Last week, when he launched his presidential campaign, I made the case for why Joe Biden is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. This week, with the release of several new polls, that case has become clearer.
Four national polls released on Tuesday all showed Biden’s support significantly higher than it was in previous editions of the same surveys. CNN’s poll found Biden at 39 percent — up 11 points from 28 percent in their previous poll in March — and well ahead of Bernie Sanders, who was at 15 percent. Quinnipiac University had Biden at a similar 38 percent, but with Elizabeth Warren nominally in second place at 12 percent of the vote, compared with 11 percent for Sanders and 10 percent for Pete Buttigieg.
Morning Consult also released its weekly tracking poll, and it showed Biden at 36 percent, up from 30 percent last week — an impressive result, especially considering that about half the poll was conducted before Biden officially launched his campaign. In interviews conducted after Biden’s announcement, he was polling closer to 39 percent. A HarrisX poll for ScottRasmussen.com found the smallest bounce, with Biden at 33 percent, up from 29 percent in its poll last month.1 The Morning Consult and HarrisX polls still had Sanders fairly clearly in second place.
On average between the four national polls, Biden has gained 8 percentage points. Where did he take that support from? It came from all over the place. Sanders is down 4 points, on average, as is Beto O’Rourke. Kamala Harris is down 2 points; Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar are each down 1 point.
But some other Democrats have also gained ground. Warren is up 3 points, on average, in the new national polls. So is Buttigieg, although that’s a little misleading since the previous HarrisX, Quinnipiac and CNN polls were conducted before his surge had really kicked in. In the poll that offers the most recent basis for comparison, Morning Consult, Buttigieg is actually down 1 point from last week’s edition.
Biden’s support is driven by older Democrats and by nonwhite Democrats — two groups that aren’t always well-represented on social media or in other forums that sometimes dictate the conventional wisdom about the candidates. Biden had 50 percent of nonwhite voters in the CNN poll, well ahead of Sanders’s 14 percent. In Morning Consult’s poll, Biden polled at 43 percent among black Democrats, compared to Sanders’s 20 percent. Biden had 46 percent support from Democrats age 50-64 in CNN’s poll and 50 percent support from those 65 and older.
In addition to the various national polls, Suffolk University also released a poll of New Hampshire on Tuesday, and it can’t leave any of the Democratic contenders feeling especially satisfied. Biden was in first place at 20 percent, with Sanders and Buttigeg tied for second at 12 percent and Warren in fourth place at 8 percent. Suffolk has not previously polled New Hampshire this cycle, but compared with other recent polls of the state, this is clearly a poor result for Sanders, while it’s roughly in line with the previous polling for the other candidates.
|Latest Poll||Earlier Polls in April|
|Candidate||Suffolk||UNH||Saint Anselm Coll.|
What should we make of all of this? I have roughly four conclusions:
Biden’s bounce will probably fade. Biden’s not the only candidate to have seen his numbers improve following his announcement; Sanders and Harris did too, and so, to a lesser extent, did O’Rourke. All of those candidates have since seen their numbers revert to their previous position, however. Sanders has fallen back to the low 20s in his better polls and the low-to-mid teens in his worse ones, and Harris and O’Rourke are now back to polling in the mid-to-high single digits.
And it’s not clear that much has changed in terms of voters’ underlying attitudes toward the candidates. Biden’s favorability ratings are strong in the Morning Consult poll, but they’re also largely unchanged from earlier editions of the poll, which suggests that some of his new support is fairly soft and consists of people who are suddenly hearing his name a lot more often in the news, and who might switch candidates again once the news cycle moves on.
Nonetheless, the bounce is sorta important. At least in the medium term — basically, from now through the Iowa caucuses — Biden is more likely to lose support than to gain it. Other candidates will become better known, and they will tend to take support from candidates such as Biden and Sanders who already have essentially universal name recognition. Biden is doing very well among black voters for now, but Harris and Booker might have something to say about that later in race. Biden benefits a lot from perceptions that he’s electable, but that could also fade over time as voters grow more comfortable with the rest of the field.
But it’s precisely for that reason that starting from a higher perch is important. If you’re polling at around 28 percent — where Biden was before his announcement — you don’t have much margin for error, given that it usually takes support in at least the low-to-mid 20s to win Iowa and New Hampshire. If you’re at 37 percent, however, you can lose 5 or 10 points and still hold up in the early states against a candidate making a late surge.
In addition, Biden’s bounce comes near an empirical inflection point of when early polling leads tend to hold up and when they don’t. Well-known candidates polling in the mid-30s in the early going2 are about even money to win the nomination, historically. Well-known candidates polling in the mid-to-high 20s have roughly a 1 in 4 shot, conversely.
In some ways, the bounce exposes the weakness of the other candidates — especially Sanders — as much as Biden’s strength. Although previous bounces, such as Harris’s, have faded, that doesn’t necessarily mean the candidates who were hurt by those bounces have regained ground. Instead, it has sometimes opened up an opportunity for yet another candidate to surge instead.
What that means is that it’s time to take stock of the three candidates who have clearly fallen from their peak (so far) in the polls — Sanders, Harris and O’Rourke. You might think that on the basis of his current polling, Sanders remains in a better spot than the other two. However, he’s also much more of a national brand name. And as I wrote last week — and as you can see from the chart — polling at 20 percent is not all that strong a position for a candidate with near-universal name recognition. Sanders, however, polled at just 16 percent in the average of the four national polls released on Tuesday. And he was at only 12 percent in New Hampshire, which should be one of his strongest states. Sanders can win — he’ll raise a lot of money, he came from way far back last time, and he’d likely benefit from scenarios where the field remains divided. But given his name recognition, those polling numbers put him right at the divide between someone whose campaign is going well and someone whose campaign is going poorly.
Harris and O’Rourke are not as widely known as Sanders, and they still have reasonably good favorability ratings and plenty of cash on hand, which suggest that they have upward potential if and when the media’s attention turns to them again. But it’s become harder to make the case that they’re on the lead lap with Biden, especially for O’Rourke, who is competing against a field that’s overstatured with white male candidates and whose polling has fallen further than Harris’s.
Buttigieg doesn’t have any reason to be unhappy; given his low name recognition, polling in the mid-to-high single digits — sometimes higher than that, especially in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire — is a pretty decent position. But if you were expecting a further immediate surge into the teens or beyond — and I sort of was — it isn’t as clear now whether that’s coming. Instead, Buttigieg will need to work to expand his support beyond his initial coalition of highly educated white voters and survive media coverage that’s both less plentiful and more skeptical than it was initially.
But Warren is in an intriguing position. Warren’s the candidate who we thought might have the least overlap with Biden and therefore would be least hurt by his entry into the race — and the polling seems to bear that out. Although both candidates are broadly within the Democratic mainstream, she’s toward the left half and he’s toward the moderate half. She’s a woman and he’s a man, obviously. His case rests heavily on electability and big, abstract, meat-and-potatoes themes; she appeals to voters on the basis of her highly detailed policy proposals. Her base is college-educated whites; his is non-college-educated white voters and black voters. Biden and Warren have directly clashed over issues such as bankruptcy laws.
In short, Biden and Warren make pretty good foils for one another, probably better foils than Biden and Sanders make, as both are old white men who aren’t especially well-liked by party activists. A showdown between Biden and Buttigieg, or Biden and O’Rourke, could also leave big segments of the party unhappy, including parts of the left and many women and nonwhite voters.3
So in the scenario where the nomination comes down to a battle between Biden and one other Democrat — not the only way the race could unfold, but one plausible path — Warren could turn out to be that Democrat. Together, they capture most of the major Democratic constituencies. I’m less convinced that you could have a Biden-versus-Sanders showdown. I think a lot of voters, and certain parts of the Democratic establishment, would go shopping for a third candidate in that eventuality.
But Warren could also become a major player in the race in other ways. Independently of Biden’s entry to the race, she seems to be gaining ground from the candidates who are fading, including gathering some of Sanders’s support on the left, some of O’Rourke’s college-educated whites, and perhaps some of Harris’s support among women.
With that in mind, it’s time for one more rendition of my not-to-be-taken-too-seriously presidential tiers. I’d already had Biden as the front-runner — note that doesn’t mean I think he has a better-than-50-percent chance to win (I don’t), just that I think he’s more likely to win than anyone else. But we probably need to create an additional half-step between Biden and everyone else. That means I’m demoting Harris, Sanders and Buttigieg from tier 1b (which we’ll leave empty for the moment) into tier 1c. However, I’m moving Warren up to tier 1c from tier 2. Harris, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren can all make interesting arguments for why they’re the next-best-positioned candidate after Biden, and I really have no idea whose argument is best, so it makes sense to group them together.
|b||[this row intentionally left blank]|
|c||Harris ↓, Sanders ↓, Buttigieg ↓, Warren ↑|
|b||Booker, Klobuchar, Abrams*|
|3||a||Yang, Castro, Gillibrand, Inslee|
|b||Hickenlooper, Bennet*, Ryan, Bullock*, Gabbard ↑|
Beyond that, O’Rourke, Klobuchar and Booker probably belong in the next tier down. But the safest conclusion right now is that this is a race with one frontrunner — Biden, who has both some clear weaknesses and some overlooked strengths — and no clear No. 2.
Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.