National polling over the summer has led to the fairly safe conclusion that the Democratic presidential consists of five top-tier candidates, with Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders occupying the first three spots while Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg round out the field.
But as The Washington Post's Dave Weigel notes, national polls are particularly dismal at predicting the outcome of the Iowa caucus, partly because the caucus is fluid throughout the night and people's No. 2 choices really matter if their first choice doesn't meet the 15% threshold at their precinct. In 2008, for instance, not a single national poll showed Obama beating Clinton in the month-long lead up to the first-in-the-nation contest. In fact, most national polls had Clinton trouncing Obama.
With that in mind, FiveThirtyEight has been tracking the candidates' overall favorable and unfavorable ratings. "Those ratings are important," writes Nathaniel Rakich, "because, unlike in general elections, primary voters are often considering several different candidates, even if they tell pollsters they have a first choice." In fact, in a July NBC News/WSJ poll, only 12% of Democratic voters said their mind was "definitely made up."
The chart below ranks candidates according to their net favorability and also displays how many Democratic voters knew enough about the candidate to have an opinion of them, which Rakich calls "a rough proxy for name recognition."
Net favorability puts Warren with +54 just slightly ahead of Biden (+52) and Sanders (+51), meaning that of the voters who are familiar with her, she is slightly better liked. Warren also may have more room to grow since she is roughly 10 points less known than either of her main competitors. The results generally jibe with The Economist's tracker of who voters are considering voting for, which also reshuffles the field a bit. "Candidates with higher percentages of possible supporters may emerge as breakout stars later in the cycle," writes The Economist.
- Warren: 50% considering
- Biden: 48% considering
- Harris: 40% considering
- Sanders: 38% considering
- Buttigieg: 30% considering
Meanwhile, Biden continues to show strength as people's first choice in virtually every national poll, with Warren and Sanders alternately sharing the No. 2 and 3 spots. There's also a lot of campaigning left to be done, a September debate, and the all-important ground game in early states that will be key factors in who ultimately ends up winning the nomination.