For those of us who spend an enormous, probably unhealthy amount of time thinking about American politics, there’s an expectation that Democratic voters will have broad awareness of the candidates vying to represent the party in next November’s presidential race. We know who Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.) is; surely Democratic voters do, too!
Democratic voters did not. In the most recent Economist-YouGov poll, 71 percent of Democratic respondents said they weren’t familiar enough with Moulton to have an opinion of him. In fact, for only seven candidates — former vice president Joe Biden; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.); and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) — did at least two-thirds of Democratic respondents have an opinion. We’re still more than a year from the general election, but the Democratic field has had more than 10 candidates in it since February. Again, I’m over-immersed in this stuff, but that still seems awfully low.
In part, that’s because, after months of trying, many Democratic candidates haven’t really made much of a dent.
There are two candidates, Biden and Sanders, who’ve enjoyed consistently high awareness throughout the campaign. That they are also generally the two best polling is not a coincidence: The more people know you exist, the more likely they are to vote for you. (On the graphs below, the higher a line is, the less well-known the candidate is at that point.)
(The dashed line for Biden is just to differentiate his numbers.)
Awareness of Biden and Sanders is higher among all Americans than the other candidates, too. Running for national office with some success in the past has a tendency to get people to be familiar with you.
Notice how Sanders and Biden compare with three candidates who’ve dropped out of the race recently. Moulton, who dropped out on Friday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who dropped out earlier this week, and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who dropped out last week.
Each of the three started out fairly unknown — and each ended their campaigns unknown by about half of Democratic voters.
You’ll notice the dashed lines on that graph. Those mark the two Democratic primary debates that have taken place so far. You’ll notice that after the first debate, awareness of Inslee and Hickenlooper improved. That’s because they got to participate in both debates. Moulton didn’t get to participate in either.
Nor did Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock got to participate in only the second one. Unsurprisingly, none of those three candidates saw significant movement — though Bullock’s presence in the second debate clearly helped him.
For some candidates, though, the debates were game-changing. Four candidates saw swings of more than 10 points from the three polls before the first debate to the three after: author Marianne Williamson, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
The effects of the debate were uneven, with the biggest jumps in familiarity going to candidates who were less well known. Well, obviously: Biden wasn’t going to see a 10-point surge in how familiar he was to Democrats when more than 90 percent already had an opinion of him.
But it wasn’t the case that all of the lesser-known candidates benefited. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, came into the first debate about where Castro did — but didn’t see a big gain.
The debates were the biggest spur for awareness of the candidates to spike, but it wasn’t the spur that drove the biggest shift in candidate awareness. That shift belongs to Buttigieg, who has seen a massive drop in the number of Democrats who don’t have an opinion of him.
He and candidates such as Yang and Williamson probably benefit from voters having little awareness of them. They’re new. A number of other candidates who’ve been involved in politics for a while — such as Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Booker and O’Rourke — came into the race sort-of well-known and remain sort-of well-known.
Yang, Williamson, Buttigieg and even former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.) are outliers, seeing fairly big increases in voter familiarity with them over the course of the campaign. There’s a loose correlation between increasing familiarity and the amount of time candidates have been in the campaign, as you would expect. (Note how the dots beneath Delaney on the chart below slowly go up and to the right.)
For candidates such as Booker and Gillibrand, that increase (6 or 7 points since getting in) isn’t significant enough to see them fare much better in the polls.
And, again, that’s a key point. There’s a necessary pattern to winning a race: Get voters to know you exist, then get voters to view you favorably, then get voters to want to vote for you. Biden started off with strong familiarity and strong favorability. Buttigieg started out low on both metrics but saw both surge — and saw his poll numbers surge, as well.
Harris, whose performance in the first debate saw her poll numbers surge, has bounced up and down on the familiarity/favorability spectrum. She has also seen her polling bump fade.
If you’re not seeing this movement up and to the left, you’re probably not going to be the Democratic nominee for president. As the weeks pass, you have to make a decision: stay or go?
Those who’ve recently decided to go are candidates who didn’t see that movement.