Democratic Voters Still Care A Lot About Electability

Activists and party elders are telling them to throw away the concept. Voters aren’t entirely listening.

The word has come down from pundits, activists, elected officials and even a presidential hopeful: Democrats, don’t worry about electability when choosing a candidate to back in the 2020 presidential primary.

That hasn’t done much to change Democratic voters’ minds, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll. Most Democratic voters still say they’re more concerned about nominating a candidate who can win than one whom they always agree with. But only a much smaller ― though not completely insignificant ― bloc says that electability will be the deciding factor in their vote.

The poll shows that 52% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters think it’s more important that the party nominate the candidate who’s most likely to defeat President Donald Trump, compared to 38% who’d rather see a nominee who most closely shares their opinions on the issues. That’s little changed from March, when 49% said electability was more important and 35% prioritized issues.

Older voters are especially likely to see finding a winning candidate as the bigger priority. Voters 45 and older put electability above issues by a 27-point margin, while those under 45 are close to evenly divided.

Polling from other outlets generally suggests that Democrats’ focus on finding a candidate who can win is greater than it was during previous elections, when voters in both parties were more likely to say they prioritized values.

The past month has seen pushback against this priority, with Democrats warning voters that their conception of electability is flawed and often built on racist and misogynistic assumptions that can unfairly penalize women and minority candidates. The hosts of the uber-popular Pod Save America urged their listeners to ignore the notion, and California Sen. Kamala Harris told a crowd at an NAACP event in Michigan that the idea ignored black voters.

“There has been a conversation by pundits about ‘electability’ and ‘who can speak to the Midwest,’” said Harris, a presidential candidate herself. “But when they say that, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative. And too often their definition of the Midwest leaves people out.”

Why are voters, at least so far, ignoring these pleas? Because Donald Trump, the most polarizing president in recent U.S. history, is in office. During his time in the White House, Trump has earned the sustained and near-unanimous enmity of his opponents. According to Gallup, his approval ratings among Democrats last year stood at an average of just 8%. Given the chance to oust him ― and faced with the specter of another four years if they don’t succeed ― it’s perhaps unsurprising that much of the party sees defeating him, rather than pursuing any specific ideological agenda, as the highest goal.

A narrow definition of “electability” may have played to the advantage of former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s established a sizable edge in early horse-race polling. According to the HuffPost/YouGov poll, 70% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters believe he’s capable of winning the general election, compared to fewer than half who say the same about any of his rivals. Left-leaning groups are focused on damaging that image of Biden as a way to bring his numbers back down to earth.

Although Democrats’ hunger to win is undeniable, however, it’s less clear how much electability is actually influencing voters’ decisions among candidates. In a survey conducted by the GOP firm Echelon Insights, only 7% of Democratic voters said they’d chosen a candidate mainly for the candidate’s ability to beat Trump. Just a tenth of Biden’s supporters said they were motivated mainly by his electability; nearly five times as many cited his experience.

Admittedly, most people have a difficult time distilling their rationale for making such a decision into a simple sentence ― and asking them to do so, some political scientists have argued, leads mostly to after-the-fact rationalization. But voters generally believe they have multiple options for defeating Trump: In the HuffPost/YouGov poll, most Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters say at least three different candidates are capable of winning the general election.

Asked specifically about their own decision-making process, only 14% of those voters currently say they’re planning to cast a ballot for a candidate who isn’t their favorite but has a better shot at winning. That’s comparable to the 12% who said the same earlier this spring. (In January 2016, 8% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters reported backing an electable alternative to their first choice.)

There’s still plenty of room for that number to shift. In the latest poll, although 43% of these voters say they’re planning on backing their favorite candidate, another 34% haven’t made up their minds on the question at all.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted May 9-10 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.

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