Instructive March Polls for 2020: Day Two — Iowa!

Author’s note: This will make more sense if you read yesterday’s post:

  • Percent completion of March: 81
  • Percent progress to February’s Visitor number: 76!

This week I’m deploying a desperate attempt to reach February’s Visitor count by doing one short (read: under 1000 words) post a day with a theme: some kernel of illuminating information from a poll taken this month. Come check each day!

The 2020 Election Stat of the Day: Iowa Polling

Though March polls before an election year should not be fully trusted, that doesn’t mean they can’t be instructive. Yesterday we were able to bite into the Democratic Primary’s latest juicy poll, this one out of Iowa. Its famed caucuses, currently scheduled for February 3, will be the first contest on the primary calendar

Iowa has made huge differences in primaries, particularly on the Democratic side. Its last six Democratic versions have foreshadowed the overall primary’s winner.[1] In two recent cases — John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 — we went into Iowa having little certainty about where the primary was headed, but left the state with a new favorite.

So Iowa is huge. Each 2020 candidate could use it as a springboard. As a result, we’ll be keeping a close eye on its polling for the next ten months.

That brings us to yesterday’s poll, conducted by Emerson Polling. Here are its top-line results:


Once again, Biden and Sanders tower above the field. Though only Emerson and the hallowed Des Moines Register pollsters have surveyed the state since the beginning of winter, we can learn from their independently discovered similarities:


Here’s what they agree on:

  1. Biden and Sanders have by far the strongest polling.
  2. Sanders has more momentum than Biden. In the winter, Biden’s lead was huge. In the March polls, they’re neck-and-neck. Biden’s dwindling lead is likely related to his delayed entrance as Sanders hits the campaign trail and earns his donations and his supporters.
  3. Iowa is not listening to the oddsmakers who insist Kamala Harris is the favorite. She’s had the greatest loss of support in the two Emerson polls, while the Register finds her a clear second tier candidate — and not even at the top of the second tier at that.
  4. The top of the second tier is plucky Elizabeth Warren, who continues to deliver policy-driven speeches that should terrify conservatives and embarrass much of the Democratic field, particularly the vague Beto O’Rourke, who, according to Emerson, experienced zero announcement bump in polling.
  5. Booker, Klobuchar, Castro, Inslee, Hickenlooper, and Castro are having trouble gaining traction.

However, the top revelation of the poll is not listed there at all. Weeks ago, I tried to warn you in my first Power Rankings: watch out for Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is up to 11 points and third place in Emerson’s Iowa poll. I wrote:

“As just a mayor with a tough last name to spell and pronounce, it’s easy to write him off, but I actually think he has sneaky upside. (In other words, if candidates were a stock, he’s the best “buy low” option.) He has the gift of eloquently walking listeners through both a big-picture vision and granular problem-solving.”

After Michael Bloomberg and Sherrod Brown dropped out, I moved him into the top 10 despite no polling or oddsmakers seeing him as such. I thought it would take until the debates for him to get recognized, but his strong media interviews and retail talent in Iowa has moved up the timeline. I was hoping to get an Iowa analysis out there before he took off, as I saw him as one of the five most likely winners.[2] I guess I’m too late.

Still, always remember how early it is for polling, particularly in a large field. In March 2015, Ted Cruz, the eventual 2016 Republican Iowa Caucuses winner in a crowded primary, was polling at 5 or 6 percent. In March 2011, Rick Santorum, the eventual 2012 Republican Iowa Caucuses winner, was polling at one percent if he was lucky. In March 2007, Barack Obama trailed Hillary Clinton and John Edwards before also going on to win the caucuses. Iowa wants to be wooed. The question remains: who will woo it? So far it looks like Buttigieg, but more candidates will certainly have their turn.

Finally, as an aside, Emerson’s Iowa polls found head-to-head hypotheticals congruent to its earlier national polling discussed yesterday:


Iowa, remember, is an important swing state; it voted for Bush in 2004, Obama in 2008 and 2012, then it voted for Trump in 2016. In this poll, three of the five Democrats trail the President. The largest deficit is from the oddsmakers’ favorite, Kamala Harris. If polls keep reflecting her general election weakness, her fundraising and other polling will start to suffer. This was among the primary reasons why I ranked her a couple spots below the bettors.

I hope to see you tomorrow for Day Three of my March polling analysis.


[1]Below is the list. Each Iowa winner became the party’s nominee. Admittedly, the streak is a bit inflated since two of these contests featured incumbent presidents (Clinton in 1996, Obama in 2012).

[2]The others:

  • 5. O’Rourke: He’s a skilled campaigner and fundraiser from close to the heartland who can create new young voters, but Iowa Democrats are pretty liberal, and O’Rourke is not.
  • 4. Buttigieg: He’s already on his way up, but perhaps he’s peaking too early. Still, though the debates should be a boon, just being a mayor with unclear general election viability will hurt him, and he’ll be significantly outraised.
  • 3. Sanders: He’s the ultimate fundraiser and organizer in the race and top-two in polling, but I think he, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, and Warren — the sixth most likely Iowa winner, in my opinion — pull from similar voters; Warren eats into his progressive base, while Buttigieg and O’Rourke are popular with millennials. I still see a ceiling.
  • 2. Biden: The consistent Iowa and polling leader needs a spot in the top two, but Iowa pushes back against establishment choices, and whether he’ll pay attention to precinct organization remains to be seen.
  • 1. Klobuchar: Welcome to Hunch City! Population: 1. Stay tuned.

8 thoughts on “Instructive March Polls for 2020: Day Two — Iowa!”

  1. […] Iowa loooovees to break late. Cruz surged past Trump in the final weeks before the 2016 Iowa Caucus. I remember Rick Santorum polling in the low-to-mid single digits one month before Iowa, then surging to tie/beat heavy favorite Mitt Romney there. Four years earlier, Hillary Clinton led most Iowa polls as 2007 closed out, then Barack Obama won the state by seven points. […]


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