The latest polling data to emerge validates the view that Joe Biden went into and came out of the Houston debates as the front-runner; ditto the view that President Trump faces the more difficult reelection challenge of any elected president in the past 75 years.
Post-Houston debate surveys by the NBC News/Wall Street Journal team and by Fox News show Biden in first place. In the former, Biden leads Elizabeth Warren, 31 to 25 percent, with Bernie Sanders at 14 percent. The Fox poll shows Biden with 29 percent, 11 points ahead of Sanders’s 18 percent, and Warren further back at 16 percent.
Both surveys show a good-size gap between the top three and next two: NBC/WSJ has Pete Buttigieg in fourth place with 7 percent and Harris at 5 percent. Fox flip-flops them, with Harris at 7 percent and Buttigieg at 5 percent. Then things get murkier, with both polls showing Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang in various orders between sixth and ninth place.
While the sequencing is not etched in stone, it does appear to be firming up. As Public Opinion Strategies’ Bill McInturff, the Republican half of NBC/WSJ polling team, told NBC News, “the race is more solid for the front-runners than it was in July.”
My sense is that with Warren generally gaining and Sanders dropping, this is about to become a two-person race. The odds of someone else becoming a contender are still there, but they narrow with every week that goes by.
It is a reasonably safe assumption that Warren will eventually inherit much—but not all—of Sanders’s approach. While both are in the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party and employ populist messaging, their supporters do not precisely overlap. Warren’s appeal skews more upscale and better educated than Sanders, with Sanders doing a little better among younger voters.
While Warren is undoubtedly performing at a much higher level as a candidate than anyone else in the field, it is quite plausible that she has something of a ceiling on her support. (Whether it is a hard or soft ceiling is yet to be determined.) Those backing Warren have to worry about her lack of support among minority voters, particularly African-Americans, and among working-class whites, or at least those who haven’t yet abandoned the Democratic Party.
In recent New York Times opinion pieces, both David Leonhardt and Paul Starobin highlight Warren’s vulnerability with white working class voters. On CNN.com, Ron Brownstein puts Warren in the “wine track” but not in the “beer track.” My only quibble with this method of sorting is that one could make a distinction between craft-beer drinkers, who may be more akin to wine drinkers, and those who quaff down Anheuser-Busch, Coors, or Miller products (I confess to be in the latter group of beer drinkers).
Moving on to potential general-election matchups, President Trump criticized last month’s Fox News poll that showed Biden leading him by 12 points, 50 to 38 percent; Warren ahead by 7 points, 46 to 39 percent; and Sanders leading by 9 points, 48 to 40 percent. So he’s really apt to hate the latest Fox poll, which shows Biden leading Trump by 14 points, 52 to 38 percent; Warren ahead by 6 points, 46 to 40 percent; and Sanders up by 8 points, 48 to 40 percent. In both surveys, Harris led him by 4 and 2 points, respectively. With Harris not particularly well known or defined, that says a lot.
The NBC/WSJ general-election trial heats and those of other network polling operations were not out as this column was written but will probably not be much different. Previous presidents have gone through tough patches and at times have trailed potential general election rivals, but the difference is that they all showed an elasticity of support: good news pushed their numbers up while bad news drove them down. For Trump, it has always been different. Most minds are made up and feelings, both pro and con, are intensely held. More than any other president, he has both nationalized and personalized our electoral politics. It’s all about him, and it will be hard to make it about anyone or anything else.