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The 2020 Front-Runners Aren’t As Well-Liked As Past Contenders

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

We know that former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are popular among Democratic voters. But how do they fare among the general public? A recent poll from Gallup shows that opinions about this trio are far more mixed among all Americans than they are among Democrats. And relative to previous high-profile candidates, they don’t seem to be as popular. Gallup’s poll found that the net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) of these leading Democrats was roughly even or negative among the general electorate, with Sanders at +1, Biden at -1 and Warren at -5. Granted, we found that none of them are as unpopular as Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump were at this point in the 2016 cycle, but they’re also not as favorably viewed as George W. Bush in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008, or even Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

We looked at non-incumbent candidates’ favorability ratings in each cycle dating back to 2000, focusing on the last four months of the year before the election. We found that Biden, Sanders and Warren are less well-liked than many well-known presidential contenders from the past two decades.1 These numbers could be a red flag for Democrats looking ahead to the general election or a product of our increasingly polarized politics. You can see that since 2008, many candidates’ net favorability ratings have been negative or close to zero.

Biden, Sanders, Warren aren’t as popular as past candidates

Average net favorability ratings (favorable rating average minus unfavorable rating average) of well-known presidential candidates* in national polls from the last four months of the year preceding the primary, 2000 to 2020

Candidate cycle party Fav Avg Unfav Avg Net
George W. Bush 2000 R 56.2% 23.4% +32.7
Barack Obama 2008 D 49.3 29.8 +19.5
John McCain 2008 R 45.3 31.2 +14.0
John Edwards 2008 D 45.5 32.5 +13.0
Rudy Giuliani 2008 R 47.5 35.2 +12.2
Al Gore 2000 D 43.2 39.0 +4.2
Hillary Clinton 2008 D 47.5 45.5 +2.0
Mitt Romney 2012 R 37.5 35.8 +1.7
Elizabeth Warren 2020 D 39.8 40.2 -0.4
Joe Biden 2020 D 43.4 44.3 -0.8
Bernie Sanders 2020 D 43.6 45.2 -1.6
Hillary Clinton 2016 D 41.9 50.9 -9.0
Newt Gingrich 2012 R 30.8 45.3 -14.5
Jeb Bush 2016 R 30.8 51.1 -20.3
Donald Trump 2016 R 32.6 58.7 -26.1

Data does not include incumbent presidents. Additionally, we only included candidates for whom at least 75 percent of respondents had an opinion (the lone exception is Mitt Romney, who was within two points of the threshold, but as the 2012 Republican nominee, we included him). In 2004, no Democratic candidate was close to clearing the 75 percent threshold. When a poll presented multiple observations, larger sample populations were prioritized, such as adults over registered voters or registered voters over likely voters.

*Data for 2020 candidates is from polls released through Nov. 20, 2019.

Source: Polls

By comparison, the top-tier candidates in the 2000 and 2008 campaigns all had net positive favorability ratings at this point — some of them quite high, too. Bush, for instance, had by far the strongest numbers of any candidate, at +33 points. Obama, John McCain, John Edwards and Giuliani also had net favorability ratings higher than +10. Al Gore and Clinton2 were closer to an even net favorability rating, but they were still viewed somewhat positively.

But a candidate’s favorability ratings at this point don’t necessarily line up with election results — a lot can change between now and next November. For instance, while Bush was viewed more favorably than Gore in late 1999, they fought out the 2000 election to a near-draw, which in the end was decided in Bush’s favor by an incredibly narrow margin in Florida. And in 2016, Trump won the presidency over Clinton despite being viewed less favorably, which remained true through Election Day.

The good news for Democrats is that Americans like Trump even less. Gallup’s poll found Trump’s net favorability at -18, far below the three leading Democratic contenders. So, in other words, as long as the Democratic nominee wins over those who view the president negatively, even an unpopular nominee could still have a pretty good shot at winning. Still, Democrats could find themselves in trouble if the election becomes a race to the bottom, where both Trump and the Democratic nominee are heavily disliked. Exit polls in 2016 found that Trump still won 15 percent of voters who had an unfavorable opinion of him, as he was likely aided by the fact that Clinton was also viewed pretty negatively.

Other polling bites

  • A survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to connect extreme weather patterns to climate change. Nationally, the widest disagreement between the two groups was over whether climate change played a “major factor” in the occurrence of extremely hot days. Seventy percent of Democrats said yes, compared with only 24 percent of Republicans. There were also regional disagreements, as 63 percent of Democrats in California and the Southwest said climate change was a major part of droughts and water shortages, versus 20 percent of Republicans in those states.
  • New polling from the Institute of Politics at Harvard University found that 18-to-29 year olds likely to vote in 2020 are divided over whether they prefer big, sweeping change versus a slower, more pragmatic approach to governing. Among those likely to vote in the general election, 44 percent said they prefer policies “that stand a good chance of being achieved,” while 40 percent want major structural changes “even if they will not be easy to carry out.” But among those planning to vote in the Democratic primary, this result was flipped: Forty-five percent said they prefer sweeping changes, versus 39 percent who said they prefer more achievable goals.
  • In last week’s Pollapalooza, we looked at former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s nascent presidential campaign and found that his horse-race and favorability polling weren’t that great. A new national survey of Democrats from Reuters/Ipsos released this week echoed this analysis, finding Bloomberg at 4 percent. That poll also found that only 7 percent of Democrats viewed Bloomberg “very favorably” compared to 26 percent or more for candidates such as Biden, Sanders and Warren. Notably, however, Bloomberg’s limited support seemed to come at the expense of Biden, who fell from 30 percent to 26 percent when Bloomberg was added as an option.
  • A new study from Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 56 percent of Americans believe local news organizations are doing “very well” or “somewhat well” financially, at odds with the difficult reality facing these outlets. However, Americans still value local news — 86 percent said everyone should have access to it even if they don’t pay for it — and education about the trying media landscape and journalism’s role in a democratic society could help attract more financial backing. When supplied with information about the financial problems faced by local media and journalism’s positive effects on democracy, 58 percent of respondents said they would be willing to donate to a local news nonprofit organization versus only 40 percent among those who weren’t told this information.
  • New data from YouGov shows that 32 percent of parents with children under the age of 18 believe that the flu vaccine can actually cause the illness itself, which is a myth the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has worked to debunk. However, despite misconceptions surrounding the flu vaccine, 60 percent of adults said they plan to get one this year.
  • The Public Religion Research Institute and AAPI Data collaborated to survey over 2,500 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in California, and what they found was a state of “two Californias” among AAPIs, with one group enjoying financial stability while the other is financially insecure. In terms of economic security, 23 percent of AAPIs reported they were working but struggling with poverty, compared to 37 percent who said they were working and not struggling (another 40 percent were retired, students or not otherwise working). But 62 percent of AAPIs believed the “American Dream” still holds true, though this was much higher among those who had immigrated to the U.S. (69 percent) compared to native-born AAPIs (43 percent).
  • The cost of health care in the U.S. has gotten a lot of attention in the 2020 campaign, and a new study from Gallup and West Health found that roughly 13 percent of Americans reported knowing at least one friend or family member who died in the past five years after not receiving medical treatment because they couldn’t afford it. Another 23 percent of Americans said that at least once in the past 12 months they or someone in their household couldn’t afford the medicine or drugs prescribed to them. Sixty-nine percent of Americans said the costs of prescription drugs are “usually much higher than what consumers should be paying,” though Democrats were somewhat more likely than Republicans to think this (76 percent to 64 percent).
  • Tuesday marked the first debate ahead of the United Kingdom’s general election, and a post-debate survey of debate viewers by YouGov found that 51 percent felt Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party won, compared with 49 percent for Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Economist’s polling tracker shows Conservatives holding a 43 percent to 30 percent lead over Labour.
  • Thanksgiving is almost here, which means many Americans can look forward to arguing over divisive political topics with family members. But on a lighter note, YouGov delved into a classic Thanksgiving debate by asking about turkey meat preferences. Apparently ignoring their taste buds, 50 percent of respondents said they prefer eating white meat, while only 32 percent preferred dark meat.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 41.9 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.6 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.7 points). At this time last week, 41.2 percent approved and 54.5 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -13.3 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 41.2 percent and a disapproval rating of 54.5 percent, for a net approval rating of -13.3 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 5.8 percentage points (46.8 percent to 41 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 5.7 points (46.8 percent to 41.1 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.3 points (46.6 percent to 40.3 percent).


  1. By “well-known,” we mean candidates who at least 75 percent of respondents had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of, on average, in polls from September through December of the year before the election. Data for Biden, Sanders and Warren is based on polls in the field between Sept. 1 and Nov. 20, 2019.

  2. In 2008.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.