Who Else Are The Major Candidates' Supporters Considering?

By John Ray

The first Democratic debates are coming up this Wednesday and Thursday. Last week, Data for Progress fielded a survey allowing voters to rank their preferred candidate for the Democratic Presidential primary. In addition to selecting as many candidates as they wanted, respondents would then rank those favorites, up to a maximum of five. Here, we report on the results among 463 likely Democratic primary voters, which includes voters who said they were “definitely” or “probably” going to vote in their state’s upcoming Democratic primary or caucus. In our previous write-up of the survey (the questionnaire and raw data are also available!) we mentioned that we have 476 such voters in our overall sample of 1,030 but, amazingly, 13 likely Democratic primary voters were not happy with any of the candidates, having selected “None of these” in our primary choice item. Go figure!

This post focuses on how likely Democratic primary voters are choosing among their preferred candidates. We looked through the rankings each respondent gave, and made handy roadmaps of the choice sets held by each respondent, grouped by their most preferred candidates. As always, we caution against overinterpreting small sample sizes, but the richness of this data is such that we feel it is worthwhile, even if we must caution that it is more indicative than it is definitive.

As we report in our memo, Vice President Joe Biden is the top choice for a comfortable 29 percent of our sample overall, or 141 of our respondents. By their rankings, Biden voters would narrowly back Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as a second choice, but each of the frontrunners appeals to them. While voters overall prefer Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to Sanders, Biden voters prefer Sanders over Warren. Warren’s numbers among Biden supporters are not much different from those of California Senator Kamala Harris (who is the most ideologically similar candidate to Biden of these) and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The following chart portrays the ‘flow’ of voters from their first choice, second, and then third. While we allowed voters to rank up to five of their most preferred candidates, the average Democratic primary voter selected between three and four candidates and their last few choices were usually scattered enough that a visualization is unhelpful. Being more scattered, the differences between those 4th and 5th choices tend to cancel out, with the net effect on the race being unclear or nil. Here, we’ll focus on the potential shifts among the top tiers.


About 20 percent of Biden’s supporters, 6 percent of Democratic primary voters overall, would move toward Warren. About 25 percent of Biden’s supporters, just under 8 percent of Dems overall, would move toward Sanders. While this would only shift the race from a statistical tie for second between Warren and Sanders to a statistical tie for first, it would produce an entirely new first-place tier as both candidates would land squarely ahead of the next candidates down, Senator Harris and Mayor Buttigieg.

Warren’s supporters are split between Harris and Buttigieg. While these candidates are not necessarily similar ideologically, we know from our past surveys that Warren voters also express generally positive feelings toward having a “candidate who is a woman” and a “candidate who is young.” We’ve also done some analysis indicating that “very liberal” voters view Warren and Harris similarly and favorably, and likely Democratic primary voters typically fit the “very liberal” descriptor.


Although both candidates are thought to inhabit the ‘left lane’ of the party, it is perhaps surprising to see that only about 13 percent of Warren’s supporters would shift to Sanders in her absence. Almost three times as many of her supporters would consider Senator Harris or Mayor Buttigieg next. A shift of this kind would produce a ‘first tier’ consisting of Biden comfortably ahead of Sanders, with the next tier consisting of Buttigieg (who led Harris 8 percent to 5 percent in our survey as a first choice) comfortably ahead of Harris.

While Biden voters favor Sanders overall as a second choice, Bernie’s supporters slightly prefer Warren over Biden. The raw numbers here are small -- we’re talking about just under forty respondents against just over twenty -- and this theoretical result would not change the overall ranking of the other candidates. While Warren seems like a natural second choice policy-wise for Democratic primary voters, in another analysis we’ve found that Democratic primary voters are not terribly different on questions of ideology pretty much no matter who they support and so it is likely Warren’s popularity arises from additional factors.


A Democratic primary without Senator Sanders would produce roughly the equal-opposite effect of a race without Warren: Warren would gain almost 40 percent of Sanders voters (almost 7 percent of likely Democratic primary voters) and Biden would remain comfortably in first place with about 27 percent of Sanders voters or almost 5 percent of likely Dem primary voters.

The sample sizes for Harris and Buttigieg voters are too small to make much hay out of, but it is worth mentioning that Warren is the modal second choice for voters who currently support all of the frontrunners besides Biden. Due to the smaller sample sizes involved here these are not particularly stable or precise estimates, but they arise across the field of candidates.


While overall we find that Senator Warren has strong numbers in her own right and as the second-choice candidate for many voters, we emphasize that the race remains wide open. Looking at the data this way is necessitated by the fact voters are considering many candidates. Many lower-tier candidates are strong among those who have heard of that candidate and lack only for name recognition, indicating this primary has barely begun to solidify.

John Ray is Senior Political Analyst at YouGov Blue. You can access the raw data, questionnaire, toplines, and crosstabs associated with this survey here. Feel free to e-mail john dot ray at yougov dot com with any questions about the survey.

On behalf of Data for Progress, YouGov Blue fielded a survey of 1,030 US voters on 6/12-6/13-19 using YouGov’s online panel. The survey was weighted to be representative of the US voting population by age, race, ethnicity, sex, education, US Census region, and 2016 Presidential vote choice. As part of the survey, we fielded several questions about the Democratic presidential primary. Here we report on those results for a subset of 463 voters who reported that they would definitely or probably vote or participate in their state’s upcoming Democratic primary or caucus, and who reported supporting at least one of the current candidates. The survey-level margin of error was +/- 3.8 percent, while the margin of error among just the 463 likely Democratic primary voters who reported supporting at least one of the candidates is +/- 5.7 percent. We caution readers not to over-intrepret the results based on this smaller sample size.

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