Do the Numbers Tell Us Who Won the Last Debate?

Earlier in the week, we got a couple of updated polls from Iowa, which I used as an excuse to jump to a few conclusions. Now we have enough post-debate national surveys to take another look. Reminder: Iowa looked favorable for Amy Klobuchar, negative for Bernie Sanders, and mostly neutral for everyone else. Though Bernie’s loss is Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden’s gain. Warren being his most direct competitor, and Biden whose odds were the most helped.

For purposes of measurement, I’m choosing the four national surveys, listed by Real Clear Politics, that were taken entirely after the most recent debate. Conveniently, each pollster also released a national survey taken on or around the second week of December. When we measure how much a candidate is up or down, we’re comparing them against a survey taken by the same pollster at almost exactly the same time.

The timing is extra fortuitous. By that point in December, Warren had already bottomed out and swapped places with Sanders, who was already considered the second most likely nominee by the betting markets. The most recent Buttigieg Boom had already peaked. Michael Bloomberg was in the race. Amy Klobuchar had started getting attention.

The pollsters we’re measuring are:

CNN

Monmouth

Economist/YouGov

Morning Consult

On to the math!

We’re not measuring Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Deval Patrick, or Tulsi Gabbard. None are registering high enough in national polls to matter for this conversation. Gabbard is relevant in New Hampshire, so we’ll get back to her when we get back to there. Here’s the average increase/decrease for the other candidates from the second week of December to the third week of January. We’ll also show how many polls they were up in, down in, neutral in:

Biden: +1.5 (up on 2/down on 2/even on none)

Sanders: +3.25 (4/0/0)

Warren: -1.25 (0/2/2)

Buttigieg: -0.5 (1/2/1)

Bloomberg: +2.25 (3/0/1)

Klobuchar: +1.25 (4/0/0)

Yang: +0.25 (1/0/3)

Steyer: +0.50 (2/0/2)

I’m comfortable drawing a few conclusions from this:

Warren has lost a lot of ground. You may look at her -1.25 point drop in national polls and think I’m overreacting. But Sanders is up by 3.25 points at the same time. That’s a 5 point gap, and he’d already moved ahead of her by early December. And it’s in some strategically important places. A consortium of universities released polling today from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Sanders leads in Wisconsin, Biden in the other three. The gap between Sanders and Warren ranges from 8 to 13 points, with a 10 point average. In a couple cases, his support is roughly double hers.

We don’t know where she would have scored in these polls if they’d taken them back in early December. But given her national polling at the time, I’m going to guess the gap between her and Sanders was about half what it is now. Regardless, this isn’t positive for her.

Buttigieg wasn’t as harmed by Bloomberg as I’d figured. The billionaire is up a couple points over the past five weeks, but Mayor Pete is mostly level. It’s still not great for Buttigieg because he and Bloomberg are roughly tied now. And Buttigieg was unable to capitalize on Kamala Harris and Cory Booker dropping out. Plus Klobuchar is a little closer to him than she was. Instead of having the fourth lane (non-Biden/Sanders/Warren) to himself, he’s got serious competition.

So far, Mayor Pete’s numbers have waxed and waned a few times. Ever since he first reached national consciousness in the spring, his high side is low double digits and low side is mid single digits. If he wins Iowa, you’ll see him quickly go back up. If he does poorly in Iowa, he doesn’t matter anymore. Bloomberg is set if none of the more moderate choices win any of the first three states. He’s a factor if no one moderate wins multiple states. If any win twice, he’s superfluous to requirements, though unlikely to exit immediately after spending the GDP of a decent-sized island nation on Super Tuesday ads.

Iowa and New Hampshire polls are behaving differently than national results. This isn’t shocking. The demographics are different, and the level of attention being paid is greater by a magnitude of 10. While Warren has slipped nationally, she’s in a slightly better position in Iowa. Well within striking distance. It will take a victory there and a subsequent bump elsewhere once she has the halo of winning, to put her back in true contention, but that’s her path. The sniping back and forth with the Sanders campaign looks beneficial there, while it’s seemingly hurt her elsewhere.

In New Hampshire, the top tier candidates are slipping, while some of the lower tier advance. Warren is going the wrong way there, but the inability of her main opponents to capitalize is keeping her close enough for a moderate Iowa bounce to change things completely. The strength of others leads to the conclusion that New Hampshire voters are very wary of having Iowa decide what happens this year.

The more things change, the more they stay mostly the same for Biden. He’s leading in Iowa, but not by enough to be safe. He’s trailing in New Hampshire, but not by enough to matter. He’s ahead nationally by 7 points, and as likely to be up from December in a survey as down. For nine months, Biden has been a front runner, but less than a 50/50 chance to win the nomination. Guess what? That’s where the metrics, betting markets, or simple logic put us right now. If there’s an Iowa outcome that would leave this the same, figure that’s where he’ll wind up.

It may seem like things aren’t changing that much or that quickly. Very true. Other than Sanders and Warren going back and forth, and Buttigieg’s regular cycles, not much has moved. Bloomberg has taken over from Kamala Harris as the interesting option who needs someone else to falter. This will all change once Iowa caucuses. The candidates are tightly enough bunched, in enough places to ensure this is the calm before the storm.

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