The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once the Democratic field starts to narrow, Biden’s path may get rockier

Joe Biden at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding last week in Clear Lake. (John Locher/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

At some point, some of the candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination will drop out of the race. Half of you are currently getting huffy, preparing to send me an email demanding I acknowledge former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. The other half of you have never heard of John Hickenlooper in your life and suspect that I might be making him up.*

The point is that eventually some of the candidates that people support will start dropping out. And when they do, the people who support them will need to find a new candidate to back. (Or they might huffily swear off the primary, which is not uncommon.) That trickle of supporters between candidates is an important factor to consider in evaluating the state of the field. After all, you could be leading the pack right now, but if none of your opponents’ supporters likes you, you’re not going to gain ground as the field winnows, which is a problem.

We’re talking to you, Joe Biden.

A new poll from Pew Research Center doesn’t paint quite that dire a picture for the former vice president, but it’s also not the sort of poll he’s going to want to show to prospective endorsers.

As has been the case for a while, Biden continues to lead the field in Pew’s poll. He’s up 10 points on Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who’s a bit ahead of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is in fifth, tied with … literally everyone else running.

Pew then asked those who had picked a candidate who their second choice might be. Eleven percent of that group picked Biden — a lower percentage than picked Warren, Sanders or Harris. Combining first and second choices, Biden and Warren are tied with the same level of support.

Those numbers look a bit worse when you consider how the second choices were distributed. About a fifth of Biden supporters picked Warren as their second choice — but only 13 percent of Warren supporters picked Biden. Nearly 4 in 10 Warren supporters said Harris was their second choice, and 3 in 10 Harris supporters picked Warren.

Biden and Sanders supporters were both most likely to say they didn’t know who they would pick. Warren and Harris supporters were most likely to pick each other’s candidates.

That fits with another finding in Pew’s poll: Sanders and Biden supporters were most likely to say that they were enthusiastic about only their first choices. Eight in 10 Warren and Harris supporters said they were excited about several candidates.

About a quarter of Warren supporters said that Sanders was their second choice, and the same percentage of Harris supporters said the same about Biden. But while Warren was the second choice of at least a fifth of all of the other groups of voters and while Harris was the second pick of another fifth (except among Sanders backers), Biden and Sanders were relatively less likely to be identified as voters’ second choices.

The Washington Post’s Matt Viser analyzes a string of recent gaffes by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and what they might mean in 2020. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Of course, it’s not likely to be any of those candidates who drops out first. It’s likely to be supporters of those “other” candidates — a group among whom 15 percent have identified Biden as their second choice. (Sanders fares even worse.) As the lower-tier candidates start to fade, Pew’s poll suggests that Warren will see the biggest gains.

It’s worth noting that, even without the field winnowing, Warren has already gained significant ground on Biden. In RealClearPolitics’ average of polls, Biden led Warren by 26 points on June 1 (with Sanders in between). Now, he leads her by 13.

Some voters, it seems, have already made new choices in the campaign.

* I am not.