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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

August 8, 2019

Pete Buttigieg's Only Problem with Black Voters is They Don't Know Who He Is

Presidential / National / Elections

Photo of Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Heading into the final stretch of summer pundits continue to marvel at Joe Biden’s continued primacy in the Democratic primary polls. Biden’s robust support among black voters is often cited as one of the main drivers behind his continued frontrunner status. Pundits usually discount the ability of his main opponents, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, to overtake him based on their lackluster performance among this key constituency of the Democratic Party.

At the end of July, when Monmouth University released their latest South Carolina poll Biden lead the horserace with 39% of the vote, including the support of 51% of blacks respondents. No other candidate came close to challenging Biden. In terms of support among black voters, Buttigieg carried just 1%, Warren 2%, and Harris 12%. The numbers are so overwhelming and have changed so little since Monmouth’s poll at the beginning of July, it is easy to understand why pundits have come to the conclusion that the other Democratic candidates are failing to woo black voters. But the truth is, a sizable portion of the Democratic electorate has yet to tune into the primary, and this has profound impacts on polling data.

Pundits usually preface their assessment of primary polling data with the disclaimer that name recognition is an important driver of both Joe Biden’s as well as Bernie Sanders’ leads in the polls at this point in the process. But few truly comprehend just how profound an impact name recognition, combined with low interest and low participation rates, has on early polling data.

A common misconception is that name recognition can be adequately controlled for. Analysts have a strong incentive to find a way to compare low and high name ID candidates because failing to do so severely limits the use of early polling data. In the case of the massive 2020 Democratic field, we have 2 well-known, nationally recognized candidates and 21 obscure candidates virtually unknown outside their own states. Just 1% of potential Democratic primary voters fail to identify Joe Biden in Morning Consult’s tracking survey data, compared to 7% for Bernie Sanders because Sanders was the runner-up in last cycle’s primary and Biden was Vice President for 8 years under Obama.

Many people analyzing this primary fail to fully appreciate how out-of-touch average Americans are when it comes to politics and political figures. Elizabeth Warren has spent the entirety of her political career in the national spotlight, yet remains an enigma to 23% of potential Democratic primary voters. Keep in mind, that is not Americans overall, these are potential primary voters, a group with above-average interest in news and politics. 40% of these potential voters don’t know who Beto O’Rourke is, despite the fact that O’Rourke was one of the main stars of the 2018 midterms. Mayor Pete, inarguably the upshot star of the 2020 cycle, is still at 43% “don’t know.

Statistically, low levels of name recognition have massive impacts on polling data. It is not possible to compare favorability of low and high name ID candidates. According to the most recent Morning Consult data, 73% of Democratic primary voters have a favorable impression of Joe Biden, but just 61% feel the same about Elizabeth Warren. The temptation is to look at this gap and conclude that Warren is less “likable” than Biden, but because 23% of voters don’t know Warren compared to just 1% for Biden, it is not clear there is truly a double digit gap between them on likability or if it’s a product of Biden’s higher name ID.

Some analysts argue they can “control” for this issue but using net favorability, which is derived by dropping out the respondents who don’t know the candidate and then subtracting the candidate’s unfavorable number from their favorable number. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable workaround, but when you subject these calculations to logic tests, it is clear that using net favorability is insufficient. Keep in mind, this is a survey of Democrats, about liking Democrats. The only reason why Biden and Sanders have high, and essentially equal, favorability ratings is because some respondents are unwilling to say they favor someone they know nothing about, but virtually all respondents who have a firm candidate choice are willing to say they don’t like the other candidates as a means of elevating their preferred nominee in the survey. That is why the variation for “unfavorable” is very low between candidates even though the variation between candidates for “don’t know” is very high.

Take for instance the affable Mayor Pete, whose current Morning Consult favorability rating is 45% with a 12% disapprove, producing a net favorability rating of +35. Compare Buttigieg with Biden, who is currently at 73% approve, 19% disapprove for a net favorability of +54. Substantively, do we have any reason to think that Mayor Pete is -19 points less likable to Democratic primary voters than Joe Biden? How about Julian Castro, who is at a +21 point net favorability, 33 points below Biden. What about poor Steve Bullock, Democratic Governor of Montana, and his +15 favorability? In fact, as Table 1 shows, there is an inverse relationship between “don’t know/ heard of no opinion” and favorability; as one rises the other falls. This may not be the case if we were asking a broader audience (all voters), but because we are asking Democrats about Democrats, with a few exceptions, what we are measuring is pure name recognition, not the candidate’s actual likability. As such, the only two candidates for whom we have reliable estimates of likability are Biden and Sanders, although both would likely have higher likability among Democrats in a different polling context.

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Low name recognition also inhibits our ability to yield valid insights about how the low name ID candidates are performing among sub-populations in the data. Like net favorability, simply dropping respondents who don’t know the candidates is not a valid work around to this issue. Which is why it is inaccurate to say that Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and to a lesser extent, Kamala Harris, are struggling to attract black voters. Like with voters overall, much of the Democratic field still remains a mystery to black voters, a large portion of whom have yet to tune into the process. And it should be noted that black voters have higher rates of “don’t know/heard of, no opinion” than voters overall. 12% of black Democratic primary voters report “don’t know/heard of, no opinion” for Biden and 14% report the same for Sanders. The lesser known candidates have significant name recognition issues among this subpopulation. Warren is at 37% Kamala Harris 35%, and Pete Buttigieg a whopping 62%! That’s right, just 38% of black Democratic primary voters in Morning Consult’s tracking survey even know who Pete Buttigieg is. Of course, all three candidates may ultimately fail to ever gain traction among black voters, and if they do, Biden will surely become the Democratic Party’s nominee. But we shouldn’t use misunderstood polling data to push premature narratives about it.

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