How Democratic Activists Think About 2020

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Perhaps the biggest question going into the 2020 presidential nomination cycle is the extent to which political parties control these choices. From about 1980 through 2012, it appeared that parties were able to exert quite a bit of influence, with coalition-style candidates such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — as well as Walter Mondale, Bob Dole and John McCain — defeating factional candidates such as Jesse Jackson, Paul Tsongas and Mike Huckabee. That all changed in 2016 on the Republican side, with Donald Trump winning despite outright hostility from most party actors. 

One of the difficulties in answering questions about party influence actually mirrors the challenges parties have in wielding influence: Political parties in the U.S. are large, non-hierarchical organizations made up of both formal organizations (such as the Democratic National Committee) and informal networks of a variety of party actors. A lot of research has focused on high-profile endorsements, in part because they’re fairly easy to study. The politicians and formal party officials whose endorsements tend to be tracked, however, are only a fairly small subset of the thousands and thousands of party actors who may matter within the party.

That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket’s new research project. Masket, the author of “No Middle Ground” and “The Inevitable Party,” is one of the most important scholars of party networks. He’s been talking to activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina and with Washington-based activists about the 2020 nomination, including a series of surveys about their candidates preferences and more. His latest results are over at FiveThirtyEight. I spoke with him over email about what his research tells us about the horse race right now — and what it means more broadly about the Democratic Party as it approaches the election. 

Jonathan Bernstein: I know you aren’t claiming that your data are necessarily representative of all Democrats or predictive, but forget those caveats and let’s get right to it: What are these activists saying that’s different from the conventional wisdom about the nomination battle right now?

Seth Masket: The big difference is that my surveys suggest that Biden and Sanders are possibly being overrated by the polls right now. Democratic activists obviously know who they are, and many are considering them, but they appear to be at most in the mid tier of candidates right now. Harris and Booker look much stronger in my surveys than in the polls.

Another thing my latest round of questions shows is that Sanders has the most enthusiastic supporters, but also the most enthusiastic detractors. Most of the activists considering one of the other top tier candidates said they do not want to see Sanders become the nominee. At least from these surveys, Sanders is looking like a factional candidate — he’s got an enthusiastic base but a low ceiling. Conversely, Harris is broadly liked and has almost no detractors.

JB: Do you see hostility to Biden, or does he just not stand out? Other than Sanders, is there hostility to any of the other candidates?

SM: Biden produced a lot of hostility, as well, although somewhat less than Sanders. The candidates producing the most negative feelings among the activists were Gabbard, Sanders, Biden, Delaney and Yang, although only Sanders and Biden have much positive support to fall back on.

To some extent, for Sanders and Biden, this could be related to their visibility in the field, and the fact that they’ve run before and their stances and vulnerabilities are well known. Still, Harris and Booker are pretty well known among activists at this point and haven’t generated as much hostility.

JB: Harris and Booker have been right at the top in each wave of your survey. Do you get the sense that activists are close to settling for one or both of them and will try to accelerate some winnowing of the rest, or are they still pretty open to the other dozen or so contenders?

SM: There’s an interesting disconnect here. The activists seem broadly accepting of Harris and Booker, and I’d consider Harris, in particular, to be very well positioned at this point. Yet very few of these activists have committed to a candidate. Some are backing Sanders, a number have recently pledged to Booker, and none are pledged to Harris. The impression I get is that there’s still a fairly broad group of serious contenders, but, with the exception of Buttigieg, that group hasn’t changed very much over the past few months. The larger number of candidates not in this group are slowly getting the message that this isn’t happening for them this year. On the other hand, we’re just 10 weeks away from the debates, which could give long shots some exposure. So there’s some incentive for the long shots to stay in the race even if they’re not getting much love from activists yet.

JB: Let’s talk a bit about your respondents. These were people you found because they had a reputation as players in their local parties, right? I want to understand how the party network works. Do you have a sense of who, if anyone, your group looks to for cues of who to support? Of what their relationship is with organized groups or demographic peers within the party? Or do they think of themselves more as individual free agents?

SM: I’ve asked these activists what they’re looking for to help them decide on a candidate. Most give very individualistic responses — e.g.: they want to meet the candidates before choosing, they want to see their performance in debates, they want to evaluate their issue stances, etc. Especially in New Hampshire and Iowa, where there are numerous small venues for meeting candidates, this isn’t unrealistic. 

Interestingly, almost none say that they rely on endorsements or information from peers to make a decision. (A few said they rely on friends, and some say they’d probably follow the endorsement of someone like Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders, if he drops out.) But there are reasons why people wouldn’t want to admit to that. It’s also quite possible to be influenced by others without being aware that it’s happening.

JB: Yes, I’d underline that last point that we can’t take what they say as necessarily the whole truth, but still it’s interesting that they talk about themselves as individuals.

One idea that I’ve been pushing is that for party actors, the nomination process is mainly about the party defining itself and making sure that its candidate will abide by the party’s self-definition (which in part is about policy positions and priorities, but also might be about how the party presents itself). If that’s right, which candidate wins is a lot less important than making sure the candidate is, as we might put it, in service to the party. Does that notion hold up as in terms of how these activists talk about the nomination? Or are they just as obsessed with who the nominee is as any political junkie? 

SM: I’ve heard different things from activists on this. In some recent interviews, one man I spoke to in New Hampshire was adamant that his most important consideration in a candidate was someone who could beat Trump by a large margin. His argument was that it will take a lot of work to repair the damage Trump has done and Democrats will need a lot of congressional seats and a large presidential mandate to do this. And he seemed willing to sacrifice some party goals to achieve this.

I also spoke to a woman in New Hampshire who had a very different take. She thought it was vitally important for the party to nominate a woman for president, even if that candidate wasn’t the most “electable.” Her argument was that this was an important matter for representation, and she wouldn’t let Trump take away an issue so important to her.

I’d say both these activists were thinking seriously about the party’s goals, but that wasn’t necessarily leading them to the same conclusion, at least not yet.

Endorsements are also particularly valuable because they appear to be one way that party actors communicate with each other, so they're well worth studying for several reasons.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.