The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How are Iowa voters picking candidates?

You’ve probably never considered this quality

Supporters and volunteers listen to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during a town hall gathering in Perry, Iowa. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

In considering whom to nominate to run against President Trump, Democrats in Iowa appear to be employing criteria they might use to choose a car to drive or music to listen to: whether they want to fit in with the crowd or stand out.

Former vice president Joe Biden — establishment candidate and front-runner — is losing potential supporters for a reason that has nothing to do with political views. Many Democratic voters have a strong “desire to be different” in their regular lives. That disposes them toward candidates with more niche views and backgrounds.

Like driving a Saab rather than a Honda or arguing that punk rock pioneers Iggy and the Stooges were superior to mainstream favorite Led Zeppelin, picking candidates who challenge the establishment allows people to advertise their distinctiveness and authenticity.

We used survey data collected in Iowa to find out how much individuals’ preferences for being unconventional influences their political choices.

Conventional wisdom is wrong

Political junkies often believe ideology and issues guide voters, even in primaries. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are the Senate’s two most liberal members, while Biden was a centrist in his day, so it’s natural to assume their followers are voting based on those categories.

However, political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels found issues and ideology do little to guide voters in the primaries. Examining voters’ 2016 decisions between the ultraliberal Sanders and the more Biden-like Hillary Clinton, they found neither people’s self-reported ideology nor their preferences on key issues had much influence on their votes.

In fact, few people think about politics in such terms. Issues and ideology are too complicated for a mostly ill-informed electorate, especially when there’s no party label to help them choose — as in primaries and caucuses.

Our new theory suggests people inform their political choices by drawing on the same habits of mind they use in their personal lives. The habits of mind that people call on most frequently will also be the ones they turn to most when they encounter new problems or need to make new choices.

That is why a general desire to be different is a compelling explanation for primary election voting behavior. Americans have countless opportunities to decide whether to conform or be different. Choosing a candidate in a primary might look like yet another opportunity for that desire to be different.

Biden appeals both to black voters -- and to voters suspicious of Black Lives Matter

Here’s how we did our research in Iowa

Since September, we have worked with Civiqs, an online polling and analytics company, to conduct monthly surveys of Iowa Democrats, drawn from Civiqs’ panel of Iowa residents. In the December survey, we offered people the following three statements, and asked whether they agreed, disagreed or neither:

  1. When it comes to things like which sports teams to root for, which styles of clothes to wear, which type of cars to drive, what kind of music to listen to, and so forth, I tend to choose things that are different from the choices most people make.
  2. I like ideas and activities that are unconventional.
  3. When something becomes popular with other people, I tend to become less interested in it.

To measure desire to be different, we summed up respondents’ answers to the three questions and took the average. We divided scores into three categories — low, medium, and high — to more easily compare the choices of people who do not want to stand out with those who like to be different.

Because there are so many candidates in the field, we simplify by focusing only on people who favored the four candidates receiving 15 percent in the poll: Biden, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren.

Biden’s three rivals are all outside the norm. Sanders isn’t even a Democrat; he was elected as an independent and says he’s a democratic socialist. Warren’s ideas depart sharply from party orthodoxy. And no openly gay leader from a small Midwestern city has ever run for president.

Conformists like Biden and Buttigieg. Nonconformists support Sanders and Warren.

In the figure below, we illustrate how much Iowa voters’ desire to be different informs their candidate choices. Among those not interested in being different, 26 percent prefer Biden, placing him ahead of both Sanders and Warren, and lagging behind only Buttigieg.

Among those who score high in desire to be different, Biden garners only 13 percent support, half what he got from those in the low category. That places him a distant fourth among those high in desire to be different, nearly 20 points behind both Sanders and Buttigieg.

While desire to be different devastates Biden’s support, it is a bulwark of Sanders’s support. The quirky Vermonter runs only third, with 23 percent, among those who score low in desire to be different — but he leads all his competitors, with 32 percent, among those who like to stand out.

Warren also benefits from people who prefer the less conventional. She receives only 18 percent support from those scoring low in desire to be different, placing her last among the top four. But among those who score medium or high, she is nine and six points more popular.

We are surprised that desire to be different does not affect support for Buttigieg. Perhaps this is because he has become less likely to present himself as the outsider gay leader from South Bend than as a religiously faithful military veteran and younger alternative to Biden.

Trump's abrasive personality might help him win reelection -- if voters feel it's a dangerous world.

What does all this mean?

These results persist after statistical controls for all the competing explanations we could measure, including ideology, worldview, whether people view the Democratic Party as out of touch, whether the respondent is a Democrat, and age, race, education and gender.

Note that our survey didn’t ask people whether they like being different about politics specifically. It asked about personal proclivities. In a confusing race full of Democrats with esoteric-seeming difference in their ideas about the issues, citizens are turning to tried-and-true methods from their personal lives for insight.

In a perfect world, citizens might use weightier criteria to select candidates than they use to choose a beer, a coffee or a sweater.

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Marc J. Hetherington is Raymond Dawson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide” (Houghton-Mifflin, 2018).

Michael Greenberger, Colin Case and Abby Cassario are graduate students in political science at UNC-Chapel Hill

David A.M. Peterson is professor of political science at Iowa State University.

Read more of TMC’s analysis about the 2020 presidential election: