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What Democratic Voters Want


This week's Democratic debates featured lots of personality and policy - plans to achieve universal health care, ideas to fight climate change, support for immigration and immigrants. Lots of applause in the room; how about among the 15 million or so people watching, not all of whom will be Democratic primary voters? For that, we'll talk to two Democratic strategists. Sarada Peri is a former speechwriter for former President Barack Obama. Thanks for joining us.

SARADA PERI: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: And Eddie Vale is a partner at New Paradigm Strategy Group. Thanks to you, as well.

EDDIE VALE: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: So when we talk about the audience the candidates were pitching to this week, we're talking, of course, about Democratic primary voters. Who are those people? How many are there? What do we know about them?

VALE: So I think that you're getting people who are highly educated, highly political, skewed towards the progressive side of the table. And even among that audience, you're still only getting a lot of people either tuning in for the first time - so these first debates, first events, are really the chance for the candidates to start telling their biography.

PERI: And what's interesting, though, is that the numbers for watching the debates were actually pretty good considering that we're so far out from a first vote. And so I think you're going to see a lot of sort of momentum coming out of this debate in terms of people's ability to reach more voters.

MCCAMMON: And are the issues that these primary voters care about, are they the same issues the average American is concerned about in the same kind of priority list? I'm thinking things like jobs and health care.

VALE: I think that if you look at kind of, you know, top to bottom of the list, I think that you will find a lot of similarity. What you just mentioned, jobs and health care, are obviously dominating everybody's lists. People are also caring a lot about the environment and immigration. So I think you may have, obviously, some shades of difference of what exactly people care about. Or at this point in the primary, people may want to get into the weeds a little bit more.

PERI: And health care and drug prices, like Eddie said, are, you know, sort of at the top of people's lists. What's interesting and challenging is that, of course, there are a bunch of other issues that fall lower on people's individual priority list, whether it's, you know, something like immigration, but are dominating the national debate just given what's going on. And you can't discount the factor of Donald Trump driving a lot of what people are talking about, whether or not they want to be.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk about a couple of moments related to health care from the debates that drew a lot of attention. And those were we heard a lot of support among Democrats for public support for health care for people in the U.S. without documents and also for public funding for abortion, for getting rid of the Hyde Amendment that prohibits that. How did those positions compare to just average Democratic primary voters?

VALE: Well, I think for the primary voters, those are, I think, you know, pretty solid positions that a lot of the electorate have. And I also actually think that even though there was, you know, some grumbling or some worrying, which obviously you always have to do because we're Democrats - that's what we do - that those are actually pretty popular positions overall.

PERI: There's also - you know, the job of politicians is to go out there and then make the case for why these things matter. And, you know, for something, say, like the Hyde Amendment, most people - the average American doesn't actually know what it is, doesn't know what it means, doesn't know why it matters. And so I think this is a moment in time - it's the first debate or debates, and we've got a long time for these folks to make the case. And that's going to be their job for the next, you know, eight months before we cast a vote.

MCCAMMON: Was the job for the candidates, on Wednesday and Thursday, to convince the Democratic primary voters exclusively? Or are they supposed to also be thinking about independent voters and maybe even persuadable Republicans who might also be watching?

PERI: The truth is with 10 people on the stage each night, there's not very much time for persuasion. It's really just introduction. And what we know about our own electorate, the - in terms of primary voters, is that one of the most important factors for them is whoever can beat Donald Trump. And so the case these folks were trying to make was here's who I am, here's my story, and here's why I am the best person to choose who can beat Donald Trump and hopefully not alienate folks we might be able to get later.

VALE: And the flip side of this, of course, is you never want to, you know, turn some people off. But a big problem we had in 2016 was we actually had pretty big drops among some elements of the progressive base and especially among African American turnout. So of course you don't want to just burn everything down and not have a place for some moderates to be home. But at the same time, you also need to keep your base motivated. And we saw Donald Trump certainly didn't run to the middle last time, and he won.

MCCAMMON: Well, these candidates may be thinking both about primary voters and about sort of moderate general election voters. They're also thinking about the nominating process, of course. And Iowa and New Hampshire are the launching points for this whole process. But those states are not necessarily representative of either the Democratic Party or the U.S. as a whole. How does that complicate this job?

PERI: You know, I think Iowa is a really interesting kind of example. And actually, the specific person who's the most interesting example out of Iowa is Barack Obama. In the early part of the campaign, you had a lot of African American voters who were interested in him and maybe drawn to him but were deeply concerned about his ability to actually win. You know, the question was are white people actually going to vote for this guy? And when he won Iowa, that was kind of a signal to, say, African American voters in South Carolina, we can vote for this guy. He could actually win.

VALE: Yeah, I think that's a great point. And then it's also, I think, going to be a little bit harder with this many candidates if somebody wins Iowa and New Hampshire. Sure, you may be coming out with a head of steam, but there's also a good chance that there could be a split in those states, and then you end up heading onto South Carolina and Nevada and a whole bunch more states that are more diverse. So you can't just put all of your focus into Iowa and New Hampshire and not be thinking about the rest of the primary states and demographics as well.

MCCAMMON: I've been speaking with Democratic strategists Sarada Peri and Eddie Vale. Thank you both so much.

PERI: Thanks, Sarah.

VALE: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDEMANNERS' "SOULFORTYFIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.