With less than two weeks to go until the first votes are cast in the 2020 Democratic primary, the national race for the nomination has stratified into three tiers, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the first time clearly sharing the lead with former Vice President Joe Biden.
According to a new CNN poll released Wednesday, among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who are likely to vote in 2020, Sanders is now in the lead with 27 percent support compared to Biden’s 24 percent.
Both numbers fall within the 3.4 percent margin of error for the poll, which surveyed 1,156 respondents, so the two candidates are effectively tied for the lead. The second tier is made up of their nearest competitors — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — who are each at least 10 points back from Biden. Much of the rest of the 12-candidate field is in single digits, and four candidates failed to garner even 1 percent support.
It’s the first time in the race that Biden has had to share the national lead with another candidate; even now, according to FiveThirtyEight’s national polling averages, Biden leads second-place Sanders by around 6 points, down from a margin of almost 20 points at his peak early in the summer. A national poll from Monmouth University, also released on Wednesday, found Biden leading Sanders by 7 points, 30 percent to 23 percent, with a 3.4 percent margin of error.
Biden, however, has never quite been as unassailable a frontrunner as his polling lead has at times suggested. As Politico’s David Siders and Elena Schneider reported in September 2019, many Biden supporters have long held worries about his age and some of the positions he’s taken throughout his history in Democratic politics, among other issues. What’s more, the state-by-state nature of the primary race means that a national polling lead can become ephemeral once the first votes are cast.
“There’s a clear worry among Biden supporters that he can’t be the front-runner from June of 2019 through July of 2020 … that eventually, the gaffes will pile up and he’ll come down,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who has endorsed Biden, told Politico.
Sanders also has momentum on his side — a recent string of good polls propelled him into the last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses as a candidate on the rise, and his $34.5 million fundraising haul for the last quarter of 2019 dwarfed the rest of the Democratic field.
Sanders, Biden, or Warren being nominated would satisfy most Democrats
The past week has seen some of the biggest infighting of the primary so far, particularly between supporters of Sanders and Warren. But the poll suggests that Democrats are not, in fact, in disarray.
More than 70 percent of likely Democratic voters in the CNN poll said they would be enthusiastic or satisfied if Sanders, Biden, or Warren ended up being the party’s nominee to face President Trump in the general election in November. For Buttigieg, as well as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that number drops below 60 percent.
Notably, none of the candidates’ national support is necessarily locked in at this point — 58 percent of likely Democratic voters said they might still change their mind about which candidate to support, the highest such number in a CNN national poll of the primary race since April 2019. Such a degree of uncertainty is atypical for this point in a presidential primary; in late January 2016, only 37 percent of voters said they might still change their vote.
That uncertainty also underscores the importance of the early-state primaries and caucuses, which kick off with first-in-the-nation Iowa on February 3. According to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, the relative stability of national poll numbers so far “masks the potential for sizable swings once the first contests are held. Iowa and New Hampshire will play a major role in shaping national voter preferences.”
In those states, the picture is less clear. Biden holds only a 3.6 percent lead over Sanders in the FiveThirtyEight polling average for Iowa, and Buttigieg and Warren are polling much closer to both Biden and Sanders. In a recent Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa poll, often considered the gold standard for polling in the state, Sanders led the field at 20 percent with Biden in fourth place. And in New Hampshire, Sanders has the polling-average lead over second-place Biden, though only by a slender 1.6 percent that’s well within the margin of error for most polls.
However, in Wednesday’s CNN poll, Biden still leads the field by better than 20 points on two metrics. Voters say he has the best chance to defeat Trump in the 2020 election, and that he’s the most likely to unify the Democratic Party. Biden also has a substantial base of support with black voters: A recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll found him leading among Democratic-leaning black voters by 28 points over second-place Sanders.
For all Biden’s strength by some measures, though, the race is still wide open, as the virtual tie between Biden and Sanders in Wednesday’s CNN poll would suggest. FiveThirtyEight’s delegate forecast gives the former vice president the best odds of winning the nomination, but with 12 days until the Iowa caucuses, no candidate is the prohibitive favorite.