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The 5 Corners Of The 2020 Democratic Primary

Over the long course of the Republican presidential nomination process in 2015 and 2016, we frequently featured a diagram called “The Republicans’ Five-Ring Circus.” The chart was based on the idea that the GOP essentially consisted of five different constituencies: the establishment wing, the moderate wing, the tea party, libertarians and Christian conservatives. Each presidential candidate’s goal was to dominate his or her constituency or “lane” (for example, Rand Paul would have been looking to win libertarians, or Jeb Bush to win establishment voters), and then unify with the other constituencies to claim the Republican nomination.

Except it didn’t exactly work out that way. Donald Trump, a candidate who didn’t fit neatly into any of the lanes, won instead.

In retrospect, President Trump had a fair amount in common with the tea party movement — we sometimes placed him there in the chart, and sometimes put him outside of the five circles entirely. But he was really running as more of a mix of a tea party populist on issues such as immigration1 and a Northeastern moderate on economic policy. (In Pennsylvania, for instance, Trump did just as well with self-described moderate voters as with conservatives.) Problematically, our five-ring circus chart didn’t even consider the possibility of candidate who overlapped between the moderate wing and the tea party wings of the GOP. Trump also won over a significant number of evangelical voters, even though he had not exactly abided by a “family values” lifestyle, nor did he make a particular priority of issues such as abortion.

So for the 2020 Democratic nomination, we’ve resolved to entertain multiple hypotheses about the contest simultaneously. Perhaps the party will decide, and so we should be looking at how much support each candidate has from party elites. Perhaps the candidate most dissimilar to Trump will win, and so we should be evaluating the candidates based on that criteria. Perhaps the primary is just so hard to forecast that you might as well look at the polling, crude as it might be. (It has more predictive power than you might think.)

We’ll see. But we nonetheless think that (despite its mixed success in 2016) the coalition-building model is also a useful tool, especially if we make a few tweaks to how we applied it four years ago.

Just as with the Republicans in 2016, the concept this time around involves considering five key groups of Democratic voters. Here are those groups:

  1. Party Loyalists
  2. The Left
  3. Millennials and Friends
  4. Black voters
  5. Hispanic voters (sometimes in combination with Asian voters)

You’ll notice that these groups aren’t mutually exclusive. A 26-year-old Latina who identifies as a democratic socialist would belong to groups 2, 3 and 5, for example. There might be modest tension between some of the groups — for instance, between Party Loyalists and The Left — but it’s possible to imagine candidates who appeal to voters in both of those constituencies. (Ohio’s Sherrod Brown or Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren might appeal to both The Left and Party Loyalist voters, for example.) Indeed, whichever candidate wins the Democratic nomination is going to have at least some buy-in from all five groups, even if some groups don’t buy in beyond considering the nominee the lesser of two evils against Trump.

So rather than thinking about “lanes,” we’re taking a more pluralistic approach with the Democrats. Candidates don’t have to pick any one group; rather, their goal is to build a majority coalition from voters in (at least) three out of the five groups. There are a lot of ways to do this: If you’re choosing any three from among the five groups, there are 10 possible combinations to pick from,2 and all of them plausibly form winning coalitions. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton assembled a coalition of Party Loyalists, black voters and Hispanic voters, largely ceding the other two groups to Bernie Sanders, but still winning the nomination with room to spare.

The other difference from how we handled the Republicans four years ago is that, with the exception of The Left, none of these groups are explicitly ideological in nature. That’s not to say that they don’t have somewhat different priorities; millennials might place more of an emphasis on the environment than the other groups do, for example. But these groups encompass a mishmash of ideology and identity. They’re chosen because they represent the dividing lines in recent Democratic Party primaries — but they don’t necessarily span a clear spectrum from left to right.

One obvious question you might have before we proceed further: Why aren’t women one of the groups? The answer is that women represent almost 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate3 and so they’re a major portion of all of these groups. In fact, women are likely the majority of all of these groups, with the possible exception of The Left, which skews male. So when you think of a default voter from one of these groups, you should probably think of a woman.

Since this is really my first major foray into analyzing the 2020 Democratic presidential derby — I’ve had a lot of thoughts percolating about the candidates, but haven’t really put them to paper before — I’m going to take some time with it. In this article, I’ll lay out the five groups, how they’ve voted in the past, and what they might be looking for this time around. Next week, we’ll follow up with another couple stories that lay out my thoughts on individual candidates — although the big honkin’ graphic you see below provides some teasers about how some potential contenders measure up.

As a final warning, while you’ll see plenty of polling and other empirical evidence cited in this analysis, it definitely reflects a mix of art and science. It’s early, and there isn’t all that much hard data yet. Some patterns from past nominations will hold and others will not. Unavoidably, some of this is going to look silly a year from now (and probably even a few weeks from now). Just know that if I missed something that gives Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar an obvious appeal to Hispanic voters, or that allows New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu to rise from relative obscurity to win the nomination, everyone else back when I was writing this probably did too.

Group 1. Party Loyalists

Demographic profile: Mostly older, white and upper-middle class. And mostly women. Many are politically active and count themselves as members of the #Resistance. As a rough guide, Party Loyalists probably represent around 30 percent of the Democratic electorate; in the Illinois Democratic primary in 2016, for example,4 about 30 percent of voters selected “experience” or “electability” as their top candidate quality and voted for Clinton rather than Sanders.

What they value in a candidate: These voters are capital-D Democrats who care about the fate of the Democratic Party and generally go along with what party elites want. They tend to trust established brands, although they also care a lot about electability.

Ideological preferences: On economic policy, Party Loyalists can span a reasonably wide range, but they’re certainly more liberal than left — that is, while they may favor substantial changes to the system, they don’t want to completely remake the American economy. With that said, the Democratic Party’s platform has shifted to the left overall, and Party Loyalists aren’t the type to buck the consensus on, say, a higher minimum wage. On social and cultural issues, Party Loyalists hold conventionally liberal attitudes, being strong supporters of abortion rights and gay marriage and gun control — but being older and mostly white, they sometimes regard the other groups as too radical on issues related to race.

Who they supported in recent Democratic primaries: Party Loyalists supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for the most part also supported Clinton in 2008, although with a fair number of defections to Barack Obama. But they’re usually on the winning side of the primaries; they supported John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000.

Group 2. The Left

Demographic profile: Going by membership statistics in the Democratic Socialists of America, this is the most male and the whitest of the five Democratic groups, although it’s becoming more diverse, especially among younger voters. A fair number of voters in The Left are independents rather than Democrats. They’re mostly college-educated, though not necessarily wealthy. The Left is probably somewhere around 25 percent of the Democratic electorate. In the Illinois Democratic primary in 2016, for example, 27 percent of voters said that Clinton’s positions were not liberal enough, while 24 percent said the same in Ohio.

What they value in a candidate: This is the most ideologically driven of the Democratic groups. Most obviously, they want candidates who they think will pursue left-wing economic solutions, e.g. higher taxes on the wealthy, Medicare-for-all and free college tuition, perhaps as part of a “Green New Deal.” In a broader sense, The Left thinks the status quo is broken and that capitalism doesn’t work at all or at least needs to be managed with much more government intervention — so they prefer candidates who they think will upset the apple cart over those who merely promise to reform existing institutions. The Left doesn’t trust the establishment’s instincts on “electability” and considers Clinton’s nomination to have been a debacle.

Ideological preferences: See above on economic policy. On social policy, there are quite a few divisions within this group, with some (mostly younger and urban) left-wing voters holding more liberal and “intersectional” views on issues related to race and immigration and other (mostly older and rural) voters being more “populist” and even taking conservative stances on some of these issues. On foreign policy, The Left favors a smaller military and can be more isolationist than the other Democratic-leaning groups, and it is also suspicious of free-trade agreements.

Who they supported in recent Democratic primaries: They supported Howard Dean in 2004 and Bernie Sanders in 2016. It’s less clear what they did in 2008; some voters in The Left may have preferred John Edwards initially, and then would have been lukewarm toward both Clinton and Obama.

Group 3: Millennials and Friends

Demographic profile: By one definition, millennials were born between 1982 and 2004, meaning that they’ll be somewhere between 16 years old (and thus not yet eligible to vote) and 38 years old in 2020. Although youth turnout can vary from election to election, that will likely make them somewhere on the order of 30 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2020. Age is not always among the most important characteristics in predicting voting behavior, but there was a huge, glaring exception in 2016, with Sanders winning overwhelmingly among millennials but Clinton dominating among baby boomers. Apart from being young, this is the most racially diverse of the Democratic groups. Many think of themselves as independents rather than Democrats. By “Millenials and Friends,” I mean that there are some Democratic voters, especially in urban areas, who are too old to be millennials (they’re the “friends”) but whose cosmopolitanism makes them fit in better with the millenials than with any of the other groups.

What they value in a candidate: It isn’t entirely obvious, as the candidates they’ve been attracted to in different cycles (Sanders in 2016, Obama in 2008) don’t necessarily have an enormous amount in common with one another. But it’s safe to say that young voters prefer “change” candidates to the status quo, which would usually translate to younger rather than older politicians. As you might expect, this group’s media consumption habits are way different than those of older voters: Voters under 30 are about twice as likely to get their news online as through the television. And they turn out less reliably than older voters. So candidates hoping to win this group must be able to be able to attract and hold these voters’ attention via social media.

Ideological preferences: On average, millenials care about racial justice, access to education and environmental issues more than older Democratic voters do. Younger voters view socialism much more favorably than older ones do, but the story is more complicated than millennials simply being further to the left: Younger voters5 also have more favorable views of libertarianism than older ones do, for example. Put another way, millenials are less wedded to the dominant political philosophies and labels of the previous generation and are willing to consider a fairly wide range of alternatives to replace them.

Who they supported in recent Democratic primaries: They preferred Sanders in 2016 and Obama in 2008. Most millennials weren’t old enough to have voted in 2004, but Dean overperformed among those who did.

Group 4. Black voters

Demographic profile: Black voters represented 19 percent of people who voted for Democratic House candidates in 2018, according to the national exit poll — so conveniently enough (since we have five groups) they’re about one-fifth of the Democratic electorate. Black voters are poorer and younger than other Democrats on average, and about 60 percent of black voters in Democratic primaries are women.

What they value in a candidate: After sometimes fractious racial politics in the Democratic Party of the 1980s and 1990s, in recent years there’s been an implicit alliance between black voters and the Democratic Party establishment. That’s served the interests of both groups fairly well; of the five voting blocs I’ve mentioned here, black voters were the only ones to back the winning candidate in both 2008 (Obama) and 2016 (Clinton). They were also a key part of John Kerry’s winning coalition in 2004. Thus, like Party Loyalists, black voters have traditionally been pragmatic and have placed a high emphasis on electability, preferring candidates whose mettle has been tested. Even Obama had to overcome initial skepticism as he didn’t poll that well among black voters in 2007 and 2008 when the campaign first began. However, there’s an emerging generational split among African-Americans, as black voters under 30 narrowly backed Sanders over Clinton in 2016 despite overwhelming support for Clinton among older black voters.

Ideological preferences: Black voters have traditionally been more religious and more socially conservative than other Democrats, having been relatively slow to support gay marriage, for example. They’re generally liberal on economic policy, although there’s sometimes tension among black voters about candidates (such as Sanders) who are seen as emphasizing economic justice rather than racial justice. Again, however, there are important generational divides within the black community. Groups such as Color of Change have been more willing to endorse platforms that emphasize both social (e.g. voting rights and criminal justice) and economic (e.g. the minimum wage) priorities.

Who they supported in recent Democratic primaries: Black voters backed Kerry in 2004, Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016.

Group 5. Hispanic voters, sometimes in conjunction with Asian voters

Demographic profile: OK, a bit of explanation here. I’ve gone back and forth on whether to group Hispanic and Asian voters together. The case for doing so: Both groups are made up predominantly of relatively recent waves of immigrants to the U.S. and their descendents; Hispanic and Asian voters tend to be concentrated in the same states as one another (e.g. California); they prioritize similar issues (see below); voters in both groups are younger than average and have historically had low rates of voter registration and turnout; and Hispanics and Asians mostly voted similarly in recent Democratic primaries (backing Clinton in both 2008 and 2016). The case against: On average, Asian-Americans live in better economic circumstances than Hispanics (although there’s a lot of variation) and the two groups can sometimes split when there are black or Asian candidates on the ballot, as in the California Senate race in 2016, when Asian voters went overwhelmingly for Kamala Harris while Hispanics narrowly backed Loretta Sanchez. All things considered, Hispanic voters and Asian voters are likely to have correlated preferences, but in a field with a dozen or more candidates, it’s possible they won’t vote the same way. Hispanic voters are around 15 percent of the Democratic primary electorate and Asian voters are around 5 percent, so together, they make up about 20 percent of the vote, or roughly the same share as black voters.

What they value in a candidate: Because Hispanic and Asian voters were a small fraction of the electorate until recently, it’s hard to come to as many historically driven conclusions about their preferences. But Hispanic voters put a major emphasis on economic issues and generally favor a relatively high degree of government intervention in the economy (as do Asian voters). In that sense, they tend to be fairly pragmatic and solutions-driven voters, especially on pocketbook issues. And although immigration is important to these voters, issues related to health care, education and the economy consistently rate as higher priorities in surveys of both Hispanic and Asian-American voters.

Ideological preferences: As among black voters, there are important generational divides among Hispanics and Asians. For instance, many older Hispanic Democrats describe themselves as “moderate” or “conservative.” (For a long time, especially after George W. Bush performed comparatively well with Hispanic voters in 2004, the conventional wisdom was that they were center-right “family values” voters). Younger Hispanics tend to be more liberal, especially on social issues, by contrast. But both older and younger Hispanics have a highly negative view of the Republican Party and of Trump. Asian-American voters are similar to Hispanics in many respects, although they tend to be a bit more liberal on social issues. Both Hispanics and Asians favor a bigger government that provides more services.

Who they supported in recent Democratic primaries: Hispanic and Asian voters predominately backed Clinton in both 2008 and 2016. Hispanics were also an important part of Kerry’s coalition in 2004.

Next week, I’ll analyze individual candidates in more detail. But you can probably predict which candidates do relatively well according to this heuristic and which have a more challenging path. It’s easy to identify three or four groups within the party that Harris or Beto O’Rourke might have a lot of natural appeal to, for example. It’s harder to do the same for someone like Sanders.

FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 draft, episode 1


  1. In the context of how he ran in 2015 and 2016, not how he’s governed as president.

  2. If the groups are numbered 1 through 5, you could pick a combination of groups 1-2-3, 1-2-4, 1-2-5, 1-3-4, 1-3-5, 1-4-5, 2-3-4, 2-3-5, 2-4-5 or 3-4-5.

  3. Women represented 58 percent of Democratic voters in the 2018 midterm elections, according to exit polls.

  4. I’ll often cite exit polling from Illinois in this article because its primary electorate is demographically similar to the party’s national electorate.

  5. Although not necessarily the young voters who are voting in the Democratic primary.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.