For much of this year, the 2020 Democratic primary could have been fairly described as "Biden and Sanders and Their Single-Digit Friends," with the former vice president enjoying a comfortable cushion of somewhere between 20 and 30 points over his next-closest competitor. The results of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday, however, portray a very different race as the candidates head into the fall: Biden holds only a six-point lead over Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and there are telltale signs that the Warren-Biden gap could shrink even further in the months to come. The Summer of Warren, replete with its packed rallies and wonky proposals and hours-long selfie lines, is making a difference.
In addition to the standard who-would-you-pick-if-the-election-were-today question, the pollsters attempted to measure the relative strength of these preferences, too. Warren now commands the greatest percentage of Democratic primary voters—35 percent—who describe themselves as "enthusiastic" about her prospective general election candidacy. Just 25 percent and 23 percent of respondents said so about Biden and Sanders, respectively. These positions are a near-mirror image of survey results from six months ago, when 33 percent of voters were enthusiastic about Biden, compared to just 20 percent who felt the same way about Warren.
When the descriptor ratchets one notch down the excitement scale from "enthusiastic" to "comfortable," Warren fares just as well, at 35 percent. Sanders's number, however, increases to 37 percent, and Biden's spikes to 41. Towards the skeptical end of the feelings spectrum, 21 percent of voters say they still have "some reservations" or are "very uncomfortable" with Warren, compared to 35 percent and 37 percent who say the same about Biden and Sanders, respectively.
Put differently, Democratic voters would be fine with any of these three White House hopefuls trying to unseat Donald Trump next fall. But by a double-digit margin, it is Warren about whom they are most excited.
The poll also asked voters about their backup plans—which candidate they'd support if their preferred candidate were no longer an option. Here, again, Warren is the clear winner: 21 percent of respondents now say she's their second choice, compared to only 13 percent two months earlier. Sanders trails her by five points, followed by South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg at 12 percent. Biden, the race's current leader, manages to poll at 11 percent in this category.
Together, these results indicate that Biden's lead could be a fragile one. Part of the former vice president's appeal among Trump-weary voters stems from the alleged safety of his candidacy: Joe Biden is a well-known, experienced politician linked to a popular Democratic president who won the Electoral College twice. Like every other chief executive in American history except the one with whom he served, Biden is also an older white guy. Based solely on previous officeholder demographics, if you're looking for someone to Just Beat Trump, Biden fits the description pretty well.
The numbers from this poll bear out this electability thesis: More voters describe themselves as "comfortable" nominating him in 2020 than they do about anyone else. Few feel any more strongly about him than that, though, and are instead reserving their enthusiasm for a senator whose more progressive politics look nothing like his. As Biden's wobbly debate performances raise uncomfortable-yet-important questions about the viability of his candidacy, Warren's near-continuous rollout of detailed, ambitious reforms seem to have made her the preferred alternative to Biden's more incremental policymaking approach.
Part of Biden's fifth-place showing among second-choice candidates, of course, relates to the fact that a plurality of Democratic voters still list him as their top choice. But again, the steep drop-off from his first- to his second-choice support suggests that Biden is more placeholder than frontrunner, and that his position at the head of the pack has more to do with his unique combination of name recognition, perceived electability, and lingering Obama-years affiliation than it does with his merits as a standalone candidate. Thanks to this surge in both support and intensity of support, Warren is emerging as his most formidable challenger.
Drew Magary on the Massachusetts senator who's lapping the democratic field ideas-wise.
Originally Appeared on GQ