In Part 1, we began breaking down how the candidates are building a base for themselves. Joe Biden went through the MRI first. Now on to a few other leading contenders:
Prior to the debate, Harris wasn’t building that much of a base with any group of voters. This has changed. Her lead issue is now race relations. 29% of respondents think she’s best at this, almost double Biden’s second place result. In particular, college educated voters like her approach. A full 38% put her first.
The other three surveyed issues tell a very different story. She trails Warren, Sanders, and Biden, in varying orders on health care, climate, and the economy. It’s a big gap. She has 10% of voters endorsing her on health care, and only 6% on climate and the economy.
Warren and Sanders have staked out ground to her left. Biden is to her right. The ex-VP appears more incremental for voters concerned about moving too quickly. The other two, more committed to aggressive action. This doesn’t mean voters have problems with Kamala’s approach to the other issues. Just that it’s not going to drive their connection with her yet.
While she might not be ahead of her main competitors on most of the issues yet, she is leading narrowly among self-described liberals, sitting at 24%. This compares to 11% among moderate/conservative voters. Her numbers among the centrist voters haven’t moved much (9% a month ago). The liberal support doubled. Promising, but evidence she hasn’t locked it in yet.
She doesn’t have a gender or ethnic gap at the moment. 18% with men, 17% with women. 17% with white voters, 19% with non-white voters. The positive is that she’s widely acceptable all the way around. The negative is she’s not leading with any of those categories yet.
No real variance for age either. Her weakest group is 65+ at 14%. Her strongest is the adjacent 50-64 group at 19%. All other age measures fit between those extremes. Just like gender and ethnicity, Kamala is acceptable to all, but not a clear leader with any.
We start seeing more of a base building on the income and education sides. Kamala is almost twice as popular with grads (23% to 13%) and does better with higher incomes (21% to 13%). With more educated voters, she’s the #1 choice, just ahead of Warren. With higher than average incomes, Harris barely trails Biden.
NOTE: The CNN survey divides respondents by over and under $50,000. Some other pollsters have an under $50,000 group and an over $100,000 group. When there are three buckets, Harris does best with the over $100,000, while Biden is stronger between $50,000-$100,000.
The final conclusion is Kamala took a major leap at the debate, and started becoming the lead or at least a top-tier choice for some large, important voter groups. But with the exception of race relations, she’s not more than a few percent of the field on anything.
Warren has advanced consistently for several weeks now. At first it looked like she’d divide the far left with Bernie, perhaps dooming both of them. It now appears they are less overlapping than originally believed, though it’s still hard to imagine one winning if the other isn’t marginalized or knocked out before the end of the primary season.
She’s making some progress on the issue of the economy. Biden does best, but no leading candidate is in his space. Warren gets 20% support, ahead of Bernie. Among liberals, she’s at 31%, by far the most. White college graduates, again 31%, way ahead of anyone else. It’s somewhere to start.
Voters like her better on health care than Harris, but less than Bernie and Biden. This isn’t a strength yet. Nor is climate, where she’s again ahead of Kamala and behind the other two. On race relations, she trails the other three top tier candidates plus Cory Booker. While Warren “has a plan for that,” those plans are not yet translating to leading on specific issues.
Warren is stronger with liberals (20%) than moderate/conservatives (10%). Unfortunately, liberals give the same support to Bernie, and like Kamala even better. Her base is definitely on the left, but she doesn’t own this territory yet.
At the moment, she’s more popular with women (17%) than men (11%). That likely doesn’t surprise anyone. However, last month, Warren did better with men (9%) than women (7%). It’s possible the gender gap is temporary. Or perhaps, her gains over the past few weeks are based on women thinking she’s more viable and coming home.
She’ll need more to get the nomination. Harris is doing equally well with women, and Biden is still ahead. Warren is also competitive with both white and non-white voters, and across age groups, but again, doesn’t lead with any.
As mentioned above in the economy section, Warren is stronger with more educated voters, and better with higher incomes. She’s not a clear lead in either, but is in contention. Along with Harris and Sanders, 12-13% of voters think she’d be the toughest competition for Trump. Biden gets chosen by more than all three combined.
So Warren is like Harris. High ceiling, but not very high floor. Definite strengths, but not the same command of a target group as Biden has with older, more moderate/conservative voters. We now take a look at Bernie, who has a similar amount of total support as Warren and Harris, but a very different distribution.
To many, Bernie’s performance so far is disappointing. When the runner-up from the last contest is unable to lead the new pack, it’s a bad sign. A few surveys have him as low as fourth, including the CNN poll we’re using for this analysis.
There are legit reasons to question his ceiling, but he scores well in the base-building measures we’re reviewing. Only Biden scores as well as Bernie, and he has the entire right side of the board to himself, while Sanders competes with the candidates his 2016 effort spawned.
Even with much of the field running on that 4-year-old script, Bernie does best on health care (26%), 8 points ahead of Biden and 10 beyond Warren. Voters are identifying Medicare for All as a Sanders thing. He ties Biden (19%) on climate. Meanwhile, he’s third (16%) behind Warren on the economy, and third (13%) on race relations, trailing Biden by a little and Harris by a lot.
As crowded as the Democratic left is, the issues are a clear part of Bernie’s base retention. He’s struggling more on the ideology side. Among liberals, he’s tied with Warren at 20%, trailing Harris. Given that the same voters generally prefer Sanders on the individual issues, this means they like his platform better than the person selling it.
This is pretty logical. Pundits thought Harris and Warren did better during the debate. The voters surveyed here chose Harris as the winner (41%), while Warren was a distant second (13% preferred her). Only 4% of respondents thought Bernie was the debate winner.
There’s also the issue of Bernie not being a Democrat, and informed voters being concerned he’d be able to win over party insider delegates if the nomination battle goes all the way to the convention. Sure, most Americans aren’t staying up late worrying about this scenario, but every percent matters in this tight a contest.
Last time, Bernie Bros were a thing. Now he’s marginally more popular with men (15% to 13%). Same two point gap in May when his overall support was higher. No reason to think Sanders is particularly strong with men. Biden is leading overall, and Harris is currently polling well herself.
Age is still the most obvious component of Bernie’s base. While young voters have far more alternatives than in 2016, Sanders leads (21%) among voters under 45. Other polls that separate out age 18-29 or 18-34, show a far larger advantage. His core is with the very youngest, but he’s competitive all the way up to the mid 40s. Crucially, none of his competitors are extra popular with younger voters.
We saw in 2016 that young voters do not select a nominee by themselves. We don’t know how well they’ll turn out in the spring. Will they want to stop Biden the way they did Hillary? Or will Harris or Warren do well enough that they either dive in with them, or figure it’s not worth the effort to show up to vote against them.
Next to Biden with Social Security recipients, nobody has a greater hold on a voter group than Sanders with Millennials.
In 2016, Bernie’s struggles with African American voters was big news. In reality, his problem was older black voters, particularly older women. Now, with so many other choices, Sanders has even less support (8%) among voters 45 and older. This removes the ethnic gap. Bernie is at 15% with white voters, 13% with non-white.
While Sanders does noticeably better with sub-$50,000 voters (18% to 12%) and less educated voters (16% to 11%), neither of those brackets are his base yet. Biden outpolls him with both, by several points.
Finally, as mentioned above, Sanders isn’t viewed as a worse shot against Trump than Harris or Warren, but he similarly trails Biden by over 30 points.
Bernie has the lowest ceiling of the top four. He struggles with voters 45 and up. Most primary voters are 45 and up. He struggles with more educated voters. He struggles with more affluent voters. It’s very, very, very hard to imagine Sanders getting more than upper 20s support while there are more than two, possibly three, opponents.
But he’s got a strong floor. And only a few candidates will get to the 15% threshold required to get results in a given Iowa Caucus precinct. Bernie is going to be one of those candidates. He’s not the front-runner. He’s not likely to become the front-runner in the first couple months of voting. But he’s perhaps the most likely candidate to be one of the final three or four contestants.
Next, in the third and final part of this series, we’ll look at the spoilers. Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, and depending on my mood, Amy Klobuchar are all likely to qualify for the September and October debates. Most are decently to very well funded. I’d expect four of the five to last until Iowa.
If some of the four polling leaders begin to falter, one or more of this group are likely beneficiaries. Even if none reach the top of the polls, they’re able to divert targeted support from those who are up there, altering perceptions, and influencing who wins Iowa and New Hampshire.