The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are fighting

A poll shows that she needs some help in Iowa, and her path to victory requires stealing support from another leading candidate. Hence, what we see today.

Democratic presidential contenders Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, left, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts participate in a debate in Ohio.

A couple of months ago, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) looked to be asserting herself as a potential front-runner in the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Now, she’s caught with the pack. And a poll suggests that she might have a tough time breaking from it in Iowa — and why her path might run through her erstwhile ally, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The Monmouth University poll of Iowa voters would at first glance seem to have some good news for Warren: Even though she, at 15 percent, is nine points behind former vice president Joe Biden (24 percent) and virtually tied with Sanders (18 percent) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg (17 percent), she has a couple of things working for her. The first is that she is tied with Buttigieg for the most well-liked candidate (73 percent favorable vs. 19 percent unfavorable), and the second is that she leads the field when it comes to the most-cited second choice.

Here’s how the second choices break down:

  1. Warren: 23 percent
  2. Buttigieg: 15 percent
  3. Sanders: 14 percent
  4. Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): 10 percent

All of that would seem to bode well for the senator from Massachusetts, especially given that second choices really matter in Iowa. Under the state’s caucus system, candidates who don’t clear 15 percent initially at a given caucus site are declared not viable and their supporters can go to another candidate. Given that process, Warren could feasibly pick up support, given how well-liked she is and how many people consider her their backup option.

That’s not actually how it pans out — at least not as the field is constructed. Rather than just asking about second choices, Monmouth took things a step further and ran a hypothetical contest in which the race was distilled down to the top four candidates — the ones who clear 15 percent. This simulates a caucus in which the initial results mirror the current statewide poll and supporters of other candidates will need to go elsewhere.

While you might expect that to benefit Warren, you’d be wrong — and curiously so. In that scenario, Warren actually gains only one point. Buttigieg, meanwhile, gains eight points, Sanders gains six and Biden gains four.

The race then would stand like this:

  1. Biden: 28 percent
  2. Buttigieg: 25 percent
  3. Sanders: 24 percent
  4. Warren: 16 percent

Warren’s problem is this: She is very disproportionately the second choice of voters whose first choices are already the other top candidates. Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray told me she takes 83 percent of her second-choice votes from the triumvirate of Biden-Buttigieg-Sanders. By contrast, the vast majority of people who don’t support a top-four candidate — 75 percent — go for a top-four candidate as their backup.

And that’s an issue in Iowa. It means the other candidates have more to gain from the 15 percent threshold. And it essentially means that Warren probably needs to have one of them stumble to build out her base of support and actually win the state.

That may be easier said than done. In fact, a new national Quinnipiac University poll shows Warren’s supporters are actually less settled on her (28 percent say they’ve made up their mind) than supporters for Biden (41 percent) and Sanders (42 percent). The case may be different in Iowa, of course, but it’s another data point worth considering.

So who might she need to stumble? A look at the headlines right now might give you a sense. She and Sanders are suddenly tangling on the campaign trail in a way they have conspicuously avoided to this point.

There’s a reason for that. While her support seemed to overlap mostly with Buttigieg earlier in the campaign, it appears that it now overwhelmingly overlaps with the candidate most ideologically similar to her: Sanders.

The same national Quinnipiac University poll, in fact, shows that Warren is the second choice of 57 percent of Sanders supporters, and Sanders is the second choice of 52 percent of Warren voters. Neither of them are the second choice for more than 12 percent of any other candidate’s voters.

These, again, are national numbers rather than Iowa ones, it bears reemphasizing. But it could provide a window into the calculus for each side down the stretch and especially in Iowa, where either candidate knocking the other below 15 percent could reap huge rewards.

The Monmouth situation is obviously a hypothetical one; even if all four candidates remain about where they are, we won’t see all four of these candidates clear the 15 percent threshold at every caucus site. But it does provide a very telling window into what we’re seeing — and what we could see in the remaining three weeks until the caucuses.