January 2020 update: Democratic presidential nomination and general election polling

As of January 14, 2020—and the seventh Democratic presidential nomination debate in Des Moines, Iowa—there are only…

  • 20 days until the Iowa Caucuses,
  • 28 days until the New Hampshire Primary,
  • 39 days until the Nevada Caucuses,
  • 46 days until the South Carolina Primary, and
  • 49 days until 10 states vote on “Super Tuesday,”[1] including California, Texas and my adopted home state of Massachusetts.

Here is an updated assessment of the relative position of the 12 remaining declared candidates. Since the previous update, three candidates exited the race. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro dropped out on January 2, 2020 then strongly endorsed United States Senator (“Senator”) Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Eight days later, spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson ended her bid. Finally, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker ended his campaign on January 13. The 16 candidates who have abandoned their quest to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee each exited with grace, class and dignity; I commend them for it.

To learn how I calculate candidate NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here;[2] for modifications, please see here.

And, of course, here is the January 2020 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2020 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar; my wife Nell never forgets come the holidays.

Jan 2020 lighthouse.JPG

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Table 1 below aggregates data from all national and state-level polls publicly released since January 1, 2019 (as of midnight EST on January 14, 2020), including:

  • 298 national polls (including 53 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls and 33 weekly YouGov tracking polls)
  • 42 Iowa caucuses polls
  • 43 New Hampshire primary polls
  • 14 Nevada caucuses polls
  • 34 South Carolina primary polls
  • 76 Super Tuesday polls[3]
  • 81 polls from 22 other states.[4]

There are 588 total polls, up from 558 last month. Table 1 now splits post-South-Carolina polling into Super Tuesday and post-Super-Tuesday; the values are broadly similar.

Table 1: National-and-state-weighted WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Super

Tuesday

Post-

SuperTues

NSW-WAPA
Biden 28.3 19.8 20.7 27.0 36.2 26.5 28.1 25.6
Warren 16.2 18.1 16.9 17.7 12.5 17.7 18.3 16.6
Sanders 16.8 16.1 18.0 19.7 11.8 16.3 15.7 16.5
Buttigieg 6.3 15.6 11.8 6.2 4.5 6.2 6.6 9.5
Steyer 0.6 2.2 1.9 4.4 3.9 0.4 0.2 2.6
Klobuchar 1.6 4.4 2.6 1.6 1.0 1.4 1.1 2.4
Yang 2.1 2.2 2.7 3.0 1.4 1.3 1.8 2.2
Gabbard 1.0 1.5 3.2 1.2 0.9 1.0 0.7 1.7
Bloomberg 1.0 0.2 0.4 0.1 0.4 0.3 0.4 0.31
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.3 0.2 0.3 0.1 0.27
Delaney 0.3 0.4 0.3 0.00 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.25
Patrick 0.06 0.00 0.07 0.03 0.1 0.2 0.00 0.04
DK/Other 25.4 19.2 21.2 17.1 24.1 28.2 25.4 22.0

Only 30 polls of the 2020 Democratic nomination process have been released since the previous update—14 national (most by Morning Consult or YouGov[5]), four each from Iowa and New Hampshire, two from Nevada, and one each from South Carolina, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts[6], New Mexico and Wisconsin—so it is not surprising there is little change in the overall contours of the race. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the nominal frontrunner (25.6, unchanged from last month), primarily because of his 23.7-percentage-point (“point”) lead in South Carolina, also unchanged from last month. In Iowa and New Hampshire, however, the two candidates battling for second place—Warren (16.6, down from 17.0) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (16.5, up from 16.0)—are much closer to first place. The fourth leading contender—South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (9.5, up from 9.1)—is also very strong in these two early states. These four candidates alone account for more than two-thirds (68.1%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

This more-inclusive version of NSW-WAPA slightly overstates the gap between Biden and Warren; only examining polls conducted entirely after June 26, 2019, when the first round of Democratic presidential debates ended, Biden drops to 24.6 and Warren rises to 17.5; Sanders is at 16.3 and Buttigieg is at 9.7. And examining only the 64 polls conducted since the fifth Democratic debate on November 20, 2019,[7]  Biden holds steady at 24.5, while Sanders rises to 18.3, Warren drops to 14.3 and Buttigieg jumps to 11.2.

Looking only at Iowa and New Hampshire, meanwhile, shows an effective four-way-tie. Using only the post-first-debate polls in Iowa shows Warren at 19.2, Biden at 18.9, Buttigieg at 16.4 and Sanders at 15.8. Examining only the six most recent polls shows Biden at 19.3, Sanders at 18.0, Buttigieg at 16.9 and Warren at 15.2. Given Iowa’s byzantine caucus rules—at each caucus, participants divide into candidate support groups, reapportioning themselves until every group has at least 15% of participants—it is likely these four candidates will divide between them the vast majority of “votes” counted on February 3.

As for New Hampshire, using only the post-first-debate polls shows Biden at 19.7, Warren at 18.3, Sanders at 17.7 and Buttigieg at 12.2. Examining only the seven most recent polls shows Sanders edging Biden 19.4 to 19.1, with Buttigieg (14.6) and Warren (14.5) trailing a bit behind. Of course, a top two finish in the Iowa Caucuses would very likely boost a candidate’s New Hampshire Primary percentage.

Still, the overall message from the most recent polling, sparse though it is, is that Biden and Sanders have reestablished themselves as the clear Top Two, with Buttigieg and Warren fading slightly. With all that, presidential primary and caucuses polls historically differ from voting results by as much as 10 points, so determining the order of these four candidates, particularly in the first two contests, with any precision is something of a fool’s errand.

In the next tier are four candidates with NSW-WAPA between 1.7 and 2.6 still looking for a chance to rise into the top four: billionaire activist Tom Steyer, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and United States House of Representatives member from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard.[8] Steyer is now battling Buttigieg for fourth place in Nevada and South Carolina, while Klobuchar is hoping for a surprise in Iowa as the most recent polls boost her support to 6.3. Steyer and Klobuchar will join the Big Four on Tuesday’s debate stage, making it the first Democratic debate with no candidates of color. The top eight candidates total just over three-quarters (77.0%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

While the remaining four candidates divide 0.9 points between them, none seems close to ending their campaign soon; indeed, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is essentially betting his campaign on winning the Florida Primary on March 17, assuming no clear front-runner has yet emerged. Perhaps of greater interest are “Don’t Know/Other” values ranging from 17.1 to 28.2. Incorporated in these values are both residual support for former candidates and genuine undecideds; not knowing which of the remaining candidates these voters will ultimately support makes NSW-WAPA values even more “wobbly.”

Returning to the debates, Morning Consult, Quinnipiac and YouGov conducted national polls of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both before (but after the November 2019 debate) and after the December 2019 debate. Candidates whose polling average increased by at least 1.0 points are “Don’t Know/Other” (+1.7 points), Klobuchar and Yang (+1.0 each), with decreases of the same magnitude for Buttigieg (-1.0) and Biden (-1.3).

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On January 9, 2020, FiveThirtyEight unveiled its first-ever model of a presidential nomination process. They use many more inputs than I do; comparing the two sets of values could be a useful lesson in whether a “simpler” approach—in no way do I consider my NSW-WAPA a model—yields similar results to a more complex one. I strongly encourage you both to contrast our respective methods and to compare my state-level WAPA to their projections.

One instructive comparison, however, is to compare FiveThirtyEight’s nomination probabilities to NSW-WAPA divided by the sum of NSW-WAPA for declared candidates only. The latter value is not, strictly speaking, a probability, though I treat it as such when I assess Democratic chances against President Trump. Table 2 displays these comparisons as of 8:18 pm EST on January 13, 2020.

Table 2: Comparison of FiveThirtyEight nomination probabilities to declaration-weighted NSW-WAPA

Candidate FiveThirtyEight Weighted NSW-WAPA
All polls Post-debate 1 Post-debate 5
Biden 39% 32.9 31.2 29.8
Sanders 22% 21.1 20.7 22.2
Warren 13% 21.3 22.2 17.3
Buttigieg 9% 12.2 12.4 13.6
All others 16% 12.5 13.5 17.1

Both approaches imply it is far more likely than not—on the order of 5:1 or 6:1 in favor—one of Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg will be the 2020 Democratic nominee for president. And both models see Sanders with a roughly 1-in-5 chance of being the nominee. Where the approaches diverge, however, is on the relative chances of Biden and Warren. The FiveThirtyEight model is much more bullish on Biden’s chances of winning a majority of pledged delegate (what their model actually estimates), while NSW-WAPA is much more bullish on Warren’s chances. NSW-WAPA is also slightly more bullish on Buttigieg’s odds.

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Turning to polls of hypothetical 2020 matchups between proposed Democratic presidential nominees, Biden would beat Trump nationally by 7.6 points, Sanders by 4.6 points and Warren by 2.8 points—each value about 0.3 points lower than last month, while Buttigieg would lose by 0.3 points; Bloomberg, based on 12 polls—11 released in the last three months, would win by 1.3 points. The other six candidates for whom I have matchup data would lose by between 2.9 (Klobuchar) and 8.9 (Gabbard) points, although these numbers are misleading, as they are primarily based upon data from pollster Harris X, who tend not to push undecided voters to choose, making for unusual polling margins.

Weighted by a rough estimate of the likelihood of winning the nomination (NSW-WAPA/.778), the 2020 Democratic nominee would beat Trump by an average 3.2 points, just over the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. Excluding Biden and Sanders, however, decreases the margin to -0.3 points, with the caveat from the preceding paragraph.

However, it is the Electoral College which decides who wins presidential elections. Examining polling averages from the 28 states[9] for which I have at least one hypothetical match-up poll and comparing them to my partisan-lean measure 3W-RDMyields a median national popular vote win by the Democrat by between 2.9 (excluding Biden and Sanders) and 4.8 points.[10] I will address state-level returns in much more detail in an upcoming post.

Until next time…

[1] Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia

[2] Essentially, polls are weighted within nation/state by days to  nominating contest and pollster quality to form an area-specific average, then a weighted average is taken across Iowa (weight=5), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (4), South Carolina (4), time-weighted average of subsequent contests (2) and nationwide (1). Within subsequent contests, I weight the “Super Tuesday” states twice subsequent contests. As of this writing, I have at least one poll from, in chronological order, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon, Montana, New Jersey and New Mexico.

[3] Primarily California (33), Texas (19) and North Carolina (8)

[4] Primarily Wisconsin (14), Florida (12), Pennsylvania (9) and Michigan (8)—not coincidentally, the four states President Donald J. Trump won in 2016 by the narrowest margins, making them among the most-polled overall.

[5] Including a few YouGov polls released prior to December 20, 2019 only just posted by FiveThirtyEight

[6] Including one conducted by Evan Falchuk and Lou DiNatale between October 23 and 25, 2019

[7] Distribution: National (34), Iowa (6), New Hampshire (7), Nevada (2), South Carolina (3), California (6), Wisconsin (2) and Texas, Illinois, Connecticut and New Mexico one each

[8] Examining only the most recent polling: Steyer 4.3, Klobuchar 3.3, Yang 2.7, Gabbard 2.2…and Bloomberg 1.0. All other candidates are between 0.15 and 0.18.

[9] Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, South Carolina, Minnesota, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, Utah, Virginia, Montana, Connecticut, Georgia, New Mexico

[10] The mean—heavily skewed by some extremely Democratic-leaning polling in Utah—ranges between 3.5 and 6.2.

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