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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Galston: How to Make Sense of Post-Debate ‘Polling Anarchy’

Brookings Senior Fellow William A. Galston, author of “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy” and other works of political science, explains “What we know after the first Democratic debate“:

In the wake of the first Democratic debates, polling anarchy has erupted. There have been six post-debate surveys. Three place support for Joe Biden, the putative leader of the pack, in the low 20s with other candidates nipping at his heels. Three others put him at 30 percent or above, with a comfortable lead over his challengers. Differences in timing and methodology may explain part of this disagreement, but not all.

One common way to make sense out of disparate polls is simply to average the results, on the theory that the average is likely to be closer to reality than any single poll. For what it’s worth, this technique produces the following post-debate standings:

Polling Average
Biden 27
Sanders 15
Harris 15
Warren 15
Buttigieg 5

However, Galston writes, “A safer strategy is to look at the direction of change in order to get a sense of the pre-debate/post-debate dynamics.” He adds that “There’s no doubt that Biden has taken a hit, Kamala Harris has surged, Bernie Sanders has fallen back a bit, Elizabeth Warren is somewhat stronger, and the bloom is off Pete Buttigieg’s rose…”

Scrutinizing an average of two Iowa polls, Galson notes finds that Harris is the clear winner, with a +10 net change, compared to -1 for Warren, -3 for Biden, -7 for Buttigieg and -10 for Bernie Sanders. “These data suggest that Biden suffered a flesh wound rather than a mortal injury during the first debate and that Harris’s surge came mostly at the expense of candidates other than Biden,” concludes Galston.

Galston also cites a FiveThirtyEight/Morning Consult poll comparing the views of debate watchers with those who only watched post-debate media coverage and debate clips. Biden did slightly worse with debate watchers, while Harris did about 9 points better with those who watched the debates, than with those who didn’t watch debates. Sanders and Warren did nearly the same withj both groups. Ditto for Buttigieg, Castro, Boooker and O’Rourke, while “no other candidates moved the needle, one way or the other.”

Asked “Aside from the candidate you support, which candidates do you most want to hear more about?” before and after the deabtes by CNN’s survey team, respondents gave Castro a +13 increase, with +7 for Harris, +6 for Buttigieg, +4 for Warren and +2 for Booker.

Galston notes also that, in a post-debate Iowa poll, Harris scored a +45 on the “Who did better than you expected?” question, followed by Castro’s +26, Buttigieg’s +17, Warren’s +14, and Booker’s +8. Biden suffered the biggest hit, with -33, followed by Sanders (-19) and O’Rourke (-13).

Regarding ‘electability,’ Galston writes that “In the most recent Gallup survey, electability beats issue agreement, 58 percent to 39 percent; CNN puts it at 61-30, and Economist/YouGov at 66-34.” Galston provides this chart for assessing Biden’s lead in electability:

Best chance of beating Trump First choice for the nomination Gap
Quinnipiac 42 22 20
CNN 43 22 21
ABC/WP 45 30 15

Galston also shares a chart for the Economist/YouGov survey, which asks respondents to evaluate the top four candidates’s chances vs. President Trump. The results:

Will probably defeat Trump Will probably lose to Trump
Biden 62 16
Harris 50 20
Buttigieg 32 27
Warren 29 44

Looking a registered voters as a whole, Galston highlights the results of from an ABC/Washington Post survey released July 7, which has Biden beating Trump by 10 points, compared to m.o.e. ties with Trump for Warren, Buttigieg, Sanders and Harris.

However, notes Galston, “Seasoned observers will take these results with a healthy pinch of salt. Early in 1983, a survey showed Walter Mondale leading Ronald Reagan by 12 percentage points, and the former vice president still led, by a smaller margin, as late as September of the pre-election year. History records what happened next.” He concludes that Biden “remains the man to beat—which is not to say that he cannot be beaten.”

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