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Issues Voters See the Race Differently From Those Who Prioritize Beating Trump

If you had to choose between a candidate with whom you agree on the issues and a candidate who could beat President Trump, who would you prefer? We posed this question to Democratic primary voters in a poll conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, before and after Tuesday’s debate. It turns out that the race looks somewhat different depending on which category you fall into.

Though former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders are the three favorite candidates among both types of voters, the share of respondents considering each candidate differs substantially depending on whether the respondent prefers someone who can beat Trump or someone whose issue positions are similar to their own.

Among the voters who said beating Trump was more important — around two-thirds of overall respondents — Biden is the clear top choice. Before the debate, 62 percent of voters said they were considering voting for him. These types of voters also liked Warren, with 53 percent of voters saying they were considering her. Thirty-three percent were also considering Sanders, putting him in a distant third place.

But among the remaining one-third of voters who prioritize candidates with similar issue positions, Sanders actually entered the debate with the highest share considering him — almost 47 percent. He was followed closely by Warren at 43 percent, then Biden at 39 percent.

Buttigieg gained among voters who care about beating Trump

Share of respondents who said they were considering voting for each candidate before and after the debate, by which type of candidate they said they preferred

Similar issue positions Able to beat Trump
candidate Before After Diff. Before After Diff.
Buttigieg 17.3% 18.7% +1.3 22.7% 27.9% +5.3
Klobuchar 5.3 7.8 2.5 7.9 11.5 3.6
Biden 38.7 39.3 0.6 62.0 65.2 3.2
Warren 43.3 45.2 1.9 53.1 55.8 2.7
Steyer 3.6 4.4 0.8 2.6 4.9 2.3
Yang 14.3 14.3 -0.1 6.9 8.9 1.9
Sanders 46.5 45.7 -0.8 33.3 35.2 1.9
Booker 8.0 10.2 2.3 10.7 12.0 1.3
Gabbard 7.8 8.9 1.1 1.7 2.5 0.9
O’Rourke 11.7 13.2 1.5 14.0 14.4 0.3
Castro 5.1 6.5 1.4 5.7 5.7 0.0
Harris 23.9 22.3 -1.6 26.1 25.9 -0.2

From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 1,761 responded to the second wave.

There wasn’t much movement post-debate among the top three. Biden and Warren each gained a few percentage points among respondents who prioritized beating Trump. Warren picked up some support among voters who prefer a candidate with similar positions — enough that, after the debate, she essentially ties Sanders among those voters.

Outside of the top tier, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, saw the largest jump, gaining more than 5 percentage points among voters who prioritize beating Trump. Sen. Amy Klobuchar also made modest gains among those voters, as well as smaller gains among voters who prioritize issues. But overall, the debate didn’t really change the fundamental divide between how voters see the primary — and while a candidate’s policy platform is important, whether voters think he or she can beat Trump still might be the most important factor of all.

Laura Bronner is a senior applied scientist at ETH Zürich and FiveThirtyEight’s former quantitative editor.

Maddie Sach was a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.