Democratic Voters Aren’t Confident Their Presidential Candidates Will Get Much Done

Each of the leading presidential candidates is banking on their theory of change.

Democrats are skeptical that their leading 2020 presidential candidates will be able to accomplish much of their stated agendas, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted ahead of the fifth Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night.

Just 41% of Democrats think former Vice President Joe Biden will be able to accomplish all or most of his policy goals, and the numbers are lower for other candidates: Only 33% say the same of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s agenda, while 30% of Democrats are confident in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ability to enact his political revolution and just 28% believe South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg can enact most of his plans. 

The lack of confidence comes as each of the three leading candidates doubles down on their own personal theories of how to enact the Democratic Party’s agenda ― and as each of those theories runs into stark challenges. 

Warren, the senator from Massachusetts who wants to change Washington’s internal rules to make progressive change easier, might not have support among Democrats to get rid of the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold. Biden is continuing to tout his ability to work with Republicans amid widespread skepticism. And Sanders, a Vermont independent who is counting on popular support to pressure a Congress reluctant to embrace his ambitious policies, has seen support for his signature policy fall as the campaign advances.

Meanwhile, Buttigieg ― who trails the other three in national polling but is running strong in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire ― is still articulating how his plans to pass legislation would differ from unsuccessful tactics used by President Barack Obama’s administration.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll found a plurality of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (43%) thought a reform approach, including weakening the power of lobbyists and corporations to influence policy, was the most effective way for Democrats to pass laws if they win the presidency in 2020. That approach, typically associated with Warren, was more popular than Biden’s preferred method of finding common ground with Republicans. Thirty percent of Democrats supported a compromise approach. 

The least popular was Sanders’ preferred method of enlisting ordinary people to pressure elected officials to support progressive goals. Only 12% supported this method.

There are ideological differences: 51% of liberals preferred a reform approach, and just 25% want to find common ground with Republicans. Among moderates and conservatives, 44% prefer looking for common ground with Republicans, while 28% want to weaken lobbyists and corporations. There’s also a significant age gap: Democrats older than 65 have a strong preference for working with Republicans. 

These divides were clear at a Warren rally Sunday in Las Vegas. The candidate ran through her ambitious agenda: a wealth tax on fortunes of more than $50 million, substantial investments in early childhood education, an elimination of student debt, a sweeping anti-corruption law. But audience members varied wildly in how much of her agenda they expected her to accomplish and whether her plan to win political victories was the best.

Dylan Jaramillo, an electrical engineer who said he’s likely to support businessman Andrew Yang in the primary, said he liked Yang’s (and Biden’s) emphasis on working with Republicans to get things done.

“Joe Biden is probably the most realistic one,” he said, predicting Warren would achieve “maybe 30%” of her goals.

Jenna Wurtzberger, an adjunct professor, attended the rally with Byron McDonald, a delivery driver. Both supported Warren’s push to get rid of the filibuster and thought Biden’s hopes to work with Republicans were far-fetched.

“You can’t talk sense with Republicans at this point,” Wurtzberger said.

“I’ve watched enough of the impeachment inquiry,” McDonald said in agreement. “For Biden, that seems a little pie in the sky.”

But McDonald still wasn’t totally sold on voting for Warren. “I support big ideas. But I worry not everyone likes big ideas as much as I do.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden at the fourth Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westervi
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden at the fourth Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, on Oct. 15.

Warren’s pitch on how she would transform her famous plans into reality has shifted slightly. In her stump speech, she no longer mentions her work with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to pass legislation lowering the price of hearing aids. She also now spends more time invoking famous social movements of the past, suggesting a similar movement can push Congress to adopt her ambitious liberal agenda.

And some of the roadblocks for Warren’s theory have reappeared. Three Democratic senators ― West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Montana’s Jon Tester ― recently reiterated their opposition to ending the filibuster, which would force Warren to somehow court GOP support for her plans.  

(In the HuffPost/YouGov poll, voters were ambivalent about the filibuster: 29% said it was a good rule, 25% said it was a bad rule and 46% were unsure. Among Democrats, however, 27% said it was a good rule and 33% said it was bad.)

Sanders and Biden, meanwhile, have stuck to their guns. Biden, who was widely mocked for predicting Republicans would have an “epiphany” after Trump’s presidency, repeated the line at a fundraiser at K Street law firm in Washington, D.C. Sanders remains committed to a broad political revolution.

The new entrant into the top-tier of the race, Buttigieg, has expressed elements of each theory of change put forward by the other leading candidates. Like Warren, he supports eliminating the filibuster. Like Biden, he emphasizes reuniting the country and working with Republicans. And like Sanders, he talks about applying public pressure on reluctant politicians. 

“There’s a big airplane that comes with the Oval Office, right?,” Buttigieg said at a town hall in Iowa earlier this month. “I believe the best use of that airplane’s to fire it up, fly it into the district or the state of a senator or a member of Congress getting in the way of one of these measures.”

But when asked how his approach would differ from that of Obama, who saw his agenda curtailed significantly by both Republicans and intra-party opposition, Buttigieg struggled to answer.

“He operated under the constraints of being the last Democrat of the Reagan era. And he also faced constraints of a Congress that was not acting in good faith,” Buttigieg said during his bus tour in Iowa. “And the part about Congress acting in bad faith has only gotten worse among Republicans.”

“I think the dynamics of the country have become more favorable,” he added. “I mean, just 12 years ― I don’t know what percent of the country is different over a 12-year period. But just 12 years’ worth of people who have arrived and left. That means that this country has shifted ― plus 12 years of experience as a country on what works and what doesn’t work.”

Ultimately, Buttigieg concluded, he would have a mandate if he won the election.

“You look at how the New Deal came about, it’s not that FDR promised something even bigger than the New Deal and then he got there and that was the compromise,” he said. “It was a much more kind of dynamic set of things that happened. On health care, in modern times, you could look at the example of the [Affordable Care Act]. You could also look at the example of the Clinton health care reform agenda in the ’90s. And the biggest lesson I draw is that if we’re really explicit about what we want to do now, then you arrive in office with a mandate to do it.”

Daniel Marans and Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Nov. 15-17 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.