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The many 2020 polls are telling a pretty clear story

The state of the 2020 presidential election polling, explained.

Joe Biden is still leading the 2020 Democratic presidential primary polls. But there is more to the story.
Scott Eisen/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.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is still leading the Democratic primary, but is potentially seeing some soft spots in his foundation, according to a group of polls released in recent days. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders has plateaued, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is surging, with Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg holding steady right behind the top three.

At the same time, President Donald Trump sure looks to be in some trouble as he prepares to formally launch his reelection campaign.

Several new 2020 national polls told the same story on the Democratic candidates. Both Fox News and Economist/YouGov polls found Biden in front with about 30 percent, Sanders in second, and Warren in third. Here are the longer-term trendlines, from Real Clear Politics: Biden’s and Sanders’s support have flagged, Warren is on the rise, with Buttigieg and Harris a cut above the rest of the field.

Real Clear Politics

National surveys are of limited value, but the story seems to be the same in early primary states. Some more nuanced polling, asking Democratic primary voters about their comfort with a given candidate, also suggests some erosion for Biden and Sanders, while others like Warren and Buttigieg are growing in voters’ estimation.

Meanwhile, the polling for Trump continues to look bad. It’s too early to draw any conclusions about Trump’s reelection bid just yet, but he’s underwater in the key battleground states that were key to his victory last time. His approval rating is still low. His internal polling keeps leaking and keeps looking terrible. And while head-to-head polling is of limited value this early in the game, he appears to be losing to every Democratic candidate in a potential 2020 matchup.

The current 2020 Democratic primary polling, briefly explained

The national polling, to borrow from FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, suggests at least four, maybe five tiers of 2020 Democratic candidates. Here they are, with their national polling averages from Real Clear Politics:

  1. Joe Biden (31.5 percent). He’s all by himself, still holding a substantial lead in both national surveys and most of the early primary state polls.
  2. Bernie Sanders (15.8 percent) and Elizabeth Warren (12.8 percent). Right now, Sanders is still Biden’s top rival, but Warren has regularly come in second or third in both national and state surveys for a little while now.
  3. Pete Buttigieg (7.8 percent) and Kamala Harris (7.3 percent). They have been holding steady, after Harris’s solid start and Buttigieg’s surprising surge.
  4. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (3.5 percent) and Sen. Cory Booker (2.3 percent). We’re splitting hairs now, but this pair tends to score at least a few percentage points of support in any given poll, which puts them a notch above the dozen or so other candidates.
  5. Everybody else. No other candidates are topping 2 percent in national polls, though Sen. Amy Klobuchar (1.3 percent) and entrepreneur Andrew Yang (1.3 percent) are currently at the front of the also-ran pack.

Democrats don’t have a national primary, so national polls are useful only as a general gauge of support. But the polling of early primary states tells mostly the same tale. CBS and YouGov put out a survey of voters in the first 18 states on the primary calendar and found these results:

  • Biden: 31 percent
  • Warren: 17 percent
  • Sanders: 16 percent
  • Harris: 10 percent
  • Buttigieg: 8 percent
  • O’Rourke: 5 percent
  • Booker: 2 percent
  • Klobuchar: 2 percent

The tiers hold up. The same could be said of new polling from South Carolina (Biden, 37 percent; Warren, 17 percent; Buttigieg, 11 percent; Sanders and Harris at 9 percent) and in California (Biden, 22 percent; Warren, 18 percent; Sanders, 17 percent; Harris, 13 percent; Buttigieg, 10 percent). The latest Iowa poll from CBS/YouGov showed Biden in the lead at 30 percent, Sanders in second with 22 percent, Warren a little farther back in third with 12 percent, then Buttigieg registering 11 percent and Harris 5 percent.

You get the point.

To look at the primary a different way, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked Democratic primary voters whether they would be enthusiastic about a given candidate, comfortable with them, have some reservations about them, or whether they’d be very uncomfortable with the candidate. Biden and Sanders had lost some ground, while Warren has grown in the estimation of Democratic voters.

We have such a long way to go; the first big moment in the 2020 election is finally coming next week when the candidates step on stage for the opening Democratic primary debate. But that is the state of things heading into that watershed moment: Biden and Sanders at the top but hardly running away from the field, with Elizabeth Warren nipping at their heels.

Donald Trump keeps polling really badly in hypothetical 2020 matchups

Now to the president. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias covered last week, Trump’s reelection odds certainly appear bleak based on hypothetical head-to-head matchups with the top 2020 Democratic candidates:

If you look at Donald Trump’s polling lately, it sure looks like he’s in trouble for reelection.

A June 11 Quinnipiac poll showed Trump losing 40-53 to Joe Biden. He’s also down 51-42 to Bernie Sanders, 41-49 to Kamala Harris, 42-49 to Elizabeth Warren, 42-47 to Pete Buttigieg, and 42-47 to Cory Booker.

All plausible contenders at this moment can take heart in the fact that just 40 to 42 percent of the population feels like voting for Trump’s reelection. The public is mostly saying they want to vote for any Democrat, and the strongest pattern so far indicates better-known Democrats do better than the more obscure ones.

None of this means that Trump is a sure bet to lose the election in 2020 — public opinion can change fast and there’s nothing particularly predictive about polling this far out — but it’s a pretty clear snapshot of public opinion right now.

The Trump 2020 campaign’s own internal polling also keeps leaking to political reporters and it also doesn’t look good:

(The Trump campaign has said those numbers are out of date, and Trump has disavowed them on Twitter, with news emerging that he has fired several of his pollsters over the leaks.)

Now you, as a wise and seasoned monitor of campaign polls, might think it is ridiculous to be polling November 2020 general election matchups in June 2019 before the first Democratic primary debates and you, dear reader, would be right to think that. But some of the other indicators for Trump’s reelection are equally dismal.

Trump is still really unpopular. He’s generally quite unpopular in the most important electoral battleground states too. Here are the raw numbers for Trump in the states that are expected to be competitive in the 2020 election, according to the latest Morning Consult data:

  • New Hampshire: 39 percent approval, 58 percent disapproval
  • Wisconsin: 42 percent approval, 55 percent disapproval
  • Michigan: 42 percent approval, 54 percent disapproval
  • Iowa: 42 percent approval, 54 percent disapproval
  • Arizona: 45 percent approval, 51 percent disapproval
  • Pennsylvania 45 percent approval, 52 percent disapproval
  • Ohio: 46 percent approval, 50 percent disapproval
  • North Carolina: 46 percent approval, 50 percent disapproval
  • Florida: 48 percent approval, 48 percent disapproval
  • Indiana: 49 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval

It’s a grim picture. Wisconsin and Michigan were critical Midwestern pieces of Trump’s Electoral College puzzle, and he is now deeply unpopular in both states. Pennsylvania was maybe his most surprising win in 2016, and now he is 7 points underwater there. Perhaps Trump can take solace in his even job approval rating in Florida, but that is the only swing state where the president looks as strong as he did on Election Day 2016. Everywhere else, his support has deteriorated.

Maybe the most striking finding is in Iowa, where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by nearly 10 points. Iowans disapprove of his job performance by a 12-point margin now, in a farming state that’s been hit hard by Trump’s trade war. That would suggest the president’s cult of personality will not totally inoculate him from the unpopular parts of his policy agenda.

We still have a year and a half to go before the 2020 election. These approval numbers aren’t the same as a head-to-head matchup with a specific Democratic candidate (though those have not been very encouraging for Trump either). But they do indicate the unusual weakness of the president heading into his reelection campaign.