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The Vulnerability of Biden (and Bernie)

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

People who give money to presidential candidates typically spend more time following campaigns than average voters do. Many campaign donors — including those who give small amounts — read policy proposals, watch debates and listen to candidate interviews. Along the way, the donors develop well-informed views about the candidates.

As a result, the donors’ opinions end up mattering for both obvious and less obvious reasons. In the obvious category: Donors determine which candidates have well-funded campaigns and, in the 2020 race, will help decide who’ll qualify for the early debates. In the less obvious category: Donor’s opinions are an indicator of which candidates deserve to be faring well. Donors are akin to a huge panel of interested experts.

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For these reasons, two research firms — Gradient Metrics and Survey 160 — recently asked Democratic donors from the 2016 campaign, many of whom are giving money again in this cycle, what they thought of the 2020 candidates. The results, which haven’t been publicly released until now, are fascinating.

Above all, they underscore the vulnerabilities of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the two candidates atop most polls of Democratic voters.


CreditThe New York Times/Gradient Metrics and Survey 160

The results

Sanders has an inherent advantage with donors, because he is the only 2020 candidate who also ran in 2016. So I wasn’t surprised that he was the first choice of 34 percent of donors, more than any other candidate. Elizabeth Warren was second (23 percent), and no one else topped 10 percent. Biden was at 9 percent, along with Pete Buttigieg.

But Sanders’s support seems soft. Because the race is in its early stages, the pollsters also asked people a broader question: Which candidates would you consider supporting?

On this measure, Sanders fell to second. Warren was first, at 68 percent, followed by Sanders (57 percent), Kamala Harris (40 percent) and Buttigieg (38 percent). The survey was conducted before last week’s debates, so it’s reasonable to think the numbers for Harris and Buttigieg may have risen.

What about Biden?

Only 26 percent of donors said they were considering him. Even among Hillary Clinton’s 2016 donors — presumably a more moderate group of Democrats — Biden came in fourth. Harris drew the broadest potential support among Clinton donors, followed by Warren and Buttigieg.

Nathaniel Lubin, the chief executive of Survey 160, which helped conduct the poll, told me that Biden’s relative lack of a policy agenda so far may be hurting him. When asked whether they wanted a candidate to focus on a policy agenda or on standing up to President Trump, almost 80 percent of donors chose policy.

Obviously, Biden can still win the nomination. He still has time to release a detailed agenda, and he remains popular among rank-and-file Democrats. But he is struggling to generate excitement among the most engaged Democratic voters, including many moderates. Democrats who follow politics closely don’t seem energized by Biden’s candidacy.

Sanders, meanwhile, has failed to lock down many of his 2016 supporters. In 2016, they preferred him in a head-to-head matchup with Clinton, but they don’t necessarily like him best among this year’s larger field.

A few other details from the poll follow:

  • I was happy to see that climate change was the top policy priority of donors. Thirty percent named it their No. 1 concern, with health care coming in second (28 percent), followed by inequality (20 percent), democratic reform (9 percent) and immigration (2 percent). A year or two ago, I imagine these answers would have been quite different, with health care well ahead of climate change.

  • Biden fared better among donors who gave larger amounts: Among people who gave at least $1,000 in 2016, 47 percent said they would consider him. Among people who gave less than $200, only 23 percent said they would.

  • Warren’s popularity is impressively broad, Tom Vladeck, the managing director of Gradient Metrics, pointed out. She drew strong support from both 2016 Sanders donors and 2016 Clinton donors; big-dollar and small-dollar donors; older and younger donors; and women and men.

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