As someone who spends a lot of time reading about and considering the 2020 Democratic primary field, I’m always struck by how many other Americans have spent approximately zero seconds doing so. I’m not, like, stunned; it’s my job to pay attention to this stuff, which can be a powerful motivator. But it’s still surprising to discover that fully 40 percent of Americans have never heard of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who announced that she was running for president on a popular late-night talk show and who represents one of the largest states in the country.
That bit of data comes from Gallup’s most recent look at the Democratic field. Of the candidates it asked about, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were the best known, which shouldn’t come as a big surprise. (I’m just going to call Biden a candidate here because it’s easier than adding a qualifier every time.) But at least one-fifth of U.S. adults had never heard of any of the other five included in Gallup’s survey.
(Sanders isn’t included in these graphs because Gallup didn’t provide breakdowns of his polling numbers.)
I’ll note here that this could be crucially important moving forward. The dynamic of the 2016 Republican primary was, in retrospect, fairly simple: Donald Trump had a core base of support that allowed him to do well in early primary states in a crowded field of qualified candidates. That alone gave him momentum.
We’ve seen in past polls that awareness of possible candidates in the 2020 field correlates to support. Here, for example, is Iowa polling from December. Biden and Sanders lead the field in part because people have heard of them. Sanders, at least, also has a core, dedicated base of support that could allow him to do the Trump Glide (trademark pending) through early primaries.
That’s especially if other candidates have a hard time attracting attention. Look, it’s super, stupidly early. Honestly, the rational thing is to ignore all of this until, say, a week before voting? Maybe a month. You get my point.
Nonetheless. Even 40 percent of Democrats have not heard of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), despite her already iconic mid-blizzard campaign launch. At least half of adults under age 35 have never heard of Gillibrand, Klobuchar or Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
I mean, 1 in 10 adults under age 35 have never heard of Biden, which is maybe taking the lack of attention to politics a bit too far.
How big a dent does a campaign launch make on awareness? Let’s compare the density of people saying they’d never heard of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in 2017, before she announced her bid, and in February. Two years ago, 23 percent of people hadn’t heard of her. Now, after her launch and the controversy over her heritage … 20 percent of people haven’t heard of her.
From a statistical standpoint, that’s no change at all.
Let’s overlay another bit of interesting data here. That lack of awareness doesn’t correlate to the amount of coverage the candidates got over the period that Gallup was “in the field” (meaning, conducting its poll).
Klobuchar was mentioned about as often as Booker, but he’s still much better known. (It’s a 10-point difference among Democrats.) She probably had more ground to make up, of course, coming from a relatively small state.
But then there’s that peak for Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). She was mentioned more during this period than any of the other candidates — including five times the mentions earned by Gillibrand.
A big chunk of that is thanks to Fox News, which has been pretty enthusiastic about Harris for perhaps not entirely supportive reasons. Fox alone mentioned her more than twice as often as Gillibrand was mentioned across the three cable networks and the five broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS).
And over a quarter of Americans still have never heard of Harris.
Let’s also point out that cable news talked about the candidates a lot more than broadcast. In part that’s because broadcast networks air things other than news. But even as a percent of news coverage, the cable networks spent more time talking about candidates. Biden, for example, was mentioned about seven times as often on cable than on broadcast as a percentage of all news coverage.
Television watching isn’t the only way that people learn about candidates, of course, though it remains the most common way for people to learn about the news. About half of the country identifies CNN, Fox News and MSNBC as their most trusted news sources. Despite heavy coverage on those networks, many Americans have never heard of the Democrats vying to challenge Trump in 2020.
And now, the kicker. Ten percent of respondents in Gallup’s polling have never heard of the current vice president of the United States, Mike Pence. That includes 1 in 5 adults under the age of 35.
Maybe the problem isn’t entirely that we’re early in the cycle.