The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Joe Biden is still ahead. But Elizabeth Warren is closing in.

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A new poll out from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal contains a shocking result: Only 9 percent of Democratic primary voters say they’ve made up their minds about whom they’re going to vote for. Nine percent!

Nevertheless, this and other polls show a race that has a particular shape: Joe Biden is holding, Elizabeth Warren is rising, Bernie Sanders is stuck, and everyone else is struggling or fading.

Depending on which candidate you support, just describing this lay of the land might seem unfair. But so is the entire process. And if you think the horse race distracts from the real issues, please read what I’ve recently written about climate change, health care, national security, immigration, homelessness, gun policy or many other issues.

To repeat, the process is unfair. We don’t choose party nominees based on who’d make the best president. Kamala Harris, for instance, seems like a capable public servant with much to recommend her, but her campaign has been hampered by her inability to offer a guiding theme, a rationale for her candidacy that communicates to voters why she and only she ought to be the nominee. In most polls she’s mired in the single digits. (In the NBC-WSJ poll she gets only 5 percent, down from 13 percent the last time they conducted their survey.)

If you look at charts showing the progression of the race (see here or here), you see that the only candidate with a steady upward trajectory is Warren. While she trails Biden in most polls, she often matches him or even beats him on alternative measures, like which candidates voters are considering or how favorable they feel toward them (see here, for example). Some Iowa polls have shown her ahead there, such as this new Civiqs-Iowa State University poll, which has her at 24 percent and Biden and Sanders both at 16 percent.

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And right now, Warren is in the heart of a cycle every candidate yearns for. Reporters on the campaign trail have said for some time that she is the one who generates the most enthusiastic response among voters on the ground. A rise in her poll standing inevitably produces stories about what she’s doing right, stories that get filled with the impressions those reporters have accumulated.

The resulting positive news coverage encourages more Democrats to feel favorably toward her, or at the very least give her a careful look. Which leads to poll numbers that continue to improve, which leads to more positive press coverage, and the cycle goes on.

That cycle is why the perception of momentum is one of the most sought-after commodities in a presidential primary. It makes you look like a winner, encourages undecided voters to consider you more closely, and convinces them that people who share their views are joining your cause.

It’s almost entirely a media-created phenomenon, but like many media-created phenomena, it has real-world effects as the perception becomes reality. And it works in reverse, too: If you look like you’re slipping, reporters start writing stories about what’s going wrong, which makes things look even worse. (Sanders is getting some of that now.)

You might argue that Warren’s ability to get 20,000 people to show up to a rally, not to mention her willingness to spend four hours afterward posing for pictures with supporters, doesn’t mean she’s the one who will prevail in the end, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But that, too, creates the perception of winning, which can become a reality.

If the race comes to be understood as a contest primarily between Warren and Biden, it makes for the kind of clear contrast we’re all drawn to. One candidate is a moderate while the other’s a liberal; one wants to simply get rid President Trump and return to sane, incremental policy-making, while the other wants ambitious structural change; and so on. It also offers the opportunity to write a story political reporters are very familiar with: “Beer track vs. wine track.”

As Ronald Brownstein explains, Democratic primary contests in the past have often featured one candidate who supposedly appealed more to blue-collar voters and one who appealed more to college-educated professionals. This was always an oversimplification, and it comes with an implicit value judgment, that the beer track candidate is somehow more “authentic” than a candidate who gets support from a bunch of smarty-pantses.

But the two most successful Democrats of the last half-century, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were both able to win support from Democrats across the class spectrum — eventually, even if it might not have been that way at first. And the Democratic Party is increasingly made up of those with more education: According to Pew Research Center data, 4 in 10 Democrats have college degrees and another 3 in 10 have some college education.

But right now, there is definitely a difference in Warren’s and Biden’s support: Warren is indeed winning among college-educated voters and self-identified liberals, while Biden relies heavily on non-college-educated voters, moderates and African Americans.

The key point to remember, however, is that 9 percent figure the NBC-WSJ poll found. With 91 percent of Democrats still open to changing their minds, almost anything could happen.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: The myth of the breakout

Jennifer Rubin: What a new Iowa poll reveals about the state of the race

Helaine Olen: Warren’s masterful speech in New York

Karen Tumulty: Be patient, Democrats. It’s not time to narrow the field just yet.

Donna F. Edwards: It’s time for the Democratic field to start getting smaller