Confused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers

Confused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers
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The advent of the first Democratic presidential debate in 10 days is a milestone in the race for the 2020 nomination and a good opportunity for a status update on the campaign. 

Early in the nomination battle, there are only five candidates that have significant support in the national and state polls. They are former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Booker takes swipe at Biden criminal justice reform plan Panel: Has Joe Biden been wrong on everything for 40 years? MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Warren introduces bill to cancel student loan debt for millions Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Warren introduces bill to cancel student loan debt for millions Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission Biden announces plan to counteract mass incarceration MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Biden announces plan to counteract mass incarceration Nashville radio host blocked by employer from airing his interview with Buttigieg MORE.

The other candidates are barely blips on the screen. But primary polls are reflections of name recognition and one or more of the other candidates may become more prominent if their visibility significantly increases. 

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Biden leads the national polls. The most recent national survey was conducted by the Economist and YouGov has him at 27 percent followed in double digits by Warren at 16 percent and Sanders at 12 percent. Next in line are Buttigieg at 8 percent and Harris at 7 percent.  The other candidates don’t register significant support yet.  

There have been significant changes in the national leader board in the last month.

Even though Biden is the leader in the national polls, his advantage has declined since he officially announced his candidacy. Once a candidate steps into the arena, reality rears its ugly head. Exhibit No. 1 is Biden’s unforced error on the Hyde Amendment. After a short post-launch honeymoon, Biden became the frontrunner with the kick me sign on his butt and consequently his lead has shortened.

The other significant development is the rise of Warren at the expense of Sanders. A candidate running against a couple of dozen other candidates needs to find a way to stand out. The best way to stand out is to find a niche and create a unique identity. Warren has established herself as the “ideas” candidate and it has worked well for her. Her policy proposals have attracted media attention and even got her a Time magazine cover.

The flip side of Warren’s rise is Sanders’ decline. Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political report has suggested that Warren and Sanders are battling to represent the progressive populist wing of the Democratic Party in the fight for the Democratic nomination. At this moment, Warren is winning the battle. She has overtaken Sanders in the most recent national survey and tied him in the latest poll of caucus participants in Iowa.

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One of the more intriguing aspects of recent polling is the discrepancy between the national polling and the polling in the early primary and caucus states.

The new survey of Democratic caucus participants in Iowa conducted by the Des Moines Register and CNN shows the race there is more closely contested than the national polls indicate. In Iowa, the former vice president, at 24 percent, has only an 8-point advantage. Sanders (16 percent), Buttigieg (15 percent) and Warren (14 percent) are in a statistical tie for second place. 

The race is an abstraction at this point to most Americans but there’s a real campaign being waged in the early contests. The Iowa Caucus is the first in the nation delegate contest on Feb. 3, 2020, only 220 days away. 

The Democratic presidential candidates spend as much or more time in Iowa than they do in Washington D.C. or in their home states. Iowa Democrats have had the chance to learn about the candidates and even shake hands with or sit in a living room at a meet and greets with them. Nineteen of the Democratic presidential candidates showed up at a recent party dinner in the state.

The voters in the early nomination contests already have had more of an opportunity to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates than other Americans have had. The first chance most Americans will have to see the candidates in action will be on June 26 and 27 when 20 of the Democratic candidates will debate on a national broadcast by NBC News.

Therefore, the early states in the process are the canaries in the coal mine, which provide a glimpse of the nature of the race once it goes national.  The advantage that Biden and Sanders have nationally because they have been around the block before and have more name recognition is minimized in the early states where the voters have got to know the other candidates.

The race in California, one of the early primary states is also closely contested.

The state’s primary is on Super Tuesday only a month after Iowa. California will send more delegates to the Democratic National Convention than any other state. Texas and 11 other jurisdictions have primaries or caucuses on the same day. It will be the day of reckoning for most of the Democratic candidates. 

A new poll of California Democrats, by the Los Angeles Times and the University of California at Berkeley, also indicates a closer contest than exists nationally. The poll has Biden in the lead but only by 10 points. Warren (18 percent) and Sanders (17 percent) are tied for second place. Harris (13 percent) and Buttigieg (10 percent) are the other candidates in double digits. 

The moral of this tale is that the best way to track the Democratic presidential race is to focus more on the fights in the early contests and less on the national polling numbers.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of a radio podcast “Dateline D.C. With Brad Bannon” that airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter @BradBannon.