Every once in a while, conventional wisdom gets it right. In the wake of the Democratic presidential debates last week, there was near-unanimity in the pundit class, among Democratic operatives and party veterans that former vice president Joe Biden had done poorly, that Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) had rocked, that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) did well and that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) didn’t help himself any.
Sure enough, the Morning Consult/Politico poll shows Biden dropped five percentage points as the first choice among primary voters to 33 percent, while Sanders stayed flat at 19 percent and Harris jumped six points to 12 percent, tying Warren for third.
Even more dramatically (with a few days for the conventional wisdom to harden and people to talk to their friends), a CNN poll shows Biden dropped from 32 percent to 22 percent over the previous month, Harris jumping from 8 percent to 17 percent, and Warren from 7 percent to 15 percent. Sanders slid into fourth place at 14 percent, down four points from last month’s poll (confirming my expectations that Warren would pass him early in the race). South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg remained essentially flat in single digits and no one else rated above 3 percent. Among nonwhite voters, Biden’s lead over Harris is only 25 percent to 19 percent. Biden’s poll numbers are being sustained by voters over the age of 65, 34 percent of whom support him. Biden leads among non-college graduates, while Harris leads among college grads, with Warren close behind.
There are some significant takeaways regarding both the nomination race and the Democratic agenda. Let’s start with the reminder that polls are snapshots in time and can change dramatically (especially early in the race) based on new, external events. We should also note that if the September debate threshold of 2 percent in the polls were in place, only eight candidates would have qualified for last week’s debates — the top four, Buttigieg, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.).
That seems right — about eight candidates are seriously competitive. The poll results also show that the large field makes it very hard for those below the top eight to move up, if only because they seem like an undifferentiated blur to voters, who still have no idea who some of them are. Forty percent don’t even know who Buttigieg is; 32 percent haven’t heard of Booker; and 37 percent haven’t heard of former HUD secretary Julián Castro, even though he got rave reviews for his debate performance. (The number of not-plugged-in voters should remind us that political junkies aren’t representative of the electorate.)
There is some good news for Biden: Except for racial matters, he leads other candidates in his ability to handle policies such as health care, the economy and climate change. Moreover, 43 percent still think he is the most electable.
The CNN poll also has some red flags for Democrats. By a 57 percent to 37 percent margin, voters say a new health-care system shouldn’t completely replace private insurance. And among Democrats, only 31 percent think it is a good idea and 50 percent do not. On the broader question of whether the government should cover everyone even if it requires higher taxes, 56 percent (including 87 percent of Democrats) say yes, 40 percent say no. In short, for the life of me, I cannot see any upside in promising to abolish private health care. Nevertheless, a batch of these candidates including Warren and Sanders are promising to do just that.
Likewise, by a difference of 59 percent to 38 percent, Americans say they don’t want to give government health-care coverage to illegal immigrants. However, 66 percent of Democrats approve of the idea. That’s a quintessential issue on which a popular position in the primaries is a loser in the general election.
Democrats and those who lean Democratic are now confident (61 percent to 30 percent) that their candidate can beat President Trump. But it stands to reason that who they nominate will matter a great deal.
A final, critical aspect of this poll is Biden’s commanding lead (31 percent) among conservative and moderate Democrats. No other candidate gets more than 11 percent. If Biden implodes — and we are a long way from that — determining who else could capture the moderate/conservative Democratic electorate will be a vital concern. If there is a two- or three-person race among candidates who all appeal more to liberal Democrats, there could be room for a moderate, or someone moderate-friendly, to win the nomination.
That might leave a slice of daylight for someone such as Klobuchar, or it might mean that Harris, if she doesn’t follow Sanders and Warren all the way out on the party’s left branch, might become the consensus candidate. If she simply mimics the two super-progressives, she might have a hard time.
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Jennifer Rubin Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. Follow Subscriber sign in We noticed you’re blocking ads! Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on. Try 1 month for $1 Unblock ads Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us