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What Issues Should The 2020 Democratic Candidates Be Talking About?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last Thursday, the 2020 Democratic candidates covered a wide range of topics during the three-hour debate, including health care, race and criminal justice, immigration, gun control and climate change.

But what issues do voters care most about? In our FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, we surveyed the same set of respondents both before and after the debate to find out what issue was most important in determining their vote in the primary. And what we learned was Democrats are most concerned about defeating President Trump — nearly 40 percent of respondents said this was their top issue. For reference, the next-most-common top issue — health care — was picked by just 10 percent voters before the debate and 11 percent after.

So what issues should the candidates be talking more about? Less about? And if Democrats care more about winning this year, what’s the best way to talk about beating Trump?

A lot of Democrats really want to beat Trump

Share of respondents to the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll who said that each issue is the most important to them, before and after the debate

Share for whom issue is most important
issue Pre-debate Post-debate
Ability to beat Donald Trump 39.6%
Health care 9.9
The economy 8.0
Wealth and income inequality 7.9
Climate change 7.4
Gun policy 4.2
Immigration 3.3
Something else 3.3
Social Security 3.4
Education 2.5
Racism 3.0
The makeup of the Supreme Court 1.7
Taxes 1.3
Jobs 1.9
Foreign affairs 1.3
Crime 0.7
The military 0.3
Sexism 0.1

From a survey of 4,320 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Sept. 5 and Sept. 11. The same people were surveyed again from Sept. 12 to Sept. 16; 3,473 responded to the second wave.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Well, to state the obvious, the candidates should be talking about their ability to beat Trump.

It’s important to a ton of Democratic voters.

And the more it goes untalked-about, the more other candidates are ceding that ground to Joe Biden, IMO.

Electability is a very fuzzy concept without a ton of data behind it, so pretty much any candidate can make a plausible argument for their “electability.”

sarahf: What are some ways candidates can do that, though?

I know Biden has leaned into his performance in head-to-head polls against Trump, but as we know … general election polls don’t really tell us that much about the strength of candidates in the primary.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I mean, it’s a little tricky. If you talk too much about electability, you raise the salience of the issue, which might work to Biden’s benefit.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): On the other hand, the fact that electability is a fuzzy concept can also be difficult for the candidates to address directly — for example, the female candidates.

nrakich: Amelia, if you ask me, the female candidates should be trotting out the studies that show women do just as well as men when they run for office!

ameliatd: Well, but those studies aren’t about presidential candidates! Most political scientists agree that people don’t cross the aisle to vote against a woman (or for that matter, to vote for a woman) — party loyalties are stronger than gender bias. But that’s not an easy sound bite, and it also may not be especially reassuring to voters who think sexism was a factor in Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016.

natesilver: In particular, I think it’s risky (by which I mean dumb) for any candidate other than Biden to talk much about his or her head-to-head polls against Trump, because Biden still does better than any other Democrat in those polls by some margin.

sarahf: But is that what will convince voters someone is electable?

nrakich: Amy Klobuchar is pointing to her past election results, where she really ran up the score in the swing state of Minnesota, as evidence that she’s electable. The problem is that she just hasn’t gotten a lot of attention for it (although voters in our poll thought she was slightly more likely to beat Trump after the debate).

sarahf: How else can candidates talk about their ability to defeat Trump without getting into their performance in head-to-head polls?

natesilver: I thought Warren’s response to Delaney in the second debate was good. Basically, like, if you’re not running on ideas, then why are you even running?

nrakich: If you’re Klobuchar, you can also argue that a moderate candidate is better positioned to win over swing voters. Or if you’re Kamala Harris or Cory Booker, you can argue that a black candidate will have the most success increasing black turnout (which could help Democrats win back Midwestern states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and might put new states, like Georgia, in play).

natesilver: I’m not sure that the candidates themselves do a lot of good by litigating more complex points about electability with the public. Their campaigns might do it on background with journalists, but it’s probably best left there.

ameliatd: I agree with that, Nate. One recent study did show that people were more likely to rate female candidates as electable when they were first reminded about how many women won in 2018 — but I don’t think having the candidates make that pitch will necessarily work.

sarahf: But if the best way for a candidate to run is on their ability to beat Trump, how can their stances on other issues help them accomplish that? Or make them seem more electable?

Let’s start with an issue that a lot of voters also care about (it was the second most popular pick for top issue in our Ipsos poll) — health care.

Should Democrats talk about health care more?


nrakich: Exit polls showed that health care was the most important issue to voters in the 2018 midterm elections, which obviously worked out well for Democrats. So I think that’s good ground for the candidates to focus on for the general election.

For the primary, maybe less so — it depends on their position on health care!

natesilver: I remain convinced that health care is the best issue that Sanders has going for him.

Although, according to our poll, Biden actually gained ground with voters who prioritized the issue. Warren and Harris have been somewhat stuck in the middle on health care, though, and I think it’s a real problem for them.

nrakich: But Nate, what about those polls that show that a single-payer health care system is less popular, even among Democrats, than building on Obamacare (with, say, a public option)?

natesilver: At least Sanders has leadership on the issue. True, Biden has the most popular position. But Harris and Warren got nothing.


Who voters think is best on health care

Among the 435 respondents who said health care was the most important issue to them in an Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight poll

candidate share of respondents
Bernie Sanders 32.9%
Joe Biden 28.8
Elizabeth Warren 16.5
Someone else 6.4
Pete Buttigieg 3.3
Kamala Harris 2.8
Amy Klobuchar 2.2
Julián Castro 1.5
Beto O’Rourke 1.3
Andrew Yang 1.3
Cory Booker 0.9

Poll was conducted from Sept. 5 to Sept. 11 among a general population sample of adults, with 4,320 respondents who say they are likely to vote in their state’s Democratic primary or caucus

Yeah, going into the debate, Sanders had the lead among voters in our poll who prioritized health care. (But Sanders wasn’t the only candidate to gain potential supporters among voters who prioritized health care after the debate — Biden, Yang, Warren and Buttigieg all made bigger gains.)

ameliatd: Part of the challenge, too, is that people still don’t understand the details of all of these plans — for example, Medicare for All, as Sanders and Warren talk about it, involves getting rid of private insurance. That could be more and more of an issue for the candidates on the left. Warren and Sanders keep saying people don’t like their insurance — but that’s not really true.

The health care debate is hard because people want something better, but they’re also afraid of losing what they have.

sarahf: Yeah, the branding of “Medicare for All who want it” that Buttigeig and others are pushing is pretty ingenious, even if it’s just as difficult or costly to pull off as the version of Medicare for All that Sanders and Warren are pitching.

ameliatd: It is weirdly off-brand for Warren to not have a detailed plan on health care. But maybe she’s trying not to get beaten up in the fight over Medicare for All.

natesilver: It’s very off-brand. And, sure, there might be tactical reasons for it. All of which goes to my theory that Warren is more of a politician than she’s assumed to be, which you’d think is a pretty normal thing to say about someone who’s a professional politician but will probably come across as something of a hot take.

I dunno, sometimes Warren’s strategy seems predicated on the idea that she doesn’t need to throw a lot of elbows or make a lot of tight pivots to beat Sanders.

sarahf: Well, if part of the primary is to pitch voters on big ideas, it makes sense to me that Warren isn’t curtailing her vision for Medicare for All just yet.

ameliatd: I wonder also if she thinks there’s too much competition on health care. It can be pretty difficult to follow which candidate is proposing what and what the actual differences are. It’s simpler to just say she’s with Sanders.

nrakich: I do find it interesting that Warren is doing so well in the polls despite not really emphasizing the top two priorities that Democratic voters cited in our poll (electability and health care).

sarahf: In its analysis of swing voters in 2020, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that in addition to having a big advantage on health care, Democrats have a whopping advantage (38 percentage points) on climate change.

So … should the candidates be talking about climate change more?

(According to an analysis by Bloomberg, only 6 percent of the third debate was devoted to it.)

nrakich: I think you have to draw a line between the primary and general election for a lot of these.

As you alluded to with that poll, Sarah, I think the eventual Democratic nominee could have success by talking a lot about climate change next year.

But the differences between the primary candidates on climate change are pretty in the weeds, so I’m not sure whom it would help to talk about it more.

I also think the failure of Jay Inslee’s campaign to win on climate change showed that the issue just wasn’t a big differentiator either (although IMO he had other problems too, like not being very inspiring on the stump).

sarahf: That’s interesting, Nathaniel. So unlike health care, where there’s an incentive for the candidates to hash out their differences, maybe something like climate change should be saved for the general?

nrakich: Yeah, I think there are pretty major differences between the candidates on health care. And having a nominee run on single-payer vs. a public option could be important to swing voters in the general. But I don’t think Republicans will attack a nominee any harder if he or she is trying to get the U.S. to net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 instead of 2050.

ameliatd: Well, another difference between health care and climate is that they’re both fairly technical, complicated issues, but one has a direct and personal impact on people’s health and bank accounts, while the other is more diffuse. It’s harder to get concrete on climate change, too. Which is sometimes why you end up with candidates talking about banning plastic straws.

natesilver: Also on climate — the political willpower to get things done when Joe Manchin is the median vote in the Senate is far less than any of the Democrats’ plans would like.

In some ways, I’m surprised Democrats haven’t spent more time talking about structural issues, like gerrymandering, adding new states (Puerto Rico, D.C.) and things of that nature.

sarahf: I mean, they did wade into blowing up the filibuster in the last debate.

Do you really think that’s good politics for the candidates, though?

natesilver: Oh yeah, sure. I think it’s a good way for Warren to differentiate herself from Sanders, for instance.

ameliatd: Blowing up the filibuster seems like it’s become a way for candidates to say they’re serious about passing their agenda. So it’s kind of a proxy for how far the candidates are willing to go, and how much they care about compromise.

nrakich: I think it has the potential to be good politics, Sarah. People don’t like it when they perceive the system to be unfair, and Democrats can pretty easily make the argument that the system is currently biased against urban dwellers, people of color and others.

Gerrymandering is a good example of something that few people defend. But no Democrat is out there shouting about it from the rooftops.

Voting rights also don’t register very high on the priority list when voters are asked what issues they care about, but there is a lot of political science research that says that politicians can influence what voters care about. And I bet the issue would become more salient if a top-tier candidate talked about it more.

ameliatd: I have also wondered why the Supreme Court hasn’t been a bigger issue so far — it is more unpopular with Democrats than it has been in 20 years, and progressive activists are advocating for some pretty big court reforms, like increasing the number of justices on the bench. And if you’re talking about roadblocks for your progressive agenda — a Supreme Court with a conservative majority is certainly at the top of that list.

nrakich: Maybe it hasn’t been very salient in the primary because it’s assumed that every possible nominee would appoint pro-choice, pro-voting-rights, generally liberal justices?

ameliatd: But there are differences between the candidates on how to approach the Supreme Court — big ones! At least seven candidates still in the race are open to the idea of adding justices to the court, according to The Washington Post. And some have talked about changing its structure in other ways (adding term limits, for example) which would also be quite dramatic.

nrakich: Good point. Maybe Democrats aren’t bringing it up, then, because the issue risks activating Republican voters in the general election?

ameliatd: It is definitely true that the courts historically have been a motivating issue for Republican voters and not really for Democrats. But I think there’s potential for the Democrats to make the Supreme Court into an issue that their voters care about.

natesilver: And I think after Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination last year, there’s still an open question about whether which party gets most motivated by the Supreme Court has shifted. In a Gallup poll just before the midterms, roughly as many Democrats as Republicans called Kavanaugh an important issue in deciding their vote.

That said, I don’t think calling for Kavanaugh’s impeachment is a very wise general election position.

ameliatd: No, I agree — a focus on impeaching Kavanaugh seems tailor-made to rile up Republicans. Part of the issue is that there just isn’t a clear message among Democrats about the Supreme Court or the judiciary in general. Some people want term limits. Others want court-packing, or they want more talk about the type of judicial nominees the candidates would nominate.

sarahf: But what about an issue where Democrats don’t have an advantage (like the economy) and are in a weaker position among voters than Trump? In that same poll on swing voters, KFF gave Trump a 12-point advantage for his handling of economy. And in our Ipsos poll, we found that economy-focused Democrats gave candidates worse marks across the board than voters focused on four other top issues, suggesting that economy voters were maybe unsatisfied by what they heard in the debate.

nrakich: Yeah, Democrats could stand to talk more in the primary about the economy in the traditional sense, like jobs.

For the general election, though, that does seem to be a good issue for Republicans (for now).

natesilver: Isn’t the obvious way for Democrats to talk about the economy to talk about inequality and how the economy ain’t workin’ for some people?

Unless the economy actually goes way south, in which case you have a lot more things you can say.

nrakich: Yes, but we did offer “wealth and income inequality” as an issue in our poll, and those voters seemed to have different perspectives than the “economy” voters.

If we’re talking about the primary, Warren and Sanders have gotten pretty far by talking about inequality, but our poll does suggest there’s a subset of voters for whom that isn’t what they want to hear about the economy.

sarahf: And while trying to motivate voters around economic inequality sounds good in theory, in practice, I don’t think it actually moves the dial much. Although, there is evidence that voters are keen on a tax on the uber-wealthy, so maybe that’s a good tack for Democrats to take in talking about the economy more?

ameliatd: Right, talking about making the wealthy pay their fair share seems like a smart way for Democrats to approach this.

But what do you think voters want to be hearing on the economy front, Nathaniel? In our poll, “jobs” was listed as a separate option and not that many people seemed interested in hearing about that.

nrakich: Yeah, Amelia, I’m not quite sure. Given their candidate preferences (i.e., voters who prioritized the economy also liked Biden and were much less likely to be considering a vote for Warren or Sanders), maybe those are the fiscally minded voters who oppose Warren and Sanders’s efforts to redistribute wealth.

In other words, business-friendly Democrats?

natesilver: Yeah, Democrats need to be careful on this issue.

Socialism is still not a popular concept with swing voters. Maybe it will be once the millennials and zoomers take over. But for now, it’s a big general-election vulnerability for Sanders, for instance.

nrakich: Wait, this is the first time I’ve heard zoomers as a nickname for Generation Z and I love it.

natesilver: “Let’s get the economy workin’ for workin’ people and make the rich pay their fair share” is probably fine for a general election message. “Let’s topple the entire system” maybe isn’t.

sarahf: But as Nathaniel said earlier … this is the primary. And isn’t socialism more popular than capitalism among Democrats?

So, similar to some of the candidates being more radical on health care, isn’t there an argument to be made they should dream bigger on the economy, too?

natesilver: Well, yeah, but part of what smart candidates do is avoid driving wedges on issues where it might give you a slight advantage in the primary but a big disadvantage in the general election.

nrakich: And while it’s true, Sarah, that Democrats think more highly of socialism than of capitalism, their views of capitalism are still mostly favorable, according to the Pew Research Center. We’re also forgetting that 40 percent of Democrats think the most important thing is to beat Trump! I can imagine plenty of pro-socialism Democrats being persuaded to tone down the rhetoric (but maybe not the policies — Warren is basically doing this) in order to avoid being general-election poison.

ameliatd: Also, isn’t Warren’s wealth tax, which would be applied to rich people’s accumulated fortunes rather than just their income, be an example of Democrats dreaming big? She seems to be doing a good job of selling it as “just making the rich pay their fair share,” but it’s still a pretty radical change from the status quo.

sarahf: That’s fair, Amelia.

And to wrap, if candidates could run on only one issue — and it isn’t beating Trump, because let’s treat that as the overarching argument of everyone’s campaign — what would it be?

nrakich: I think it’s got to be health care, especially if you’re not a single-payer Democrat. Follow the playbook that worked in 2018.

natesilver: It depends on the candidate. For Biden, it’s electability. For Sanders, it’s health care. For Warren, it’s … I’m not sure, exactly? But I think probably inequality.

nrakich: Breakin’ Sarah’s rules (“and it isn’t beating Trump”), Nate …

Intriguing side question: Is it a problem for Biden if he runs on an electability argument during the primary and then doesn’t have a clear rationale for running come the general?

sarahf: What other issue does Biden have to lean into? Health care, maybe?

natesilver: Maybe Biden could adopt a signature issue — or two.

I’m not sure what it would be, though. Guns, maybe?

ameliatd: We didn’t talk about gun policy, but I’ll be interested to see if that has sticking power as the primary moves forward. That’s a big priority for voters right now, but maybe it’s also an issue like climate change where the candidates struggle to differentiate themselves.

Also, I am shamelessly dodging the question, but personal characteristics are also important to voters. A Pew survey from last month asked Democrats to name the most important factor for deciding which candidate to support, and 28 percent named something like honesty or competence. About the same share pointed to a policy. So … maybe policy just matters less than we assume?

nrakich: Great point, Amelia. We basically just did a whole chat on issues while ignoring the fact that people mostly don’t vote on issues!

ameliatd: Shut it down, guys.

natesilver: But you can still vote on the aesthetics of a candidate’s policy positions even if you don’t care about policy per se.

Like, people can like the idea that Warren has a plan for things, even if they don’t know what those plans are, exactly.

nrakich: Right, but to the original chat prompt, does it matter, then, what issues are and aren’t being discussed?

As you pointed out, Warren doesn’t have a meaty health care plan but still gets credit for being issue-driven.

ameliatd: I wonder if Warren’s focus on an overarching theme like corruption can also help with the perception that she’s honest, or something like that.

But then it does make you wonder how much the details matter, as opposed to how the issues fit into a candidate’s overall brand.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: How both partiesâ聙聶 2020 primaries are going

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

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

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.