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Biden and Sanders are breaking away from the pack of candidates among Democrats nationwide, Washington Post-ABC News poll finds

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Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose candidacies embody competing wings of the Democratic Party, have emerged as the leaders in the contest for their party’s presidential nomination, according to a Washington Post-ABC News national poll.

The findings come little more than a week before the first votes of the 2020 campaign will be cast in Iowa’s precinct caucuses, where there has been a spirited contest involving not only Biden and Sanders but also Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and entrepreneur Andrew Yang both hope to spring a surprise on the others on caucus night.

[Read the full Post-ABC poll results | See results by group]

The start of the impeachment trial in the Senate means three of the top-tier Democratic candidates have to be in Washington, not Iowa. (Video: The Washington Post)

Based on past campaigns, the Iowa results will have an immediate impact on the overall shape of the race and on public attitudes, nationally and in individual states that immediately follow the Feb. 3 caucuses: New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. A Post average of recent New Hampshire polls shows Sanders and Biden virtually tied, with Warren and Buttigieg not far behind.

Nationally, however, the competition has moved in the direction of Biden and Sanders, with Warren, Buttigieg and others now clearly behind. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning registered voters, Biden is favored by 32 percent with Sanders at 23 percent, according to the new Post-ABC poll. In both cases, those percentages are slightly better than what each received in an October Post-ABC national poll.

Warren is currently running third but has seen a significant drop in her support nationally, falling from 23 percent in October to 12 percent in the new poll. Still, she is the only other candidate for the Democratic nomination in double digits.

The fourth- and fifth-place candidates represent a shift in the Democratic hierarchy. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who was not a candidate when the last Post-ABC survey was conducted but who has spent several hundred million dollars since then, runs fourth at 8 percent. Yang, whose debate performances have drawn favorable reviews and whose candidacy projects a non-politician’s flair, is at 7 percent.

Buttigieg, whose rise in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this year caught others in the field by surprise, is at 5 percent, reflecting modest slippage since October. Klobuchar is at 3 percent, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) is at 2 percent, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick are at 1 percent.

The poll shows that Democrats are clearly motivated in this election, with 73 percent of Democratic leaners saying they are certain to vote in their state’s primary or caucus. That’s little changed since last July but significantly higher than the 59 percent who said in January 2016 they were certainly going to vote. Similarly, Democratic leaners are slightly more satisfied with their choices of candidates this year than they were four years ago.

Although 9 in 10 Democrats who named a candidate when asked whom they are supporting say they are enthusiastic about their choice, 53 percent overall say they still would consider another candidate. That is a reflection of the fluidity that has marked the Democratic campaign for most of the past year, as voters have tried to assess a record-large field and weigh who might be best against President Trump.

Biden’s candidacy has been buoyed by perceptions that he is the candidate who could lead the party back to the White House, and the current poll again gives him the highest marks on that question. At this moment, 38 percent of Democratic leaners name Biden as having the best chance to beat Trump, with 18 percent naming Sanders and 10 percent naming Warren.

Biden also leads his rivals on two other questions that are central to the debate inside the party about the best path to victory, motivating the Democratic base or attracting independent or moderate voters. Many Democratic strategists say it will take a combination of both to overcome some of the advantages that Trump, as an incumbent during a time of low unemployment, currently enjoys.

On the question of who can best motivate the Democratic base, Biden is named by 32 percent while Sanders is named by 21 percent. Asked who can attract those independent and moderate voters, 29 percent name Biden and 17 percent name Sanders. No one else hits double digits on that question.

Biden and Sanders — one running as a more moderate establishment figure and the other as a revolutionary democratic socialist — are about even on the question of “who comes closest to you on the issues,” with the senator from Vermont at 24 percent and Biden at 22 percent. Warren, whose liberal platform is closer to Sanders’s than to Biden’s, is third at 15 percent.

Biden’s candidacy is also strengthened by the demographic pillars of support he has maintained throughout the year. As in many polls, he is the leading candidate among African Americans, with about half the support of black adults. He is also ahead among those Democrats who identify themselves as moderate or conservative and leads among voters 50 and older, where he holds a roughly a 3-to-1 advantage over Sanders.

The Post-ABC poll finds Sanders scores slightly better than Biden among voters under age 50, although his margin among this group is not as large as is Biden’s among those over 50. The younger the voter, the more support Sanders gains, with the caveat that these younger voters historically have been more difficult to turn out in primaries or caucuses.

Sanders also is favored by Democrats who identify themselves as liberal and shows signs of building support among some nonwhite voters.

Warren suffered slippage among many groups of voters since October, but particularly among women, where her support fell from 26 percent to 12 percent. She also dropped 15 points among self-identified liberals.

But while she trails Biden and Sanders as the first choice among Democratic voters, she does well when people are asked who represents their second choice.

Overall, nearly a quarter (23 percent) name Warren as their second choice, slightly higher than either Sanders or Biden. When first and second choices are combined, Biden leads at 48 percent, followed by Sanders at 41 percent and Warren at 35 percent. All the other candidates trail by at least 20 points in this combination.

At the Democratic debate in Iowa earlier this month, Warren and Sanders tangled over whether he had told her privately that a woman could not win the presidency. He denied saying it, and she said he had. Warren used the opportunity to make a forceful case to answer questions about whether a woman is at a disadvantage in a presidential election.

The Post-ABC poll finds that fewer than 3 in 10 (28 percent) of Democratic-leaning adults say a man is more likely than a woman to defeat Trump, with 63 percent saying it doesn’t matter and 7 percent saying a woman would have the advantage against this president. Women are no more or less likely than men to say a woman has a better chance of winning.

Support for Warren is significantly higher among voters who say either that it doesn’t matter or who believe a woman has a better chance of winning, but she nonetheless trails Biden and Sanders among that group. Men overall are more likely than women to say either it doesn’t matter or a woman has a better chance of beating Trump. Women are more likely than men to say a man has a better chance of beating Trump.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone from Monday through Thursday among a random national sample of 388 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, including 349 who are registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus six percentage points for both groups.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.