Populism has had a resurgence in many parts of the world in recent years, and the US has been no exception. Donald Trump won the White House in 2016 on a largely populist platform, and populist candidates have become part of the Democrats’ 2020 election primary contest. In new research using nationwide data, Kal Munis, Richard Burke, Nicole Huffman, and Connor Munis look at how voters’ populist attitudes affect how they feel about the Democratic candidates. They find that those who maintain that “the people” should have a direct say in government’s decisions were more likely to support Sanders or Warren, while those who feel that the “ordinary person” is the most virtuous favored former Vice President Joe Biden.
The words “populist” and “populism” have become prominent in our contemporary political lexicon with at least two of the Democrats’ 2020 presidential contenders being described that way. However, the term’s meaning is ambiguous. Some use it to describe how certain candidates campaign. Others use the term to describe governing style and policy priorities. Still others maintain that populism describes the ideas that some voters hold about government, politicians, and the broader society. This last category, what might be called “populist attitudes,” helps to explain why some voters give high marks to some Democratic candidates but not others.
With the help of new nationwide data, we’ve tried to get a handle on what populism really means for the 2020 Democratic primary.
What We’ve Known About the 2020 Primary
While former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have been consistent frontrunners throughout the Democratic primary contest, candidates such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg have emerged as key challengers in the lead up to the first primaries and caucuses earlier next year. All other candidates have struggled to find a consistent electoral foothold, forcing some, such as Senator Kamala Harris, to recently drop out of the race entirely.
Biden and Sanders’ bases of support have been remarkably stable so far. Biden performs best among Black and older voters, whereas Sanders is unparalleled in his appeal among progressives and prospective voters under the age of 30. Meanwhile, Warren performs well among affluent well-educated progressives.
In new research which uses new nationally representative survey data, we confirm these basic trends, while also offering a fresh perspective into the Democratic primaries.
“Family Reunification Rally – Boston, MA” by Elizabeth Warren is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0
How different shades of populism predict support for different candidates
Recent work from social scientists at the University of Zurich and the University of Mannheim illustrate three different “dimensions” or shades of populist beliefs: those rooted in anti-elite attitudes, those centered on the imperative of direct popular sovereignty, and those focused on the virtuousness of the common person.
To uncover the relationship between these different types of populist attitudes and voters’ assessments of Democratic primary candidates, we analyze the data in a way that allows us to simultaneously assess the relationship between assessments of candidates and a litany of respondent characteristics, including measures of each of the three variants of populist attitudes.
Our results show that, taking all other factors into account, those who harbor strong anti-elite attitudes (the first dimension of populism) give lower marks to all candidates when compared to otherwise identical respondents who don’t have strong anti-elite attitudes. This is somewhat unsurprising since, by definition, all front runner candidates for their party’s presidential nomination are political elites.
Figure 1 – Predicted Values of Warren Likeability by Populist Attitude Variants
As Figures 1 and 2 show, both Sanders and Warren received boosts from those who believe that “the people” should have a direct say in all important decisions that the government makes (the second dimension of populism). However, this variant of populism was not significantly related to assessments of Biden one way or the other.
Figure 2 – Predicted Values of Sanders Likeability by Populist Attitude Variants
Those who believe strongly in the third dimension of populism– that “ordinary people” are for the most part virtuous and well-meaning, view Biden favorably. Warren also gets a boost from these voters, though it’s smaller than the boost for Biden. This attitude is not associated with assessments of Sanders one way or the other.
Figure 3 – Predicted Values of Biden Likeability by Populist Attitude Variants
These findings speak to the relationships between populist attitudes and assessments of individual candidates in isolation. But what does this tell us about the differences in how the candidates are assessed?
Comparing the candidates best known and best liked by our sample, Biden and Sanders, consistent with the findings above we find that populists who are adamant about the virtues of the common person tend to significantly prefer Biden, whereas populists who believe that common people should have a say in all important government decisions are more favorable toward Sanders. Aside from populism, more liberal, younger, and white respondents reported a preference for Sanders, all while controlling for other factors.
A similar picture emerges when we compare the assessments of Biden and Warren, though Biden’s advantage with those high on the virtues of the common person disappears. Warren, like Sanders, is significantly preferred by those who believe the common person should have a direct hand in government decisions, as well as by more liberal, younger, and white voters.
Finally, comparing Sanders and Warren, we find that despite their ideological and other similarities, there are several significant differences that emerge regarding the types of voters that prefer them. Intriguingly, the difference in preference between the two progressive candidates cannot be explained by any of the variants of populism. Rather, more basic demographic criteria explain the differences in assessments: whites, older, better educated, and suburban voters prefer Warren over Sanders.
Why populist attitudes are important in the 2020 presidential contest
Our survey results confirm many of the trends and associations identified to date by others. Our analysis also points to populist attitudes as being an important variable that helps explain why some people are drawn to some candidates and not others.
While those who believe in the plain goodness and commonality between ordinary people are drawn to Biden, those who believe that the government should directly reflect the will the people are drawn to Sanders and Warren. Overall, it seems that this is consistent with their overall styles. Biden has a folksier style, stressing the goodness of the values of ordinary Americans who are, in a sense, above the cynical nature of politics. Sanders and Warren, meanwhile, both call for more direct engagement in the political process and emphasize a great deal the extent to which there is a gap between government, which they allege caters too closely to so-called special interests, and the will of the masses. Because of this, it is unlikely that any of the candidates will change their style in order to be more appealing to voters of other populist persuasions, as doing so could jeopardize their current base.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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Kal Munis – University of Virginia
Kal Munis is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. His research centers on American politics, with emphases in political behavior, racial and ethnic politics, and representation.
Richard Burke – University of Virginia
Richard Burke is a PhD Student in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of nationalization in both the U.S. Congress and various state legislatures.
Nicole Huffman – University of Virginia
Nicole Huffman is an undergraduate researcher in the Departments of Politics and Psychology at the University of Virginia.
Connor Munis – University of Montana
Connor Munis is an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Political Science at the University of Montana.