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Voters’ Second-Choice Candidates Show A Race That Is Still Fluid

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

On Tuesday, Sen. Kamala Harris abandoned her once-promising presidential campaign, making her the most significant Democrat to drop out of the race so far. After averaging 15 percent nationally at one point, Harris had fallen to about 5 percent in national polls, so while there isn’t exactly a ton of support now up for grabs, her voters will still have to pick someone else.

New polling from Morning Consult suggests, though, that Harris’s exit won’t necessarily create a dramatic shift in the race. If Harris supporters go with their second-choice picks, it’s the current slate of front-runners who stand to gain: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren would each gain about 1 point.

We’ve been tracking voters’ second-choice preferences throughout the Democratic primary, and although Harris’s departure is unlikely to shake up the race, it’s a good time to check back in on where voters’ preferences stand, as this can help us understand who stands to benefit if one of the candidates falters in the polls.

When we last looked in October, Warren was the leading second-choice pick among Biden supporters, running counter to the conventional wisdom that Biden and Warren supporters might be firmly at odds with one another because of ideological differences. But looking at the latest Morning Consult data, there has been a shift: Sanders is now the leading alternative for Biden voters, although that might have less to do with ideology and more with Warren’s recent drop in the polls. Sanders, on the other hand, has remained formidable despite his health scare earlier in the fall. Overall, Biden was the first choice pick for 29 percent of respondents, Sanders for 20 percent, Warren for 15 percent, Buttigieg for 9 percent and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for 5 percent.

However, there are some signs of “lanes” in that Morning Consult data. For instance, there is a slight preference among Sanders’s supporters for Warren over Biden, and more Warren supporters name Sanders as their top second-choice pick. There’s also some overlap between Warren and Buttigieg, who have strong bases of support among white college-educated voters. Fifteen percent of Warren supporters named Buttigieg as a second choice, while 23 percent of Buttigieg’s backers picked Warren as their top alternative. However, Buttigieg may have as much to gain from Biden as Warren, given that 12 percent of Biden boosters picked Buttigieg as their second choice. This survey also allows us to look at Bloomberg in depth, who in his late bid for the presidency has angled himself as an alternative to Biden. But while Biden is clearly Bloomberg supporters’ second-choice pick, the former mayor has his work cut out for him — only 9 percent of Biden’s backers named Bloomberg as their second choice pick.

One other recent poll from Quinnipiac University also had second-choice voter data, and its findings were pretty similar to Morning Consult. Biden was in the lead again for first-choice support with 24 percent, followed by Buttigieg with 16 percent, Warren with 14 percent and Sanders with 13 percent. And among these candidates who polled 10 percent or higher, Warren was the top second choice for Sanders supporters and vice versa, while Buttigieg backers picked Warren. There was one small difference from the Morning Consult survey in that Biden voters in this poll preferred Warren over Sanders, although it was very close (19 percent Warren, 16 percent Sanders). It’s important to note, too, that this poll’s sample size was much smaller than Morning Consult’s (574 respondents compared to over 15,000).

Together, these two polls suggest that the supporters of the more ideologically left-leaning candidates — Sanders and Warren — are more in sync than they were when we last looked in October, but of course, this has its limitations. A sizable share of Sanders and Warren supporters still put Biden as their second-choice pick despite ideological differences. Not to mention, even though Buttigieg has positioned himself as a critic of Warren, there is still a strong preference for Warren among Buttigieg’s backers — and there’s some support for Buttigieg among Warren supporters, as well. So for all the talk of “lanes” in the 2020 Democratic primary, the lines still remain somewhat blurry.

Other polling bites

  • Pew Research Center released a new report that found sharp differences between Democrats and Republicans over the issue of climate change. Ninety percent of Democrats said the federal government is “doing too little” to combat climate change, compared to just 39 percent of Republicans.1 But there were some ideological divisions among Republicans on this question. Only 24 percent of conservative Republicans, who make up a majority of the party, think the government is doing too little, but 65 percent of moderate or liberal Republicans said they felt that way, a sign that they may be more open to government action when it comes to addressing climate change than their more conservative counterparts.
  • A new survey from Out Magazine and YouGov Blue asked LGBTQ likely Democratic primary voters about the 2020 election and found that former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, placed fourth with 14 percent support. Buttigieg trailed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (31 percent), Sen. Bernie Sanders (18 percent) and former Vice President Joe Biden (16 percent).
  • It’s been nine years since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, but Americans are still very divided over it, according to new polling from Gallup. Overall, 50 percent of Americans approve of the law, while 48 percent disapprove, unchanged from Gallup’s poll of the same question a year ago. There is a stark partisan divide, too, but given the law’s close connection to former President Barack Obama, it’s probably unsurprising that just 11 percent of Republicans approve of it, compared with 84 percent of Democrats.
  • During his failed bid for president, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke insisted that he wouldn’t run for U.S. Senate in Texas again, but new polling suggests he might have a shot at winning if he reconsiders. A new survey from Democratic Policy Institute and Beacon Research found O’Rourke lapping the Democratic primary field with 58 percent and within 4 points of incumbent Republican Sen. John Cornyn in a hypothetical general election matchup, 42 percent to 46 percent. Theoretically, O’Rourke could still run — the filing deadline is Dec. 9 — but he’s been pretty adamant that he won’t enter the race, much to the disappointment of some Democrats.
  • A new survey from The Economist and YouGov asked Republicans if President Trump was a better president than some past GOP presidents and found Republicans have a more positive view of Trump than all but one president the pollster tested: Ronald Reagan. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans said Reagan was a better president, compared to 41 percent who backed Trump. Notably, Republicans narrowly prefer Trump over Abraham Lincoln — considered one of the greatest presidents in the country’s history — by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin. But Trump easily outdistanced the other Republican presidents that the poll asked about, including Dwight Eisenhower, George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.
  • On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to corruption charges and is now likely to resign his seat. That means there’ll likely soon be a special election and a new representative in California’s 50th District. Competition among Republicans to replace Hunter could be stiff, too. In late November, former Rep. Darrell Issa released an internal poll that showed him just two points ahead of fellow Republican Carl DeMaio, 21 percent to 19 percent, in the primary for the 2020 general election. Hunter trailed with just 9 percent, while Ammar Campa-Najjar, the lone Democrat the poll tested, led overall with 31 percent in the Republican-leaning district.
  • The U.K. general election is now less than a week away, and the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, continues to hold an edge in the polls. According to The Economist’s polling average, the Conservatives lead the opposition Labour Party 44 percent to 34 percent. Both major parties have made gains in the past few weeks, as support for other parties — particularly the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party — has shrunk.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 41.8 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.5 points). At this time last week, 41.8 percent approved and 53.6 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -11.8 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 41.3 percent and a disapproval rating of 54.7 percent, for a net approval rating of -13.4 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 5.7 percentage points (46.8 percent to 41.1 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 5.7 points (46.7 percent to 41.0 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 5.4 points (46.7 percent to 41.3 percent).


  1. Including independents who lean toward one party.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.