Looking at not only this poll but also others recently released, we can reach a few conclusions about the current state of the race.
First, the debates do not provide a breakout opportunity for the back-of-the-pack candidates. If anything, they disappear into an undifferentiated blob. Attacking others, if anything, hurts one’s campaign. (Julián Castro is still at 1 percent.) The media repeatedly make the mistake of grading Biden poorly on the basis of gaffes or rambling; his supporters don’t care, and if anything, he has become a more sympathetic figure. The more the field separates into leaders and single-digit candidates, the more likely people will migrate from a trailing candidate to one of the leaders.
Second, if the Democratic National Committee would get its act together and raise the bar (even to 2.5 percent support in polls) with a qualification period starting no earlier than today, the field likely would quickly contract to a manageable six or seven candidates.
Third, Sanders is going nowhere in the polls, apparently has a dysfunctional campaign and has ceded the titles of “biggest crowds” and “most enthusiasm” to Warren. (“Thirty-five percent of Democratic primary voters say they’re ‘enthusiastic’ about Warren (which is up 9 points since June), another 35 percent are ‘comfortable’ with her and just 6 percent are ‘very uncomfortable.’ ... Bernie Sanders’ numbers are 25 percent enthusiastic, 37 percent comfortable and 12 percent very uncomfortable.”) Warren’s biggest concern may be if he remains in the race all the way to the convention, preventing her from putting together all the “very liberal” votes that she will need to beat Biden.
Warren ignored the media, stuck to her small-donor/selfie model of campaigning and fundraising and got better and better on the stump. If a campaign foretells a presidency, she’s showing that no one will outwork her.
Fourth, despite his best debate performance and his admirable handling of the El Paso,Tex., shooting, O’Rourke seems to be slipping into obscurity. He could nevertheless remain viable if his fundraising holds up.
Fifth, it matters which candidates drop out, when they do and what they do after they exit. Do the dropouts endorse or snub an obvious ideological soulmate? Where do their staff and donors go?
Finally, while a “big” event is always possible before then, it is entirely possible that aside from a few dropouts, nothing much changes until the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. And that is where the single-digit candidates need to plant themselves. Even a better-than- expected showing ahead of one of the top three contenders could vault a candidate into the role of “dark horse” (or Cinderella) candidate.
In short, the race might come to resemble the Republican contest in 2016, where the media sniffs at the front-runner but his solid base of support never erodes. Single-digit candidates had better hope this is more like the Democratic or Republican contest in 2008, where an upset in an early state (Barack Obama in 2008 in Iowa or John McCain in New Hampshire in 2008) transformed the race.