Democracy Corps surveys are usually pretty interesting, and their latest is no exception. Their basic finding is that Biden and Warren look to be solid contenders against Trump. Sanders looks fairly good but less certain. Each of them has a different way of winning, and Biden and Warren do it largely by doing relatively well with white working class voters, particularly women:
One of the reasons both Biden and Warren are proving to be electable is the surprising result with white working class voters. While Biden has more of a working class base in the Democratic primary, the 2020 election is being shaped by bigger forces. In this combined sample of white working class women (643 respondents), Biden loses by 9 points (50 to 41 percent) and Warren by 10 (51 to 41 percent). Both are gains on 2018 and a sea change from 2016. That means the 13-point shift to the Democrats in the off-year has continued another 4 points now.
They both lose to Trump among white working class men (combined sample of 562) by a much bigger margin — 31 points and 33 points respectively. As daunting as that appears, the trend with men is encouraging as well. Democrats gained 14 points in 2018 and Biden would take those gains 3 points further. Warren holds the 2018 gains, as there is no evidence of working class voters going back to the 2016 Trump margins.
These results confirm my basic intuition from the very beginning of this campaign. Biden rather obviously has some strengths with white working class voters, but I believed that Warren would be able to reach them, too. As for Sanders, I always expect him to get crossover votes from working class folks, although mostly from the pox-on-both-houses variety of voter. Sanders actually does better than Biden among libertarians, for example, while he loses true independents even as Biden and Warren carry them.
The strongest Democratic candidate is the one that can limit the damage in rural and small town areas without suffering and corresponding loss in the suburbs or among moderate swing voters. I suspected that this made Biden and Warren the best options for Democrats from a strict electability point of view, and that is currently supported in the data and for the very reason I suggested.
As I have argued repeatedly, all other things being equal, the Democrats will do better as a party if they have broader geographical support than if they just do a better job of winning a polarized base election. With the former kind of electorate, they will win more state and local races and do better in the U.S. House of Representatives. With the latter electorate, they will have fewer legislative seats nationwide, control fewer legislative bodies, and be more susceptible to winning the popular vote and still losing the presidential election due to the Electoral College.
It looks like Biden and Warren can both achieve the better kind of win, and perhaps Sanders can, too, although that is less certain.
If Biden’s model, he loses more Democrats than Warren due mainly to defections from the far left, especially among supporters of Sanders. But he gets more Republicans than Warren to cross the aisle. For this reason, he still looks like the strongest candidate if we’re only concerned about coattails.
Of course, we need to project forward since the campaign will not remain static and there are concerns about how each of the three frontrunners would hold up both to the rigors of the campaign and the attacks brought by the Republicans. Biden is now at the center of an impeachment inquiry, and that can both help and hurt him, and it will probably have different impacts depending on whether we’re talking about a primary, where people may rally to support him, and a general, where endless innuendo about his son’s time working with a natural gas company in Ukraine may take a toll on his image.
Biden has been showing his age a bit more than Warren and Sanders, so we can question how well he will perform as a candidate over the long haul of a general election campaign. On the other hand, Republicans will have a much easier time going after Warren and Sanders as extremists who are out of step with mainstream political beliefs. They’ll claim that about any Democratic nominee, but it’s not something that will stick to Biden. In fact, Biden does better at attracting Republicans precisely because he’s seen as a mainstream Democrat even by his Republican enemies.
It is beginning to feel like Warren is best positioned. She comes close to matching Biden’s performance geographically and with independents, and she holds the party together better than he does. She seems to have more enthusiasm behind her campaign, too. That’s probably in part because she’s not old news. Biden and Sanders have been through this before, and people kind of know what to expect from them.
My feeling is that Warren is slowly answering the biggest doubt about her, which is whether she can win over the middle and hold down Trump’s geographical advantages. That makes it easier to judge her against Biden strictly on personal ideological preference. I know where I stand on that.