Democrats Want An Electable Nominee In 2020. They Just Don’t Know What That Means.

Beating President Trump is more important to Democratic primary voters than their policy fights.
Democratic voters are debating which of their potential primary candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, is in the best position to defeat Donald Trump.
Democratic voters are debating which of their potential primary candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, is in the best position to defeat Donald Trump.

Democratic voters’ singular goal in picking a presidential nominee in 2020 is the defeat of President Donald Trump, overriding ideological concerns and policy disagreements, according to a new poll released Monday.

The survey, conducted by New Jersey’s Monmouth University, asked Democratic voters and Democratic-leaning independent voters nationwide if they preferred a candidate with whom they agreed on most issues but who would have a hard time beating Trump or a candidate with whom they did not agree on most issues but who would be stronger against Trump. Fifty-six percent wanted the stronger candidate against Trump, even if they disagreed on most issues. Just 33 percent wanted a candidate whom they agreed with, even if that individual would struggle to defeat the president.

The finding is a shift from the electoral priorities expressed by both Democratic and Republican voters in 2016. But it matches what Democratic operatives across the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have been telling reporters for months.

“In prior elections, voters from both parties consistently prioritized shared values over electability when selecting a nominee,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement. “It looks like Democrats may be willing to flip that equation in 2020 because of their desire to defeat Trump. This is something to pay close attention to when primary voters really start tuning in to the campaign.”

There’s just one problem: No consensus has developed among Democratic voters or party operatives over what type of candidate is best equipped to defeat Trump.

Should it be a candidate who can win back the white working-class voters who defected to Trump in 2016? Then Democrats might want former Vice President Joe Biden, who is basing his potential candidacy around his appeal to that demographic. A candidate of color, like Texas’ Julián Castro or California Sen. Kamala Harris, might be best equipped to win Republican-controlled Sun Belt states like Georgia, Florida and Arizona. Supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have long argued that he would have won in 2016, and excitement around his policy platform could fire up working-class voters of all races.

A report last month from Working America, an organizing group backed by the AFL-CIO, found “widespread anxiety and uncertainty about Democrats’ prospects of defeating the president in 2020, and a lack of consensus on which candidate could best compete against Trump” among working-class Democratic voters in Iowa.

“The talk about electability was pervasive,” Matt Morrison, Working America’s executive director, told reporters on a conference call. “There was no clear consensus on what direction Democrats wanted to move in the presidential contest.”

Contrast this focus on finding the most electable candidate with how people approached the 2016 election: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from shortly before the Iowa caucuses found just 16 percent of Democratic Party voters said choosing a candidate who could beat the GOP nominee was their top concern.

Electability is already shaping early messaging on the 2020 primaries. For instance, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who both represent big cities on the East Coast, are playing up their rural roots, hoping to show Iowans they can win outside the most progressive parts of the country.

The consensus within both parties on who is electable and who isn’t was torn apart by the results of the last presidential election, when Trump squeaked by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton even as much of the GOP establishment predicted political doom. But while GOP primary voters seemingly responded to their party’s presidential losses in 2008 and 2012 by throwing electability concerns out the window in 2016, Democratic primary voters in the 2018 midterms largely selected the same candidates that party bosses in Washington believed were most likely to win.

The Monmouth poll also found that 61 percent of Democratic women were willing to set aside their policy preferences to get a candidate capable of defeating the president, compared to just 45 percent of Democratic men.

Monmouth conducted the survey of 735 registered voters in the United States, including 313 registered Democrats and independent voters who lean Democratic, from Jan. 25 to Jan. 27. The margin of error for the results among Democrats is plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.

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