It’s clear that as the primary process goes on, more and more people firmly decide who they will support in primary. Many eventual nominees begin their primaries polling in single digits, but by this point in the process, most eventual nominees have gained serious support and have strong momentum. Indeed, as 538 mentioned in an article this week, only one candidate in the modern primary era — Jimmy Carter — has gone on to win the nomination after polling below 5% during the second half of the year before the primary.
To make matters worse for the lower-tier candidates, historical data suggests that these candidates will have a harder time trying to win the nomination, than candidates in past candidates would have at the same time in their primary processes. This is because this primary has gotten underway earlier than primaries in previous cycles. In the last few election cycles, candidates have on average launched their campaigns in late-April to mid-May, however, the average date for 2020 Democrats to launch their candidacy was January 26th. This means that these candidates have been campaigning for longer than in previous cycles and media coverage of the race has started earlier. All in all, voters know more about this race and the contenders than they have done at this point in previous years, so if the 2020 Democrats still haven’t gotten traction, it’s looks harder to see how they ever will.
Moreover, the Democratic primary polls have been unusually stable this cycle. A look back at polling from recent primaries found that the middle 50% of candidates saw their support change between -8.4% to +8.4% between February and August of the year before the primaries, however, the figures this time round were -0.9% to 0.9%. Now, this statistic doesn’t account for the fact that some candidates have seen significant changes in support during this time period but saw their support go back to the same levels as in February by August, but it’s undeniably true that the polls have been remarkably stable this cycle.
Indeed, in the RCP poll averages, Biden has always held a strong lead, Sanders — excluding his post-launch bump in support — has consistently hovered in the mid-to-high teens and, candidates like Booker and Klobuchar have never moved from the low single digits.
This polling stability from February to now is likely related to the primary starting earlier than usual — by February people were already fairly informed about the candidates and their platforms — but it’s probably also due to the large number of Democratic candidates as well as Democratic voters focus on electability.
Here’s why. Having over 20 candidates running for President makes it harder to compete for people’s attention — the lion’s share of attention is given to the top-tier and, the relatively small amount of media attention usually given to lower-polling candidates is divided among an incredibly large group of candidates — making it harder for any one of them to stand out.
Additionally, Democrats say by a 55–39 margin that they prioritise picking a candidate who they are confident can beat Trump rather than one they agree with on more issues. As the narrative has remained that Biden is the most electable candidate, his poll lead has remained too. Democrats are putting to one side what they think of the candidates and going off what they believe the average voter wants. As a result, three less-than-strong debate performances by Biden — that in previous years would have cost him support as he lost favour among Democrats — have failed to seriously damage him as voters still believe that swing voters prefer him over the alternatives, even if they themselves don’t.
All of this would lead us to the conclusion that is harder than ever for lower-tier candidates to win the nomination, but they still have a chance. It was clear in Thursday’s debate that underdog candidates, like Beto O’Rourke, were doing better than before, because with half of the other candidates from the previous debate being excluded, people gave candidates like Amy Klobuchar more serious consideration than before. She and others polling lowly may not see a massive bump in support following this debate, but now they’re on people’s radar they may be able to build up more support if they qualify for future debates, consistently perform strongly in said debates and then they will be ready to capitalise if any of the main candidates collapse. But that’s the issue for them, they need a trifecta of unlikely events to occur before they even have a shot at the nomination and, that’s why — odds on — one of Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Warren or, Sanders will be the next Democratic nominee.