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Latest Iowa poll points to a Democratic top tier for 2020 race

The largest field in history is set; the debates are poised to begin; and there's some helpful polling giving us a sense of who's in the top tier -- for now.
Voting booths await voters in Red Oak, Iowa, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, ahead of the Iowa primary elections.
Voting booths await voters in Red Oak, Iowa, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, ahead of the Iowa primary elections.

We've reached an interesting point in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The largest field in U.S. history is (probably) set; the debates are poised to begin; and there's some helpful polling to give us a sense of who's in the top tier -- at least for now.

The field of Democratic presidential candidates is starting to settle into tiers: Joe Biden leads the pack, and Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg are in close competition for second place, a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN Iowa Poll shows. [...]"We're starting to see the people who are planning to caucus start to solidify," said J. Ann Selzer, president of the Des Moines-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll. "There's a lot more commitment than we normally see this early. And some of these candidates who've been under the radar start to surface and compete with Joe Biden."

Selzer & Co., widely seen as producing the best and most reliable polling in the Hawkeye State, last surveyed Iowa Democrats in March, and for most of the field, there's been quite a bit of movement over the last three months:

Joe Biden: 24% (down from 27% in March)Bernie Sanders: 16% (down from 25%)Elizabeth Warren: 15% (up from 9%)Pete Buttigieg: 14% (up from 1%)Kamala Harris: 7% (unchanged)

Everyone else was at 2% support or lower.

So, as the race enters a new phase, what can we take away from these results? A few things stood out for me:

* Biden is the frontrunner, but not a dominant one: The former vice president can't feel too discouraged by a poll showing him ahead of his next closest competitor by eight points, but there are some signs of trouble. His overall standing has slipped; his favorability ratings among Iowa Dems has dropped; and the poll found less enthusiasm among Biden backers than some of the other top contenders.

* Sanders is moving in the wrong direction: In March, the Vermont independent was competing with Biden for the top of the heap; in June, the senator is practically tied for second place.

* Warren is moving in the right direction: Aside from the Massachusetts Democrat's obvious poll bounce from March, the Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN Iowa Poll also asked respondents to name their second choice and candidates that local voters are "actively considering." Given the way the Iowa caucuses work, these are important metrics.

And when all three metrics were combined, Warren reached 61% -- tying Biden at the top of the heap.

* Buttigieg doesn't appear to be a fluke: No other Democrat gained more in this poll than the South Bend mayor. In March, he barely registered; now he's practically tied for second place. There's a top tier in Iowa, and at this point, Buttigieg is part of it.

* Beto has some work to do: In December, Selzer & Co. conducted its first poll of Iowa Dems, and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, fresh off his strong showing in Texas' U.S. Senate race, was in third place at the time with 11% support. In March, he slipped to 5%. In this new poll, he's at 2%.

* Booker's silver lining: This isn't a good poll for Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who was at 3% in March, and who's at 1% in the latest results. That said, the New Jersey senator had high favorability numbers, and he was named as a second choice by 6% of respondents, which is the highest of any candidate outside the top tier. That's a foundation Booker may be able to build on.

* Debates: For what it's worth, this poll counts among those determining who qualifies for the upcoming round of debates, so for candidates still hoping to make the cut, the results were about more than bragging rights. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), for example, needed to get at least 1% in this poll to meet the minimum threshold, but he fell short. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-N.Y.C.), and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) are in a similar boat.

For those keeping track, the Iowa caucuses -- the first nominating contest, which will very likely help winnow the field -- are exactly 34 weeks from today.