Iowa 2020 poll: Biden, Sanders, O’Rourke lead Democratic caucus field

Former Vice President Joe Biden is the preferred candidate of nearly one third of some of the most influential voters in the 2020 Democratic primary: Iowa Democrats who are definitely or probably going to attend the February caucus.

According to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll — the first of the 2020 primary season — Joe Biden is the top choice for 32 percent of Iowa Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders comes in second with 19 percent, while outgoing Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke took third with 11 percent. No other candidate broke double digits, although Sen. Elizabeth Warren picked up 8 percent and Sen. Kamala Harris 5 percent (“not sure” received 6 percent). All this could easily change, however: an early 2015 poll had Sanders as the top choice of only 5 percent of likely 2016 caucus-goers — he went on to win 49.59 percent of the vote.

Taking into account second choices, Biden was the first or second pick of 50 percent of respondents, while only 8 percent said they could “never” support him for president, the lowest number on the list. While none of the top preference-getters have actually announced their nominations, Biden is thinking about it, and says he plans to decide in the next two months. Sanders reportedly told Warren in a recent meeting that he is likely to run, according to the New York Times.

Iowa caucus-goers — partly by virtue of being the first actual voters of any US state to say who they want to be president — appear to be “hugely important” in determining who the major parties’ presidential nominees will be.

And many of these “hugely important” voters are looking for a candidate with experience and electability: Of the respondents, 49 percent say the right candidate to take on President Donald Trump should be a “seasoned political hand” (36 percent say “newcomer,” while 15 percent are unsure). More than half say it is more important that the candidate has a strong chance of defeating Trump than that they share their positions on major issues (40 percent said the reverse).

This preference for an old hand is reflected in the top two picks, with Biden and Sanders each having been in politics for decades, and both having run for the Democratic nomination before (Biden in 1988 and 2008 and Sanders in 2016). Both men are in their late seventies, and will 77 and 79 respectively by the time the 2020 presidential election rolls around.

Though she wasn’t included on the list, respondents were asked whether adding former First Lady Michelle Obama to the list would add or detract from the race: 76 percent said add. When asked the same question of Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, respondents said detract, at a rate of 72 and 55 percent respectively.

The poll of 455 definite or probable Democratic caucus-goers was conducted by West Des Moines-based Selzer & Company from December 10 to 13. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.

2020 is officially here

Though this is just a poll of Democrats in one state for a caucus that is 14 months away, this survey is an important indicator for the 2020 nomination landscape. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained in 2014, the caucus is considered highly predictive, with the winner of the Iowa Democratic caucus often going on to clinch the nomination — as they have in every contested primary season since 2000:

And importantly, even if the Iowa victor doesn’t end up winning the nomination in the end, the state’s results can dramatically shake up the presidential contest — knocking some candidates out of the race entirely, while elevating others to top-tier status in the eyes of political elites and future voters.

A range of factors go into making the Iowa caucus so influential, from the media hype (“the winners get tons of excited coverage, but the losers become afterthoughts,” Prokop explains,) to donors and activists (who “look at the Iowa results to judge whether the candidates they’re supporting are still viable”).

It’s mutually reinforcing: The Iowa caucuses are important because the media, the candidates, and the political world more broadly all treat their results as greatly important in determining who can win. This poll — and this post — is part of that self-reinforcing process.

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