Buttigieg soars, Biden slumps in benchmark Iowa poll


Just hours before presidential candidates will pitch themselves to Iowa Democratic activists in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, a new poll of likely caucus-goers is rattling the race — and hinting that a formidable front-runner is not as invincible as he might appear.

The Iowa Poll, conducted by veteran pollster Ann Selzer for the Des Moines Register and CNN, found former Vice President Joe Biden leading the Democratic field with 24 percent of the vote.

The race for second place is a statistical tie between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), at 16 percent; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), at 15 percent; and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 14 percent.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is the only other candidate who registers significant support. She clocked in at 7 percent of the vote. Six percent of voters said they were not sure who they would choose on caucus night.

Eight months before voters head to their caucus sites, though, the poll shows movement within a Democratic primary that is still wide open.

Here are six takeaways from the Iowa Poll:

Biden's support is shaky

In December, months before he even entered the race, nearly a third of Iowa voters said they backed Biden. Today, about six weeks after he announced he would run, Biden's support has fallen by a third.

Biden's declining support came even before this week's controversy over his flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment, which came after Selzer began fielding her poll.

In December, 82 percent of Iowa Democratic voters said they saw Biden favorably; this month, that number is down to 72 percent of Democratic voters, a 10-point drop. His unfavorable ratings are up nine points.

And Biden's backers are less enthusiastic about their chosen candidate than supporters of other candidates. Just 29 percent of Biden's supporters say they are extremely enthusiastic about backing the former vice president. An average of 43 percent of Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg supporters say they are extremely enthusiastic about backing their chosen candidate.

Sanders has a ceiling

Three years ago, Sanders came within a handful of votes of achieving a stunning upset over front-running former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Today, almost every Iowa Democrat has an opinion of Sanders; only 5 percent of likely caucus-goers say they do not know enough about him to have formed an opinion, a lower number than everyone but Biden.

But Sanders also has one of the highest unfavorable numbers among Democratic candidates; a quarter of state Democrats say they view him negatively, about the same percentage as those who see Biden unfavorably.

The dichotomy between Sanders's high name recognition and his relatively low poll numbers suggest Sanders fans from 2016 are looking elsewhere this year — and that the 77-year old self-avowed Democratic socialist has a ceiling through which he cannot break.

As Warren, Buttigieg, Harris and the others introduce themselves to voters and earn more support, they are likely to pull from a population that backed Sanders over Clinton in 2016.

The high unfavorable ratings that Sanders and Biden suffer aren't the worst in the field. More than four in 10 Iowa Democrats see New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unfavorably.

Warren is on a growth trajectory

Selzer is considered a one of the most skilled pollsters when it comes to surveying Iowa's electorate. What makes her especially effective is that her surveys consistently illustrate who's on the move, up or down.

And, though it is eight months before the caucuses, Warren is the candidate on the move. She has a higher net-favorable rating of any candidate in the field; 71 percent see her favorably, while just 17 percent see her unfavorably. That's a better ratio than Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg.

An equal number of Democratic voters, 61 percent, say they are actively considering or backing Warren and Biden, the highest rates in the field. That's five points higher than those who say Sanders is on their ticket, and nine points higher than both Buttigieg and Harris.

Warren has been more aggressive in laying out detailed policy proposals than any other candidate. She has hired more staffers in Iowa than any other candidate, and she has spent more time in Iowa — more than two weeks — than any other front-runner.

In terms of sheer growth, no one has improved more than Buttigieg, who wasn't even included in the December survey. Buttigieg scored just 1 percent support in the March survey, fielded about a week before his first CNN town hall, where he captured the Democratic electorate's attention and vaulted from also-ran to top contender.

The Beto bust?

No one is in a deeper slump than former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas). In December, a month after O'Rourke narrowly lost a spirited challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R), 11 percent of Iowa Democrats said he was their first choice, and another 12 percent said he would be their second choice.

In this month's poll, only 2 percent of Iowa Democrats say Beto is their first choice, an 80 percent drop. Just four percent say he is their second choice.

The number of Iowa Democrats who say they view him unfavorably stands at 21 percent, almost double the number who said they saw him unfavorably back in December, while his favorable rating — 54 percent — is up only a single point. O'Rourke has held 52 events over 17 days, according to a tracker maintained by the Des Moines Register, but all that hard work isn't paying off.

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) haven't gained any traction either. In Selzer's March poll, Booker and Klobuchar each claimed 3 percent of the vote; this month, Klobuchar is at 2 percent and Booker is at 1 percent, tied with the likes of former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang (D).

The best news for Booker: He's the second choice candidate for 6 percent of Iowa Democrats, a level of support that puts him in the conversation.

A tough field to poll

What's harder than keeping an Iowa voter on the phone while a pollster reads a list of all two dozen candidates running for the Democratic primary nomination? How about accounting for the two different kinds of elections Democrats will run next February?

The Iowa Democratic Party for the first time plans to hold what they are calling virtual caucuses — events in which voters who can't attend their polling places in person on February 3 can still make their preferences known.

Party rules say those who participate in virtual caucuses will be given the power to decide 10 percent of the delegates allocated during the caucuses, regardless of how many people show up in person or by phone. About 28 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers said they would participate in the virtual caucus, making their votes worth about a third of those who actually show up in person.

That has forced Selzer to ask Iowa Democrats not just who they plan to support, but how they plan to participate — and to weight support accordingly.

"Those who say they are likely to choose the virtual option are younger, more moderate, and more likely to be currently registered as 'no party,' which of course they must change to participate in the Democratic Party caucuses. They are also less committed to caucusing than those who say they intend to show up on caucus night," Selzer wrote in an explanation of her methodology.

Biden's support is higher among those who plan to caucus virtually, 33 percent, than those who plan to caucus in person, 23 percent. Buttigieg and Sanders fans disproportionately plan to show up in person. Warren's supporters are about evenly split, while Harris backers are more likely to say they will caucus virtually.

The new virtual caucus, meant to allow more voters to participate in the process, is likely to expand the universe of those who get to make their voices heard — and it's also going to make the process of measuring those voters all the more difficult.

Iowa Poll has clout

The Iowa Poll will be the lead story in tomorrow's Des Moines Register. It is already playing across CNN, the poll's other top sponsor. And it comes just as Iowa Democratic activists head to Cedar Rapids for the state party's annual Hall of Fame dinner, where 19 out of 24 presidential hopefuls will speak.

Selzer's poll will be the talk of the afternoon — so many candidates are speaking that the state party will kick off the event at 2 p.m. Central time. And it won't go unnoticed among state Democrats that the front-runner Biden is the only top contender who won't show up to woo the activist class.

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