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Many Early-State Activists Are Uncommitted, But They Think Warren Is Gaining Ground

The first two Democratic debates have come and gone, and now the third is a little over two weeks away. And while the field is beginning to winnow, and a few key endorsements have been locked up in some of the early voting states, interviews with early-state Democratic Party activists I’m speaking with for my book on the future of the party suggest that many have yet to decide whom they’ll champion in 2020. Nonetheless, there is a growing belief among the activists I’ve talked with that members of their community are starting to lean toward Sen. Elizabeth Warren even though no activist has yet committed to backing her.

This is the fifth installment of my series where I interview Democratic activists in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada and Washington, D.C.,1 to better understand who engaged party members in early-primary states are backing for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. I’m interviewing these activists every two months, as research has shown that these activists can be highly influential in deciding who will be the party’s nominee. So in these interviews, I’m trying to learn two main things. First, which of these activists are already committed to a candidate. And second, if they’re not committed to anyone, which candidates are they actively considering. In April, I also started asking respondents who they didn’t want to see as the nominee, and throughout this process I’ve been asking them who they thought other Democrats in their community might be leaning toward as a way to get further insight on how the invisible primary is unfolding.

First up, the activists who have committed to backing a specific presidential candidate. Of the 29 activists who shared their candidate preferences with me in August, 11 say they have made up their minds. (That’s up from nine two months ago, though because not every activist I contact responds to every round of interviews, it’s possible this change is related to who chooses to respond rather than a true change in how many activists are committed.) And of those 11, three support Sen. Cory Booker and three support Sen. Bernie Sanders. As for the other five activists, they’re each backing a different candidate: former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has since dropped out. (Some activists had pledged support for candidates in previous interview rounds, but because they didn’t respond to this round, they were not included here.)

Among this group of committed activists, only two of these endorsements are new. One respondent pledged their support to Sanders, saying, “Bernie is the O.G. when it comes to progressive policy. Why support Bernie light when you can get the real thing?” The other new endorsement was for Inslee from an activist who cited Inslee’s focus on climate change and years of experience in Congress and as governor as reasons for their support.

I also asked all the uncommitted activists who they’re considering supporting. Fewer activists were undecided in this round than in previous rounds, so the “considering” numbers are somewhat lower than in previous surveys,2 but the relative positions of the candidates haven’t changed much. There is a top tier of candidates who a number activists are considering, which consists of Booker, Buttigieg, Biden, Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris, each of whom is being considered by roughly a third of activists who responded to this round of interviews. Harris and Buttigieg sit at the top of this group with 38 percent (11 activists) each. Booker was at the top of this list in the last survey, but is now third at 31 percent (9 activists). (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.)

Harris and Buttigieg are early-state activists’ top choices

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 aug.
Harris 61%
54%
53%
52%
38%
Buttigieg
17
29
45
38
Warren 24
40
35
48
34
Biden 39
34
21
48
34
Booker 45
49
47
59
31
Sanders 29
29
24
24
21
Castro
17
15
28
21
Klobuchar 34
37
26
28
17
Bullock
10
17
Gillibrand 21
23
26
31
14
O’Rourke 34
14
15
17
10
Bennet
12
14
10
Inslee
12
14
10
Ryan
3
10
Yang
9
7
7
De Blasio
14
7
Steyer
7
Hickenlooper 21
23
12
7
3
Gabbard
9
9
7
3
Delaney 16
17
3
3
3
Moulton
3
3
Williamson
3
3
Messam
3
0

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 the next tier of candidates, between 14 and 21 percent of activists I spoke to (four to six people) say they are considering Sanders, Castro, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The other candidates in the table are being considered by no more than three people each. Interestingly, activists who had not yet committed to anyone listed a median of four candidates this month when asked who they were still considering, down from 6.5 in the June survey. That may suggest that activists are starting to whittle down the list of candidates they might support.

As for the candidates activists do not want to see become the Democratic nominee, the rankings haven’t changed much. Although about a fifth of activists I interviewed in this round were committed to or considering Sanders (three people committed and three more considering), even more did not want him to be the nominee — 59 percent (17 out of 29 respondents) said they were opposed to seeing him win. And over half of the activists I interviewed also did not want Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam, author Marianne Williamson, former Rep. John Delaney or Rep. Seth Moulton as the nominee. But one candidate whose fortunes might be changing is entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who went from one of the top five least-liked candidates in my June survey to the 12th least-liked candidate in August, putting him alongside less polarizing candidates like O’Rourke and Klobuchar. This hasn’t meant Yang is gaining supporters (two activists are now considering him, the same number as in June), but at the very least, several of the activists who were previously put off by him are no longer openly opposed to his candidacy.

Since December, I have also asked respondents which candidate they think Democrats active in their communities lean toward, regardless of their own preferences. I haven’t published the results for this question before, as estimates for have bounced around a lot, but in this survey I noticed that Warren is the only candidate on a clear upward trajectory. In my first three surveys from December to April, few respondents3 thought that Democrats in their area were leaning toward Warren. But by June, five of 28 (18 percent) activists I spoke to said people in their community were leaning toward Warren. And this month, nine of 27 (33 percent) said they thought people in their community were leaning toward Warren, putting her well ahead of all other candidates. This tracks with her rise in recent polling and her strong showing in some early voting states. So even though no activist has committed to Warren, they now seem to view her candidacy as viable and believe it has momentum.

In sum, a majority of the activists I’ve been interviewing are still uncommitted, although there are signs that the field is winnowing. Many activists are only interested in a relatively small group of candidates — Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris or Warren. And Sanders remains a factional candidate among the activists I’ve interviewed, with a respectable number of supporters but also a large number of detractors. Additionally, although none of my respondents have committed to Warren, a third are convinced that others in their community prefer her, so it’s possible that in the coming months, more activists will say they are either committed to Warren or considering her. As for my next survey, it will be done in early October, by which time the September debate may have narrowed down the field because it’s so much harder for candidates to qualify for the third debate than it was for the first two. It will be interesting to see whether this forces some of the activists’ hands and gets them to commit to one candidate (or change their mind).

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. 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.

  3. One respondent in December, two in February, and none in April.

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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