What Could Shake Up the Democratic Presidential Primary? A Win.

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Former Vice President

Joe Biden

began the year atop the polls in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and despite a summer of missteps, that’s where he remains.

There have been moments of movement in the race:

Sen. Kamala Harris’s

brief burst following a debate confrontation with Mr. Biden;

former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s

downward drift; and most significantly,

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s

slow and steady rise past

Sen. Bernie Sanders

into second place. The Massachusetts senator has overtaken Biden in at least a few surveys, though she still trails in the Real Clear Politics poll average.

But with four months to go before voters weigh in, there is still plenty of time for a surprise. Previous nominating contests in both parties have featured candidates who didn’t break through in national polling until after voting started. In other words, the surest way to become a contender is to win something.

Consider the 2008 Democratic presidential race. Through September 2007,

Hillary Clinton

led

Barack Obama

by between 15 and 18 points nationally, based on an average of several major polls. And from September until voting began in Iowa in January, Mrs. Clinton’s lead was as much as 22 points. It was only after Mr. Obama’s breakthrough win in Iowa that national polls began to register growing support for the candidate.

Range of support in national polls

Each vertical bar represents one poll; darker areas indicate greater concentration of polls

Range of support in national polls

Each vertical bar represents one poll; darker areas indicate greater concentration of polls

Range of support in national polls

Each vertical bar represents one poll; darker areas indicate greater concentration of polls

Range of support in national polls

Each vertical bar represents one poll; darker areas indicate greater concentration of polls

Signs of Mr. Obama’s improving prospects were evident in polls of Iowa caucus-goers as voters there began to focus on the first contest. In the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls, Mr. Obama first surpassed Mrs. Clinton in late November, just over a month before the Jan. 3 caucuses. But there were hopeful signs for the candidate even before that. It was early October when Mr. Obama’s level of support in Iowa began to surpass his poll standings nationally.

Obama average support nationally and in Iowa

Support in Iowa began to surpass

support nationally about 90 days

before the caucuses

Obama average support nationally and in Iowa

Support in Iowa began to surpass

support nationally about 90 days

before the caucuses

Obama average support nationally and in Iowa

Support in Iowa began to surpass

support nationally about 90 days

before the caucuses

Obama average support nationally

and in Iowa

Support in Iowa began

to surpass support

nationally about 90 days

before the caucuses

A similar shake-up happened on the Republican side that year.

Sen. John McCain

experienced a prolonged slump in the national polls, falling to fourth place by late August 2007, behind

Mitt Romney,

Fred Thompson and front-runner

Rudy Giuliani.

By the end of September, Mr. McCain trailed Mr. Giuliani by nearly 13 points. Through much of the rest of 2007 Mr. Giuliani outpolled Mr. McCain by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. And then New Hampshire voted.

Range of support in national polls

Each vertical bar represents one poll; darker areas indicate greater concentration of polls

Range of support in national polls

Each vertical bar represents one poll; darker areas indicate greater concentration of polls

Range of support in national polls

Each vertical bar represents one poll; darker areas indicate greater concentration of polls

Range of support in national polls

Each vertical bar represents one poll; darker areas indicate greater concentration of polls

Struggling to break through, Mr. McCain bet big on a win in the Granite State. About three months before the primary he started to see his support in the state surpass his poll average nationally. And three weeks out from voting his numbers soared, leading to a five-point win in the state over Mr. Romney. The win in New Hampshire catapulted Mr. McCain to the top and he would clinch the GOP nomination two months later.

McCain average support nationally and in New Hampshire

Surge in N.H. about

three weeks before

the primary presaged

his rise nationally

McCain average support nationally and in New Hampshire

Surge in N.H. about

three weeks before

the primary presaged

his rise nationally

McCain average support nationally and in New Hampshire

Surge in N.H. about

three weeks before

the primary presaged

his rise nationally

McCain average support nationally

and in New Hampshire

Surge in N.H. about

three weeks before

the primary presaged

his rise nationally

Other candidates have upended primaries even if they ultimately didn’t win their party’s nomination. In 2011 Mr. Romney enjoyed a large lead early before seeing a cadre of candidates challenge his front-runner status: first Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then

Herman Cain,

followed by

Newt Gingrich’s

emergence as the leading challenger just weeks before voting began. But it was a stunning victory in Iowa that transformed former Sen. Rick Santorum into Mr. Romney’s chief rival. He would go on to win 11 states in all and prevent Mr. Romney from clinching the nomination until May 29.

Preference for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination

Preference for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination

Preference for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination

Preference for the 2012 Republican

presidential nomination

Democrats in 2016 had their own unexpectedly long primary battle after Mr.. Sanders finished in a virtual tie with Mrs. Clinton in Iowa. Mrs. Clinton had spent much of 2015 leading the Vermont senator by 20 points or more. Her lead narrowed nationally—and disappeared entirely in Iowa—as she faced mounting questions over her use of a private email server while secretary of state, before widening again after Mr. Biden announced he wouldn’t seek the nomination. But as the caucuses drew near Mr. Sanders once again closed the gap in Iowa.

Clinton’s lead over Sanders nationally and in Iowa

By mid-September

Sanders tied Clinton

in Iowa while trailing

by double-digits nationally

Clinton’s lead over Sanders nationally and in Iowa

By mid-September

Sanders tied Clinton

in Iowa while trailing

by double-digits nationally

Clinton’s lead over Sanders nationally and in Iowa

By mid-September

Sanders tied Clinton

in Iowa while trailing

by double-digits nationally

Clinton’s lead over Sanders nationally

and in Iowa

By mid-

September

Sanders tied

Clinton in Iowa

while trailing by

double-digits

nationally

Boosted by his performance there, followed by a 23-point drubbing of Mrs. Clinton in New Hampshire, Mr. Sanders would continue his campaign all the way through the final contests in June.

Could this be the moment when a 2020 contender begins to build momentum? There are positive signs for Mrs. Warren in Iowa, where she now leads Mr. Biden in an average of polls. And

Pete Buttigieg,

mayor of South Bend, Ind., is garnering roughly twice as much support in polls of Iowa voters as he is nationally. Much will depend on whether those candidates can maintain their current trajectory over the next four months, or if another hopeful can engineer a late surge like some predecessors.

Iowa Democratic caucus support

Iowa Democratic caucus support

Iowa Democratic caucus support

Iowa Democratic caucus support

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