There are several takeaways from the poll.
First, despite a stellar week or so in leading his city through the aftermath of the El Paso terrorist attack, O’Rourke is still in low single digits. Voters can recognize and admire rhetorical excellence without necessarily changing their evaluation of that person as a presidential candidate. It is also very likely that in the overwhelming emotion of back-to-back shootings, President Trump’s horrendous visit and the renewed gun debate, voters simply aren’t focused on a presidential contender. The lesson: Beware of watching every event through the lens of a presidential race.
Second, Biden’s lead should remind the pundits that the notion that he is out of sync with the party or that the party is dominated by the far left is flat wrong. It’s also one more bit of evidence that what the media considers a “gaffe” and what it can spend hours of cable TV news time on — and thousands of words in print — very well can be entirely irrelevant to voters, especially the kind of voters Biden attracts (older, moderate). I’ve suggested that in the age of Trump — dominated by a Twitter-speed news cycle and a president whose lies are so large and consequential — obvious, harmless slips of the tongue are not that critical. The lesson: Media fixation on minor verbal flubs is unhelpful and misleading.
Third, the poll should come with a big asterisk: “For the subset of 402 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who are registered to vote, [the margin of error] is +/- 6.1 percentage points.” If one looks at the Morning Consult poll (“17,115 interviews with registered voters who indicate they may vote in the Democratic primary or caucus”) with a margin of error of +/- 1 percent, you get a different view. (Biden is at 31 percent, Sanders at 20 percent, Warren at 15 percent and Harris at 9 percent.) Nevertheless, the polls share a few features: Warren has caught up with Sanders among the most liberal voters, and Harris has roughly returned to her standing before the second debate. The lesson: Avoid attributing too much importance to a single poll months before voting, but rather, look for general trends over an extended period.
Fourth, Warren has been making an effort to cultivate African American voters. Much of her agenda is geared toward those, like she once was, “on the jagged edge of the middle class.” However, the CNN poll reminds us that her support is strongest among white voters (her support among nonwhites is 10 percent, 19 points behind Biden), and she does best among white college-educated voters (at 21 percent, she trails Biden by only 7 percent among these voters). The latter might help her in places such as New Hampshire (about 36 percent of the general population has a bachelor’s degree or higher) but hobble her in the South and places such as Nevada (which ranks 47th in the list of U.S. states and territories where the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher).
In sum, breathless coverage portrays the race as a series of critical moments, with dramatic spikes and terrifying drops. For real voters, it’s more like a muffled conversation in which they catch a few words here and there. In the latter, one is unlikely to dramatically change one’s view of people you know very well based on a brief snippet of conversation. Over time, support can build, as it has for Warren, or decline gradually, as it has for Sanders. But don’t expect single episodes, even with (especially with?) tons of hyperbolic coverage, to determine the course of the race.