How We Got Here: Mapping the Key Moments of the Democratic Primary
What polling averages can tell us about the moments that have shaped the race over the last 6 months.
Yesterday I was looking at the Real Clear Politics polling averages over the last six months of the Democratic primary, and I had the idea of trying to identify key moments in the race that have affected the candidates’ polling numbers over the last 6 months. What really stood out to me was how fluid this primary has been, where even seemingly minor events have helped shape a race that’s more about taking down Trump than a battle of policy ideas. Here are a few of my takeaways:
It’s All About Trump
Exit polling on Super Tuesday found that twice as many voters prioritized nominating a candidate that can defeat Donald Trump than one that agrees with them on the major issues. In September, a YouGov poll found Democratic voters favored electability at the same 2 to 1 margin. But while Democrats have long decided on the most important quality for their future nominee, they’ve been much more indecisive about which candidate owns that quality.
Biden has revived his campaign after the Democratic establishment rallied behind him following his impressive win in South Carolina (the unfolding coronavirus crisis may have also played a roll as I detail here). However, voters’ indecisiveness was evident even in Bidens' win. CNN reports that 39% of voters on Super Tuesday made up their minds within days of the election, and those late deciders voted for Biden over Bernie Sanders by a 30% margin, catapulting Biden to his unexpected win.
Will voters feel the same a week from now? It’s hard to say. Just over a week ago polls showed Sanders had overtaken Biden as the Democrats' pick as the strongest candidate to take on Trump. Last fall, Warren held that mantel after three strong debate performances and she rose (extremely briefly) to the top of the pack.
Even with the race now whittled down to two candidates, deciding which is the strongest Trump opponent may not get any easier: both Biden and Sanders have clear strengths and weaknesses against Trump, and new events could easily change voters’ calculations.
For example, yesterday the Senate voted in favor of subpoenaing documents related to Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma. While it’s clear that Joe Biden did not abuse his power as Vice President to protect his son as Trump and Rudy Giuliani both claim (detailed here), imagine if any wrongdoing by Hunter Biden is discovered by the Senate. Will voters want to hand Trump that kind of ammunition for the general election?
Biden has continued to rise in the polls since his big win, but so has Sanders as he has also picked up support from candidates who have dropped out. According to the first post-Super Tuesday national poll, Biden currently holds a 10 point lead over Sanders at 55% to 45%. As the polling averages above show, a 10 point swing back in Sanders’ direction is not out of the realm of possibility.
Warren’s Effect On The Race
Elizabeth Warren may have dropped out, but she played a significant role in shaping the race. She reversed Buttigieg’s rise in December after crtisizing his private fundraisers with billionaires, and she put the kibosh on Bloomberg’s surge in February with her stinging attacks at the Nevada debate. Ironically though, neither incident translated into momentum for her own campaign, and she was never able to recover from the decline she experienced following criticisms of her health care proposals.
Conventional wisdom stated that Warren and Sanders would split the progressive vote, while the rest of the candidates would split the moderate vote, but Warren’s rise and fall paints a much more fluid picture. Warren steamed upwards following the September debate in Houston while all the other leading candidates’ support declined. It appears Warren picked up support from Harris who had been steadily declining for months, from Sanders who had to be hospitalized following a heart attack, and from Biden once news broke of Trump’s Ukraine scandal involving Biden and his son.
Biden recovered the support he had lost to Warren after he announced he supported impeaching Trump, and Warren suffered further losses after being attacked by the moderate candidates at the Ohio debate over her pledge to ban private insurance. As a result she moderated her Medicare for All plan to include a public option that would transition to Medicare for All during her second term. Instead of stopping the bleeding, her support fell off a cliff.
Interestingly, the candidate who benefited most in the polls from her progressive betrayal wasn’t Sanders but Buttigieg, the candidate whose attacks had pushed her to moderate her plan in the first place. Warren returned the favor though by slamming the door on Buttigieg’s rise when she began to criticize his private fundraisers with billionaires in “wine caves.”
The beginning of the end for Warren appears to have been a poll following the New Hampshire debate that found voters there viewed Sanders as the most electable candidate against Trump, demonstrating once again that voters in this primary do not care about well thought-out plans as much as they care about defeating President Trump.
Money Alone Can’t Buy An Election
When Michael Bloomberg dropped out of the race following his Super Tuesday defeat, he had already spent $600 million on his campaign. To put that into perspective, in a little over 3 months Bloomberg spent almost as much as the $646 million Donald Trump spent on his entire 2016 campaign, and just as Hillary Clinton’s $1.2 billion was not enough to defeat Trump, Bloomberg’s hundreds of millions were not enough to get him more than a paltry showing on Super Tuesday, and he dropped out of the race that night.
Joe Biden’s resurgence on the other hand was accomplished on a shoe-string budget. While Sanders accuses Biden of representing the interests of billionaire donors, before Biden’s dramatic turnaround billionaire donors had not been very interested in him. In Texas, Biden won the state despite spending only $89,000 there. In contrast, Sanders spent $3.7 million in the state, over 40 times more than Biden. That works out to $0.12 cents per vote for Biden, $6 dollars per vote for Sanders, and a whopping $170 dollars per vote for third-place Bloomberg.
Even though Biden has started raking in the dough following his big turnaround, he’s still got a lot of catching up to do. According to opensecrets.org, Biden has raised $76 million to date while Sanders has raised $134 million. Biden may have won big on Super Tuesday, but this race is far from over.