2020 Democratic Primary Voters Are Confounding the Pundits

As political shorthand, pundits like to talk about the lanes that are available for candidates to travel when seeking the nomination of their party. For most people, the 2016 Democratic primary came down to two lanes: establishment and insurgent. Nate Silver identified five lanes during the Republican primary that year: moderate, establishment, Christian conservative, libertarian and tea party.

For the 2020 Democratic primary, Joe Biden might have captured the establishment lane. But a look at his top competitors shows that they include three senators. While Sanders claimed the mantle of insurgent against Clinton, he’s having a hard time selling that one on his second run for president after spending 28 years in congress.

The reason that Sanders was able to run in the insurgent lane in 2016 was more about ideology than his long record in office. But as even he proudly states, he has some company four years later out on the left end of the political spectrum. So early on in the 2020 primary, pundits assumed that the primary lanes for this race included Sanders and Warren vying for the progressive lane, with candidates like Biden and Klobuchar anchoring the moderate or establishment lane.

But then we started hearing from voters. Three separate polls—Reuters/Ipsos, Washington Post/ABC News, and Morning Consult—all asked respondents to name their second-choice candidates. The results from all three were similar and demonstrated that voters are not deciding along ideological lines.

Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight developed this chart of the results from the poll conducted by Morning Consult.

As you can see, the candidate named most often as the second choice for Biden supporters is Sanders, just as the second choice for Sanders supporters is Biden. No two candidates in the field are further apart ideologically than Biden and Sanders.

You will also see that Warren is most often chosen as the second choice for Harris supporters, and vice versa. Harris is also the second choice for many Buttigieg supporters. Those of you who remember how Sanders’ supporters launched vicious attacks on O’Rourke before he even entered the race might be surprised to see that Sanders is the second choice for many O’Rourke supporters.

In trying to make some sense out of what this says about lanes, Rakich offers a whole host of possibilities.

Maybe this is the “experience” lane — Biden and Sanders have each served in public office for more than three decades. Maybe it is the “electability” lane, as those two are generally seen as having the best chance to beat President Trump. Or maybe name recognition still matters, and Biden and Sanders are the only two candidates these voters know a meaningful amount about.

Matthew Iglesias offered another possibility by suggesting that “it’s an ‘old white guy’ lane versus a ‘smart woman lawyer’ lane rather than ideological or policy voting.”

What it comes down to is that pundits don’t know what the hell it means, other than the fact that voters aren’t choosing based on pre-conceived notions of ideology. Personally, I suspect that Rakich’s explanation about name recognition is the most accurate. You can add to that the electability explanation, because voters probably think that the candidate they know is the most likely to win.

All of that would explain the Biden/Sanders supporters. But what about the Harris/Warren/Buttigieg lane? The polling of Indivisible supporters helps us answer that question. Respondents were asked: (1) which candidates are you considering voting for, and (2) which candidates are you NOT considering voting for?

The Harris/Warren/Buttigieg lane is occupied by the most politically engaged Democratic voters.

I have been closely watching the Washington Post/ABC News poll in which respondents are asked an open-ended question about who they support in the Democratic primary. Without being provided a list of names, 56 percent had no preference in late January. As of early July, that number was down to 19 percent. So voters are beginning to pay attention and make up their minds. As they do, we can expect that the name-recognition lane will become less significant and other lanes will emerge. In other words, this race for the Democratic presidential nomination is still very much in flux.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.