Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren separate themselves from the 2020 Democratic pack in new NBC/WSJ poll

Key Points
  • In a new NBC/WSJ poll, Joe Biden draws 31% compared to 25% for Elizabeth Warren. At 14%, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders trails Warren by a double-digit margin while 15 other candidates receive support of 7% or less.
  • Biden builds his edge on dominance among three chunks of Democratic primary voters. He commands 49% among African-Americans, 46% among senior citizens, and 42% among moderate and conservative Democrats.
  • But after months of steady progress, Warren boasts formidable strengths of her own. She leads Biden by roughly two-to-one among liberals and Democrats under 35.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden shake hands as they arrive onstage for the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, holding distinctly different advantages, have separated themselves from the crowded Democratic presidential field, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows.

In the survey, conducted after the third in the Democratic Party's series of debate, the former vice president draws 31% compared to 25% for the Massachusetts senator. At 14%, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders trails Warren by a double-digit margin while 15 other candidates receive support of 7% or less.

Biden builds his edge on dominance among three chunks of Democratic primary voters. He commands 49% among African-Americans, 46% among senior citizens, and 42% among moderate and conservative Democrats.

But after months of steady progress, Warren boasts formidable strengths of her own. She leads Biden by roughly two-to-one among liberals and Democrats under 35, breaks even among whites, and holds a double-digit edge among those seeking large-scale change in the post-Trump era. That last group represents a majority of the Democratic electorate.

Moreover, Warren now holds a clear edge in enthusiasm. Fully 70% of Democratic primary voters describe themselves as enthusiastic or comfortable about her candidacy, more than for either Biden or Sanders.

As a result, 45% of Democratic primary voters call Warren either their first or second choice. That compares to 41% for Biden, 29% for Sanders, 19% for South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and 14% for California Sen. Kamala Harris.

"Warren becoming a broadly acceptable choice is a very significant development in a multi-candidate field," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the NBC/WSJ poll with his Democratic counterpart Peter Hart. The telephone survey of 506 Democratic primary voters, conducted Sept. 13-16, carries a margin for error of 4.36 percentage points.

Hart cautioned against assuming that the shape of the race has hardened. Past nomination fights, including Barack Obama's battle against Hillary Clinton in 2008 and John Kerry's against Howard Dean and others four years earlier, have shown a propensity for late-breaking developments.

"We're at September," the veteran pollster said.

What's clear so far is the most of the jampacked Democratic field has little to show for the first nine months of 2019. Aside from Biden and Warren, only Sanders has consistently held a substantial, devoted following.

"The race isn't getting broader," McInturff observed.

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The Sanders constituency remains concentrated among Democrats under age 35. He draws 33% of their votes, compared to 25% for Warren.

The self-styled Democratic socialist also receives 19% among liberal primary voters, the same share Biden receives, while Warren commands 36%. Now competitive across the board, she stands in first or second place among all subgroups.

After her strong debate early this year, Harris has gone backward. After receiving 13% in July, she now draws 5%; the share of Democratic primary voters enthusiastic or comfortable with her candidacy has ticked down to 48% from 52% in March.

Buttigieg, the leading fundraiser among candidates in the second quarter of 2019, remains at 7% support. Matching Harris, 49% of primary voters say they're enthusiastic or comfortable about his candidacy.

Of the rest, maverick entrepreneur Andrew Yang has ticked up to 4%. That outpaces Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar with 2%.

Seven others – former Reps. Beto O'Rourke and John Delaney, current Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, billionaire executive Tom Steyer, Sen. Michael Bennet, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and former Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro – draw just 1%.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Rep. Tim Ryan don't even register.