The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jerk, liars and the inexperienced: How voters describe the 2020 candidates

A supporter listens as former vice president Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Conway, S.C., on Thursday. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Candidates for president spend tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars trying to get voters to look at them in a particular way. They develop slogans and conduct polls to identify the most effective ones. They put ads on television and swarm onto social media, hoping to associate their names with the best possible phrasing and concepts.

And often, it doesn’t work.

Working with pollsters at research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, the Associated Press asked voters what word first came to mind when thinking of candidates for the presidency in 2020. When you hear “Donald Trump,” for example, what word springs to mind? “Tom Steyer”?

Before we reveal what the poll showed, see if you can correctly predict the responses people gave.

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All of this is randomized, so you may have gotten some fairly easy options. Asked who among former vice president Joe Biden, businessman Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was described as a “woman,” well, that’s sort of a gimme.

That, incidentally, is actually what some respondents said when asked what came to mind about Warren: “woman.” Eight percent of independents offered that insight — the second-most common response.

The most common response was “liar.”

That was also the most common response among Republicans, an assessment that presumably derives from her having at times in the past identified as being of Native American heritage. (She apologized for doing so early in the campaign.) The second-most common response for Warren among Republicans was “crazy,” but only 6 percent of GOP respondents said that. Nearly a quarter said “liar.”

Among Democrats, the most common descriptors of Warren were “smart,” “strong” and “voting for,” each of which were offered by less than 10 percent of respondents. It’s not surprising that members of her party would have more positive views, of course, and that pattern held for other candidates, too.

Except, interestingly, for President Trump. The three words Democrats used to describe Trump were “jerk,” “bumbling” and “liar.” Among Republicans? “President” — followed by “bumbling” and “jerk.”

Everyone agreed on Biden, too. The most common descriptor for Democrats, independents and Republicans was “old.” For former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, also agreement: “rich.” The association everyone had with former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg was that he is “gay,” although it was the third-most common response among Democrats and the most common for Republicans and independents.

The description of Warren as a liar and those of Biden as “corrupt” or Sanders as “socialist” and “communist” are a good reminder that it’s not only the candidates who hope to define what they’re about. There’s an entire ecosystem of conservative activists and media outlets — and, of course, the president — working to associate negative terms with the Democratic candidates. In several cases, it has clearly worked.

No one comes out more clean in this poll than Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). The worst thing that made her top three was “bumbling,” among independents. Even Republicans said she was “okay” — a word that also made the top three among Democrats.

Of all of the candidates, perhaps none has had less energy and money spent on trying to define her, either positively or negatively. When both sides agree that you’re “okay” in 2020, the odds are good that it’s due to a lack of familiarity more than a robust familiarity.