The Iowa Caucuses Are In 17 Days. What’s Going On In The Early States?

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

Throughout the primary, we’ve been tracking polls in the four early states to better understand how the race differs in each of them, as each state tells its own story about how the 2020 Democratic primary could shake out.

For instance, Iowa is a very tight race between former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. And New Hampshire is really competitive, too, with less than 10 percentage points separating Sanders and Biden in our forecast. (Warren and Buttigieg aren’t too far off either.) Nevada, on the other hand, appears to be more of a two-way race between Sanders and Biden, while South Carolina remains — at least at this point — in Biden’s column, as our forecast gives him a 3 in 5 shot at winning the most votes there.

Of course, things could once again shift before the voting starts in Iowa, but here’s a deep dive on where things stand as of Friday morning in each of these states.

Biden, Sanders neck and neck In Iowa

Iowa and New Hampshire are really competitive

Remarkably, Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg are all in the hunt in both Iowa and New Hampshire: No one has more than a 35 percent chance of winning either state, according to our forecast.

And our state polling averages illustrate just how close things are. Sanders and Biden are essentially tied in Iowa, with Buttigieg and Warren trailing, but within about 5 points of the lead. And Sanders holds a slim lead over Biden in New Hampshire, although one might expect the Vermont senator to have an advantage there — New Hampshire tends to favor politicians from neighboring states. In New Hampshire, too, Warren and Buttigieg aren’t too far behind the leaders.

Iowa and New Hampshire are wide-open contests

Democratic presidential candidates’ polling averages in Iowa and New Hampshire, as of Jan. 17 at 9 a.m.

Iowa New Hampshire
Candidate Average Candidate Average
Bernie Sanders 20.1% Bernie Sanders 19.6%
Joe Biden 19.5 Joe Biden 18.5
Pete Buttigieg 16.8 Elizabeth Warren 15.1
Elizabeth Warren 15.2 Pete Buttigieg 13.9
Amy Klobuchar 6.7 Amy Klobuchar 6.7
Andrew Yang 3.5 Tom Steyer 3.8
Tom Steyer 3.1 Tulsi Gabbard 3.7
Michael Bloomberg 2.2 Andrew Yang 3.7
Tulsi Gabbard 1.7 Michael Bloomberg* 2.9
Michael Bennet 0.1 Michael Bennet 0.4
John Delaney 0.1 Deval Patrick 0.3
Deval Patrick 0.0 John Delaney 0.2

*Michael Bloomberg didn’t file to run in New Hampshire, but some pollsters have included him when surveying the state.

Source: Polls

But the dearth of state-level polls in December means that some of the polls feeding our averages may no longer reflect the current state of the race, so let’s take a closer look at some of the bigger polls released in the last 10 days. Monmouth University’s latest Iowa poll underscored how important voters’ ideological leanings could be in that state, as many caucus-goers will end up backing their second-choice candidate — not their first — in the realignment process. (If a candidate does not have enough support, usually at least 15 percent of voters at a caucus site, their supporters are asked to align themselves with another candidate.) Overall, Biden was first in that poll with 24 percent support, but he also had the most support (35 percent) among voters who said they were moderate or conservative — and that group made up a majority of the poll’s respondents. Buttigieg came in second among these voters at 15 percent, followed by Sanders at 13 percent. By contrast, among very liberal voters, Sanders led with 29 percent support with Warren in second at 25 percent, while Buttigieg had 14 percent and Biden had just 11 percent. But among the “somewhat” liberal voters in between, Buttigieg actually led with 22 percent, followed by Sanders at 20 percent. In other words, a different candidate led in each ideological “lane,” with a ton of overlap — in particular, Sanders and Warren — which could play to either Sanders’s or Warren’s detriment.

Similarly, a new poll from RKM Research and Communications on behalf of Franklin Pierce University, the Boston Herald and NBC 10 Boston showed New Hampshire has some of the same ideological divides. Overall, the survey found Biden in first with 26 percent, but once again Biden did best among more moderate (and conservative) voters with 27 percent, compared to 16 percent for both Sanders and Warren. Meanwhile, Sanders led among liberal voters with 29 percent, followed by Biden at 26 percent and Warren at 20 percent. (The pollster didn’t separate “somewhat liberal” and “very liberal” like Monmouth did.)

So as some progressives have feared, it’s possible that Sanders and Warren are hindering each other because of the ideological overlap among their supporters. After all, a new Quinnipiac University national poll found that more than 50 percent of Sanders’s and Warren’s supporters picked the other progressive as their second choice. And in New Hampshire, there’s another way they might be holding one another back: Since they both represent neighboring states, they could be limiting each other’s home-field edge.

Nevada’s close, Biden dominates South Carolina

Nevada and South Carolina look a bit different from the first two states in that their polls are less top-heavy, with fewer contenders in the mix. However, Nevada is still very much up for grabs — Biden and Sanders are separated by about 3 points in our polling average, and our forecast gives them both about a 1 in 3 chance of winning. But Biden still has a notable advantage in South Carolina, where he leads the polls by more than 20 points and has nearly a 60 percent chance of winning, per our forecast.

Nevada is competitive, but South Carolina is Biden’s to lose

Democratic presidential candidates’ polling averages in Nevada and South Carolina, as of Jan. 17 at 9 a.m.

Nevada South Carolina
Candidate Average Candidate Average
Joe Biden 22.7% Joe Biden 35.2%
Bernie Sanders 19.6 Bernie Sanders 14.5
Elizabeth Warren 14.4 Elizabeth Warren 11.0
Tom Steyer 8.2 Tom Steyer 9.8
Pete Buttigieg 6.4 Pete Buttigieg 4.2
Andrew Yang 3.9 Michael Bloomberg* 3.8
Amy Klobuchar 2.8 Andrew Yang 2.3
Michael Bloomberg* 2.2 Amy Klobuchar 1.7
Tulsi Gabbard 1.4 Tulsi Gabbard 1.4
John Delaney 0.4 John Delaney 0.3
Deval Patrick 0.2 Deval Patrick 0.2
Michael Bennet 0.1 Michael Bennet 0.1

*Michael Bloomberg didn’t file to run in Nevada or South Carolina, but some pollsters have included him when surveying those states.

Source: Polls

Part of the reason the dynamics of these two states are so different is that Iowa and New Hampshire still haven’t voted, which could dramatically shift the race, and that Nevada and South Carolina’s electorates are just much more diverse than those of the first two states to vote — and Biden has made the most significant inroads with voters of color, followed by Sanders and Warren.

Nevada is a particularly interesting case because even though Biden tends to lead among nonwhite voters nationally because of his strong support from black voters, nonwhite voters in Nevada are more likely to be Hispanic, and two recent Nevada surveys found Sanders narrowly ahead of or tied with Biden among Hispanics.

First, a Nevada survey from Fox News found Biden in first overall with 23 percent and Sanders in second at 17 percent, but both attracted the same share of Hispanic voters (24 percent); Biden’s edge among white voters (22 percent) might have been what tipped him over the edge, as Sanders attracted only 13 percent of that group. Meanwhile, another Nevada poll by Suffolk University, conducted for USA Today and the Reno Gazette-Journal, found Biden and Sanders essentially tied for first with around 20 percent support and neck and neck at about 20 percent among nonwhite voters. Biden had an ever-so-slight edge over Sanders among white voters (19 percent to 16 percent).

As for South Carolina, Biden has consistently led there due to his strong support among black voters, who made up about 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016. A Fox News poll released late last week found Biden’s edge in South Carolina mostly holding as he led the field with 36 percent overall, including 43 percent of black voters. Billionaire Tom Steyer did make noise by coming in second with 15 percent overall, though that may partly be the result of him flooding the airwaves in South Carolina. Still, Steyer got support from 16 percent of African American voters, which could be evidence that some black voters are open to alternatives other than Biden. For now, the Biden firewall in the Palmetto State is holding up, though that could, of course, change if he performs poorly in earlier contests.

With just over two weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, there’s definitely a traffic jam at the top of the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire that makes those states fairly unpredictable at this point. And whatever happens in those initial contests will likely affect Nevada and South Carolina, too, so stay tuned as we keep a close watch on how the polls move once the voting starts.

Other polling bites

  • Speaking of Biden’s base, a new national poll from The Washington Post and Ipsos found 48 percent of black Democratic registered voters supported Biden. Sanders was second with 20 percent support, and no other candidate reached double-digit support. There was a noticeable age difference in Biden and Sanders’s supporters: Among registered voters 50 years and older, Biden captured more than 50 percent support. He also led Sanders, 41 percent to 16 percent, among voters 35 to 49 years old. Yet among those under the age of 35, Sanders attracted 42 percent support versus Biden’s 30 percent.
  • An LX/Morning Consult poll asked Americans about Iowa and New Hampshire’s role in the nominating process and found that only 41 percent felt that these states represented their views in the presidential primary “very well” or “somewhat well” while 59 percent said “not very well” or “not at all.” Still, 59 percent said they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire kicking things off, compared to 41 percent who were dissatisfied.
  • In the wake of reports that Sanders told Warren in 2018 that he believed a woman couldn’t beat President Trump, YouGov asked Americans about their views on this issue. Fifty-three percent of respondents said that either a man or woman could defeat Trump, while 11 percent said that a man could beat Trump but not a woman. Another 20 percent said that neither a man nor a woman could defeat Trump, including 60 percent of Republicans.
  • In a new poll from Pew Research Center, 48 percent of Americans said that the airstrike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani was the right decision while 43 percent said it wasn’t. However, 54 percent felt that the Trump administration’s approach to Iran has increased the chances of a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran and a plurality — 44 percent — said it has made the country less safe.
  • A HuffPost/YouGov survey asked Americans their views on trade and the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, finding that many Americans are relatively unaware of the trade deal, which the Senate passed on Thursday. Forty-four percent said they favored the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, another 44 percent said they weren’t sure what they thought of it and 11 percent opposed it. Two explanations for why so many Americans weren’t sure? Four out of five respondents said they had heard little or nothing at all about the trade deal. And Americans are also generally somewhat uncertain about trade agreements between the U.S. and other countries — 43 percent said such deals are a good thing, while 20 percent said they were a bad thing and 37 percent said they weren’t sure.
  • In a survey of American attitudes toward vaccines, Gallup found that there is still uncertainty about the debunked claim that vaccines can cause autism. Although only 10 percent said that certain vaccinations can cause autism and 45 percent said they do not, a plurality — 46 percent — said they weren’t sure. However, 86 percent said that the diseases vaccines prevent are more dangerous than the vaccines themselves.
  • In a new poll from YouGov measuring attitudes toward the Confederate flag among Americans, a plurality of respondents in two former Confederate states — Arkansas and Louisiana — said that the flag represented heritage more than racism. Of the other nine states that were part of the Confederacy, pluralities in seven said that the flag represented racism more than heritage, while respondents in Alabama and Florida were split evenly.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.4 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.9 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.5 points). At this time last week, 41.9 percent approved and 53.3 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -11.4 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 43.2 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.5 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.3 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 5.9 percentage points (47.0 percent to 41.1 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.6 points (47.5 percent to 40.9 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.6 points (47.2 percent to 40.6 percent).

What The Heck Is Going On With Tom Steyer’s Poll Numbers?

Last Thursday, billionaire activist Tom Steyer picked up two really good early-state polls that catapulted him onto the debate stage at the last minute. He hit 15 percent in a Fox News poll of South Carolina — he had 4 percent support in October — and 12 percent in a Fox News poll of Nevada, up from 5 percent in November.

These results had pretty big repercussions for Steyer in both our Nevada and South Carolina state polling averages, putting him at 8 percent in Nevada and 10 percent in South Carolina, as of Monday afternoon. For context, that South Carolina number is roughly the same as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s:

But before you cry “Steyer surge!” remember that once you get past the top four candidates — Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg — he and all the other candidates combined currently have a 1 percent chance of capturing a majority of delegates, according to our forecast. And even though his standing in the polls has substantially improved in those two states, he still only has a 2 percent chance of winning South Carolina or Nevada. (He’s also still at 2 percent in our national polling average.)

In fact, those two Fox News surveys might be outliers, as they are the only two early-state polls released after the last debate (Dec. 19) that show Steyer getting that sort of bump, though there have admittedly been relatively few polls to kick us off here in January.

In the other five early-state polls we have — aside from those two Fox News surveys — Steyer’s numbers are far less impressive, although these are polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, not Nevada and South Carolina, where Fox found Steyer surging:

To really understand what’s going on with Steyer’s numbers, we need more polls — especially of South Carolina and Nevada — but at this stage, there is at least one other pollster besides Fox News who has found that Steyer might be making a real dent in the early states: Morning Consult. The pollster’s weekly tracking poll takes stock of the race nationally but also gives its results for the four early states (unfortunately, the early states are treated as a group, so the pollster does not display results for individual early states). And since late November, Morning Consult has found Steyer polling between 8 and 10 percent among early-state voters, including 10 percent in its most recent survey. (He was only at 4 percent nationally.)

What’s more, there’s some evidence in both South Carolina and Nevada that Steyer has made inroads among nonwhite voters, which could be a sign that Biden’s grasp on more diverse states like South Carolina is not as strong as we think. In that Fox News poll of South Carolina, Biden led among black primary voters with 43 percent support, but Steyer was in second with 16 percent — which put him ahead of the rest of the field, including Sanders, who was in third at 12 percent. And in Fox News’s survey of Nevada, no one candidate has a firm grasp on nonwhite voters. Sanders and Biden were running neck and neck at around 25 percent, while Steyer placed third among that group with 14 percent.

Again, it’s hard to know exactly what’s behind this uptick in Steyer’s numbers, but one obvious explanation is his prodigious spending on broadcast television ads. According to data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, Steyer ads aired 5,721 times in Nevada-based media markets and 7,914 times in South Carolina-based markets from Dec. 1 through Jan. 9.1 The other Democratic candidates combined have aired six spots in Nevada and 2,195 in South Carolina during that same time period.

For comparison’s sake, Steyer has aired a similar number of ads in Iowa, but he is sharing the airwaves there with several other candidates. For instance, from Dec. 1 through Jan. 9, Sanders (7,678) and Andrew Yang (6,932) each aired more spots in Iowa than Steyer (6,675). And in tiny New Hampshire, neither Steyer nor other Democrats have been advertising as aggressively. This could explain why Steyer hasn’t (yet) seen a polling bump in the first two states to vote but has done so in the third and fourth.

That said, Steyer has dominated the airwaves in Nevada and South Carolina for months; it’s not clear what changed to cause a sudden spike in his polling numbers here in January. However, it’s worth noting that polling of Nevada and South Carolina has been extremely sparse; before those Fox News polls came out, mid-November was the last time a live-interviewer poll was conducted in South Carolina and the last time any poll was conducted in Nevada. Perhaps more people have tuned into the primary race since then and have only now begun to react to Steyer’s ads.

So we’ll be keeping a close eye on Steyer’s debate performance Tuesday and on the post-debate polls to see whether he has serious staying power. It’s too soon to tell, but Steyer might just be a January surprise no one was expecting.

What Makes Our New 2020 Democratic Primary Polling Averages Different

Does the world really need another polling average?

Well, sure. Actually, we think having a variety of polling averages matters a lot in the presidential primaries — and the one you look at can change how you view the race. So we’ve just launched our national polling average for the 2020 Democratic primary, as well as one for every state where there’s an adequate amount of polling. Here’s Iowa, for instance:

Here’s South Carolina:

Here’s Nevada. Here’s California. We’d encourage you to click around a bit and then come back here once you’ve gotten a sense for how the numbers look.

Constructing a polling average is never quite so straightforward as it seems, but that’s doubly true in a primary campaign. Since turnout is relatively low compared to a general election, polls can differ a lot from one another given their assumptions about who’s going to vote. Public opinion can change quickly during the primaries; unlike in the general election, where the large majority of voters can reliably be expected to vote for one party or the other, primary voters are usually considering multiple candidates, so the overall process is a lot more fluid. Having a polling average that moves too slowly can be a big problem, as can having one that overreacts to every new poll. The pace of polling can be irregular — sometimes you’ll get several high-quality polls in a day, and sometimes you’ll go a couple of weeks without any. All of these factors make the methodological choices behind a polling average more important.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Democratic primary, according to the early states

So here’s a description of our version of a polling average: a relatively brief overview of the features that make FiveThirtyEight’s primary polling averages different (and, we hope, slightly more accurate) than the alternatives. I’m keeping this relatively brief for two reasons: First, none of this differs that much from the polling averages we’ve constructed in the past for general elections, and second, these polling averages will soon be followed by our full-fledged primary forecast, which uses these averages as an “ingredient” but also considers a host of other factors. We’ll save the discussion of the forecast for later, though. For now, listed in rough order of how much they can affect our averages, here are the five key things that make our polling averages a little different:

Differentiator 1: We adjust state polls based on trends in national polls

A hallmark of our general election forecasts, dating all the way back to our first versions in 2008, is what we call a “trend line adjustment.” Basically, in states that haven’t been polled recently, we make inferences about what’s going on there using national polls or polls from other states that have been surveyed recently. If President Trump gained 3 percentage points in national polls, for instance, but North Carolina hadn’t been polled recently, you could probably infer that he’d also gained 3 points, or thereabouts, in North Carolina.

We apply this adjustment for a good reason: Trend-line-adjusted averages have been quite a bit more accurate, historically. That is, once someone does get around to polling North Carolina, it usually turns out that Trump did gain about 3 points. Trend-line-adjusted averages have also been insightful so far this cycle — they anticipated, for instance, that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s numbers would decline in state polls in November and early December once she began to slump in national polls.

So we’re now applying a slightly simplified version3 of the trend line adjustment to the primaries. (Note that all polling averages you see on our state polling pages reflect this trend line adjustment.) Say that Sen. Cory Booker has surged by 5 points in national polls, for instance, but we haven’t seen a recent poll in Nevada. Our average would assume that he’d also improved his standing by 5 points in Nevada, other things held equal.

There are a few complications: For instance, the adjustment is nonlinear, which can have meaningful effects if a candidate is polling in the low single digits. But in short, the trend line adjustment can have fairly large effects if a state hasn’t been polled much recently. It doesn’t affect our numbers much, conversely, if there are a lot of recent, high-quality polls from that state.

Differentiator 2: We adjust for house effects

House effects” are when certain pollsters consistently show better results for certain candidates. Emerson College, for instance, has usually shown optimistic results for Sen. Bernie Sanders in polls it has published so far in the primary campaign, while Morning Consult’s polls tend to have pretty good numbers for former Vice President Joe Biden.

All of FiveThirtyEight’s general election polling averages adjust for house effects, and we’re now doing the same for our primary averages. In fact, we found that the house effects adjustments we’ve used in the past were slightly too consevative for the primaries, so they’ll be a bit more aggressive this year.4

House effects are calculated for each candidate separately. So, for instance, Morning Consult has a Biden house effect adjustment, a Pete Buttigieg adjustment, a Tom Steyer adjustment, and so on. National polls can influence the house effects adjustment in the states and vice versa, and polling in one state can influence the house effects adjustment in other states.

Differentiator 3: Our average adjusts more quickly after major events

We’ve long recommended that you should consider news events when determining whether a polling shift is signal or noise. If Trump literally did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, or the Martians invaded Washington and he valiantly fought them off, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were a sharp shift in his approval rating. Conversely, if we were in the midst of a boring news cycle where nothing much was happening, a poll showing a big swing in his numbers would be more likely to be an outlier.

We’re now applying this sort of logic to our primary polling average, though in a much more formal and rigorous way. While we aren’t expecting a Martian invasion, there are certain types of events in the primaries that predictably can have large effects on the polls (i.e. they have historically). Specifically, these include, in order of importance:

  • The outcomes of primaries and caucuses (e.g. a candidate can get a bounce after Iowa or Super Tuesday)
  • Major candidates entering or exiting the race
  • Debates

Following these three types of events, our polling average will be more aggressive about deeming swings in the polling average to be signal rather than noise. As a corollary, it will be less aggressive when there are apparent polling shifts that aren’t precipitated by one of these events. We’ll revisit this in future articles, but note that the importance the model assigns to events works on a sliding scale. No offense to our Guamanian readers, for instance, but, historically, Iowa or Super Tuesday tends to move the polls a lot more than the Guam caucus — and our averages reflect this.

Differentiator 4: We’ve carefully set our average so it doesn’t move too fast or too slow

Over the years, we’ve found that there’s no particular default set of assumptions that will give you a good polling average in every circumstance. Applying the aggressive settings from our presidential approval rating average to our generic ballot tracker makes the generic ballot much too “bouncy,” for instance. (We learned that one the hard way.) Conversely, applying the conservative settings from our generic ballot tracker would make our presidential approval rating average too sluggish to pick up on real swings in Trump’s numbers.

So we think the only good way to determine the “right” settings for a polling average is to do it empirically. There are a couple of ways that you could do this:

  1. You can tune the settings so that they optimally predict future polls. That is, if our approval rating average has Trump at 42 percent, that means 42 percent is our best guess for what a new Trump approval rating poll would say.
  2. Highly related to the above, you can tune the settings to minimize autocorrelation. That is to say, the current polling average should reflect all information about the current state of the polls and your average shouldn’t predictably move upward or downward from that point in time. For example, if Sanders improves from 15 percent to 17 percent in your polling average, he should be equally likely to continue gaining ground (improve beyond 17 percent) or to revert to where he was before (decline from 17 percent) in future editions of your polling average.
  3. For polling sequences that culminate in an election, like the New Hampshire primary poll average, you can test how accurately the polling average predicts the eventual election result.

The settings we chose for our primary polling averages are designed to optimize these qualities based on our historical database of primary polls since 1972. In general, it’s appropriate to apply relatively aggressive settings in the primaries as compared to the general election, as the former tend to be much more dynamic than the latter due to the lack of partisan guardrails.

I’ll refrain (for now) from going into more detail on exactly what these parameters are and how we’ve set them. (There are actually quite a few parameters, ranging from how you trade off recency versus having a larger sample of polls to which kernel density function to apply.) As a matter of practice, though, the FiveThirtyEight polling average represents something of a compromise between the RealClearPolitics approach of averaging recent polls and The Economist’s technique of drawing a trend line.

Differentiator 5: We use objective criteria to decide which polls to include

For many reasons, we prefer to avoid having to make any ad hoc decisions about which polls to include in our average. So our approach has always been to include almost all polls but to weight them based on our pollster ratings (which in turn reflect a combination of how accurate the pollster has been historically and the methodology it uses) and the polls’ sample size. We’re applying this long-standing process to our primary polling averages as well.

Note that I said “almost all polls” rather than “all polls” because there are some rare exceptions. We don’t include polls from firms that are banned by FiveThirtyEight because we suspect them of having faked data. And for the primaries, we won’t be including internal polls that are released to the public by one of the campaigns,5 or surveys that test super hypothetical matchups, such as a head-to-head poll conducted when more than two candidates are still running.

And that’s about it. Again, we’ll have much more detail on some of this when we launch our forecast. But in the meantime, please go click around and see how the race looks nationally and in the various states. Is Buttigieg losing steam in surveys of Iowa? Has Warren arrested her decline in national polls? Now you can decide for yourself.