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As First 2020 Debate Looms, Most Democrats Are Still Persuadable

Ahead of the first 2020 debates beginning in two weeks, a majority of Democratic voters are undecided or are open to changing their first choice. Twenty Democratic candidates will argue their case, with ten candidates each spread out over two nights in Miami June 26-27. Interest in the contest remains remarkably high while certainty around its outcome remains much lower than sometimes acknowledged.

There is the reality of currently undecided voters. Beyond that, the vast majority who have settled on a first choice candidate have indicated, when asked, that their support for that first choice is soft. They continue to consider other candidates, often multiple other candidates, or state that they may change their mind. The most recent SSRS/CNN pollputs the number of voters who may change their mind at 55%. A May 18-21 poll by YouGov noted that nearly 3 in 4 likely Democratic primary voters either have not settled on a first choice or are considering more than one candidate. A state poll in North Carolina released by Emerson has 62% indicating that they may change their mind. Emerson removes undecideds from their poll numbers before reporting. This means that closer to three-quarters undecided or willing to change their mind is realistic. 80% of likely Democratic caucus attenders in this weekend’s Selzer poll in Iowa named a second choice candidate when asked.

Until last week, YouGov, often in combination with Polling Editor Ariel Edwards-Levy of Huffington Post, has generally eschewed publishing “horse race” numbers in favor of a weekly series of intriguing dives into candidates favorability and how likely primary voters are weighing their options. This includes asking which range of candidates respondents are “considering,” whether they are satisfied with the Democratic field, and for which candidates, if any, they would be “disappointed if” they became the nominee.

A couple times in the last few months, YouGov horse-race-related numbers slipped out. I wrote about the first instance in my last article, on undecideds. In that article, I suggested that pushing undecided voters hard for which way they lean might be partly behind Biden’s inflated numbers. Since that time, it has become clear that YouGov’s method of ranked choice data gathering is the best way to capture the current state of flux in the field. Three polling firms responded to CounterPunch questions around decided versus leaning voters. Rasmussen Reports and HarrisX indicated that they are not currently asking people who indicate that they are undecided which way they lean. (HarrisX stated that it will introduce this question later in the cycle.) Patrick Murray from Monmouth Polling indicated that undecideds were at 13% in their most recent national poll, just 4% higher than the 9% indicated once they asked which way a respondent was leaning.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle two weeks ago when another YouGov horse race bit was lifted from one portion of a chart and posted on Twitter where it was then picked up by Bernie Sanders’ staffer David Sirota and blasted out because it showed a 28-27 advantage for Sanders over Joe Biden.

The problem? That advantage is only among those YouGov respondents for the who indicated that they were considering just one candidate. A mere 28%, of the 598 respondents who indicated likelihood to vote in the Democratic primary, have narrowed things down to just one candidate, according to the same figures. That leaves a staggering 72% of potential Democratic primary or caucus voters either not having selected any first choice yet or still considering multiple candidates. YouGov updates most of those numbers each week (though not the “only one candidate considered” or “solid support” numbers by candidate). Taking the latest of these numbers (fielded June 2-4), along with the most current version of my weekly poll average, and the “one candidate” or “solid support” numbers from May 18-21, we get a picture of the race as in the chart at the top of this article.

The “soft support” number in the stacked bar chart subtracts the candidates’ “solid support” from their current standing in the horse race average, while the “considering” portion takes their most recent percentage of “considering” respondents from YouGov while subtracting their combined soft and solid support. The red portion of the chart is, again, taken directly from YouGov, with the percentage that remains making up the “neutral” score for each candidate.

The picture painted is one far less favorable to Joe Biden than many centrist commentators and data people would like to acknowledge. Not only are there an equal number of Democratic primary voters who have excluded Biden or Sanders from consideration (17%, where most other top candidates are around 10% or less), but less than a quarter of the 34% of voters who currently support Biden are solidly behind him (just 7.5%). In fact, the data that Sirota was pointing to shows Sanders’ with a slight lead where almost half of his current level of support (17%) is made up of voters solidly behind him (7.8%). Biden does lead Sanders in terms of voters actively considering voting for him by 53% to 40%. But Kamala Harris at 44% and Elizabeth Warren at 47% are nipping at his heels, if this is the primary measure weighed.

These numbers are further supported by similar kinds of questions asked by the Des Moines Register and CNN in Iowa that was released this past Saturday. For all non-Biden candidates, 39% of their supporters are very enthusiastic about voting for them. For Biden supporters, that number falls to just 29%. In either case, a large majority of likely Democratic Iowa caucus attenders (virtual or in-person) appear willing to consider changing their vote.

The Biden campaign’s hide-the-candidate strategy is working about as well as many “prevent defenses” do at the end of football games. His lead is shrinking in a strikingly measurable way, but we are are only nearing the end of the 2nd quarter of 2019, with three quarters of a year to go from now until Super Tuesday 2020. Next week, I will likely write-up a rough look at how the delegate race would look after Super Tuesday, given the Democratic Primary’s 15% rule, if voting were to begin now.

The bottom line, however, is that there is a long way to go and well more than half of likely Democratic primary voters or caucus attenders are open to persuasion as summer debates draw near.