Be careful about early poll results
The news this week was dominated by results from a Fox News poll showing Biden with a commanding lead of 21 points over second place Bernie Sanders and third place Kamala Harris in South Carolina. The poll, conducted from July 7 to July 10, measured voter sentiment in this first test of the candidates’ strength in the South, and, as Chris Wallace pointed out, it was conducted entirely after the conclusion of the first set of debates where Biden’s performance was roundly criticized.
Certainly, it was an impressive poll result, especially given Biden’s commanding lead among African-Americans even over Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. As a result of this poll and others showing Biden’s current polling strength, as well as his endorsements and fundraising, he certainly deserves to be included among the first tier of Democratic candidates for President.
The question is, will it hold up? Preliminary indications are that the answer is no. Biden’s early polling lead is driven entirely by name identification.
Consider the following. Very little campaigning has occurred thus far in South Carolina. Indeed, Elizabeth Warren has moved her entire campaign into Iowa, following a strategy first successfully followed by John Kerry in 2004. Other candidates have also been aggressive in this first in the nation test, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke. Marianne Williamson even moved to Des Moines. As a result, voters in Iowa are getting to know the candidates up close.
There, the polling results are very different from South Carolina. Two recent polls show Biden in third place. One, conducted from June 29 to July 4, found Biden tied for third with Sanders and Harris at 16%, behind first-place Buttitieg at 25% and second-place Warren at 18%. The other, which ran during the same time frame, showed Warren leading at 20%, Harris at 18%, and Biden at 17%. This is quite a contrast with the recent South Carolina result.
It is worth noting that Biden did at one point have a similarly commanding lead in Iowa. As recently as the beginning of May, one poll showed Biden with a 21 point lead over second place Sanders. Clearly, Biden’s numbers have fallen as people have gotten to know the candidates better.
The story’s the same in the nation’s first primary state, New Hampshire. Again, there candidates have been campaigning for some time. Furthermore, the state benefits from Warren and Sanders representing neighboring states. As a result, New Hampshire residents will have a familiarity with them, an advantage that nobody currently has in Iowa.
There, two recent polls show Biden either in third place, with 19% to Warren’s 22% and Sanders’s 20%, or tied with Harris for fourth place at 13% behind Sanders (26%), Warren (24%) and Buttitieg (14%). Again, as recently as the end of May, Biden enjoyed a 13 point lead, but that lead has evaporated as the voters have come to know the candidates better.
Biden may be treating South Carolina as a firewall state, much as Bill Clinton did after he lost Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992. Iowa that year was largely irrelevant since favorite son Tom Harkin was running. But New Hampshire was devastating, with former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas winning a commanding victory.
But that race might be the exception that proves the rule. Back then there was no viable African-American candidate running. Bill Clinton, with his southern background and his close relationship with the African-American community was able to win in South Carolina despite early losses.
This year is different. I would argue that a big reason African-Americans, who will largely decide who is the winner of the South Carolina primary, are not backing Harris or Booker because they don’t yet believe they are viable. African-Americans, who have experienced racism throughout their lives, are understandably skeptical about the ability of black candidates to win in our system.
A similar dynamic occurred in 2008. Then, polls in 2007 showed Hillary Clinton with a decisive lead over Barack Obama. However, after Obama won Iowa at the beginning of January, the polls shifted decisively, ultimately leading to Obama winning South Carolina by 29 points. Should Harris or Booker have a strong showing in either New Hampshire or Iowa, I expect similar movement among the South Carolina electorate in response.
It’s worth noting that at the same time as those other polls were being conducted in Iowa, another polling organization found Biden leading with 24%, Harris in second at 16%, and Warren at 14%. This seems like a head scratcher. But if these conflicting results show us anything, it is that it is too early to trumpet polling results. Things will change, and I cannot emphasize enough the importance of organization in winning caucuses like Iowa. As a result, the only conclusion we can take to the bank from these results is that the Democratic field is wide open, and Biden is a long way from having sewn up the nomination.
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