WASHINGTON — By the time the 2019 primary season arrives there could be 15 to 20 Democratic candidates in the presidential field — or more. That’s a lot of choices. But what “type” of candidate might Democratic voters be looking for?
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll put forth a list of potential candidate traits to gauge whether they would make voters “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” or give them “reservations” and make them “uncomfortable.” The findings may offer some hints about where Democratic heads are right now.
Start first with what excites the Democratic base and you’ll see a lot of backing for a female candidate or an African-American candidate and support for a gay or lesbian candidate.
More than 90 percent of Democrats say they would be enthusiastic about, or comfortable with, an African American or woman candidate. There are several declared Democrats who would fall into those groups. And nearly 80 percent say they would feel that way about a gay or lesbian candidate.
Support for those traits extends beyond just Democrats. More than 80 percent of voters overall would be enthusiastic about or comfortable with an African American or woman candidate. And nearly 70 percent of voters overall would feel that way about a gay or lesbian candidate.
Those numbers make a few points clear. First, voter attitudes seem to have changed in the last few elections and traits that were once viewed as hurdles for a candidate are not the challenges they once were. Second, on these traits, the general public looks to be largely in line with Democratic voter sentiment.
There also seem to be traits that turn Democrats off in the new poll — particularly older candidates and candidates who identify as socialists.
Only 33 percent of Democrats say they would be enthusiastic about, or comfortable with, a candidate 75 or older and only 45 percent said they felt that way about a socialist candidate. That last number may be something of a surprise considering how often the word “socialist” has been bandied about by both Democrats and Republicans of late.
And again, voters overall concur. They do not seem overly excited by those candidate traits. Only 37 percent of voters overall are enthusiastic about, or comfortable with, a candidate 75 or older, and only 25 percent feel that way about a socialist.
The data show differences, however, between the Democrats and the public as a whole on some traits, particularly those involving religion and business experience.
Only 31 percent of Democrats say they would be enthusiastic about or comfortable with a “business executive” as a candidate, while 56 percent of voters overall say they would be. (Although it should be noted that all those poll respondents may have a specific “business executive” in mind.)
And two-thirds of Democrats say they would be enthusiastic about, or comfortable with, a Muslim candidate, while only 37 percent of Democrats say they would feel that way about an evangelical candidate.
The numbers are flipped for voters overall. Less than half of all respondents said they would be enthusiastic about, or comfortable with, a Muslim candidate, but more than half said they would feel that way about an evangelical candidate.
Some of those partisan divides mask racial and ethnic splits in the poll.
For instance, when the question centers on a Muslim candidate, a majority of Hispanics and African Americans say they would be enthusiastic or comfortable, but only 46 percent of whites agree. And if the candidate was a “business executive,” 60 percent of whites said they would be enthusiastic or comfortable, but less than half of Hispanics and African-Americans agreed.
It’s not completely clear what all these characteristics and traits really tell us about the Democratic field. Ultimately, resumes and personalities carry a lot of weight and as campaigns unfold what voters are looking for can change. The poll will be testing other candidate traits in the months ahead — including candidates who are Hispanic, Asian American, atheist and even billionaires — to see where the voters stand.
But, on the whole, these NBC News/WSJ poll numbers suggest the traits that most animate Democratic voters look like they resonate with voters at large as well. And that’s an important finding for Democrats because this poll revealed one more important point about where Democratic voters stand.
While a majority of Democrats think someone who comes closest to their views is the most important trait, more Democrats than ever want someone who can win.