Democratic voters have a clear ideological choice in this year’s presidential primaries.
But if there is any lesson from the recent New York Times/Siena College surveys of the six closest states carried by the president, it’s that the Democrats have been presented with a series of choices about how to win back the White House that are not really even distinct choices at all.
It is often posited, for instance, that Democrats face a choice between a moderate who might win back a crucial sliver of white working-class voters who flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, or a progressive who might mobilize a new coalition of young progressives, perhaps especially in the rapidly diversifying Sun Belt states.
But for the most part, these choices are not grounded in the attitudes of the electorate in the most competitive states.
Instead, the polls’ results on persuadable and low-turnout voters suggest that the Democratic focus on Obama-to-Trump voters, or on low-turnout progressives, is largely misplaced.
The party’s leading candidates have not yet reached the real missing piece of the Democratic coalition: less educated and often younger voters who are not conservative but who disagree with the party’s cultural left and do not share that group’s unrelenting outrage at the president’s conduct.
This basic conclusion follows from what registered voters told us in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida.
Here’s what stood out to me.
Joe Biden has no special strength with white voters without a college degree.
It would have been reasonable to expect, as I did, that “middle-class Joe” from Scranton, Pa., would show strength by winning back the white working-class voters who defected from the Democrats in 2016. If he could do so, he would rebuild the so-called blue wall of traditionally competitive states across the Midwest. Add to this the college-educated white voters whom Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and Mr. Biden would have a commanding lead.
But there is no sign that Mr. Biden has any special appeal to white voters without a degree in these states. Instead, he runs a bit ahead of Mrs. Clinton across the board, among college-educated and working-class white voters alike. (He led by an average of two points over Mr. Trump among registered voters across the six states.).
It seems that all but a sliver of the white voters without a degree who backed Mr. Trump in 2016 will stick by him in 2020.
Elizabeth Warren’s problem isn’t the white working class.
One might have also assumed that Elizabeth Warren’s real weakness would be among white, working-class voters. It was Mrs. Clinton’s great weakness and Mr. Biden’s supposed strength. Some parts of Ms. Warren’s background — a liberal college professor from Massachusetts — would not seem to make her a natural fit.
Ms. Warren isn’t particularly strong among white voters without a college degree. But this is not the biggest source of her gap with Mr. Biden in our general election polling: For starters, she underperforms Mr. Biden among well-educated white voters by even more than she does among white working-class voters.
Her challenge is particularly great in the best-educated areas. In census tracts where at least 45 percent have a college degree, she leads Mr. Trump by 15 points, compared with Mr. Biden’s 23-point lead.
The Biden-but-not-Warren voters in these areas say she’s too far to the left, 79 percent to 9 percent. They oppose moving to a single-payer health system, support the president’s tax reform and are relatively likely to say they’re conservative or Republican.
This is perhaps the central tension of Ms. Warren’s bid heading into the general election. Her plans and liberal views have made her the favorite of well-educated white Democratic primary voters. Yet she has adopted a set of populist economic policies that appear to go too far for the demographically similar but persuadable voters who would otherwise seem like the most natural fit for a candidate of her style.
At the same time, she seems to have little special resonance with less educated voters, even though her policies would seem to be targeted at building their support. For now, technocratic populism could be a lose-lose.
The challenge extends to nonwhite voters; she underperforms Mr. Biden by even more among this group. Here, she does have a name recognition problem: 32 percent of the 87 nonwhite Biden-but-not-Warren voters in our polls don’t have an opinion of her, and they agree only narrowly, by a margin of 38 percent to 30 percent, that she’s too far to the left. But those who do have an opinion generally don’t think highly of Ms. Warren, with 24 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable.
These nonwhite Biden-but-not-Warren voters split, 44-46, on whether they agree with the statement that the women who run for president just aren’t that likable. Unlike other nonwhite voters in the surveys, they split on whether they support reducing legal immigration. Ms. Warren will most likely win some of these voters, but they will offer resistance to a progressive nominee.
There is not much difference between a strategy based on turnout and persuasion.
It’s commonly assumed that there’s a simple choice between persuasion and turnout in elections: A candidate can either aim to flip moderate voters or to rally a party’s enthusiastic base.
In a high-turnout presidential election, this choice doesn’t really exist. Virtually all of the ideologically consistent voters will be drawn to the polls, at least in these crucial states where the stakes are so high.
As a result, the voters on the sidelines are often also persuadable. With the exception of one key chunk of persuadable voters — affluent voters repelled by the left on economics — the persuadable voters wind up looking fairly similar to the low-turnout voters.
They aren’t particularly ideological. They’re a bit conservative on cultural issues, at least compared with the Democratic base. They’re less likely to be college graduates, but they don’t love the president. They’re likelier to be young and nonwhite, demographics that would ordinarily be a big Democratic advantage. But because they don’t tend to be partisan, it diminishes that advantage.
The lower level of education, in particular, presents a unifying challenge for the left: It makes it harder for them to win over or mobilize irregular voters. Today’s activist left draws its intellectual energy from critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and structures of domination. These have their origins in academia, and while they have spread widely in recent years, their advocates rely on academic language like intersectionality and white privilege. Many younger, well-educated liberals are immersed in these arguments, and they believe they have almost a moral obligation to challenge structures of power.
Older or less educated voters, on the other hand, might have no idea what they’re talking about. Some could be baffled by the argument that there could be a Black History Month but not a White History Month. Others simply might not share the same deep, systematic critique of American society. It is no surprise that voters like these would say that political correctness has gone too far, as our polling showed.
The president can keep pace in a higher-turnout election.
There’s often a notion that Mr. Trump can’t find additional voters to expand his support beyond the 63 million he won in 2016.
But the Times/Siena polls find that there are plenty of people who haven’t voted recently who support the president. And those people seem fairly likely to vote.
Registered nonvoters lean Democratic, but only by a bit.
Among registered voters who haven’t voted in either of the last two elections in the battleground states, 45 percent of those who would back Mr. Trump against an unnamed Democrat say they’re almost certain to vote, and an additional 39 percent say they’re very likely to vote. For those who would back the Democrat, a slightly higher 51 percent say they are almost certain to vote, and only 22 percent say they are very likely to vote.
Over all, a lower share of Democrats say they’re certain or very likely to vote, in no small part because registered Hispanic voters who haven’t voted recently don’t seem to be itching to surge to the polls. Just 29 percent of nonvoting Hispanics say they’re almost certain to vote, and only 24 percent say they’re very likely.
A strong Democratic turnout, in other words, wouldn’t assure the party of victory. It may prove to be merely a necessary component of keeping pace in a high-turnout election.
The Sun Belt opportunity is real, but it is hard to see it as a safe choice.
Democratic strength in Arizona was perhaps the most surprising topline result in the six states polled. Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren fared better there against Mr. Trump than in any other state — Mr. Biden by five points, Ms. Warren by two. This would seem to lend credibility to the view that the Democrats might soon be able to abandon the Rust Belt in favor of a new coalition in the rapidly diversifying Sun Belt states.
Progressives have long dreamed of a majority anchored in those states, since they would be freed from appealing to white working-class conservatives and could focus on turning out young and nonwhite voters, who may be more progressive.
But this does not seem to be a real choice for 2020, either.
For one, it is not obvious that progressives will find the Sun Belt to be more favorable to their causes, even if the voters there are more ethnically diverse. These Sun Belt states have shifted mainly because white college-educated conservatives have defected from the president. Arizona’s views remain conservative: It is the only state in the poll that opposes an assault weapons ban, and it opposes single-payer health care by a wider margin than any other state.
Even if the Democrats did crack Arizona in 2020, it would be hard to win without the Rust Belt. A Sun Belt path would also involve wins in Florida or Texas, or perhaps both North Carolina and Georgia.
None of these options look particularly easy for progressives. Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren underperformed Mr. Biden in Florida, a result of their weakness among the state’s older and more conservative white voters. Of all the states, liberals represented the smallest share of the electorate in Florida.
Indirectly, the Arizona poll does support the view that Texas is a real opportunity for Democrats, but not yet a top-tier one. Mr. Biden ran nine points ahead of Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 performance among registered voters in Arizona, a shift that would translate to a tie in Texas, where Mr. Trump won by nine points (if Mr. Biden outran Mrs. Clinton by the same amount). But Democrats would probably still trail among likely voters in Texas because of the relatively low turnout among Hispanic voters.
More generally, relatively low turnout among nonwhite voters will be a serious challenge for Democrats across the Sun Belt, if historical patterns hold. Hispanic voters have never matched the turnout of non-Hispanic voters, and they continue to indicate a relatively low intention to vote in 2020.
At the same time, the polls offer little evidence that African-American voters are all that much likelier to turn out in 2020, a pattern that’s evident in most midterm and special election results. So long as that’s true, the party will struggle to break through in North Carolina or Georgia, where black voters represent a large share of the electorate.
All considered, Democrats appear to be caught between their past and their imagined future: They have made substantial gains in the Sun Belt, but not enough for it to represent the path of least resistance. The Rust Belt remains the clearer path, if the party had to make a true choice, but it is not so secure that the party would be wise to abandon efforts to find an alternative further south.
For now, the Midwest is not as strong for Democrats relative to the country or in absolute terms as it was during the Obama elections.
The post Five Polling Results That May Change the Way You Think About Electability appeared first on New York Times.