Soft levels of support mark this year's Democratic primary

Pollsters say one of the most striking characteristics of this cycle’s Democratic presidential primary is the relatively soft support for top-tier candidates, even after an intense focus on the race by the national media.

This almost certainly reflects the party’s desperation to find a candidate who can defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US Sanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE after its faithful were shocked by Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump heads to California Hillary Clinton: Voter suppression has led to 'crisis in democracy' in the US MORE’s loss in 2016, said pollsters and other experts interviewed by The Hill.

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“The fear of putting up the wrong person is palpable,” said Jeremy Rosner, a veteran Democratic pollster. “It comes up in every focus group and every conversation I have with Democrats. It’s top of mind and intense and it’s behind a lot of the fluidity in this race.”

Voters — or at least a large number of them — have yet to fall in love with a single candidate.

They are instead shuffling through the candidates, comparing their possible strengths and weaknesses against Trump and refusing to be pinned down to a single person.

“You’re not seeing the groundswell behind any one candidate,” said Democratic pollster Chris Kofinis. “There’s a segment that thinks a centrist or a moderate is best to beat Trump. Others think you need someone from the left to rally the base. A third segment has no idea”

Electability has been the key buzz word in the race, and different candidates have been able to make a case to voters that they are the best positioned to beat Trump.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Poll: Biden holds five-point lead over Warren among New York Democrats MORE’s campaign is centered on the idea that he is the best person to face Trump. He argues he is the candidate who can take back the Trump states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Yet the gaffe-prone Biden has stumbled on the debate stage and in campaign appearances, undercutting his electability argument. Critics say Trump would seize upon his stumbles and that Democrats need to nominate someone who will excite the progressive base.

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations MORE (I-Vt.) are both chasing Biden. The two progressives excite the liberal base, but face doubts about whether they are too far to the left to defeat Trump.

Trump’s attack on Warren’s statements about her Native American heritage have also led to nervousness for some Democratic voters, who see the issue as a potential serious vulnerability for her.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCalifornia poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations Poll: Biden holds five-point lead over Warren among New York Democrats MORE (D-Calif.) made a strong statement for her candidacy after taking on Biden at the first round of debates. Her charisma and the fact that she is a relatively new face to the national stage are both seen as positives and reasons her campaign could still achieve liftoff.

At the same time, she was shaky in her second debate and her support in polls has slipped.

There also are voters who question whether the party should nominate a woman because of Clinton’s loss. And there are Democrats who are offended that that is even coming up and who see it as a Catch-22.

All of this has contributed to the creation of a fluid race — even if it is one that Biden has consistently led since his entry.

A Suffolk University–Boston Globe survey of New Hampshire released last week found Biden with a 5-point lead over Sanders, but 78 percent of voters said that they either hadn’t made up their minds yet or that their vote could change.

A Pew Research survey released over the weekend found that 63 percent of those who expressed a preference for one candidate also said that they are excited by several others in the running.

“A lot of Biden’s voters are pretty open to voting for someone else as the race unfolds and they get to know the other candidates better,” said Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll end up deciding they like someone else better, but they’re at least open to the possibility and I think that does make Biden’s front runner status a little tenuous — as anyone’s position this far out from the voting is a little tenuous.”

Sanders is the candidate who perhaps stands out the most in terms of the strength of his supporters.

His firmest backers are “Bernie or Bust,” and there are real questions about whether some of them will back any other Democratic nominee in November 2020. But Sanders has not shown that he can grow his support and reach the mainstream Democrats who have tuned out of his campaign.

It is not wholly peculiar for voter preferences to be soft at this early stage of the race.

Even though the 2020 race kicked into high gear earlier than ever before, many voters, even in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, don’t begin tuning in until after Labor Day or further into the fall. There are still 10 Democratic debates to go.

That leaves plenty of time for any of the top-candidates — or possibly an underdog campaign — to capture the hearts and minds of voters and become the consensus candidate.

Many are pointing to the next Democratic presidential debate in Houston on Sept. 12 as a potential hardening point, as the stage is expected to shrink from 20 candidates to about 10.

Some pollsters say that Democratic voters are truly vexed on the central question of who is best equipped to take on Trump, which may lead to an unpredictable race.

Polls showing that several of the Democrats would beat Trump in head-to-heat matchups also complicate the race.

A Fox News survey released last week found Biden, Sanders, Warren and Harris each leading Trump by between 6 and 12 points nationally.

Biden’s lead is the biggest, but he’s also the best known of the bunch. Harris and Warren have both improved their standing against Trump in recent weeks, while Sanders has routinely posted solid leads over the president.

But those numbers are all but meaningless to many Democrats after the shocking 2016 election, when experts and poll watchers gave Trump almost no chance of beating Clinton.

Instead, Democrats trying to determine who can beat Trump are wrestling with more esoteric questions and in many cases are relying on gut instincts, which can change depending on a debate exchange or how a person believes a candidate’s age or gender might factor into voter attitudes in Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania.

“Voters right now are moving from one candidate to another in a heartbeat and many admitted to us that they’re taking their cues from the national media because they haven’t seen enough of the candidates yet,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “Any analysis of the polls right now overstates how strong support for any of these candidates has. The fact that Biden is ahead does not mean by any stretch that he is in a strong front-runner position, not in this environment.”