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Biden’s Leading The Iowa Polls, But That Doesn’t Mean Much Yet

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

With the 2018 midterms (mostly) behind us, focus has shifted to the 2020 presidential election. The Iowa caucuses are usually the start of the presidential nomination process, and as of right now, they’re scheduled for Feb. 3, 2020 — just over 400 days from now. While we’re still more than a year out, two new polls found former Vice President Joe Biden in the lead in the race for the Democratic nomination. At least 30 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa listed him as their top choice for president.

The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll from Selzer & Co.1 found Biden at 32 percent while a survey from David Binder Research on behalf of Focus on Rural America found Biden at 30 percent.2 In both polls, no other candidate cracked 20 percent. In an even earlier poll Biden led the field with 37 percent listing him as their No. 1 pick.3

Even though we’re still a ways from the caucus, these numbers could be read as a good sign for Biden. In the last four presidential elections where there was no Democratic incumbent running, the Iowa caucus winner went on to become the party’s nominee: Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Moreover, Biden has never polled this well in Iowa. In both his 1988 and 2008 presidential bids, Biden failed to hit the double-digits, and even when it seemed possible that Biden might run in 2016, his best Iowa marks were in the low 20s against Clinton and Sanders.

A good poll in Iowa doesn’t mean much … yet

Presidential aspirants that polled 30 percent or more at least one year prior to the Iowa caucuses

Year Party Candidate No. of Polls ≥30% Best poll result Iowa result Nom.?
1984 D Walter Mondale 1 58% 1st Yes
1988 D Gary Hart 2 59 7th No
1988 R Bob Dole 1 33 1st No
2004 D Al Gore 1 39 Didn’t run
2008 D Hillary Clinton 1 31 3rd No
2008 D John Edwards 2 36 2nd No
2008 R Rudy Giuliani 1 30 6th No
2016 D Hillary Clinton 1 48 1st Yes
2020 D Joe Biden 3 37 ? ?


But according to FiveThirtyEight’s database of Iowa polls,4 most candidates who polled at roughly 30 percent more than one year before the caucuses have not won the caucuses or the nomination. From 1980 to 2016, eight different candidates hit the 30 percent mark in a survey taken at least one year out. Only three went on to win the Iowa caucuses: Walter Mondale in 1984, Bob Dole in 1988 and Clinton in 2016. Mondale and Clinton later won their party’s nomination, but Dole came up short against George H.W. Bush.

And some candidates polling at 30 percent or more withdrew or didn’t end up running. For instance, Gary Hart was the front-runner for the 1988 Democratic nomination and two surveys more than a year out found him polling in the high 50s, but after Hart got caught in an extramarital affair, he dropped out of the race, eventually re-entered and finished with less than one percent of the caucus vote. About a month after the Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore to decide the 2000 election, a poll looking at the 2004 Iowa caucuses found Gore at 39 percent. Gore decided against another bid in late 2002.

Three others ran but failed to win the Iowa caucuses or their party’s nomination in the 2008 cycle. Clinton and John Edwards each hit the 30 percent mark in at least one poll more than a year out but both lost to Obama in Iowa. Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani polled at 30 percent once but skipped the caucuses, instead opting for a Florida-first campaign strategy that completely failed.

We are a long way from the Iowa caucuses, and there will be myriad twists and turns and developments, such as debate performances and candidate announcements. Heck, Biden — who will be 77 years old on Election Day 2020 — might not even run, though he sure is acting like a potential candidate. We also know that early-state surveys aren’t very predictive until about two weeks after Thanksgiving in the year prior to the presidential election — or roughly two months before the 2020 Iowa caucuses. So as we speculate about the meaning of presidential polls more than a year out, know that they don’t necessarily tell us much other than which candidates have name recognition — and on that front, Biden seems to be doing just fine.

Other polling nuggets

  • 30 percent of Americans said in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that 2018 was either “one of the best” or an “above average” year for the United States compared with other years. That’s the most optimism the poll has recorded since at least 1991, the earliest data point provided in the poll.
  • Approximately two-thirds of voters oppose shutting down the government over funding for the border wall, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
  • 29 percent of Americans say that high medical costs stopped them from seeking treatment in the past year according to a Gallup poll; 19 percent say they avoided treatment for a serious condition or illness because of the price tag.
  • According to a Fox News poll, 39 percent of voters think President Trump will be re-elected in 2020, 52 percent do not.
  • Melania Trump’s approval rating has fallen 11 points from 54 percent in October to 43 percent this month according to a CNN poll. The first lady’s approval is down by 5 points among Republicans and 13 points among Democrats.
  • In a Gallup poll last month, 21 percent of Americans listed immigration as the most important problem facing the U.S.; this month only 16 percent did. The poll, which was conducted from December 3-12, was the first Gallup poll conducted on this topic since the November elections.
  • A HuffPost/YouGov poll found that the share of Americans who say that newcomers threaten “traditional American customs and values” declined by 12 percentage points from when the question was last asked in June 2016. The poll reported a decline among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
  • 61 percent of Americans who say they did not vote on Election Day wish they had according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center immediately after the election.
  • To understand whether the public believes President Trump when he makes misleading claims, The Washington Post and NORC at the University of Chicago created a poll that asked respondents to choose the true statement in each of 18 pairs of statements, where one was true and one was false. Eleven of the pairs included a false claim President Trump had made, and respondents mistook one of those falsehoods for the true statement 25 percent of the time, on average. Rates varied by party — Democrats chose the false statement 20 percent of the time and Republicans did so 35 percent of the time. .
  • 84 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas said in a Economist/YouGov poll that they think that Santa Claus would rate them as “nice”; 16 percent expected to be rated as “naughty.” FiveThirtyEight has not yet developed a model to predict how Santa will rate you.
  • People in the Democratic Republic of Congo are supposed to go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president and national assembly, though the destruction of electronic voting machines in a suspected arson attack might postpone that. An opinion poll conducted by New York University and the polling firm BERCI in October showed incumbent party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary winning 16 percent of the vote, trailing behind opposition candidates Felix Tshisekedi who had 36 percent support and Vital Kamerhe who had 17 percent support. (Tshisekedi and Kamerhe have since joined forces). There have been concerns about election integrity, but if the opposition wins without incident, the DRC would see its first peaceful transition of power since its independence in 1960.

Trump Approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.1 percent approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.5 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.4 points). At this time last week, 42.5 percent approved and 51.6 percent disapproved, for a net approval rating of -9.1 points. One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.9 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.3 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.4 points.

CORRECTION (Dec. 21, 1:45 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described the 1988 Democratic caucus results in Iowa. Gary Hart dropped out of the race after news broke that he had had an extramarital affair, but he later re-entered the campaign.


  1. Conducted Dec. 10-13.

  2. Conducted Dec. 10-11.

  3. Binder Research poll conducted Sept. 20-23.

  4. FiveThirtyEight has Iowa polls going back to the 1980 election cycle.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.