Joe Biden will coast unless Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders locks down the left

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders at last month's Democratic presidential debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders at last month’s Democratic presidential debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
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Reuters
  • Tuesday night’s debate was the last before the Iowa caucuses, and while Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren sparred with each other, the frontrunner Joe Biden was fairly unscathed.
  • Overall, more people like Warren and Sanders than are satisfied with Biden, according to Insider polling.
  • The two senators, however, are splitting the votes. If the Iowa caucuses resemble the Iowa debate, they will have a rough time.
  • That’s not necessarily terrible for them – the delegates get split evenly and can be directed to support the other candidate later down the line – but it imperils their ability to take down the frontrunner.
  • Warren and Sanders need either an undisputed winner or peace. A prolonged fight hands Biden the win.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The final Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses consisted of six candidates, but just three commanded most of the attention: the frontrunners Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

While Biden has been a frontrunner for months, he escaped fairly unscathed from the contest, even considering the critiques of his record regarding the onset of the Iraq War.

Warren and Sanders were not so lucky.

Not only did they endure the typical critiques from former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar – each of whom best appeals to less liberal wings of the party – but the debate also involved an extended dispute between the Massachusetts and Vermont senators on the big story of the week: reports that Sanders doubted a woman’s ability to win the White House in 2020.

The inciting incident isn’t really important here. What matters is that a confrontation between Warren and Sanders was basically inevitable.

Insider has been conducting a recurring SurveyMonkey Audience national poll since December 2018. You can download every poll here, down to the individual respondent data.

Sen. Cory Booker and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro recently exited the race.

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Sen. Cory Booker and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro recently exited the race.
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Ruobing Su/Business Insider

Looking at the past seven polls, Warren and Sanders have an overlapping fan base that all but guarantees a fight. Thirty percent of Democrats like both of them, and 30% on top of either’s banked support would be enough to become the nominee.

But even more, here’s where they stand in comparison with Biden. Of the 2,963 Democratic voter respondents to the seven polls:

  • 1,340 (45%) said they’d be satisfied with Biden as the nominee
  • 1,404 (47%) said they’d be satisfied with Warren as the nominee
  • 1,400 (47%) said they’d be satisfied with Sanders as nominee

Obviously, lots of other candidates are muddling the picture, but we’re also able to see what the field would look like in the event that only those three remained. Looking at the three top candidates in a vacuum gets us a key insight about the state of the race.

(Read more about how the Insider 2020 Democratic primary tracker works.)

Basically, the Insider polling finds a third of Democrats undecided about the top three, another third with only one of those candidates in mind, and the last third picking between two candidates.

  • Sixteen percent of Democratic voters said they would not like any of those three running, about three times the current level of dissatisfaction with the field. Seventeen percent of Democratic voters said they would be satisfied with any of the three. That suggests 33% of the field is basically undecided about those top three.
  • Concentrating on their bases of support, 14% like Biden and Biden alone, 10% like Sanders alone, and 8% like Warren alone. That’d be another third.
  • Fully 14% of the field are deciding between Sanders and Warren.
  • Just 8% are deciding between Warren and Biden, and 6% are deciding between Sanders and Biden.

The last third is the most interesting, as it shows why Sanders and Warren need to figure their spat out quickly if either hopes to defeat Biden. While they were debating each other Tuesday night, the former vice president had eyes only on President Donald Trump.

Data from late December. Booker and Marianne Williamson have since dropped out.

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Data from late December. Booker and Marianne Williamson have since dropped out.
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Business Insider

“I’ve taken all the hits he can deliver, and my poll numbers are going up,” Biden said toward the end of the debate. The boast, accurate or not, highlighted his focus and how little he was forced into straying from it during the evening.

Biden’s key advantage throughout the campaign has been the perception he’s well-suited to defeat Trump: Over those seven polls, 63% of Democrats said Biden would most likely beat Trump in a general election and just 24% thought he’d lose. That’s head and shoulders above other Democrats.

By comparison, those numbers are 49% and 32% for Warren and 48% and 31% for Sanders.

Warren and Sanders need either an undisputed winner or peace – a prolonged fight hands Biden the win

Warren and Sanders have to play a dangerous game. If they’re going to fight, they need a winner quickly: Their efforts to defeat the centrist wing of the party are underserved by their targeting each other rather than concentrating on the standard-bearer of that wing, who also happens to be the overall Democratic frontrunner.

But a decisive fight isn’t the only answer here. They could play it cool and keep the peace, which would be a risky but fairly robust delegate strategy. Delegates are won proportionately as a percentage of the vote in states and congressional districts as long as a candidate breaks the 15% minimum threshold. This means if you have three candidates who break 15% and do roughly as well as one another, they’re all getting nearly the same number of delegates. If two of them were to come to an arrangement, and the one who fares worse come June peacefully directs his or her delegates to the other, then they can get their desired result.

They just need to settle their feud, or else Biden will sweep them. If the Iowa caucus resembles the Iowa debate, they are likely to have a rough time.