Elizabeth Warren’s seemingly inexorable rise and Joe Biden’s dogged resilience have been the two major stories of the Democratic primary so far.
Over the next and more intense period of campaigning in the early states, the story could be very different. The two will probably have to confront their vulnerabilities to a greater extent than they have to this point, and they face challengers who are well positioned to exploit them.
Pete Buttigieg’s lead in a recent Monmouth University poll of Iowa is as good a time as any to mark the beginning of a new phase of the race.
Until now, the front-runners in the topline poll numbers have shown few signs of weakness. Mr. Biden’s lead has been mostly steady in national polling averages over the last month. Though Ms. Warren’s rise in national polls has stalled, it has not seemed to reverse in a significant way.
But their weaknesses have been evident by other measures, including in more specific polling questions, for some time.
Mr. Biden has never emerged as a classic establishment front-runner, one with a large number of endorsements and strong fund-raising. Now, as the race reaches the point when the establishment front-runner would typically be poised to deploy vast financial resources to fend off attacks and challenges, he finds himself likely to be outspent, even badly, by lesser-known rivals.
Mr. Biden may already be suffering the costs in Iowa, where Mr. Buttigieg is the clearest beneficiary of his weakness among the party’s elite. Mr. Buttigieg, the South Bend mayor, has raised more money than Mr. Biden and has steadily gained in Iowa polling, culminating in the Monmouth poll that put him in the lead. (Our New York Times Upshot/Siena poll, conducted earlier, showed Mr. Buttigieg rising. He was third, a point behind Bernie Sanders and four points behind Ms. Warren.)
The softness of Mr. Biden’s elite support may also create a new set of threats, like potential candidacies by Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick. Neither has formally declared, and it’s not clear if they could win substantial support. But if they do gain traction, it could easily come at Mr. Biden’s expense.
Tepid elite support and Mr. Buttigieg are not Mr. Biden’s only challenges in Iowa. He also has little support from political activists. This has contributed not only to his financial deficit but also threatens his support in a relatively lower-turnout environment like a caucus. Mr. Biden was a distant fourth in Upshot/Siena polling, with 13 percent to 14 percent of support among voters who were “almost certain” to attend the caucus or those who had attended before.
All of this is separate from another question: whether Mr. Biden’s performance on the stump and on the debate stage is strong enough to retain his support as voters tune in more intensively. Mr. Biden’s resilience in the polls to this point suggests that these concerns could be overstated, though he does seem to have lost more ground in Iowa, where voters are generally paying more attention than they are nationwide. Of course, it is possible that Mr. Buttigieg’s rise, not Mr. Biden’s performance onstage, is primarily responsible for the weakening in his support.
Mr. Buttigieg’s gain might also come at the expense of another candidate: Ms. Warren, who also appeals to the meritocratic-minded, well-educated voters who tend to admire Rhodes scholars or Harvard law professors.
Ms. Warren’s rise in the polls has been impressive, but there is no reason to assume it will be durable. In Iowa, 78 percent of her supporters said they could change their mind, more than with any of her top rivals, according to the Upshot/Siena poll.
She has vulnerabilities of her own, and she has come under greater scrutiny since she began to match Mr. Biden in national surveys. Her position on “Medicare for all” funding has given her rivals an avenue to attack, and her standing in national and state polls has seemed to slump over the last month.
Her rivals could also point to questions of electability: Although there is still a long way to go, state and national polls show her underperforming her top rivals in matchups against President Trump.
A substantial share of Ms. Warren’s supporters in Iowa (60 percent) said that a woman would have a harder time defeating Mr. Trump and strongly agreed (41 percent) that sexism was a major factor in Mr. Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Ms. Warren’s own supporters were likelier to hold these views than supporters of Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders or Mr. Buttigieg, in Upshot/Siena polling.
And Ms. Warren has another rival for support on her left flank: Mr. Sanders.
He has been holding steadily at third in national polls. After a health scare in October, he came back with a strong debate performance and a high-profile endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. His standing in the polls has ticked up since, and he remains highly competitive in Iowa and particularly in New Hampshire, where one recent poll gives him the edge.
His position — just behind the front-runners, without obvious momentum, and with little news media scrutiny — seems to confer tactical advantages heading into the final stretch. Few candidates have incentive to attack him, as his supporters are among the likeliest to say they won’t change their mind.
And Mr. Sanders has outraised all of his opponents so far this cycle, potentially giving him the resources to push to the front of the pack in the early states over the final stretch. Even if he falls short, it could sap Ms. Warren’s strength.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Sanders’s resources, or collateral damage among his rivals, will be enough for him to claim an early state win, or deny one to Ms. Warren.
It seems even harder to know what will happen when the campaign rapidly spreads past the early states to Super Tuesday and beyond.
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