Democrats all want one thing: to beat Donald Trump.
The problem is, they can’t agree on who’s best to do that. With a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, there’s a clear top-tier of four candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind.
And they are all appealing to different portions of the party base. Biden has the support of older voters and African Americans; Sanders leads with progressives and young voters; and Warren appeals to highly educated whites and progressives, but she’s competing with Buttigieg for college-educated whites and with Sanders for progressives.
What’s more, the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, in December, found some three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters say they could change their minds in who they support, which has made for a volatile race in the key early states.
So what’s the state of play a month out? How predictive are Iowa and New Hampshire for who becomes the Democratic nominee? And should we even pay attention to the polls this far out from the first two contests?
Answers to those questions below:
In national polling, Biden has led from the beginning of the presidential campaign, but not with overwhelming support.
Young liberals, in particular, reflexively don’t like Biden, partly because of his writing of the 1990s crime bill and — for this presidential field, anyway — his moderate views.
His at-times shaky debate performances have also worried his allies and supporters, but Biden has retained the support of older voters and black voters, which have been the backbone of his candidacy.
Sanders is back after suffering a heart attack in early October, he’s gaining in the polls, and he’s maintained his ardent base of support. His army of volunteer organizers makes him a top contender in Iowa, where caucus activism is key to success. And, remember, in 2016, he won the New Hampshire primary by 22 percentage points.
The Granite State contest appears much closer this time, but Sanders can’t be overlooked, especially since he’s leading the field in fundraising, which means he’s poised for a long fight — if it comes to that again.
In October, Warren looked like she was poised to run away with the nomination. But scrutiny of her support for Medicare for All appeared to hamper her chances. She eventually walked it back, identifying smaller health care measures she’d be willing to implement first.
The struggle she faces is she’s fighting a two-front battle. Warren needs to be boldly progressive to peel away Sanders supporters who might be open to someone else. But she needs to look like she can win to appeal to college-educated whites that Buttigieg has been peeling away from her.
Buttigieg surged in late November, taking slight polling leads in Iowa and New Hampshire. He maintains a narrow lead in Iowa, but he’s receded some in New Hampshire into a close second place.
Buttigieg’s glaring problem has been his inability to win over black voters. If he can’t win them over, it’s a near impossibility to win a Democratic nomination.
If he were to win Iowa and New Hampshire, those are usually springboards that lead to more support with other coalitions. But if he were to win both and still not win over voters of color, that could mean the end for one or both of Iowa and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation caucus and primary statuses.
All four in the top tier are tightly bunched together in the two early states. Translation: The organizations of the candidates are going to matter on Election Day in both places.
Outside looking in
Candidates hoping for a boost from the early states are Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
With a smaller debate stage, Klobuchar has been able to insert herself more into ideological tussles. She needs to do well in Iowa, as she’s from a neighboring state, and she recently completed visits to all 99 of Iowa’s counties.
Booker boasts of his organization in Iowa. His campaign is hoping for something of a triple bank shot. It goes like this: He performs better than expected in Iowa, Biden collapses with worse-than-expected finishes in both states, black voters abandon Biden, and Booker picks up the pieces. That’s a long shot, but that’s the strategy.
The most unconventional strategy, however, belongs to former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg has run more than $100 million in ads — so far — but he’s not competing in Iowa or New Hampshire. That has never worked in a modern Democratic primary, but he, too, is also banking on a Biden implosion.
Bloomberg hopes that his blitzing ad campaign can garner him enough votes — and delegates — to get him more prominently into the conversation, starting on Super Tuesday on March 3, when 15 states vote, including delegate-rich California and Texas.
The difficulty of not competing in the early states
In the last 40 years, only one person has won the Democratic nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire — Bill Clinton in 1992.
But he competed in both states and lost to candidates who had something of home-field advantages. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa won the Iowa caucuses that year, and the New Hampshire winner was Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts.
Clinton was, in fact, able to declare something of a moral victory by finishing second in New Hampshire, and the media dubbed him the “Comeback Kid” for it.
Which state has been more predictive?
Iowa has been more predictive overall than New Hampshire of who would become the Democratic nominee. In the last 40 years, seven of the last nine winners of Iowa’s Democratic caucuses have gone on to become the nominee, including the last four. Five of the nine New Hampshire winners have.
Is polling this far out predictive of the winner of either state?
As always, consumers of public opinion data should realize these surveys are snapshots in time. They are not always predictive of what will happen, nor are they intended to be.
For instance: A month before the 2016 and 2008 Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, the same person leading in the polls won the contest. But the numbers were very different than the final result. And in 2004, there was a completely different result in both states.
In 2016 in Iowa, Clinton was up over Sanders by 6 points in the average of polls, but the trend line was clear. The gap was closing, and on Election Day, Sanders and Clinton essentially tied in the final result, with Clinton edging Sanders by just 0.3 percentage points.
In New Hampshire, Sanders led by an average of 5 points, but wound up winning by 22. Polling essentially tracked Sanders’ widening lead in that month.
In 2008, Obama led by just 0.3 percentage points in an average of the polls in Iowa, but wound up winning by 8. In New Hampshire, it was a quirkier story. A month before the primary, Clinton led by an average of 9 points and wound up winning by 3, but not before lots of volatility in that month.
With Obama’s win in Iowa, the numbers changed quickly. By Election Day in New Hampshire, Obama was up 8 in Granite State polls, and his victory looked all but assured. But then — surprise, surprise — Clinton pulled out the victory.
And then back in 2004, a Pew poll a month before the caucuses had former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean up substantially in both states. Former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry eventually won the Iowa caucuses by 6 points after being down 11 in that survey. Kerry also wound up winning New Hampshire by 13 points despite being down in that Pew poll by 14.
So with a Democratic primary field as undecided as this one, almost anything can happen. Be prepared for some surprises.