I’m not going to mince words here. Early horse race polls are silly. Tracking ‘movement’ among a bunch of potential 2020 candidates a year of out from when voters go the polls is an utter waste of time. However, while the head-to-head numbers are irrelevant, it is useful to mine these early polls for what they can tell us about the priorities of voters at this early stage of the game.
1. Iowa Democrats Ambivalent on Fresh Face vs. Old-Timer
The December Des Moines Register poll (Dec. 10-13) found that Democratic voters in Iowa aren’t sure if they’d like to see a newcomer or a veteran as their standard bearer. A plurality (49 percent), said they’d like a "seasoned hand" as the Democratic nominee, while 36 percent wanted to see a "newcomer." Of course, defining ‘seasoned’ and ‘newcomer’ is also subjective. For example, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren were both elected to Congress in 2012. Yet, I bet most Democrats would call the 46-year old Texan a 'newcomer' and the 69-year-old Harvard academic 'seasoned.'
2. Just Win, Baby
In 2018, Democratic voters were less concerned with a candidate’s ideological purity and more concerned about electability. With a mantra of "just win, baby," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi shrugged off Democratic candidates’ criticism of her potential speakership. Donors took a similar approach, giving as much money to conservative-leaning Democrat Abigail Spanberger in the Richmond, Virginia suburbs, as to the more liberal Katie Porter in suburban Orange County. Each woman raised over $4.5M in individual contributions in their successful campaigns for Congress.
The "just win" mantra is looking to be as critical in 2020. When asked what was more important for them in choosing a 2020 candidate, just 40 percent of Iowa Democrats picked "shares your positions," while more than half (54 percent) said, "can beat Trump." To be sure, "issues" and "electability" are also subjective. Lots of Democrats will think that only candidates who embrace certain positions or policies can defeat Trump. Even so, it’s dangerous to underestimate how unified Democrats are around the idea that Trump not only presents a threat to their policy agenda but also an existential threat to democracy and world order.
3. It Depends on the Meaning of the Word Compromise…
Back when President Obama was in the White House, Democrats were overwhelmingly supportive of compromise over confrontation. When asked in a November 2010 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll whether they’d prefer their leaders to "make compromises to gain consensus on legislation" or to “stick to their campaign positions even if that means NO consensus on legislation,” more than two-thirds of Democrats picked compromise. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of Republicans preferred their congressional leaders to "stick to their campaign positions.”
Now that Trump is in the White House, Republicans have become converts to compromise. In 2010, just 27 percent of Republicans wanted to see Republicans compromise. This year, 63 percent support compromise. For their part, Democrats aren’t feeling as magnanimous as they were when it was their party in the White House. In fact, for the first time, more Republicans than Democrats (63 percent to 57 percent), want to see their elected representatives find consensus.
On its face, the fact that majorities of Democrats and Republicans want to see their leaders work together is a sign that voters will reward a uniter not a divider in 2020. Yet, scratch below the surface and what you find is that it’s not that simple.
In a memo outlining findings from the latest All-America Economic Survey for CNBC, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (R) and Hart Research (D), Hart Research pollster Jay Campbell writes: "There is a sizeable generational split within the Democratic Party — Democrats age 50 and older are far more willing to work with Republicans and find compromise across all of the issues we asked about, while Democrats under age 50 are in a far less cooperative mood. This split is going to be a major and consistent tension within the party both in the next legislative session and, very likely, in the 2020 presidential primary."
What I asked him for specific examples, Campbell replied via email: "Younger Democrats are apt to say that, in the abstract, Democratic congressional leaders should work for compromise; but when it comes to healthcare, taxes, gun laws, immigration, and the minimum wage, they want to party to stick to its guns (so to speak). Whereas older Democrats lean toward compromise on every issue except for healthcare."
For example, 48 percent of Democrats say that Democratic leaders should "hold fast" to their position on the issue of immigration. But, among a smaller sample of 18-49-year-olds, 56 percent believe in holding strong, while just 37 percent of those 50 and older feel similarly.
The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found a similar generational divide. Democrats under 50 years old supported 'compromise' over 'stick to positions' by 19 to 20 points. But, Democrats over 50 supported compromise by 31-33 points.
We’ve already had a preview of how this “compromise divide” may look in Congress.
During the Kavanaugh hearings, Democratic Senators/2020 aspirants Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar took very different paths to their ultimate 'no' votes on the Supreme Court nominee. Booker had his "Spartacus" moment. Harris walked out on the hearing and went straight to the microphones.
Klobuchar took the opposite approach. She opened her line of inquiry with a personal story of her father’s struggles with alcoholism. She didn’t posture. She didn’t punch. Her more compromising style made Kavanaugh’s testy and confrontational reply to her questions look petty and over-the-top. Editorial board types (which are primarily made up of people over age 50), were quick to praise Klobuchar’s non-grandstanding style. But, it’s not clear that she’ll get the same response from younger voters.
In the House, Rep-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already pushed her colleagues to move more quickly — and with less deference to tradition — on the issue of climate change. She’s also shown an ability to mobilize younger Americans to her cause.
She got some early pushback from senior members of the caucus, but she may also find that many freshmen members are going to be uncomfortable with Ocasio-Cortez’s more confrontational style as well. Many of them ran on a message of bipartisanship and comity and promised their conservative-leaning constituents that they wouldn’t get sucked into all-or-nothing partisanship.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly new about a generational divide in a Democratic primary. Bernie and Obama were millennial whisperers, while Hillary Clinton was more popular with those eligible for the AARP discount. Democratic primary voters in places like Iowa and South Carolina skew older. In 2016, for example, 58 percent of the Iowa electorate was over the age of 50, but in states like New Hampshire and Texas those under-50 made up at least half of the electorate. But, changes to the rules— like Democrats opening their caucus to absentee votes — will change the composition of the electorate.
What we don’t know, of course, is how candidates and voters are going to respond to the day-in-day-out confrontations with Trump and GOP leaders once Democrats take charge of the House next year. I expect to see seasoned Democratic campaign vets and inside-the-Beltway types fretting that congressional Democrats will overreach in their oversight role. Meanwhile, there is likely going to be less patience for a go-slow approach among those voters and operatives who have only been active in the age of Bernie/Trump.