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The Latest Iowa Poll Is Good News For Elizabeth Warren And Tulsi Gabbard

On Saturday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren got one of her best polls of the cycle. According to a new survey by Selzer and Co. sponsored by the Des Moines Register, CNN and Mediacom, Warren has 22 percent support among Democrats in Iowa, the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state. Former Vice President Joe Biden sits at 20 percent, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders at 11 percent, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 9 percent and Sen. Kamala Harris at 6 percent.

Notably, this is the first high-quality poll to put Warren at the top of the field in Iowa, though her 2 percentage-point lead is well within the poll’s 4-point margin of error. Since the beginning of August, surveys of Iowa have been quite unsettled; some polls showed Biden with a healthy lead (but were conducted several weeks ago, before the third debate), while others showed Warren competitive or ahead (but they weren’t gold-standard1 polls).

Recent Iowa polls have been all over the place

Polls of the Democratic caucus in Iowa since the beginning of August

Dates Pollster Pollster Rating* Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg Harris
Sept. 14-18 Selzer & Co. A+ 20% 22% 11% 9% 6%
Sept. 13-17 Civiqs 16 24 16 13 5
Sept. 14-16 David Binder Research 25 23 9 12 5
Aug. 28-Sept. 4 YouGov B 29 17 26 7 6
Aug. 9-11 Change Research C+ 17 28 17 13 8
Aug. 1-4 Monmouth University A+ 28 19 9 8 11
Average 23 22 15 10 7

*According to FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings

Source: POLLS

Even though Biden still enjoys a consistent lead in national polls, it’s obviously great news for Warren if she really is leading in Iowa. The primary is a state-by-state marathon, not a single national popular vote. So if Warren wins the Iowa caucus, it could give her a boost in subsequent states and set off a chain reaction of Warren wins (New Hampshire and Nevada, in particular, look like states where she might have a natural advantage).

The Selzer poll was also significant because it counts toward candidate qualification for the fourth Democratic presidential debate — scheduled for Oct. 15 (and possibly Oct. 16) in Westerville, Ohio. And most notably, it puts Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who received 2 percent support in the poll, on the cusp of making the debate stage.

Tulsi Gabbard is one poll away from the October debate

Democratic presidential candidates* by whether and how they have qualified for the fourth primary debate, as of Sept. 23

Candidate No. of Polls Polls Donors Qualified
Joe Biden 17
Pete Buttigieg 17
Kamala Harris 17
Bernie Sanders 17
Elizabeth Warren 17
Cory Booker 14
Beto O’Rourke 13
Andrew Yang 9
Amy Klobuchar 8
Julián Castro 6
Tom Steyer 5
Tulsi Gabbard 3
Marianne Williamson 1
Michael Bennet 0
Steve Bullock 0
John Delaney 0
Tim Ryan 0
Joe Sestak 0

* For candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

To qualify for the fourth debate, a candidate must reach 2 percent in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and must have at least 130,000 unique donors, including at least 400 donors in at least 20 states. Information released by campaigns is used to determine whether a candidate has hit the donor threshold. If a campaign announced it had reached 130,000 donors but did not say whether it had at least 400 donors in 20 states, we assumed that it had met the latter requirement as well.

Sources: Polls, media reports

As a reminder, to qualify for the debate, candidates must receive at least 2 percent support in four qualifying national or early-state polls released between June 28 and Oct. 1 and collect campaign contributions from 130,000 unique donors (including at least 400 individual donors in at least 20 states).2

Since these are the same criteria as were used for the third debate (the only change is a longer qualification period), the 10 candidates who participated in September’s debate have already qualified for October. And earlier this month, philanthropist Tom Steyer became the 11th candidate to meet these criteria. Now, Gabbard is just one qualifying poll away from becoming the 12th. By our count, she has gotten 2 percent or more in three approved polls (including Selzer’s), and her campaign says it has already hit the fundraising thresholds.

The six other “major” Democratic candidates (by FiveThirtyEight’s definition) are all far from qualifying: Only author Marianne Williamson has met the donor requirement or has even one approved poll to her name, making Gabbard really the only candidate whose debate fate is still in suspense. But time is running out — the last day a poll can count toward the fourth debate is next Tuesday, Oct. 1.

From ABC News:

Elizabeth Warren surges in 2020 Iowa poll


  1. By FiveThirtyEight’s definition, “gold-standard” pollsters are those that use live people (as opposed to robocalls) to conduct interviews over the phone, that call cell phones as well as landlines and that participate in the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s Transparency Initiative or the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research archive.

  2. We rely on self-reported figures from the campaigns for candidates’ fundraising numbers, and we’ve assumed that candidates who have reported having at least 130,000 donors also have at least 400 donors from each of 20 states, though it’s possible that some of them haven’t hit that mark yet.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.