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We Asked Democratic Activists Who They’re Backing — And Who They’d Hate To See Win

We’re still months away from the first nominating contest in Iowa, but I’m still regularly checking in with early-state Democratic Party activists to see what the party’s most engaged members think about the pre-primary race so far. In this installment, more activists are saying they have chosen a candidate to support, and some are now considering candidates who were previously flying under the radar. We’re also getting a better sense of some of the divisions within the party by asking activists who they won’t support.

As part of my ongoing book research, I’ve been in touch with roughly 60 Democratic activists in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada and Washington, D.C.,1 asking them about their preferences for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. About 35 people from the respondent pool participated in each wave of interviews. I’m interested in learning about whether these activists are committed to a candidate or whom they’re considering if they still haven’t made up their mind.

This time around, I also asked respondents who they didn’t want as the nominee. After all, when a party is deciding between candidates, it needs to decide not only who is broadly liked, but also who is considered unacceptable by many factions within the party. I’m trying to get a sense of which candidates look like traditional party nominees (broadly, if not enthusiastically, accepted by most wings of the party) and which look like factional candidates (the enthusiastic choice of some segments of the party but highly problematic for others).

At this stage, most of the activists I spoke to are considering at least a few candidates, but I did see a modest increase in the number committed to just one candidate: the total who’d made up their mind jumped from nine in February to 11 in April. (Since each wave of interviews has gotten responses from a different subset of respondents, it’s important to keep in mind that some of these shifts may reflect changes in the respondent pool rather than changes in opinion.) Among the group of activists who’ve decided on one candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was tied for the lead, with four activists backing him, essentially unchanged from the previous round of interviews.2 New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who now shares the lead, went from one declared supporter in February to four in April. And still-undeclared candidate former Vice President Joe Biden actually lost at least one supporter.3 A woman who had been backing Biden told me that her concerns over his unwanted touching of women caused her to re-evaluate her decision. While she said that she is still considering Biden, she is now considering other candidates too.

I also asked the 23 interviewees who were not committed to a single candidate to tell me which candidates they’re considering supporting.4 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.

California Sen. Kamala Harris continues to lead the pack even though no one in this group of activists has committed to her yet.

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

activists considering supporting
Candidate Dec. 2018 Feb. 2019 April
Harris 61%
Booker 45
Warren 24
Klobuchar 34
Gillibrand 21
Sanders 29
Biden 39
McAuliffe 5
O’Rourke 34
Hickenlooper 21
Delaney 16

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

And while the top tier of candidates looks similar to how it looked in February, there’s a notable new addition — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He has nearly doubled his support among the activists I interviewed — 17 percent of respondents (six people) were thinking about him two months ago, but now 29 percent (10 people) have him on their list of candidates they’re considering. This is evidence that the national boomlet for the mayor may be more than a media phenomenon — at least some influential activists who come in close contact with the candidates themselves are taking him seriously.

The activists I’ve been speaking to seem to have different candidate preferences than Democratic voters more broadly, at least according to recent polling results. The activists, for example, rank Biden and Sanders as middle-tier candidates, with only around a quarter of those I interviewed considering them, whereas wider polls have those candidates leading the field. Conversely, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is not getting overwhelming support in recent polls, is among the top three candidate choices among the activists I’ve interviewed. These differences show how these party activists — a small, self-selected group, but one that is influential in determining who makes it to these nominating contests — diverge in their preferences from primary voters as a whole. We won’t know for some time whether activists’ power over the election process is enough to sway voters toward activists’ preferred candidates.

As I mentioned earlier, I also asked respondents one new question in April’s survey: Which candidates did they not want to see become the nominee?5 Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her many controversial stances, like her defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and her past social conservatism on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is at the top of the list. But Sanders was a close second, with half of respondents saying they do not want to see him become the nominee. Remember, Sanders also has one of the largest numbers of committed supporters, so his candidacy looks to be pretty factional within the party, suggesting that his potential for growth may be limited.

But although a few candidates drew strong opposition, many supporters of the top-tier candidates were comfortable with the possibility of other top-tier candidates getting the nomination. About one-fifth of people who were at least considering Booker, for example, would have a problem with Warren or Sen. Amy Klobuchar as the nominee. Sanders, however, is deeply unpopular among supporters of just about all the other top-tier candidates — about half to three-quarters of activists who supported one of the eight candidates who were ranked the highest in the first table would not want to see Sanders win the nomination. Biden, too, is unpopular among supporters of Booker, Warren and Sanders, again garnering around 50 percent opposition. Most Sanders supporters, meanwhile, were opposed to Klobuchar, Biden and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Again, it’s good to not get ahead of ourselves — we’re still more than nine months away from any actual voting in this contest. My June survey will come out shortly before the first primary debates and should provide a sense of how these activists and others like them have helped shape the field prior to its most visible event yet.

From ABC News:

Kamala Harris pledges to improve teacher salaries if she wins presidency


  1. Although Washington’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 the heavy media saturation of the area with early nomination coverage.

  2. Sanders had five backers in the previous round of interviews, but one of his supporters did not reply to the most recent round.

  3. One person who had supported Biden previously did not reply to this round of interviews

  4. 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 17 most commonly mentioned presidential candidates in a variety of news sources. I included former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who at the time had not yet announced he would not run. I also provided space for respondents to write in names. They are allowed to mention as many names as they wish.

  5. Similar to the question in which I asked respondents about who they would consider supporting, I asked, “Are there any candidates you definitely do not want to see become the Democratic presidential nominee?” For this question, I also provided respondents with a randomized list and allowed them to mention as many names as they wished.

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.”