Have you ever been down a road that seems foreign yet all too familiar? Here we are in September, a full four months until the Iowa Caucuses next year, and no political analysts seem to have a solid clue as to what’s going on the race. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just means voters are still making up their minds. Democrats, in particular, don’t want to screw it up in 2020 by nominating a weak candidate unable to competitively challenge Donald Trump.
It’s a tale of competing narratives today, with two news outlets saying the Democratic primary race is basically down to Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, while the Washington Post says the whole thing is still a total mystery at this point.
Who’s right? You decide that.
First, the evolution of the new Biden vs. Warren conventional wisdom building among the political observer class. CNN says there are only 2 candidates in the top tier now, Biden and Warren:
There are — still! — 20 candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination. But, at the moment, it looks like a two-horse race.
Those two are former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren who, in a series of recent polls, increasingly appear to be separating themselves from the rest of the field.
Biden is averaging 28.8% in the Real Clear Politics polling average of all national surveys, while Warren is at 18.3% — almost 2 points clear of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (16.5%).
Warren has been on the rise for several months now, buoyed by massive crowds at her events, positive press coverage of her various policy proposals and solid performances in the first three debates.
CNN’s point, in the article authored by Chris Cillizza and Harry Enten, is that based on poll numbers, Biden and Warren are the top vote-getters on paper. Nationally, Biden leads, but Warren is catching up. Bernie is close, but he’s fallen distinctly from several months back and seems to be on a slow but steady downward trend depending on the poll.
Next up, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver takes a stab at the same question and comes up with a similar answer, it’s Biden and Warren right now, and then everyone else, kinda:
There’s not a ton of movement in the national polls. On average, Biden held steady at 30 percent. Warren and Sanders’s position isn’t much changed, but she does appear to be about 4 points ahead of him nationally and has continued to gain ground slowly but steadily, having now reached 20 percent in the polling average.
In Iowa, the major headline is that Warren and Biden form a clear top two in the post-debate polls — a clearer top two there than in national polls. Iowa has always looked like a relatively strong state for Warren and a weak one for Biden, so this isn’t a huge surprise, but the trends are nonetheless favorable for Warren.
You could argue that Sanders and Warren belong in the same tier since they’re almost tied in national polls. But they aren’t quite tied anymore; Warren is ahead in the average of national polls, as you can see above.
That alone might not be enough to put Warren in a higher tier than Sanders. But virtually every other polling-based metric other than the topline numbers in national polls tends to favor Warren over Sander.
Silver’s point is that the polls show Biden still ahead, but Warren making serious progress, even topping him in some state polls. Still, Bernie can’t be entirely discounted but he does sit several points back, but still in the mid to high teens. The bottom line, says Silver, is that Biden is still the favorite for the nomination based on the current data, but Warren isn’t far behind:
As to whether Warren is more likely to win the nomination than Biden, I’m not quite ready to go there yet. (I still have Biden in tier 1a and Warren in tier 1b.)
That all seems fairly cut and dry. Based on polls, and polls alone, Biden and Warren seem to be the top two candidates right now. The two candidates sitting in the top tier while the others lag or continue to dwindle. Bernie could almost be placed in the top tier, but his numbers have softened, so he’s slowly being swept to the mid-tier.
After you see those two pieces, chew on this story from the Washington Post which calls the Democratic primary a mystery due to the lack of early state polls right now:
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is in dire straits in Iowa, according to a poll released Wednesday. The David Binder poll shows him languishing in fourth place among Democratic presidential candidates, with 9 percent, and more potential Iowa caucus-goers are saying they have ruled him out (46 percent) than are actively considering him (43 percent).
But according to the other Iowa poll released this month from CBS News and YouGov, Sanders is in a virtual tie for first place with 26 percent of the vote.
The divergence in Iowa polls highlights a challenge for observers early in the 2020 election: While we have an abundance of national polls, early state polls have been few and far between, and that makes it incredibly difficult to draw conclusions about whose organization and message are appealing to the voters who matter most. It’s not clear yet whether we have a true and accurate picture of the race, even as it stands now.
The WaPo story, authored by Aaron Blake, takes a more tempered approach to the race by looking at a much broader view of the polling data. CNN and FiveThirtyEight try to hang analysis on the numbers as if they’re fairly predictable and static. They’re not. Expand the ocean of polling data you’re looking at beyond the traditionally “accepted” polls, and it’s even less clear.
The point from Blake is that it may be easy to call this a two-person race right now, and maybe on the national level, it is. However, it’s the state polls that matter, and Iowa could easily remain a toss-up. A motivated group of Bernie voters could easily eke out a 1% (or higher) victory there assuming the caucus is really as tight as it’s being portrayed by the limited polling data that we have.
Blake finishes the WaPo piece by pointing out that the early state polls should start picking up in October as voters start to look more toward casting votes next year. The field will have been winnowed down from the 20+ names on the list, and the serious work can now get started.
We’re at a fork in the road, and the polling data over the next couple weeks will confirm the Biden vs. Warren two-person race, or confirm a wide-open primary for the top 3 candidates still fighting for slivers of the vote here and there.