably, that is also part of what Joe Biden was trying to do by floating Stacey Abrams as his VP pick.

julian.wamble: But I wonder whether suggesting women and women of color as VP picks comes across as genuine.

carole.bell: I think the “diverse VP” play has been too calculated and smacks of tokenism.

julian.wamble: It definitely raises the question of what these white male candidates can do to prove that they are not your “traditional” white male candidate — i.e., they understand issues of racial inequality or gender discrimination — while still being perceived as genuine.

perry: That genuine question is hard, and I’m not totally sure how a candidate tackles that. There’s definitely been a token-ish element in how Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden have talked about their VP picks, but I also think they’re both trying to show that they respect different parts of the Democratic Party’s coalition and will respect them as president. And that is a good instinct.

sarahf: What type of coalition candidates will have to build to win the primary is one question we’re interested in at FiveThirtyEight. At this stage, what do you see as some of the challenges for candidates trying to build a solid bloc of support?

julian.wamble: Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are often depicted as the two front-runners among black voters, but I think they actually have a higher hill to climb than the white candidates who are also courting black supporters. And that’s because Booker and Harris not only have to win over black voters, but they also have to win over white voters. And social science research has shown us that can pose some challenges for non-white candidates, as white voters often perceive them as representing the interests of voters of color over white voters’ interests.

perry: One question I have when we talk about different constituencies in the Democratic Party is how we should factor in women voters. In that piece on all the different coalitions of the party, FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver didn’t include women as their own group. That’s because they make up nearly 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate and would naturally make up an important part of any grouping within the party. But what do you think? Is appealing to women as a voting bloc something worth doing?

julian.wamble: I don’t know. I think appealing to women as one voting bloc assumes that gender is a prominent political identity for all women, and I’m not sure that is a safe assumption to make.

carole.bell: Right. Studies have shown that different aspects of identity often take priority over gender, especially for women of color or conservative women who identify as pro-life, for example.

julian.wamble: We’ve seen numerous elections in which women, particularly white women, have not voted collectively in ways that that many Democrats expected of them, which raises the question: Are women actually a cohesive identity-voting bloc?

meredithconroy: Julian makes an important point — the majority of white women voted for Trump in 2016. But I think Nate was right to not designate a “women constituency” within the Democratic primary electorate. After all, research has found that women and men who identify as Democrats are really similar to each other on most issues; gun control is one big exception.

carole.bell: Exactly. There’s also evidence that women aren’t a voting bloc when it comes to prioritizing race, which we’re already seeing discussed in 2020. For the vast majority of black women, in addition to things like health care, criminal justice/policing and racial justice were “very important” issues in the 2018 midterm elections. But one of the main critiques that black women have long had of mainstream (predominantly white) feminists and liberals is that they fail to recognize or prioritize the role that racial oppression plays in black women’s lives, whereas black women have always had to be conscious of it. However, that may be changing. More white liberals are acknowledging racial inequality, and many Democrats now seem to be trying to bridge the gap. Acknowledging Black Lives Matter and the Mothers of the Movement at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was one way to show that, and now 2020 presidential candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are trying to step up by introducing policies aimed at racial justice. Both Warren and Harris have even said they support reparations for black Americans affected by slavery.

perry: Right now, I find the number of candidates running to be kind of overwhelming — and the voters I talk to do as well. But one thing I keep seeing is the sign of an age gap — that is, I think, if he runs, Biden will do better with older voters than younger ones. And we even have some polling that supports the idea that Biden is doing well with older Democrats (ages 50 and up) and not as well with younger voters.

“Over the age of 50” isn’t what we usually think of as an identity, but I wonder if age is a good proxy for liberalism, with older people being less “woke” (or not as focused on Biden’s role in the 1994 crime bill, the Anita Hill hearing or his touching women in ways that make some of them uncomfortable , etc.).

meredithconroy: A number of early primary polls have more clearly shown an age gap when it comes to candidate preferences than a gender gap. For instance, the Quinnipiac University poll that Perry linked to above shows a 4-point gap between men and women in their support for Biden (32 percent of men said they would vote for Biden vs. 28 percent of women), as well as a 5-point point gap in their support for Sanders (22 percent of men vs. 17 percent of women). But compare that with a 15-point gap between 18-to-49-year-olds and those 50 and over who support Biden (22 percent vs. 37 percent) and a 14-point gap in support for Sanders between these two age groups (26 percent vs. 12 percent).

carole.bell: Age could be a huge factor in terms of both the culture and priorities of Democratic voters. Older voters don’t seem to care as much about Biden’s history, and polling shows that they are more likely to say the #MeToo movement has gone too far. I think they may be frustrated and worried that the party is focusing too much on related issues like sexual harrasment or sexual assault. This also extends to issues of race or anything that could fall under the heading of “identity politics,” which some blamed for the loss to Trump.

julian.wamble: It’s a question of who voters want the party to be and who the party should represent, and the age gap speaks to the different mentalities that currently exist in the party.

For some Democrats, the big question is: Who can beat Trump? So maybe there’s less of a concern about whether the person who can do that is “woke” or without repute.

carole.bell: I think many Democrats and commentators have also been working on the assumption that the Democratic Party today is “no party for old white men.” But that seems false or at least way too early to claim. The reality is that two older white men in their 70s are the most popular candidates, at least at this stage.

sarahf: To Carole’s point, Biden and Sanders have led the polls for months now (even though Biden hasn’t yet said he’s running). But Harris and O’Rourke are in third and fourth place, respectively. And, of course, there’s been a lot of buzz around Pete Buttigieg.

So what do we make of the current horse race, and what will you be keeping an eye on as candidates try to distinguish themselves?

perry: Buttigieg is, to me, the most interesting person in the race right now.

He is casting himself as Mr. Midwest and seems able to reach swing voters, but he’s also an openly gay candidate (plus, he’d be the youngest president ever if elected).

carole.bell: Perry, I’m a little obsessed with the Buttigieg factor. He bridges both buckets of candidates we’re discussing here. He’s running as an openly gay man, which is historic. And while his race and gender do not trump his sexual identity, there are advantages of being a white man from the Midwest.

julian.wamble: The fact that Buttigieg is a gay married man is important. But I would argue that because he’s a white man, Buttigieg has less to prove than candidates who have to combat stereotypes about their inability to represent “the average American” by virtue of their racial and ethnic backgrounds, like, say, Julian Castro, Booker or Harris.

carole.bell: Yes, Buttigieg gets to be both the electable white male candidate and the historic candidate who represents progress and inclusion. There’s a lot in his candidacy that both moderate Democrats and liberals alike can embrace. That said, some of his rhetoric about Clinton, coastal Democrats and “social justice warriors” has given some Democrats second thoughts.

meredithconroy: It’s definitely possible that people who are uncomfortable with a gay person running for president might look at Buttigieg’s status as a white man and a veteran and be more comfortable with his candidacy. But as you can see in the table below, running as an openly gay candidate is still a considerable hurdle.

The last time Gallup asked Americans whether they would be willing to vote for a “generally well-qualified” gay or lesbian candidate for president was in 2015, but at the time, 14 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of Americans overall said they would not be willing to vote for a such a candidate.

Who would Americans NOT vote for?

Share of people in 2015 survey who would not vote for a “generally well-qualified” person nominated from their own party if they had each of the following characteristics

Democrat Republican Overall
Socialist 38% 73% 50%
Atheist 35 55 40
Muslim 27 54 38
Evangelical Christian 33 14 25
Gay or lesbian 14 38 24
Mormon 21 16 18
Hispanic 6 9 8
Woman 3 9 8
Black 4 9 7
Jewish 6 5 7
Catholic 5 7 6

Source: GALLUP

perry: What do we make of Booker’s and Castro’s candidacies and how they fit into the field?

It feels like Harris has broken out — she’s doing really well both with fundraising and in the polls. But Booker and Castro are not. Why?

sarahf: Booker’s underperformance in the polls I find harder to explain than Castro’s. Castro arguably disappeared from the national spotlight after his tenure as Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development ended. Booker, meanwhile, has the most endorsements out of any candidate in the field!! And he’s doing well with early state activists. But maybe the party really doesn’t decide anymore.

perry: It’s a real challenge for Booker that the media can’t discover him and find him fresh like Mayor Pete. Booker has been on the scene for a long time. He was a cool, interesting young mayor in … 2006.

meredithconroy: Perry, I thought either Booker’s CNN town hall or his “Pod Save America” appearance would help him be rediscovered. But you’re right that it’s not happening, and that hurts him.

carole.bell: Booker’s evolution is interesting. More than other candidates, he seems stalled. And what’s most concerning is that he has good name recognition, but he is still polling at only around 4 percent, on average.

I’m not really sure that he commands any particular constituency. He has been a leader on criminal justice reform, but he’s not that popular on the left, for instance.

meredithconroy: Which constituencies could he command?

perry: Part of his theory of the case is he’d appeal to both party loyalists and black voters.

julian.wamble: But not being “rediscovered” hasn’t hurt some of the other candidates, so I’m perplexed and not really sure what Booker can do to bring himself back into the fray. Or what he can do to set himself apart from the other contenders in the race.

sarahf: But, OK, say there is a path for Democratic contenders to build a winning coalition of primary voters by running on a platform that tackles identity politics head-on. How does that factor into this current field of candidates, and what will building that coalition take? And do some of the candidates that could be historic-firsts have an advantage here?

perry: Broadly, I think you could split the field up like this — candidates like Harris or Warren running on fairly liberal stances when it comes to issues of race, equality and other identity-based issues. And then someone like Amy Klobuchar aiming clearly at Obama-Trump voters.

But in the end, I think most candidates, regardless of what side they fall on, will talk about health care and racial equality to win both the Obama-Trump voters and the black voters who didn’t turn out in 2016.

Also, and I need to get better at saying this, expanding health care and racial equality go hand in hand. It’s not like there is some clean divide when it comes to economic or racial issues.

julian.wamble: Building a campaign message around the idea of equality to show an understanding of how different groups of voters struggle is, in my opinion, an effective way to use identity politics in a way that doesn’t isolate other groups of voters.

carole.bell: I agree. And I actually think Warren, in particular, does a great job speaking to issues Democrats really care about including health care, racial equality, gender equality and more general economic issues.

But with Warren, there’s a gap between her strength on policy and her political skill, on the one hand, and her standing in the race, on the other. It’s still early, but I think Warren is like Booker in that regard. Both in Warren’s CNN town hall and on the campaign trail, voters respond positively, but that doesn’t seem to translate to her polling numbers, or at least not yet.

meredithconroy: For Booker, Harris, Castro, Warren, Klobuchar and Gillibrand, they build a coalition by making the primary about the issues where their identity gives them an edge — health care, criminal justice, child care, immigration. I think they can (and are) directing the agenda in a way where their expertise and credibility won’t be denied.

carole.bell: I definitely agree with that point, Meredith. We already know that “running as a woman” can work in a candidate’s favor when issues and attributes associated with women are valued by the public. And I think that could apply to other identity-based issues in 2020. Right now, health care is a top issue, as it was in 2018. I think racial equality could be a big focus in 2020, and candidates who are able to speak to that directly and authentically have the potential to stand out.

From ABC News:

Bernie Sanders says 2020 campaign will be ‘stronger’ and ‘more diverse’ than 2016

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and co-author of “Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.”

Julian Wamble is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University.

Carole Bell is a political communication scholar and formerly an assistant professor of communication studies and affiliate faculty in political science at Northeastern University.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.