Not many more voters said that they believe the issues a candidate stresses will be crucial to beating Trump. Those who did consider issues paramount cited health care followed by both climate change and immigration as the concerns they thought the nominee most needs to stress. But only about one in five cited a strong emphasis on any issue as central to victory.
If these Democratic voters didn’t measure electability primarily through ideology, issues, or identity, how did they measure it? By far, more voters—about two-thirds in all—picked a candidate’s personal qualities rather than any other choice. According to the analysis, the most common response was honesty and integrity, followed by compassion, strength, and then competence. Gender mattered here: Women were more likely to stress honesty and compassion, while men gravitated toward strength.
These responses, in some ways, can seem like Democratic voters are projecting their own views on the electorate’s: They basically responded that the qualities that would make a candidate most electable are the same ones they would like to see in a president. But those projections are far from proven. Trump, after all, won in 2016 even as voters held grave doubts about his honesty and compassion and had mixed feelings about his competence.
The Trump precedent looms large over the final ingredient that Democratic primary voters picked as a key component of electability: campaign tactics. The research found that about three in 10 primary voters thought that specific tactical choices the nominee pursues before Election Day would be crucial to beating Trump.
This dimension, as clearly as any other, exposes the stark division among Democrats about how to respond to the norm-shattering president. The action that most of the Democratic voters surveyed thought would help beat Trump was taking the high road and uniting the country. But what ranked next was the exact opposite: fighting back and standing up for beliefs.
The same divergence was apparent when the survey asked Democrats head-on which traits in a nominee would cause them the most concern. “Too left” and “socialist” led the list, but combined for only about one-fifth of the primary voters. Slightly more voters said that they worried about an alternative set of concerns that included “too old,” “too middle,” “man,” and “white.” Older voters worried more about “too left”; younger voters expressed more concern about “too middle,” “man,” and “white.”
In some ways, this detailed research reinforces what strategists working in the Democratic race already know: Different wings of the party are operating on very different theories about what it will take to oust Trump. Progressives insist that winning in 2020 requires a vanguard liberal agenda to mobilize young and minority voters; moderates say that the goal must be balanced against the need to hold white suburbanites moving away from Trump and to recapture working-class white women.