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Exclusive: Nevada poll shows Biden-Sanders showdown in a tightening Democratic race

It’s not just Iowa: An exclusive Suffolk University/USA TODAY Poll of Nevada shows another early-voting state where the Democratic presidential race is tightening, former vice president Joe Biden is struggling to hold front-runner status and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is showing strength.

As Democratic contenders prepare to debate Tuesday in Des Moines – the final debate before the opening caucuses in Iowa – the field is shrinking and the race may be heading toward a showdown between a familiar centrist and a firebrand liberal who represent starkly different choices for the party. 

In Nevada, the third state on the calendar, the new survey shows Biden leading Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by a single percentage point, 19%-18%. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is third at 11%.

Some of the same dynamics were apparent in a Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa Poll released last Friday. Sanders held his first lead in the iconic survey, at 20%, followed by Warren at 17%, Pete Buttigieg at 16% and Biden at 15%. In both states, the second-tier candidates seemed to be having trouble in breaking through. 

In Nevada, Biden has dropped by 9 points and Warren by 7 points from the average of recent statewide polls calculated by RealClearPolitics.com. Sanders’ support has proven steadier, dipping by 2 points. No other candidate has broken into double digits in the Silver State. 

“Looking at the totality of the data, you’d have to say that Biden, Sanders and Warren are in a tier of their own,” said veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. But, he added, “It’s late to say it’s early, but there’s still time for things to happen. What happens in Iowa and what happens in New Hampshire will affect what happens in Nevada.”

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Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg sit atop polls in the first three nominating contests of the 2020 primary season.

With the opening Iowa caucuses now just three weeks away, the Democratic contest is heading into a rollercoaster seven weeks that could well determine the Democratic nominee who will face President Trump. The Feb. 3 caucuses are followed by the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29. Super Tuesday contests on March 3 will then chose a third of the delegates needed to claim the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July. 

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Des Moines debate: Candidates seek momentum

The calendar could raise the stakes for the Des Moines Register/CNN debate, which will have six contenders on stage.

“Every candidate will be looking for that ‘break-out moment’ to generate momentum,” predicted David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, although he noted that in the past any post-debate bumps have been short-lived. “To date, we have only seen mini-moves of candidates spiking after debates, to be followed by a settling back to the same front-runners that we’ve had all along.”

The average of recent polls in New Hampshire show the same four contenders clustered at the top: Sanders at 21.5%, Biden at 18.8%, Buttigieg at 18.3% and Warren at 14.8%. That quartet plus Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and environmental activist Tom Steyer qualified for the Tuesday debate. 

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Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speak during a Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

In the Nevada survey, Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Steyer were at 8%. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Klobuchar were at 4%. Another 22% were undecided.

Biden and Sanders showed strength not only in leading the pack but also in the loyalty of their supporters, who by nearly 2-1 were committed to sticking with them. Two-thirds of their backers said their minds were firmly made up. But among supporters of Warren and Buttigieg, nearly six in 10 said they might change their minds.

The candidate with the most fervent support was Yang. Among his backers, 73% said their minds were firmly made up; just 18% said they might change them. (Put another way, only four of his 16 supporters said they might switch to someone else.)

The poll of 500 likely Democratic caucus-goers, taken by landline and cell phone Wednesday through Saturday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. 

Democratic field continues to shrink

Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar at Democratic debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 19, 2019.

Meanwhile, the record-sized Democratic field continues to shrink. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who was at 2% in the Nevada poll, withdrew from the presidential contest Monday. In recent weeks, California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Housing secretary Julian Castro and spiritual adviser Marianne Williamson also have pulled out, saying they saw no realistic path to the Democratic nomination.

That leaves the Democratic field without an African American or Hispanic contender, a potential concern for a party that counts minorities among its core supporters. 

Asked for their second choices, 21% of those surveyed in Nevada picked Warren, 19% picked Biden, 12% picked Sanders and 10% picked Buttigieg. 

Those findings may raise a red flag for Sanders. While he is essentially tied with Biden as a first choice, Biden and Warren are better positioned to pick up support if and when other candidates drop out. 

Those who picked Biden as their first choice were inclined to support Warren as their second choice. Sanders’ supporters also were inclined to support Warren.

Warren’s supporters divided between Sanders and Biden. Buttigieg’s supporters divided between Biden and Warren. Steyer’s supporters went to Biden. 

One more prospect: Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. A late-starting candidate, he hasn’t been certified for the Nevada caucuses. But the millions of dollars he’s spent on TV ads nationwide haven’t gone unnoticed. A 55% majority of the likely caucus-goers in Nevada say they’ve seen them. 

When it came to the issues that mattered, three dominated the others from a long list: Health care, chosen by 22%, climate change, by 14% and the economy, by 10%.

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