It’s silly not to simply admit at the outset of this piece that we’re late to the 2020 presidential conversation.
President Trump’s campaign started on Nov. 9, 2016; his campaign held rallies the next month. Democratic candidates mostly haven’t declared their candidacies, but in the modern political world, that tends to be one of the last things that a candidate does. We’re in the part of the process when potential candidates jockey for staff and support and money, collecting as many cards as possible before they lay them on the table.
And, of course, we have polling. Earlier this week, the Des Moines Register, CNN and Mediacom published a poll of Iowans asking whom they might support in that state’s caucuses. In the lead? Former vice president Joe Biden, who was the first choice of about a third of respondents. Trailing him was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). About what you might expect, really.
Why? Because these are the people who get talked about. These are the people voters have heard of.
There’s a correlation between the percentage of the electorate that views each of these candidates* favorably and how much support they get. It’s an elegant curve, slipping from the bottom left to upper right. Biden is the most popular; he also gets the most support.
But he’s also one of the best known. If we scale the bubbles above to show how much of the electorate was familiar with each candidate, Biden has a much bigger bubble than O’Rourke or, say, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), whose bubble is down in the zeros. Only 11 percent of Iowa Democrats have a positive view of Inslee, but 82 percent of them haven’t really heard of him.
A national Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday gives us another way of looking at the contest. Quinnipiac asked voters from each party how they felt about a variety of politicians. Some are very polarizing, like Trump or Hillary Clinton. But many of the possible Democratic candidates got shrugs, with big chunks of respondents across the board indicating that they hadn’t yet heard enough about the candidates to have an opinion.
So let’s focus on the Democrats again. Remembering that favorability correlates to support in that Iowa poll (and generally), here’s each candidate’s favorable and unfavorable rating in the Quinnipiac poll.
Biden at the top. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) down there at the tail end.
But Brown is also the Democrat that Democrats have heard the least about. (The best-known Democrat is Clinton, followed by Biden.) Of the 10 candidates Quinnipiac asked about, six had higher percentages of people saying they didn’t know enough about them than saying they viewed them favorably.
If we consider a slightly different metric, things shift. Consider the percentage of Democrats who view each candidate favorably only among those with an opinion. So if a candidate’s favorability rating is 20 percent and unfavorability is 10 percent, that gets adjusted to a 67 percent favorability (because two-thirds of those with an opinion view the candidate positively).
All of a sudden, Brown’s position is much better. He joins Biden, O’Rourke and Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) with an adjusted favorability of more than 90 percent. Clinton’s favorability, which doesn’t change much, drops her position significantly — but not as much as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg sinks.
This is not how campaigns work, of course. Part of the quiet jockeying that’s underway includes persuading people without opinions of opposing candidates how to feel about them. As voters learn more about candidates, some will grow much less popular. Some of the candidates listed above won’t run, but, among those who do, some will never attract much attention anyway.
What’s remarkable about the Iowa and Quinnipiac polling is that Biden’s favorability is so strong. On net (those who view him favorably minus those who view him unfavorably), Biden’s at plus-77, the highest in Quinnipiac’s poll. (Sanders is second at plus-61.) Biden is also the only candidate over 50 percent favorability among all voters and is one of three (including Sanders and O’Rourke) whose favorability is net positive among all voters. In a crowded primary field, a core base of support can carry a lot of water (as Trump learned in 2016).
In other words, Biden’s is a good position to be in. But, then, it’s early.
* These aren’t actually candidates yet, but it’s a lot easier to just refer to them that way, isn’t it?