September 18th, 2020

The Nation

Why the 2020 Dem race is still a mystery

Aaron Blake

By Aaron Blake The Washington Post

Published Sept. 23, 2019

Why the 2020 Dem race is still a mystery
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is in dire straits in Iowa, according to a poll released Wednesday. The David Binder poll shows him languishing in fourth place among Democratic presidential candidates, with 9 percent, and more potential Iowa caucus-goers are saying they have ruled him out (46 percent) than are actively considering him (43 percent).

But according to the other Iowa poll released this month from CBS News and YouGov, Sanders is in a virtual tie for first place with 26 percent of the vote.

The divergence in Iowa polls highlights a challenge for observers early in the 2020 election: While we have an abundance of national polls, early-state polls have been few and far between, and that makes it incredibly difficult to draw conclusions about whose organization and message are appealing to the voters who matter most. It's not clear yet whether we have a true and accurate picture of the race, even as it stands now.

The pace of early 2020 polls is significantly slower in Iowa and in New Hampshire than it was four years ago. The poll Wednesday was just the second live-caller poll released in Iowa since the beginning of August, compared with six over the same period in 2015. In New Hampshire, there have been just two over the same span in 2019, compared with four in 2015.

If you expand the universe to all quality polls and stretch it further back in the race, the pattern holds. There have been just seven quality polls, including automated and online surveys, in Iowa since the start of May, compared with 14 over the same period in 2015.

In New Hampshire, there have been eight quality polls since the start of May, compared to 12 in 2015.

The reasons for the lack of polling aren't entirely clear or uniform. Quinnipiac University, a prolific public pollster that polled Iowa four times by this point four years ago, has yet to conduct one in 2019. It declined to discuss its polling schedule.

The left-leaning Public Policy Polling, which was among the first and most frequent Iowa pollsters in the 2016 campaign, has sharply curtailed its public polling operation to focus more on private clients. "We're doing more polling than we've ever done before, but it's just not for the purpose of public release very often anymore," said Tom Jensen, the organization's director.

Another hurdle is the cost for media outlets. St. Anselm College partnered with Bloomberg News to poll the New Hampshire primary four times by this point in 2015, but the pollster doesn't have a media partnership this year and has released two so far. "Our polling is mainly reliant on the academic calendar," added St. Anselm spokeswoman Alexis Soucy, "as our students do all of the live calling."

The dearth of polls - and particularly the highest-quality, live-caller polls - makes it much more difficult to glean clues about which candidates are up or down and what might have actually caused such shifts, whether it be debates or something more state-specific.

Sanders is a case in point. The poll Wednesday is actually the third since the start of July to show him dropping down to 9 percent, along with a Monmouth University poll and a USA Today/Suffolk University poll. All of them are high-quality, live-caller polls. And if that were the case, it would be really troublesome for him, given he came within a hair of upsetting Hillary Clinton in Iowa in 2016. He took nearly 50 percent of the vote there, so if only 43 percent of people are considering voting for him again, that's telling.

Over the same span, two online CBS/YouGov polls from Iowa have shown him in second place, within five and three points of Joe Biden for the lead. And nationally, although he's lost some ground since the start of the race, he's hardly dropping into the single digits. His national average in RealClearPolitics polls is 16.1 percent, and he's been neck-and-neck with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., consistently since the start of July.

Sanders is also running first or virtually tied for first place in New Hampshire, according to the last two quality polls, one of which was a live-caller from the Boston Herald and Franklin Pierce University (29 to 21 over Biden) and one was online from CBS/YouGov - Warren with 27, Biden with 26, Sanders with 25. (Even there, though, one high-quality poll in July - from the University of New Hampshire - showed Sanders at just 10 percent.)

Is it possible Sanders is running strong in New Hampshire and hanging tough nationally, but Iowa has for some reason turned against him? Sure. But it's difficult to say with complete certainty whether that is the case - or that it is the case to the extent the new poll shows. About the only thing we can say is that Biden seems to do slightly worse in the two earliest states than he does nationally. But even that can vary from poll to poll, and again, it's not clear how pronounced it really is.

I'm not one of those people who says national polls are meaningless. They matter: Even the earliest states can shake up a race and cause later states to vote completely differently than they might have otherwise. But our perception of these races is often too national-poll-centric. And that's especially the case this year, given we just don't have much else to work with, and what we do have has been all over the place.

If past years are any indication, the pace of early-state polls should pick up soon. Once the primaries and caucuses actually start, such polls are released pretty frequently. Let's hope we can get some clarity on how the campaigns are truly performing where it matters most.

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