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WASHINGTON — Spooked by the 2016 election, Democratic voters say they want above all else someone who can beat President Donald Trump, according to a new poll Monday.
The only problem is they disagree on how you beat Donald Trump.
The poll from Monmouth University found that an unusually large number of Democratic voters are prioritizing "electability" over values as they begin to think about whom to support in their 2020 presidential primary.
"In prior elections, voters from both parties consistently prioritized shared values over electability when selecting a nominee," said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "It looks like Democrats may be willing to flip that equation in 2020 because of their desire to defeat Trump. This is something to pay close attention to when primary voters really start tuning into the campaign."
In the survey, 56 percent of potential Democratic voters nationally said they preferred someone who would be a stronger candidate against Trump, even if they don't agree with that candidate on all issues. Meanwhile, 33 percent said they would prefer someone who aligns better with their beliefs, but who might have a harder time beating Trump.
Just 10 percent rejected the question, saying there is no tradeoff between the two.
The problem for Democrats is that, after Trump’s shocking upset in 2016, there's widespread disagreement on what electability even looks like.
After all, Hillary Clinton was supposed to be more electable than Bernie Sanders, but she and her campaign were still blindsided by Trump and lost the presidency in the Electoral College even as they won the popular vote.
That's not to say Sanders would have won, but that party leaders and the 2020 candidates themselves will have to spend much of the next year and a half debating not just why they are the best candidate to face Trump, but what criteria should even be used to judge that question.
Is the most electable candidate a moderate who won't scare off the upwardly mobile suburbs that were crucial to the party's gains in the 2018 midterms? Or is it a person of color who can excite African-Americans and Latinos, whose turnout dropped off in 2016? Or could it be a populist progressive who can try to back white union voters who drifted from the Democratic Party in those upper Midwest states that were crucial to Trump’s victory? Or is it something else entirely?
Ask a dozen Democratic strategists that question and you might get a dozen different answers, especially as they start to align themselves with different candidates with different electoral strategies.
Strategic voting — choosing someone in a primary because you think they have the best chance of winning the general — is not new. And campaign pollsters often ask respondents how they think other people will vote to gauge perceptions of electability, especially for candidates who are women or racial minorities, where prejudices are difficult to tease out.
Barack Obama, for instance, spent much of his 2008 primary election battle against Clinton convincing party elites that he was electable enough to be their standard-bearer in the general election.
"The Clinton campaign maintained that we would struggle in the general election with blue-collar voters, seniors and Hispanic voters, and that the Republicans would find ways to make their swift boating of John Kerry look like child's play," Obama strategist David Plouffe wrote in his book, "The Audacity to Win." "Obama's 'electability problems' became the new narrative for us to fight through, less in terms of how voters processed the argument than how it was received by a few hundred superdelegates who now held our fate in their hands.”
A month before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal asked potential Democratic voters what was more important to them. Just 16 percent chose "a candidate with the best chance to defeat the Republican candidate," while 46 percent opted for "a candidate who comes closest to your views on issues" and another 38 percent said "the right personal style and strong leadership qualities."
This year, though, the "electability problem" seems to have filtered down to Democratic voters, especially in early primary and caucus states, who have already voiced worries that candidates they otherwise like couldn't beat Trump.