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Who’s Leading The Democratic Primary In The First Four States?

More than just the four early states will decide the 2020 Democratic primary. After all, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina only make up about 4 percent of the total delegates awarded, whereas the 16 states and territories1 that vote next on Super Tuesday contribute more than a third. But because these four states vote first, they play an outsized role in winnowing the candidate field and setting the course for the primary. Understanding the state of play in each contest is crucial to understanding where the nomination race stands and where it could go.

Back in early October, I found that the polls varied a fair amount in the early states, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren was on the upswing in Iowa and New Hampshire, with narrow leads over former Vice President Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Biden had a slight edge in Nevada over Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders and a hefty lead in South Carolina. Now, roughly two months later, things have shifted: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has supplanted Warren as the leader in Iowa while the four leading candidates are in a very tight race in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Biden’s lead has increased in Nevada and has remained large and stable in South Carolina.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Democratic primary, according to the early states

First up, Iowa, where even though Buttigieg has a lead, the top four candidates are within striking distance of one another. In an average of all Iowa polls taken in the last six weeks, Buttigieg leads Warren by about two points, 21 to 19 percent, but the top candidates are all within 5 points of each other. In New Hampshire, Buttigieg and Warren are essentially tied at roughly 18 percent, but the race is even closer as the top four candidates’ polling averages are within 2 points. For now, at least, the top four are in the same order in both states: Buttigieg, followed by Warren, then Sanders and Biden. (In the table below, we included anyone who made the November debate and is still running as of Dec. 6 — although, as you can see, they’ve all got some serious catching up to do.)

Buttigieg leads close races in Iowa and New Hampshire

Polling averages in Iowa and New Hampshire over the past six weeks for candidates who qualified for the November debate and are still running

Iowa New Hampshire
Candidate Average Candidate Average
Pete Buttigieg 21.4% Pete Buttigieg 18.3%
Elizabeth Warren 19.0 Elizabeth Warren 17.9
Bernie Sanders 17.2 Bernie Sanders 17.0
Joe Biden 16.4 Joe Biden 16.6
Amy Klobuchar 4.6 Tulsi Gabbard 4.2
Andrew Yang 2.9 Amy Klobuchar 3.1
Tom Steyer 2.6 Andrew Yang 3.1
Tulsi Gabbard 2.2 Tom Steyer 2.7
Cory Booker 1.4 Cory Booker 1.8

Averages based on polls of likely Democratic voters conducted between Oct. 28 and Dec. 6, which includes six polls of Iowa and five polls of New Hampshire.

Source: Polls

Buttigieg’s rise in Iowa and New Hampshire, which we started to see signs of in September and October, has now created a four-way race at the top of the polls in these states. So what’s helped catapult him into the lead? Although there isn’t evidence that rigid ideological “lanes” have developed in the primary so far, Buttigieg’s budding support from centrist and center-left Democrats probably has helped him rise to the top in Iowa and New Hampshire. And there’s evidence that it has come at the expense of Warren and Biden. In Monmouth University’s early November survey of likely Iowa caucusgoers, for instance, Buttigieg was tied with Biden for the lead among moderate or conservative Democrats (each with 26 percent) while also leading among somewhat liberal Democrats with 23 percent, ahead of Warren’s 20 percent. And in a late November survey of New Hampshire from the Boston Globe and Suffolk University, Buttigieg edged out Biden 17 percent to 16 percent among moderate Democratic primary voters; Buttigieg trailed among liberal voters but still attracted 12 percent of them to Warren’s 23 percent and Sanders’s 24 percent.

Still, if the actual results in Iowa and New Hampshire ultimately look like recent polls, that would be very unusual: Since 1992, no Democratic primary or caucus in any state has had four candidates win at least 15 percent of the vote statewide. Of course, there’s still roughly two months before Iowa votes on Feb. 3, so the field could shift once again; after all, Buttigieg’s lead in both states is very small. It would be a little unusual, too, if he or someone else won both Iowa and New Hampshire. Only twice in the past seven Democratic presidential contests has the same candidate carried the two together: Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

But perhaps it’s not surprising that Iowa and New Hampshire polls mirror each other. After all, both have electorates that are close to 90 percent white, and the leading candidates save Biden predominantly appeal to white voters. That may help explain why Biden is having some difficulties in these very white states despite leading in the national polls. I’ve discussed how, because of their outsized influence early on, losing Iowa and New Hampshire could hamper Biden’s campaign, especially if the same person were to win both. However, it’s possible that a muddled outcome in which the four leading candidates run close together would be survivable, even if Biden does finish third or fourth in the first two states. Of course, the polls in these states are so tight that even if Biden doesn’t win, he could still outperform expectations in them, which might position him to roll through the rest of the primary, considering what the polls show in Nevada and South Carolina.

In the polling averages of these two more diverse states, Biden holds a solid 9-point advantage in Nevada and a massive 25-point edge in South Carolina. And should Biden’s leads hold up, the two later-voting early states could serve as a nice stepping stone going into Super Tuesday on March 3, when a number of states with sizable nonwhite electorates go to the polls.

Biden leads in both Nevada and South Carolina

Polling averages in Nevada and South Carolina over the past six weeks for candidates who qualified for the November debate and are still running

Nevada South Carolina
Candidate Average Candidate Average
Joe Biden 29.0% Joe Biden 38.0%
Elizabeth Warren 20.1 Elizabeth Warren 13.3
Bernie Sanders 19.7 Bernie Sanders 12.0
Pete Buttigieg 7.3 Pete Buttigieg 5.7
Tom Steyer 3.6 Tom Steyer 5.0
Andrew Yang 3.1 Cory Booker 2.0
Amy Klobuchar 1.8 Andrew Yang 1.7
Cory Booker 1.1 Tulsi Gabbard 1.0
Tulsi Gabbard 1.1 Amy Klobuchar 1.0

Averages based on polls of likely Democratic voters conducted between Oct. 28 and Dec. 6, which includes four polls of Nevada and three polls of South Carolina.

Source: Polls

Throughout the primary, Biden’s continued support among nonwhite voters has given him a leg up in both Nevada and South Carolina. His strength among nonwhite Democrats is most apparent in South Carolina, where Biden hopes that the majority black primary electorate will serve as a firewall should the earlier elections go badly for him. And so far, so good: A mid-November survey from Quinnipiac University found Biden at 44 percent among black voters in South Carolina, way ahead of Sanders’s second-place mark of 10 percent. In Nevada, Biden has the lead among nonwhite voters, too, but it isn’t nearly as sizeable. A November poll by Fox News found Biden up just 28 percent to 26 percent over Sanders among nonwhites, which could be due to Sanders’s strength among Hispanic voters (Sanders led Biden 31 percent to 24 percent). So part of Biden’s strength in Nevada isn’t just an advantage among nonwhite voters; he’s also got a small advantage among white voters there, too, leading Warren 23 percent to 21 percent.

Unlike Biden, Buttigieg’s low to nonexistent support among nonwhite voters might make it tough for him to break through in Nevada and South Carolina. In that South Carolina Quinnipiac poll, Buttigieg polled at 6 percent overall but didn’t register any support among black voters. Similarly, that Fox News survey of Nevada found Buttigieg at 8 percent statewide but with only 2 percent support among nonwhite voters. Similarly, Warren has also struggled to win nonwhite support in either state, attracting only 8 percent of black voters in the South Carolina Quinnipiac poll and 12 percent of nonwhite voters in the Nevada Fox News survey.

Polling in the first four states has shifted quite a bit in the last month and a half as Buttigieg has moved up, but polling in Nevada and South Carolina underscores just how difficult it will be to dislodge Biden from the top of the field as long as he maintains strong support among nonwhite voters. And of course, there still could be a few more shifts in the early state polls between now and then. As past campaigns have shown, late surges aren’t unheard of — but neither are late slides. Democrats also aren’t locked in on who they plan to support. Two polls from November, for instance, found that a majority of Democrats hadn’t yet made up their minds. Voting might seem like it’s just around the corner, but there’s still a ways to go.


  1. Including Democrats Abroad.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.