Poll: Democratic voters want a Medicare-like program, gun restrictions
With the third Democratic presidential candidate debate just ahead, the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll puts former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the pack. (Photo: Paul Sancya. Image source: ASSOCIATED PRESS.)

Poll: Democratic voters want a Medicare-like program, gun restrictions

The latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times national poll shows nearly half of voters back a Medicare-like option and a majority wants a ban and buyback program for certain semi-automatic guns. Also, former Vice President Joe Biden holds a steady lead ahead of the third Democratic primary debate, though many voters remain undecided. [6 min read]
ByEmily Gersema

Former Vice President Joe Biden is ranked by Democratic primary voters, including his own supporters, as more ideologically conservative than they are, according to the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

On average, Democratic primary voters ranked Biden as the most conservative among the leading Democratic candidates, assigning him a 46 on a scale of 0 (most liberal) to 100 (most conservative).

The average Democratic voter rates himself/herself as a 40 on the scale. Biden’s supporters scored themselves on average at 45, and Biden at 47.

Ideologically, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., was considered the second-most conservative Democratic candidate with an average rating of 37 among all Democratic voters.

Warren, slightly further to the left at 34, is about the same distance to the left of the average voter as Biden is to the right.  

Each Democratic candidate’s own supporters ranked themselves very close in ideology to their candidate. Undecided voters, with an average rating of 46, were ideologically closest to Biden.

“One of Biden’s big advantages seems to be that people thought he was the most likely candidate to beat Trump,” said Robert Shrum, director of the Center for the Political Future at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. The center oversees the poll. “This ideology rating suggests that he has a second advantage, which is that he is pretty close to where Democratic voters are ideologically.”

Shrum, professor of the practice of political science and Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics, added, “That may explain why those stories about his gaffes just seem to have no effect on the voters whatsoever.”

Critics have questioned whether negative news over various gaffes by Biden would chip away at his support. But the latest poll, conducted from Aug. 12 to Sept. 8, shows his lead remains steady, with 28% of Democratic primary voters saying they would vote for him if the election were held today, virtually unchanged from the 27% who supported him in April. Still, about a quarter of Democratic primary voters remain undecided.

Mike Murphy, co-director of the Center for the Political Future, said that voters’ ideological perceptions of Biden could also be a disadvantage.

“Biden is holding on to an early lead, but national polling can change rapidly after the early state contests. He is a vulnerable frontrunner; being perceived as the least liberal Democratic candidate could be a plus in the general election and a problem for him among progressive activists in the early Democratic primaries.”

Health care matters

The poll shows most Democratic primary voters support one change or another to help Americans access health care — whether it’s replacing private insurance with a Medicare-like program, or allowing Americans to either choose their private insurance or join in a publicly run program similar to Medicare (public option).

Roughly 6 out of 10 Democratic primary voters in the latest poll supported each idea, and 43% said they like either.

“This polling shows that Democratic voters embrace the idea of choice in health care options far more strongly than they do a Sanders, Harris or Warren style plan to strongly enforce a Medicare-for-All plan,” said Murphy. “It is a real warning to the Democrats about the political vulnerability of Medicare for All.”


Nearly half of all voters supported allowing all Americans to buy into a Medicare-like option or keep their current plan, 14% opposed it, and 38% said they have not heard enough to make a decision. One out of 4 GOP-affiliated voters oppose the plan but a larger percentage (36%) haven’t heard enough to make a decision.

“Electorally, the best place for Democrats to be is Medicare for all who want it,” Shrum says. “It’s an ideological litmus test that matters to a small fraction, and it sets up better positioning for the general.”

Semi-automatic guns

Mass shootings occurred in August and early this month. A shooter on Aug. 3 killed 22 people and injured 26 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. On Aug. 4, nine people were killed and 27 injured at a shooting in Dayton, Ohio. And on Sept. 1, a shooter in Odessa, Texas, killed seven people and injured 22.

The latest poll shows that a majority of voters (56%) support a ban and buyback plan for certain semi-automatic weapons, such as the AR-15 and AK-47.  Thirty-one percent opposed it and 17% weren’t sure.

Americans remain strongly divided on the issue.  Nearly the same percentage of rural voters support the idea as oppose it (39% to 40%). Support and opposition for the ban and buyback idea was divided along party lines: 79% of Democratic-affiliated voters back it while 53% of GOP-affiliated voters oppose it. Also, 41% of independents back it vs. 31% opposed.

President Trump’s rhetoric

Poll respondents were also asked whether it’s “fair” or “unfair” to say that President Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants or racial issues “may encourage some extremists to conduct violent acts.”


Overall, 42% said that it is fair to say while 37% said it’s unfair. The responses were divided along party lines: 66% of Democrat-affiliated voters said it was fair to say his rhetoric could be linked to extremist violence, while 59% of GOP-affiliated voters said it was unfair.

However, 42% of white women also said they believe it is fair to say, compared with 46% of white men who said it’s unfair to say. USC Dornsife experts noted that the white women’s responses matter because white women Republican voters are considered an important voting bloc for Trump. They helped Trump win the presidency in 2016, said Jill Darling, polling director for the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research.

“About one out of five white women in our poll who voted for Trump in 2016 now think it is fair to say he is inciting violence,” she said. “Will it affect their vote in 2020? It is too soon to tell.”

Shrum said, “There are signs of deteriorating support for Trump among white women. It is pretty stark to say that the president of the United States is inciting violence.”

Poll methodology

The poll was conducted from Aug. 12 to Sept. 8, with 5,367 eligible voters, including 2,462 who are Democratic primary voters.

The voters are members of USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research’s Understanding America Study (UAS) probability-based internet panel.  

The poll was conducted online in respondents’ choice of English or Spanish. The overall margin of sampling error is +/-2 percentage points for all eligible voters, and for Democratic primary voters. Margins of error for other subgroups may be higher.

Numbers may not add to 100% due to rounding.

Information about the poll including methodology, question wording and results, as well as the archive of results of prior USC Dornsife/LA Times polls, are available online at bit.ly/USCPolls.

The USC Dornsife/LA Times poll is a partnership of the Los Angeles Times and two institutions of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences: the Center for the Political Future and the Center for Economic and Social Research.

Watch Shrum and Geoffrey Cowan of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism discuss Election 2020 and the Democratic debate in a Sept. 11 Facebook Live event >>