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Analysis: How liberal are Democratic voters?

CBS News poll shows Biden leading Democrats
CBS News battleground poll shows Biden leading Democrats 04:11

If you're plugged into the Democratic presidential nomination contest, especially on social media, you've probably been hearing quite a bit about progressive ideas like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. The first presidential debates of the cycle featured a diverse array of candidates vowing to fight for sweeping liberal policies on health care, immigration, and student debt. 

Some of the unabashedly progressive platforms on display have prompted concern about alienating moderate voters next year. What do Democratic voters think about these kinds of policies, and just how liberal are these voters?

As part of the CBS News 2020 Battleground Tracker, we polled registered voters last month across the states with early nominating contests that were scheduled up to and including Super Tuesday. Our sample has 7,885 Democrats and independents who lean toward to the Democratic Party (whom we'll refer to as Democrats here for the sake of brevity). With ideological fissures within the party coming to the fore, we took a moment to explore the ideological divisions among Democratic voters in these early states.


When we ask Democrats to describe their general political viewpoint, they divide roughly equally into three groups: 

  • Those who say they're very liberal (31%);
  • Those who say they're somewhat liberal (31%);
  • And self-described moderates and conservatives (33%).

There are demographic differences between the groups. The very liberal tend to be whiter, younger, and more educated than the other groups, while the moderate/conservative group is primarily non-white (including 29% black and 19% Hispanic), as well as being older and more religious.

Very liberal Democrats are the most engaged at this point in the campaign. They are the most likely to say that they are paying a lot of attention to the 2020 candidates and that they are very likely to vote in their state's primary or caucus next year. This group is also the most politically active online, with three in four telling us they have posted political content on social media, as opposed to just half of voters in the moderate/conservative group.


When it comes to political attitudes, there is much these groups agree on. They strongly disapprove of President Trump and want an "authentic" nominee capable of beating him in 2020. Each group says their top election issue is health care, and they want to hear candidates talk about lowering its costs.

At the same time, Democrats are by no means monolithic: the different wings of the party prioritize different issues and candidate qualities. When it comes to issues they want to hear about from the candidates, the most liberal Democrats place greater emphasis on stewardship of the environment, such as reducing global warming and developing renewable energy sources. They also say that to earn their vote, candidates must address protecting immigrants and their families, abortion rights, and issues of race and gender. Moderate and conservative Democrats, on the other hand, place relatively greater importance on job creation and lowering taxes. The somewhat liberal group tends to fall in the middle on these issues.


When it comes to candidate traits, very liberal Democrats prioritize refusing money from big donors, while moderates and conservatives place relatively more importance on executive experience and a shared economic upbringing. Nearly half of very liberal Democrats (49%) say that to earn their support, it's extremely important that a candidate convince them that they have new policy ideas. Moderates and conservatives, by contrast, want to be convinced that a candidate can keep the country safe – six in ten say this is extremely important.


The liberal and moderate wings of the party also have slightly different preferences about candidates' demographic traits. Across groups, most say a candidate's gender and race do not matter to them, but among Democrats who express a preference, the very liberal are the most likely to express a desire for a woman and for a person of color. Among moderates and conservatives, slightly more voters express a preference for a man than for a woman. The somewhat liberal are closer to the very liberal in this respect.

When it comes to the Democratic Party's messaging in 2020, most very liberal Democrats prefer the party to run on advancing "a more progressive agenda than the country had under Barack Obama" (66%). Moderates and conservatives prefer the message to be a return to normalcy, specifically to "return the country to the way it was before Donald Trump took office" (56%). Somewhat liberal Democrats are evenly split between these two messages. 

When it comes to impeachment, the very liberal are the most likely group to say they want to hear candidates talk about impeaching Donald Trump right now, though across all three groups, the more popular position is to focus on beating him in the 2020 election instead.

These group differences in priorities translate to distinct vote preferences. (It's possible that voters' candidate preferences cause them to prioritize particular demographic traits or issues, and vice versa.) According to our latest estimates in June, the top choice among the most liberal group is Elizabeth Warren, who has run on a progressive platform and impeaching the president. The main reason voters select for considering Warren is her policy stances -- nine in ten of those considering her say this is a reason why. 

Joe Biden was named the top choice among pluralities of both the somewhat liberal and moderate/conservative groups. The main reason given for considering Biden is his time as President Obama's vice president.

This analysis is mainly based on a CBS News/YouGov survey fielded between May 31 and June 12, 2019. A representative sample of 16,624 registered voters was selected in 18 states that were expected to hold early primaries and caucuses: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia. (Georgia's primary has since been rescheduled.) This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 presidential vote. The sample includes 7,885 self-identified Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents, many of whom were previously interviewed online in a CBS News/YouGov survey fielded between April 25 and May 6, 2019 and weighted the same way. The previous survey was used to measure presidential approval and attitudes toward renewable energy sources.

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