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Photos: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe, Ron Adar/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media, Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency and Alex Wroblewski via Getty Images

Democratic voters remain stubbornly divided on the top candidates in the four critical early states — and basically split in half between liberal and more centrist candidates.

Why it matters: A slew of new polls illuminates why many top Democrats think the 2020 race will be a long slog — and culminate with a fierce ideological battle between Sanders-style socialism and Biden-style tempered liberalism.

The data: New polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina show the tempered-liberalism trifecta of Joe Biden + Pete Buttigieg + Amy Klobuchar is getting, in total, roughly the same share as the unabashedly liberal wing of Bernie Sanders + Elizabeth Warren + Tom Steyer.

  • This dynamic has not changed much in recent months.

The latest: With three weeks until Caucus Day, Sanders leads the gold-standard Iowa Poll for the first time:

  • Sanders drew 20% of likely caucus-goers, with three rivals bunched right behind him: Warren (17%), Buttigieg (16%) and Biden (15%).
  • The Des Moines Register, which sponsors the poll with CNN and Mediacom, notes that each of the top four has led the poll at some point this cycle.

Other early states: In New Hampshire, a Monmouth University poll out Thursday had a statistical tie among Buttigieg, Biden, Sanders and Warren.

  • Fox News polls at the end of the week had Biden ahead by double digits in South Carolina, and vying with Sanders for the lead in Nevada.

Our thought bubble: Biden and Sanders are the nominal frontrunners for the first states — and nationally among black voters, according to new Washington Post-Ipsos poll.

  • Warren is stagnating; Buttigieg has a serious problem with black voters. 

Go deeper: Top 4 Democrats statistically neck and neck in Iowa presidential poll

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