Though Swing-State Democrats Prefer Biden, Most Remain Undecided

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a “Get out the Vote” event in Sterling, Virginia, U.S., November 3, 2019. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

A new survey of primary voters in six 2020 battlegrounds finds the former vice president out ahead, but a plurality has yet to settle on a favorite candidate.

According to a new survey of voters in 2020 battleground states, Democratic-primary voters by and large are hoping for a moderate presidential candidate. Perhaps relatedly, in most of those states, a plurality has yet to settle on one favorite candidate at all among the many competing for the nomination.

The New York Times and Siena College teamed up to survey voters in six key swing states — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — and found not only that those voters tend to like former vice president Joe Biden best among all the available options but also that they want the eventual nominee to be open to compromise rather than insisting on progressive policy goals.

“A majority of those surveyed said they wanted a Democratic nominee who is more moderate than most Democrats,” Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Katie Glueck noted in their summary of the poll, “and they overwhelmingly preferred one who would bridge the partisan divide in Washington.”

For instance, by about a two-to-one margin, Democratic-primary voters surveyed in the poll favored a candidate who would “promise to find common ground with Republicans” (62 percent) versus one who would “promise to fight for a bold progressive agenda” (33 percent). Just under 40 percent of respondents said a candidate should be more liberal than most Democrats, compared with 55 percent who said they’d prefer a candidate more moderate than most Democrats.

The survey found that Biden is performing the best of any primary candidate in all six states, with the exception of Wisconsin, where Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren narrowly outpaces him. Along with Biden, Warren and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders stand out from the rest of the field as potential front-runners, with Warren owning a clear edge over Sanders as an alternative to Biden.

Biden leads Warren by more than ten points in Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and he’s ahead of her by nearly ten points in both Florida and Michigan. It’s only in Wisconsin where Warren pulls ahead, with 25 percent support to Biden’s 23 percent. Wisconsin is also the only one of the six states where support for Sanders rises out of the teens, putting him in close contention with the other two front-runners at 20 percent.

“Older, nonwhite Democrats and those without college degrees strongly favor Mr. Biden,” according to Martin and Glueck. “But younger Democrats of all races prefer Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, while those with college degrees overwhelmingly prefer Ms. Warren.”

No other candidate manages to reach double digits. South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg falls to a distant fourth place in each state, never managing more than 5 percent support. He’s trailed by California senator Kamala Harris and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, both of whom hover somewhere between 0 and 3 percent support across the six states.

The most interesting data point in the poll is how many voters have yet to decide on a favorite candidate. In Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, a plurality of voters responded to the question, “If the Democratic presidential primary were being held today, whom would you vote for?” by saying they didn’t know. In Michigan, “don’t know” received a larger share of the responses than anyone but Biden, and in Wisconsin, voters were so closely split among the three front-runners that “don’t know” was the fourth-most-common choice.

There are a couple of key takeaways from these findings. For one thing, the general voter preference for Biden seems to be a manifestation of the survey’s conclusion that swing-state Democrats would rather support a moderate, compromising nominee than one who pushes a radically progressive agenda. Though Biden has moved to the left during his run, releasing a health-care proposal that would expand the public option and abandoning his longtime support of the Hyde amendment, he remains by far the most moderate option among the well-recognized candidates.

But the fact that pluralities of voters in most of the key swing states remain undecided suggests that, even among those looking for a moderate, Biden hasn’t sealed the deal. This supposition seems to be reinforced by the fact that, even as he continues to perform quite well in national polls, he’s faltering in polls of early primary states such as New Hampshire and Iowa.

When paired with the results of last week’s edition of the Times/Siena poll, this week’s edition is encouraging news for Republicans and supporters of President Trump. Last week’s poll surveyed Democratic-primary voters in the same six swing states, examining how Trump would fare in a head-to-head matchup against each of the three Democratic front-runners. It found that the president remains competitive against all three leading candidates in all six states. It also found that Biden performs the best against Trump, tying or leading him in all six states except for North Carolina.

As has been the case since he entered the race in April, Biden does seem the best positioned of any Democrat both to win the primary and to successfully unseat Trump. But it’s becoming more apparent that his appeal stems much less from his ability to generate enthusiasm than it does from an unmet desire among primary voters for a candidate who will tend toward moderation.

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