- The debate on Tuesday is the last before the Iowa caucus, and while Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren sparred with each other, frontrunner Joe Biden was fairly unscathed.
- Overall, more people like Warren and Sanders than are satisfied with Biden.
- However, they’re splitting the votes. If the Iowa caucus resembles the Iowa debate, they’re going to have a rough time.
- That’s not neccessarily terrible for them — the delegates get split evenly, and can be directed to support some other candidate later down the line — but it imperils their ability to take down the frontrunner.
- Warren and Sanders need either an undisputed winner or peace. A prolonged fight hands Biden the win.
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While Biden has been the frontrunner for months, he escaped fairly unscathed from the contest, even considerin the critiques of his record regarding the onset of the Iraq War.
Warren and Sanders were not so lucky.
Not only did they endure the typical critiques from Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — each of whom best appeal to less liberal wings of the party — but the debate also involved an extended dispute between the Massachusetts and Vermont senators on the big story of the week: Sanders reportedly questioning a woman’s ability to win the White House.
The inciting incident isn’t really important here. What matters is that a confrontation between Warren and Sanders was basically inevitable.
Insider has been conducting a recurring SurveyMonkey Audience national poll since December 2018. You can download every poll here, down to the individual respondent data.
Looking at the past seven polls, Warren and Sanders have an overlapping fanbase that all but guarantees a fight. Thirty percent of Democrats like both of them, and 30% on top of either’s banked support is enough to become the nominee.
But even more, here’s where they stand in comparison to the frontrunner. Of the 2,963 Democratic voter respondents to the seven polls:
- 1,340 (45%) would be satisfied with Biden as the nominee
- 1,404 (47%) would be satisfied with Warren as the nominee
- 1,400 (47%) would be satisfied with Sanders as nominee
Obviously, there are lots of other candidates muddling the picture, but we’re also able to see what the field would look like in the event that only those three remain. Looking at the three top candidates in a vacuum gets us a key insight about the current state of the race.
Basically, a third of Democrats are completely undecided about the top three, another third have one and only one of those candidates in mind, and the last third would be picking between two candidates.
- 16% of Democratic voters would not like any of those three running, about three times the current level of dissatisfaction with the field. 17% of Democratic voters would be satisfied with any of the three. That means 33% of the field now is basically undecided about those top three.
- Concentrating on their bases of support, 14% like Biden and Biden alone, 10% like Sanders alone and 8% like Warren alone. That’d be another third.
- Fully 14% of the field would be deciding between Sanders and Warren
- Just 8% are deciding between Warren and Biden and 6% deciding between Sanders and Biden.
The last third is the most interesting third, because it shows why Sanders and Warren need to figure their spat out quickly if they hope to defeat Biden. While they were debating one another, the former vice president had eyes only on Trump.
“I’ve taken all the hits he can deliver, and my poll numbers are going up,” said Biden towards the end of the debate. The boast, accurate or not, highlighted his focus and how little he was forced into straying from it over the course of the evening.
Biden’s key advantage throughout the campaign has been the perception he’s well-suited to defeat Donald Trump: Over those seven polls, 63% of Democrats said Biden would likely beat Trump in a general and just 24% thought he’d lose. That’s head and shoulders above other Democrats.
By comparison, those numbers are 49% and 32% for Warren and 48% and 31% for Sanders.
Warren and Sanders need either an undisputed winner or peace. A prolonged fight hands Biden the win.
Warren and Sanders have to play a dangerous game. If they’re going to fight, they need a winner quickly: Their efforts to defeat the centrist wing of the party will be underserved by targeting one another rather than concentrating their fire on the standard-bearer of that wing, who also happens to be the frontrunner.
However, fighting isn’t the only answer here. They could play it cool and keep the peace, which would be a risky but fairly robust delegate strategy. Delegates are won proportionately as a percentage of the vote in states and congressional districts as long as a candidate breaks the 15% minimum threshold. This means if you have three candidates who break 15% and do roughly as well as one another, they’re all getting nearly the same number of delegates. If two of them were to come to an arrangement, and the one who fares worse come June peacefully directs their delegates to the better, then they can get their happy ending.
They just need to settle their feud, or else Biden will sweep them. If the Iowa caucus resembles the Iowa debate, they’re going to have a rough time.