Joe Biden Isn't The Overwhelming 2020 Democratic Front-Runner Anymore

The former vice president still leads in the polls, but he's increasingly challenged by a trio of other top-tier candidates.

The Democratic presidential primary is no longer dominated by a single, unequivocal front-runner, last week’s polling suggests, breaking the months of relative stasis during which former Vice President Joe Biden carried an extensive lead over the rest of the field.

Biden, who has survived controversies over his behavior toward women and his comments on segregationist leaders without notable dents, isn’t exactly cratering now: He’s still at the top of virtually all national polls. Nor does he seem to have picked up much newfound enmity among voters. But the first primary debates appear to have gone some way toward leveling off a top tier among the Democratic contenders.

Voters still like Joe Biden, but they like other candidates, too.
Voters still like Joe Biden, but they like other candidates, too.

Biden is joined by a trio of opponents: California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose profile rose sharply following a commanding debate performance; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose numbers were rising even prior to the debate; and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has mostly polled in the teens to mid-twenties since his entry into the race. No other Democratic candidate reliably breaks into the double digits.

Taken in aggregate, the latest national horse race polls tell a pretty consistent story about the direction those candidates’ numbers have taken: Harris has spiked upward, Warren has tracked a more gradual increase, Sanders has remained relatively stable, and Biden has dipped.

Where the polls vary is on the magnitude of those changes ― and where, exactly, they leave the race. Several polls, including one from The Washington Post and ABC, find Biden still maintaining a double-digit lead over his rivals. Others, including CNN and Economist/YouGov surveys, now find him with a diminished edge of just 4 or 5 percentage points; the latest Quinnipiac poll put him in a virtual tie with Harris.

Despite the tepid reviews on Biden’s debate performance, he remains well-liked by most of the electorate. The 23% of Democratic primary voters who say they’d be disappointed to see him as the nominee, according to Economist/YouGov polling, is basically unchanged from before the debates, and his favorability rating with those voters, currently in the high 60s, is also little altered.

But other metrics make it clear that voters ― many of whom are only just starting to pay serious attention to the presidential race ― are also considering their alternatives. Democratic primary voters are now about as likely to say they’d think about voting for Harris as to say they’d consider picking Biden, that Economist/YouGov survey also found, and are likeliest of all to say they’d consider Warren.

Biden also faces an erosion of his perceived advantage on electability. In a May HuffPost/YouGov survey, Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters were 20 to 25 points likelier to say Biden was capable of beating Donald Trump than they were to say the same of any other candidate. In the most recent survey, his advantage was only 6 to 11 points ― a result both of a dip in his numbers and of increases for Harris and Warren.

As The Washington Post’s David Byler quipped recently on Twitter, “a non-trivial amount of election analysis in presidential primaries is finding new ways to repeat ‘it’s early.’” It is early ― and the fact that one round of debates was enough to reshuffle the primary to this extent should remind any would-be prognosticators of how much campaigning is still to come before anyone starts voting.

The real front-runner, for now, may still be “undecided.” In the post-debate HuffPost/YouGov survey, fewer than 4 in 10 Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters said they had even a good idea of whom they planned to vote for. And when a Washington Post/ABC survey asked voters whom they supported without giving them a list of names to work from, the runaway winner was a demurral: 41% said they didn’t have anyone specific in mind. None of the actual candidates polled above 21%.