Election Update: We Got A Flurry Of New National Polls. Sanders Led Them All.

According to the FiveThirtyEight primary forecast, the single most likely outcome of the Democratic presidential primary is that no one wins a majority of pledged delegates (there is a 2 in 5, or 41 percent, chance of this). However, it is almost equally likely that Sen. Bernie Sanders will bag a majority (a 2 in 5 chance, or 37 percent). And a recent avalanche of national polls has been particularly good for Sanders.1

Sanders leads in 10 out of 10 national polls released since Monday — many of them from high-quality pollsters — giving him a firmer handle on the race. He currently sits at 25.3 percent in our national polling average — more than 3 percentage points higher than on Feb. 10 (the day before the New Hampshire primary). Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are roughly tied for second place in the polls, but they are heading in opposite directions. Bloomberg’s average is up 3.5 points since Feb. 10, while Biden’s is down 5 points.

[Our Latest Forecast: Who Will Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?]

Here’s a snapshot of how the candidates’ standing in those 10 polls has changed since the previous national primary poll from each pollster. (Note that the polls we are comparing to all predate the New Hampshire primary, and most predate the Iowa caucuses as well. The only one older than mid-January is Marist’s, which is from December.)

Sanders and Bloomberg up, Biden down in national polls

How the top six Democratic presidential candidates’ standing changed compared to each pollster’s last pre-New Hampshire national primary poll

Pollster Sanders Biden Bloomb. Warren Buttig. Klobuch.
ABC News/Washington Post +9 -16 +6 0 +3 +4
Emerson College +2 -8 +6 -1 +2 +2
Morning Consult +3 -3 +3 -1 +1 +3
NBC News/Wall Street Journal 0 -11 +5 -1 +6 +2
NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist +9 -9 +15 -5 -5 +5
Reuters/Ipsos +5 -4 +2 -2 +3 +2
SurveyUSA +8 -14 +9 -4 +3 +2
The Economist/YouGov +2 0 0 +1 +1 0
The Hill/HarrisX +2 -4 +2 +3 +1 +2
Zogby Analytics 0 -6 +9 -1 +1 +1
Average change +4 -8 +6 -1 +2 +2

Source: Polls

And here’s a rundown of those polls, from newest to oldest:

  • According to The Hill/HarrisX, 22 percent of voters back Sanders, 19 percent back Biden, 18 percent back Bloomberg, 12 percent back Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 10 percent back former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and 5 percent back Sen. Amy Klobuchar. However, the results look different if you account for the pollster’s house effects, which our forecast does. The adjusted top lines that our model digests are Sanders at 23 percent; Bloomberg, Biden and Warren all at 16 percent; Buttigieg at 12 percent; and Klobuchar still at 5 percent.
  • The Economist/YouGov gave Sanders 24 percent, Biden 18 percent, Warren 16 percent, Bloomberg 12 percent, Buttigieg 11 percent and Klobuchar 7 percent. When adjusted for house effects, the results are similar, per our model: Sanders 24 percent, Biden 18 percent, Bloomberg 14 percent, Warren 13 percent and Klobuchar 7 percent.
  • In ABC News/Washington Post’s latest survey, Sanders had 32 percent, Biden had 16 percent, Bloomberg had 14 percent, Warren had 12 percent, Buttigieg had 8 percent and Klobuchar had 7 percent.2 Our forecast didn’t really adjust these numbers much for house effects, either, so this was an unambiguously great poll for Sanders — and a bad one for Biden.
  • In Morning Consult’s most recent poll, Sanders got 28 percent, Bloomberg got 20 percent, Biden got 19 percent, Buttigieg got 12 percent, Warren got 10 percent and Klobuchar got 6 percent. But because Morning Consult often shows good numbers for Sanders, our model treated this poll as somewhat less strong for him after accounting for house effects. (Our model interpreted this poll as Sanders at 24 percent, Bloomberg at 18 percent and Biden at 15 percent.)
  • Emerson College also put Sanders in the lead at 29 percent, with Biden at 22 percent, Bloomberg at 14 percent, Warren at 12 percent, Buttigieg at 8 percent and Klobuchar at 6 percent. However, note that Emerson has typically had very rosy numbers for Sanders, so our model interprets this poll as more like one where Sanders leads Biden by a much smaller margin — 24 percent to 21 percent.
  • According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, Sanders had 27 percent, Biden had 15 percent, Bloomberg and Warren each had 14 percent, Buttigieg had 13 percent and Klobuchar had 7 percent.
  • A Reuters/Ipsos survey found Sanders at 25 percent, Bloomberg at 17 percent, Biden at 13 percent, Buttigieg at 11 percent, Warren at 9 percent and Klobuchar at 5 percent. However, once adjusted for house effects, the poll looks even better for Sanders: Our model reads it as more like Sanders at 26 percent, Bloomberg and Biden tied at 16 percent, Buttigieg at 13 percent, Warren at 12 percent and Klobuchar at 6 percent.
  • According to SurveyUSA, Sanders had 29 percent, Bloomberg and Biden each had 18 percent, Buttigieg had 12 percent, Warren had 10 percent and Klobuchar had 4 percent. And this poll is even worse than it looks for Biden because of SurveyUSA’s house effects, which tend to benefit Biden; his adjusted support is closer to 15 percent in our model.
  • An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll put Sanders at 31 percent, Bloomberg at 19 percent, Biden at 15 percent, Warren at 12 percent, Klobuchar at 9 percent and Buttigieg at 8 percent.
  • Finally, Zogby Analytics gave Sanders 24 percent, Bloomberg 20 percent, Biden 18 percent, Warren 10 percent, Buttigieg 9 percent and Klobuchar 5 percent. However, our model thinks Bloomberg is probably closer to 17 percent support in this poll than 20 percent, thanks to Zogby’s Bloomberg-friendly house effects.

With house effects factored in, these polls give Sanders an adjusted lead of anywhere from 2 to 15 percentage points. There’s simply not much ambiguity right now that Sanders is the first choice of a plurality of Democrats nationwide. Accordingly, if you look at who is most likely to get the most pledged delegates, though not necessarily more than half (we usually cite the forecast’s odds of a candidate getting a majority), our model is fairly confident it’ll be Sanders who gets a plurality (he has a 3 in 5, or 56 percent, chance of doing so). The big question is whether the other candidates stay competitive enough for long enough to deny him the majority he needs to win the nomination outright.

Bloomberg’s Super Tuesday Strategy Might Be Working

One candidate you likely won’t be hearing about next week, but who still has a chance to pick up some delegates in later contests? Michael Bloomberg.

[Our Latest Forecast: Who Will Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?]

The former New York City mayor entered the race late in November and has a bit of an unorthodox strategy: He is skipping the early-voting states (he won’t even be on the ballot for the New Hampshire primary) and is instead focusing on Super Tuesday and beyond. It’s unclear just how far his strategy will take him, but on Jan. 23, the billionaire jumped from fifth to fourth place in our national polling average. Bloomberg now sits at 8 percent, putting him one point above former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is now in fifth with 7 percent support.

So where exactly has Bloomberg been gaining momentum? Not surprisingly, in Super Tuesday states and beyond (meaning those states where the primary is later). According to a recent Monmouth University national poll, Bloomberg polls at 12 percent among Democratic voters whose state primary is after March 3 — Super Tuesday — but just 5 percent among respondents whose state primary is earlier.

And in many Super Tuesday states, or states with even later primaries, Bloomberg is now polling in the top four. Many of these states don’t have enough polls for us to calculate a reliable polling average, but in those that do, Bloomberg has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks. In Texas and North Carolina, for instance, Bloomberg has overtaken Buttigieg and sits in fourth with between 8 and 9 percent support. He has the third-highest polling average in Florida (ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren) and fourth-highest in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, whose primaries all fall after Super Tuesday. In California, however, he remains in fifth place with 6 percent. And in states where we don’t have polling averages yet, recent polls suggest that Bloomberg could finish in the top tier. In the past week, individual polls have Bloomberg tied for second in New York and trailing only former Vice President Joe Biden in Missouri. He was also fourth in a Suffolk University poll of Utah, at 13 percent.

So what explains Bloomberg’s polling bump so far? And what do we know about Bloomberg’s base of support?

Well, the first question can probably be summed up pretty neatly.

Bloomberg has spent a lot of money on TV ads. In fact, he’s spent more than any other candidate running for president, including billionaire Tom Steyer, who’s also dropped a significant amount of money in some of these states. According to data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, Bloomberg has spent an estimated $224 million on TV ad spots since entering the race, much of it concentrated in Super Tuesday states. In Texas, for instance, he has spent an estimated $24 million. And in all the Super Tuesday states combined, Bloomberg has spent about $91 million, which is four times more than what Steyer has spent (about $23 million) and more than 13 times what the rest of the Democratic candidates have spent — about $7 million.

Bloomberg is all in on Super Tuesday states

Estimated TV ad spending by Bloomberg, Steyer and the remainder of Democratic president candidates in early and Super Tuesday states

Early states Bloomberg Steyer Field
Iowa $406,320 $11,472,110 $27,335,610
New Hampshire 115,510 2,867,390 3,522,280
Nevada 1,650 9,725,830 218,710
South Carolina 1,218,310 10,610,040 866,690
Super Tuesday Bloomberg Steyer Field
California $29,830,340 $9,748,850 $0
Texas 24,090,200 168,970 0
North Carolina 6,244,540 44,160 0
Viriginia 2,682,220 50,730 0
Massachusetts 4,165,310 12,131,210 3,753,590
Minnesota 5,770,930 102,390 1,399,400
Colorado 4,092,850 20,250 1,640
Tennessee 3,411,500 63,030 0
Alabama 3,174,910 94,140 0
Oklahoma 1,988,050 28,530 0
Arkansas 1,527,530 39,700 0
Utah 1,846,650 16,520 0
Maine 1,424,920 22,770 788,330
Vermont 348,650 8,060 691,870

Data includes ads aired through Jan. 29. Candidates who dropped out are not included in the field.

Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group groups ad airings by state, but because media markets do not follow state boundaries, ads listed as airing in one state may have also aired in adjoining states. The data includes ads that have aired on local network television, national network television and national cable television.

Source: Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group

That money seems to be paying off in both the polls and the endorsement primary. Bloomberg is hardly the most popular candidate among party elites, but he has picked up some key endorsements in recent weeks: He now has the same number of endorsement points as Buttigieg. On Monday, Rep. Scott Peters from California voiced his support for Bloomberg, making that his fifth congressional endorsement. His endorsers are geographically diverse, too, which potentially indicates his strategy is successful in building a broad base of support.

As for who exactly makes up Bloomberg’s burgeoning base, it is mostly older, wealthier and more moderate Democratic voters. This is perhaps not that surprising, considering Bloomberg has consistently branded himself as an alternative moderate candidate. For instance, per a recent national Echelon Insights poll, Bloomberg was the second-most popular candidate for moderate or conservative likely Democratic primary voters, picking up 20 percent support. Only Biden, at 23 percent, picked up more support among these voters.

But there are also signs that Bloomberg might be able to attract more support among voters of color (who make up almost half of Democratic primary voters) and those without a college degree (about 38 percent of primary voters). In December, a national Monmouth University poll found that 3 percent of nonwhite Democratic voters said they supported Bloomberg. But that figure had grown to 8 percent in its January poll. The pollster also found Bloomberg’s support among voters without a college degree grew from 4 percent in December to 10 percent in January. Fox News and SurveyUSA polls also found signs of Bloomberg diversifying his base: Fox News’s latest poll shows a 5-point uptick in support among nonwhite Democratic primary voters (5 percent to 10 percent) and a 4-point bump (2 percent to 6 percent) among non-college educated white voters since December. SurveyUSA, meanwhile, found a 5-point gain among black voters (2 percent to 7 percent) and a 6-point gain among voters with just a high school diploma since late November.

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Super Tuesday states and beyond has put Bloomberg on the map, but the still unanswered question is whether he can maintain his front-runner status while skipping the first four contests. If he can, some of the later states are very delegate rich, so skipping the first four could pay off for Bloomberg. But it would also be unprecedented for someone to enter the presidential race this late and win the nomination. Then again, Bloomberg’s whole strategy is kind of unprecedented, so maybe being out of sight and out of mind in the first four states won’t sink his campaign, and he can instead focus on his advantage in the states that come next. Either way, we’ll be keeping track of state and national polls to see if Bloomberg continues to gain momentum or if he hits a ceiling.

Election Update: It’s Cherry-Picking Season

As of our most recent Election Update this weekend, I noted that polls since last week’s debate had been — this is a scientific term — “pretty weird.”

Well, it’s time to revise that statement. There have been a whole bunch of new polls over the past couple of days. And they’ve been not just pretty weird … but really weird. As far as I’m concerned, that means it’s exactly the sort of time when it’s helpful to take an average instead of fixating on individual polls.

On balance, national polls have been pretty good for Bernie Sanders — but there’s a lot of variation from survey to survey. On Wednesday morning, for instance, a CNN poll came out showing him leading Joe Biden nationally and having gained 7 percentage points from the previous CNN poll in December. But a couple of hours later, YouGov’s weekly tracking poll came out showing Sanders in third place — or having lost ground since last week’s debate.

If you’ve come looking for confident assertions about which poll is “right” and which one is “wrong” — well, that’s just not how we do things around here. And any such claims would be a bit ridiculous given the inherently high margin of error on primary polls. Primary and caucus polling is always a struggle, so the hope is that by accounting for a wider range of pollsters and methods, an average will prove to be a bit less wrong than any individual poll might be. At a bare minimum, averaging or aggregating polls increases the sample size, which is a relevant factor since primary polls often use considerably smaller sample sizes than general election ones.

What you don’t want to do, of course, is to cherry-pick data. There’s actually been quite a bit of post-debate polling, and if Sanders had actually gained 7 points nationally, as the CNN poll shows, we would have seen more signs of it by now.

It would be an equally big mistake, however, to “throw out” or ignore the CNN poll. CNN has not shown especially strong results for Sanders before, and CNN’s pollster, SSRS, is reasonably highly rated. It’s a sign that a pollster is doing honest work when it’s willing to publish a poll that differs a bit from the consensus. So stick the CNN poll in the average instead … and you’ll see there’s still some good signs for Sanders.

National polls show Sanders and Bloomberg gaining, others flat

In fact, at 20.4 percent, Sanders is in his strongest position in our national polling average since April. State polls have been much more of a mixed bag, with Sanders having fallen slightly in our Iowa and New Hampshire polling averages since the debate — but we’ll cover those in the next section. A bit more about those national polls first.

In addition, to CNN and YouGov, Morning Consult and Monmouth University also released national polls on Wednesday morning. These join earlier post-debate national polls from SurveyUSA and Ipsos. Here’s a table showing those polls for the top six candidates:

Biden leads, Sanders second in post-debate national polls

Where the top six candidates stand in six national polls, after the last debate

Post-debate toplines
Pollster Biden Sanders Warren Buttigieg Bloomberg Klobuchar
CNN/SSRS 24 27 14 11 5 4
Ipsos 19 20 12 6 9 2
Monmouth 30 23 14 9 6 5
Morning Consult 29 24 15 8 10 3
SurveyUSA 32 21 14 9 9 2
YouGov 28 18 21 8 6 4
Simple avg. 27.0 22.2 15.0 8.5 7.5 3.3
FiveThirtyEight avg. 26.6 20.4 15.8 7.6 7.3 3.2

Current FiveThirtyEight national polling average and most recent polls, as of Jan. 22

And here’s a companion table showing the change from the previous pre-debate poll for each pollster. Note that the pre-debate poll wasn’t necessarily that recent; the last time that SurveyUSA had polled the race nationally was in November, for instance.

National polls show gains for Sanders, Bloomberg

How the top six candidates’ standing changed from each pollster’s previous pre-debate poll

Pollster Biden Sanders Warren Buttigieg Bloomberg Klobuchar
CNN/SSRS -2.0 +7.0 -2.0 +3.0 +0.0 +1.0
Ipsos -4.0 +0.0 -3.0 +1.0 +1.0 +1.0
Monmouth +4.0 +2.0 -3.0 -2.0 +4.0 +1.0
Morning Consult +0.0 +1.0 +1.0 +0.0 +2.0 +0.0
SurveyUSA +2.0 +4.0 -1.0 -2.0 +6.0 +0.0
YouGov +1.0 -2.0 +2.0 +1.0 +1.0 +1.0
Raw avg. change +0.2 +2.0 -1.0 +0.2 +2.3 +0.7
FiveThirtyEight avg. change* -0.1 +1.7 -0.3 +0.2 +1.5 +0.1

*Calculated change in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average since Jan. 14

In the tables, you can see how a simple average of the six most recent polls compares to the much fancier FiveThirtyEight polling average: They’re really pretty darn similar. There are some differences, though. For instance, it’s worth noting that the SurveyUSA poll had about three times (1086) as many respondents as Monmouth (372) and more than twice as many as CNN (500); our averages account for that by giving SurveyUSA more weight. House effects are also something of a factor; for instance, SurveyUSA tends to show good numbers for Biden, Morning Consult tends to show good numbers for Sanders, YouGov tends to show good numbers for Elizabeth Warren; and Ipsos tends to show poor numbers for all candidates except Sanders. Those explain some of the differences between the polls, too.1

But none of this really matters that much. As you can see, the FiveThirtyEight average and a simple average of the six post-debate polls produce highly similar results. Likewise, the average change in the polls is pretty similar regardless of which method you use. Take a simple average of the change in Sanders’s numbers since the last time these six pollsters surveyed the field, and he’s gained 2.0 percentage points since the debate. Similarly, he’s gained 1.7 percentage points in the fancy version of the FiveThirtyEight average, calculated since Jan. 14, the day of the debate. Michael Bloomberg has also gained ground regardless of what method you choose and is close to catching Pete Buttigieg in our national average.

State polls haven’t been great for Sanders, though

There have also been quite a few state polls since the debate, however, and they don’t tell a terribly consistent story with the national polls. They’re actually on the weak side for Sanders. Iowa polls from Neighborhood Research and Media and David Binder Research, both conducted since the debate, have Sanders in 5th and 4th place, respectively in the Hawkeye state. But Sanders does have some decent excuses here; the David Binder poll has generally been one of his worst ones in Iowa, and the Neighborhood Research poll has a small sample size and is from a Republican pollster that hasn’t previously released data in Iowa (as such, it receives a relatively small weight in our model).

Nonetheless, based on recent Iowa polls — both before and after the debate — Iowa would appear to be Biden’s state to lose more than Sanders’s. Biden has been ahead or tied for the lead in 4 of the 5 Iowa polls since the new year, as compared with just two for Sanders. (Although one of the polls that had Sanders ahead was the highly-rated Selzer & Co. poll.) In fact, Sanders has basically slipped into a three-way tie for second place in Iowa with Warren and Buttigieg.

Iowa and N.H. trends have been medicore for Sanders

How the top five candidates’ polling averages in Iowa and New Hampshire changed, before and after the last debate

Iowa New Hampshire
Candidate Jan. 14* Current Change Jan. 14 Current Change
Biden 20.1 21.4 +1.3 21.8 17.9 -3.9
Sanders 19.9 17.8 -2.1 20.1 19.5 -0.6
Warren 14.9 16.4 +1.5 16.0 13.8 -2.2
Buttigieg 17.4 16.6 -0.8 13.1 13.9 +0.8
Klobuchar 6.7 8.4 +1.7 4.7 7.1 +2.4

* Polling average as of the day before the debate.

In New Hampshire, true to the theme, the polling has also been weird. Two new polls conducted wholly or partially since the debate, from Emerson College and Suffolk University, each show Sanders leading there — but having lost ground relative to the previous editions of the same polls. Instead, these polls show growth for candidates outside of the top three, such as Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. And in the case of the Suffolk poll, there are also a large number of undecided voters. (Sanders, despite being the leading candidate in the Suffolk poll, has only 16 percent of the vote in the poll.) Sanders leads in our New Hampshire polling average, but no candidate should feel particularly secure in the Granite State.

Wednesday also saw the release of polling in four delegate-rich Midwestern swing states from a consortium of universities there, Baldwin Wallace University, Oakland University and Ohio Northern University. Sanders led in Wisconsin, but Biden held leads in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

How much do national polls matter?

Overall, our forecast just hasn’t changed that much since we first released it two weeks ago. Biden has a 43 percent chance of a delegate majority, followed by Sanders at 20 percent, Warren at 14 percent and Buttigieg at 8 percent. The chance of no candidate winning a majority of delegates is 15 percent. Technically, Biden is up very slightly and Sanders is down very slightly since we first launched the forecast, but the differences are small and not worth spending a ton of time worrying about.

If you look carefully, though, you can see how the model tends to privilege state polls over national polls (or at least it does so right now, with Iowa set to vote in less than two weeks). For example, Sanders did gain ground in the model following the release of the Selzer poll of Iowa on Jan. 10, but — despite his standing in national polls improving — he’s given those gains back because of an underwhelming series of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.

You might be wondering: How does the model even use national polls? There is no national primary, after all. But national polls have several uses in the model. To simplify, here are the three most important ones:

    1. We use national polls to calculate a trendline adjustment, which can influence states that haven’t been polled recently. For instance, if there are no recent polls of Oregon, but Sanders has gained 3 points in national polls since the last time Oregon was polled, the model will assume he’s gained ground in Oregon, too.
    2. National polls are used as a baseline to calibrate the bounce a candidate will potentially receive after winning or finishing strongly in a state. The twist is that the higher a candidate’s standing in national polls, the less her bounce after winning a state (and the more she might decline after losing a state). Empirically, the bounce that a candidate gets after winning a state depends strongly on expectations, and national polls are a good proxy for voter and media expectations. Less abstractly, the fact that Sanders is now seen as a national front-runner means that — as is also the case with Biden in Iowa — he might gain less ground following a win there, and lose more ground nationally if he finishes in anything other than first place or a strong second. Warren or Buttigieg, on the other hand, would probably be seen more as underdogs, and those sort of candidates have historically gotten bigger bounces after winning Iowa.
    3. In various implicit and explicit ways, national polls help the model to predict the outcome of states where there isn’t much polling.

So basically, factors No. 1 and No. 3 tend to help a candidate in the model when their national polls are strong, but factor No. 2 (rising expectations) actually hurts them. To be clear, our experience with the model so far — keep in mind that this is the first time we’ve run a full-fledged primary forecast — is that No. 1 and No. 3 usually outweigh No. 2. In other words, a candidate would usually prefer to gain ground in national polls, as far as the model is concerned. Still, there is some ambiguity about the influence of national polls in the model, especially when there is a lot of recent state polling and so the timeline adjustment (No. 1) doesn’t have as much impact.

Essentially, this leaves us with three plausible interpretations of the post-debate polling:

  • National polls tell the true story of the race, and the slightly quirky set of recent Iowa and New Hampshire polls since the debate are misleading. If so, Sanders should expect to do better in the next set of Iowa and New Hampshire polls. This would be good news for Sanders.
  • All of this is noise, and none of the candidates’ positions have changed much since the debate. This would be neutral news for Sanders.
  • Whether or not Sanders is gaining in national polls, Iowa and New Hampshire have their own dynamics, and Sanders does not appear to be closing strongly there. This would be bad news for Sanders.

Polling since the debate just doesn’t provide a lot of clarity on which one of these stories is correct. So we’ll have to wait and see if the picture clears up by the weekend.