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How The Democratic Candidates’ Popularity Has Changed Over A Year Of Campaigning

Once more, with feeling: People are a lot more apt to change their mind in primaries than in general elections. That’s because, when all the candidates in the race are members of the same party, voters often like several of them, and the 2020 presidential primary is no exception. High favorability ratings have given some presidential candidates well-founded hope that voters may still jump on board with them in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, others still haven’t made an impression on a majority of voters — and unlike at the beginning of the election cycle, they are now virtually out of time to do so.

Now that we are (finally) on the verge of voters actually going to the polls, let’s check in one last time on the number of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters with a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the remaining presidential candidates (based on an average of national polls1 conducted from the night of Dec. 19 through Jan. 15 — that is, since the December debate).

Sanders, Warren and Biden are the best-liked candidates

The share of Democratic or Democratic-leaning respondents with a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the 2020 Democratic candidates, according to an average of national polls conducted Dec. 19 through Jan. 15

Candidate Share with an Opinion Favorable Unfavorable Net
Bernie Sanders 94% 73% 21% +51
Elizabeth Warren 87 68 19 +49
Joe Biden 94 71 24 +47
Andrew Yang 68 50 18 +32
Pete Buttigieg 73 53 20 +32
Amy Klobuchar 62 42 20 +22
Tom Steyer 58 37 20 +17
Michael Bloomberg 76 43 33 +10
Michael Bennet 40 24 16 +8
Deval Patrick 36 20 15 +5
John Delaney 38 19 19 0
Tulsi Gabbard 60 20 40 -21

Source: Polls

Three candidates — Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden — are roughly tied for the distinction of being the best-liked Democrat in the field. About 70 percent of Democrats view each of them favorably, and about 20 percent view each of them unfavorably, giving them each a net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) of around +50 points. What’s more, these three have been the most popular candidates in the field all cycle — Biden had the highest net favorability rating at the beginning of last year, while Warren pulled into the top spot in August.

On the other hand, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is in the worst shape by this metric — more than twice as many Democrats view her unfavorably as view her favorably, making her the only candidate with a negative net favorability rating among members of her own party. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also has a relatively poor net favorability score. More than three-quarters of Democrats are familiar enough with Bloomberg to form an opinion of him (as measured by his favorable rating plus his unfavorable rating), but those opinions are pretty divided (his net favorability is just +10 points). That means his recent television ad blitz may have helped more Americans form an opinion of him, but it hasn’t really improved how positively they see him compared to one year ago.


Which Democratic candidate had the biggest surge in popularity?

Sen. Michael Bennet, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and former Rep. John Delaney have a different problem: Despite all their campaigning (Patrick may only have been on the trail for a couple months, but Delaney has been at it for two and a half years!), less than 40 percent of Democrats know enough about these candidates to form an opinion. Generally speaking, voters have to know who you are in order to vote for you, so this is a bad place to be entering primary season.

Other candidates, though, have managed to boost their brand beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Take former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. They each had a stretch in 2019 where large majorities of Democrats did not have an opinion about them.2 Now, however, more than two-thirds of Democrats do, and those opinions are overwhelmingly positive. Their net favorabilities shot up more than 20 points each over the course of the year and now both sit at +32. Buttigieg is faring better in horse-race polls, averaging 7 percent support in national polls to Yang’s 4 percent — but it’s worth noting that almost all of the movement in Buttigieg’s net favorability rating came in between winter and spring 2019. Despite becoming better known over the past several months, Buttigieg’s net favorability today is about where it was when in both May and August.

Click to see changes over time.

Gabbard and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, on the other hand, have seen a lot of movement in how Democrats feel about them — though not necessarily positive movement. Both increased the share of Democrats with an opinion of them by a sizable 29 points, but their net favorability did not keep pace. Klobuchar’s net favorability is up only 8 points over that time frame, and it was a rocky rise; it went up a bit in May, then fell in August, and now has returned to where it was in May. Meanwhile, Gabbard’s net favorability was pretty steady until the end of the year, when it plunged from +7 in August to -21 today. That’s quite a drop in support, but considering the biggest ways she made headlines in that period — Hillary Clinton asserted that Republicans were “grooming” Gabbard to run as a third-party spoiler candidate, and the congresswoman voted “present” when the House moved to impeach President Trump — such a dramatic hit isn’t all that surprising.

Click to see changes over time.

Unsurprisingly, Biden, Sanders and Warren have been both very familiar to and very popular among Democratic voters all cycle long. For example, Warren went from 71 percent of Democrats having an opinion of her with a +44 net favorability rating at this time last year to 83 percent having an opinion of her with a +54 net favorability rating in August. However, she has flatlined a bit in recent months (her net favorability is down 5 points since August), corresponding with her plateau and drop-off in horse-race polls.

Biden’s changes over the past year are arguably the most interesting of anyone in this trio. Basically every Democrat knows enough about the former vice president to have an opinion of him, so that number has had little room to grow (it has increased by just 5 points). But his net favorability rating has dropped by a whopping 22 points. The fact that it’s still so positive now is a testament to how absurdly high (+69) it was a year ago, before he announced he was running for president. So it seems as if the events of the campaign have hurt his image.

Click to see changes over time.

Finally, Sanders’s popularity has been extremely consistent — too consistent, in fact, to bother plotting on an animated chart! All cycle long, almost all voters have had an opinion of him, and his net favorability has hovered between +50 and +52, reflecting how baked-in his support seems to be.

The fact that Biden, Sanders and Warren are each viewed favorably by about 70 percent of Democrats means that many people like more than one of these leading candidates. For example, according to data from the latest FiveThirtyEight Ipsos poll, conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, about 40 percent of likely Democratic primary voters had favorable views of all three top contenders at the time of last week’s debate. So if one of them starts racking up wins next month and begins to look notably more viable than the others, that candidate will be well positioned to accumulate support quickly. And given that these three represent Democrats’ three most likely nominees, most of the party looks like it will have no problem uniting behind one of them in the general.

Derek Shan contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. When one poll released favorability numbers among multiple populations, we used the narrowest group — for example, we preferred samples of registered voters over samples of all U.S. adults.

  2. For Buttigieg, that time was in January and February, and for Yang it stretched into May.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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