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Voters’ Feelings About The Debate Depended On What Issues They Care About

Coming out of Tuesday’s debate, we are obviously interested in which candidates had a good night and which failed to resonate with voters. But we are also interested in taking a deeper look into where these changes in support are coming from. For instance, what did voters who prioritize wealth and income inequality think of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who pitched her wealth tax? How about voters who prioritize health care — were they more likely to be impressed by candidates who back Medicare for All, a public option, or building on the Affordable Care Act?

To try to answer these questions, FiveThirtyEight partnered with Ipsos, using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, to talk to the same set of voters before and after the debate. Among other things, respondents were asked which policy issue was most important to them. Before the debate, the most common response was health care, followed by wealth and income inequality, the economy and jobs, and climate change.

Many Democrats put health care at the top of their list

Share of respondents to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll who said that each issue is the most important to them, before and after the debate

Share who say issue is most important
issue Pre-debate Post-debate
Health care 19.2% 19.4%
The economy and jobs 12.9 14.8
Wealth and income inequality 13.1 14.5
Climate change 12.3 10.2
Something else 7.5 7.5
Racism, sexism, discrimination 7.7 6.3
Social Security 5.0 5.9
Gun policy 5.7 5.4
Education 3.8 3.9
Immigration 4.9 3.8
Foreign affairs 2.9 3.5
Taxes 2.2 2.4
The Supreme Court 2.7 2.3

From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 1,761 responded to the second wave.

After the debate, when Ipsos re-interviewed respondents, there was some movement on which issue voters thought was most important — for example, the share of respondents selecting climate change dropped after the issue was barely mentioned in the debate, and the share who chose jobs and the economy rose after a lengthy discussion about the issue — but all of these changes were fairly small and within the poll’s margin of error.

Voters’ priorities, however, did influence how viewers thought candidates performed. For example, of the five issues we looked at,<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/voters-feelings-about-the-debate-depended-on-what-issues-they-care-about/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="

We limited our analysis to the top five issues — excluding those who chose “something else” — to maintain a decent sample size (these issues were chosen by more than 5 percent of the sample in both waves). We are using the share of voters who identified an issue as the most important to them before the debate because that’s a better representation of the lens through which viewers were watching the debate.

“>1 Warren received high marks from voters whose top issue was discrimination, climate change, wealth and income inequality, or health care (respondents graded candidates on a four-point scale, where higher scores are better), ranking first in the field in all four of those categories. But she didn’t do as well among voters whose top issue is the economy and jobs; instead, former Vice President Joe Biden got the highest rating from that group of voters, which comprised almost 13 percent of likely Democratic voters in our poll.

Who got the best scores from voters who prioritize …

Candidates’ average scores in the fourth Democratic debate by which issue respondents said was most important to them, per a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll where respondents graded debate performances on a four-point scale

Most Important Issue
candidate Health care Wealth and income inequality The economy and jobs Climate change Racism, sexism, discrimination
Warren 3.3 3.3 2.8 3.5 3.5
Sanders 3.2 3.2 3.0 3.3 3.0
Buttigieg 3.1 3.1 3.0 3.4 2.8
Biden 3.1 2.8 3.2 2.9 3.1
Harris 2.9 2.9 2.8 3.0 2.9
Klobuchar 2.8 2.8 3.0 3.0 2.6
Yang 2.8 2.9 2.8 2.7 2.5
Booker 2.8 2.9 2.6 3.0 2.9
O’Rourke 2.7 2.7 2.5 2.6 2.8
Steyer 2.6 2.5 2.4 2.6 2.4
Castro 2.6 2.6 2.3 2.6 2.5
Gabbard 2.5 2.4 2.5 2.4 2.3

For the top five issues out of a set of 12 respondents could choose from. Uses respondents’ pre-debate answer for which issue is most important. From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 1,761 responded to the second wave.

But it was health care — not the economy — that ranked as the most important issue to the largest number of voters in our survey. So what did those voters think? Turns out there wasn’t as clear of a consensus as to which candidate they thought did best. Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Biden all scored within a few tenths of a point of each other. And considering voters who cared about health care were by far the largest share of voters in our survey — 19.2 percent — a lack of an obvious winner on this issue may mean that a large group of voters are still deciding which candidate’s health care approach appeals the most to them. This muddledness also reflects some of the polling on different Democratic health care policies proposals. For instance, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from October found that 71 percent of Democratic voters favor Medicare for All, which respondents were told would mean everyone got their health insurance from a government plan, but 85 percent also favored a public option, wherein a government policy would compete with private plans.

Voters who said wealth and income inequality was their top issue liked Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg but ranked Biden half a point lower than Warren. The breakdown was similar for voters who said they cared most about climate change. These voters gave Warren, Buttgieg and Sanders the highest scores while Biden again struggled somewhat with this group. But among voters who said they prioritize racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination, Biden actually earned the second-highest rating, after Warren.

But did the candidates’ performance at the debate translate an increase in the share of voters considering supporting them?

Among voters who prioritize the economy and jobs, Warren actually gained the most potential support of any candidate — a 6.7-point increase — while Biden lost some potential support. But it’s important to put these numbers in context: Before the debate, 31.6 percent of voters who prioritize the economy said they were considering Warren, and after the debate, her shared jumped to 38.3 percent, but that’s still dwarfed by the 72.7 percent of voters who care about the economy who were considering supporting Biden before the debate. (Respondents could choose multiple candidates, so total support adds up to well over 100 percent.) Warren’s gain among these voters may have come at Sanders’s expense. Before the debate, Sanders had the second-highest share of potential supporters among this group, and after the debate, he slipped behind Warren, putting him in third.

Who gained and lost among voters who prioritize …

Change in the share of respondents considering supporting each candidate before and after the fourth Democratic debate by which issue respondents said was most important to them, per a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Most Important Issue
candidate Health care Wealth and income inequality The economy and jobs Climate change Racism, sexism, discrimination
Sanders 5.7 1.1 -3.2 6.0 -1.0
Klobuchar 4.0 3.3 1.6 6.1 1.1
Biden 3.4 6.5 -1.9 6.1 9.6
Buttigieg 3.3 8.9 1.9 3.3 -0.4
Harris 2.1 -2.1 -2.3 -3.5 5.7
Steyer 1.8 1.8 0.7 2.8 0.2
Booker 1.7 3.9 0.1 4.1 5.7
Yang 1.6 3.2 4.1 -1.5 -2.4
Warren 1.2 2.9 6.7 0.3 4.7
Gabbard 1.2 1.4 0.2 1.6 0.4
Castro 0.2 1.8 -1.4 2.4 1.0
Someone else -0.3 -0.1 1.2 0.6 -1.1
O’Rourke -0.8 2.1 -0.1 0.4 5.4

For the top five issues out of a set of 12 respondents could choose from. Uses respondents’ pre-debate answer for which issue is most important. From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 1,761 responded to the second wave.

Among voters who prioritized income inequality and climate change, Biden, Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar all made headway, but they still lag behind Warren’s commanding lead in both of these policy areas (almost 70 percent of people prioritizing each of the two issues are considering her, compared to under 50 percent for the runner-ups). Candidates also made gains on issues where they already enjoyed substantial support. Biden, for instance, gained almost 10 percentage points among voters who prioritize racism, sexism and other types of discrimination — a group where he already had the most potential support of any candidate. The share of voters considering him increased from 56.6 percent to 66.2 percent after the debate. Harris, Booker, Warren and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke also gained potential supporters among those who prioritize discrimination, but even with these gains, none of them came close to the share of these voters considering Biden. And aside from this small gain, Harris had a tough night, losing support across three of the five issue areas.

But among voters who prioritize health care — which was the most-selected top issue in our survey — there was little sign that voters were coalescing behind a single candidate. After the debate, Biden had the highest share of potential support among these voters — 59.7 percent — but he was closely followed by Warren at 51.2 percent, meaning that at least some health-care-focused voters are considering both candidates despite their divergent views on which direction health care policy ought to move. (Biden has proposed a public option while Warren supports Medicare for All.) And with health care voters divided between these different visions — a split that has gotten ample airing in the debates — the question of who will win over these voters may well be a deciding factor in how the primary shakes out in the coming months.

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