It’s a Three-Way Race for the Democratic Nomination

A lot of fresh polling information was published over the weekend. A Washington Post/ABC News poll provided the national numbers for the Democratic candidates, while state-by-state surveys came from CBS News/YouGov polls. A little more insight on the state of play came from a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of likely Massachusetts voters. In addition to that, former South Carolina governor and fan of the Appalachian Trail, Mark Sanford, announced that he will challenge Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.

The national numbers show no change from what we’ve come to expect, with Biden at 29 percent, Sanders 19 percent, and Warren 18 percent. But, with the exception of their efforts to raise money, the candidates are not running a national campaign. Right now, they’re focused on winning the early-voting states, and CBS News/YouGov finds a three-way split there.

Iowa (February 3, 2020): Biden 29%, Sanders 26%, Warren 17%, Buttigieg 7%, Harris 6%

New Hampshire (February 11, 2020): Warren 26%, Biden 25%, Sanders 24%, Buttigieg 8%, Harris 7%

Nevada (February 22, 2020): Sanders 29%, Biden 27%, Warren 18%, Harris 6%, Buttigieg 4%

South Carolina (February 29, 2020): Biden 43%, Sanders 18%, Warren 14%, Harris 7%, Buttigieg 4%

All three of the members of the top tier can find something of comfort in those numbers. Biden is leading the all-important first contest, albeit not by much. A win in Iowa might be enough to secure him New Hampshire. He also looks poised to win a big haul of delegates out of the largest state, South Carolina, so if these numbers were to hold up he’d come away with a lead in delegates and he has the potential for a quick knockout punch of his competitors.

Bernie Sanders is far from dead. He continues to poll in second place nationally and is in striking range to sweep the first three contests. He might even be the only candidate other than Biden to win delegates out of South Carolina, which could put him in a solid position as either the frontrunner or as the clear alternative to Biden.

Elizabeth Warren will be happy if she wins New Hampshire. If Biden captures Iowa and she captures New Hampshire, she might find herself as the main alternative to Biden, and Sanders may never recover. If she and Sanders split Iowa and New Hampshire, it could fatally weaken Biden and maybe even cause his commanding lead in South Carolina to collapse. Separately from the weekend’s poll results, McClatchy reports that Warren has a big organizing lead over Biden in Iowa. If that translates into improvement there, she could possibly sweep the first two contests and push Biden aside as the presumed frontrunner.

Needless to say, the race looks a lot closer than the national numbers indicate and it is definitely too close to call. Warren probably has the most momentum, and the Suffolk numbers show her drawing close to even with Biden in her home state of Massachusetts, which is one of the biggest states voting on March 3rd.

If you’re interested in anyone in a lower tier, you’ll want to watch the debate on Thursday which will be held in Houston, Texas. Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg continue to form a distant third tier but it’s easy to see why they are struggling. Only 2 percent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning registered voters in the Washington Post/ABC News poll say that Harris is the most electable of the candidates. Only 1 percent say that about Buttigieg. Simply put, the Dems see them as too risky as nominees, and that’s unlikely to change because it’s based more on identity than policy or some response to their campaign strategies.

For now, it’s a three-way race and any outcome is possible. I was very confident that the race would shape up this way, with Biden and Sanders forming two sides of the triangle. Warren has seemingly won the remaining slot. The debate should have some fireworks, as changing these dynamics is not going to be easy and it won’t happen just because some lower tier candidate has a solid debate performance on the merits. These long shot candidates need people to either fall in love with them or to see them as a better safe bet than Biden should he falter. Either way, they need to get a lot of sustained attention, and being controversial is the only likely way to accomplish that.

Pretty much all of the candidates would eagerly trade places with Biden right now, but he’s not in a commanding position. Many of his supporters are nervous and Democratic voters may not stick with their current preference for safely and normalcy over a desire for fundamental change.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com