What Do the Voters Know?

By Kevin Reuning (@KevinReuning) and Ethan Winter (@EthanBWinter)

A Democratic primary field of over twenty candidates presents challenges not just to intrepid pollsters, but also to voters. With so many candidates, is it possible for voters to actually know each candidate’s platform? This is especially important given the rate at which Democratic contenders have been taking positions on issues and unveiling new proposals. For example, the Green New Deal was on no one’s radar a year ago, but now most candidates support it in some form. 

In our most recent survey, we tried to see the extent to which candidates’ stances are being perceived by the electorate. To do so, we asked respondents which policies they thought various Democratic candidates supported. We found that voters do a decent job at identifying which candidates support which policies, but that they also clearly use some heuristics to guess. 

With YouGov Blue, we surveyed likely 509 Democratic primary voters between May 30 and June 3, asking them to mark which candidates support six different progressive policies:  free college, Green New Deal, repealing the Hyde Amendment, abolishing ICE, Medicare for All, and reparations. Afterward, we identified which candidates actually supported the policies, which opposed them, and which were vague. This second stage was its own challenge, which we discuss below.

We first show the proportion of voters who believed that each candidate supports a policy. Green dots indicate that candidates actually support that policy, yellow that they have an unclear stance on it, and red that they oppose that policy. If voters are perfect, then we would see green dots entirely on the right side of the graph (near 100%), red dots on the left side, and the yellow dots somewhere in between. Instead, the story is mixed. 

Repealing the Hyde Amendment (the top right panel on the chart), which would allow federal funds to be spent on abortions, has uniform support across the Democratic field. Nonetheless, Democratic voters indicate only that the candidates with high name recognition support repealing Hyde. Reparations, which almost no candidate directly supports (though many support a formal study of reparations), shows a similar pattern of responses. The biggest difference is for Cory Booker: only 22% of voters think supports repealing Hyde, while 31% think he supports reparations. 


The obvious concern is that many candidates are poorly known. To account for this, we re-estimated the results above using only voters who indicated they have heard at least something about a candidate. The results below look a bit better. 


Among voters who self-reported more exposure to the Democratic candidates, we observe higher levels of sophistication. However, we still see some reliance on heuristics, especially regarding the abolition of ICE and reparations. 

With regards to free college, the question asked specifically whether Americans “can go to college debt-free.” This wording encompasses two discrete kinds of policies, tuition- and debt-free college, that were counted as comparable. For example, Bernie Sanders has proposed legislation that would eliminate tuition and public colleges and universities while Senator Schatz (D-HI) and Rep. Pocan (D-WI) have proposed that legislation that would allow for students to graduate from public universities and college without debt. Kamala Harris is a co-sponsor on both bills, while Cory Booker is a co-sponsor on the debt-free bill but not the tuition-free bill.

Support for the Green New Deal, according to the Washington Post, is near uniform among the Democratic contenders, excluding mainly lesser-known and lower-polling candidates. That said, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are most frequently perceived to be supporting the plan, which may reflect voters associating the policy with the left wing of the party.. 

Indeed, this potential use of heuristics is one that can be observed across all six issues––Warren, specifically, garnered considerable attention for her attack on Biden’s initial opposition to repealing of the Hyde Amendment. In particular, voters believe that Sanders and Warren support free college, a Green New Deal, and Medicare for All at high rates. The belief that both Sanders and Warren support the abolition of ICE may stem from this -- though both candidates have said the agency ought to be reformed instead of abolished.

On some issues, such as reparations, candidates may signal openness to an issue or interest in studying it more, while not supporting the position in actuality. This can complicate the task for voters. Alternatively, numerous candidates, for example, Kirstin Gillibrand have suggested we “reimagine” ICE, which is vague such that it could encompass either reform or abolition.

In short, we’ve found that prospective voters are -- for the most part and in the aggregate -- correctly identify which candidates support which policies. This result is more consistent for simpler issues, such as free college or Medicare for All, while on newer issues, such as the Green New Deal, heuristics seem to be playing a greater role. 

Kevin Reuning (@KevinReuning) is an assistant professor of political science at Miami University.

Ethan Winter (@EthanBWinter) is a senior adviser to Data for Progress.

Code for recreating the above plots is available on github. 

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