Who’s Taking the Extra Seat at the Table?

Appearances often deceive. Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are combining for more than 50% in most national polls. They’re as tied as you can be right now. The Real Clear Politics average has him at 26.5%, her at 26.0%. Warren leads more often, Biden by larger margins when he’s ahead.

By most metrics, it’s clearly a two-person race. Bernie Sanders is lingering in the mid-teens. His heart attack hasn’t seemed to hurt his numbers much, but he was already trailing the leaders. None of the others have any polling momentum to speak of.

Pete Buttigieg is now slightly ahead of Kamala Harris, but that was her dropping more than him rising. Her numbers were at their peak 90 days ago. His best showing was back in May. Beto O’Rourke summited in March. Cory Booker last had a polling pulse in December. Andrew Yang has the most momentum, but he’s still only at 3% nationally.

So either Biden hangs on, eventually saved by his South Carolina firewall, or Warren continues her upward momentum, leaving the field in her wake. Nothing more to see here. And not much time to even look when impeachment and a new cascade of world events are diverting attention from the nomination contest.

Next week Democrats will put 12 contenders on the same stage at the same time. There’s a reason nobody has done this before. What are the odds someone breaks out? Besides Kamala’s 15 days of polling fame, the previous sessions have had less impact than was customary over the past couple decades. No matter what Biden or Sanders do or don’t do, their numbers stay where they were.

No matter what any lower-tier candidate says or does, or however strong their 20 second zinger, they don’t gain polling support. Only Warren seems to benefit beyond picking up a few extra internet dollars. If polls are showing a clear trend, and debates aren’t a chance to change the narrative anymore, how does this become a more interesting contest?

To put it mildly, there are some questions about the leaders. Biden and Sanders are simply too old. One of them being hospitalized impacts both. Warren is running on “big structural change” at a time where many voters will want to stop the carousel. She’s also unproven nationally.

While she has a strong brand, she’s never run for national office before. Plenty of candidates have run excellent primary campaigns before getting flattened in a general election. These concerns lead to an interesting data set.

HarrisX has conducted rolling surveys of the Democratic field for several months. Biden has led the whole time. Along with Politico/Morning Consult, and a couple others, HarrisX still shows the former Veep with a double-digit lead over Warren. This is even after her advance over the past few months, doubling her share, now well ahead of Sanders.

It’s one of two common polling scenarios, the other being Warren in the lead with Biden trailing close behind. HarrisX has Kamala in fourth with 5%, Buttigieg next at 4%. He’s frequently ahead of her elsewhere, and is averaging 6% nationally, but again, this isn’t some crazy outlier. Her national average is 4.8%

If we assume this survey is a safe proxy for at least some of the others out there, the head-to-head matchups tell a story. Biden has a narrow lead on Warren, 43/41 among likely voters, 41/38 among registered voters. Makes sense, right? He’s leading the overall survey, maybe more Bernie voters would go to Warren, so it’s close, but he leads. Enough undecideds that you can’t be sure who would actually win.

What about Biden v. Sanders? About the same. Bernie ties him with likely voters (42/42), trails by the same three with registered voters (41/38). I find this compelling. Sanders is a distant third in the overall survey, at 12%.

A key criticism of Bernie’s campaign is that he’s only focused on his base. When you look at the regular numbers, and find Warren way ahead of him, the argument makes sense. But in a head-to-head with Biden, he does just as well as Warren, making this seem like a Biden or not Biden question, where the voters who don’t want him don’t care if Warren or Sanders is the alternative.

What about a Warren-Sanders matchup? Knowing that she has almost double the top line support, I’d expect her to lead him, if not by a ton. Surveys consistently show more voters being willing to consider Warren than any other candidate. This should help her in a match-up like this.

It doesn’t. Bernie leads 44/42 and 41/39. Perhaps there’s some sexism at play here. Voters might want to choose a male candidate, and/or fear sending Warren to the wolves to suffer Hillary’s fate. Could Sanders be the progressive proxy against Biden and the male proxy against Warren?

Maybe. But there’s a problem with this. Harris leads both Biden and Warren head-to-head. She’s up 43/39 (likely) and 40/39 (registered) on Biden. Kamala leads Warren 41/39 and 38/36. If it were fear of a female candidate, why would Harris lead Biden?

If it were mostly ideology, we’d have to explain why it’s the same whether Warren faces a more moderate candidate like Biden, an extreme progressive in Sanders, or someone in between like Harris. It’s also not Kamala being the most popular. Sanders leads her head-to-head, 43/40 and 42/37.

We can get too into the weeds here. All of these results are within the margin of error. Even if you consider these the ties they really are, it still conflicts with the top line numbers. Those show definite preferences. Head-to-head says it’s a toss-up among any of the four.

If anyone does have an advantage, it’s Bernie, in a survey taken immediately after it was announced he had a heart attack. This tells me Democratic voters aren’t anywhere near locked in yet. If they want choices, why are the non Big Two or Big Three candidates polling so poorly?

The simplest explanation is probably best. It’s pure bandwagon effect. Warren is running a great campaign and getting really good press. For those who aren’t with Biden or Sanders, she’s the train they’ve jumped on for now. Democrats do like her. Her favorability ratings are extremely high. It doesn’t mean they’re sure she can beat Trump yet.

Also, she will stumble. Every serious primary candidate from the beginning of time has. Maybe the new controversy about her pregnancy not leading to dismissal from her teaching job is it. Maybe it something different down the road. Regardless, her yet untested recovery skills will help determine the outcome.

In the meanwhile, if any of the others, be it Harris, Mayor Pete, Beto, etc. get even a whiff of momentum, you’ll see a new contender. The voters are aware of how frail their lead pack is. They like them, but they aren’t sold yet.

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