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Election Update: Our First Big National Poll Shows Just How Unsettled The Race Is

It’s been a week since Iowa voted, and we have few national polls to help us understand just how much the caucus results — messy though they were — have affected the attitudes of potential Democratic primary voters around the country. But today Quinnipiac University released a national survey conducted entirely after Iowa voted, and it found a new polling front-runner: Sen. Bernie Sanders, who led the field with 25 percent support.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, fell nine points since Quinnipiac last conducted a national survey in late January. This is the first time Sanders has led in a national Quinnipiac survey during the 2020 cycle. As you can see in our national polling average, the gap between Biden and Sanders is shrinking, too — they’re essentially tied at 22 percent.

The Quinnipiac poll also underscored just how fragmented voter support currently is — five candidates polled at least 10 percent. Just behind Biden, who polled at 17 percent, came former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at 15 percent and Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 14 percent. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg wasn’t too distant of a fifth at 10 percent, which marked a 4-point increase from Quinnipiac’s late January poll.

As for how this poll affects our primary forecast, it didn’t shift things that dramatically because the model had already anticipated Sanders’s national numbers would improve after Iowa while Biden’s would fall. However, the fact that Bloomberg made such a substantial gain — he nearly doubled his support from 8 percent in Quinnipiac’s January poll to 15 percent — means that it’s also increasingly likely that no one will win a majority of pledged delegates. Bottom line: Sanders’s gains were already priced in, so the Quinnipiac poll largely fit within the model’s expectations, but there’s also a lot of uncertainty and a 1 in 4 chance that no single candidate wins a majority.

In the meantime, though, the campaigns’ immediate focus is New Hampshire, which holds its primary tomorrow. With the new national poll plus several new New Hampshire polls from last night and this morning now incorporated into our model, the FiveThirtyEight forecast gives Sanders a 2 in 3 (67 percent) chance of winning the Granite State. Buttigieg — who had been gaining ground in New Hampshire but whose polling numbers there appear to have leveled out — has a 3 in 10 (29 percent) chance. No other candidate has more than a 2 percent chance of carrying the state, although our model has Warren and Biden in a tight race for third place — Warren is forecast to get 14 percent of the vote, on average, while Biden gets 13 percent (but remember, the margin of error of these estimates is quite large).

These odds have changed little over the last few days, in part because we keep getting a ton of New Hampshire polls that say roughly the same thing: Sanders leads, with Buttigieg hovering in striking distance and all other candidates trailing to various degrees. We’ve gotten five polls in just the last 24 hours, including the final installments of the three tracking polls in the state:

  • The final 7 News/Emerson College poll, conducted Saturday and Sunday, found Sanders at 30 percent, Buttigieg at 23 percent, Klobuchar at 14 percent, Warren at 11 percent and Biden at 10 percent. When you adjust for Emerson’s house effects (Emerson has tended to show better numbers for Sanders than other pollsters), our model interprets this as a 1-point Sanders lead.
  • The final Suffolk University/Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll, also conducted Saturday and Sunday, gave Sanders 27 percent, Buttigieg 19 percent, Klobuchar 14 percent and Biden and Warren 12 percent each. But because Suffolk has historically featured pretty poor numbers for Sanders, our model interprets this as a 10-point Sanders lead.
  • And according to the last installment of CNN/University of New Hampshire poll, conducted Feb. 6-9, Sanders at 29 percent support, Buttigieg at 22 percent, Biden at 11 percent, Warren at 10 percent and Klobuchar at 7 percent. After our house effects adjustment, the model interprets this as a 5-point Sanders lead.

These final tracking polls disagree more than they did yesterday about the size of Sanders’s lead, but are generally positive for Sanders. Emerson and Suffolk also found Klobuchar making a small charge into third place; for example, she has gone from 6 percent in Feb. 6-7’s Suffolk poll to 14 percent in this latest one. This has perhaps come at the cost of blunting Buttigieg’s momentum, as his vote share has not changed much over the last few days in either poll, even though he gained several points in them throughout last week. And the three installments of CNN/UNH’s poll that we’ve gotten have shown little movement for all candidates.

We also got two new non-tracking polls of New Hampshire:

  • According to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Sanders has 25 percent in New Hampshire, Buttigieg has 17 percent, Warren 15 percent, Biden 14 percent and Klobuchar 8 percent. After the house effects adjustment, that’s akin to a 7-point Sanders lead. However, it’s worth noting that this poll is a little older than the others, as it was conducted Feb. 4-7.
  • Finally, American Research Group, in a poll fielded Saturday and Sunday, says that Sanders is at 28 percent, Buttigieg is at 20 percent, Biden and Klobuchar are each at 13 percent and Warren is at 11 percent. That computes to a 5-point Sanders lead in our model, after house effects are considered.

These polls suggest there is still a chance that Warren, Biden or Klobuchar could catch Buttigieg for second place. However, at the same time, they confirmed the findings of almost every other poll we’ve seen in New Hampshire this week: Sanders has a modest lead.

Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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