Democratic primary voters think only three candidates could beat Trump

A year out from the 2020 general election, most Democrats are currently pessimistic about most of the candidates' abilities to defeat President Donald Trump, Insider polling shows.

Out of seven weekly polls conducted over two months between mid-August and mid-October, close to a majority of Democratic primary voters believe that just three of the Democratic candidates could beat Trump.

To help make sense of where all the Democratic candidates stand, Insider has been conducting a recurring SurveyMonkey Audience national poll. You can download every poll here, down to the individual respondent data.

Read more about how the Insider 2020 Democratic primary tracker works.

We're mainly interested in using our polling to figure out:

  • What percentage of Democratic voters are familiar with each candidate in the first place.
  • How Democrats rate each candidate's chances of beating President Donald Trump in the general election.
  • If a given candidate were to drop out of the race, who that candidate's supporters would flock to next.

In Insider polling, 30% Democratic primary voters currently think a generic Democratic candidate would beat Trump, 37% think a generic Democrat would lose to Trump, and 33% were neutral, meaning they didn't offer up a generic Democrat as someone they think is either likely or unlikely to beat Trump.

For our purposes, any candidate for whom more than 30% of voters think will beat Trump or for whom less than 37% think will lose to Trump is over-performing Democratic voters' expectations.

Across seven polls with a sample size of 2,935 Democratic voters aware of him, 66% of respondents believed former Vice President Joe Biden could beat Trump, compared to 22% who think he would lose. Twelve percent were neutral, meaning they didn't offer Biden's name as a candidate in either situation.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren was considered the second-most likely to defeat Trump in a general election. Out of a sample of 2,703 Democratic primary voters aware of her, 54% believed Warren would beat Trump compared to 25% who think she would lose, and 21% who were neutral.

And out of a sample of 3,008 Democratic primary voters aware of him, 49% believed Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont could defeat Trump, 29% think he would lose, and 22% were neutral.

Besides Biden, Warren, and Sanders, no more than 35% of Democratic primary voters thought any other candidate can beat Trump.

Both Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana slightly outperform Democratic voters' expectations compared to a generic Democrat, with 35% of voters believing Harris could beat Trump and 31% thinking Buttigieg could do so.

It's important to note, however, that Insider isn't currently polling direct head-to-head hypothetical general match-ups between Trump and different Democrats, where we would ask them who they would vote for between two candidates if the election were held today.

The electability appeal

Instead of asking who Democratic voters would personally vote for in a hypothetical general election match-up, we ask them to make a judgment of how the entire American electorate would vote in a general election.

Biden and his team, in particular, have been explicitly running on his own electability, arguing that voters should vote for him solely because he can beat Trump.

As his wife, former second lady Jill Biden, argued at the Iowa State Fair: "but you have to look at who is going to win this election, and maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say 'I personally like so-and-so better,' but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump."

He and his team have also cited preliminary general election match-up polls showing Biden defeating Trump by substantial margins outside the margin of error.

But as several election analysts have found, hypothetical general election polls aren't very useful predictive tools a year or more out from the actual election.

In 2016, FiveThirtyEight conducted an analysis of general election matchup polls from every presidential election from 1944 to 2012. They found head-to-head matchup polls conducted a year before presidential elections were, on average, 11 percentage points off the final result.

Biden's messaging is working to solidify his lead among two groups who, in surveys, value beating Trump above all else — older voters and African-American voters, particularly those without a college degree.

In Warren's case, both Insider polling and other surveys show she is gaining more support and favorability. Crucially, more and more voters believe she could beat Trump. In Insider polling, for example, Warren's perceived electability has increased by over 20 percentage points between February and October of 2019.

Biden's electability-based strategy is an especially risky one, especially as his team has already conceded they may lose in both Iowa and New Hampshire, two states where Warren and Sanders have consistently lead in early primary polls.

A new report in Bloomberg further revealed the weaknesses of Biden's ground operation in Iowa, where he has 17 field offices compared to 19 for Warren's campaign and 22 for Buttigieg, who have $25.7 and $23 million in cash on hand, respectively, compared to just $8.9 million for Biden.

If his main argument is electability, a third or even fourth-place finish in Iowa, New Hampshire, or both could damage his standing going forward, and cause his campaign to flame out by Super Tuesday.

Read more:

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Undecided 2020 voters like Andrew Yang and Joe Biden the most of all the Democratic candidates