How Activists View the 2020 Race

By Kevin Reuning (@KevinReuning; kevinreuning.com)

The election of Donald Trump has driven a new wave of mobilization among Democrats and progressives. This new activism has led to a lot of pearl-clutching over the activist base pushing the party too far to the left. Because of this, we used the recent Data for Progress / YouGov Blue survey to see how much of a difference there was across activists/non-activists and how active Democratic voters really are. 

To measure how politically active Democratic primary voters are, we asked them if they had done any of the following activities over the last six months: attended a town hall with a Member of Congress; volunteered for a political organization or campaign; attended a protest or demonstration; called an elected official; donated to a campaign or political organization; or posted on social media about a political issue. The figure below shows the responses separately for those surveyed before and after the first set of debates. Given the short timeframe, we have no reason to expect there would be any meaningful differences in responses across the debates, and we do not see any. 

Posting on social media is the most common political activity, with 36 and 37 percent of respondents having done so in the last six months. Donating to campaigns and calling elected officials were the next most common with 27 to 29 percent of respondents having done each. About half as many have participated in a protest, while only 8 to 9 percent had either volunteered or attended a town hall with an elected official. 

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Using this data, we can create a scale for how active a person is based on the number of activities they have done. Just under half (44 percent) had not done any of these activities in the last six months, while a bit under a quarter only participated in a single political activity. There is plenty of room, then, for Democratic voters to get more deeply involved in the political process. At the other end of the scale, 8 to 9 percent of respondents did four or more events over the last 6 months. These are the individuals that are super active in the political process and are likely closest to the Democratic activists that capture so much media coverage right now. 

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Given this data, we can examine how activists and non-activists differ in their candidate support. In addition, because we have data from both before and after the first debate, we can examine how the debates changed the views of different parts of the party. We have reasons to believe that there would be differential responses across these groups, but the direction is unclear. We might expect that activists would already have settled on a candidate and so are less likely to change their preferences based on the debate. At the same time, though, non-activists are the least likely to have watched the debate and so would not be affected by it.

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Starting with which candidates voters are considering, we see that there are some candidates with an equal level of interest across groups and others for whom support varies greatly between activists and non-activists. Warren and Biden well represent the latter set of candidates. The more active a voter is, the more likely they are to report they are considering supporting Warren -- the opposite is true for Biden. These relationships are even stronger after the debates, but only because the most active voters changed their opinions. In contrast, a lot of lesser-known candidates have only small variations in support across groups of voters.

Harris and Castro were the candidates that saw the biggest changes in voter interest from the debate. In both cases, the largest change was among the most politically involved voters, which makes sense these are the voters most likely to have watched the debates. The percentage of voters that were considering Castro nearly doubled -- but this increase came almost entirely from voters who were already politically active. There is movement across all groups though. 

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Moving from who voters are considering who their top choices are tells a somewhat similar story. Biden and Warren again have somewhat opposite trajectories in support as a function of political involvement. Interestingly, support for Biden dropped significantly among both inactive voters and the most active voters. Harris, in contrast, saw support increase significantly across almost all groups.

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There are definite differences in who activists and non-activists support. These differences though only exist among candidates with a minimal degree of support. In addition, the differences are only large for two or three candidates. The first set of debates made these relationships more extreme. It is possible though that these differences will flatten out over time as information moves from those highly involved political activists to their less-involved friends.


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

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