Biden, Warren and Sanders still at the top
When you first pour, stir and mix cement, you can adjust the texture and contour easily, but as the cement starts to dry its form becomes less malleable. This also may be true of the 2020 Democratic presidential field, which has hardened over time, with Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders consistently on top and little movement in the rest of the mix.
Sure, negative advertising and a gaffe or two could drive out one of the top three, but it hasn’t happened yet, and today’s Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll suggests the underlying demographics may hold each of these candidates firmly in place for quite some time.
The poll shows Biden (32 percent) leading Warren (14 percent) and Sanders (12 percent), with Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris tied at 6 percent, and 18 percent undecided. All other candidates are in the low single digits, and it appears at this point that the best they can do is move higher into single digits at the expense of Harris or Buttigieg. This happened last fall when then-second-tier candidates Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker were replaced by Harris and Buttigieg, but Biden, Sanders and Warren persisted atop the field.
You no longer hear the chorus of “it’s still way too early” from political prognosticators as we did six months ago. And with just five months until the Democratic Caucuses in Iowa, you can feel the cement hardening. Combine the top five contenders, and you’re at 70 percent, with 15 other candidates vying for their piece. Democratic choices are beginning to harden. Though national polls may disagree over the front-runners exact order or percentages, they do show how the Democratic form is solidifying.
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A dig into the numbers tells the story.
The perception that Joe Biden is the likeliest Democratic candidate to defeat President Trump has strengthened his bid across demographics. Biden led Sanders 34 percent to 14 percent among men, with Warren at 10 percent. Among women, Biden led Warren 31 percent to 16 percent, with Sanders at 11 percent. Biden’s strength is most solid in the South, where he led Warren 45 percent to 17 percent, with Sanders at 7 percent, and the Midwest, where he led Sanders 40 percent to 12 percent, with Warren at 6 percent. Similarly, no candidate to date has made inroads against Biden among older voters nationally. Democratic voters ages 65 and over favor Biden 48 percent to Warren’s 9 percent and Sanders’ 6 percent.
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Warren is the front-runner (24 percent) among those who identify as liberal, leading Biden (21 percent) and Sanders (18 percent). This is an important finding given that the progressive wing’s energy drives turnout. And one can’t underestimate her gender advantage. As the only woman in the top tier, she stands to disproportionately benefit from the 20 percent of women who are currently undecided. Warren also is the number one “second choice” among Harris and Buttigieg voters, either of whom might not reach the required 15 percent threshold at some Iowa caucus locations. One scenario could see their loss vaulting her to first place in Iowa. A week later, she would be in New Hampshire as one of two candidates from the region. Sanders’ progressive voters might choose to ride the Warren momentum in the Granite State’s first-in-the nation primary, thus giving her back-to-back victories.
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Sanders is vulnerable, in part, due to how well he performed in the 2016 Democratic primaries. You can already see the headlines: “Sanders falls short in Iowa with 23 percent compared to 49 percent in 2016” or “Sanders support dwindles in his NH backyard.” But there is a real value to having run before, with a more efficient field infrastructure and the experience to avoid costly mistakes. The poll tells us that Sanders remains strong with voters ages 18-34. He is tied with Biden at 22 percent in this demographic, with Warren at 17 percent. Sanders has to hope that younger candidates like Harris and Buttigieg can stay viable so he can hold his lead among young voters. Otherwise, they could rotate to Warren.
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Whatever the order of the top three contenders, the fact is that they all remain at the top. The lowest-tier candidates have to unhorse tier 2 candidates Harris and Buttigieg before they can aspire to tier 1. But time is passing, and the cement is setting. Soon, the lower-tier candidates will only have time to carve the words “I was here” into the hardened cement.
David Paleologos is director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.