Is it early in the 2020 Democratic presidential race, or is it late?
The question arises as new polls today affirm the rank order of President Trump's potential challengers. The answer, four months before voting starts, appears clear: very late for most, and still early for a few.
The separate surveys by Suffolk and Quinnipiac universities tested the same 21 Democratic candidates. In each case, five of them received at least five percent of the vote, and 16 did not.
Those 16 face grim prospects. Ten of them – Steve Bullock, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Wayne Messam, Tim Ryan, Joe Sestak, Tom Steyer and Marianne Williamson – won't appear in the third Democratic debate next month.
The other six – Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Andrew Yang and Michael Bennet – have little to show for months of campaigning and two previous debates. They have brief, narrow windows of opportunity now.
That leaves three men and two women – Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg - confident they've already made the political equivalent of the major league baseball playoffs. Not only do they lead national surveys, those five also top polling averages for the four critical early-voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
The Suffolk and Quinnipiac polls show Biden remains the clear Democratic front-runner. He draws 32%, with double-digit leads, in both.
The former vice president has shown notable resilience for a 76-year-old who floundered in two earlier presidential bids. Neither verbal missteps nor jabs from rivals has dislodged his base of support. African-American voters particularly have rallied behind Barack Obama's loyal lieutenant and his claim to have the strongest chance against Trump.
Biden's rivals will test that claim as the campaign intensifies this fall. The Quinnipiac poll showed all five top Democrats beating Trump handily. Among Democrats, Biden ran far behind Sanders and Warren with voters under 35 - a critical 2020 constituency.
Moreover, a theme of electoral pragmatism stands especially vulnerable to actual election results. A loss in Iowa or New Hampshire – where Biden holds smaller leads than nationally – could undercut his support elsewhere as it undercut Hillary Clinton's against Obama in 2008.
Of the top challengers, Warren appears in the strongest overall position. She has gradually crept up in the polls by grounding her public arguments in concrete plans to improve economic conditions for average workers.
"There's no question she has run the best campaign," observes veteran Democratic pollster Diane Feldman.
Sanders, the self-styled Democratic socialist, retains a solid following from his 2016 challenge to Clinton. But he has not been able to expand it, and Warren's unequivocally liberal campaign presents a huge obstacle.
Harris may hold the most untapped potential. Her home base of California dwarfs everyone else's; her mixed-race ancestry provides an opening to non-white voters; her age, 54, creates a next-generation contrast with the three septuagenarians she trails.
She has also flashed the star quality that once prompted comparisons to Obama. But Harris hasn't yet communicated a clear, consistent message to Democratic voters.
The most surprising finalist is Buttigieg, the gay, 37-year-old mayor of South Bend. His preternatural composure and political instincts helped him raise more campaign funds than anyone during the second quarter of this year.
Buttigieg lags the leaders by a wide margin, nationally and in the early states. But his campaign cash ensures he will have the organization and advertising budget to compete for the Iowa breakthrough that could lift him rapidly elsewhere.
"Organize, organize and get hot late," says former Obama strategist David Axelrod, reciting a maxim for Iowa campaigns.
Obama himself didn't decisively catch fire until November 2007 at the Iowa Democratic Party's fall dinner. Candidate speeches at the event typically start the final sprint toward the caucuses.
This year's dinner takes place Nov. 1. But two unprecedented factors set this Iowa campaign apart.
One is the nature of Trump's presidency. The intense opposition he arouses among Democrats significantly accelerated intra-party 2020 competition.
"This caucus season was galvanized starting with the mid-terms" in Nov. 2018, says J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the benchmark Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register.
The other is the size of the Democratic field. As more non-competitive candidates drop out, the cumulation of their small followings could reshuffle the top tier with their choices of new candidates.
For now, "there's not enough statistical power to project anything" about where they'll go, Selzer cautions. "There's no set model for how this plays out."