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9 polling experts explain what could happen if Joe Biden doesn’t run for the presidency

His supporters could scatter across an already divided field.

Former Vice President Joe Biden Campaigns For Nevada Democrats In Las Vegas
Former US Vice President Joe Biden greets supporters after speaking at a rally at the Culinary Workers Union Hall Local 226 as he campaigns for Nevada Democratic candidates on October 20, 2018, in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Joe Biden still hasn’t decided if he’s going to run for president. But if he doesn’t, he could well scramble an already divided Democratic field.

Polls have overwhelmingly shown the former vice president consistently leading among Democrats, even though he has not officially entered the race.

According to a RealClearPolitics roundup, Biden leads several of the latest Democratic primary polls by an average of almost 11 percentage points. In a February Morning Consult survey, 30 percent of Democratic primary voters said they preferred Biden, 21 percent chose Bernie Sanders, and 11 percent picked Kamala Harris.

Biden’s enduring polling lead has been chalked up to his overwhelming name recognition and strong favorability — and also likely benefits from the fact that he’s been out of the public spotlight. (Hillary Clinton enjoyed similarly high approval ratings when she didn’t hold a public office.) Given Biden’s high-profile role in the Obama administration, however, his name recognition alone could well be inflating his polling performance.

According to the Morning Consult survey, 87 percent of respondents had either a favorable or neutral opinion of Biden, compared to 68 percent who said the same about Harris. And as a Politico report noted, Biden’s support dwindled when voters were asked to name their candidate of choice instead of picking from a predetermined list.

Biden is clearly a frontrunner if he decides to get in — but there are a lot of questions about who would benefit if he doesn’t run. Pollsters had some thoughts about the candidates who could capitalize on his base.

Here’s what nine polling experts had to say about the candidates who could take advantage of it.

Sanders, Harris, and Warren could be key beneficiaries of Biden’s existing support

Cameron Easley, Washington editor, Morning Consult

Our figures indicate that at the moment, Sanders would be the biggest beneficiary if Biden decides not to run. Twenty-four percent of the likely Democratic primary voters who said the former vice president was their first choice picked the Vermont senator as their runner-up, compared with 11 percent who opted for Kamala Harris as second choice and 10 percent who chose Elizabeth Warren.

That 24 percent would bring Sanders [to a plurality] if those Biden supporters vote as they’ve indicated, putting him in a commanding position. However, it’s still very early in the process, and a lot could happen to change public sentiment between now and the nominating contests next year.

[Editor’s note: The full breakdown of whom Biden supporters would pick as their second choice, according to the Morning Consult poll, is listed below.]

  • 24 percent: Bernie Sanders
  • 11 percent: Kamala Harris
  • 10 percent: Elizabeth Warren
  • 7 percent: Beto O’Rourke
  • 7 percent: Cory Booker
  • 4 percent: Michael Bloomberg
  • 3 percent: Amy Klobuchar
  • 2 percent: Sherrod Brown
  • 1 percent: Kirsten Gillibrand
  • 1 percent: Eric Holder
  • 15 percent: Don’t know/no opinion

Tim Malloy, assistant director, Quinnipiac University Poll

Right now, at this very early stage, all eyes are on former Vice President Biden, who has yet to declare his intentions.

Take him out of the equation and Sen. Kamala Harris would appear to be the frontrunner with a virtual army of would-be Democrats, from the far left to the more moderate, assembling campaign teams and looking for an opening.

Joe Biden represents the more traditional Democratic Party. He clearly is the most seasoned of all the potential candidates. One can assume if he doesn’t run, voters to whom he appeals will gravitate to a more moderate candidate. That person may well be waiting in the wings for his decision.

Spencer Kimball, director, Emerson Polling

We did ask that question in a January 21 poll — at the time, we used seven announced candidates [which did not include Biden or Sanders].

Warren led with 43 percent of the vote, Harris was second, at 19 percent. It looks like since that poll, Harris has gained momentum; she has gone from 9 percent of the vote in December to 15 percent of the vote nationally and 18 percent in Iowa. Warren has hovered around 9 to 10 percent of the vote.

That January poll did not include Sanders, but I am not sure a Biden voter would go with Sanders. Instead, I think Warren and Harris have the most to gain and a dark horse candidate like Sherrod Brown could build a base off the 25 to 30 percent of the electorate who are currently leaning toward Biden.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor, Sabato’s Crystal Ball

My guess is that Biden’s support would not immediately go to one person disproportionately. Maybe Bernie Sanders would benefit only because he has the most name ID (along with Biden) of the candidates. But I don’t know if that would actually make Sanders a likelier nominee; these early polls can be just a measure of name ID.

In the early going, Kamala Harris has seemed to make the biggest splash of the candidates who are not otherwise well-known nationally. That said, I do not believe there is a true frontrunner in this race as of yet.

It could also end up being a free-for-all

Celinda Lake, president, Lake Research Partners

I think most of his vote goes to “undecided” because the other candidates are so poorly known.

His base is older whites and African Americans. The African Americans ‎may go to African-American candidates. The candidates ultimately who will inherit his voters tend to be those with experience, those who make voters feel safe, those with blue-collar sensibilities, and those with an economic point of view.

Patrick Murray, director, Monmouth University Polling Institute

Frankly, I don’t think there is any truly “leading” candidate without Biden. Some may be a few points ahead based on name recognition, but that would not be meaningful in the long term.

Mike Noble, chief pollster, OH Predictive Insights

Politico recently wrote an article on how Biden’s lead shrinks when he’s not offered [as a candidate] and people put in “undecided.” If he doesn’t run and announce early, expect most to just reenter the ever-changing pool of Democrat primary voters.

Basically, every Democratic challenger stands to gain with Biden not throwing his hat in the ring.

Brandon Finnigan, director, Decision Desk HQ

[Biden’s] perceived “bloc” as the name-recognized Democrat is a mix of every wing and group within the party, with the probable exception of the Sanders/Our Revolution portion.

So I’d imagine the remaining field would pick off the demographic chunks currently backing him that correlate more with their messaging/appeal/profile. There’s enough in that chunk that it’s possible to see Harris, Booker, Klobuchar, and Warren gain a few points each, [plus] a scattering among the less high-profile candidates.

At this point, it’s too early (and stereotyping perhaps) to just allocate particular groups to one candidate or another. But that 20 percent-odd share Biden is getting will definitely lift the remaining field up notably.

Barbara Carvalho, director, Marist Poll

Biden is not only the most well-known, he has the best favorable-to-unfavorable ratio. Most of the announced/potential Democratic candidates have greater positive name recognition than negative (except for Michael Bloomberg) but are not well-known among Democrats.

Although name recognition is an asset, a candidate’s case for the nomination still needs to be made. There are many constituencies in the Democratic Party. So regardless of Biden’s plans, this is a very wide-open race for the nomination.

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