There are lots of reasons that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) should feel pleased with his current position in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Perhaps the only concrete result of the Iowa caucuses was that former vice president Joe Biden did worse than expected. Sanders finished at the top of the field there and should win the New Hampshire primary Tuesday.
What’s more, a national poll from Quinnipiac University released Monday showed Sanders passing Biden for the first time. In The Washington Post’s average of national polls, Sanders has pulled within four points of Biden, challenging the former vice president’s long-standing lead. In other polling averages, he’s even closer.
Sanders’s gains on Biden aren’t solely a function of Sanders siphoning support from Biden, though. Instead, the poll suggests that Biden’s support is being cannibalized by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. At the same time, Biden’s planned path to resurrection may have been largely cut off by another billionaire, businessman Tom Steyer.
Since December, Biden has lost 12 points overall in Quinnipiac’s poll as Sanders has gained eight. Bloomberg, however, has jumped from 5 percent to 15 percent among likely primary voters. What’s more, he’s done so largely by grabbing support from some of Biden’s strongest demographic groups.
Those shifts are obvious on the chart above, but it’s worth calling them out specifically. Here are the changes by demographic since December.
|Candidate||Overall||Moderates||Women||65 and up|
The fewer the number of respondents in a demographic group, the bigger the margin of error, so take those numbers for older voters with a grain of salt. But the trend is obvious: Bloomberg is scooping up support that had been expected to vote for Biden.
Bloomberg is undercutting Biden on two particularly important metrics. In January, only 9 percent of respondents saw Bloomberg as the best bet to beat President Trump in November. That figure is now at a slightly better 17 percent — while Biden’s number has dropped from 44 percent to 27 percent.
Things change, of course. This is one poll conducted at a fluid moment in the race. Biden could rebound. But that brings us to Steyer.
For some time, it was understood that Biden wouldn’t dominate in Iowa or New Hampshire. Biden has been so direct about New Hampshire that his first response in Friday’s debate in the state included a prediction that he’d do badly. It didn’t really matter, the theory went, as long as Biden was able to rebound in the next two contests, in South Carolina and Nevada. In that same debate response, Biden tried to frame the first four contests together as the first real test of the primary season. Bloomberg opted to skip those contests, focusing instead on Super Tuesday in early March.
This was the path that Hillary Clinton took to the nomination in 2016, after all. She tied Sanders in Iowa and was blown out in New Hampshire — but then racked up big wins in heavily black states and locked up the nomination by March. Biden’s path might be similar.
Except that, in 2016, there was a two-person race in which Clinton was the overwhelming favorite among nonwhite voters. Now? Things are a lot messier. What’s more, Steyer has made South Carolina and Nevada much less certain for Biden than they were for Clinton four years ago.
When polls last month suddenly showed Steyer surging in those states, the cause wasn’t hard to determine. He had matched other candidates in spending on television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, but they, not being self-funding billionaires, had ceded the next two states to him.
This data is a month old, but Steyer has nonetheless maintained an edge in those states in airtime and on-the-ground staffing. It may not be enough to actually win the primaries, but it’s almost certainly going to go a long way toward muting any potential margins of victory by Biden in those states.
There has been a dearth of recent polling to track where the field stands in South Carolina or Nevada. The Post’s average still shows Biden with big leads in each and Steyer a bit farther back in the pack.
It’s very possible to see the following scenario unfolding: Biden loses New Hampshire, finishing in third or fourth place. His national support — heavily predicated on electability — erodes further. The rebound he sought in South Carolina and Nevada is muted by Steyer (and, of course, Sanders and others) eating into his numbers. Super Tuesday arrives and with it voters who’ve been inundated by Bloomberg ads for the past several months. If Biden’s still in at that point and Bloomberg has been able to drown out critical ads that hamper his own rise? Easy to see how the former vice president might reach the end of the road.
None of this is solely a function of Biden being unlucky in his opponents. His campaign has been wobbly for some time, as his poor performance in Iowa makes clear. Nonetheless, if the scenario above were to happen, he could offer much of the credit to two very rich Democrats.
On Monday, the Biden campaign declared that New Hampshire is only Game 2 of a seven-game series. The problem with a series like that, though, is you can’t lose the first four games.
clarification: Quinnipiac's sample size for black primary voters was below the threshold The Post uses when analyzing poll data, so references to those numbers were removed.