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5 Takeaways From the Latest Iowa Poll

MusicMan 28 November 2, 2019

Politics|5 Takeaways From the Latest Iowa Poll

What we know: Elizabeth Warren has seized much of Bernie Sanders’ youthful following, and her coalition transcends divisions over policy. What we don’t know: A lot, still.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has deep strength in Iowa and room to grow.
Senator Elizabeth Warren has deep strength in Iowa and room to grow.Credit...Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
Giovanni Russonello

Senator Elizabeth Warren is starting to stand out in Iowa, as Friday’s New York Times/Siena College poll shows. But she isn’t standing alone — at least not yet.

With the candidacy of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. cooling off, the race now looks more interesting than at any point since campaigning in Iowa began intensifying over the summer. Here are a few major takeaways from the poll.

The Iowa poll demonstrated that Ms. Warren has strength in Iowa, and room to grow — but she has not quite broken out of the pack. All four of the top candidates — Ms. Warren, Mr. Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are technically locked in a statistical tie, according to the poll’s 4.7-point margin of error.

Then there’s the fact that 65 percent of Iowa voters who named a first-choice candidate said they could still be persuaded to caucus for someone else. While Ms. Warren is at the top of the crowded bunch with 23 percent of the overall vote, only about a quarter of her supporters are certain they’ll caucus for her on Feb. 3.

That said, there is evidence to suggest that her support is solidifying. Ms. Warren is the second-choice pick of 25 percent of voters with a chosen candidate — that’s 10 points higher than Mr. Sanders, the runner-up. And she leads among the two-thirds of voters who say they’re paying very close attention to the news; she has 23 percent support from that group, compared to Mr. Sanders’ 16 percent. As the caucuses near and attention picks up, she may have a particularly good shot at winning over voters who are just tuning in.

With Mr. Biden’s campaign faltering slightly, there are signs hidden within these poll results that he is still relying heavily on name recognition, rather than enthusiasm.

He is buoyed by the sense — held by four in five Democratic voters — that he would have a good chance of beating President Trump in the general election. Slim majorities of Democratic voters say they would prefer a moderate candidate and one who promises to find common ground, rather than a trenchant liberal.

But Mr. Buttigieg also polls formidably among these middle-path voters, and he is fast on Mr. Biden’s heels. They are roughly tied for the lead among voters looking for a candidate who will seek common ground with political opponents.

Meanwhile, Mr. Biden doesn’t command even 10 percent among the liberal Iowa voters that make up the party’s core. Only 2 percent of voters underage 45 said they would support him. And he draws a good deal of his backing from those who say they have never attended a caucus before, possibly showing that his numbers are being pumped up by respondents who are less engaged — and perhaps, less likely to turn out.

Mr. Sanders, who nearly won the Iowa caucuses four years ago, stands at 19 percent in the poll, revealing that he has held onto a durable — but diminished — following.

Ms. Warren has already swept up support among what was once his most solid demographic: young voters. According to the poll, Ms. Warren was the choice of a whopping 38 percent of voters under 30, compared to 29 percent for Mr. Sanders. But neither of them has been able to capture even one out of every five voters age 45 and over.

Ms. Warren seems to have annexed much of Mr. Sanders’ support among very liberal caucusgoers; she now has 37 percent of them in her corner, compared to 28 percent for him.

Not all of the Democratic voters who are gravitating toward Ms. Warren express passion for each element of her progressive agenda.

Two-thirds strongly back the idea of a public health care option, and a majority — 57 percent — also strongly support increasing Social Security benefits.

But there is less widespread enthusiasm for some of the boldest progressive proposals that Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders have put forth. Just one-third of Democratic voters expressed strong support for giving free college tuition to all Americans, and only 43 percent of Americans strongly believe the big banks and tech companies should be broken up. Mr. Buttigieg’s and Mr. Biden’s backers tend not to be enthusiastic about those ideas.

Yet Ms. Warren has managed to assemble an ideologically diverse coalition. Though her supporters generally skew liberal, most of them don’t feel strongly about eliminating college tuition, and almost half don’t express strong support for breaking up banks and tech companies.

Health care has been the most discussed issue of the primary season, with Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren advocating a “Medicare for all” bill and more moderate candidates calling for a public option. The poll found that most Democratic voters in Iowa are open to a single payer-type plan, but a majority would prefer a candidate who seeks to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and add a public option.

While Mr. Sanders’ Iowa supporters are united in their desire for a single-payer health care system, Ms. Warren brings together a broader spectrum: Barely over half of her voters feel strongly about getting rid of private insurance. This suggests that Ms. Warren has room to grow among the substantial share of voters who are less interested in Medicare for all, and who have not yet settled on a final candidate choice.

It is impossible to say just how many voters will actually turn out in a primary, or which groups will vote in the greatest numbers. At caucuses, which are more sparsely attended, it’s especially hard to know.

So, remember that like all the pre-election surveys that you’ll see in the coming months, the results of this one were dictated in part by how our team defined the probable electorate.

Add in the complex set of rules governing the Iowa caucuses — where backers of less-popular candidates will eventually have to throw their support to someone else on the night of the election — and it all adds up to a lot of uncertainty. This poll is nothing more than our attempt at a snapshot of where things are at, three months out.

Besides that, Iowa’s voters are more than 90 percent white, so the results of this poll carry only the faintest of implications about how the race will play out in the rest of the country. After Iowa’s caucuses and the first primary a week later, in heavily white New Hampshire, the importance of the party’s nonwhite electorate — particularly black and Hispanic voters — will come back into the foreground.

From late February through Super Tuesday on March 3, the focus will be on major contests in Southern and Western states.