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The Warren-Sanders turning point

Data: RealClearPolitics; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Nobody noticed it at the time, but in one week in April, the tide of the Democratic primary flipped irreversibly, leading to the emergence of Elizabeth Warren — not Bernie Sanders — as the clear progressive favorite in the 2020 field.

Why it matters: That week coincides with the addition of Joe Biden to the field and the story that has generated more interactions on social media than any other piece about Warren this year, according to data from NewsWhip exclusively provided to Axios: the release of her student debt cancellation plan.

  • While Warren's other plans, such as the wealth tax and fighting corruption, may get cited more frequently, none pulled in more interactions on social media (likes, comments, shares) than Forbes' writeup of the student debt plan (493k interactions).
  • It wasn't just this version of a debt-cancellation story that has taken off: MarketWatch's story ahead of the formal proposal was the 13th biggest for Warren on the year.
  • The student debt plan and the polling shift is correlated, but causation can't be proven.

Between the last week of February and April 21, Warren's RealClearPolitics polling average dipped from 8.3% to 6%. Over that period, Sanders jumped from 18% to 22%.

  • But in late April, the tide turned as Warren's polling ticked upward for the first time and Sanders' began to plummet.
  • While Biden‘s entry into the race seemed to damage Sanders, Warren’s numbers started to climb from that point.
  • Both swings became long-term trends that have led Warren to neck-and-neck status at the top of the race against Biden, while Sanders is one category lower, squarely in third place.

Warren's move on student debt and subsequent rise in national polls coincide with a major polling surge among young voters more likely to be affected by the issue.

  • Between the March and May Quinnipiac polls, Warren's support among Democratic voters between 18–49 jumped from 4% to 18% — a much bigger spike than the 50+ cohort, which moved from 4% to 9%.
  • In that time, Sanders' support from the 18–49 group ticked down from 26% to 23%.

Notable: Sanders also got a massive wave of interest from his student loan cancellation plan, but he might have been late to the punch.

  • The Forbes writeup of his plan in June was the second biggest for Sanders on the year (793k interactions), behind only a CNN story of his campaign launch.

Between the lines: The other key turning point in the polling came in mid-September, when Warren broke away from a dead heat with Sanders. She opened a 12-point advantage by early October (though the gap closed a bit this week).

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the impact of Joe Biden’s entry to the race on the polling of Sanders.

Go deeper: The Axios-NewsWhip 2020 attention tracker library