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In pattern break, Monmouth poll shows three-way tie among top Dem hopefuls

Sen. Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking before a baseball game between his staff, "The Revolutionaries," and the Leaders Believers Achievers Foundation at the "Field of Dreams" movie site in Dyersville, Iowa, on August 19.

I’ve been preaching for some time, and don’t intend to change this belief, that it’s a mistake to get too excited about the latest polling in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Any such poll is an imprecise measure (that’s why there’s always a plus-or-minus-several-percentage-points assigned to the fleeting, sure-to-change numbers). The question the pollsters ask is some version of “if the election were held today,” which it won’t be, and the results combine the thoughts and feelings of many citizens of varying likelihoods of voting, who are pay varying levels of attention to politics this far ahead of an election.

My biggest preachment is to keep an open mind and pay as much attention to a combination of who-seems-to-have-the-best-policy-ideas-and-track-record, plus, especially in the current emergency, who might be most likely to defeat Donald Trump, even though I also don’t trust anyone’s ability to know much about that last question. It’s hard not to get sucked into paying too much attention to another set of poll numbers, the ones claiming to tell us who matches up the best against Trump “if the election were held today” when in fact Election Day is still 15 months away.

For the last many months, most polls have indicated that former Vice President Joe Biden is well ahead of the rest of the field, and that he matches up the best against Trump. My own life spent observing politics tells me the polls can’t tell us who’s the most electable nominee, nor how the election is going to come out, and especially not this far ahead.

Anyway, I’ve just wasted four paragraphs leading up to telling you about one recent result from a fairly reputable pollster that breaks that consistent pattern of showing Biden ahead. And I’ll tell you about it as soon as I remind you again that it’s just one poll, the other major polls don’t agree with it, and even if they all agreed it still wouldn’t tell us what’s going to happen. Now then:

The latest Monmouth University poll shows a three-way tie for the lead in the race for the Democratic nomination between Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In fact, it’s not exactly a three-way tie. Monmouth’s poll shows Warren and Sanders each at 20 percent and Biden at 19. That one-point difference is especially meaningless and easily covered by any margin-for-error, and this poll has a 5.7-percentage-point margin.

And the Monmouth result is out of step with most of the other highly regarded polls, all of which show Biden with a lead, with Sanders and Warren closely matched for second and third, a few points behind Biden. (Monmouth is also a highly regarded polling operation, which gets a top rating among the kinds of outfits that do such ratings.)

Over the next month or two, either some other pollsters will confirm that Biden has dropped from “clear front-runner” status, or they won’t. It’s still too early for that to matter much. Someone other than those three will more than likely make a run at the top bracket, after a good performance in one of the debates or a good showing in one of the early primaries or caucuses.

Over at Vox, Andrew Prokop says the best way to view the whole set of recent Democratic primary polling is that there are three candidates packed pretty closely at the top, with a bit of distance between that three-way tier and the rest of the pack. (And, I would add, no guarantee that someone from the rest of the pack won’t soon join the top-tier nor that one of the now top-three-sters won’t soon fizzle.)

My preachment: Keep thinking about who would be a good president. Don’t get locked into who’s up or down a point or two, because it will change soon. You’re allowed to ask yourself who you think will hold up the best under the inevitable Trump-lashing, but don’t be too confident of your ability to figure that out either. Donate, or door-knock or volunteer. Get some people you know who don’t always vote to vote this time around. And whatever you do, don’t pay as much attention to polls as I do, and if you can’t manage that, keep reminding yourself that polls are a margin-of-error snapshot of the recent past, not a foreteller of the future.

The link below will get you Monmouth’s own write up of its poll, headlined:

“3-Way Lead as Dem 2020 Picture Shifts; Sanders and Warren rise; Biden drops.”

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/27/2019 - 11:00 am.

    I thought this would happen.

    For all his much-touted “centrism” and “bipartisanship,” Biden just has not been generating any real enthusiasm. Voters who pick him as their first choice fall back on the old “electability” arguments, without saying why he would be a better choice for President than any of his rivals for the nomination. While electability is important, there has to be a more compelling reason to support a candidate.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/27/2019 - 11:09 am.

    Agreed, touting any given poll as predictive is a fool’s errand.

    Having said that, I, for one, like this trend.

    Perhaps I’m only looking for reinforcing my view, but I’ve seen several stories about Warren’s rise – large crowds, builing momentum, that agree with this poll. I expect we’ll see more of it, which would be good for Dems. If it were up to me, Sen Warren will be President Warren in 2021.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/27/2019 - 11:26 am.

    I do think think these three are the top contenders, and I suspect Biden’s support will melt as we get closer to Iowa and the primaries, I predict his support will collapse and it will come down to Warren or Sanders.

    The business of polling has become very very difficult because the sampling methods are simply no longer reliable. It’s very likely that Biden’s support is over represented because the use of landlines skews towards older voters where he has an advantage in name recognition and familiarity. Furthermore no one has yet figured out how to effectively control for the self selection among cell phone users who will or won’t answer calls from un-recognized numbers, or recognized numbers they don’t want to talk to… there’s a self selection process there that’s not easily controlled for. The fact that so many of these polls are still using sample sizes of 1,500 or less tell us they’re not even trying. There is no magic algorithm that sorts this out, and it doesn’t matter how many polls you look if they all making the same sampling error.

    My observation is that if it is the case that the polls skew towards Biden, and his numbers are still dropping in THAT sample; he could be in much bigger trouble than he realizes. Given his advantage with these sampling methods he should at least be holding his ground.

    On another note, I’ll make just one other little observation regarding the subtle or maybe not so subtle hostility towards liberals and progressives among the “media”. In the Washington Post coverage of this poll, they have a graphic showing the ten or so Democrats that are still in the game as far as the debate’s go. So this is a story about polling result that puts Sanders and Warren slightly ahead of Biden… yet WaPo decides to organiize the photos in ALPHABETICAL order, so they can still put Biden in front! Logically since it’s a story about poll results you would think they arrange the candidates according the polling results? Instead they arrange them so Klobuchar, who is literally 18 points behind both Sanders AND Warren is placed ahead of them!


    I’ll also note that despite a few article in the NYT’s and WaPo attempting to marginalize Medicare for All, two of the three leading candidates are way ahead of the pack AND the strongest advocates of MFA.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/27/2019 - 12:02 pm.

      Your last point is worth more discussion. There is a lot more excitement, among Dems, for a more blatantly progressive platform.

      There’s another article at 538 (not the one I linked above) that explores who is supporting which candidate, in key states. In short, Biden’s core supporters are not in Iowa. If he has a poor showing there, like behind both Sanders & Warren, watch the wind come out of his sails. And, yes, Iowa caucuses are a long way off (sortof).

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/27/2019 - 01:44 pm.

      The problem with 2 of 3 top contenders supporting Medicare for all is that its very unpopular. Once you tell people they have to give up their private insurance, MFA becomes political poison.

      It will also never get past the Supreme Court. The whole thing is nonsense.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/27/2019 - 01:49 pm.

        And I say this as someone who is leaning toward Warren. I like her a lot, unlike Sanders she is very smart and understands the policies she talks about, and I think she would be a great president. I just worry she is too far left to win.

      • Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/27/2019 - 03:41 pm.

        I’ve always wondered why the default method of accessing health insurance is through my employer. Why is it in their interest to insure my kids? Why do I have to* buy insurance from them? Why can’t I choose to buy into Medicare?

        * Of course, I don’t “have to” buy insurance at all. But the point stands: why are we so wedded to such a goofy way of acquiring health insurance? Frankly, I don’t care for Medicare for all, as a complete replacement of the system. I do favor the option to join Medicare as an individual & pay in my fair share. I’d rather have my employer pay me in cash, which puts the power of choice for health insurance in my hands. In our existing system, employers choose the insurance plans that best meet their needs, and us employees can take it or leave it. But if we choose not to take it, typically are not refunded the employer contribution, so have less buying power as individuals. Meanwhile, my employer is burdened with hiring staff that are experts in health insurance & benefits administration, which is entirely unrelated to our line of business. To whom does this system make sense?!?

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/28/2019 - 02:57 pm.

          The history–
          There was a wage freeze during WWII, and a shortage of workers.
          Since employers couldn’t compete for workers with wages, they instead competed with benefits; health care plans in particular. Thus our unique health care system.

        • Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 09/04/2019 - 09:21 pm.

          Most private insurance plans in Minnesota pay hospitals much less than Medicare does. Medicare imposes no cost containment on pharma, shifting cost containment mainly onto providers of all types, which ends up limiting medical access in poor areas due to lack of market compensation for doctors and nurses, as well as EMT’s, chiropractors, etc. as a sole solution to health care access, it is not a reasonable solution.

          Medicare for all is probably a great slogan, but I would think that Medicare opening up for non-senior patients would be a better option alongside present payers, It would create competition in the insurance market and it would place a major payer into an insurance market that is not solely driven by profit margins. Have yet to hear of any executives in Medicare who are getting multimillion dollar salaries or bonuses.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/28/2019 - 08:12 am.


        The idea that a vast majority of Americans are “happy” with their private insurance is a centrist/neoliberal fantasy. The idea that Obomacare with a few tweaks is the final solution likewise flies in the face of reality. The claim that MFA is unpopular is simply a false claim. A majority of Americans support the idea and it hasn’t really been clearly described yet.

        Neolibera/centrists keep predicting that support for MFA will plummet when people hear their arguments against MFA, but those arguments are all based on false claims that will disintegrate once we actually get this plan on the table.

        Sure people get nervous when you tell them they’ll lose their private insurance. When you explain that their private insurance will be replaced with universal, nationwide, irrevocable coverage that will cost them less and provide better coverage with no pre-authorizations, no deductables and no or co-pays, support will only grow.

        When we explain that universal single payer systems will actually reduce over-all health care spending freeing up billions of dollars for investment and spending elsewhere, support will grow.

        When we explain the fact that vastly simplified administration regimes will actually improve the quality of health care by making best practice evaluation far more effective and manageable, well THAT’S better than a stick in the eye.

        The centrist/neolibeal regime has fought to keep MFA off the table for decades. This battle has always been about servicing market ideology and it’s elite benefactors at the expense of millions of suffering and dying Americans. YOU may be happy with your private insurance at this moment, but it’s killing and injuring millions of fellow Americans physically AND financially. The reason private sector champions have fought so hard to keep even the discussion of MFA off the table is they know once we begin that discussion there will no going back. So bring it on.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/28/2019 - 04:04 pm.

          I used to be happy with my private insurance. But that was 25 years ago, when I lived in Portland and was enrolled in an individual Kaiser-Permanente plan at $110 per month with $10 copays for office visits and tests and no deductibles.

          Even taking inflation into account, neither Kaiser nor any other insurer offers anything of comparable affordability to people under 65. If inflation were the only factor, there would be individual no-deductible plans at $180 per month with $17 copays. I checked to see what Kaiser offers now. The premiums are several hundred per month, the copays are in the $50 range, and there is nothing without deductibles

          Or take the example of insurance that some people receive through their unions. That is better than average, but it, too, is less generous than it used to be.

          How much of the resistance to single payer is due to one or more of the following factors?

          1. Fear of the unknown. There’s a certain personality type whose automatic reaction to anything unfamiliar (food, form of entertainment, travel destination, type of work) is, “I don’t like it.”

          2. Being exposed to horror stories from British tabloids, even though Bernie’s proposal is nothing like the British system, in which medical providers are government employees.

          3. Being one of the tiny percentage of Americans who still has gold-plated insurance

          4. Not realizing that the taxes required to support such a system would be *instead of,* not in addition to the three-to-four figure sums they are currently shelling out for high-deductible insurance

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/30/2019 - 11:34 am.

            Ms. Sandness,

            Absolutely, health care costs started exploding in the mid 80’s for a variety of reasons.

            Neoliberals in general just can’t get their heads around the idea of large government programs. I honestly think that if we didn’t already have Medicare, Social Security, and Unemployment Insurance, they’d be against it if these were contemporary proposals.

            Opponents just throw a bucket of scare and misinformation at everyone whenever the subject comes up, but this is pretty easy to contend with. The economic misinformation campaigns are starting to collapse as well, they just don’t hold up to scrutiny. You may recall Back in 2016 the NYY’s ( bastion of neoliberal economics) had some of their economists run the numbers on Sanders’s MFA proposal and they screwed it up. They “forgot” to subtract the cost of no longer charged premiums and concluded that MFA would cost a trillion dollars more. It took about five minutes for someone to point out the blunder and they had to retract and correct their analysis, and admit that Sanders’s numbers actually check out. Several subsequent (The Koch analysis for instance) analysis have also revealed the economic advantages of MFA.

            The truth is the more you analyze it, the more savings and advantages you find. Everything from access to quality of care improves for a variety of reasons.

            I was surprised however to see Sanders’s and Warren stumble when asked if MFA would require a middle class tax hike… you’d think they would anticipate that question and have a response. Of course the answer is: “yes”, but your trading in high premiums, deductibles, and co-pays, for a way more affordable pay-roll withholding. I think the standard estimate is that the average middle class family will save $3,000 to $5,000 a year while completely eliminating health expense driven bankruptcies.

  4. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 08/27/2019 - 11:29 am.

    Here is something an astute reader of said about Biden, having seen him in at a Biden rally Friday, August 23, at Alumni Hall in Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center, Hanover, NH:

    Then Biden came out. As I said last night, very frail, fragile, and super thin. Slow, deliberate steps. Skin was tissue-papery and getting to that translucent stage that very elderly people can have. I was so shocked. He looks at least 85-90, not 76. And I’ve seen healthier, more vibrant 90-year olds!

    If that is the case, his numbers are going to go down the longer this goes on.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/27/2019 - 12:08 pm.

      Why actually look at a video when you can get a third hand report from web blogger with an agenda?

      My goodness, Biden actually was on his feet for almost an hour!

      Who’da thought it possible?

      • Submitted by richard owens on 08/27/2019 - 02:13 pm.

        Bernie threw strikes in the latest softball game and swings a pretty mean bat.

        This aren’t normal octarians.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/27/2019 - 06:59 pm.

      Have you seen the video of Biden running at one of his appearances?
      Can you provide one of Trump running? Even walking more than ten feet?
      I agree that Warren looks like the fittest of the over-sixty Dem candidates.

    • Submitted by Tom Crain on 08/30/2019 - 11:27 am.

      Add to that his “gaffes”. He can’t remember what state he’s in sometimes.

      The WaPo just ran a story on a campaign yarn he’s been telling recently about giving a Silver Star to a Navy captain. Biden has told the story several times and swears it’s “God’s truth”. The upshot: In the space of three minutes, Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony.

      If he wants to help this country Biden needs to put ego aside and bow out.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/27/2019 - 11:37 am.

    Let’s reduce this to a human scale by talking about 5 Democrats, each accounting for 20% of the total. One supports Biden, one Warren, one Sanders and two support another candidate or have no preference. Two solid progressives, one solid moderate and the other two a mix of attitudes. What does that tell us.

    First, that the platform has to contain some of the progressive ideas, Gun control – absolutely – essentially everyone favors universal background checks and red flag laws. Get elected, get those done, show results and do more later. Healthcare – focus on universal coverage – and fight like hell Republican efforts to take it away from people, as enrollments rates are going down. Make it clear that if insurance companies don’t add value, as they do with Medicare supplemental programs, they are gone. Immigration – hammer Trump for an ineffective approach – what he is doing is a failure on all levels and making things worse. Finally, have the kind of middle class restoration program that Warren talks about – but curbing the efforts of the wealthy to claim all the prosperity for themselves.

    Second, what needs to happen? What we need is for these five mythical voters to agree on what must be done, what can be deferred until Democrats control the Senate and that they will support whoever the party endorses, as making Trump go away is an immediate solution to most of the problems he has created. In other words, nobody gets everything they want, but everyone gets many policies they can support and our country no longer has to deal with the migraine named Trump.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/28/2019 - 08:22 am.


      You comment strikes me as something of a centrist fantasy that strives to split all the differences and cobble together something you think everyone will vote for. I don’t think a composite of mediocrity that pretends the least we can do is the best we can do is any kind of real political solution. Even if such a program defeats Trump in the next election, the crises will continue and other Trumps will emerge.

      I also hate to say but your entire premise is simply mistaken. We do NOT have 5 Democratic candidates capturing 20% of the vote each. We have 3 candidates, two of whom are the most progressive in the entire group capturing 20%. The next closest candidate is Harris, sitting at 8% followed Booker at 4%. Kobuchar is at 1% in this poll.

  6. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/27/2019 - 12:23 pm.

    Trump’s single, greatest gift to the people of the US is that he has so antagonized voters (54% at last count) that D candidates who previously would have been dismissed as too far to the left to be viable now are not only viable but favored too.

    The Right Wing Media complex will rebound from unlimited Trump excuses and move on to their new zero tolerance policy for President Warren.

    2021 Featuring:

    President Warren
    Speaker Pelosi
    Majority Leader Schumer and his Nuclear Option enabled simple majority.

    • Submitted by richard owens on 08/27/2019 - 02:15 pm.

      Maybe Al Franken could come back and be Majority Leader.

      Chuck is not doing it for us. Without Nancy’s help, I fear he couldn’t run the Senate nearly as well as Harry Reid.

  7. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/27/2019 - 04:31 pm.

    I don’t expect the democratic front runners to make much of a poll position move. What I do believe is that Trump and his bizarre behavior will be the motivator to get people off of their couch and go vote for anyone but Trump. The stress is showing on Trump’s face now. If possible, Trump is getting less connected to reality. You would think his family would be concerned about his health, but that would require compassion, apparently his family doesn’t have any compassion to spare. The G7 meeting, just completed, was just another example of Trump’s inexplicable behavior. Trump now has three primary challengers, not necessarily qualified, but they are part of the GOP that is getting very nervous about their and the GOPs future. The GOP’s 40-year scam game of being debt and deficit hawks, repeal and replace, etc., etc. is about to end in a crash and burn. They have supported Trump for years. It’s too late to back out, claim they made a mistake, and want your vote now. What will happen is that Trump’s base will stay with him, but he can’t win with just his base. Independents and dissatisfied GOPers will give the Democrats a bigger piece of the vote pie by either not voting Republican or voting for a Democrat. Individually polls don’t have a lot of confidence associated with them, but over time they show a trend.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/28/2019 - 08:30 am.

    I know I’ve said it before in many ways but seriously, if there’s anyone on the planet who cannot identify an “electable” candidate, it’s “centrist”/moderate Democrats. I don’t know why they keep pretending to posses this skill given decades of spectacular defeats? Maybe that’s just nature of privilege and elitism?

    At any rate, if Biden is SOOOOO electable… why hasn’t he been president yet? Seriously, the last time these guys decided that their most electable candidate was electable because they were running against Trump… Trump won.

  9. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 08/29/2019 - 11:06 am.

    The artical, as noted by the author, was longer than necessary.

    By the way, a 20% result means 80% are undecided or rate someone else. It ain’ over ’til it’s over. –Yogi Berra. In fact it doesn’ really count until the Iowa caucuses.

    I’d like to see two polls:
    Candidate rankings by super-delegates;
    Best VP choice for Biden, Sanders and Warren by presiential campaigns.

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