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.

The Democratic Primary Looks Pretty Different In Each Of The Early States

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

Earlier this week, I looked at national surveys to see what’s behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s rise in the polls, but now let’s zoom in on the early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — to see what’s happening there.

This week we have a new Fox News poll of South Carolina that shows former Vice President Joe Biden still retains a formidable lead there at 41 percent (Warren was in second at 12 percent) despite Warren’s gains at the national level. In Iowa and New Hampshire, recent surveys more closely mirror the overall national picture — Warren has gained while Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders have slipped. But there’s also evidence that someone like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg may be underestimated in national polls.

To see what’s happened in the early states since August, I averaged all state-level polls taken between the second debate (July 30-31) and the third debate (Sept. 12) and compared that to an average of all state polls fielded since the third debate for the five candidates currently sitting at the top of the polls: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris.

And in some states, there weren’t a ton of polls during these two time periods, but we did have at least two polls for each state before and after the third debate.

First up, in Iowa, you can see a real change in the nature of the race — Biden previously led by about 3 percentage points, but now Warren has moved ahead. Sanders also slipped about 5 points, so instead of rivaling Warren for second place as he did before the third debate, he’s now in a race for third. He’s about on par with Buttigieg, who now has double-digit support in the state, although the mayor enjoyed a pretty strong standing there before the debate, too. Harris slipped in Iowa, dropping 3 points, which is similar to her performance in the three other early states.

Warren has edged ahead of Biden in Iowa

Average of Iowa polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Elizabeth Warren 21.3 23.0 +1.7
Joe Biden 24.7 20.3 -4.3
Bernie Sanders 17.3 12.0 -5.3
Pete Buttigieg 9.3 11.3 +2.0
Kamala Harris 8.3 5.3 -3.0

Our “before third debate” average includes three polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average also includes three polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

Next up, in New Hampshire, the story is pretty similar to what we saw in Iowa: Warren’s numbers improved, giving her a narrow lead. In fact, she’s gone up nearly 10 points, far more than in Iowa. However, unlike in Iowa, Biden’s numbers have gone up, too. They didn’t rise as dramatically as Warren’s, but the jump has helped him stay close to Warren in the nation’s first primary state. Meanwhile, Sanders’s slide in New Hampshire has been particularly large, going from a near-tie for first with Biden to 15 points behind Warren. And as in Iowa, Buttigieg is now closer to Sanders than Sanders is to Warren or Biden, while Harris has fallen to the low single digits.

Warren surged in New Hampshire, but Biden gained too

Average of New Hampshire polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Elizabeth Warren 17.6 27.0 +9.5
Joe Biden 21.6 24.3 +2.7
Bernie Sanders 20.9 12.0 -8.9
Pete Buttigieg 7.0 9.7 +2.7
Kamala Harris 6.9 4.0 -2.9

Our “before third debate” average includes six polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average includes three polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

To some extent, Warren’s uptick in Iowa and New Hampshire isn’t that surprising given her strength with white college-educated voters and, as I wrote on Monday, her increasing support from whites without a college degree. After all, 85 to 90 percent of Iowans and New Hampshirites are white. A lot of this can explain why Buttigieg is doing so well there, too, as he also mainly attracts support from white voters, particularly college-educated ones. That said, his performance in these two early states still stands out in comparison to his mid-single-digit standing in the national polls. And this could be a promising sign for Buttigieg given the influence these two states can have on the presidential primary process — once voting begins, he could be positioned for a strong start that could take his campaign to the next level, especially in light of his prodigious fundraising.

But in our next two early-voting states — Nevada and South Carolina — the picture gets a little fuzzier because we don’t have as many polls. Biden continues to lead the pack in both states (although in Nevada, the race looks more like a three-way tie), but there just hasn’t been as much consistent polling in either state. And that’s a problem, because even though both states come later in the calendar, they are much more racially and ethnically diverse than either Iowa or New Hampshire. So these states could offer important insight as to how other more-diverse states may be leaning, as New Hampshire and Iowa look less and less like the Democratic Party.

For Nevada, we had three surveys prior to the third debate and two after, and they showed a tight three-way race among Biden, Warren and Sanders that got even closer after the third debate. Both Biden and Sanders lost some support, but Warren didn’t emerge as the beneficiary.

It’s a three-way race in Nevada

Average of Nevada polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Joe Biden 26.0 22.6 -3.4
Elizabeth Warren 18.7 18.7 0.0
Bernie Sanders 20.3 18.1 -2.2
Kamala Harris 8.3 4.4 -3.9
Pete Buttigieg 5.3 3.7 -1.6

Our “before third debate” average includes three polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average includes two polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

And in South Carolina, where we had two polls before the third debate and four polls after, it seems as if no one has been able to make a serious dent into Biden’s support, although he did see a slight dip in his numbers. Biden’s continued strength among black voters in the state has made South Carolina a crucial firewall for his campaign, especially if things go poorly for him in the earlier contests. Sanders’s decline in South Carolina has also helped make Warren a clear second-place contender (even though she, like Biden, saw a slight dip in her numbers after the third debate).

Biden continues to dominate in South Carolina

Average of South Carolina polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Joe Biden 39.5 37.8 -1.8
Elizabeth Warren 15.5 14.8 -0.8
Bernie Sanders 17.0 9.0 -8.0
Kamala Harris 9.5 4.5 -5.0
Pete Buttigieg 4.5 3.3 -1.3

Our “before third debate” average includes two polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average includes four polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

As always, though, things could shift in the coming weeks. After all, we’ve got the fourth debate coming up on Oct. 15, which could help Sanders or Harris recover to some extent, though we don’t know yet what the polling fallout may be from Sanders’s recent heart attack. But for the moment, what we do know is that the early-state polls in New Hampshire and Iowa look favorable for Warren, while Biden still holds the lead in South Carolina and Nevada. We shouldn’t sleep on Buttigieg, either — although both he and Warren have a lot of work to do to win over more voters of color.

Other polling bites

  • It’s still too soon to know whether Sanders’s heart attack has affected his standing in the polls, but a YouGov poll found that 69 percent of Americans think his health is “a legitimate issue.” Additionally, views were mixed about whether his campaign had been transparent about the event, with 33 percent saying it was transparent and 27 percent saying it wasn’t, while a plurality (39 percent) weren’t sure one way or the other.
  • The share of Americans who identify as either a Republican or a Democrat remained relatively stable during the third quarter of 2019, according to a new Gallup report, with Democrats maintaining a slight edge. Forty-seven percent of adult Americans identified as a Democrat or a Democratic-leaning independent, whereas 42 percent identified as a Republican or a Republican-leaning independent.
  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up about 6 percent of all Americans, and AAPI Data and the Public Religion Research Institute have released a new survey of AAPI voters in California, which is both the country’s most populous state and home to the largest number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. The survey found that 56 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of President Trump, while 33 percent had a favorable view of him. And among the leading Democratic presidential contenders, Biden, Sanders and Harris (who is from California) had the highest favorability ratings.
  • New polling from Ipsos and C-SPAN found that Americans are skeptical the 2020 election will be “open and fair.” Just 53 percent said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence that the presidential election will be “open and fair,” while 46 percent said they did not have much confidence or “no confidence at all.” There were notable differences between Republicans and Democrats, however, with 72 percent of Republicans expressing some degree of confidence contrasted with just 39 percent of Democrats.
  • Of the four states holding state legislative elections in 2019, Virginia is the only one where there’s a real chance that party control of a chamber could flip. (Republicans have solid majorities in Louisiana and Mississippi while Democrats have overwhelming majorities in New Jersey.) And two new generic ballot polls suggest that Democrats are currently favored to capture both chambers in the Virginia General Assembly, which the GOP currently controls. A late-September survey from the Washington Post and the Schar School at George Mason University found Democrats 7 points ahead of Republicans among registered voters and up 52 percent to 41 percent among registered voters who said they were “certain to vote.” A September poll from the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University was even more bullish for Democrats, finding them ahead of the GOP by 13 points among likely voters, 49 percent to 36 percent.
  • Canada will vote for a new parliament on Oct. 21, and the race is unusually tight. CBC News’s poll tracker shows the Liberals (the governing party) and the Conservatives (the main opposition) running neck-and-neck at 33 percent nationally.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.0 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.7 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.7 points). At this time last week, 41.2 percent approved and 53.9 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -12.7 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 41.0 percent and a disapproval rating of 54.1 percent, for a net approval rating of -13.1 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.1 percentage points (46.2 percent to 40.1 percent). At this time last week, Democrats led by 6.9 percentage points (46.9 percent to 40.0 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.5 points (46.3 percent to 39.8 percent).