Which 2020 Candidates Are Gaining or Losing Momentum?

All of the 2020 horse race buzz on Monday was about the Monmouth University poll showing a three-way race between Biden, Sanders, and Warren for the Democratic nomination. But it is important to remember that, on those top line numbers, the poll had a margin of error of 5.7 percent. In addition, polling by CNN and Morning Consult that was conducted over the same time period showed Biden hanging on to a double digit lead over the other two front-runners, while YouGov had the race in a veritable tie.

Here is how the person in charge of Monmouth’s polling described their results.

“The main takeaway from this poll is that the Democratic race has become volatile.  Liberal voters are starting to cast about for a candidate they can identify with.  Moderate voters, who have been paying less attention, seem to be expressing doubts about Biden. But they are swinging more toward one of the left-leaning contenders with high name recognition rather than toward a lesser known candidate who might be more in line with them politically,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.  He added, “It’s important to keep in mind this is just one snapshot from one poll.  But it does raise warning signs of increased churning in the Democratic nomination contest now that voters are starting to pay closer attention.”

His suggestion that name-recognition is a critical factor—especially for moderate voters looking for an alternative to Biden—is important to keep in mind. According to Morning Consult, Biden and Sanders enjoy near total name recognition, while Warren is known by about 90 percent of respondents. That leaves the door open for one of the other candidates to break through if they perform better than expected in debates or early primaries.

Given that pollsters use the same methodology over time, the trends in their polling can tell us more than the results of a single poll. If moderate Democrats are, in fact, looking for an alternative to Biden, G. Elliot Morris found the item that is most interesting from the Monmouth poll. He compared net favorability rates of the candidates from back in January until today.

That tells us who is gaining momentum and who is loosing it. The fact that Buttigieg leads the field is more of a reflection of the fact that he started at +2 percent, whereas someone like Warren started at +40 percent. Based on these numbers, the candidates who should be worried are Klobuchar, Sanders, O’Rourke, and Biden. They are all losing ground and, unless something happens to turn that around, their candidacy could be in real jeopardy. Harris could also be in trouble in that her net favorability was on the rise, but took a dive from May to August.

Heading into the third debate, the candidates who have some momentum are Warren, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, and Yang. I suspect that Yang is too focused on his single issue of a basic guaranteed income to go much further. As I’ve mentioned, Warren could be nearing her ceiling with near-total name recognition. That leaves it to Booker, Buttigieg, or Castro as the three candidates most likely to gain some attention as Biden, O’Rourke, and Klobuchar fade.

What could make or break their candidacies are two things: (1) their performance in the next debate, and (2) the results of the South Carolina primary. If any of those three candidates cut into Biden’s dominance with voters of color in the early contests, they could assure themselves of moving into the top tier. My money would be on Booker at this point, but there is a case for one of them to make. We’ll find out over the next few months if any of them can pull it off.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.