WASHINGTON – As the 2020 presidential field takes shape, Democratic voters by double digits say they are more interested in nominating a candidate who can defeat President Trump than one they agree with most on the issues, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds.
By 55-35 percent, the Democrats surveyed endorse electability over ideological purity even though they also embrace progressive priorities such as the Green New Deal. They are even inclined to be open to a nominee who espouses socialism.
The debate over balancing policy positions with electoral appeal is always part of the calculation in campaigns. Almost a year before the Iowa caucuses open the nominating contests, it has taken on particular intensity as a sprawling field jockeys to challenge a Republican president who inflames the opposition.
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“We’d much rather have anybody than Trump,” said Annette Lantos Tillemann-Dick, 66, an innkeeper in Denver. (Tillemann-Dick, who was called randomly in the poll, happens to be the daughter of the late California Democratic congressman Tom Lantos.) She says the country needs a leader “who will right the ship, because I think we have been in very choppy, choppy waters with a very bad captain for the last few years now.”
Aaron Dillon, 54, an engineer from Bolingbrook, a village in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, is looking for a candidate who can “punch back” against the president. “We as Democrats need to get a little tougher,” he said in a follow-up interview. “We don’t need to get nasty and dirty, but we need to say we’re not going to take that.”
Among Democratic and independent voters combined, sentiment was more closely divided: 48 percent say they want the Democratic Party to nominate “a candidate who can win, even if different from my priorities,” while 38 percent prefer “a candidate in line with my priorities, even if it is harder to win.”
There is cautionary news for Democrats in the poll. In a hypothetical match-up, Trump edges out an unnamed Democratic nominee, 39 percent to 36 percent, with 11 percent supporting an unnamed third party candidate. Fifteen percent are undecided.
Both Trump and the Democratic candidate hold the support of 80 percent of those in his or her own party. But nearly one in four independent voters choose the third-party option – a red flag for Democrats who hope to oust Trump. The independent campaign being considered by former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has stoked concern among some Democrats that he could boost Trump’s re-election prospects by siphoning off votes from the Democratic nominee.
“In this week’s poll, Trump, [House] Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party all had higher negatives than positives,” says David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk Political Research Center. “The third-party nominee is an outlet for disdain.”
Paleologos: Will third-party voters decide the 2020 presidential election?
Red flags for both parties
Among independent voters who consider themselves liberal, one in three now support the third-party candidate, a finding that is likely to alarm Democrats. “Pass the Tums,” Paleologos advises, although he notes that third-party candidates traditionally see their support decline as Election Day approaches.
That said, there are red flags in the survey for Republicans as well. Trump’s re-election is backed by just 38 percent of those surveyed. No candidate has managed to win the White House with support that low since 1824. In 2016, Trump carried 46 percent, trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the popular vote but prevailing in the Electoral College.
In the new survey, 48 percent say they approve of the job Trump is doing as president and 49 percent disapprove, an improvement over his 43-54 percent rating in December.
“He’s not going to get beat” for a second term, said Clayton Moore Gillikin, 61, a Republican retiree from Hookerton, North Carolina. “He’s trying to do so much for the little people.”
The poll of 1,000 registered voters, including 367 Democrats and 340 Republicans, was taken by landline and cellphone March 13-17. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample, 5.1 points for the Democratic sample and 5.3 points for the Republican one.
Tax the rich?
What policies do Democratic voters endorse?
Think progressive: They overwhelmingly prefer a presidential candidate who supports higher taxes on the very wealthy (87 percent), Medicare-for-All (81 percent) and free higher education (74 percent).
Not every major Democratic contender is on board with trying to implement those proposals, at least in the near future. Centrists such as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar have raised questions about the wisdom of moving now to replace the Affordable Care Act, for instance.
By solid margins, Democrats also back proposals that are even more far-reaching. By 49-28 percent, they prefer a candidate who wants to break up the big tech companies, an idea promoted by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. By 53-16 percent percent, they support the Green New Deal, an emerging proposal that aims to address climate change and economic inequality.
And by a narrow 43-40 percent, Democrats say they would be satisfied with a presidential candidate who thinks the United States should be more socialist.
Attitudes on that vary sharply by age: 32 percent of all voters 18 to 34 years old would be satisfied with that candidate, double the 16 percent of those 65 and older. Close to three-fourths of independents say they wouldn’t be satisfied with a Democratic candidate who espoused socialism. More than nine of 10 Republicans reject the idea, too.
Phillip Harrington, 71, an independent from Douglasville, Georgia, who backs Trump, warns that supporting socialism and other liberal causes will hurt Democrats at the ballot box. “I think they’ve gone far, way too far on the other end,” he said in an interview after participating in the poll.
But Joseph Garcia, 19, a store manager and a Democrat from Walla Walla, Washington, disagrees, especially when it comes to younger voters like himself. “A lot of them feel that progressive is good,” said Garcia, who will be eligible to vote for president for the first time next year. He likes Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his proposal to make tuition free for all in-state students at community colleges.
Meanwhile, there is considerable support for the idea of nominating a ticket that reflects the nation’s diversity. Overall, 38 percent said they wouldn’t be satisfied if their party nominated two white men for president and vice president. That’s a stitch higher than the 36 percent who said they would be satisfied.
Even among Republicans, nearly a third, 31 percent, said they wouldn’t be satisfied if the GOP nominated two white men in 2020. Republican men were more likely than Republican women to view an all-white, all-male ticket as satisfactory.
In the Democratic party, where women as candidates and voters were crucial in midterm-election victories last November, voters by 44-34 percent said they wouldn’t be satisfied with a ticket of two white men. Among Democrats, there wasn’t a significant difference between the views of men and women on the question.
“I think it should be like a big rainbow,” says Pamela McClee, 54, a retired night-club owner from North Versailles, Pennsylvania. McClee, a Democrat, would particularly like to see an African American woman on the ticket. “How many times do we have to do this without a sister?” she asks.
Gloria Davy, 65, a Democratic retiree from Tucson, says diversity isn’t the top priority for her. “I just want the best for this country,” the retired inventor said. “I’m not saying it’s a girl or a boy – the smartest one.”
Bring on Biden
Early rundowns of support for presidential contenders are notoriously unreliable, a test more of name identification than any sort of lasting commitment. Instead, the new USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll has looked at which candidates are generating the most interest among Democratic and independent voters.
At the top of that measure by far is former vice president Joe Biden, who seems poised to announce his candidacy. A 59 percent majority of Democratic and independent voters say they are “excited” about his candidacy. Just 17 percent think he shouldn’t run. That 42-point positive margin is better than the 29-point edge he scored in December’s poll.
McClee, the Democratic retiree from Pennsylvania, is impressed by Klobuchar and Sanders, but she really wants Biden to jump into the race. “I’m putting him in my prayer book,” she says, calling him a “tough, no-nonsense, for-the-people person.”
Ranking second in the poll is Sanders, who generates excitement among 42 percent. While 33 percent say he should drop out, his 9-point positive edge is better than in December, when 36 percent were excited about his then-prospective candidacy but 41 percent said he shouldn’t run.
Sentiment on Warren is split. While 32 percent express excitement, 29 percent say she should drop out.
The other contenders with the most positive net standings are California Sen. Kamala Harris (36 percent are excited by her candidacy; 16 percent say she should drop out) and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke. For O’Rourke, 34 percent say they’re excited about his campaign; 13 percent say he should drop out.
“My dark horse is Beto,” says Dillon, the engineer from the Chicago suburbs. “He seems to talk the talk. Let’s see if he can walk the walk.”