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The one big takeaway from every 2020 Democratic primary poll so far

The 2020 Democratic primary didn’t really start until Joe Biden announced his presidential candidacy.

Former U.S Vice president Joe Biden speaks at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium February 19, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Joe Biden is consistently leading the Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 primary polls. But how real is his lead?
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

What do you know, former Vice President Joe Biden is leading another 2020 Democratic presidential primary poll with roughly 30 percent of the vote.

The story of the 2020 election polling so far is how little the polling has changed. Here is the latest national primary survey from Monmouth, released a few days ago:

  • Joe Biden: 27 percent
  • Bernie Sanders: 20 percent
  • Kamala Harris: 8 percent
  • Pete Buttigieg: 8 percent
  • Elizabeth Warren: 6 percent
  • Beto O’Rourke: 4 percent
  • Cory Booker: 2 percent
  • John Hickenlooper: 2 percent
  • Amy Klobuchar: 1 percent

The big news out of this poll is that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is hitting a new polling high of ... 8 percent. That should tell you how monotonous the Democratic primary polling has really been. This chart from Real Clear Politics reinforces the tedium:

Real Clear Politics

The next time a new national 2020 poll comes out, you can probably fill in the blanks yourself: Biden at 30 percent, give or take, Sanders trailing 5-10 points behind him, Harris and now Buttigieg both hanging around at 10 percent. O’Rourke in there somewhere, Warren at 5 percent or 6-ish, and then a crowd of Booker, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Castro, and Kirsten Gillibrand with maybe a few percentage points each.

The story has barely changed all year. The big unknown is how durable Biden’s stubbornly consistent lead really is — but we should start getting a better idea now that he’s finally officially announced his candidacy. And even then, things may not really change until the first round of debates, when the public turns its full attention to the presidential campaign.

The Iowa and New Hampshire 2020 polling landscape, explained

Maybe you’d argue national polls don’t really matter (and you’d be right). We don’t have a national primary election. We have a very deliberate schedule of caucuses and primaries, and the narrative and momentum built out of the early contests could mean quite a lot in a crowded field.

But in a March Des Moines Register poll, the gold standard in the first caucus state, the results look only a little different than the national polls:

  • Biden: 27 percent
  • Sanders: 25 percent
  • Warren: 9 percent
  • Harris: 7 percent
  • O’Rourke: 5 percent
  • Booker: 3 percent
  • Klobuchar: 3 percent

Warren overperforms her national polling a little bit in Iowa; O’Rourke (who hadn’t actually announced when this survey was taken) underperforms. This tracks with what David Binder, who polled for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, also put out in a recent Iowa survey.

That Binder poll did have a bit of bad news for Biden: His lead has actually diminished from 37 percent in September last year to just 25 percent now. He’s losing ground to Sanders and, in Binder’s most recent poll, Buttigieg was all the way up to 6 percent. The South Bend mayor has continued to rise in the polls, hitting 14 percent in a one of the most recent Iowa polls, from Monmouth, that put Buttigieg at 14 percent. Biden and Sanders were tied at 19 percent, another potentially worrisome sign for the vice president.

Of course, Biden hasn’t yet traveled to Iowa with regularity like the other contenders, and voters there might be taking an interest in the politicians they’ve actually met and heard from.

Warren, at 7 percent in the Monmouth poll, was still showing a little bit better in Iowa than in national surveys; O’Rourke, down at 6 percent, has fallen back a little bit in national polls as well.

Moving to the second state on the calendar, Sanders seems to fare better against Biden than he does in national polls. That makes sense, given New Hampshire is next door to Sanders’s home state of Vermont. He also trounced Hillary Clinton there in the 2016 primary.

Real Clear Politics

Another notable finding is Elizabeth Warren, again, looking stronger in an early primary state than in the national polls. The Massachusetts senator was one of the first major candidates to announce and she has kept up a relentless travel schedule. On the other hand, Warren is essentially tied with Harris in distant fourth in her own neighborhood, considering the substantial overlap between the Massachusetts and New Hampshire media markets. So maybe that number isn’t quite as good as it seems.

Buttigieg showed strongly in the most recent University of New Hampshire survey, reaching 15 percent behind Biden (18 percent) and Sanders (30 percent).

Taken together, the polling landscape in Iowa and New Hampshire largely aligns with what we’ve seen in the national polls: Biden and Sanders are in a class of their own, while some mix of Harris, Buttigieg, Warren and O’Rourke makes up the second tier. They’re followed by Booker and Klobuchar, who could conceivably fight their way up the hierarchy.

We have a long way to go, of course. And we’re still waiting on quality Nevada and South Carolina polls, to give us some idea of how the electorate is looking in the next two states on the 2020 calendar.

There have been warning signs for Biden, indicating his support could be deteriorating a bit even as he holds onto the lead. That brings us to the real lesson to be learned from the early 2020 polling.

This wasn’t a real race until Joe Biden got in

Biden was the shadow hanging over the 2020 Democratic primary. He has polled like a frontrunner, but what we don’t yet know is how solid that support really is. Surveys at this point in the campaign reflect name recognition as much as anything else, and Biden is the best-known potential candidate, along with Sanders.

This is how Vox’s Li Zhou summarized the state of Biden’s early polling:

The size of Biden’s current poll lead certainly isn’t as overwhelming as Clinton’s was in 2015. But it’s also larger and more consistent than any Republican candidate had managed that year until Trump came along. And it’s about the same as Romney’s in early 2011 — when he went on to win the GOP nomination.

Still, there are also reasons to suspect Biden’s current lead is a lot like [Rudy] Giuliani’s in 2007 or Jeb Bush’s in early 2015 — that it’s illusory, based on a vague general positive impression that won’t survive contact with an actual campaign.

To state the overly obvious, we simply couldn’t be sure whether Biden would maintain his polling advantage until he actually entered the race. He’ll start facing more scrutiny and the attacks from his competitors that come with a real candidacy. Hillary Clinton is the classic example of a politician enjoying soaring approval when they aren’t perceived as an active office-seeker and seeing that sky-high favorability rapidly tumble once they enter the arena.

The same could prove true for Biden. Then again, it might not: He’s already seen some tough media coverage but stubbornly held his standing in the polls, and there are perhaps telling anecdotes from focus groups suggesting policy-based attacks don’t hurt him as much as you might think, considering his more centrist profile in a party drifting to the left.

This is a long way of saying the reason the 2020 polling seems so maddeningly unwavering is the biggest domino in the primary campaign took so long to fall: Joe Biden is going to run. He is in. Now the race has really started.

Only now will we start to get a better picture of the race for the Democratic nomination.

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