How much do the Democratic candidates really (dis)agree?

Tom Etienne
Feb 7 · 7 min read

Let me just get right to it: they don’t disagree with each other a lot! When they do, it’s less about the principle than it is about specific policy to achieve very similar goals. How do I know? Because I read all their platforms, listened to their interviews, and mapped them in the Democratic Primaries Election Compass.

The Democratic Primaries Election Compass is what we call a “Voting Advice Application”. Based on your answers to 30 contentious statements, our algorithm matches you with the Democratic candidates who agree with you most.

In order to make the Compass, I first had to figure out on which issues the Democratic candidates disagree (a lot). After all, if I would ask you how you feel about the legalization of marijuana, for instance, I could not give you very informative advice on who agrees with you most; now that Biden came around, pretty much all candidates are in favor.

So, I had to meticulously identify the issues on which they don’t agree. I’ll tell you, that’s no easy task! What I will describe below is based on the candidates’ positions on 30 carefully selected statements that best demonstrate the disagreement between the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates.


The Democratic Political Landscape in the Democratic Primaries Election Compass.

Imagine you were to fill in the Compass exactly as one of the candidates would do. You would then land precisely on that specific candidate in the Democratic Political Landscape, but you would also get to see to which extent they agree with their challengers.

I spent my Friday morning doing just that, for each Democratic candidate included in the Election Compass. In alphabetical order, I will run you through their scores and tell you a bit about them.


Allow me to quickly make a methodological remark: the political landscape and the ranking, while both provide you with telling information, they have different algorithms. I won’t go into the specifics, but in essence, it comes down to this: the landscape is based on an average per axis, whereas the ranking is based on a sum. That is why there can be discrepancies between the two. That’s no mistake, it’s just a different way of showing you the same information.

Let’s start with Joe Biden.

Joe Biden is the most culturally conservative of the Democrats mapped in the political landscape. Only Andrew Yang has a more economically right-wing positioning. Biden is also closest to Trump in the landscape. It is therefore no surprise that there is a 60% overlap between Biden’s stances and Trump’s. More interesting though, is that both Buttigieg and Yang seem to agree more with Biden than Klobuchar does.

Biden generally takes more moderate positions than, say, Warren or Sanders. He has a significant amount of overlap with Klobuchar when it comes to the ‘Law & Order’ theme, particularly concerning immigration (with the exception of the wall at the Mexican border). On the topic of the economy, Yang and Biden share a lot of similar positions.

In the right-most tab in the Compass’s results, you can compare the positions of all candidates, and the sources that justify those specific positions.

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg shares similar thoughts with the other candidates on the right-wing side of the economic political spectrum. That excludes Trump, because there is such a significant difference in how much more progressive Buttigieg is compared to Trump. Also, the two candidates populating the left-wing liberal flank of the campaign, Sanders and Warren, disagree a lot with Buttigieg.

Only Yang and Biden have more than 50% agreement with Buttigieg. He has a relatively large percentage of agreement with Biden when it comes to the economic issues, education and healthcare, and he agrees quite a bit with Klobuchar on governmental change. But that’s about it.

What are my conclusions from this? His positions are more progressive on one topic, and more conservative on another — on one topic more left-wing and more right-wing on another. There is quite some variability in his positions, and that shows in his agreement scores with other candidates. However, this does not mean he’s necessarily inconsistent in his policy proposals. It’s merely an indication of an alternative logic approaching the issues in the U.S. right now; a logic that does not necessarily hold on to divisions into left-wing and right-wing or liberal and conservative.

Amy Klobuchar

There’s a reason why Klobuchar is so close to the landscape’s center. She has neutral positions on 10 out of 30 statements. That doesn’t mean she has no opinion; her stances are just so nuanced that they’re not leaning towards being in favor or against.

This has an effect on her agreement scores with other candidates; they’re super low! It’s understandable: if you’re neutral on an issue, then you don’t quite agree with one side of the debate, but also not with the other. And thus, your scores stay low.

There are some themes in which she finds some common ground with other candidates anyway. For instance, on ‘law & order’, specifically on immigration-related issues, Klobuchar and Biden share some points of view. When it comes to governmental change, she’s mostly in line with Buttigieg.

Bernie Sanders

Not surprisingly, Sanders and Warren, who are ideologically not dissimilar, agree with each other on quite a few issues. Both are economically left-wing oriented, and both are more liberal than most of their challengers in this presidential race.

There is, nevertheless, a substantial amount of disagreement. Note that while selecting the issues on which we based this compass, we specifically kept in the back of our head the prerequisite that we should be able to discriminate between what are possibly the 2 most left-wing progressive candidates running for the nomination in the Democratic Party’s history.

This agreement is present in most themes. Governmental change, however, is an exception. Here, Sanders is significantly more conservative than Warren, and agrees more with with Klobuchar. Surprisingly, on healthcare & education, there is also limited overlap between Warren and Sanders, mostly owing to how many weeks of family leave they think should be paid for. On climate, their agreement is also limited. This can be explained mostly by specific policy proposals, more so than a very different perspective on how to deal with climate change.

Elizabeth Warren

When we look at Warren’s ranking of agreement with the other candidates, it’s as if we’re looking at a copy of Sanders’s. With the exception of Yang and Biden switching positions, it is identical in order and highly similar in numbers.

What I said about Sanders applies here too, of course. There is massive overlap between the two on the topics of law & order, and economy & taxes. What’s very different, though, is Warren’s position on governmental change. She’s a lot more progressive than Sanders, giving her a lot more things in common with Yang.

Andrew Yang

You could say Yang is a bit of an odd one out amongst the Democratic candidates. His positions show a lot of variability, both on the economic axis and on the cultural axis.

This results in very different rankings per theme. On the one hand, most agreement can be found with Biden on economic matters. On the other hand, concerning foreign policy, Yang and Biden disagree a lot.


In conclusion… There is some distinction to be made between the Democratic candidates. You just have to look at the right issues to find such differences. That’s what we did for you, in the Compass. However, please remember there are many more issues on which the candidates are on the same page than not — those are just not the issues that would help you decide who to vote for, and therefore are not the issues which are included in the Compass.

All positions on all 30 statements of these candidates are included in the Compass. I’d just say: play around with it! Everything I’ve done and described above, you can do too. Make sure to play around with the political landscape as well, as it’s very informative on where candidates tend to move on specific themes.

I’ll leave you one last time with the link to the U.S. Democratic Primaries Election Compass. Have fun!

The U.S. Democratic Primaries Election Compass

The Election Compass is a “Voting Advice Application”, a popularized academic tool comparing citizens’ opinions to their political candidates’ positions on the most prominent and contentious issues in the campaign. Try it yourself at usa.electioncompass.org!

Tom Etienne

Written by

I am a research fellow at the Amsterdam-based political research institute called “Kieskompas”, aka The Election Compass. We develop voting advice applications.

The U.S. Democratic Primaries Election Compass

The Election Compass is a “Voting Advice Application”, a popularized academic tool comparing citizens’ opinions to their political candidates’ positions on the most prominent and contentious issues in the campaign. Try it yourself at usa.electioncompass.org!

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade