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Democrats Thinking Strategically About 2020 Nominee Choice

Democrats Thinking Strategically About 2020 Nominee Choice

Story Highlights

  • Democrats prioritize electability over issue stances
  • Half of Democrats, including 32% of liberals, want a political moderate

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As candidates continue to join the field for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Democrats nationwide are steadfast in prioritizing electability next fall as a key trait they are looking for in a nominee. The largest segment are also hopeful the nominee will be politically moderate rather than liberal or conservative.

Winning Trumps Political Purity

Six in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would prefer to see the party nominate the candidate with the best chance of beating President Donald Trump, even if that person does not share their views on key issues. By contrast, 36% say they would rather have the reverse: a candidate aligned with them on almost all the issues they care about, even if that person is not the most electable.

The results, from a Nov. 1-11 poll, are similar to what Gallup found this spring, when 58% prioritized a candidate who could beat Trump and 39% opted for agreement on issues.

Democrats' Preferred Type of Nominee for 2020
Which type of candidate would you prefer to see the Democrats nominate for president in 2020 -- [a candidate who agrees with you on almost all of the issues you care about but does not have the best chance of beating Donald Trump, (or) a candidate who has the best chance of beating Donald Trump, but who does not agree with you on almost all of the issues you care about]?
Agrees on issues Best chance of beating Trump No opinion
% % %
2019 Nov 1-14 36 60 4
2019 May 15-Jun 16 39 58 3
Based on Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents

There are too few conservative Democrats in this survey to analyze, but liberal and moderate Democrats' views on this question are similar: 67% of liberals and 57% of moderates say they prefer a candidate who can beat Trump, even if that person differs from them on almost all issues.

Democrats and Republicans were not quite this practical in their preferences for a candidate in recent elections.

  • In December 2003, as Democratic candidates were assembling for the chance to deny George W. Bush a second term, 50% of Democrats and Democratic leaners said they would rather have a nominee who agrees with them on the issues; 44% were focused on someone who could defeat Bush. A month later, Democrats' priorities had switched, but even then, a smaller majority than in 2019 -- 55% -- opted for electability.

  • In September 2011, Gallup found 53% of Republicans and Republican leaners wanting the GOP to nominate the person best able to beat Barack Obama in the 2012 election, while 43% wanted someone who shared their positions on issues.

Biden Seen as Most Electable

As of now, 51% of Democrats believe former Vice President Joe Biden has the best chance of beating Trump. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are a distant second at 16% and 15%, respectively.

Although these three candidates were the only ones offered explicitly in the question of who has the best chance of beating Trump, respondents were free to volunteer someone else's name. Three percent mentioned Pete Buttigieg and 2% Andrew Yang. Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bloomberg were each mentioned by 1%, and all other candidates, combined, totaled an additional 1%.

Democrats' View of Who Is Most Electable in 2020
Who do you think has the best chance of beating Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election -- [Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren] -- or another Democratic candidate who is running for president?
2019 Nov 1-14
Joe Biden 51
Bernie Sanders 16
Elizabeth Warren 15
Pete Buttigieg 3
Andrew Yang 2
Amy Klobuchar 1
Michael Bloomberg 1
Other 1
All equally *
None 2
No opinion 8
Based on Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents; * less than 0.5%

Half of Democrats Favor a Politically Moderate Nominee

Democrats also appear to be thinking strategically about the ideology of the candidate their party nominates, opting for someone a bit to the right of their own political views.

Half of Democrats and Democratic leaners say they would prefer the party nominate a politically moderate candidate, more than the 44% who describe their own views this way. One-third would like the nominee to be liberal, less than the 41% who self-identify as liberal. Seventeen percent think the candidate should be conservative, versus 13% who are conservative themselves.

Democrats' Preferences for Ideology of 2020 Democratic Nominee Versus Their Own Ideology
If you had to choose, would you rather see the Democrats nominate someone for president in 2020 who is -- [very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal (or) very liberal]?
Total liberal Moderate Total conservative
% % %
Preference for nominee 33 50 17
Own political views 41 44 13
Based on Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents
Gallup, Nov. 1-14, 2019

The gaps between Democrats' own views and the views they think the nominee should have are largely explained by liberals. Whereas 80% of moderate Democrats think the party should nominate a moderate candidate, just 59% of liberal Democrats want a liberal nominee. Nearly a third of liberal Democrats (32%) say the party should nominate a moderate, with another 8% saying the candidate should be conservative.

Preferring a Moderate Nominee Not Unusual for Democrats

Gallup asked the same question at comparable points ahead of the 2008 and 2016 Democratic primary seasons, and both times found pluralities favoring a moderate.

  • In December 2007, just before the 2008 primary season when Barack Obama would narrowly prevail over Hillary Clinton, 48% of Democrats hoped for a political moderate, 30% a liberal and 19% a conservative -- similar to today's results.

  • In December 2015, as Bernie Sanders was emerging as a viable alternative to front-runner Clinton, Democrats were a bit more fragmented in their political preferences, with 40% hoping for a moderate, 36% a liberal and 21% a conservative.

Line graph, 2007 to 2019. Democrats’ preference for the ideology of the Democratic presidential nominee in three elections.

Bottom Line

Democrats remain as committed today as they were six months ago to prioritizing electability over agreement on issues when choosing a nominee to face Trump next fall. However, today's 60% opting for electability is the clearest signal yet that Democrats in 2019 are more willing than partisans in prior years to put their political preferences aside to nominate the most viable candidate.

Democratic candidates positioning themselves as moderates may also have a distinct advantage over self-proclaimed liberals or progressives, as two-thirds of Democrats express a preference for a centrist or conservative candidate rather than a liberal one. This is the case even as almost two-thirds of Democrats have a positive view of socialism, and an expanded majority want government more active in solving the country's problems.

With nearly 20 announced candidates spanning the moderate and liberal wings of the party, it is difficult to quantify the advantage of being moderate because the vote is splintered. However, it could become more important as the field is winnowed through the primary process next year, particularly if the moderate wing unites behind a single candidate.

Learn more about public opinion metrics that matter for the 2020 presidential election at Gallup's 2020 Presidential Election Center.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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