The prevailing narrative of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary goes something like this: “Sen. Elizabeth Warren has kept gaining ground, and she’s now tied with former Vice President Joe Biden.” But the thing about narratives is that last month’s might not be true this month. (Never mind that last month’s might never have been true to begin with.) And while Warren is still doing pretty well overall — for one thing, her prospects in Iowa and New Hampshire look as good as or better than Biden’s — her standing in national polls looks like it has plateaued; it might even be a few points lower than it was a few weeks ago. She’s also pretty clearly trailing Biden.
First, let’s take a look at Warren’s movement in the polling averages over the past several weeks. We haven’t released an official FiveThirtyEight polling average of the primary yet (we’re working on it), but according to RealClearPolitics, as of the afternoon of Nov. 6, Warren was averaging 21.4 percent in national polls. That’s good for a solid second place, but it’s still comfortably behind Biden, who was at 28.6 percent. And it was a drop from Warren’s high of 26.8 percent, which came on Oct. 9.
The Economist is also out with a polling average of the primary this year, and while its average is a lot smoother (that is, less sensitive to individual polls) than RealClearPolitics’s version, it tells a similar story about Warren’s standing. As of Nov. 6, she was averaging 23 percent to Biden’s 25 percent, and the curve representing her polling average had turned slightly south after peaking in early October.
Another way to look at the primary is to group it into chunks organized around the four debates so far. It’s a bit rudimentary, but I calculated an average of pollster averages — I averaged each of the top five candidates’ level of support in polls from a single pollster and then averaged together those averages1 — for national polls in five roughly monthlong windows starting on June 1, which was about a month before the first debate.2 And my findings were the same: Warren steadily improved her polling average in each phase — reaching a high of 23 percent between the third and fourth debates — but has stagnated since the fourth debate. Her average for the most recent phase of the campaign is 20.7 percent, 7.5 points below Biden’s 28.2 percent.
(Most candidates’ polling averages have been quite steady, with the exception of Sen. Kamala Harris, who spiked after the first debate, in which she had a powerful moment attacking Biden on racial issues. Also noteworthy is that Biden has really not lost as much support as some media narratives would have us believe.)
We can also measure movement in the primary by looking at trend lines from individual pollsters — but again, they tell us largely the same thing: Warren’s support has leveled off and may even be ticking down.3 For example, Warren rose from 16 percent in Fox News’s mid-September poll to 22 percent in its early October poll, but she remained at 21 percent in its most recent survey, conducted just last week. And according to Investor Business Daily/TIPP polling, 17 percent of Democrats supported Warren in late July, 27 percent supported her in late September and 23 percent supported her last week. Quinnipiac offers the clearest trend, with Warren going from 14 percent after the first debate, to 21 percent after the second, to a high of 30 percent earlier this month, to 28 percent in the most recent survey.
As FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver noted over the weekend, individual polls are also in near-universal agreement that Biden currently leads Warren nationally. Of the 23 polls conducted since the fourth debate, all but two found Biden ahead of Warren — one poll showed Warren slightly ahead and the other showed the pair tied. (Although in roughly half of the polls where Biden was ahead of Warren, his lead was within the margin of error.)
All this, of course, raises the question of why Warren’s ascent has been arrested. Given the timing, it’s fair to wonder whether the fourth debate had anything to do with it; after all, Warren did come under increased fire from Buttigieg, Biden and others, perhaps due to her perceived status as a front-runner in the race. At the very least, it certainly didn’t seem to help her as much as the third debate, which was followed by particularly big spikes for Warren in the RealClearPolitics average, my experimental average and several individual polls.
More broadly, criticism of Warren’s lack of a concrete health care plan may have finally gotten through to voters. Both at the debate and on the campaign trail, she evaded questions about how she would pay for her “Medicare for All” plan until her campaign, tacitly acknowledging the pressure, released a more detailed plan last week. On the other hand, maybe it has nothing to do with Warren at all and just reflects other candidates holding their own or picking up ground. For example, some of the polls and polling averages show Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg ticking up a point or two in recent weeks; that support had to come from somewhere.
On the flip side, this could also just be a momentary blip for Warren. She has hit polling plateaus before (see her RealClearPolitics average in July) and they proved to be temporary. In particular, debates — with the exception of the fourth one — seem to lead to Warren upticks, and we’ve got plenty more of those ahead. So although Warren’s support has leveled off, it’s premature to say she has hit a “ceiling”; she may have plenty more support out there waiting in the wings.