The Elizabeth Warren surge is a poll illusion

According to Monday’s Monmouth University poll, there’s now a three-way tie in the Democratic presidential primary: Warren, Sanders, and Biden. This has been reported as a “surge.” In fact, it says more about polls and media than it does about Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden.

The Monmouth University poll reports three front-runners:

  • Elizabeth Warren 20%, up from 15% in June.
  • Bernie Sanders 20%, up from 14% in June.
  • Joe Biden 19%, down from 32% in June.

The next closest contender is Kamala Harris at 8%.

These results are strikingly different from other recent polls that showed Biden leading.

Here’s how the media reported this result:

Poll: Bernie, Warren surge to tie Biden atop Democratic field (Politico)

Biden plunges, tied with Warren and Sanders in new national poll (Fox News)

New 2020 Poll Shows Three-Way Tie Among Sanders, Warren and Biden (New York Times)

Biden down 13 points in new Monmouth poll, in tie with Warren and Sanders (MSNBC)

Biden falls in new Democratic primary poll, as Warren and Sanders make slight gains (Washington Post)

And here’s Monmouth’s own headline:

3-Way Lead as Dem 2020 Picture Shifts

Is the surge real?

The Monmouth poll reached 298 registered voters who identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning, connecting on both land lines and cell phones. According to the poll, “For results based on the Democratic voter sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling has a maximum margin of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points (unadjusted for sample design)”

What does that 6% error mean? It means that this poll might represent any of the following realities in the electorate:

  • Biden 25%, Warren 14%, Sanders 14%. Biden still in the lead!
  • Biden 13%, Warren 26%, Sanders 14%. Warren laps the field!
  • Biden 13%, Warren 14%, Sanders 26%. Sanders support swells!

Remember, one in 20 polls like this will have an error even larger than the 95% confidence margin of error. So things might be off by even more than these possibilities.

So why the media reports? Because news organizations thrive on change. “Biden still in the lead” is boring. “Warren surges” is far more interesting. So we get reports on the Biden plunge and the Warren surge.

Put aside the margin of error for a moment. Is this poll reflecting something actually happening? According to realclearpolitics.com here’s what some other recent polls showed (and these came out the day after Monmouth):

Hmm. Seems like Biden has solid support, with Warren and Sanders in a second tier behind him.

And here’s how the RealClearPolitics averages look over the last two months.

That brown line is Elizabeth Warren. She’s definitely gained some support, but Biden’s clearly still ahead. Sanders appears to be holding pretty steady.

Why not report that? The Emerson poll has a large sample. What did the New York Times say about it?


The Washington Post? Nada. Fox News? Zilch.

Because that poll is in line with the rest of the polls and ergo, is not news.

What’s really happening?

There is a definite pro-Warren bias in the media I’m reading: the Monmouth poll, big Warren crowds, fawning profiles. The media thinks Warren is sexy since she talks about ideas and since she’s new to the national stage, unlike Biden and Sanders.

I have my own narrative. I like Warren’s ideas. I think Sanders’ “tear it all down” message has clear limits; after seeing Trump, most Democrats are not ready to blow government up, they want to save it. And I think Joe Biden is too old and slow.

Regarding electability, I think Trump would wipe the floor with Biden, who I doubt could react to his attacks effectively. Sanders would give Trump a good fight, but in the process might alienate a huge swatch of the electorate that has lost interest in a couple of alpha males shouting at each other. I think Warren’s ideas- and plan-based campaign, along with her natural ability to connect, could be the best foil and contrast to Trump in the 2020 election.

But let’s be clear: this is just my narrative. It doesn’t qualify as fact. I don’t read the news searching only for confirmation. I read the news and the polls and recognize that it’s a very long time until next year’s election.

The Warren surge may very well come to pass. I hope it does. But the poll that got all the coverage this week doesn’t qualify as evidence for it.

I try not to confuse what I want with what is true. This is very hard to do. But it is something we all should practice doing every moment of every day.

Optimism is a fine attitude. Just don’t plan your day — or your strategy — around it.

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  1. The media thrives on controversy and conflict. Unfortunately consumers have a voracious appetite for all of it. The divisiveness in this country is sad, and the media just fans the flames that our 2 party political system spark.

  2. Josh — I tend to agree with you.. Biden and Sanders are too old/too much baggage from before. And I don’t know a single person who’s going to actually vote for either one of them.

    Warren, Harris, O’Rourke or Buttigieg are all viable alternatives IMO… I wish we’d just get to the first Dem primary and actually let the voters decide on who they want.

    A polling sample of anything less than 100 or 200k is completely biased. And even then… people say WTH to a poll and then vote the way they want.

  3. Really appreciate the work you do to help us decipher what’s “real” and what’s hype. Thanks a lot for your research and your explanations. BTW, I too hope Warren wins, but there are still a horribly large number of sexist Americans who won’t vote for a woman. Maybe she’ll wear the wrong color dress to a debate, or look tired…

  4. I could tell the poll was flawed just by the paltry number of people polled. Years ago when I wanted to do a poll in my hometown, the statistics professor I worked with had his class determine a sample size for our county of 150,000 people. The math said they needed to poll 400 people to get an accurate report (2% error or less) and that anything under that was worthless, anything over that was not likely to change the outcome. I learned a lot about polling. For instance, it takes about 1700 people to accurately measure the state of California. Because of the exponential nature of polling, 298 people likely only represents a population of 100,000 or less with any accuracy.

  5. Who’s pole is it? Don’t believe any poll.

    Twitter, Google and Facebook have already taken out two candidates. Let’s see who they end up with. Some are predicting the digital giants will push the analytics toward Harris, simply because she’s the queen of the Liberal Supremacists.

    If you want to fact check this for yourself,
    * Clear all cache, cookies and history in your browser.
    * Empty the computer “deleted files”
    * Shut your computer down
    * Turn off your internet modem / router for at least 3 minutes
    * Start everything up, open the browser and search for a candidate
    . . . using GOOGLE
    * Copy the source of each of the first three result pages,
    . . . paste into ascii text file . . . OR
    . . . make a screen capture of each page

    Now, you have to leave the internet, and return as a totally different user, so, go back through the same steps above, and then run your search in DuckDuckGo.com. Compare the results pages.

    You will see very different, results, Google pushing the liberal supremacists ideology.

    The night of the Democrat debates, we tracked the lessor candidates in this method, and they virtually disappeared from Google and Twitter. In fact Twitter devalued Gabbard. We saw two conservative YouTube channels go dark, while the liberal supremacists channels continued. One of the sites throttled that night could not get any reason from YouTube beyond “violating terms of service” . . . not it’s blocked for 90 days from that night.

    So, we are documenting real and true statistics on the big social media giants who are now controlling our conversations. I was reporting for UGNN, but now Twitter has cut them off, and locked the account.
    Hopefully, ISPs and service providers won’t start throttling conservative conversations, and Josh won’t get cut off by GoDaddy!

    We’re better off WITHOUT social media.


  6. Josh . . . you should delete my previous post. I see no way to delete it. I want to stay under the radar, and you’re too popular, with too many readers. Thanks.

  7. I love your final line, “Optimism is a fine attitude. Just don’t plan your day — or your strategy — around it.” It works on so many levels, from politics to employment opportunities. Just the thing for me to keep in mind!