According to Monday’s Monmouth University poll, there’s now a three-way tie in the Democratic presidential primary: Warren, Sanders, and Biden. This has been reported as a “surge.” In fact, it says more about polls and media than it does about Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden.
The Monmouth University poll reports three front-runners:
- Elizabeth Warren 20%, up from 15% in June.
- Bernie Sanders 20%, up from 14% in June.
- Joe Biden 19%, down from 32% in June.
The next closest contender is Kamala Harris at 8%.
These results are strikingly different from other recent polls that showed Biden leading.
Here’s how the media reported this result:
New 2020 Poll Shows Three-Way Tie Among Sanders, Warren and Biden (New York Times)
And here’s Monmouth’s own headline:
Is the surge real?
The Monmouth poll reached 298 registered voters who identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning, connecting on both land lines and cell phones. According to the poll, “For results based on the Democratic voter sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling has a maximum margin of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points (unadjusted for sample design)”
What does that 6% error mean? It means that this poll might represent any of the following realities in the electorate:
- Biden 25%, Warren 14%, Sanders 14%. Biden still in the lead!
- Biden 13%, Warren 26%, Sanders 14%. Warren laps the field!
- Biden 13%, Warren 14%, Sanders 26%. Sanders support swells!
Remember, one in 20 polls like this will have an error even larger than the 95% confidence margin of error. So things might be off by even more than these possibilities.
So why the media reports? Because news organizations thrive on change. “Biden still in the lead” is boring. “Warren surges” is far more interesting. So we get reports on the Biden plunge and the Warren surge.
Put aside the margin of error for a moment. Is this poll reflecting something actually happening? According to realclearpolitics.com here’s what some other recent polls showed (and these came out the day after Monmouth):
- Biden 33%/Warren 15%/Sanders 20% (Politico/Morning Consult, sample size unavailable).
- Biden 32%/Warren 14%/Sanders 12% (USA Today/Suffolk, 424 Dem voters)
- Biden 30%/Warren 14%/Sanders 17% (The Hill/HarrisX, 465 Dem voters)
- Biden 31%/Warren 15%/Sanders 24% (Emerson, 627 Dem voters)
Hmm. Seems like Biden has solid support, with Warren and Sanders in a second tier behind him.
And here’s how the RealClearPolitics averages look over the last two months.
That brown line is Elizabeth Warren. She’s definitely gained some support, but Biden’s clearly still ahead. Sanders appears to be holding pretty steady.
Why not report that? The Emerson poll has a large sample. What did the New York Times say about it?
The Washington Post? Nada. Fox News? Zilch.
Because that poll is in line with the rest of the polls and ergo, is not news.
What’s really happening?
There is a definite pro-Warren bias in the media I’m reading: the Monmouth poll, big Warren crowds, fawning profiles. The media thinks Warren is sexy since she talks about ideas and since she’s new to the national stage, unlike Biden and Sanders.
I have my own narrative. I like Warren’s ideas. I think Sanders’ “tear it all down” message has clear limits; after seeing Trump, most Democrats are not ready to blow government up, they want to save it. And I think Joe Biden is too old and slow.
Regarding electability, I think Trump would wipe the floor with Biden, who I doubt could react to his attacks effectively. Sanders would give Trump a good fight, but in the process might alienate a huge swatch of the electorate that has lost interest in a couple of alpha males shouting at each other. I think Warren’s ideas- and plan-based campaign, along with her natural ability to connect, could be the best foil and contrast to Trump in the 2020 election.
But let’s be clear: this is just my narrative. It doesn’t qualify as fact. I don’t read the news searching only for confirmation. I read the news and the polls and recognize that it’s a very long time until next year’s election.
The Warren surge may very well come to pass. I hope it does. But the poll that got all the coverage this week doesn’t qualify as evidence for it.
I try not to confuse what I want with what is true. This is very hard to do. But it is something we all should practice doing every moment of every day.
Optimism is a fine attitude. Just don’t plan your day — or your strategy — around it.