What Attributes Do Democratic Primary Voters Value?

By Brian Schaffner (@b_schaffner ) and Jon Green (@_Jon_Green)

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve been following the Democratic primary far more closely than most of the country—and even most of the people who will eventually vote in the primary. With still over two hundred days until the Iowa caucuses, most voters have not decided who they will support. And it could be the case that many voters will eventually support a candidate who they aren’t even considering right now.

This being the case, we wanted to get a sense of what attributes Democratic primary voters care about when selecting a nominee, independent from candidates’ personal identities. Understanding what people are looking for in a candidate may help us to better understand how the dynamics of the nomination race may play out once voters start paying more attention and making up their minds. To do this, we included a conjoint experiment in Data for Progress’s most recent survey of likely Democratic primary voters. The survey was conducted online by YouGov Blue and included interviews with 2,924 people likely to vote in a Democratic primary or caucus in 2020; roughly half of the sample was surveyed immediately before the first Democratic debates on June 26-27, and the other half was surveyed afterward.

Here’s how it worked: Each respondent was presented with two hypothetical candidates—Candidate A and Candidate B—each of whom had randomly generated gender, race, age, background (outsider or establishment), general-election strategy (“persuade moderates” or “mobilize the base”), and positions on two salient issues (climate and health care) that imply varying ideological commitments. Then we asked the respondents which hypothetical candidate they would prefer as the Democratic nominee, which hypothetical candidate they thought had a better chance of beating Donald Trump in a general election, and how motivated they would be (on a scale from one to ten) to vote for each hypothetical candidate if they were the nominee against Trump. The analyses shown below combine pre- and post-debate responses. When we analyze each subset separately, we see broadly similar patterns.

This approach allows us to isolate how much the likely Democratic primary electorate cares about different attributes relative to one another. This has advantages and disadvantages. That it doesn’t include the personal identities of candidates who have some of these attributes but not others means that we may observe real-world preferences that don’t line up with those expressed in these hypothetical matchups. These results aren’t really comparable to current horse-race toplines. However, the differences that emerge through randomization provide insight into the priorities of the Democratic electorate that could indicate how preferences may evolve as the campaign progresses and voters become more familiar with the candidates.

We first show results for how different attributes were associated with overall candidate preference. All else equal, likely Democratic voters would prefer to nominate a woman over a man, a person of color (black or Latinx) over a white person, someone who is between the ages of forty and sixty over someone over the age of seventy, a political outsider over a member of the establishment, someone whose general-election strategy would be to persuade moderates over someone who would instead try to energize the base, someone who supports Medicare for All over someone who supports a public option for health insurance, and someone who supports getting the United States to net zero carbon emissions by 2045 as opposed to both earlier and later target years. 

To be clear, some of these differences are very small—such as the differences in background and general-election strategy, where the marginal probabilities of support hover just above or below 50 percent. But other preferences could be quite important, such as the fact that Democratic primary voters prefer a woman nominee over a man by about 4 points or that they prefer a middle-aged nominee over one who is seventy-five by more than ten percentage points. And a candidate’s position on combating climate change appears to be especially important—Democratic primary voters prefer a candidate whose plan reaches net zero carbon emissions by 2045 over one that does the same by 2050 by an 8 point margin. 

It is important to note, however, that this doesn’t mean the median Democratic voter prefers a candidate with all of these attributes in one profile—a fifty-five-year-old outsider woman of color who supports Medicare for All and net zero emissions by 2045 and would try to persuade moderates rather than energize the base in the general election. But this does mean that, on an attribute-by-attribute basis, likely Democratic primary voters have aggregate preferences for some types of candidates over others.

 
 

That said, the types of candidates that Democrats would prefer as their nominee differ somewhat from the types of candidates they think would be more likely to beat Donald Trump in a general election. On many of the attributes, the patterns are similar: respondents think middle-aged candidates are better than older candidates—though in this case they also penalize the youngest candidates. They are also slightly more likely to think that persuading moderates is a better general-election strategy than mobilizing the base, though it is important to note that this difference is extremely small. However, on race and gender, the pattern here is reversed: respondents think that white and male candidates are more likely to beat Trump than women or candidates of color, despite their aggregate preferences otherwise. It may be that some of the dominant media narratives about race, gender, and electability in 2020 have persuaded Democratic primary voters. Regarding which candidate is more likely to beat Trump, respondents were also agnostic on whether the candidate was an insider or an outsider as well as the candidates’ position on health insurance—though in this context they penalize the more aggressive net zero emissions deadline rather than the one farther off.

 
 

Finally, we find that motivation to vote, or enthusiasm, tracks more closely to nominee preference than viability against Trump, though these differences are generally small. Respondents would be more motivated to vote for women, black candidates, Medicare for All supporters, political outsiders, and relatively young (with fifty being the ideal age) candidates. Very old candidates are the most heavily penalized on this measure of enthusiasm. But with few exceptions, it seems that likely Democratic primary voters would be generally motivated to vote for the eventual nominee regardless of their characteristics.

 
 

It is still quite early in the Democratic primary race. Voters may have some sense of which sets of candidates are worth considering, but few have settled on one candidate they’re definitely supporting. And it’s entirely possible that those who have settled on a candidate will see them drop out before their state’s caucus or primary rolls around. These results point to which sorts of qualities likely Democratic primary voters value and prioritize when choosing which candidates to support for the nomination—independent of specific candidates’ personal brands. They also may provide clues as to the direction the race is headed. The electorate’s baseline preference against an older, white, or male nominee suggests that candidates like Biden and Sanders may struggle to win over more voters as the campaign goes on -- but their perception that white or male candidates are more electable may help them if such narratives persist. Who the eventual nominee is may turn on how this tension is resolved.


Brian F. Schaffner (@b_schaffner) is the Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies at Tisch College and the Department of Political Science at Tufts University.

Jon Green (@_Jon_Green) is a co-founder of Data for Progress and a Ph.D. student at the Ohio State University.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required