As the Democratic Party begins what could be a long primary season, electability is on many voters’ minds – which candidate would be the most likely to defeat President Donald Trump. The American Communities Project may have an early answer and it centers on two key county types: the wealthy Exurbs and the blue-collar Middle Suburbs.
This year, the ACP is partnering with Dynata, the world’s largest first-party survey insights company, to conduct monthly surveys to measure how each of the 15 community types is reacting to politics in 2020. Now that Dynata has completed its initial December survey, the ACP examines how each of the four big Democratic potentials — Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — does in a head-to-head matchup against Trump in the Exurbs (1159 responses) and Middle Suburbs (569 responses).
The early results are good for Biden, less so for Sanders. There’s uncertainty about Buttigieg. And Warren seems to face the biggest hurdles.
Why These Two Community Types
The Exurbs and Middle Suburbs are more than bellwether communities. Together they represent the pull and push of Trump and his unique brand of politics. The Exurbs underperformed for Trump, giving him less support than other recent GOP nominees. On the other end, the Middle Suburbs surged for the president. (Furthermore, the groups hold lots of voters in the states that were very close and that won Trump the White House: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.)
The charts below show the voting patterns in each community type, going back to the 2000 election.
The Exurbs have been solidly Republican since 2000. Even in 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency decisively, the Exurbs stood behind John McCain. That’s why the 2016 Trump number is remarkable. In a year that the Republican won, the Exurbs were less enthused. Trump was not what voters in the Exurbs were looking for, at least in 2016.
The opposite was true in the Middle Suburbs. These counties, which are heavily based in the Industrial Midwest, arguably won the election for Trump. The president got a higher percentage of the vote from these counties than any Republican since 2000. He’ll need them again in November.
Bearing those results in mind, what do the (very) early numbers say about 2020? Keep in mind, the Trump should win these community types, so a close loss is a very good result for any Democrat.
Among the big four Democratic frontrunners, Joe Biden’s numbers are the strongest with voters in both community types. In the Exurbs, Trump’s eight-point victory margin would be a Republican low for this century and big red flag for his campaign.
And a one-point win for Trump in the Middle Suburbs would likely mean a big defeat overall. It’s the kind of number that suggests Democrats would win back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Overall, Biden beats Trump by about six points in the national popular vote.
There are a few big caveats here, of course. It’s only January and there are a lot of voters (double digits) in the “wouldn’t vote” and “don’t know” camps in both types. But if Trump gets these kinds of margins out of the Exurbs and Middle Suburbs, it’s almost certain he will not win reelection. There are simply too many voters in these communities, and they are in places that would hurt him.
The numbers are less impressive for Sanders. Trump runs up a big 15-point win the Exurbs. That’s not a huge surprise. Exurban voters probably don’t see a lot to like about the idea of a “Democratic Socialist” as president. They have money in their bank accounts and in the stock market.
But Sanders does better in the Middle Suburbs, where Trump wins by only seven points. Some of Sanders’ populist rhetoric may play better in those communities, where the long-term economic trend has been downward. That relatively close Middle Suburb margin would hurt Trump in the Industrial Midwest and the Electoral College. Sanders pulls out a narrow two-point popular vote win in the data.
Note that the “wouldn’t vote/don’t know” tally looks similar to Biden in these places. That’s likely because both candidates are well-known.
As one might expect, the numbers for Buttigieg, a less-known, are much more uncertain. Overall, Trump wins the Exurbs (14 points) and Middle Suburbs (8 points) by very similar margins to the head-to-heads with Sanders. But the real difference here is the unsure vote. In both community types, the “wouldn’t vote/don’t know” figure is about 20% in the Trump-Buttigieg head-to-heads.
Supporters will argue the numbers show Buttigieg has room to grow once voters know him better. That’s true. The flip-side: Voters have to like what they see, and that’s impossible to judge from these data. Buttigieg’s more moderate economic positions may appeal to the fiscally-conservative Exurbs, but his sexual orientation could hurt his support in the Middle Suburbs, which are often more culturally conservative.
Buttigieg narrowly trails Trump in the national popular vote by two points, but again, there’s a good 20% of the vote that falls into “wouldn’t vote/don’t know.”
Warren seems to have the toughest road ahead with the two community types, according to the data. Trump bests her in the Exurbs by about 13 points, and he also defeats her by double digits, 10 points, in the Middle Suburbs. There’s still a good amount of uncertainty, but “wouldn’t vote/don’t know” numbers are quite a bit lower than those of Buttigieg.
The real concern for her is in the Middle Suburbs. If Sanders’ populist message is playing in these communities, Warren’s seems to have less support. Is she hurt by being less well-known than Sanders? Are the Middle Suburbs better territory for male candidates?
Overall, she trails in the national popular vote by two points, like Buttigieg, but her numbers seem more challenging to surmount because more voters have an opinion about her already.
Again, it’s very early in what’s likely to be a very long and eventful election year. And this is the first round of polling with the ACP types in 2020. We’ll look at other data sets in the coming months.