Perhaps that’s how Democratic leaders and activists see the primary. But there’s just one problem: Someone forgot to tell Democratic voters.
In a large-scale project called Nationscape that we’re conducting with our colleague Chris Tausanovitch at the University of California at Los Angeles, we have queried more than 6,000 voters weekly since July. Using these data, we find a surprising amount of agreement among Democrats on major policy issues. Contradicting the conventional wisdom, clearly defined ideological “lanes” don’t seem to exist in the minds of most voters.
This general agreement is reflected in how voters rank candidates. Despite all the talk about the moderate-progressive split, for instance, the most popular second choice of Biden voters is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — followed by Warren. Many supporters of the “progressives” also rank a moderate as a second choice.
More specifically, in surveys from Oct. 17 to Nov. 13, 35 percent of Biden supporters list Sanders as their No. 2 choice, and 29 percent list Warren. Only 9 percent list Buttigieg. Meanwhile, Sanders supporters are nearly evenly divided in their second-choice candidate: 36 percent say Warren, while 32 percent say Biden.
Warren supporters also show considerable willingness to embrace a “moderate”: 32 percent of them say Sanders is their second choice, 26 percent say Biden and 15 percent say Buttigieg. And to whom would Buttigieg supporters turn as a fallback? Thirty percent say Biden, and 28 percent say Warren.
Perhaps people’s preferences will change when the prospect of voting for someone other than their first choice is more than hypothetical. But there is little indication that voters are ranking the candidates primarily in terms of ideological affinity.
The reason may be that, right now, the ideological differences among the Democratic candidates, while noticeable to professional observers of politics, may not necessarily be large enough to register with Democratic voters paying only intermittent attention to the race. (One piece of evidence suggesting that at least some voters have yet to tune in: A large proportion of possible Democratic primary voters, 36 percent, still can’t provide a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Buttigieg, the candidate leading in Iowa, according to two recent polls.) And some voters, of course, also don’t have the kinds of strong and coherent ideologies that commentators assume.
In general, voters appear to be focused not on “lanes” but on the candidates who are getting news coverage and who thus appear viable contenders for the nomination. So when asked their second choice, supporters of each front-runner — Biden, Warren or Sanders — default to other front-runners, ideology aside.
The Nationscape project, supported by the Democracy Fund, provides other reasons to doubt that the Democratic Party is as divided as it’s often portrayed. Regardless of their candidate preferences, Democrats largely agree on many policies that have emerged as supposed litmus tests for who counts as moderate or progressive. In the past four weeks of our surveys, for example, more than 75 percent of likely Democratic primary voters supported raising taxes on families making more than $600,000, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and having the government provide a job to any American who needs one.
Perhaps predictably, then, supporters of the leading Democratic candidates — Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg — are also not particularly divided on these policies. Take raising taxes on the wealthy. This type of policy is most associated with Warren, and, indeed, 86 percent of her supporters favor it. But so do 78 percent of Biden supporters and 87 percent of Buttigieg supporters. Such numbers hardly suggest a party sharply divided into two warring wings.
It’s mainly Medicare-for-all on which divisions are apparent, but these are less sharp than many people assume. Among all Democrats we surveyed, 68 percent support “providing government-run health insurance to all Americans,” while 65 percent endorse the enactment of Medicare-for-all. Even here, when support wasn’t unanimous, it wasn’t because significant fractions of Democrats opposed these policies outright: Only 17 percent opposed Medicare-for-all. The rest were simply unsure.
This pattern holds among supporters of specific candidates, too. Eighty percent of Sanders supporters favor Medicare-for-all, as do 67 percent of Warren supporters — but so do 58 percent of Biden supporters and 55 percent of Buttigieg supporters. And opposition to Medicare-for-all tends to be mild: Only about a quarter of Biden and Buttigieg supporters outright reject it. And even among these voters — supporters of moderate candidates who oppose Medicare-for-all — about two-thirds still have a favorable view of Warren and Sanders.
There’s one framing of Medicare-for-all that leads to division. When we presented it as the outright elimination of private insurance, rather than leaving it to respondents to define it, a sizable split among Democrats emerged. Thirty-nine percent supported “abolishing private health insurance and replace with government run health insurance” while 33 percent opposed it, and the rest were unsure. This policy was more popular among supporters of Sanders or Warren than Biden or Buttigieg, but responses to it were lukewarm across the board: Only 49 percent of Sanders supporters favored it. (Seventy-six percent of Democrats in our sample support a “public option,” however.)
The tendency to overstate the ideological differences among supporters of Democratic candidates is not new. It happened in the 2016 Democratic primary — as we showed in our book “Identity Crisis.” Although Sanders supporters were more likely than Clinton supporters to describe themselves as liberal, the two groups didn’t differ that much on key issues, including raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the wealthy and whether the government should do more to provide health care and child care.
Of course, we should expect candidates to focus on where they disagree with their opponents, just as they did in the most recent debate. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), for example, criticized Warren’s wealth tax as “cumbersome” and hard to implement. It’s hard to say “vote for me” if you’re the same as everyone else.
But voters don’t seem to follow these disagreements in detail, much less consider them “profound divides.” In their minds, the candidates’ policy positions — let alone an alleged war for the soul of the Democratic Party — may well be taking a back seat to other priorities such as nominating someone who can beat President Trump.