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The state of the 2020 Democratic primary, explained

Is this a momentary hiccup for Biden — or the start of the frontrunner’s collapse?

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Kamala Harris before their first debate in the Democratic race on June 27, 2019.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

After months of relative stability, the Democratic presidential race could be in the midst of its first major shake-up.

Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are on the rise — while former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have been in first and second place for most of the year, have seen their positions worsen in recent polls.

To be clear: Biden remains the leader in every recent poll. But the size of that lead on average is no longer as impressive as it’s been — and in a few polls, it’s gotten quite small indeed, raising questions about just how solid the frontrunner’s position is.

Sanders, meanwhile, has lost his position as the one major alternative to Biden. The Vermont senator’s support level in polls has dropped significantly since the early months of the year and has remained stagnant for the past two months while Warren and Harris have surged. On average, that trio of candidates is now about tied for second place.

The only other candidate to escape the bottom tier in polls so far has been South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. But Buttigieg has declined a bit of late, as he deals with a police shooting back at home and more support has gone to Warren and Harris. While both senators now enjoy double-digit support, the mayor is stuck in the single digits in most recent polls. The other 20 candidates have failed to gain any traction.

Seven long months remain until the Iowa caucuses. The big question for the race right now, though, is whether this post-debate slump is a temporary setback for Biden — or whether it’s the start of his campaign’s collapse.

It’s now clear: Biden is a weak frontrunner

For a few short weeks after Biden officially entered the presidential race on April 25, it looked like he could easily put this whole thing away.

Since then, he has been in first place in every single national and early-state poll. He leads in Iowa. He leads in New Hampshire. He leads in South Carolina. And he leads among voters of all races and ethnicities.

All of this is in fact still true, even after the first debate. But there have long been doubts within the party about Biden’s campaign — about whether he had grown out of touch with a changing Democratic electorate, about his longtime tendency to speak in a way that causes problems for him, and about his age and his ability to withstand the rigors of the election trail. Accordingly, as measured by endorsements, Biden’s support within the party hasn’t been resounding.

The first debate exacerbated all those doubts, particularly when Harris criticized Biden for his position on busing. But it’s the post-debate polls that should really set off alarm bells in Biden-world. On average, Biden is at 27 percent nationally, per RealClearPolitics. Even before the debate, he’d declined 9 points from his commanding-looking 41 percent peak. In the few days after it, he’s fallen another 5 points.

And though some polls continued to show Biden leading his next-closest rival by double digits, a CNN national poll showed him ahead of Harris by just 5, and a Quinnipiac poll showed him ahead of her by just 2. So the race has gotten closer.

Another worrying sign for Biden is that Harris appears to have gained ground among black voters. While black voters are a key Democratic constituency broadly, they are particularly important in the early primary state of South Carolina, where they make up more than 60 percent of the primary electorate. Biden has consistently led among black voters by wide margins in polls, but Quinnipiac showed Harris just 4 points behind him.

The takeaway overall is that Biden remains a frontrunner, but a weak one. The first debate showed he is not rock-solid — far from it. The scenario where he wins everything in a cakewalk now seems far less likely. Just how much trouble he’s in will be determined in the coming weeks, as we see whether he can stanch his bleeding of support.

Bernie Sanders’s support actually dropped two months ago

Another candidate having a tough time of late is Bernie Sanders.

The 2016 runner-up had long seemed a natural contender for the nomination this time around, and his call for a “political revolution” made a sharp contrast to Biden’s more establishment-friendly campaign.

In the more crowded field this time around, Sanders’s position in polls has never been fantastic — especially considering he is so well-known — but it was decent. He spent the first four months or so of the year in second place behind Biden. And through mid-March, his support was trending slowly upward, eventually reaching 24 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls.

But soon afterward, Sanders’s support stopped improving. And as you can see below, in late April it dropped rather dramatically:


Interestingly, most of Sanders’s decline was not around the time of Warren and Harris’s rise, but rather before that — around the time of Biden’s announcement and large polling bump.

As mentioned above, this announcement bump for Biden has since eroded, so we might have expected Sanders’s polling position to recover too.

But it hasn’t. Sanders has remained stuck in the mid- to high teens in national polls (whereas his mid-March peak was at 24 percent). Biden’s recent woes have benefited not Sanders but instead Warren and now Harris. And since Sanders hasn’t grown his support, he’s now battling with those two for second place.

Overall, it does seem that Sanders’s campaign has underperformed expectations for someone who got more than 40 percent of the overall Democratic primary vote in 2016. In retrospect, it seems that a significant portion of Sanders’s support was due to the dynamics of that race (a head-to-head contest where he was the only alternative to Hillary Clinton). This time around, there are other options.

Sanders’s policy and political agenda is also less distinctive than it was in 2016 — his marquee policies like Medicare-for-all and free college have been embraced by other contenders, and Warren’s candidacy is also focused on challenging the power of corporations and billionaires (though they have their differences). So while Sanders remains a top-tier contender and shouldn’t be counted out, this surely isn’t where he’d hoped to be at this point in the race.

Both Warren and Harris have risen — but Harris’s rise may be more dangerous to Biden

Finally, after months in which the race could basically be summarized as “Biden, Sanders, and the rest,” two other contenders have clearly joined the top tier: Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

Warren was commonly speculated about as a potential challenger to Hillary Clinton from the left in the 2016 cycle, but she ended up deciding not to run. This time around, once she got in, her rollout of a DNA test aimed at proving she was in fact part Native American was widely panned. She started off at an unimpressive position in the polls and had some difficulties fundraising, and pundit after pundit declared she was underperforming.

But Warren continued to campaign hard — with a strategy focused on releasing oh-so-many detailed policy plans, with the result that her sheer number of plans became a running joke. And many Democratic voters turned out to like what they were hearing from her.

By May, Warren had risen to third place on average but still tended to poll in the single digits. But she’s kept on improving through June, and passed Sanders to get second place in a few polls taken in the weeks before the debate.

After that debate, she seems to have maintained her position — but Harris shot up to join her and Sanders at around the 15 percent support level. There hasn’t been much early-state polling lately, but a few Iowa polls have similarly shown first Warren rising and then Harris.

Particularly interesting is Harris’s improving support among both black voters — again, Quinnipiac shows her getting 27 percent there, just 4 points behind Biden, a major change. Strong margins among black voters were crucial to both Barack Obama’s 2008 victory over Clinton and Clinton’s 2016 win over Sanders — and could be key to Biden’s defeat.

“At the moment, Harris is putting together an Obama/Clinton like coalition of white college grads + African-Americans,” CNN’s Harry Enten tweeted. And that may be a more troubling development for Biden than the surge of disproportionately white voters toward Warren and Buttigieg. This makes Harris a serious threat to the frontrunner indeed.