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Election Update: Sanders Is On The Upswing

Up until this point, we’ve been pretty hesitant to read too much into any one of the post-debate polls — largely because for each poll that showed Sen. Bernie Sanders on the upswing, there was another poll that showed him on the downturn. But now with four more national polls and six early-state surveys (three from Iowa and three from New Hampshire) since we last checked in, we’ve got a much clearer picture of where things stand. And one thing that’s immediately obvious is that Sanders really has gained in the polls.

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

Sanders’s chances of winning a majority of pledged delegates has increased by 4 percentage points since Friday, up from 22 percent to 26 percent in our forecast. But notably, his gain hasn’t come at the expense of former Vice President Joe Biden. In fact, Biden’s odds are unchanged — he still has a 42 percent shot at winning a majority of pledged delegates, which was also the case on Friday. Sen Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, slipped 5 points since Friday, and is now roughly tied with Buttigieg in our overall delegate forecast. (Buttigieg’s odds remain the same, and the chance that no candidate wins a majority of pledged delegates ticked up very slightly.)

This weekend’s polls gave Sanders a boost

How candidates’ chances of winning a majority of pledged delegates have changed since Jan. 23, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

Candidate Jan. 23 forecast Current forecast Difference
Joe Biden 42% 42% 0
Bernie Sanders 22 26 +4
Elizabeth Warren 13 8 -5
Pete Buttigieg 8 8 0
No majority 15 16 +1

Current forecast as of Jan. 26 at 9:00 p.m. ET.

The second thing that’s immediately obvious from this latest batch of polls is that the race in Iowa is still incredibly close. Biden has slightly better odds than Sanders in our forecast, but it’s probably better to think of the two of them as roughly tied, with Buttigieg and Warren not too far behind. That said, this weekend’s polls did change the picture in New Hampshire with Sanders vaulting into the lead, which at least partially explains some of his overall gains in the forecast.

Sanders now leads in N.H. while Iowa remains wide open

Part of the reason Sanders has seen such a large uptick in our model is fairly easy to explain — he picked up three uniformly good polls in New Hampshire since last Thursday:

  • First, MassINC Polling Group and WBUR found Sanders more than 10 points ahead of the rest of the field at 29 percent on Thursday. (Buttigieg was at 17 percent, Biden at 14 percent and Warren at 13 percent.) This was an especially good poll for Sanders not only because he led by such a large margin, but also because it represented a major swing from the pollster’s previous survey in December, where Sanders was in second at 17 percent behind Buttigieg’s 18 percent.
  • Next, CNN and the University of New Hampshire found Sanders in first at 25 percent, Biden in second at 16 percent, Buttigieg in third at 15 percent and Warren in fourth at 12 percent in their poll released Sunday. The last CNN/UNH poll in October also found Sanders in the lead, but Sanders’s still managed to grow his support by 4 points, and expand his 3-point lead in October to 9 points.
  • Finally, another Sunday poll from NBC News/Marist College found Sanders in the lead at 22 percent, Buttigieg at 17 percent, Biden at 15 percent, Warren at 13 percent and Sen. Amy Klobuchar at 10 percent. (This was the first New Hampshire poll from these two organizations this cycle, so we don’t have a benchmark for comparison.)

What this has meant for Sanders is that he has now edged Biden out to secure a 5-point lead in our New Hampshire polling average, and he is also in the lead in the New Hampshire primary forecast with a 2 in 5 chance of winning the most votes. And it’s actually Buttigieg — not Biden — who has the second best shot of now finishing first (26 percent), although Biden is super close on Buttigieg’s tail at 21 percent. Warren, meanwhile, has experienced a pretty stark tumble. Her New Hampshire polling average is down 3 points since the debate and her odds of winning New Hampshire have fallen, too, so that she now has about an 11 percent chance there — behind both Buttigieg and Biden.

[Our Latest Forecast: Who will win the Iowa caucuses?]

Iowa, though, is a bit more of a mixed bag. Biden is still in the lead there, but he’s practically tied with Sanders and both have made sizable gains there after the last debate.

Sanders now has a 5-point lead in N.H., but Iowa is a tossup

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

Joe Biden 20.1 22.7 +2.6 21.8 16.8 -5.0
Bernie Sanders 19.9 22.0 +2.1 20.1 21.7 +1.6
Pete Buttigieg 17.4 18.5 +1.1 13.1 14.5 +1.4
Elizabeth Warren 14.9 14.8 -0.1 16.0 13.1 -2.9
Amy Klobuchar 6.7 7.8 +1.1 4.7 7.5 +2.8

* Polling average as of the day before the debate.

And the three most recent Iowa surveys we have didn’t really give us a clearer picture; if anything, they have an almost “choose your own adventure” quality to them — some put Biden in the lead while others favored Sanders. On the whole, though, they were much better for Sanders than some of the other Iowa polls released in the immediate aftermath of the debate that had put Sanders in the low double-digits. Here’s a run down of what the three latest polls in Iowa show:

  • On Saturday, New York Times Upshot/Siena College found Sanders in the lead at 25 percent, ahead of Buttigieg at 18 percent, Biden at 17 percent and Warren at 15 percent. This marked a pretty big jump (6 points) for Sanders from the last time they surveyed Iowa in late October, and a fairly dramatic fall for Warren, who fell 7 points from first to fourth place. Buttigieg and Biden’s numbers, on the other hand, were unchanged.
  • And on Sunday, a new CBS News/YouGov survey also found Sanders in the lead at 26 percent, but the gap between him and the rest of the field was much narrower: Biden was at 25 percent, Buttigieg at 22 percent and Warren at 15 percent. This poll didn’t represent much of a change from their last poll of the Iowa contest from earlier this month, which found Sanders, Biden and Buttigieg all in a three-way tie for first at 23 percent.
  • Finally, USA Today/Suffolk University also put out their latest numbers for Iowa on Sunday, but they found Biden in the lead with 25 percent, Sanders in second with 19 percent, Buttigieg in third with 18 percent and Warren in fourth with 13 percent. This was obviously a good poll for Biden, but it wasn’t necessarily bad for Sanders, considering the last Iowa poll Suffolk released in October found Biden in first at 18 percent, Warren at 17 percent, Buttigieg at 13 percent and Sanders in fourth at 9 percent.

According to our forecast, Biden has a slight edge in Iowa with about a 1 in 3 shot of winning the most votes there, though Sanders has nearly the same odds. Buttigieg isn’t that far off either, but just like in New Hampshire, Warren’s chances have declined pretty significantly. She’s now got only a 1 in 9 shot of winning the most votes in Iowa, which puts her in an increasingly tough spot. She will have to hope that the endorsement she picked up from the Des Moines Register on Saturday can help her recover in the week leading up to the caucuses. But the bottom line in Iowa is this: There is a lot of uncertainty going into the Feb. 3 caucuses.

Biden still leads nationally, but Sanders is catching up

We also got a number of new national polls this weekend, and they, too, showed a clear improvement for Sanders — he’s now at about 21 percent in our national polling average, which is his strongest position since Biden announced in April. The former vice president still leads on this front at 27 percent, but unlike Sanders, his numbers aren’t ticking upward.

In fact, if you compare all of the national polls released since the Jan. 14 debate to the most recent pre-debate poll from each pollster, you’ll see that Sanders’s simple average has gone up about 3 points while Biden’s has barely budged. Granted, some of these pollsters haven’t polled all that recently — the ABC News/Washington Post last surveyed the candidate field in late October, eons ago in campaign terms. So this is why it can be useful to see how things changed in our more complex polling average, which accounts for things like a poll’s recency, but as you can see in the table below the topline is actually pretty similar: Biden’s numbers haven’t budged, but Sanders’s have still increased — 2 points, instead of 3. Meanwhile, as was the case in both New Hampshire and Iowa polls, Warren’s numbers have declined.

Sanders — and Bloomberg — gained nationally

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

CNN/SSRS -2.0 +7.0 -2.0 +0.0 +3.0 +1.0
Monmouth U. +4.0 +2.0 -3.0 +4.0 -2.0 +1.0
Morning Consult +0.0 +1.0 +1.0 +2.0 +0.0 +0.0
SurveyUSA +2.0 +4.0 -1.0 +6.0 -2.0 +0.0
YouGov +1.0 -2.0 +2.0 +1.0 +1.0 +1.0
Emerson College -2.0 +3.0 +0.0 +5.0 -2.0 +2.0
Reuters/Ipsos* -2.0 +0.0 -3.0 +1.0 -1.0 +1.0
ABC News/W. Post +4.0 +6.0 -11.0 +8.0 -4.0 +1.0
Fox News -4.0 +3.0 +1.0 +5.0 +0.0 -2.0
Simple avg. +0.2 +2.6 -1.7 +3.5 -0.8 +0.5
FiveThirtyEight avg. change +0.4 +2.1 -0.7 +1.9 +0.0 +0.1

*Change based on average of two national surveys released by Reuters/Ipsos since the Jan. 14 debate compared to their last poll before the debate.

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

Source: Polls

We would be remiss, though if we didn’t mention former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has also seen a 2-to-4-point uptick in his poll numbers since the last debate. In fact, he has now moved ahead of Buttigieg in our national polling average and currently sits in fourth place nationally. However, Bloomberg is a bit of a wild card in that he’s skipping the early-voting states and instead spending millions of dollars on advertising in Super Tuesday states. He’s also harder for our model to get a read on, as there isn’t really a historical analogue to someone using such a nontraditional approach. So while his upward progression in the polls may signal that this strategy is working out him, it’s also entirely possible that his support will ebb after other candidates have won actual votes in the first four contests.

Bottom line: This last batch of polls contained some pretty good news for Sanders — and in FiveThirtyEight model terms, it’s a fairly big deal that Sanders went from a 22 percent chance of winning a majority of delegates to a 26 percent chance. It’s also notable that this happened and Biden didn’t lose any ground. Sanders’s gains instead seem to have come at Warren’s expense, who fell from a 13 percent chance of winning a majority of delegates on Friday to an 8 percent chance on Sunday.

If you’re wondering how much you should update your priors as a result of this weekend’s flurry of polls, our best advice is this: Keep an open mind on Iowa. Things are really wide open there, and a lot could still change both before Iowa but also especially after. At the same time, it does seem as if Sanders really is having a moment. The question now is whether it’ll last or if the polls will once again shift, maybe this time in Biden’s favor or Buttigieg’s — or even Warren’s or Klobuchar’s.

Make sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s Democratic primary forecast in full.

Which Democratic candidate had the biggest surge in popularity?

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.