New polls show how the Democratic debates have completely upended the 2020 primary race

New polls show how the Democratic debates have completely upended the 2020 primary race
NBC News

Heading into the Democratic primary debates last week, there was one consistent theme in the polls: former Vice President Joe Biden was far and away the frontrunner of the field. But as polls are now coming out and showing the developments in public opinion after the debates, there are clear signs his decisive lead is slipping away from him.


CNN released a poll late Monday afternoon showing that Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California have risen in the polls significantly, while Biden has dipped. Biden is still in the lead at 22 percent, but Harris, who many saw as the breakout star of the second debate, shot up into second place at 17 percent. Warren, who was the frontrunner in the first debate, garnered 15 percent of potential Democratic primary voters, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — who had been seen as the clear second-place contender in the race early on — came in fourth at 14 percent.

CNN explained the huge shifts these topline numbers represent:

That represents a 10-point decline in support for Biden since the last CNN poll in May, while Harris, of California, has posted a 9-point increase, and Warren, of Massachusetts, has boosted her support by 8 points. No other candidates have seen significant movement since the last poll.

Meanwhile, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the only candidate who had been virtually unknown when he entered the race to make a significant showing in national polls, is at 4 percent. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Beto O'Rourke are at 3 percent, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is at 2 percent.

Another poll from HuffPost and YouGov released Monday similarly showed that Harris and Warren were the clear winners from the two debate nights. Of Democratic voters who saw some of the debates, 58 percent said their impressions of Warren improved, while only 4 percent said their impression worsened. And 58 percent of people surveyed also said their impression of Harris improved, while only 9 percent said it worsened.

Biden, on the other hand, seems to have taken a hit overall. While 24 percent of survey respondents said their impression of Biden improved after the debate, an even greater number — 35 percent — said their opinion of him worsened. It should go without saying that when you're the frontrunner, the last thing you want to see happen is for voters to have a worsening impression of you.

Another metric moved significantly in Warren and Harris' favors and against Biden's, as HuffPost reported:

Biden remains the candidate most broadly believed to capable of defeating Trump — but his numbers on that metric have eroded over the past two months, while Warren and Harris’ have both risen. Along with Sanders, whose numbers have remained largely stable, these four now form a top tier of the candidates most perceived as electable, with others ― including O’Rourke, who also saw his numbers slip on this metric ― still polling 20 points or more behind.

(It's worth noting that the question of whether candidates are "capable" of defeating Trump is itself a strange framing. Trump himself was once widely seen as incapable of winning a presidential election, even by some people who liked him. But while some candidates may be more or less likely to win in the general election — a quality that is difficult to assess — most or all of the candidates are almost certainly capable of winning, even if the odds would be against them.)

It's still early in the race, and these numbers could shift dramatically again, of course. The debates themselves might represent a blip in time, and opinions will revert back to baseline shortly. Or this could trigger a serious upset in the trajectory of the race.

The numbers do, however, seem to show at least three things. First, Biden's lead is far from guaranteed to last, and he will have to work hard to maintain dominance in the field. Second, Sanders needs to do more to break out of the doldrums; he's coasting in the mid-to-high teens, and it's not clear he's doing enough to win over people who might be skeptical of him. And third, other candidates — especially Harris and Warren, but potentially others — really do have a chance to break into the front of the pack. But they have to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

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