The Big Three

As of this morning, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren control a full two-thirds of total national polling support in the Democratic nomination contest. The remaining 20+ contestants are good for a quarter, with about 8% of poll respondents in the pit of indecision.

Here’s another way to look at the standings:

Biden 30.3%

Kamala+Pete+Beto+Booker 19.1%

Warren 18.5%

Bernie 17.5%

Undecided 7.8%

All Others 6.2%

Kamala Harris made this a four person race for a minute after the first debate round. Not only did she start fading quickly, but is now all the way back to where she was before landing that right cross on Biden. When she’s having a good moment, Harris is the Goldilocks candidate. When she’s not, she’s too hot for some, and too cold for the rest. We may hear from her again, but for now, she’s in a different tier.

Beto O’Rourke actually spent a couple weeks in third place after his announcement. Biden wasn’t in yet, and Warren’s support hadn’t coalesced. He does seem to have a floor above the candidates who won’t make the next debates, but he’s not a serious contender at the moment. More observers are debating when he’ll drop out than how many delegates he’ll win.

Mayor Pete had his moment too. After leaping on to the national stage with a few well-received media hits, he reached low-double digits in April and was part of a group below Biden and Sanders that included Warren and Harris. We shouldn’t count him out. He raised a ton of money last quarter, has high favorability ratings, and still doesn’t have the name recognition of the leaders.

But he has next to no support among African Americans or less educated and/or lower income white voters. He doesn’t have a natural connection to the Latino community. Despite his age, Buttigieg doesn’t make a dent in Bernie’s support among the youngest voters.

He’s an interesting candidate, and I’m planning on taking a close look at what he’d need to do to seriously contend. Make no mistake, it’s going to require pulling an inside straight. All but four candidates would happily trade places with him, but that doesn’t make him a front-runner.

Cory Booker is the other mainstream candidate who sits above the Andrew Yang polling line. He debates well. Until his numbers move appreciably, there’s no point in wasting more energy on analysis. He’s like the NFL team that goes into the last week of the season with a chance to make the playoffs with a win, a loss by four specific teams, and a win by another two, with yet another game ending in a tie.

So we’ve got Biden, Sanders, Warren at the moment. You may be tempted to treat this as:




After all, Biden has just less than the combined national support of the other two. I do think he’s the single most likely nominee, though if betting, I would take the field over him without blinking.

It’s closer than the national numbers look. His lead over Warren in Iowa is thinner. She’s going to do a better job getting her voters to caucus. Bernie is very close to him in the New Hampshire surveys, and he clobbered Hillary there last time.

It’s easy to dismiss Sanders. But in a contest where most of the field is running on some version of his 2016 platform, he’s more than holding his own. Normally, you’d figure a candidate with less than half the support he received in the last cycle was in bad shape.

That’s the half empty view. The half full is twofold. There’s way way way more competition this time. Many of his 2016 supporters were looking for a way to vote against Hillary Clinton. I’d argue 17.5% now is more impressive than 43.5% then. But the other part of 2016 is that many voters have already actually voted for Bernie in a primary.

How unusual is it for three candidates to control this much of the overall support at this stage of the race, without it being due to a single candidate holding 45-50% by themselves? Add having the third person clearly over 15%. Also figure all three have already survived multiple post-launch months.

It’s pretty much unprecedented.

The top three candidates regularly have 60% or more of the total support. That by itself isn’t a big deal. However, that’s often due to a single front-runner controlling more of the board than Biden does at the moment.

When there are more than 10 semi-credible candidates, it’s very rare to see this much support consolidated in a few choices. The two most crowded fields, 2016 GOP and 1976 Democrats, looked nothing like this. Even the next tier of larger fields, 2012 GOP, 1988 Democrats, etc., were more distributed.

Even at that, top tier candidates were more likely to have underlying weaknesses. A great example is Rudy Giuliani in 2008. He led the GOP field for much of 2007. But he was running far behind his national numbers in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and planned to skip competing in both.

John Glenn was a strong contender for the 1984 Democratic nomination until the calendar actually hit 1984. The idea of a hero astronaut from a key midwestern state (Ohio) sounded really good. But Glenn didn’t sound really good when he campaigned. And he wasn’t a national figure as a politician the same way as when he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Rick Perry was great in theory, surging ahead of Mitt Romney in August of 2011. And then he had to debate. Oops.

You get the idea. Biden is the most recent Democratic Vice President. For all of his foibles and gaffes, he’s a proven entity on the national stage. He’s already run for president twice. The voters know he’s old. They know he constantly misspeaks. Unless he has a stroke or something, he’s going to remain in contention through the fall.

We’ve covered the height of Bernie’s floor in several posts. Having campaigned pretty much nonstop since mid 2015, he’s way more proven than previous top tier candidates who fell apart overnight.

Which leaves us Warren. Who is likely running the best campaign of the 2020 cycle so far. Her support is now at least double what it was at the time she announced her candidacy. Only Mayor Pete has made equal or greater progress since announcing. None of the other candidates have more support than they did two weeks in to their campaign.

She’s been a national figure for almost a decade. She’s a strong debater. She has the strongest field operation so far. She raised a pile of money last quarter, without using large donors and bundlers. A large percentage of Democratic voters are at least willing to consider voting for her.

None of these three are going away soon. At a time where the Democratic Party is increasingly reliant on younger voters, the three strongest contenders are all north of seventy. The youngest of these, Warren, would be the oldest person ever elected to a first term.

It’s a good reminder of what matters and what doesn’t. Each of the three are considered authentic by most voters. Each have a strong brand. Mr. Rust Belt White Working Class Lunch Pail Uncle Joe Biden does best with southern black voters. The ancient Sanders does best with young voters. Redistributive Warren is leading among affluent voters.

Kamala Harris and the other next tier choices may look like the future of the Democratic Party, but the immediate present is three old, straight, white people.

Join the Conversation


  1. Does it seem like Warren has made a real effort to reform her Angry Robot personality? I don’t hear as much talk about how annoying she is in person. Could she have had a personality transplant before campaigning started in earnest?


    1. I wonder if it’s mostly just extra reps. Many candidates get better with more practice. Also, maybe Massachusetts brings out the robot side of her a bit more? Spending time in places like Iowa may bring her back to her Oklahoma roots a bit more easily. But yeah, either way, she’s harder to caricature now.


  2. Just now: New Fox News NATIONAL poll (counts for the fall debates)
    Biden 31%
    Warren 20%
    Sanders 10%
    Harris 8%
    Booker 3%
    Buttigieg 3%
    Yang 3%
    Klobuchar 2%
    O’Rourke 2%

    The interesting question is: as the lower tier start to drop out, where do their points go? My first take is: almost all go to Biden. Definitely for Harris & Booker. None of the rest seem likely to go to the socialist twins. Will Sanders’ 10 points go to Warren? My instinct is: yes. So, I see it 51-30 for Biden over Warren, and they’ll divide the rest. Game to Biden.

    Too early?


    1. Too early. A few pollsters have done head-to-head matchups. Biden-Warren, Biden-Sanders, etc. They’re normally just over 40 to just under 40 with the rest undecided.


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