At the time of writing, Joe Biden is the frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic primaries: he’s raising a lot of money, getting a lot of media coverage, and perhaps most notably, leading in a lot of polls. Actually, scratch that last one…Biden isn’t ahead in a lot of polls; apart from an Emerson survey last month, he’s led every single poll in the RealClearPolitics archive.
This level of success is far from insuperable — with averages in the 30s and low 40s, Biden is still a ways away from reaching majority support, and until others drop out, he’ll likely stay below 50%. Indeed, in a field with over twenty declared candidates, it should come as no shock that voters have failed to rally around one person.
What potentially is surprising is how Biden’s numbers came to look like this.
To see how, let’s first imagine the “average” Joe Biden voter. Many would say it’s an individual who’s older and more moderate. Interestingly, unlike other candidates (read: Pete Buttigieg), there doesn’t appear to be a large racial, gender, or education divide in Biden’s support.
If we consider 2016 as a reference, this kind of coalition covers a substantial swath of the Democratic primary electorate, making Biden formidable. But remember, just because he has some voters in a demographic doesn’t mean he has all of them. Rather, these subgroups are in flux between a few candidates.
The best example is seen by comparing Biden’s polling numbers to those of Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke. When Biden gets a boost, he takes support away from them:
It makes sense that Biden and O’Rourke voters partially overlap, since both candidates have positioned themselves as moderates among a sea of progressives. How Biden pulls people away from Sanders, though, is much less intuitive. After all, Bernie supporters are usually younger and more liberal. What gives?
Well, CNN’s Harry Enten offered last week that Biden is chipping at Sanders by commanding media attention and appealing to whites without college degrees — a mid-March poll from CNN confirms, 48% of Democrats who fit this description prefer either Biden or Sanders.
Alongside those two justifications, a third might be at play: Joe Biden could’ve gained some voters who are testing the waters.
For proof, turn to a YouGov survey conducted late last month, in which respondents were asked to name the qualities they value most in a 2020 Democratic candidate. Here’s what Biden supporters chose as their top five:
At first glance, these results are baffling! Biden has sidestepped addressing Medicare for All, been attacked for his relative silence on combating climate change, flipped his views on abortion, and is most definitely not a woman of color. Furthermore, those traits don’t fall in line with what we’d assume to be the top priorities of older, more moderate voters.
Because maybe the Joe Biden supporters answering the poll were not overwhelmingly older and more moderate. YouGov unfortunately didn’t provide demographic breakdowns of its sample, but triangulation from two Quinnipiac University surveys demonstrates how his coalition has evolved over time:
Between March 28th and April 30th, Biden’s topline support improved from 29% to 44%. He also saw substantial gains among every demographic, now boasting the majority of voters in four different groups: those making less than $50,000 a year, voters over 50, self-identified conservatives, and non-whites. Simply put, his bloc is more diverse than ever.
Given such rapid shifts, these inconsistent surveys start to make sense — the polls are wonky because Biden’s support is wonky.
As ridiculous as YouGov’s results may seem, a similar trend emerged in the most recent presidential election: according to a May 2015 poll from Fox News, 59% of GOP voters said they’d never support Donald Trump, but by October of that year, the number dwindled to just 36%.
In other words, it’s still early in the 2020 cycle; even if voters say they feel one way, they’ll likely change their minds and mold their preferences as the primaries near.
For an idea of what those realignments will look like, a distinction must be made between Biden’s core base (or floor) and best-case electorate (or ceiling). It’s probable he keeps the older, moderate crowd in his corner, giving him at least 25% in any poll. Yet there’s also a chance he manages to win over voters who don’t fit that profile, allowing his numbers to climb to where they are now.
That’s not to say Biden will keep such a wide coalition indefinitely; due to factors like his ideology and demeanor, I’d wager that a portion of the younger, more liberal voters who support him today end up elsewhere later.
Until that happens, though, Biden still appears to be the best-performing Democrat in the 2020 field, strange polls or not.