New Iowa poll shows slight edge for Sanders in a crowded top tier

Bernie Sanders campaigns in Iowa.
(Tannen Maury / European Pressphoto Agency)

Just weeks before voters caucus in Iowa, Bernie Sanders has gained a slight edge in the close race for the Democratic presidential nomination there, with the state’s most-watched poll showing him supported by 20% of likely voters, at the front of the pack but with several rivals close behind.

The new Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll has the Vermont senator 3 percentage points ahead of his next closest rival, Massachussetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has the support of 17% of likely Democratic caucus-goers. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is right behind her with 16% support, and former Vice President Joe Biden has 15%.

The results — a virtual dead heat among the top four — reflect a a nail-biter of a contest in the run-up to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses Feb. 3. The margin of error for the Iowa Poll, traditionally seen as the most reliable assessment of voters’ leanings, is 3.7 percentage points. The pollsters surveyed 701 likely Democratic caucus-goers from Jan. 2-8.

As close as the race is, the results are welcome news for the Vermonter, whose prospects were thrown into doubt only a couple of months ago after he was hospitalized for heart surgery. Sanders has come bounding back, and his 5-percentage-point gain since the Iowa poll in November offered a reassuring sign that his health hasn’t turned off voters.


The poll was bad news for Buttigieg, who has dropped precipitously in Iowa since he was at the top of the field in that state in November. He has dropped 9 percentage points since then, to 16% from 25%. And for Biden, it suggested that he has not yet built the momentum to create the aura of inevitability he wants.

For Warren, the new numbers suggest a candidate holding her ground; she had earlier lost altitude from her onetime lead in Iowa. The poll showed the senator still in strong contention, as some Iowans apparently have reconsidered their support for one of her main rivals, Buttigieg. She also has the advantage of a robust campaign infrastructure and strong network of activists in Iowa.

Among candidates further back, the poll showed Sen. Amy Klobuchar holding firm with support from 6% of likely voters. She has not been able to capitalize on her Midwestern sensibilities and her record in neighboring Minnesota of winning in heartland counties Trump carried, yet Klobuchar contends that she is a viable alternative to the top four.

The findings are also discouraging for others, particularly New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Despite his reputation as a rising star in the party and his considerable media exposure, he has consistently been overshadowed in this state’s contest. Booker, after campaigning aggressively in Iowa for nearly a year, has support of just 3% of likely caucus-goers, according to the poll.

He is among several candidates whose weak polling numbers disqualify them from taking the stage when the Democratic candidates debate in Des Moines on Tuesday. New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who was the sole nonwhite candidate on the stage at last month’s debate, in Los Angeles, also fell short for this round, with support from 5% of Iowa voters in the new poll.

But another candidate struggling in Iowa — California billionaire Tom Steyer — will be debating in Des Moines on Tuesday. In the new poll, he had support from 2% of likely caucus-goers, but he was able to qualify for the debate thanks to new Fox News polls showing sufficient support for him in South Carolina and Nevada, states that vote soon after Iowa and where a solid showing in the polls can propel candidates to the debate stage under Democratic National Committee rules.

Steyer’s spending on television advertising nationwide has already surpassed $100 million, according to figures posted by CNN, eclipsing that of Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren combined.

Another billionaire who has weak support in Iowa but is also spending heavily on ads and rising in the polls elsewhere is former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The poll found that he had the support of just 1% of the potential Iowa voters. Bloomberg, a late entrant into the race, is largely bypassing Iowa and other states that vote early. Instead, he is on a spending blitz in more delegate-rich states that vote later, a risky strategy that assumes Bloomberg can overcome the momentum gathered by rivals who emerge victorious from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Candidates were eagerly awaiting the release of the Iowa poll, which will factor heavily into their strategies to win over and turn out voters in the final stretch.