Not All Democratic Voters Are Looking For The Next Barack Obama

Here's what the former president's legacy might mean for 2020.

Joe Biden’s pitch for his third attempt to win his party’s presidential nomination has revolved largely around two words: Barack Obama.

The former vice president and early front-runner is casting himself not only as the most electable candidate, but also the one most able to carry on the legacy of the last president. If people long for a time before Donald Trump, Biden is their guy.

That strategy rests on a few assumptions: that Biden, not one of his fresher-faced rivals, is seen as Obama’s political heir; and that Democratic voters actually want to see the party reprise the Obama era, rather than taking, for example, a more progressive course. While there’s support for both assumptions, polling finds, neither is entirely clear-cut. And there’s also the question of how much Obama will even be on voters’ minds when they make their decisions in the primaries next year.

Biden As Obama’s Successor

At this time, Biden is seen as Obama’s successor more than any other candidate, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll. But that view isn’t overwhelming, and there’s room for other candidates to claim that mantle for themselves.

Just under half of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters surveyed, (for simplicity’s sake, we’ll call them just “Democratic voters” from here out) list Biden as among the primary candidates who bear the most similarities to Obama.

“Obama was young, something of an outsider and non-white, but Biden is none of those things,” FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. wrote earlier this year. “It will be easy for other candidates to suggest that they, not Biden, are the ‘Obama candidate’ for 2020.”

But that number still puts him significantly ahead of any of his rivals for the time being. Between 24% and 27% say they see California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg as most like Obama. Fewer than 1 in 5 say the same of any of the other candidates, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

White Democratic voters are about four times likelier than nonwhites in the party to see Buttigieg as among the candidates most resembling Obama. Voters under age 35, meanwhile, are modestly less likely than older voters to give that imprimatur to Biden. Those patterns generally line up with the racial and age differences in support for the candidates.

Biden told reporters that he had asked his former boss not to make an endorsement in the race. But he’s also made his time in that administration a keystone of his nascent campaign, praising Obama’s leadership and labeling himself an “Obama-Biden Democrat.”

“President Obama has long said that selecting Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was one of the best decisions he ever made,” Obama spokeswoman Katie Hill said after Biden announced his candidacy. “He relied on the vice president’s knowledge, insight and judgment throughout both campaigns and the entire presidency. The two forged a special bond over the last 10 years and remain close today.”

That bond may be especially key for black voters ― a group whose positive views of Obama stand out even among other Democrats, and who now rank among Biden’s strongest supporters, according to early polls.

“He was with President Obama and you know what that means, he has a head start in my book,” Barbara Cain Seabrook, a 58-year-old churchgoer in South Carolina, told The New York Times.

Obama 2.0?

Not all Democratic voters are focused on electing another Obama, even though his post-presidency ratings have been generally good, and he remains almost universally popular within his own party. In the HuffPost/YouGov poll, 87% of Democratic voters approve of Obama’s record in office.

But a slimmer 54% majority of those voters say they want to see the next president continue Obama’s policies. Although only 3% want to see a continuation of Trump’s policies, a substantial 35% minority want to see the next president take the country in a different direction from either Obama or Trump.

Just under half of Democratic voters, 48%, say they want their next nominee to be about as liberal as Obama, with 31% hoping for someone more liberal. Fewer than a tenth are hoping to see the party move in a more conservative direction.

“The party has changed somewhat,” Paul Harstad, a pollster who worked for the Obama campaign, told The Associated Press. “I think the party is looking for someone more aggressive than Obama in tactics and approach.”

Support for a more liberal nominee is strongest among the party’s younger and more highly educated contingent. Forty-five percent of Democratic voters aged 35 or below want to see a more liberal nominee than Obama, while just a quarter of older Democrats say the same. College graduates are 12 points likelier than those without a degree to want a more liberal nominee.

Voters’ actual decisions about their presidential nominees, of course, rarely follow such neat ideological lines. (As just one example, a recent poll found that half of the voters considering Biden were also considering a vote for Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist).

But younger voters ― the group with whom Biden is struggling most ― are also generally less likely to look back on Obama’s White House with pronounced enthusiasm. Democratic voters aged 35 and under, the poll finds, are 17 points less likely than their older compatriots to approve strongly of Obama’s presidency as a whole, and between 13 and 17 points less likely to strongly approve of his work on the economy, foreign policy, the environment and health care. They’re 20 points less likely to think he accomplished a lot of positive change during his time in the White House.

Even voters who like Obama may not necessarily consider continuing his work to be a key selling point. In a Monmouth University survey of New Hampshire released this week, just 34% of Democratic primary voters said it was very important to them that their nominee build on Obama’s legacy.

“While Democrats may have positive feelings about Obama, the current White House occupant is a much more significant factor in the 2020 primary,” concluded Patrick Murray, the director of the poll. “In fact, it really isn’t an either-or calculation. Voters who value Obama’s legacy say the best way to preserve it is to beat Trump in 2020.”

Whichever Democrat faces Trump next year will eventually also have to contend with Obama’s legacy among the electorate as a whole. That proved to be a mixed blessing for Hillary Clinton in the previous election: In July 2016, despite Obama’s rising popularity and increasingly strong numbers for handling the economy, voters saw his presidential record as helping Donald Trump and hurting Clinton. At the time of Trump’s inauguration, just 31% of Americans said they wanted to see the new president continue Obama’s policies, while half said they hoped he’d go in a new direction.

Much of the public is still ready for something new. Just a quarter of Americans in the latest HuffPost/YouGov poll say they want to see the next president continue Obama’s policies, while only about a third want to see the next president follow in Trump’s footsteps. The rest want to see the next president move in a different direction from either of those predecessors, or say that they aren’t sure.

Use the widget below to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups:

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted April 24-25 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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