POLITICS

Elizabeth Warren Had Another Solid Debate. Does That Matter?

Joe Biden still leads in the polls, and last week's debate doesn't look like a game-changer. But new surveys offer other good news for Warren.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) participate in the Democrati
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) participate in the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 12, 2019.

For the third time in a row, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren pulled off a well-received debate performance, new polling finds.

More broadly, the state of the 2020 campaign appears to remain much where it’s stood since August: Former Vice President Joe Biden continues to lead in the horse race polls, trailed by Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. A few other metrics suggest Warren may be positioned for further growth. And most primary voters remain very far from locked into a decision, meaning there’s plenty of room for things to change.

Thirty-seven percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters who saw at least clips of the debate last Thursday said they came away with an improved view of Warren, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov survey, while just 9% said their opinions of her worsened. That’s not as dramatic as her reception in the first and second debates, when half or more reported improved views, but it’s still enough to place her ahead of her rivals this round.

Three other candidates also saw their positive ratings for the debates significantly outstrip their negatives: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (31% had an improved view of him compared to 11% whose view worsened); former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (30% improved to 13% worsened) and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (26% improved to 11% worsened).

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro ― who aggressively challenged Biden onstage ― saw the worst numbers (15% improved compared to 41% worsened), with the remaining candidates breaking more or less close to even.

The HuffPost/YouGov Poll on the Sept. 12 Democratic presidential debate.
The HuffPost/YouGov Poll on the Sept. 12 Democratic presidential debate.

The standard provisos about debate polling remain relevant here: Voters’ preexisting opinions of the candidates help to shape their reactions; opinions remain fluid; and, of course, impressing voters in a debate doesn’t necessarily translate into gaining even temporary ground in the horse race. Plenty of voters, as FiveThirtyEight notes, didn’t even watch the debate. In the HuffPost/YouGov survey, only about 55% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters said they caught even clips of the event.

Perhaps the clearest example of the debates affecting this race so far has been California Sen. Kamala Harris’ brief surge following a strong initial performance, and her subsequent fall from the top tier of polling when she failed to match it in subsequent debates. By contrast, Sanders’ poll numbers have remained basically stable since summer, while Warren’s rise has appeared gradual and largely untethered to any specific incident.

“We’re practically raised to believe that debates impact election results in big ways. Millions watch, candidates spend countless hours preparing, media can’t stop talking, and writing, about them. And, after all, we’re taught debates are the way we should be making voting decisions. They’ve just got to be game-changers,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman wrote. “But they’re not ... Voters in the early states will get lots more direct exposure to the candidates through other mechanisms.”

To examine the broader state of the race beyond debate night, the new HuffPost/YouGov poll also asked voters to look over the full slate of Democratic candidates and pick whom they’d be enthusiastic or upset to see nominated, and who they believe is capable of defeating President Donald Trump. 

Biden still holds a clear, if not overwhelming, lead on electability: A 66% majority of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters thinks the former vice president is capable of winning the general election, a recovery of nearly 10 points since this summer. A smaller 56% majority currently believes Warren can win, with half saying the same of Sanders. Fewer than one-third say the same of any of the other candidates. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden still holds a clear, if not overwhelming, lead on electability.
Former Vice President Joe Biden still holds a clear, if not overwhelming, lead on electability.

Warren, meanwhile, stands out on enthusiasm, with 48% saying they’d be enthusiastic about having her as the Democratic nominee and only 9% saying they’re upset by that prospect. The idea of a Biden nomination raises only slightly less excitement (41% would be enthusiastic) but higher discontent (25% would be upset); a hypothetical Sanders nomination leaves 39% enthusiastic and 17% upset.

Democratic voters are most enthusiastic and least upset at the prospect of Elizabeth Warren as the party's nominee.
Democratic voters are most enthusiastic and least upset at the prospect of Elizabeth Warren as the party's nominee.

Although Warren has often looked particularly strong in YouGov’s polling compared to other outlets, other recent polling shows similar results. FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos debate polling also gives Warren strong reviews for last week’s debate. And in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week, Warren led both on enthusiasm and as the candidate with whom most primary voters would feel, at least, comfortable.

Nearly all national polling that asks a straightforward horse race question ― whom people would vote for if the election were today ― shows Biden still ahead. But there’s a significant variation on the exact size of Biden’s lead, as well as whether Warren or Sanders now stands as his closest rival. 

One reason for that volatility is that the race remains exceptionally fluid. In the HuffPost/YouGov survey, only 52% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters say they have even a good idea about whom they’ll support, and in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 9% of Democratic primary voters said they’d definitely made up their minds. There’s still months until anyone starts voting, and things could change pretty quickly once they do. For now, “undecided” may still be the real front-runner.

Use this widget to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups. 

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Sept. 14-15 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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