Trust in a crisis bolsters Biden's electability argument

A lack of enthusiasm for either candidate was apparent in exit poll results.

March 11, 2020, 11:54 AM

Trust over Sen. Bernie Sanders to handle a crisis added weight to former Vice President Joe Biden’s electability argument in Democratic primaries Tuesday – but a lack of enthusiasm for either candidate was apparent in exit poll results, potentially raising questions for the fall campaign ahead.

Sixty percent in Missouri, 51% in same-day voter results in Michigan and 46% in preliminary data from Washington picked Biden as more trusted to handle a crisis. Fifty-seven to 66% also saw him as better able to defeat President Donald Trump, cementing the claim to perceived electability that lifted Biden on Super Tuesday. (Neither question was asked in Mississippi, which also had an exit poll.)

At the same time, enthusiasm was not widespread. Just 41% in Missouri, 35% in Washington and 31% of same-day voters in Michigan were enthusiastic about Biden as the nominee. Sanders fared worse in Missouri, the same in Washington and had slightly better enthusiasm than Biden’s in Michigan, 36%. (Again, the question wasn’t asked in Mississippi.)

Exit poll data from Michigan, the top prize, were compromised: The National Election Pool reported that because of a sampling problem, results of the exit poll there excluded views of the estimated 40% of voters who had voted early or absentee. (In Washington, with all mail-in voting, a telephone survey took the place of an exit poll; adjustments for weighting to actual vote were pending.)

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden smiles as he speaks with his wife Jill at his side during a primary night news conference at The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, March 10, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden smiles as he speaks with his wife Jill at his side during a primary night news conference at The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, March 10, 2020.
Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters

From his sweeping victory in Mississippi to his convincing win in the two Midwestern states voting, the night clearly cemented Biden’s frontrunner status. A state-by-state summary follows; these ABC News exit polls were analyzed by Langer Research Associates.


As noted, a sampling glitch compromised exit poll results in Michigan. Given the partial results that are available, two head-to-head measures marked advantages for Biden: Same-day primary voters in Michigan saw him as best able to beat Trump, 57-38% over Sanders; and more trusted Biden than Sanders to handle a crisis, 51-32%.

Biden also was aided by the 57% of in-person voters who said it was more important for them to support the candidate with the best chance in November than the one who agreed with them on the issues, winning 63% of their votes.

Sanders did especially well among the 58% of same-day Michigan voters who supported a government-run, single-payer health care system: They backed him by 59-36%. But that was countered by an even wider advantage for Biden among those opposed to a single-payer system, 73-17%.

Another measure, who’s most attuned to the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities, was close, 42% Biden, 37% Sanders. Biden won blacks by 66-28%, and more narrowly won whites as well, 52-42%, while Sanders won Hispanics, 55-37%.

More same-day voters said they’d either be enthusiastic or satisfied with Biden as the nominee, 72%, than Sanders, 61%. But that included just 31% enthusiastic for Biden, vs. 36% for Sanders.

Thirty percent of voters included in the Michigan exit poll were from union households, and they backed Biden over Sanders by 55-40%. That was less for Biden than his 61-32% margin among union household voters in Missouri on Tuesday, but better than Hillary Clinton’s 46-49% loss of these voters to Sanders in 2016. Reliable comparability is uncertain, though, given the Michigan sample.

Sanders maintained his bulwark of younger voters in the same-day results, winning 77% support from those younger than 30, similar to his 2016 Michigan result in that group. But he did less well in a larger core group, independents, winning 50% among same-day voters, vs. 71% overall in 2016. Biden, for his part, won mainline Democrats by 20 points and seniors by a wide 52-point margin.


Biden’s win in Missouri reflected strength in three key measures: Voters picked him over Sanders as best able to beat Trump in November, 66-29%; as most trusted to handle a major crisis, 60-25%; and as the candidate who best understands the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities, 50-30%.

Biden also prevailed among the 30% of voters looking for a candidate who can unite the country: They supported him over Sanders by a vast 83-9%. That compares with a slighter 19-point Biden win among voters looking chiefly for a candidate who cares about people like them, and a virtually even split among those looking instead for one who “can bring needed change,” 47-48%.

Voters from union households padded Biden’s margin; they accounted for 23% of voters in Missouri, and sided with Biden by a wide 61-32%. Biden also won Missouri voters who decided on their candidate earlier than in the last few days, by 60-30%. Those who decided more recently also backed Biden, but more narrowly.

In terms of personal appeal, 77% said they’d be enthusiastic or satisfied with Biden as the nominee, while a smaller majority also said the same of Sanders, 60%. Still, fewer than half would be outright enthusiastic about Biden, 41%, and enthusiasm for Sanders was lower still, 31%.


Dominant turnout by blacks delivered an overwhelming advantage to Biden in Mississippi: They accounted for 67% of voters, the most in any Democratic contest so far, and backed Biden by a huge 87-11%, his biggest win yet among blacks this season. Biden also was seen by a large majority overall, 74%, as the candidate best attuned to the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities.

That said, it would be misleading to attribute Biden’s win to blacks alone; he won whites as well – by 67-30%, easily surpassing his previous best result among whites, 57% in Alabama a week ago and Missouri on Tuesday.

Among other factors was a large share of moderate voters, 45%, the most of any state this year (the previous high was 41% in South Carolina). Biden won Mississippi moderates by 87-11% over Sanders, beating his best to date, 74-8% in Alabama. Biden won moderates in nearly all the previous states for which we have exit or entrance polls, but with a far more modest 45% support.

Also at play in Mississippi was substantial affection for the policies of Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president. Sixty percent here said the next president should return to Obama’s policies; the previous high was 58%, again in Alabama last week.

Biden ran away with groups that in other states have leaned toward Sanders, such as those looking for a candidate that agrees with them on the issues (75-23%, Biden-Sanders), someone who “can bring needed change” (70-25%), “very” liberals (69-26%) and those who support a government-run, single-payer health care system (75-22%). Biden even defeated his rival among voters under age 30, 57-39%. And Biden ran evenly with Sanders among the 22% of Mississippi voters who said the next president should change to more liberal policies than Obama’s, 47-48%.


Handling a crisis may have been on the minds of Washington state voters, given the new coronavirus outbreak in the United States, with an advantage for Biden: They picked him by 44-27% over Sanders in preliminary poll results as best able to handle a major crisis.

Indeed, 38% of Washington voters in initial poll results said they were very concerned about the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, with an additional 43% somewhat concerned. Those who were very concerned voted 41-22% in favor of Biden. (Concern was higher among older voters, typically a strong group for Biden.)

Another result showed a high level of anger in Washington toward the Trump administration - 82%, higher than in any previous primary, and well above the average, 67%.

In terms of electability, 68% said that beating Trump was more important than supporting the candidate closest to them on the issues, matching the peak previously set by Colorado primary voters; Biden won half of those beat-Trump voters in preliminary poll results. On another measure of electability, Washington voters divided 60-25%, Biden-Sanders, on who’s best able to defeat Trump.

Time of decision was a factor: Thirty-one percent of Washington voters said they made up their minds in the last 10 days, and these late deciders favored Biden by a wide 55-19%. Sanders did better with those who made up their minds the earliest, last year.

At the same time, a comparative dearth of Hispanic voters in Washington posed a challenge for Sanders; just 7% in preliminary poll results are Hispanics, among his better groups.

Compared with other Democratic contests so far this year, Washington voters were more supportive of a single-payer government health care plan – 63% in favor, compared with an average of 56% across all other states. Single-payer support has been higher only in Maine (69%) and Vermont (73%).

Similarly, voters in the Washington Democratic primary were somewhat more apt than others to prefer that the next president change to more liberal policies that Barack Obama’s; 44% said so, vs. an average of 36% in previous contests. As elsewhere, those who favored a return to Obama’s policies backed Biden, while those who preferred more liberal policies favored Sanders.

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