Progressive policy ideas have dominated the early stages of the Democratic primary campaign. But as candidates gather in Los Angeles for another debate on Thursday evening, Democratic voters may be seeking more moderate options.
Only one in four Democratic voters says they would favor eliminating private health insurance and replacing it with a government-run plan — the centerpiece of the “Medicare for all” proposals put forward by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. And only one in three favors making public college tuition free for all Americans regardless of income, another idea shared by the two leading progressives in the race.
Those results, from a survey conducted this month for The New York Times by the online research firm SurveyMonkey, are striking because past polls, including those from The Times, have shown broad-based support for progressive ideas among Democrats. Last month, 81 percent of Democrats said they approved of Medicare for all; in July, 82 percent said they supported making public colleges free for all.
But those earlier surveys asked simple yes-or-no questions. The most recent survey offered respondents more options to choose from. And it found that Democratic voters consistently preferred policies that were well to the left of current law, but were more moderate than those proposed by Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.
Most Democrats, for example — 58 percent — said they would like to make government-run insurance universally available, while allowing people to keep their private insurance if they prefer it, a policy similar to the “Medicare for all who want it” plan proposed by Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and a related proposal from former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. A further 15 percent said the United States should reform the health care system without adopting a government-run plan at all, or that the current system was working well. Only 25 percent said they would prefer a Medicare for all plan that eliminates private insurance.
The preference for more moderate policies cuts across age groups, races, education levels and even ideology: Among Democrats who said they were “liberal” or “very liberal,” only 30 percent chose the most progressive option for health care reform.
Naomi Korchonnoff, a graduate student in Tacoma, Wash., supports Mr. Sanders, who she said would tackle systemic problems that other candidates are afraid to address. But she stopped short of supporting Mr. Sanders’s plan to get rid of private insurance.
“I don’t agree with the blanket aspect of it because I think that people who earn enough to have their own private insurance, say through their employer, should be able to keep that,” she said. “It’s ideal insurance to have.”
Ms. Korchonnoff, 31, said the lawmakers should make health care available to all, especially low- and moderate-income people who do not qualify for existing government programs but struggle to afford insurance through the subsidized marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.
“Making it available to people who cannot afford to buy marketplace insurance is very important,” she said.
The Times survey showed similar results when it came to “free college” proposals. About a third of Democrats said that the government should make public colleges free to low- and moderate-income families, but that the wealthy should still have to pay — again a policy close to that proposed by Mr. Buttigieg. Another third said that college should be more affordable but that most families should have to pay something. The remaining third expressed the most liberal position, that college should be free for all.
Voters also sounded a note of caution about the cost of candidates’ plans: Half of Democrats said the United States should adopt progressive proposals only if they do not increase the budget deficit, compared to 38 percent who said they supported the plans regardless of their fiscal impact. Both Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren say they will pay for their plans through higher taxes, not through borrowing more money.
In interviews, voters gave different reasons for their positions. Some said they thought the most liberal positions went too far or questioned whether they would work in practice. Others were more focused on political strategy, concerned that liberal positions would hurt Democrats in the general election next fall.
“I have a preferred idealistic position, which is Medicare for all,” said Carla Silvey, a tech worker in the San Francisco area. “I don’t know how feasible that is.”
Ms. Silvey, 50, said she believed a government-run health care system was a near inevitability in the long run because the current system is too broken to last. But she is torn about whether Democrats should embrace that solution now.
“I don’t know whether to go bold or to try to be in the middle,” she said.
Many Democrats appear to be making similar calculations. Ms. Warren, who surged into the top tier of the Democratic field over the summer, has fallen in the polls in recent weeks, while Mr. Buttigieg has gained ground. (Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden have retained relatively steady support.)
Still, the Times survey doesn’t necessarily imply voters will abandon progressive candidates. Laura Wronski, a research scientist for SurveyMonkey, noted that many voters said they trusted Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren on health care despite favoring more moderate positions than those candidates.
“Are you voting for the policy, or voting for the person?” Ms. Wronski said.
John Soderholm, a middle school guidance counselor near Minneapolis, doesn’t want to give up his private insurance, and worries that the Democratic Party will alienate voters if it embraces too liberal a message. But he said Democrats also run a risk if they are too meek: Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders have generated enthusiasm in part by being willing to take bold positions, even if not all their supporters believe their plans will come to fruition.
“Who gets excited about incrementalism?” Mr. Soderholm asked rhetorically. “You’ve got to have some sizzle too.”
About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 4,093 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Dec. 2 to Dec. 8. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus two percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.