A big question surrounding Joe Biden’s likely candidacy is whether his polling lead is built upon merely being well known. If it is, then you can expect other candidates to pass him once voters become more familiar with them. After all, Biden is a former vice president, and most of his opponents have never run a national campaign.
But a closer look at the data reveals why it’s silly to dismiss Biden’s lead as merely being because of name recognition. This doesn’t mean he will win the nomination. I’m actually betting against him doing so. Still, Biden’s current numbers do mean that his candidacy should be taken seriously.
1. Even controlling for name recognition, Biden is doing well
One instant giveaway of how well he is doing is to compare it to how other candidates who have similar name recognition are doing. Look no further than recent polls of the Iowa caucuses taken by Monmouth University and the New Hampshire primary by St. Anselm College. Both were conducted after a rough couple of weeks for Biden in the news, as he faced allegations of unwanted touching.
Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts all have near-universal name recognition in both states. Do they have the same amount of support in the polls? No.
Biden holds clear leads over Sanders and Warren in both polls. In the Iowa poll, he’s ahead 27% to Sanders’ 16% to Warren’s 7%. In the New Hampshire poll, Biden is up 23% to Sanders’ 16% to Warren’s 9%.
Go West and Biden’s lead holds, per the recent California primary preference poll taken by Quinnipiac University. Biden, at 26%, is beating Sanders, 18%, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, 16%. In other words, the former vice president is beating the man who earned 46% of the 2016 California presidential primary vote and a very well-known senator in her own backyard.
You can look nationally, too. Biden and Sanders have about the same name recognition. Since the beginning of the year, Biden has averaged about 30% in primary preference polls. Sanders has averaged about 20%, and that was with a post-announcement boost. The only other candidate with greater than 80% name recognition, Warren, has averaged in the mid-single digits.
Indeed, when you line up the different candidates by their name recognition in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally, you see that Biden is actually doing better than expected given his name recognition in all three contests. The only other candidate for whom that is true? South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The fact that Biden is able to do this in spite of bad media is also probably a sign it’s not just name recognition for him. He remains well liked by voters.
2. Candidates in Biden’s position often win
We need to be cautious in interpreting early polling data. We’ve got about 10 months to go until the Iowa caucuses. A lot of things can change.
Caution doesn’t mean dismissal, however. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn has noted, “Biden would be a strong contender for 2020 if the past were a reliable guide.” Now Cohn rightly offers the disclaimer that some recent elections have shown that being ahead in the polls at this point is no guarantee of victory. Still, it’s worth pointing out that the polls had Donald Trump winning the nomination long before analysts (such as yours truly) did.
Biden’s current 30% nationally is not to be taken lightly. Examine a 2011 analysis of early primary polls from years past by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. When a candidate with high name recognition averages 30% in the polls in the first half of the year before the primary, said candidate has a 2 in 5 chance of winning the nomination. Biden has averaged about 30% in every month so far this year, despite more candidates entering the race.
A 2 in 5 shot is far from a sure thing. In fact, it jibes with what I said up top: Biden probably won’t win the nomination.
That said, in a field that will likely end up north of 20 candidates, a candidate who has a 2 in 5 chance (by the polling) should be considered a front-runner.
3. Biden’s coalition makes sense
If Biden were ahead because he was earning the votes of self-described “very liberals,” the case that his lead was because of name recognition would make a lot more sense. Biden, after all, has a fairly moderate record (especially by the standards of today’s Democratic Party).
Biden, though, is winning without the support of very liberal Democrats. He averaged just 11% among very liberals in Quinnipiac’s California poll, St. Anselm’s New Hampshire poll and Quinnipiac’s latest national poll. He was in third or fourth place among very liberals in all these surveys.
Instead, Biden is up thanks to his support among moderates/conservatives. He averaged 35% with this group across these three polls. He also scored 35% among this group in Monmouth’s Iowa poll. (A poll that didn’t provide a cross tab for very liberal voters.) In all these polls, he was 15 points or more ahead of his nearest competitor among the moderate/conservative crowd. In all but one, he was at least 20 points or more ahead of his nearest competitor.
Biden’s lead among the moderate voters is in tune not just with his voting record, but with the overall direction of the candidates running this year. Most of the major candidates are running to the left, which leaves a gaping hole on the moderate side of the party. Biden is the only candidate in the top six (Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Sanders and Warren) who is doing his or her best among moderate/conservative voters. The rest are all doing their best among very liberals.
That leaves Biden in an enviable position, because moderate/conservatives make up about half the party. He is fighting for a much larger portion of the party than the other candidates who are splitting the significantly smaller very liberal wing.
This suggest Biden’s lead has staying power, unless someone can appeal to the more moderate wing of the party.
Of course, we may be getting ahead of ourselves. Biden’s not even in the race. How soft his support is will only become clear if/once he gets in.