Over the last ten months, the race for the Democratic nomination has been volatile. And, remarkably stable. We’ve seen candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke boom — and bust. Warren’s summer surge has turned into a late fall slump. As we get ready to ring in the New Year, national polling looks almost identical to where it started earlier this spring with former Vice President Joe Biden leading the national polls and Sen. Bernie Sanders in second place. Both men have also improved their standing in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, according to the fivethirtyeight.com averaging model.
Earlier this fall, things looked a lot different. Warren was surging, while Sanders was recovering from a heart attack, and Biden was struggling to defend his voting record, his anemic fundraising and his poor debate performances. Most insiders pegged the Massachusetts Senator as the all-but-certain nominee.
Today, she’s anywhere from 8 to 13 points below her high-water mark in national polls, and in Iowa she has fallen from first place in early October, to fourth place today.
And, lots of folks are asking the same question they were back in the spring: Can Bernie Sanders win the nomination?
If Warren loses Iowa — either to current frontrunner Pete Buttigieg, or to Sanders — that would almost certainly doom Warren’s chances of winning the nomination. For a candidate who needs to prove her ‘electability’ to a wary Democratic electorate, losing a state that is, in many ways, demographically tailored to her candidacy would be a huge blow.
Sanders would be able to — theoretically — pick up Warren’s liberal, white college-educated voters, combine them with his already solid support among white, working-class and voters of color — and put together a pretty sturdy coalition to take him through the primary process.
Of course, this assumes that: 1) Warren would drop out if she lost in Iowa, which is hard to believe; and 2) and more important, assumes that if she did leave the race, Sanders would win over all of Warren’s voters.
One reason to be wary that Sanders would be able to simply ‘inherit’ Warren or even Pete Buttigieg supporters, is that while Sanders has regained his footing this month, his lead over Warren is much smaller than it was earlier this spring. Moreover, if you look at three national polls taken this year — Quinnipiac, Fox, and Monmouth — a clear pattern emerges; Sanders hasn’t expanded his vote share, even as Warren has lost hers.
For example, in March and April, when the Massachusetts Senator was only in the single digits, Sanders was taking anywhere from 19 to 25 percent of the vote. In other words, even when Warren wasn’t much of a threat to him, Sanders’ support was still pretty low — especially compared to his 2016 showing. And, he’s never been able to get to the 30-38 percent of the vote that Biden got at his peak.
But, even as Sanders struggled over the summer, his support never dropped to the lows that Warren experienced. His core base of support is anywhere between 10 and 14 percent.
Biden isn’t polling as well as he was at his strongest. But, when you dig into the crosstabs of the most recent national polls, you see that he’s regained some of the territory he lost to Warren over the summer. For example, the September 19-23 Quinnipiac poll was the first to show Warren surpassing Biden among white voters, somewhat liberal voters, and white, college voters. Today, Biden has regained his lead among all but college whites. He also continues to run far ahead of both Warren and Sanders among black voters and older voters.
For his part, Sanders has been able to win back a lead with younger voters that he lost earlier this fall. The Fox poll shows him with a 12 point lead among voters under 45 years old; Warren narrowly led among these voters in August. Monmouth polling also shows him leading those under 50 by 15 points. Last September, Warren was narrowly winning these voters by 3 points.
Sanders has a lot of things going for him. He’s got a core group of voters and small-dollar donors that have stuck by him, even during the rough patches. He will never have to drop out because of a lack of money. But, he has yet to prove that he can expand his base much beyond where he started the race in March/April.
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