Sanders surges while Warren wanes

The Iowa caucuses on February 3 may not be the beginning of the end of the presidential race. But they are the end of the beginning. After thousands of speeches, rallies, phone calls, TV ads, fundraisers, social media hits and door knocks, some Americans will finally vote for president and have their ballots counted next Monday.

A flood of polls and endorsements signal the coming of caucus day in Iowa. A new New York Times poll of potential caucus participants had good news for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTop Democratic super PACs team up to boost Biden Poll: Biden leads Sanders by 22 points GE employees urge company to use laid-off workers to make ventilators MORE (I-Vt.), while newspaper endorsements in the state gave boosts to Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocratic senators ask Pompeo to provide coronavirus aid to Palestinian territories Seth Meyers returning to late-night TV with 'hybrid episodes' Biden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll MORE (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Top Democratic super PACs team up to boost Biden The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden spar over coronavirus response MORE.

The New York Times headline for its Iowa poll, “Sanders Seizes Lead in Volatile Iowa Race,” is a good summary of the state of the race there. Sanders, Warren, Biden and former Sound Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE have all led Iowa polls in recent months. But Sanders is in the driver’s seat a week before the caucuses.

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The Times survey gives Sanders a quarter of the vote (25 percent), with Buttigieg (18 percent), Biden (17 percent) and Warren (15 percent) bunched together in the mid to high teens. The only other Democratic presidential candidate with significant support is Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: FCC chief proposes 0M telehealth program | Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria drugs for coronavirus| Whole Foods workers plan Tuesday strike Trump says election proposals in coronavirus stimulus bill would hurt Republican chances Biden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll MORE (D-Minn.), who clocked in at 8 percent.

But a strong gust of icy wind across the cornfields this week could upend the race since the poll also indicates that almost two-fifths (39 percent) of Democrats have not made a final choice a week before they caucuses. 

Warren did secure the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, the state’s largest newspaper, over the weekend, but the results of the Times poll were cold comfort to her campaign. Sanders has surged, while Warren’s support has waned. Warren dropped 7 points since the Times polled in Iowa last October. In the same period, Sanders picked up 6 points.

Sanders and Warren are locked in a battle to champion the aggressive progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and the senator from Vermont is winning the fight. In the Times survey, Sanders has a big advantage over his Senate colleague from Massachusetts among caucus-goers who consider themselves very liberal.

Last fall, Warren was very competitive with Sanders among very liberal Democrats. But that was then, and this is now. The comprehensive single-payer health care proposal “Medicare for All” is the shining star for progressive Democrats. Warren’s mishandling of the issue is the source of her problems with that group of Democrats.

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Warren hedged her bet on Medicare for All, while Sanders went all in. She once was as fierce an advocate of Medicare for All as Sanders, who was the original sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. But in the last few months, she has been inconsistent on the issue.

Last fall, she turned left and released a plan to aggressively tax very wealthy Americans to finance the program. Since then, she has appeared to moderate her support for the legislation by suggesting it was just one policy option in her fight for health care reform. Sanders’ support is based on the consistency of his views. Warren’s inconsistency has caused her to lag in the battle to secure the hearts and minds of progressive Democrats.

A new poll in New Hampshire indicates that Sanders is also in the driver’s seat there. The senator from the neighboring Green Mountain State leads the pack in the Granite State with 22 percent, while four other candidates, Buttigieg (18 percent), Biden (15 percent), Warren (13 percent) and Klobuchar (10 percent) register in double digits. 

New Hampshire Democrats go to the polls only eight days after Iowa Democrats caucus. So a strong showing in the Hawkeye State could shake up the leaderboard a week and a day later. If Klobuchar comes out of the dust in Iowa, she might get a rise out of primary voters in New Hampshire. If Warren trails Sanders in both early states, progressive Democrats might coalesce nationally behind Sanders to deny the nomination to a moderate like Biden or Buttigieg.

The big question for Joe Biden is whether he can maintain his status as the presumed Democratic frontrunner if he loses in both early primary states. Over the weekend, the former vice president got the endorsement of the Sioux City Journal in Iowa.

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Biden losses in Iowa and New Hampshire would make many of his supporters queasy and most of his opponents giddy. But his strategists believe that South Carolina on February 29 and the Super Tuesday states on March 3 constitute a firewall that would allow Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSenator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Biden could be picking the next president: VP choice more important than ever Civil rights leader Joseph Lowery dies at 98 MORE’s vice president to live and fight another day even if he loses early.

Many of the Super Tuesday states contain large numbers of voters who are supportive of Biden and are in short supply in the first two contests. They are the African Americans and white moderate Democrats who make up his base.

A new poll of Super Tuesday Democratic primary voters suggests there is life for Biden after death in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the poll also indicates that Biden’s firewall in the 16 nomination contests on the big day does not have a firm foundation. The CBS survey shows Biden at 26 percent in a three-way statistical tie with Sanders and Warren, with 24 percent each. 

The games begin in a week. But the real fun begins on Super Tuesday 29 days later. That’s when the road will end for some of the Democratic presidential candidates.

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