You could be forgiven if you have been vaguely keeping one eye on news coverage of the Democratic primary, and more or less understood there to be around 5 to 8 major candidates that are seriously in the hunt for the Democratic nomination. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg have all generated a lot of headlines, while several others such as Andrew Yang, Corey Booker, and Tulsi Gabbard have also amassed fervent fan bases.
However, the truth of the matter is that, in terms of polling—the only means we have of measuring candidates’ appeal to donors and non-donors alike—there are currently only three candidates with likely paths to winning. And to blunt, that is optimistic. In my heard of hearts, I believe we have already arrived at the moment where this has become a head-to-head race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Here is a look at the fortunes of each of the top-five polling candidates, and where they find themselves at this crossroads in the primary process.
The (Diminished?) Frontrunner: Joe Biden
Looking at this chart, it’s easy to see Joe Biden as being in a consistent downward trajectory for the last several months. But I think that’s not quite the truth. What I see is a significant decline in his support around the time of the first primary debates on June 26th and 27th. Concerns about Biden’s performance knocked him down to 25% around July 1st, which has continued to be his rock bottom. He got as high as almost 32% before dropping again, and he is now seesawing back and forth around the 28% mark. He briefly seemed to lose some momentum around the time the Ukraine story came out a few weeks ago, but he is now around the high point of about 30% he has hit four or so times previously since the beginning of August.
My takeaway on Biden: Biden is going sideways, and has proven resilient to concerns about his age, debate performance, and his son’s extracurricular activities. I expect him to continue to circle around that 28% mark until primary voting starts in February.
The Breakout Star: Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren has been steadily creeping upward in the polls pretty much since day one. In early May, she could content herself with being the third-place candidate, albeit one who was stuck around 8% to 10%. Obviously, that has changed. In early June she popped up to 12%, starting a roughly 2 1/2 month period where she was stuck between 12% and 16%. Towards the end of that time in late August, it was clear that she was sticking to the higher end of that range. She then started bumping above 16% occasionally, before breaking out explosively in late September.
Since then, Warren has essentially “gone parabolic.” In less than a month, her support has increased by half, from around 16% to more than 25%. The question then becomes: Where does she go from here?
There are two potential scenarios here. In the more conservative one, she hits a ceiling soon, perhaps a little short of where Biden is at. She would then see a decline as expectations readjust, and then settles in around 22% to 26% for a bit. The second possibility is that Warren isn’t done yet. Her rapid increase continues for another month or two, especially as potential supporters see her strength in state polls (more on that later) and make the decision to switch allegiances away from their current favorites. In that case, we could see Warren break 30% in the next month or two.
Warren has certainly left herself with a lot of room for growth. The weekly Morning Consult weekly tracking poll has not only been tracking the support for each candidate, but also the top-3 second choices for each candidate’s supporters. If we were to expect Warren to see continued growth, we would expect her to see a lot of support among the people currently supporting the two candidates with the most existing support to draw from: Biden and Sanders. And that’s exactly what we see.
My takeaway on Warren: Whether Warren stabilizes as a first place or second place candidate, I think the likelihood is very high that the strength of Biden and Warren lock this in as a two-way race by the end of the year.
Rock Solid but Going Nowhere Fast: Bernie Sanders
One thing that anyone looking at the numbers can agree upon: Bernie Sanders has been incredibly consistent. I actually used Excel’s MIN/MAX functions to check this. In my running average, since May 16th Sanders has never been below 14.3%, and has never been above 18.6%—a range of 4.3%. Even Pete Buttigieg has had slightly more volatility over that period of time. For comparison, here are the minimum and maximum levels of support for each candidate, and the range between the two figures:
- Joe Biden: 35.5% (May 16) – 24.8% (July 7) – Range of 10.8%
- Elizabeth Warren: 25.4% (Oct 8) – 7.9% (June 2) – Range of 17.5%
- Bernie Sanders: 18.6% (Sep 15) – 14.3% (July 27) – Range of 4.4%
- Pete Buttigieg: 9.0% (June 12) – 4.5% (Aug 21) – Range of 4.5%
- Kamala Harris: 15.5% (July 8) – 4.5% (Oct 13) – Range of 11.0%
Volatility can be a mixed bag. For Warren, that massive range is the result of a meteoric rise in support. In the case of Kamala Harris, that large range signifies the precipitous fall she has experienced.
As long as you’re not a cellar dweller in the polls, having stable numbers can be a pretty great thing. For Sanders, that was the case for quite a long time. Yes, he was in second place, but being in second place while he raised massive amounts of money meant that he could tread water while other candidates withered and died.
But he’s no longer in second place. He’s third. He has been stuck in place as Warren has continued to put distance between them. In early May, Sanders was ahead of Warren by 10%. Now, he trails her by 12%.If he were showing signs of strength relative to his past performance—at least keeping his polling at the top of his range, near that 18.6% mark—then there would be some reason for optimism. But instead he’s currently at 14.6%, only one-third of a point above his historic bottom. Yes, he has raised a lot of money, more than enough to keep his campaign alive for quite a long time. In fact, between April and September he raised more money than any other candidate, beating Warren by about $700,000.
But there have been signs of serious problems within his campaign. Two major campaign operatives for New Hampshire and Iowa—critical early primary states—were pulled from their roles during the summer. One was fired, and another reassigned. And as someone who keeps a fairly close eye on the overall behavior of campaigns, I can personally attest that there’s been a lot of evidence of campaign staffers spending more time fighting turf wars on social media with supporters of other candidates, than, ya know, doing voter outreach. There’s an implication here that while the Sanders campaign may be flush with cash, there may not be the coordination and discipline necessary to raise his standing in the race.
However, the real concern may not be the campaign, but the candidate. Some serious frankness is warranted. Bernie Sanders is a 78-year-old man. One who suffered a heart attack on October 1st. While he has been noted for his physical robustness and breakneck campaign pace, there is genuine cause for concern. Even he has noted the need to scale back his campaign activities. It’s not readily apparent how a nearly 80-year-old candidate who is recovering from a serious ailment, and whose campaign is not entirely harmonious, can dig itself out of the hole it has found itself in.
My takeaway on Sanders: How are things going for the Sanders’ campaign? “Not great, Bob.”
What’d You Do With My Money?!: Pete Buttigieg
Despite the fact that Pete Buttigieg‘s highest level of elected office to date is being mayor of a town with a hair over 100,000 residents, Buttigieg hasn’t had any struggles with campaign fundraising. Between April and June, Buttigieg raised nearly $25 million, second only to Bernie Sanders. Between July and September, he raised $19 million, a respectable figure given that it exceeded Biden’s fundraising figure.
However, while Buttigieg has been rich with cash, he has been poor with voters. Buttigieg’s average nationwide polling has never exceeded 9.0%, and that was way back in early June. Since July 1st, he hasn’t exceeded 6.1%. To put that another way, looking at where Buttigieg’s fundraising stood as of September 30th, versus where his fundraising stood for that quarter (which ended on the 30th), Buttigieg has raised $3.5 million per percent of support.
Despite having piles of money to play with, it’s not readily clear how he can use it to improve his standing. Way back in July I wrote about the significant problems apparent with Buttigieg’s campaign. The African-American community back in South Bend, which accounts for a quarter of the town’s population, has been vocal about their dissatisfaction with him. And it seems that minorities nationwide also see little to like about him.
Looking at the last few high-quality polls which have broken down respondents by race, the findings are grim. In the most recent such poll, performed on October 11th through 13th, Quinnipiac found that 1% of African-Americans favored Buttigieg as the nominee. Fox News poll conducted October 6th through 8th, Buttigieg had 0% support from Blacks and 0% from Hispanics. A Quinnipiac poll conducted October 4th through 7th showed him with 0% support from African Americans. In late September, he scored 1% support from non-whites in a Monmouth poll.
It has been pointed out in the last couple weeks that Buttigieg has been repositioning himself as a centrist, angling to be the heir apparent to Biden should the frontrunner stumble. He hasn’t been subtle about it, going so far as to draw praise from Biden for voicing his disdain for Trump’s allegations of corruption. But while Buttigieg may be carrying the message, he simply doesn’t have the same appeal as Biden. And it not only shows in the opinions of minority voters, but also the fact that he has no real support as a second choice from Biden, Warren, or Sanders supporters.
My takeaway on Buttigieg: He can position himself as a centrist candidate, and raise money like one, but the opinions of voters appear to indicate that that they would rather take their chances elsewhere.
Coulda Been a Contender: Kamala Harris
No candidate has had a more profound crash and burn than Kamala Harris. Three months ago it seemed all but certain that she would skyrocket into a solid second-place position behind Biden in the wake of her fiery performance in the first debate. Today, the senator of a state home to 40 million people is nearly a point behind the mayor of a town home to 100,000.
Since she peaked at 15.5% on July 8th, more than 70% of her support has bled away. In fact, even ignoring her brief moment in the sun when she skyrocketed in the wake of the first debates, Harris has lost ground. In May and June she was in fourth place, hovering around 6% to 8% support. Today, her present average support of 4.5% leaves her in fifth place.
It’s difficult to say why Harris’ campaign has failed. My suspicion is that her long history as a prosecutor made her a difficult sell to a political party that has become increasingly wary of a legal system that seems designed to favor the white and wealthy.
But regardless of the cause of Harris’ woes, the fact that the last five months have left her in a worse position than when she began her campaign suggests that the question is not whether she can win, but whether her candidacy will survive long enough to make it to the Iowa caucus in February.