The crowded Democratic presidential field has sorted into a top tier of five candidates after the first debates, with former Vice President Joe Biden in the lead and Sen. Elizabeth Warren narrowly behind him, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds.
The poll found that 26% of surveyed Democratic primary voters supported Mr. Biden as their first choice for the party’s nomination, and 19% supported Ms. Warren, of Massachusetts. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont were tied in third place, with 13% each, while South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg drew 7% support.
Months into the primary campaign, none of the 17 other candidates tested in the survey garnered more than 2% support.
Ms. Warren’s strong standing is built on a substantial lead among the party’s most liberal voters, many of whom had propelled Mr. Sanders’s campaign in the 2016 primaries.
In the new survey, Ms. Warren drew a substantial 43% support among voters who call themselves both strong Democrats and very liberal—a group that accounts for nearly a quarter of primary voters. “It’s clear to see that Elizabeth Warren has gobbled up the ‘party people,’ ” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, referring to the Democratic base.
He said Ms. Warren was well ahead of Mr. Sanders among the liberal voters that both are pursuing. “You can see the pop that she’s getting based on ideology,’’ said Mr. McInturff, who directed the survey with Democrat Jeff Horwitt.
It was the first snapshot of Democratic preferences for the presidential nomination recorded by the Journal/NBC News poll. The survey didn’t include billionaire Tom Steyer, who announced his candidacy this week.
The survey found many signs that the race remains fluid, as expected at this early stage of the campaign. Only 12% of respondents said their mind was definitely made up on who they would support, and pollsters said that Mr. Biden’s lead shouldn’t be considered substantial.
“Biden’s again a very solid part of the first-tier, but not a front-runner,” said Mr. McInturff. Mr. McInturff said he considers a front-runner in a multicandidate field to have support in the high-30% or low-40% range.
The survey also showed Democratic voters breaking into two groups based on ideology. While Ms. Warren holds a substantial lead among liberals, Mr. Biden is well ahead among its moderate and conservative voters.
Ms. Warren won 29% support among liberals, compared with 18% for Mr. Sanders, who has also built his campaign on a vision of an active, progressive government. Ms. Warren also drew more support than Mr. Sanders among respondents looking for a candidate proposing large-scale policies that promise major changes, rather than smaller-scale policies.
Meanwhile, the former vice president remained well ahead among self-described moderate and conservative Democratic primary voters, with 35% support. Ms. Harris was second, at 15% within that group.
The party’s primary voters show similar divisions based on age: Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren had the most support among voters between the ages of 18 and 38, while Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris had the most support among voters between the ages of 39 and 59. Mr. Biden has a clear lead among the oldest voters, drawing more than half of those aged 60 or older.
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Mr. Biden’s position at the top of the field is also based in large part on his commanding lead of 46% among black voters, ahead of Ms. Harris, with 17%. Mr. Biden received more support than his rivals among voters who said their priority was to defeat President Trump, rather than to nominate someone with whom they agreed on issues.
The poll found signs of significant voter interest in Ms. Harris. Among those who watched the first Democratic debates or news coverage of the events, 47% said they were most impressed by Ms. Harris’s debate performance, a substantially larger share than said so of any other candidate. During the debate, the California Democrat targeted Mr. Biden for his position in the 1970s on busing for school integration. She also said it was “hurtful” to hear his comments about working with segregationists in the Senate.
“You can watch in a fluid situation how that one episode can shift and impact a candidacy,” Mr. McInturff said.
Ms. Harris also topped the field as the candidate respondents most want to learn more about. And she led all other candidates when voters were asked for their second choice for the nomination.
By contrast, the poll signaled a narrower path for Mr. Sanders to build support. He wasn’t the top second-choice candidate among supporters of any other leading candidate. Supporters of Ms. Warren, for example, were more likely to pick Ms. Harris as their second-choice candidate than Mr. Sanders.
Mr. McInturff, the Republican pollster, said that voters were signaling potential interest in two other candidates in the lower tier of the field.
Julián Castro, a former U.S. housing secretary, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey were among the candidates that respondents said they most wanted to learn more about. Both were also among the candidates who impressed poll respondents most with their debate performances. Mr. Castro, in particular, had a breakout debate performance, attacking former Rep. Beto O’Rourke on immigration.
Among the five candidates leading the Democratic field, Mr. Buttigieg raised the most campaign funds in the second quarter, bringing in $24.8 million between April and June, according to his campaign.
Based on numbers released by the campaigns, Mr. Biden raised $21.5 million; Ms. Warren raised 19.1 million; Mr. Sanders raised $18 million; and Ms. Harris raised nearly $12 million. The campaigns have to file their full fundraising reports to the Federal Election Commission by July 15.
The survey of 400 Democratic primary voters was conducted between July 7-9. The margin of error is 4.9 percentage points.
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