But the disarray story line deserves some qualifications. A survey — conducted in November and December by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group — points to a more complex picture. The survey is unique because it includes 4,250 respondents who have been interviewed periodically since late 2011, as well as interviews with new respondents to ensure that the sample as a whole is nationally representative.
Twenty-five percent of likely Democratic primary voters say they plan to support former vice president Joe Biden, followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) at 20 percent and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at 16 percent. November and December polling averages showed similar results, though Sanders has gained some ground and Warren has lost ground.
But you have to look beyond those top-line numbers to see the key takeaway: Despite the lack of consensus on a nominee, there are important signs of unity within the party right now. And history tells us that party unity is likely to grow as November approaches.
1. Most Democrats like most Democrats.
Overall, most Democrats feel favorably about the Democratic front-runners. The left side of the graph below shows the percent of Democratic primary voters who have an opinion about each candidate as well as each candidate’s “net favorability,” which is the percent with a favorable view minus the percent with an unfavorable view.
Biden, Sanders and Warren are all well-known and also popular. For example, 72 percent of likely Democratic primary voters view Biden favorably, while 24 percent have an unfavorable view. Only Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg have more detractors than fans among Democratic primary voters.
The survey also drives home Democrats’ opposition to President Trump. Trump’s net favorability rating among Democratic primary voters is -85 — that is, 92 percent have an unfavorable view of him, and only 7 percent have a favorable view. And 87 percent say that their view is “very” unfavorable.
2. Sanders may be surging, but Warren is still holding him back.
In July 2016, VOTER Survey respondents who voted in a Democratic primary told us whether they had supported Hillary Clinton or Sanders. In this survey, we asked them whom they supported now. Here’s what it looks like.
There are some predictable findings, such as that Clinton’s 2016 supporters favor Biden over other candidates and Sanders’s 2016 supporters don’t. But less predictable is that only 16 percent of Sanders’s 2016 supporters were in his camp as of late 2019. The plurality (42 percent) supported Warren.
To be sure, this is somewhat lower than what at least one other survey shows. The Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of Sanders’s 2016 supporters are still in his camp and that 25 percent support Warren. One reason is that the Pew analysis categorizes people as Sanders supporters if they consistently supported him in three 2015-2016 surveys, whereas we consider people Sanders supporters if they reported voting for him. So it’s likely that the Pew analysis is isolating the most devoted Sanders supporters, as opposed to those who were undecided or supported another candidate earlier in the primary season but ended up voting for him in the end.
The Pew survey was also conducted about a month after ours — and it’s plausible that some of Sanders’s previous supporters have come over to him as he has surged and Warren has slumped.
Nevertheless, both surveys make clear that Warren has complicated Sanders’s ability to reconstitute his coalition, much less expand on it.
3. The leading Democrats are more popular than Trump — but their advantage is shrinking.
As the graph shows, all of the candidates are “underwater” in terms of favorability, but Trump is more so. His net favorability rating among all Americans is -15, worse than Biden’s (-7), Sanders’s (-4) or Warren’s (-3). Unless that changes, Trump is going to have to beat a more popular figure, as he did in 2016. He can take consolation in this, however: When we interviewed these same voters in late 2018, Biden’s and Sanders’s net favorability ratings were higher (+12 and +2, respectively).
4. Trump is a major unifier.
If 24 percent of Democratic primary voters have an unfavorable view of Biden, maybe that’s a problem. Here’s a bigger problem, perhaps: 43 percent of Sanders supporters and 32 percent of Warren supporters have an unfavorable view of Biden. And 23 percent of Biden supporters have an unfavorable view of Sanders.
But history tells us that these divisions can be overcome. In 2016, Sanders supporters came to view Clinton less favorably during the primary, but most of them did rally to Clinton in the general election. In fact, as my co-authors and I showed in our book about the 2016 election, nearly 80 percent of Sanders supporters reported voting for Clinton. This was actually higher than the percent of Clinton supporters in the 2008 primary who voted for Barack Obama. Sure, 80 percent isn’t 100 percent, but “Sanders voters were mostly loyal to Clinton in the end” isn’t exactly the highlight of most news coverage right now.
And 2020 has another force unifying the party: Trump. Yes, Trump was on the ballot in 2016, too — but this November, there will have been nearly four years of his administration’s policies and his conduct as president to animate Democrats.
Unsurprisingly, then, few Democrats say they would consider voting for Trump or are unsure, even if their preferred candidate isn’t the nominee. In Nationscape surveys, only 6 percent of Sanders supporters said they would vote for Trump instead of Biden, and only 8 percent were unsure. Similarly, only 8 percent of Warren supporters did not choose Biden in this matchup.
The same was true for Biden supporters who were asked about a Trump-Sanders matchup: Only 8 percent said they would vote for Trump, and 6 percent were unsure.
5. No Democrat appears to be dominant among crucial voting groups.
Because we’ve interviewed the same respondents for eight years, we can home in on crucial voting groups based on how they voted in 2012 and 2016. This includes the much-discussed Obama-Trump voters. Here’s how those groups feel about the leading Democrats and Trump.
Many of these groups have polarized feelings about Trump and the Democrats. The Democratic-leaning groups don’t differentiate Biden, Sanders and Warren all that much — although clearly Biden is viewed less favorably among “Obama-Other” voters, most of whom voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
Obama-Trump voters stand out as pretty Republican-leaning. Most of them feel favorably toward Trump and unfavorably toward the Democrats. And no Democrat has any real advantage — even though there’s been much speculation that Biden would have more appeal to these voters.
Of course, we’ll have to wait and see how the primary plays out, and where the Democratic Party is at the end. But we shouldn’t forget that many factors are pushing the party toward unity and thus a highly partisan general election in November.
Read more of TMC’s analysis about the 2020 presidential election:
- Who’s the most electable Democrat? If you look at the swing states, it might be Warren or Buttigieg, not Biden.
- The Obama effect has helped Joe Biden with black voters. Will it last?
- The Democratic candidates are unabashedly liberal. Is that what Democratic voters want?
- Joe Biden isn’t the only ‘electable’ candidate. Here’s what Democratic primary voters are thinking — and how to change it.
- Trump thinks racist rhetoric will help him in 2020. The data suggests otherwise.