Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Democratic voters’ preferences aren’t following the moderate/liberal policy script

The New York Times’ Nate Cohn argues that comparing issue positions “is not the way that many voters make up their minds.”

People who read stories like this (and the guy who writes them) may make the mistake of thinking that the electorate is made up mostly of people who follow politics and issues closely.

To us (and I definitely include myself), it makes senses that Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, for example, are competing for voters on the left wing of the Democratic Party electorate, while former Vice President and current polling frontrunner Joe Biden has to worry mostly about fending off challenges from moderately liberal figures like Sen. Kamala Harris, who (according to the drama critics who review the debates) scored big points against Biden in the first round of the debates, but is now being criticized from the left for a health care plan that doesn’t go as far toward “Medicare for All” as Sanders and Warren do.

If you thought that (as I did), check out yesterday’s analysis of polling on first and second choices of likely Democratic voters by political numbers analyst Nate Cohn of the New York Times.

After analyzing polls in which Democratic voters indicated both their first and second choices, Cohn reports that Warren’s strongest group among the Democratic primary electorate was highly educated, generally affluent, mostly white voters who self-identify as “very liberal,” and that the second choice of voters those categories is not Sanders but Harris.

Article continues after advertisement

Bernie Sanders, surprisingly, doesn’t do particularly well among likely Democratic primary voters who describe themselves as “very liberal,” especially if they are affluent. He appeals at least as much to those who describe themselves as “moderates,” and is the leading second preference of Democrats whose first choice is the current front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden.

And if, for example, you expect black Democrats, who are disproportionately poor, to be more liberal, you’d be wrong again, at least if you judged their place on the spectrum by their current polling preferences in the Democratic field. Biden, the “moderate,” has, according to Cohn’s analysis, “a far larger lead among black voters in most national surveys than he has among moderates.”

If that surprises you (and it surprised me), get over it. If you’re reading this, you probably pay a lot of attention to politics and to issue positions. But, Cohn argues, comparing issue positions “is not the way that many voters make up their minds.”

I won’t steal any more of Cohn’s main numbers or points, which of course, he is also borrowing from others, namely from polling by Morning Consult and Reuters/Ipsos about the first and second choices of various likely Democratic voters, broken down by age, age and gender.

Cohn eventually discusses why various groups may not vote the way our stereotypes might suggest they would. There’s the “electability” perception, of course, and perhaps especially in the age of Trump.

And, I would add, what the polls tell us today is not what they will tell us next month, let alone what they will tell us after the primaries get under way. Buckle up. Tune in. Pay less attention to short-term movement in polls. And don’t overrate your ability to know, or any pollster to tell you, what’s going to happen next.