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Warren Is Increasingly Popular With Democratic Activists In Early States

In my ongoing series of interviews with Democratic activists in early-primary states, one consistent theme has been their reticence to commit to backing a single candidate. Less than half of the activists I interviewed in August, for instance, had settled on one person to support. But the tides at last seem to be turning in this round of interviews, with several activists now throwing their weight behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren, even though she’d struggled to lock down support in previous surveys.

This marks the sixth installment of my series with Democratic activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Washington, DC.,1 where I interview plugged-in early-state activists to better understand who they are rallying behind in 2020 as part of my upcoming book, which will look at changes in the Democratic Party between 2016 and 2020. And I’m checking back in with these activists every two months in order to learn which ones are committed to a candidate or, if they’re not committed to anyone, which candidates they are actively considering. I’ve also been asking them who they thought other Democrats in their community might be leaning toward and who they don’t want to see as the nominee.

And in this installment, we’ve reached something of a milestone: For the first time since I started conducting these interviews last December, a majority of respondents are now backing a candidate. Fifteen of the 29 people who answered my latest round of interviews claim to be backing a candidate now, up from 11 of 29 in August (although one activist changed who they were backing over the course of my interviews with them, switching from former Vice President Joe Biden to Warren). The most striking development, however, is that four of these activists now back Warren, while zero backed her in the last round. Warren is also the first female candidate who any activist in my sample has committed to support. One new Warren supporter told me that it was Warren’s policies that sealed the deal, adding that Warren’s performance at the debate in Houston, which the activist attended, “was especially influential.” Another said Warren “has the clearest message” and “the plans to back up that message.”

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg also picked up another supporter, bringing his total backers up to two. “Pete can bridge the divide between left and right,” said his new backer. And even though he did not make the October debate stage, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet picked up his first backer as well, an activist who admires his “courageous, respectful approach to issues and discourse.” But my latest survey didn’t bring good news for everyone, as the one early-state activist who had been backing former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has switched to undecided, saying they’re now concerned that Castro will drop out before voting begins in February.

But in addition to asking the early-state activists who they were committed to supporting, I also asked those who were uncommitted to tell me who they’re considering supporting.2 Here, we’ve also seen an important shift from August, when California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Biden, Warren and Buttigieg all had similar levels of support — roughly a third of activists were considering them. But now, Warren has clearly moved ahead of the other candidates, with 14 of 29 activists (48 percent) either supporting or considering her. Booker and Harris now trail her with 11 activists each (38 percent), and Biden and Buttigieg round out the top tier with nine activists apiece (31 percent). (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.)

Warren is now the top choice among early-state activists

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. ’18 feb. ’19 april june aug. oct.
Warren 24% 40% 35% 48 34% 48%
Harris 61 54 53 52 38 38
Booker 45 49 47 59 31 38
Buttigieg 17 29 45 38 31
Biden 39 34 21 48 34 31
Klobuchar 34 37 26 28 17 28
Sanders 29 29 24 24 21 24
Bullock 10 17 21
Castro 17 15 28 21 14
O’Rourke 34 14 15 17 10 14
Bennet 12 14 10 14
Steyer 7 14
Ryan 3 10 7
Yang 9 7 7 3
Gabbard 9 9 7 3 3
Delaney 16 17 3 3 3 3
Williamson 3 3 3
Messam 3 0 3
Sestak 3

The October results are based on interviews with 29 Democratic activists who were asked about the 19 candidates listed above. Number of activists who responded varies in previous rounds of interviews.


As for the candidates the activists do not want to see become the nominee, the rankings haven’t changed much since August, but the commitment has intensified somewhat. Twenty-three of 29 activists (79 percent) do not want to see spiritual author Marianne Williamson become the nominee (up from 55 percent last time), and 21 of 29 (72 percent) feel the same about Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (up from 62 percent). Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders remains about as disliked as he was in the last round of interviews; 62 percent (18 of 29 activists) now oppose him for the nomination, essentially unchanged from 59 percent in the last round. (It’s unclear if Sanders’s heart attack had any effect on activists’ feelings — he was in the hospital and had “pushed pause” on his campaign during the time people were responding to my questions, but no one mentioned the incident in the open comment section of the survey.) Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam (20 of 29 activists, 69 percent), and former Reps. John Delaney and Joe Sestak (18 activists each, 62 percent) round out the most-disliked category, with hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer (16 activists, 55 percent) not far behind.

In my last installment, I also started reporting which candidate activists think Democrats active in their communities lean toward, regardless of their own preferences, and Warren has continued her upward trajectory here as well. In August, nine of 27 activists (33 percent) said they thought people in their community were leaning toward Warren. This month, 14 of 29 (48 percent) now believe their community is leaning toward her; the next closest candidate was Biden with three of 29 (10 percent). Only eight of 29 activists (28 percent) think people in their community haven’t made up their mind.

Judging from this round of interviews, it appears that Warren has gained an important toehold in the Democratic activist community and is emerging as the front-runner. This has tracked with her rise in the polls, though, notably, activists’ preferences haven’t really preceded her rise. After all, it took until this month for any activist to tell me they were committed to supporting Warren. It seems as if the activists I’m reinterviewing are largely in step with public opinion, suggesting to me a party that is hesitant to pick a winner ahead of the party’s voters.


  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 fact that the area is heavily saturated early primary-race media 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 19 most commonly mentioned presidential candidates in a variety of news sources, including Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam, who does not meet FiveThirtyEight’s criteria for a “major” candidate. I also provided space for respondents to write in names. Respondents 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.”