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Who’s Leading The Democratic Primary In Super Tuesday States?

You’ve heard how South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is coming on strong in Iowa. You’ve heard how New Hampshire is a free-for-all. And you’ve heard about former Vice President Joe Biden’s firewall in Nevada and especially South Carolina.

But the Democratic primary won’t end after those four states, especially if no clear winner emerges from them. That means the 16 states and territories1 that vote on March 3 — Super Tuesday — could be critical to Democrats’ selection of a nominee; together they are estimated to be worth more than a third of Democrats’ pledged delegates.

Despite these places’ importance, though, there’s been relatively little coverage of which candidates might have an advantage there. Of course, plenty will probably change between now and Super Tuesday. In addition to the normal fluctuations in the horse race, the results in the first four states will likely winnow the field, too. But I still think it’s worthwhile checking in on the polling in some important March states to see what the race looks like now.2

Appropriately given its outsized number of delegates, California has been one of the most frequently polled states over the past two months:

Anyone’s race in California

Polling for the four leading Democratic presidential candidates, in public polls conducted since Oct. 1

Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Nov. 21-27 UC Berkeley 14% 22% 24% 12%
Nov. 20-22 SurveyUSA 28 13 18 8
Nov. 3-12 PPIC 24 23 17 7
Nov. 1-13 Capitol Weekly 18 27 21 14
Oct. 15-18 Change Research 19 28 24 9
Oct. 15-16 SurveyUSA 33 18 17 4
Oct. 1-15 Capitol Weekly 21 35 15 6
Average 22 24 19 9

Source: Polls

And the polls there have shown some stark disagreements: Some have given Biden a solid lead, while others find a decisive edge for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the most recent found Sen. Bernie Sanders in a virtual tie for first. A simple polling average shows Warren at 24 percent, Biden at 22 percent and Sanders at 19 percent. If those are their final percentages in California, the state’s huge trove of 416 delegates (the most of any one primary or caucus) would be split three ways. But, again, it’s still early.

Notably, Buttigieg is only averaging 9 percent in California, which is another reason to believe, at least at this stage, that he might have trouble building on potential strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. And it’s not in the table, but home-state Sen. Kamala Harris averaged 8 percent across these seven polls before she dropped out, so whoever picks up her support in the Golden State could alter the shape of the race, too.

Texas has the second-biggest delegate haul (228) of both Super Tuesday and the entire primary calendar, but unlike California, signs point to a front-runner: Biden (although, with only two polls conducted in the state in the last two months, we don’t have the clearest picture of the race there).

Biden is ahead in Texas

Polling for the four leading Democratic presidential candidates, in public polls conducted since Oct. 1

Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Nov. 5-14 UT Tyler 28% 19% 18% 8%
Oct. 18-27 YouGov 23 18 12 6
Average 26 19 15 7

Source: Polls

After all, only the most recent poll — from the University of Texas at Tyler — was conducted after former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a native son of Texas, exited the race. And he got 14 percent in that YouGov poll, so a fair number of voters may still be up for grabs in the Lone Star State.

Continuing down the line, the third-most important Super Tuesday state in terms of delegates is North Carolina with 110.

Biden is strong in North Carolina, too

Polling for the four leading Democratic presidential candidates, in public polls conducted since Oct. 1

Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Nov. 10-13 Fox News 37% 15% 14% 6%
Nov. 1-7 High Point 33 13 18 4
Oct. 13-26 Siena/NYT Upshot 29 15 13 1
Oct. 2-9 East Carolina 29 17 19 4
Oct. 4-6 PPP 39 22 6 9
Average 33 16 14 5

Source: Polls

We’ve gotten several polls in the Tar Heel State in the last two months, with all five indicating that Biden has a healthy lead. This should come as no surprise in a state that, like South Carolina, has a large base of black voters. In 2016, the Democratic primary electorate was 38 percent nonwhite.

But beyond those three delegate-rich states, we don’t have a lot of recent Super Tuesday polling. In Virginia (99 delegates), the most recent poll was conducted almost three months ago. And while it showed Biden with a comfortable lead, demographically the state is also fertile ground for Warren or Buttigieg, given that college-educated whites constituted almost half of its 2016 Democratic primary electorate. Indeed, Massachusetts, Super Tuesday’s fifth-biggest prize with 91 delegates, has an even higher share of college-educated white voters, and Warren led there by 15 points in the most recent poll from mid-October. But of course, Massachusetts is also Warren’s home state, which could be a factor here as well. That said, she also took 25 percent and first place in the most recent poll of Minnesota (75 delegates), in which home-state Sen. Amy Klobuchar also received a respectable 15 percent.

Beyond that, Super Tuesday is a black box. There hasn’t been a survey of Colorado (67 delegates) since August. Tennessee (64 delegates), Alabama (52 delegates) and Oklahoma (37 delegates) haven’t been polled since July, although demographically the first two at least should be good fits for Biden. Meanwhile, Arkansas (31 delegates) and Utah (29 delegates) haven’t seen any polls.

October did bring us two surveys of Maine, but they disagreed as to whether Biden or Warren was leading, but considering only 24 delegates are at stake, it probably won’t be what makes or breaks Super Tuesday for a candidate. Same with Vermont (16 delegates), Democrats Abroad (13 delegates) and American Samoa (six delegates), where there are also zero polls — although we can probably be pretty confident that Sanders will win his home state. (He has a 65 percent approval rating there and won 86 percent there in the 2016 primary.)

In summary, it looks like Biden and to a lesser extent Warren would start out with the advantage on Super Tuesday. Biden leads in two of the three biggest states (Texas and North Carolina), plus probably multiple Southern states (Tennessee, Alabama, maybe Virginia and Arkansas). Warren likely leads in two mid-size states (Massachusetts and Minnesota) but also figures to amass a significant delegate haul from California, which currently looks like a jump ball. And while we can only say with confidence that Sanders is favored to win one state, he definitely has a chance to pick up plenty of delegates by finishing a respectable second or third in many other places.

The further out you go on the calendar, there’s even more good news for Biden. One week after Super Tuesday, Michigan (125 delegates) will be the big prize, and Biden leads in an average of the three polls taken there in the last two months3:

Biden has a small lead in Michigan

Polling for the four leading Democratic presidential candidates, in public polls conducted since Oct. 1

Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Oct. 31-Nov. 3 Emerson 34% 19% 28% 8%
Oct. 13-25 Siena/NYT Upshot 30 21 17 3
Sept. 23-Oct. 15 Kaiser Family Foundation 19 25 15 7
Average 28 22 20 6

Source: Polls

Beyond that, Biden is also ahead — for now — in Florida (219 delegates), Illinois (155 delegates), Ohio (136 delegates) and Arizona (67 delegates) for the March 17 primaries:

Biden is poised to dominate the March 17 primaries

Polling in Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona for the four leading Democratic presidential candidates, in public polls conducted since Oct. 1

Florida
Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Oct. 13-26 Siena/NYT Upshot 27% 19% 13% 5%
Average 27 19 13 5
Illinois
Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Nov. 22-25 Victory Research 23% 17% 15% 16%
Average 23 17 15 16
Ohio
Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Oct. 1-7 Climate Nexus 32% 21% 13% 5%
Sept. 29-Oct. 2 Emerson 29 21 27 5
Average 31 21 20 5
Arizona
Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Oct. 31-Nov. 8 OH Predictive Insights 29% 18% 16% 9%
Oct. 25-28 Emerson 28 21 21 12
Oct. 13-25 Siena/NYT Upshot 24 15 16 5
Average 27 18 18 9

Source: Polls

Then, on March 24, Georgia (105 delegates) will vote, and Biden currently has a commanding lead there, too:

Biden has a large lead in Georgia

Polling for the four leading Democratic presidential candidates, in public polls conducted since Oct. 1

Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Nov. 15-18 SurveyUSA 36% 14% 17% 7%
Nov. 4-10 Climate Nexus 31 14 14 4
Average 34 14 16 6

Source: Polls

As for the states that will vote in April or later, most of them have seen no recent polling — and arguably, this is pretty justifiable, since the race is so unpredictable that deep into the calendar. It’s quite possible Biden or another candidate will have sewn up the nomination by this point anyway. But if not, look for a few states to be the differentiators. For example, Wisconsin (77 delegates) is set to vote on April 7, and recent polls show a very unsettled race there:

A nail-biter in Wisconsin

Polling for the four leading Democratic presidential candidates, in public polls conducted since Oct. 1

Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Nov. 13-17 Marquette 30% 15% 17% 13%
Oct. 13-26 Siena/NYT Upshot 23 25 20 5
Oct. 13-17 Marquette 31 24 17 7
Sept. 23-Oct. 15 Kaiser Family Foundation 17 22 10 6
Sept. 29-Oct. 2 Change Research 11 34 25 6
Sept. 29-Oct. 2 Fox News 28 22 17 7
Average 23 24 18 7

Source: Polls

The last big delegate haul of the primary will be on April 28, when New York (224 delegates) and Pennsylvania (153 delegates) go to the polls, and if trends hold steady, this day could be a shot in the arm for Biden: He had a 10-point lead over Warren in New York per a Siena College poll from mid-November, and he has an 11-point lead over her in an average of Pennsylvania polls conducted entirely or in part since Oct. 1:

Biden ahead in Pennsylvania

Polling for the four leading Democratic presidential candidates, in public polls conducted since Oct. 1

Dates Pollster Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg
Oct. 21-27 Franklin & Marshall 30% 18% 12% 8%
Oct. 13-25 Siena/NYT Upshot 28 16 14 4
Sept. 23-Oct. 15 Kaiser Family Foundation 27 18 14 3
Sept. 30-Oct. 6 Susquehanna 17 9 6 8
Average 26 15 12 6

Source: Polls

Of course, by this point in the race, I’d be surprised if there are more than two candidates left standing, so there may be a chance for, say, Warren to consolidate anti-Biden support and win these states, too. Like a real-life choose-your-own-adventure book, the primary could still unfold along hundreds of paths. But it’s also important to remember there are several massive states still to vote after Iowa (41 delegates), New Hampshire (24 delegates), Nevada (36 delegates) and South Carolina (54 delegates) — and right now, Biden has far more delegates waiting for him in those states than any candidate is likely to amass in February.

Footnotes

  1. Including Democrats Abroad.

  2. As of Friday, Dec. 6.

  3. Including one poll whose field period only partially fell within the last two months.

Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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