Democrats begin to show signs of doubt about Biden’s electability

Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg are gaining ground in the polls at Biden’s expense.

Catherine Morris
Feb 11, 2020 · 5 min read

Heading into the New Hampshire primary, former Vice President Joe Biden will have the most ground to make up with voters. The former frontrunner has fallen in the polls and is now statistically tied with Senator Bernie Sanders nationally, while New Hampshire polling puts Sanders in the lead to win the state.

Biden led the pack for much of the race but after coming in fourth place in Iowa, bleak prospects in tonight’s primary in the Granite State, and a muted debate performance on Friday, his advantage over the rest of the field is diminished. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 20% of Democrats say they would vote for Biden and 21% would vote for Sanders in the primaries.

For Democrats, the 2020 primaries all come down to selecting the candidate who they think has the best chance of beating President Trump. Electability has consistently been one of the top issues for Democratic voters considering who to vote for in the primaries in this election cycle. Winning enough of the popular vote and electoral college to vote Trump out of office will likely be a challenge given the president’s fervent and mobilized core supporters and a strong economy.

One of Biden’s key strengths in the race so far was his perceived electability. He was seen as the candidate with the best chance of beating President Trump in the general election, given his moderate appeal and credentials as vice president under Obama.

Yet perceptions of his electability are collapsing after his fourth-place finish in Iowa and likely loss in New Hampshire. After leading on electability for the entirety of the race, Biden is now statistically tied with Sanders in the latest Reuters/Ipsos national 2020 election polling: 21% of Democrats think Biden has the best shot at beating Trump, while another 21% think that Sanders does.

In another upset, late comer to the race billionaire Mike Bloomberg is a close third on electability, with 15% of Democrats saying that he would be the most likely to beat Trump in the general election.

The most recent FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos post-debate polling offered similar findings, underscoring that Biden and Sanders’ chances of beating Trump are now seen to be about equal. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren are also growing closer to each other on this metric, though the public put their chances of beating Trump in the general election at about 50/50.

That convergence between Sanders and Biden isn’t necessarily good news for the Democratic party. Sanders is not gaining ground on electability. Instead, perceptions of Biden’s electability are collapsing, putting him on par with Sanders.

In other words, no one single candidate has emerged who voters think can beat Trump, and the one candidate most thought was truly “electable” proved not to be in Iowa.

In another example of how Sanders is matching Biden, perceptions of how the two performed in the most recent debates have reversed over time. In the most recent debate, 27% of respondents to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos post-debate poll said that Sanders had the best performance, compared to just 8% for Biden.

Buttigieg and Klobuchar also had strong performances on the debate stage, signaling that the two Midwesterners’ campaign platforms and messaging are also resonating with Democrats, albeit a more moderate segment of the party.

National frontrunner Biden’s fourth place finish in Iowa and his falling electability numbers are both ominous outcomes for his campaign. However, Biden seemed resigned to the current state of affairs on Friday night. His own commentary on his polling numbers indicates that he may be taking the long view.

“This is a long race. I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here,” Biden said on at the Friday debate, referring to the pending results of the New Hampshire primary.

Biden has strong support among minority voters, and he might expect to gain ground again once the primaries reach places like South Carolina. He appears to be banking on reviving his campaign later while writing off his losses in states like Iowa and New Hampshire as a reflection of their overwhelmingly white demographics. He reportedly plans to leave the Granite State early tonight to fly down to South Carolina, where his base is.

Yet, it would be a mistake to think that Biden holds an untouchable monopoly on non-white voters. Polling shows that Sanders and Warren are both viewed relatively favorably among Black and Hispanic voters, with Sanders a strong second among minority voters behind Biden. Bloomberg also polls well among African American voters, according to the ongoing Reuters/Ipsos 2020 election tracker.

Analysis of a VICE News/Ipsos survey and Washington Post/Ipsos poll of African American voters found that while African Americans would say they would vote for Biden in the primaries, they would be equally likely to vote for Sanders or Biden if either were the eventual Democratic nominee.

As the race for the Democratic primaries kicks into high gear, the outcome is still far from decided. Bloomberg’s late entrance with his nearly unlimited campaign funding further muddles an already complex race. Candidates like Buttigieg, with his upset victory in Iowa (the failure of the app the Iowa DNC attempted to use to calculate the winners aside), also cannot be written off just yet.

Looking ahead to the results from tonight’s New Hampshire primaries, Sanders appears to be in the best position to win, closely followed by Buttigieg.

Though Sanders may emerge victorious from both Iowa and New Hampshire, he still has not cleared the field. As Biden’s comments alluded to on Friday night, there is still a long way to go before the primaries are over. Bloomberg’s growing strength in the polls might also shift the direction in the race.

Sanders has the edge for now, but the race is still open. Democrats have yet to find a candidate that they agree can take on Trump.

Presenting original analysis of public opinion research on…

Catherine Morris

Written by

Data journalist @Ipsos covering trends in public opinion around society, COVID and politics.

Ipsos Public Affairs

Presenting original analysis of public opinion research on politics and society from the world’s third-largest market research firm, with a particular focus on the 2020 United States elections. For more information, visit: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-and-polls/overview

Catherine Morris

Written by

Data journalist @Ipsos covering trends in public opinion around society, COVID and politics.

Ipsos Public Affairs

Presenting original analysis of public opinion research on politics and society from the world’s third-largest market research firm, with a particular focus on the 2020 United States elections. For more information, visit: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-and-polls/overview

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