Skip to main content
ABC News
The 2020 Democrats Being Considered By Early-State Activists

Following the “invisible primary” stage of a presidential nomination race is a bit tricky. Things are clearly happening in anticipation of 2020 — candidates, both announced and unannounced, are visiting with donors and activists, giving speeches and interviews and haunting restaurants and coffee shops. But it’s difficult to know what any of it means.

That’s why I’ve been repeatedly interviewing a group of roughly 60 Democratic Party activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Washington, D.C.1 for the past two years as part of my ongoing book research into how interpretations of the 2016 election outcome inform opinions about the future direction of the party and the choice of nominee in 2020. These are people I connected with on the recommendation of political reporters in each state; they’ve been active volunteers or staffers for state parties or past presidential campaigns. Some are relatively new to the field, while others’ involvement dates back to George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972.

And while I make no claim that my survey sample is representative or my respondents’ answers are predictive of the views of the wider public or of Democratic activists in general, studies have shown that the support of activists from states with early primaries or caucuses can determine the outcome of the nomination. Observing how, when and for whom activists make up their minds is invaluable to understanding how a party functions and makes decisions. This is why I’ve made understanding how they evaluate candidates the focal point of my research.

What I’ve found so far is that the vast majority of these early-state activists are still undecided. I reached out to the 60 activists twice recently — once in December 2018 and again early this month — to ask them about their views on potential 2020 presidential candidates. Each time, I heard back from roughly 35 of the activists. Of those, only nine said they had committed to a candidate: Five said they would support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as they had supported him in 2016; two said they would back former Vice President Joe Biden; one supported New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; and one favored former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. As for the rest of the activists, most said they were keeping their options open, weighing the candidates’ various strengths and weaknesses.

That level of indecision doesn’t seem all that unusual given the size of the field. Most modern presidential nomination contests have an obvious front-runner, but when they don’t (as was the case with the Democratic field in 1988), activists may take their time choosing a candidate. Several of the Democratic activists I’ve spoken with suggested that they may wait until the summer or fall of 2019 before making a decision, and quite a few wanted to meet with the candidates before making up their minds. (My plan is to check in with activists every two months to see whom they’re backing.)

But because so many of these early-state activists still haven’t decided who they would support, I also asked them which presidential candidates they’re considering.2 A few listed nearly all the possible candidates, and two listed none. But typically, a respondent named between three and five candidates. While not the same as knowing whom someone supports, knowing which candidates are among respondents’ top picks is useful for understanding who is widely thought of as a viable candidate. After all, as history and political science have shown us, the best nominee is not necessarily the one people are most passionate about, but rather the one the most wings of the party will accept.

Kamala Harris is currently the candidate who is being considered by the largest share of the activists I’ve been interviewing, although no one has committed to support her yet. This month, about 54 percent of the activists in my sample listed her as a candidate they might end up supporting. That figure is down slightly from December, when nearly 61 percent of activists named her. (Here I treated a commitment by an activist to a candidate the same as a consideration.)

Which candidates early-state activists are considering

Share of respondents who said they were considering a candidate or had already committed to support a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary

Candidate Dec 2018 Feb 2019
Harris 60.5%
Booker 44.7
Brown 39.5
Warren 23.7
Klobuchar 34.2
Biden 39.5
Sanders 28.9
Gillibrand 21.1
Hickenlooper 21.1
Merkley 7.9
Delaney 15.8
O’Rourke 34.2
McAuliffe 5.3
Bloomberg 15.8
Holder 18.4
Bullock 2.6

Source: Seth Masket, “Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020”

Overall, in February, there were five candidates — Harris, Booker, Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — who were being considered or had been committed to by more than 35 percent of these activists. It is notable to see Brown’s and Klobuchar’s names included in this group, since at the beginning of February, each had received little national media attention and neither had gained much traction in the polls. (Klobuchar’s official announcement was on Feb. 10, and Brown still hasn’t formally entered the race.)

Close behind that group of candidates are Biden and Sanders. Sanders is somewhat unusual in that virtually all of his support from these activists is from people who are already committed to him, while relatively few others are still considering him. This may suggest that he has comparatively less room for growth than many other candidates.

Among the candidates who aren’t getting a lot of attention from this group of about 35 activists are former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He hasn’t yet announced that he’s running, but roughly a fifth of these respondents are already thinking about him. And although none of the activists in December mentioned Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, or Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, they’re now being considered by 17 percent of the activists in this sample, after their official campaign announcements in January. Perhaps the most important sleeper candidate is Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who was named by 20 percent of respondents and who has, by my reckoning, received almost no national press at all.

Now, to be clear about what these results do and don’t show: First, as mentioned before, this is not a large sample, and it’s not particularly representative of Democratic primary voters as a whole. The method I’m using here is useful for capturing what activists are considering and how they’re making up their minds, but it’s hardly a perfect representation of those who will be casting votes next winter. (Not that primary polls this far before a contest are terribly accurate, either.) Second, these results do indicate that these influential activists in early-contest states are concentrating their interest around just a handful of candidates despite a field of maybe 20 or more. And third, these candidates are largely conventionally qualified — experienced senators and governors well within the party’s mainstream. However, these survey responses are not the same as a more public display of support, like an endorsement. Harris, for example, seems well-positioned today, but it wouldn’t necessarily take much — a gaffe by Harris or a strong launch by another candidate — to shift some activist loyalties.

That said, signs point to the Democrats’ invisible primary functioning more or less as it has in previous cycles, with activists vetting candidates and pressuring others out of the race. We’ll see in the coming months just how much candidate choices hold and whether more activists are willing to winnow their support down to just one candidate.

From ABC News:

Sen. Kamala Harris announces 2020 presidential run


  1. Although D.C.’s primary election is neither early nor pivotal, I chose to interview activists from this area because of their proximity to much early candidate activity and 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 20 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.

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 book “Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.”