The following is a guest post by Four Freedoms member Charles Riggs.
I organized two informal unscientific Democratic presidential instant runoff straw poll surveys of NYC grassroots activist Democrats this past week, on the occasion of the two-part presidential debate series just concluded. The surveys were conducted at the debate watch parties of the Four Freedoms Club Tuesday night and the DL21C group Wednesday night.
The headline is Elizabeth Warren. She dominated both surveys, placing first in both, with an average support/approval ranking of 82%.
The surprise was Pete Buttigieg. He did better than any of the other candidates but Warren, receiving an average support/approval ranking of 68%, and placing third and fourth in the two surveys.
There were three other candidates who received support/approval from a majority of the respondents on average, clustering around a percentage in the mid 50's. Of those, Biden was the only candidate who scored majority support/approval in both surveys. The other two were Harris and Sanders, each of whom received majority support/approval in one of the two surveys.
At this point, I think it's instructive to take a look at how stable the support for these candidates has been recently, and what their longer-term support picture looks like. In some ways, this is an even more informative metric, perhaps, than looking just at the current group of these surveys, conducted in July.
Once again Warren dominates. She has enjoyed, on average, majority support/approval in these ongoing semi-monthly surveys since early April, and, on average, she has been in first place.
Right behind her has been Kamala Harris. She has enjoyed, on average, majority support/approval ever since the early February surveys conducted days after she declared in late January. On average, she has placed second.
Next up is Pete Buttigieg. He has enjoyed, on average, majority support/approval since mid-May, and his average position has been third place.
Back a bit from the South Bend mayor has been the crusty Vermont senator, Bernie Sanders. He also has enjoyed majority support/approval since mid-May, though his average position has lagged Buttigieg somewhat, usually fifth place.
Finally, the fifth Democratic presidential candidate who has consistently received majority support/approval over the past few months is Joe Biden. His majority support/approval has materialized relatively recently; he has received it consistently since late June, and his average position has lagged the others, namely sixth place.
What does all this mean?
Given the fact that there is a consistency and predictability to these results, and that the data is not wildly different and disparate from survey to survey, one can reasonably reach the conclusion that we are probably seeing a fairly accurate picture of where NYC grassroots Democrats stand on their presidential race. If that is the case, then these results mean that the two candidates which most professional first-choice-only surveys have declared the front-runners, namely Biden and Sanders, are anything but among high-information high-involvement Democratic activists. Instead, that honor properly goes to Warren and Buttigieg.
Well, so what? High-information high-involvement activists are not a majority of the nation's Democratic party registrants. Their preferences have little to tell us on the state of the race as a whole, right?
Well, wrong, it would seem.
In recent months, a few nationwide surveys, from CBS, NBC and YouGov, have finally taken their heads out of their 18th-century first-choice-only backsides and started to dip their toe into the 20th-century world of multiple choice.
I have combined and averaged the support/approval levels these multiple-choice questions show for the candidates in the last six such surveys, which date back about a month. Here is that averaged picture:
The most notable aspect of the above picture is Warren's standing. Precisely as in our own informal unscientific results, Warren comes in first, albeit narrowly. It is clearly inaccurate to characterize Biden as the front-runner and Warren as the challenger. As soon as a multiple-choice gauge is utilized, it becomes clear that Warren has a slight but consistent edge.
The second notable aspect of the above picture is the match between its candidate order and the candidate order we're seeing in our own informal surveys. Both survey sets agree on Warren, Biden, Harris and Sanders as the lead candidates, and in that order. The only discrepancy is Buttigieg. The nationwide surveys still show him in fifth place but gaining rapidly on Sanders, as Sanders' support diminishes. On the other hand, in our surveys, Buttigieg consistently scored in second place, behind Warren.
Which leaves the following question: Are NYC grassroots Democrats providing a leading indicator on Buttigieg's future strength? Or are we simply a bunch of unrepresentative latte-sipping limousine liberals falling for an overly educated Rhodes scholar who talks and thinks like we do?
Based on some experiences I've had in the past with these surveys, my hunch is that the correct answer is the former, and that Buttigieg is a potentially powerful growth stock. I saw something similar in my 05/06 surveys. Conventional wisdom was saying that Edwards, not Obama, would be Clinton's chief rival for the 08 Dem presidential nomination. My surveys were showing the reverse. In the end, of course, my surveys' prediction came true.
Of course, there is a fundamental difference between our soundings and those from CBS, NBC and YouGov. Our soundings target high-information high-involvement respondents. The professional pollsters are targeting average Democrats. I am waiting eagerly for the professional pollster who decides to screen for those following the campaign closely and who say they are familiar with most of the candidates. Would Buttigieg then emerge as a top-tier contender?
Anyway, that's where we seem to be in the current Democratic presidential race, if these surveys are providing us an accurate picture.
I cannot close without acknowledging the invaluable help I received from so many people.
First and foremost, I'd like to acknowledge Four Freedoms leaders Bridget Cusick and Kim Moscaritolo and DL21C leader Elizabeth Caputo for their support and encouragement of my efforts.
In addition, special thanks to Alex Bores of Four Freedoms, who devised a superior spreadsheet for counting instant runoff results that was amazingly speedy and efficient. Hat's off, Alex!
I'd also like to express great gratitude to some generous and selfless people who helped me conduct the Wednesday survey for DL21C: Steven Bernstein, Tibita Kaneene and Tom Krauss.
As always, I am eager to invite comment, reaction, agreement, disagreement, alternate analysis, alternate insight, etc. etc. Jump on in! Thanks!