Democratic Primary Polling All Over the Place

News outlets are hyping small swings in their surveys but the race is pretty much where it was when it began.

Various news headlines tout wild swings in the race to oppose Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Don’t believe them.

For example, The Hill declares “Harris surges past Warren to claim third place in post-debate poll.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) surged past Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to rank third in the Democratic field after the first primary debate last week, according to a new Hill-HarrisX poll.

The survey, which was conducted between June 29 and 30 among 449 registered voters, found that 11 percent of possible Democratic primary voters chose Harris as their first choice for president, compared to 9 percent of those who favored Warren.

This marks a 6-point bump for Harris from when an identical poll was conducted two weeks ago. The previous poll, taken between June 14 and June 15, showed Warren and Harris, along with former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke (D) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), locked in a statistical tie for third place.

Harris still trails Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden by solid margins.

Thirty-three percent of respondents picked Biden as their top choice. Meanwhile, 15 percent of respondents said Sanders was their preferred candidate, which marks a 2-point bump from the previous survey.

Harris’s rise comes amid what many considered to be a standout debate performance during last week’s debate.

With 1000 respondents and a margin of error of 3.1%, some of those swings are slightly interesting. The problem is that other polls are showing something different.

For example, CNN declares, “Harris and Warren rise and Biden slides after first Democratic debates.”

Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have made steep gains after the first Democratic presidential debate, a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS. shows, with former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead over the field shrinking to a narrow 5 points.

The results indicate a significant tightening in the race for the Democratic nomination.

The poll, conducted after the two-night debate, finds 22% of registered voters who are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents backing Biden for the party’s presidential nomination, 17% Harris, 15% Warren and 14% Sen. Bernie Sanders. No one else in the 23-person field tested hits 5%.

That represents a 10-point decline in support for Biden since the last CNN poll in May, while Harris, of California, has posted a 9-point increase, and Warren, of Massachusetts, has boosted her support by 8 points. No other candidates have seen significant movement since the last poll.

Harris’ numbers follow a strong showing on the second night of the debates. Among those who watched or followed news coverage about them, 41% say Harris did the best job in the debates, well ahead of the 13% who say Warren had the best performance and 10% who said Biden did. Among those who say they watched all or most of at least one night of debates, Harris’ showing is even stronger: 46% say she did the best job, 19% Warren, 8% Biden and 5% each named South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro.

While the cluster of candidates at the top is the same, the actual numbers are wildly different. Further, it’s much harder to attribute shifts over a multi-week period to a single debate.

Looking at aggregations of polls will usually give us a better picture than any single survey. Here’s what we’ve seen over the course of several months in the RealClearPolitics average:

Biden’s lead remains quite wide and Sanders remains in second place. Both are well off their peaks, presumably a function of candidates who were lesser-known months ago getting some traction. And, certainly, both Warren and Harris are up some in recent weeks—but Warren is at her peak now while Harris is actually showing a little worse off than she was at her peak in late February. And, thus far, nobody else is really making much of a dent.

The gang at 538 aren’t paying much attention to the early polling horserace at all, which may be the smart strategy. They do note that Harris’ media mentions shot up after her debate performance and that likely Democratic primary voters are paying a whole lot of attention.

Regardless, while the debates will almost certainly make an impact in winnowing the field, it’s not at all clear that it’s happened yet. Harris’ increased attention may matter more than her gotcha moment with Biden. Right now, though, the race looks pretty much the same as it did six months ago.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kathy says:

    This reminds me of a cartoon I saw once. It shows teams lined up on the field, and an announcer declaiming, “It’s a zero-zero tie in this exciting game that’s about to begin!”

  2. SKI says:

    A poll that might actually matter… but it is still far too early.

    New (post-debate) Suffolk/USA Today Iowa poll (Compared to June 8th Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN Iowa poll)
    Biden 24% (Was 24%)
    Harris 16% (Was 7%)
    Warren 13% (Was 15%)
    Sanders 9% (Was 16%)
    Buttigieg 6% (Was 14%)

    Poll: Kamala Harris surges in Iowa as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders suffer after debate

    In a new Suffolk University/USA TODAY Poll, Biden continues to lead the field, backed by 24% of those who say they are likely to attend the Democratic caucuses in Iowa that open the presidential contests next year. But Harris has jumped to second place, at 16%, leapfrogging over Sanders, whose support sagged to single digits. At 9%, he finished fourth, behind Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 13%.

    The new standings are hardly set in stone. Six of 10 say they might change their mind before the caucuses; just one in four say their minds are firmly made up. The second set of debates, scheduled for the end of the month in Detroit, could upend the horserace again.

    That said, the new survey has some sobering findings for Biden, a familiar figure in the state. His level of support didn’t change from the Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN Iowa Poll taken last month. But among those who watched him debate, more than four in 10 said he did worse than they had expected. And among all of those surveyed, he was the second choice of just 11%, behind three of his rivals.

    Harris, in contrast, saw her support more than double compared to the June poll, to 16% from 7%. She was also chosen as the second choice of 17% — a telling measure of the potential breadth of a candidate’s support. When first and second choices were combined, Biden only narrowly edged Harris, 35% to 33%.

    The poll of 500 likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa, taken Friday through Monday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. The opening back-to-back debates, featuring 10 contenders each night, were held last Wednesday and Thursday in Miami.

  3. Terrye Cravens says:

    It is like 200 days before we start to vote. So, there is probably no point in looking at polls too much now. But it is hard not to watch them.

  4. SKI says:
  5. Neil Hudelson says:


    Nah that one doesn’t matter either. Polls right now aren’t really discovering who is going to vote for whom. It’s measuring recognition. Harris had a great debate. Her recognition is up. If she and her staff are talented, they’ll retain a few of those points.

    But there are going to be approximately 1,000 more debates and media moments between now and the primary, all of which will shift the polls just like this debate did.

    I think where these polls do matter is with the also-rans. If you are an also ran and you’ve seen no movement whatsoever post-debate, you may have missed your moment.

    To that end I’ll be interested to dig into the cross tabs you provided and see if Tulsi, Ryan, Castro, or Booker had more than a percentage point shift.

  6. Gustopher says:

    @Terrye Cravens: The polls now say who has a shot, and who is sill malingering at less than 2%. Anyone who cannot eclipse Williamson, Yang and Tim Ryan needs to rethink their campaign.

    And, i saw a report that the Hickenlooper campaign is getting a big shakeup. Good, since what he has been doing up until now hasn’t been working.

    Beyond that, I wouldn’t assume they are predictive. My guess is that in the end it will be Harris or Warren, and long, boring articles will be written about how Biden blew a massive advantage by running a long boring campaign. But that’s just a guess.