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Who’s winning the Democratic primary in the polls, one week ahead of the Iowa caucuses

Sanders and Biden are leading the polls, but the race remains very tight.

Former Vice President Joe Biden with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

With the Iowa caucuses less than one week away, the 2020 Democratic primary is beginning to come into focus — six new polls paint a vivid picture of who’s in good shape before the first contest.

Nationally, former Vice President Joe Biden has been the frontrunner since before he announced his candidacy last April, and the latest national polls show him still topping the field, with a January Fox News poll finding he has 26 percent support, and a January ABC News/Washington Post poll showing 28 percent support.

But both polls found this lead to be threatened by Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has remained in second place in national polling averages since last November.

For much of late 2019, RealClearPolitics’ polling average showed Biden and Sanders separated by about 10 percentage points, but the former vice president’s lead has begun to narrow. Fox News’ latest poll puts Sanders directly below Biden at 23 percent support — within that survey’s 3 percentage point margin of error. Similarly, the ABC poll finds Sanders enjoying 24 percent support, again making Biden’s lead within the poll’s 3.5 percentage point margin of error.

These polls give good insight into how voters outside the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada are thinking about the candidates right now, but those opinions may change dramatically after the results of the first contests, particularly if the margins are stark in the final results.

Biden and Sanders’s strong national showings don’t mean they will win the nomination. At this point in 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a commanding lead on Sanders in polling averages, but only narrowly won Iowa — and was defeated by the senator in Vermont. And President Trump, who had a nearly 15 percentage point lead on Sen. Ted Cruz, narrowly lost Iowa to the senator.

So while these national polls are somewhat instructive, it is important to remember that before Biden and Sanders can worry about Super Tuesday states, they — and all their fellow candidates — have to first make it out of Iowa.

What do the latest Iowa polls say about the 2020 caucuses?

In Iowa, the latest polls reveal momentum for Sanders, but also suggest the race is still very open, with Biden, Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg forming a clear top tier, one that Sen. Amy Klobuchar could be poised to join.

Three of the four latest Iowa polls have Sanders as the caucuses’ frontrunner: An Emerson College poll puts his support at 30 percent; a New York Times/Siena College poll places him at 25 percent, and a CBS News/YouGov poll puts him at 26 percent. Biden leads in the fourth poll, from Suffolk University/USA Today, with 25.4 percent.

Biden is second in two of the polls led by Sanders (21 percent in Emerson College, and 25 percent in the CBS survey); Buttigieg is second in the Times poll, with 18 percent support. The CBS and Suffolk polls put the former mayor in third place; the Emerson poll in fourth. Warren is fourth in every poll, except for the Emerson survey, in which she is essentially tied with Buttigieg.

That tie is a telling one, as are most of the gaps between the candidates. Take the New York Times/Siena college poll for example, which has a margin of error of 3.9.

When that margin of error is taken into account, the frontrunner becomes less clear. Sanders’s 25 percent support could be more like 21.1 percent support, and if that’s the case, it could make Biden or Buttigieg the true frontrunner, and leave Klobuchar — who was found to have 8 percent support — ending the caucuses with backing that is more like 11.9 percent.

This isn’t to say that Siena’s pollsters — or any others who have recently released results — are wrong, but that the race is still very close.

Close polling aside, there’s still a lot of uncertainty around the caucuses

Adding to the uncertainty are three things: the fact that many respondents told pollsters their choices aren’t set in stone, that second choices can be as (or more) important as first choices in Iowa, and that three key candidates — Sanders, Warren, and Klobuchar — haven’t been able to campaign recently.

Emerson’s pollsters found 38 percent of Iowa Democrats and independents aren’t yet sure how they’ll caucus, a number large enough that could make or break someone’s campaign. Suffolk’s survey found similar results, with 45 percent saying they have a candidate they favor, but that they could still change their minds; and 13 percent said that, with days to go before the caucuses, they still aren’t even leaning toward one person in particular.

The good news for Sanders and Warren is that their supporters seem to be relatively locked in: Suffolk found about 60 percent of their current supporters said they are sure to caucus for them. About half — 53 percent — of Biden’s supporters said they are committed to him. Buttigieg had a 48 percent commitment rate, and Klobuchar, 42 percent. The other polls showed similar results, with Warren and Sanders supporters being the most steadfast.

Iowa’s system of assessing candidate viability makes Iowans’ second choices of great importance — essentially, Iowans who caucus for any candidate who does not receive at least 15 percent support in a given district are asked to caucus for their second choice.

Warren was the top second choice in the New York Times poll; Biden in the CBS survey. But it’s important to look at where that second choice support is coming from — for instance, many of the polls found that Sanders supporters overwhelmingly said Warren is their second choice. But given recent polls, it seems unlikely that Sanders will fail to clear the 15 percent mark, meaning his caucusgoers will not be required to throw their support elsewhere.

Instead, the backers of candidates like entrepreneur Andrew Yang (whose support polled between 1 and 5 percent in these most recent surveys), or even Klobuchar, could make all the difference.

The New York Times and Emerson surveys found that most Klobuchar backers like Biden as a second choice — which makes sense, given both occupy a moderate lane in the race. Emerson found 39 percent of Klobuchar supporters have Biden as their second choice; the New York Times put that number at 55 percent.

As is the case with the candidates in general, however, it isn’t clear how set in stone these second choices really are. Suffolk’s pollsters asked likely caucusgoers who said they don’t support any of that survey’s top five candidates — Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar — who they would support if they had to choose from one of those five. And 75 percent said they had no idea.

They have less than a week to figure it out. And they’ll have to do so without the benefit of direct interactions with the candidates — all the sitting senators currently running are taking part in the Senate impeachment trial. Some candidates have expressed concern that the fact they can’t do any last-minute campaigning will hurt them — Sanders, for instance has told reporters, “I would rather be in Iowa today. ... I’d rather be in New Hampshire and Nevada and so forth.”

But Suffolk’s work found the senators might not have anything to worry about: 88 percent of likely caucusgoers said the senators not being on the ground won’t affect how they caucus; only 5.2 percent said, “I expect candidates to be in Iowa to earn my vote.”

All this means that no one candidate — at least among those in the top tier — has a clear overall advantage against the others in Iowa. Any one of them could win. Or a number of them could “win,” with one taking home the most delegates, another taking the popular vote, and a third dominating headlines for doing far better than expected. But for whoever does come out on top, Iowa will only be step one: A close race means every early contest matters in developing an electability narrative, and New Hampshire’s primary is up next.

Who’s in the best shape depends on where you look

Polls show Sanders as the current strongest candidate in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he seems to be closing in on Biden nationally. But Biden isn’t exactly polling poorly in either of those first two states, and he has habitually topped polls in South Carolina, where voters will go to the polls at the end of February.

Warren has fallen from her perch atop the polls, but is a popular second choice — and she is racking up endorsements, like the coveted Des Moines Register endorsement she received Saturday. Buttigieg has also seen his support shrink from its late 2019 heights, but he is holding on — particularly in New Hampshire. And Klobuchar is making late gains in both Iowa and New Hampshire, now nearly cracking double digits in poll averages in each state.

Yang is also seeing something of a late rise — not enough to break into the top tier, but one that will put him back on the Democratic debate stage ahead of the New Hampshire primary. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is eschewing the early states in the hopes of raking in a massive delegate haul on Super Tuesday, is showing signs his strategy may be working: The latest national polls had favorable results, pushing the relative newcomer to the race up to a polling average of 8 percent.

All of this is to say, as primary season gets underway, that the race could still shake out in a number of unexpected ways.

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