- Sen. Elizabeth Warren: 22 percent
- Former vice president Joe Biden: 20
- Sen. Bernie Sanders: 11
- South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg: 9
- Sen. Kamala D. Harris: 6
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar: 3
With that big poll now public, here are some overarching questions for the broader 2020 race.
1. How much trouble is Bernie Sanders in (especially in Iowa)?
The big news this weekend was that Warren had overtaken Biden (albeit still within the margin of error) in the new poll. But that wasn’t all that far-fetched given Warren’s ascendancy.
Perhaps the second biggest piece of news in the poll was that Sanders’s Iowa troubles appear to be very real. We had seen some evidence of this before, but now it seems safe to say it. Of the last four live-caller polls in Iowa, Sanders is at 11 percent in this one and 9 percent in the three previous ones. He does better in online polls, but every high-quality poll has him lagging behind his national showing.
Why is that important? Because he nearly won the state in 2016, yet early signs suggest he’s not even an option for many voters there. Another poll last week showed more likely caucusgoers had ruled out supporting him (46 percent) than were considering it (43 percent.)
It’s also important because national polls still have them running neck and neck for second place. Given that both Sanders and Warren hail from a state that neighbors New Hampshire (Sanders from Vermont and Warren from Massachusetts), the one who finishes better in Iowa would seem to have the inside track ahead of the Granite State’s primary.
2. How will Elizabeth Warren wear?
Warren is the one candidate with demonstrated momentum pretty much throughout the 2020 race. Being in the lead in Iowa would seem to be the culmination of all that.
But she’s thus far largely avoided her opponents’ fire, and that’s starting to change. She has also in the past struggled to deal with the controversy over her past claim of Native American heritage, muddling through efforts to put it behind her. Then there is the electability issue — however fair — when it comes to Democrats nominating another polarizing, intellectual woman, this time a former Harvard University professor from Massachusetts.
It’s too easy to caricature Warren as an unelectable extremist. But Democratic voters are completely preoccupied with nominating someone — anyone — who can beat Trump. The same new Iowa poll shows twice as many emphasized that (63 percent) as emphasized agreement on the issues (31 percent).
They seem to like Warren in a way they don’t like the others; her main task is persuading them to vote with their heart while believing in their minds that it will work out. The good news for her is she seems to be doing that, at least in Iowa, where she’s tied with Biden at 22 percent with electability-first voters.
We’ll see if that holds — and if the rest of the country begins to agree.
3. Is Joe Biden’s electability edge ironclad?
Related to the point above: If Warren is the candidate of Democrats’ hearts, Biden is the choice of their minds. Nearly every poll shows he is viewed as the most electable. So if Democrats just want to win, he should be able to stick around.
But just as we should challenge our assumptions about Warren’s electability deficit, we should challenge them about Biden’s electability edge.
Part of that is because Biden is the most well-known candidate in the race who is also easiest to see in the role of a president — in large part because he was right next to one for eight years. We shouldn’t discount how much this is because he’s simply the biggest known quantity in the field and thus makes the most sense for casual voters.
It’s also worth questioning whether he’ll maintain that perception. Biden’s previous presidential runs haven’t gone well, and there have already been plenty of stumbles early in his 2020 campaign. It’s one thing to be the vice president whom people can see being president; it’s another to be the candidate who can’t quite shoot straight. If he can’t be as compelling or as steady as Warren or other candidates, perhaps Democrats will start to adjust their preconceptions about how he might fare in the general election.
4. Is Biden’s black support sustainable?
A big reason Biden continues to lead in national polling — even as he doesn’t do as well in Iowa and New Hampshire — is black voters.
Even after tangling with Harris on busing and criticism from another black candidate, Sen. Cory Booker, about Biden’s comments about working with segregationist senators, Biden is still above 40 percent with African Americans in most polls. A recent poll of the South Carolina primary showed him taking 51 percent of that demographic there.
This demographic advantage was huge for Hillary Clinton in 2016; Sanders’s inability to appeal to black voters basically made him unelectable in a party whose nominating process they play such a major role in (around one-quarter of all voters).
As Philip Bump has written, black voters may not be the silver bullet for Biden that they were for Clinton. But it’s his most loyal demographic in the 2020 race right now, and it’s the one keeping him in the lead nationally. If he can maintain that through the early states and especially heading into South Carolina and Super Tuesday, he’ll stand a good chance. If he can’t, the math becomes much more difficult.
5. What’s the deal with Pete Buttigieg?
We’ve talked about the first three candidates in that Iowa poll. The fourth one, though, is a major X-Factor.
The new Iowa poll shows Buttigieg has the second-highest favorable rating in Iowa (behind Warren), at 69 percent. He also has the lowest unfavorable rating of anyone (Warren included), at 13 percent. People really like the guy. And so do donors, judging by Buttigieg’s surprise win in the second-quarter fundraising race.
But the same Iowa voters who really like him also still have him in fourth place, at 9 percent — behind candidates they don’t like as much.
The easy and perhaps overly simplistic explanation is that maybe they like the South Bend, Ind., mayor — and quite a bit — but that they can’t necessarily see the boyish 37-year-old as their president or as being capable of beating Trump. An alternate explanation is that they are warm to him even if they haven’t quite been convinced. That suggests they could eventually come around, which is pretty much all he could ask at this point, given where he started this race.
There has been a lot of talk about how Buttigieg maybe hasn’t delivered on that fundraising. He seems to have plenty of upside, though. And the fact that he’s not alienating key voters is significant.