We’ve been busy the past few weeks tracking public opinion on impeachment, launching our new NBA metric (RAPTOR!) and dealing with about a million breaking news alerts a day. So I’m not going to give you one of those grandiose overviews of the Democratic primary. Maybe we’ll be more in the mood for one after this week’s debate.
Nope, I just want to make a narrower point: Joe Biden is still doing reasonably well in the polls.
Elizabeth Warren’s doing well, too! She probably hasn’t overtaken Biden in national polls, yet, but it’s pretty darn close — close enough that she was momentarily ahead in one national polling average (from RealClearPolitics) last week. You’d certainly rather be in Warren’s shoes than Biden’s in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Although not in South Carolina, and the Super Tuesday states aren’t so clear.) In fact, if you want to argue that she’s the most likely nominee, I don’t have any real problem with that. I also don’t have any real problem if you think it’s Biden, or that it’s too close to call.
But Warren’s gains have come mostly at the expense of the rest of the field — from Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, in particular — and from other candidates, such as Cory Booker, whose campaigns never really took off in the first place. Relatively little of Warren’s increased support has come from Biden, whose topline numbers have mostly been steady.
In fact, Biden’s numbers haven’t declined at all since President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine became the dominant political story. We can see this by taking a before and after comparison of polls that have come out in the past couple of weeks. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact date when Ukraine and impeachment rose to the top of the news. But Monday, September 23, when seven first-term Democratic members of Congress published an editorial calling for Trump’s impeachment over allegations that he encouraged Ukraine to investigate Biden and and his son, was probably the closest thing to an inflection point. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came out in favor of an impeachment inquiry the next day; that Wednesday, the White House published its summary of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.) So here are the results from nine pollsters who have conducted a national poll since Sept. 23.1
In an average of those polls, Biden’s still on top at 27.4 percent, with Warren in second at 24.7 percent. I don’t necessarily buy that Warren pulled ahead of Biden last week, as the RCP average briefly showed; for some reason, RCP’s average didn’t include HarrisX, which is usually one of Biden’s better polls. It’s also sort of a moot point, though. There’s no national primary, and if Warren keeps gaining ground at the rate she has been over the past few months, she’ll surpass Biden eventually.
What there hasn’t been, though, is much sign of a decline in Biden’s numbers, despite all the media narratives constantly predicting one. Here was the most recent pre-Ukraine version (all interviews conducted before Sept. 23) of those same national polls.
So Biden was at 26.9 percent on average in the pre-Ukraine polls … and he’s at 27.4 percent now. There’s been no decline at all, obviously. Warren has gained quite a bit of ground, though, having gone from 19 percent to 24.7 percent. Where is that support coming from?
|Candidate||Before Sept. 23||Since Sept. 23||Change|
Some of it has come from Harris, whom Warren is competing with for college-educated voters. Some has come from Sanders. And some of it may have come from second-tier candidates such as Booker, whose solid debate performances seem to have been forgotten and who is back to just 1 or 2 percent in the polls. YouGov’s polling of early-state voters suggests that relatively little of it has come from Biden, on the other hand.
If there’s a bit of bad news for Warren, it’s that she’s already picked off a lot of the low-hanging fruit. She can perhaps grab a few more Sanders voters, especially if some are concerned over the heart attack he suffered two weeks ago. But Sanders has already lost around two-thirds of the voters that he had in 2016, so the ones that remain with him may be a relatively hardy lot. Meanwhile, there aren’t that many more Harris supporters to win over.
That’s not to say that it’s all going swimmingly for Biden, either. Although his topline numbers haven’t changed much, Warren has surpassed him on measures of enthusiasm, she tends to have better favorability ratings than he does, and, obviously, Iowa and New Hampshire are huge potential liabilities for Biden if he loses them.
But our thesis about Biden’s candidacy has never been that he’s the most perfect candidate or has run the most flawless campaign, but rather that he commands deep loyalty from constituencies that often receive little coverage from media elites, including seniors, non-college-educated whites, African Americans and moderates. There aren’t many signs that these voters support Biden solely because of name recognition, or that their support is otherwise superficial. In fact, Biden — like Warren — often does better among voters who are paying the most attention to the campaign.
Now, if you want to argue that the 70 percent of Democrats who don’t have Biden as their first choice are cooling on him, I think you’re on firmer ground. And that could absolutely be a problem for him if he and Warren — perhaps along with other candidates — are scrambling to pick up additional supporters after the early states.
To a first approximation, though, Biden’s numbers have been quite steady. Other than a post-announcement bounce, when he briefly surged to near 40 percent, he’s been somewhere between 26 percent and 32 percent in the RCP average for literally the entire campaign:
In contrast to certain other campaigns, which naively thought that Biden’s support might just up and disappear, Warren’s team has caught up to him the hard way: by building a coalition of around 25 percent of the Democratic electorate on her own, including many voters that were initially skeptical of her.
Empirically speaking, the mid-to-high-20s in the polls tends to be a fairly robust and sustainable position. It doesn’t necessarily make you a favorite to win the nomination, especially when there’s another candidate who’s polling at about the same number. But through this point in a presidential primary, few candidates who have sustained numbers in the mid-to-high-20s have completely flopped. Those numbers tend to be good enough that you’ll win your share of states (past Iowa caucus winners have often gotten around 25 to 30 percent of the vote) or at least your share of delegates. They mean that you’ll probably be one of the trains leaving the station as the field starts to winnow. They reflect a measure of success unto themselves.
All right, this is getting a little grandiose, so let’s save the rest of the analysis for after the debate. Besides, the Democratic primary just isn’t all that complicated right now. Roughly speaking, the nomination process is going reasonably well for both Warren and Biden. And while there are other candidates who are exceeding expectations,2 it isn’t going all that well for anyone else.