vision 2020

Primary Voters See Biden-Warren Similarities, Ideological Gap With Sanders

Sanders and Warren may be in the same ideological “lane” objectively, but voters don’t see it that way. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Members of the political media often typecast candidates for president ideologically, based on both good and bad information. The former includes voting records and the kind of voters a given pol attracts; the latter can simply involve “style” or “temperament,” or media efforts to fit square pegs into round holes for purposes of symmetry.

There are plenty of good reasons for the prevailing tendency to treat Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as fellow progressives jockeying for position in the left “lane” of a sprawling Democratic field racing toward next year’s primaries. They are close Senate allies, with very similar policy agendas. They both are popular (Warren even more than Sanders) with self-described “very liberal” voters. And they both tend to be critical, to a more or less explicit degree, of the whole Clinton-Obama “centrist” tradition in the Democratic Party.

But voters don’t necessarily share that perspective, as new data from the large-sample Los Angeles Times/USC tracking poll indicate. The Times’ David Lauter explains:

Democratic primary voters nationwide see former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren as relatively close to their own political views but regard Sen. Bernie Sanders as significantly further to their left, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll shows.

The Democrats see Biden as slightly more conservative than themselves and Warren as slightly more liberal, the poll found.

The pollsters asked respondents to rate themselves and selected candidates ideologically on a scale of 1 to 100 (with a higher number indicating more conservatism), and it’s actually Kamala Harris who comes closest to voters’ self-identification:

On average, those who said they expected to vote in a Democratic primary rated themselves as somewhat left of center, at 40. They rated Biden a bit to their right, at 46, and Warren roughly the same distance to their left, at 34. Sanders was rated at 28 — the farthest to the left of the four candidates tested — and Harris was at 37.

Regardless of which candidate they supported, Democrats perceived Sanders as being to their left. Backers of Biden and Harris, as well as undecided voters, all saw Sanders as the candidate farthest from their own ideology.

This finding helps explain why Team Sanders is putting so much emphasis on evidence of his “electability.” Even though he has arguably done more than any other post-Obama Democratic pol to shape the Donkey Party’s policy agenda, he’s still perceived as a bit out there. And for whatever reason, Elizabeth Warren is not. This adds to the argument that she is emerging as a plausible unity candidate acceptable to both Sanders and Biden supporters.

But the LAT/USC survey also has some information about ideology and “electability” that is pure gold for Biden — and possibly for Donald J. Trump:

Looking ahead at the potential general election, the poll finds that swing voters — those who describe themselves as independent or only leaning toward one party or the other — see themselves as very close to the center and view both Trump and Biden as relatively close to themselves ideologically.

Those swing voters, however, regarded Sanders, Harris and Warren as all significantly further to their left, with Sanders being the farthest.

To be clear, this data show swing voters see themselves closer ideologically to Trump than to Warren, Harris, or Sanders.

One of Trump’s secret weapons in 2016 was the fact that voters (not pundits or activists in either party, but voters) perceived the mogul as relatively moderate, and closer to their own ideology than Hillary Clinton, as Harry Enten explained last year after looking at polling on the subject:

Trump’s stances led voters to believe he was relatively moderate for a Republican — or at least that he was ideologically idiosyncratic. More voters viewed Trump as liberal than any incoming GOP president since at least Ronald Reagan, and fewer voters viewed him as conservative than any Republican since at least Reagan. That stood in stark contrast to Clinton, whom the clear majority of voters saw as liberal. Trump’s ideological positioning relative to Clinton’s may have been one of the reasons he was able to pull off a slim Electoral College victory against her.

Enten went on to observe that ideological perceptions of Trump have most definitely changed thanks to the very conservative agenda he has pursued as president. But perceptions are a relative thing, which is why Team Trump and the GOP are already investing so very much time and effort into branding Democrats as wild-eyed America-hating socialists.

Fortunately for Democrats, ideology is far from the only thing voters find objectionable about Trump.

Voters See Ideological Gap Between Warren and Sanders