President Donald Trump’s poor poll numbers have dozens of Democrats reportedly considering challenging him in 2020. But voters haven’t heard of the vast majority of them.
According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll that tested voters’ views of 19 potential Democratic presidential candidates — a list that includes eight senators, five governors, one congressman, a big-city mayor and a failed Senate candidate — most of the prospects are unknown among at least half the electorate.
Since the next presidential election won’t start in earnest for at least 18 months, that leaves a limited time for no-name candidates to build name recognition and familiarity among voters.
"All bets are off when it comes to the composition of the 2020 Democratic primary," said Morning Consult Co-founder and Chief Research Officer Kyle Dropp. "This early polling indicates that many of the names being floated in Washington still have a lot of work to do in terms of building national profiles."
A handful of heavyweight party elders, however, would enter a campaign as known quantities: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). At least three-quarters of voters surveyed said they had an opinion on Biden and Warren.
All will be septuagenarians come November 2020, including Sanders, who wasn’t included in the name-ID battery but could decide to mount a second bid for the Democratic nomination. The poll also didn’t test Martin O’Malley — another 2016 also-ran who told CBS News this week he “certainly feel[s] compelled to continue to look at” running again — but the former Maryland governor failed to gain any traction or broad name-ID during his presidential campaign.
The next tier of potential Democratic candidates are younger but little-known. Among the senators who have been mentioned as potential candidates, only Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) — the former “Saturday Night Live” writer and performer — has name identification that exceeds 70 percent. More than a third of voters, 35 percent, said they have never heard of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — a former governor and national party chairman who was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee last year.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) may be a social-media sensation, but 46 percent of voters said they have never heard of him. And four other senators — Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) —have majorities saying they have never heard of them.
Among the governors, only New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has significant name-ID; just 30 percent of voters said they have never heard of him. But that number is 50 percent or greater for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
The figures are similar for a number of other potential candidates tested in the survey: Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Walt Disney Company CEO Robert Iger and Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz.
It’s notable that these candidates are not any better known among Democratic respondents; for all but Gillibrand and Booker, each candidate was as unknown among Democrats as among the overall pool of voters.
The poll was conducted June 8-12, surveying 1,990 registered voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.
There’s some evidence these candidates could be even less known than the data indicate, Dropp said.
“More than half of respondents say they’ve never heard of many of these potential candidates,” he said. “And, since some respondents may hesitate to admit they don’t know the prospective candidates, overall awareness of the Democratic field may be even lower.”
There’s still time for these Democrats to increase their name-identification — and they can look to two recent examples as potential models. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was unknown to nearly six-in-10 Americans when Gallup asked about him in June 2013, less than six months into Cruz’s Senate career.
But after Cruz helped engineer a government shutdown that autumn, his name-ID jumped 20 points — though most of it added to his unfavorable rating, as Democrats and Republicans alike knocked Cruz as an opportunist who undermined the Congress for his own political gain.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) also sought the White House just four years into his Senate career, but Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention laid a foundation with the party’s voters that most of the senators and governors in the poll won’t have.
That leaves most of the second-tier Democrats jockeying for attention. Harris has generated headlines with her questioning of Trump administration officials from her perch on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Franken’s examination of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the then-Alabama senator’s confirmation hearing won him acclaim on the left and may have helped lead to Sessions’ eventual recusal from the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. Klobuchar, Franken’s Minnesota colleague, is also on the Senate Judiciary Committee and is a co-sponsor of a measure to create an independent commission to probe Russia’s actions.
Governors are equally invested in the resistance to Trump. Inslee and Cuomo quickly joined with California Gov. Jerry Brown to form a sub-national alliance after Trump announced the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change; McAuliffe brought his commonwealth in days later.
But they still have work to do to become top-tier candidates in 2019. For now, the better-known prospective candidates are circumspect about whether they’ll mount a bid to unseat Trump.
Warren says she is focused on winning reelection to the Senate next year. Sanders’ wife said last weekend that the Vermonter hasn’t made up his mind about 2020. And Biden, who declined to run last cycle after his son’s death, also refuses to rule it out.
“I am an enormous respecter of fate,” Biden said this week on an interview with a public-radio station in Philadelphia. “I don’t have any plans to do it, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it.”
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