A Pre-Debate Look At The 2020 Democratic Poll Standings

With the first Democratic debate set to begin tonight, it's a good time to take a look at the state of the race.

Just over twelve hours from now, Democrats will face off in their first debate of the 2020 election cycle. The first debate, which will begin at 9 pm tonight, will feature Senator Elizabeth Warren virtually alone among the top or middle tier candidates on the debate stage. The second night of debates on Thursday will feature not only the two frontrunners, former Vice-President Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, but also Senator Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, fresh off a controversial week back home.

For these front runners as well as the huge number of candidates polling at 2% or lower in local and statewide polls, this will be the first chance that many voters outside of the early primary states will get to see the candidates together in one place. By the time this debate and the similar two-night event scheduled for late July is in the books, it’s quite possible that the nature of the race for the Democratic nomination will change significantly. Toward that end, this post is intended to serve as something of a benchmark by which to judge how much, if at all, the debates will have changed the race, something we won’t really know until mid-August at the earliest.

In any case, as things stand right now the Democratic race is at about the same place it was when we last looked at it, as the results of the most recent polls can show us.

First up in that regard is the latest weekly release of the Morning Consult tracking poll, which continues to show Joe Biden well ahead of his fellow candidates:

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden maintained his wide lead over his 2020 Democratic presidential rivals in a new poll released Tuesday, after Mr. Biden has faced significant pushback during the past week following comments highlighting his past work with segregationist senators.

Mr. Biden was the choice of 38% of Democratic primary voters, and was followed by Sen. Bernard Sanders at 19%, Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 13%, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 7%, and Sen. Kamala Harris at 6%, according to the Morning Consult poll.

The vote shares were unchanged compared to the previous week save for Ms. Warren, whose support ticked up 2 points, and Ms. Harris, whose support dropped by a point.

According to a separate Politico/Morning Consult poll taken entirely after Mr. Biden made the comments, 31 percent of Democrats said the incident made them more likely to support Mr. Biden, 17 percent said less likely, and 40 percent said it wouldn’t make a difference.

Among African-Americans, 30 percent said it made them more likely to support Mr. Biden, 20 percent said less likely, and 27 percent said it made no difference.

In addition to the numbers reported above, the Morning Consult poll als showed former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke at 4% and businessman Andrew Yang at 3%. All of the other candidates came in under 2% to the extent that they registered in the poll at all.

In addition to this poll, a new Emerson College poll also shows Biden in the lead but by a slightly smaller margin:

Former vice president Joe Biden holds a 7-point lead over a crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates in a new poll. 

The Emerson poll found that 34 percent of Democratic primary voters support Biden, who is trailed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at 27 percent. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had 14 percent support, followed by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) with 7 percent, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Ind.) with 6 percent and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) with 3 percent. 

The other candidates polled at 1 percent or lower. A majority of Democratic voters — 56 percent — said they might change their vote, and 85 percent said they planned to watch the upcoming Democratic debates. 

“Similar to our other polls, Biden and Sanders voters are the most loyal with 50% to 55% saying they are set on their candidates,” said Emerson Poll Director Spencer Kimball in a statement. 

“Comparatively, 33% of Warren, 18% of Harris and 17% of Buttigieg voters say they will stick with their current choices, this suggests that about 30% of the Democratic electorate are spoken for and another 30% leaning toward the top two candidates as of now leaves a narrow lane for another candidate to grab a plurality of the vote,” Kimball added.  

In addition to these polls, other recent polling seems to suggest that the single-digit lead that Emerson is reporting for Biden may be an outlier:

  • The latest Economist/YouGov poll shows Biden leading the field at 26% with Senator Elizabeth Warren overtaking Bernie Sanders to come in second place at 16%, Sanders follows Warren with 12%, and he is followed by Pete Buttigieg at 9%, Kamala Harris at 7%, Beto O’Rourke at 3%, Cory Booker at 2%, and every other candidate under 2%;
  • Monmouth University’s newest poll, meanwhile, puts Biden’s support at 38%, followed by Senator Warren at 15%, Senator Sanders at 14%, Senator Harris at 8%, Pete Buttigieg at 5%, Beto O’Rourke at 3%, and Senator Booker and Andrew Yang both at 2%. The rest of the candidates are all under 2%;
  • The latest poll from The Hill and Harris shows Biden at 35%, Warren at 7%, O’Rourke at 6%, Harris at 5%, Buttigieg at 4%, Booker at 3%, and Julian Castro at 2%. All the other candidates are under 2%;
  • USA Today and Suffolk University’s newest poll puts Biden at 30%, Sanders at 15%, Warren at 10%, Buttigieg at 9%, Harris at 8%, O’Rourke and Booker tied at 2%, and the rest of the candidates under 2%;
  • The most recent Fox News Channel poll has Biden at 32%, Sanders at 13%, Warren at 9%, Harris and Buttigieg tied at 8%, O’Rourke at 4%, Booker at 3%, Andrew Yang and Amy Klobuchar tied at 2%, and all the other candidates under 2%; and

Looking at the RealClearPolitics average, we find that the race is in roughly the same position it has been since late April. Former Vice-President Biden stands at 32.1%, Senator Sanders is in second at 16.5%, Senator Warren is in third at 12.4%, Senator Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg are tied for fourth at 7.0%, Beto O’Rourke is at 3.3%, Cory Booker is at 2.4%, and the rest of the candidates are below 2%. As the chart shows, the biggest story of the past month or so is that Biden has fallen somewhat from the highs he reached after he entered the race, and that Elizabeth Warren is slowly getting closer to taking second place away from Bernie Sanders:

Heading into the debates, it’s rather clear what the candidates need to do with the relatively limited amount of time they’re likely to have.

Looking at the lineup for tonight, it’s clear that the star of the show is going to be Senator Elizabeth Warren, who walks onto the stage as the candidate ranking highest in the polls, will most likely seek to continue her “I’ve got a plan for that” strategy that has seen her rise in the polls to the point where she is clearly challenging Senator Bernie Sanders for second place behind former Vice-President Biden. If Warren can continue that strategy without being drawn into the muck with one of the lower-tier candidates who may be seeking to have a breakout moment that will catapult them into the national conversation. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke meanwhile needs to find a way to put an end to a slide in the polls that has seen him go from a credible middle-tier candidate to someone teetering on the brink of irrelevance. Similarly, Senator Cory Booker, who has been mired somewhere between 2% and 3% in polls at the national and state levels despite optimistic expectations at the start of his campaign, needs to find a way to get out of this trend. If he can’t then he will be in danger of seeing himself slip into irrelevance going forward. As for the rest of the candidates on the stage, all of whom are polling at 2% or less in polling, they simply need to find a way to introduce themselves to voters that are likely only slightly aware of who they are and hope that this is sufficient to give their candidates some much-needed momentum.

Thursday night, meanwhile, stands to be a far more interesting night considering that it will include not just Vice-President Biden and Senators Sanders, but also South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Kamala Harris. The potential risks and rewards for all four of these candidates are, I think, as self-evident as those for Warren on the first night, and the same goes for the risks that each candidate will face. This will be especially true for Biden, who has limited most of his early campaign appearances to prepared speeches that limit the chances that he’ll speak extemporaneously and inadvertently put his foot in his mouth. Sanders will enter the debate perhaps the best prepared since he shared the national debate stage with Hillary Clinton several times during the race for the 2016 nomination. Buttigieg, meanwhile, will likely face some questions regarding the events of last week in South Bend and how he is handling a highly-charged racial issue unfolding under his watch as Mayor. Additionally, both Sanders and Biden will be in the sights of the lower-ranking candidates who will be looking at this debate as an opportunity to build momentum for their fledgling campaigns.

In any case, the debate begins at 9 pm tonight and will be broadcast on MSNBC, NBC’s broadcast network, Telemundo, as well as a number of online streaming venues.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hal_10000 says:

    The main change over the last few weeks seems to be Sanders voter shifted over to Warren. This make sense if you’re a progressive. Warren is eight years younger and doesn’t have as much baggage. My general feeling is that the bloom is off the rose with Sanders. He was a fun four years ago, when his earnest crackpottery contrasted against Clinton. But his weaknesses are more apparent now and I suspect Warren will soon be out-polling him.

  2. Kathy says:

    538 has a tracker for the debates.

  3. SKI says:

    National polls don’t matter at this stage for anyone in one of the top 3 tiers. All that will matter is the ability to perform well in Iowa and NH. Do that, and support coalesces. Don’t and support vanishes.

    Clinton led pretty much every South Carolina poll throughout 2007, some by more than 20 points. Obama wins Iowa January 3rd and he leads in every poll thereafter – most by double digits. And Clinton’s support wasn’t as soft as Biden’s.

  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    The first debate, which will begin at 9 pm tonight, will feature Senator Elizabeth Warren virtually alone among the top or middle tier candidates on the debate stage.

    Begin the ranting by (whoever–Bernie Bros?) that once again the DNC has rigged the process by singling out Warren for a preferential debate situation for the purpose coronating a Hillary clone in 5… 4… 3… 2…

    ETA: Maybe Guarneri will step up to do this.