This isn’t normal. Ever since the initial dislocation from Joe Biden jumping in wore off, nothing has moved very much. In that time, we’ve seen two rounds of debates, a quarterly fundraising report, and all sorts of regular campaign stuff. Yet, with few exceptions, we’re where we were three months ago.
If you tour the polling from this stage in the previous several nomination cycles, you’ll find some to way more volatility. Scott Walker went from lead pack to out of the race in a couple of debates in the summer of 2015. Though he recovered, John McCain’s campaign almost collapsed eight years prior.
That same year, Barack Obama sometimes looked like he was seriously challenging Hillary Clinton, and other times appeared out of contention. This ebb and flow is normal. Not only is three months of stasis unusual, but there’s no sign it’s changing.
Biden did badly in his first debate, lost several points and then recovered them as quickly as he lost them. Early surveys after the second debate show no further changes. By itself, this isn’t a big deal. Donald Trump showed a similar pattern for a longer stretch of time in 2015.
Add Bernie Sanders. When Biden entered the race, he dropped several points. Since then, he’s at 15%. A single survey can have him 4 to 7 points higher or lower. Once in a while, he pulls bad numbers a couple polls in a row. Pundits declare he’s washed. And then before the tweets are consumed, he’s back at 15%.
Isn’t Elizabeth Warren surging? Nope. She was. She did. Early spring. Moved from mid-high single digits to the 15% range. Then she had a good debate and a very good debate. And made zero progress.
The Economist/YouGov poll loves her. HarrisX hates her. The former gives her more than twice as much support as the latter. But they’re both strikingly consistent from survey release to survey release.
Kamala Harris moved the most after the first debate. Then lost the majority of the increase. She’s at or around 10%, in fourth place, closer to Pete Buttigieg in fifth than Sanders and Warren. This is her established level too.
Mayor Pete was the last candidate to really move. In early February he didn’t exist. Less poll support than John Delaney. Within 6 to 8 weeks he was clearly in the top 5, sometimes scoring as high as third in national polls. Some air came out in late May/early June, but he’s remained stable since. At no time was he a risk to fall out of the top 5, and he never got close to Biden at the top.
When Buttigieg went up in to the contender pack, Beto O’Rourke fell out. He’s the most recent to lose positioning. Right after his announcement, Beto was in double digits. That support left him a quarter ago, and he’s settled in the 3-4% area. When he bombed his first debate, none of the candidates below, notably including Julian Castro who beat on him a bit, were able to pass him.
If someone is pro-Beto at this point, it doesn’t seem like there’s much that can move them. Castro isn’t the only one who hasn’t seen polling follow debating. Cory Booker did well the first time and was considered one of the winners in round two.
Not only does he still trail Harris and Buttigieg, there’s no evidence he’s passed Beto. Andrew Yang opened some eyes, but remains in the lower half of the top 10. I’m not sure Tulsi Gabbard edging past Amy Klobuchar by half a point counts as activity, but it’s happened.
Why is it so difficult for candidates to move very much? Why is it almost equally hard for them to slip once their level is established?
Think it’s a combination of two things. First, the primary electorate likes the field. Most candidates have strong favorability numbers among Democrats. Except Bill deBlasio. He’s still the champion outlier.
In years with high volatility, like the GOP 2012 contest, disgruntled voters often try on various candidates for a few weeks before moving on. There isn’t a need for this yet.
With such a large field, it’s difficult for most of the candidates to get consistent coverage. They seem like one giant pack. If one were to go on a run, voters would notice, as they did with Mayor Pete. But he got his moment before Biden entered and further blocked out bandwidth.
If most people like their first choice for now, and the lower-tier candidates aren’t getting air and don’t seem viable yet, a couple good or bad debates won’t matter the way they otherwise might.
Once the September/October debate rules narrow the field a bit, this may change. Until then, don’t expect a lot of movement. Think we’re locked in for the rest of the summer.