The latest CNN/Des Moines Register/MediaCom 2020 Iowa poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden continuing to lead the pack with 27% and Sen. Bernie Sanders close behind with 25%. Sanders is up from our last poll, though the relative order remains the same. No other candidate reaches double-digits. But beyond these topline numbers, the poll reveals some interesting trends in the electorate.
Here are five key takeaways from our Iowa poll.
1. Name recognition plays an important role in these early numbers
The only two candidates breaking double-digits are also the only two candidates for which 90% of the electorate can form an opinion. The third best known candidate (Sen. Elizabeth Warren) is also the candidate who is in third place with 9%. Every candidate who gets more than 1% of the vote has at least 59% name recognition.
Now, it’s not all name recognition. Biden and Sanders are equally well known, yet Biden leads Sanders by 2 points. The same 67% of voters can form an opinion of Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker, though Harris gets more than double the support of Booker (7% vs. 3%).
Overall, on a scale from -1 to +1, the correlation is +0.83 between name recognition and first choice percentage.
2. It helps to be loved, not just liked, in a crowded field
The best predictor of a candidate’s standing in the CNN poll is the percentage of voters who hold a very favorable opinion of her or him. The top seven places in our poll are perfectly forecasted by the candidate’s very favorable rating. The correlation for all the candidates is +0.95.
Very favorable ratings are far more important in understanding a candidate’s standing than the total favorable rating, which combines very and somewhat favorable ratings. The distinction between the very and somewhat favorable rating can be thought of us as “loving” versus merely “liking” a candidate. In a field that will have more than a dozen candidates, voters will have their pick of the litter.
A candidate who is liked by a lot of folks but loved by only a few probably isn’t going to come out on top in the 2020 primary. By the same token, a candidate who is polarizing (with people loving or hating them) like Donald Trump was in the 2016 Republican primary will have an advantage on the Democratic side this time around. Remember, Trump had a relatively low total favorable rating, but also a relatively high very favorable rating. This dynamic could work well for someone on the ideological edge of the party like Sanders.
3. The Democratic Party is left, though maybe not that left
I’ve noted on a number of occasions that the Democratic electorate is moving to the left. Our poll mostly confirms that. A majority of Democrats identified themselves themselves as liberal. A plurality support Medicare-for-all system in full and the Green New Deal. A majority will even be mostly satisfied with a nominee who thinks the country should be more socialist.
All of these statistics sound good for Sanders. There is, however, a major warning signal. A giant 44% of Democratic voters say Sanders is too liberal. That’s nearly double the 23% who say the same about Warren. That makes sense in so far as Sanders is further left than Warren. Interestingly, though, this 44% is far more than the about 25% who said Sanders’ positions were too liberal during the 2016 primary season. That may suggest voters are paying more attention to Sanders policies than they were in 2016.
The eventual primary winner in 2020 is probably someone who is able to placate the leftward movement of the party without being seen as outside the mainstream.
4. Underneath the hood the numbers are better for Harris
Unlike in other states, Harris didn’t see a sizable jump in her Iowa support compared to before she launched her bid. Her 7% is about the same as her 5% that she recorded in December. Obviously, that isn’t a great sign for her.
Her favorable ratings, however, saw a clear increase. Her total favorable rating jumped 9 points from 49% to 58%. No other candidate saw that large of an increase in her or his favorable rating. Importantly, her very favorable rating, which is correlated with horserace support, climbed from 19% to 23%. The highest increase among the other candidates in their very favorable rating was just 1 point. All the other candidates with greater than 1% of the vote in the poll (Biden, Booker, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Former US Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren) actually saw a decrease in their very favorable rating.
If the trendline for very favorable ratings among the candidates continues, Harris will likely eventually see a payoff. Of course, there’s no guarantee that Harris will be able to keep it up.
5. These results mean something, but there’s a lot to be determined
It’s easy to see these numbers and say “we’re 11 months until the caucuses.” There’s something to this line of thought. In competitive Iowa caucuses for Democrats and Republicans since 1980, the leader in the polls at this point has actually lost more Iowa caucuses (8 times) than won (6 times). The leader in the Iowa caucuses polls at this point have won the nomination 7 of 14 times.
In a general election, knowing poll leaders have won 50% of the time wouldn’t be useful information. In multi-candidate fields, knowing that the polling leader often goes on to win is helpful. For comparison, according to the betting markets, no candidate currently has more than about a 20% of winning the Democratic nomination. (The betting market odds make sense because Biden and Sanders are polling worse than many poll leaders at this point who went onto win.)
The bottom line: There’s plenty of time to these numbers to shift. Don’t be surprised, however, if they stay relatively stable.