Democrats in Battleground States Prefer Moderate Nominee, Poll Shows
A New York Times/Siena College survey in six key states also showed voters want a candidate who can work with Republicans.
By Jonathan Martin and
WASHINGTON — Democrats in the country’s most pivotal general election battlegrounds prefer a moderate presidential nominee who would seek common ground with Republicans rather than pursue an ambitious, progressive agenda, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll of primary voters across six states.
As the Democratic candidates intensify their argument over how best to defeat President Trump, their core voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida are counseling them to pursue a political middle ground.
A majority of those surveyed said they wanted a Democratic nominee who is more moderate than most Democrats, and they overwhelmingly preferred one who would bridge the partisan divide in Washington.
The party’s voters are more evenly split on the scale of change they are seeking from their nominee: 49 percent said they preferred a candidate who would return politics in Washington to normal, while 45 percent hope for one who will bring fundamental change to American society.
The poll showed a top tier of three candidates in the battleground states: Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Mr. Biden was leading in five of the six states, while Ms. Warren enjoyed a narrow advantage within the margin of error in Wisconsin, where Mr. Sanders also appeared strong. No other candidate registered in double digits in any of the states surveyed.
While Democrats have unambiguously moved to the left in the decade since President Barack Obama took office, as Republicans eagerly point out, the poll illustrates that the party’s identity is more complex than the opposition and some progressive activists would portray it.
Democratic voters in the six states, each of which Mr. Trump carried three years ago, are split almost equally in how they described themselves ideologically: 49 percent say they are moderate or conservative, while 48 percent indicate they are very liberal or somewhat liberal.
And this presidential primary reflects the party’s contrasting impulses.
Primary voters who long for a moderate standard-bearer and a return to normalcy in Washington strongly prefer Mr. Biden, according to the survey. Those Democrats who prefer a progressive nominee and want them to fight for a bold agenda while bringing systemic change to American society are nearly evenly divided between Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.
The divisions go beyond ideology and ambition: Older, nonwhite Democrats and those without college degrees strongly favor Mr. Biden. But younger Democrats of all races prefer Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, while those with college degrees overwhelmingly prefer Ms. Warren.
None of the six states where voters were polled are casting ballots in the first stage of the primary next year, and only North Carolina votes on Super Tuesday, in early March, immediately after the initial early-voting states. So the candidate preferences could change by the time these states hold their nominating contests.
The Times/Siena survey of 1,568 Democratic primary voters in the six states was conducted from Oct. 13 to 26. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. Sampling error in individual states is higher.
In preferences for individual candidates, the major distinction between the six states and Iowa, where The Times and Siena polled caucusgoers late last month, is that Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., is in the top tier with Ms. Warren, Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders in Iowa. But he has scant support in the battleground states and despite winning a wave of attention in recent months, he was one of several candidates to poll at zero percent among black voters in those states.
The ideological and generational divisions shaping this primary are strikingly similar in the Iowa and battleground surveys. Mr. Biden has nearly three times the support from voters over 65 that he does among those 29 and younger. And he does three times better among self-described moderates and conservatives than he does among those who say they are very liberal.
The former vice president’s support from older voters is especially pronounced among nonwhite Democrats. Nearly half of the racial minorities surveyed who were 45 and older backed Mr. Biden, while Mr. Sanders received 10 percent and Ms. Warren 9 percent.
What’s more ominous for Mr. Biden is that his support with younger nonwhite voters is far more tenuous: Among racial minorities under 45, Mr. Sanders was the favorite at 28 percent, followed by Ms. Warren at 19 percent and Mr. Biden at only 11 percent.
Xiomara Alarcon, a 24-year-old postal worker from Greensboro, N.C., described Mr. Sanders as “pure-hearted,” a true-believing advocate for progressive policies like “Medicare for all.” She also approvingly noted that he was arrested as a young activist in 1963.
“He fights for all people of color,” said Ms. Alarcon, who identifies as Hispanic. “Not just himself and his people.”
Among African-American voters of all ages in the six states, Mr. Biden was the overwhelming favorite, receiving 42 percent of that vote. Ms. Warren captured 13 percent, and Mr. Sanders had 10 percent.
That finding aligns with other polling through the year that reinforces Mr. Biden’s high standing with black voters, forged through ties with congressional and community leaders, and most significantly, through his relationship with former President Obama.
“He was Obama’s vice president and some of the things Obama supported, he supported,” Michael Elliott, 61, of Jacksonville, Fla., said of Mr. Biden. “Vice president, that’s as close as you can get to being a president. I’m looking at experience, too.”
Nearly 300 miles down the Florida coast, William Stewart, 39, raised concerns about Mr. Biden’s ability to appeal to younger voters and said he was currently supporting Ms. Warren.
“It would be great for a woman to be president,” said Mr. Stewart, of West Palm Beach. Mr. Stewart, a logistics manager, identifies as African-American. “I believe in some of the thoughts she has about health care and equal rights for everybody.”
As for Mr. Biden, he said, “I have a little reservation about if he’s connecting with the younger people.”
Ms. Warren was strongest among voters who identified as “very liberal,” winning 35 percent, while Mr. Biden captured just 13 percent of those voters. She also dominated with white college graduates, capturing 33 percent, far more than Mr. Biden or Mr. Sanders.
Mr. Biden was strongest among white voters without a four-year degree, taking 30 percent — double Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, who both captured 15 percent of these voters.
“Joe Biden has the experience,” said Diane Ethridge, 60, of Green Bay, Wis. “I also think he’s more willing to listen and he will do far better with trade with this country, he will do far better, I think also even in the Democratic Party, with health care.”
Ms. Ethridge, who attended vocational school and worked at a phone company, said she opposed Medicare for all and efforts to make college free, proposals supported in various forms by Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders.
“She’s doing well in the polls,” she said of Ms. Warren, “but I am not for her political platform of Medicare for all. I don’t know where this money is going to be coming from. I am not in favor of education for all, either. I don’t feel we should be paying for someone who could afford to pay for it.”
Even some of Ms. Warren’s supporters expressed concerns about the practical and political considerations of her Medicare for all plan.
Ms. Warren has said her proposal will not raise taxes on the middle class. Last Friday she unveiled a plan describing how she would pay for an initiative that she says would cost $20.5 trillion in new federal spending over a decade.
“I’m very skeptical” about the tax implications, Mr. Stewart, of Florida, said. “That’s the only discrepancy. I don’t know how it’s possible.”