The Third Democratic Debate In 7 Charts

For the first time this cycle, there was just one debate night, and only 10 candidates made the cut — so now we’re trying to make sense of what happened when the front-runners shared the stage. In recent weeks, the polls have shown a top tier of three to five candidates, with former Vice President Joe Biden leading, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren tied for second, and Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, a distant fourth and fifth — but did that change last night?

Some candidates from the lower-polling tiers had strong performances — former Rep. Beto O’Rourke delivered an impassioned speech on gun violence and Sen. Cory Booker spoke nearly as much as Biden, though Booker is only polling at 2.1 percent on average (based on 21 debate-qualifying polls). But as you can see from the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, the overall picture hasn’t shifted much yet — although Warren does seem to have done the most to boost her campaign. Here’s what we’ve learned so far about what viewers made of the debate and the candidates’ performances:

Which candidates wowed the crowd?

First of all, how did viewers in our poll think the candidates did on Thursday night? To answer this, we compared debate-watchers’ ratings of the candidates’ performances to their pre-debate favorability scores1 to see if any well-liked candidates failed to impress or if anyone got high marks despite lower favorability. By this measure, O’Rourke and Warren were the biggest standouts, though Buttigieg and Booker also made a positive impression. But Biden and former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro — who memorably clashed — got the lowest scores relative to their pre-debate favorability.

 

Who gained (or lost) potential supporters?

Another way to assess who won last night’s debate is to see who convinced more voters to at least think about voting for them. Most candidates saw some change in the share of likely Democratic primary voters who were considering supporting them, though not all changes were positive. Warren, for example, saw the biggest increase in voters who were considering her — almost 4 percentage points, while Harris lost more than 2 percentage points of potential support. But for most candidates, the numbers stayed pretty much the same as they had been before the debate. Even for those whose debate performance stood out — like Biden and Castro, who got relatively poor grades, or O’Rourke, who got a strong rating — there was little change in how many likely primary voters said they were considering voting for them.

Which candidates appeal to the same voters?

With many voters in our poll still considering multiple candidates, we were also interested in examining which candidates share potential supporters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two candidates who are being considered by the most voters in our poll — Biden and Warren — also tended to draw a high proportion of other candidates’ supporters, too. Seventy percent of Buttigieg’s supporters are also considering Warren, for example, while 65 percent of O’Rourke’s supporters are also considering Biden. Although many respondents in our survey said they were considering Sanders, fewer of his supporters are considering supporting other candidates. In fact, Biden and Sanders had the most exclusive supporters — 24 percent of Biden’s supporters and 18 percent of Sanders’s supporters aren’t considering any of the other candidates who participated in the debate.

Who made a positive (or negative) impression?

You can also look at the change in candidates’ favorable and unfavorable ratings to understand who got people feeling more positively about them (or perhaps gained unwanted notoriety). So after Ipsos polled voters before and after the debate, we calculated the change in candidates’ net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating). O’Rourke may not have picked up many potential supporters, but he did improve his net favorability rating by more than 8 points with his debate performance. Castro, meanwhile, took the largest hit, dropping 6.7 points in net favorability, which could be related to his heated exchanges with Biden.

More people like O’Rourke, but Castro lost ground

Change in net favorability for candidates in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll taken before and after the third Democratic primary debate

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
O’Rourke +23.9 +32.5 +8.6
Warren +48.5 +56.0 +7.5
Klobuchar +8.1 +13.9 +5.8
Buttigieg +32.2 +37.7 +5.4
Booker +26.7 +32.1 +5.4
Harris +31.3 +35.2 +3.9
Yang +14.8 +17.4 +2.6
Biden +45.7 +45.5 -0.2
Sanders +44.0 +43.7 -0.3
Castro +19.7 +13.0 -6.7

From a survey of 4,320 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Sept. 5 and Sept. 11. The same people were surveyed again from Sept. 12 to Sept 13; 2202 responded to the second wave.

Who spoke the most?

Though respondents to the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll thought Biden’s debate performance was less impressive than Warren’s, it wasn’t because he didn’t get a chance to talk. Of all the candidates on the stage last night, Biden had the highest word count, with over 3,000 words spoken. Booker and Warren, the next two most prolific speakers, were about 600 and 750 words behind, respectively.

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the third Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Joe Biden 3,363
Cory Booker 2,769
Elizabeth Warren 2,616
Kamala Harris 2,369
Julián Castro 2,104
Pete Buttigieg 2,054
Amy Klobuchar 1,933
Bernie Sanders 1,891
Beto O’Rourke 1,714
Andrew Yang 1,546

Excludes words spoken in Spanish

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

Booker’s place as the second-most-prolific talker is even more impressive considering that he’s polling in the low single digits. (The polling average is based on 21 debate-qualifying polls released between June 28 and Aug. 28.) Castro also spoke more than anticipated given his polling average (1 percent), holding the floor for longer than both Buttigieg and Sanders. Sanders, in fact, had the second-highest polling average going into the debate, but was third from the bottom in words spoken, beating out only O’Rourke and businessman Andrew Yang.

Who mentioned Trump?

In addition to counting the words spoken by candidates, we also tracked the number of times each candidate mentioned President Trump by name:

Who talked about Trump?

How often Trump was mentioned by candidates participating in the third Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Kamala Harris 11
Julián Castro 7
Cory Booker 5
Bernie Sanders 5
Beto O’Rourke 2
Andrew Yang 2
Joe Biden 1
Pete Buttigieg 1
Elizabeth Warren 1
Amy Klobuchar 0

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

Harris was the clear leader, mentioning Trump 11 times, though as a group, the candidates talked about Trump considerably less often than they did in either night of the second debate. And some of the candidates who spoke the most, such as Biden and Warren, seemed to avoid Trump, each mentioning the president only once. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, got through the whole debate without saying Trump’s name even once.


So did the single-night debate change the game? Thursday night’s debate drew about 14 million television viewers, which is more viewers than both nights of the second debate, but still slightly fewer than those who tuned into watch the first debate. And if our poll with Ipsos is indicative of voters’ reactions, then the needle didn’t move all that much. But for those of you who preferred the two-night approach, you might be in luck — the fourth debate, set for Oct. 15 and potentially Oct. 16, might be split across two nights, since at least 11 candidates have qualified so far. (The Democratic National Committee hasn’t yet confirmed what it will do, however.) Either way, we’ll be here live blogging, so stay tuned!

Do you want even more debate coverage?

Cool graphics from other sites

And here’s more great post-debate analysis:

Finally, check out the rest of our debate coverage:

Additional contributions from Aaron Bycoffe.

Buy, Sell Or Hold? A Special Democratic Debate Edition

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Welcome, everyone, to a special debate-focused preview edition of our weekly politics chat!! In recent weeks, we’ve talked a lot about the different strategies the candidates should use on the debate stage, who the lineup is good for (and who it’s bad for) and whether the field might be consolidating around a handful of candidates.

So today, let’s have a little fun with the question of candidate debate strategy and play a game of buy/sell/hold with PredictIt prop bets (plus some I made up). We checked the prices (given in cents) of a bunch of propositions at noon Eastern on Tuesday and then translated those prices into probabilities. (We know that’s not exactly right, but it’s close enough.)

And in case you forgot how to play buy/sell/hold:

  • Buy means: “I think the chances of this happening are higher than indicated.”
  • Sell means: “I think they’re lower.”
  • Hold means: “I’m a coward and am unwilling to take a stand.”

OK, let’s start with a 🌶 spicy 🌶 proposition. Buy, sell or hold: Elizabeth Warren will win the 2020 presidential Democratic nomination? (33 percent)

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I am bullish on Warren overall, but I still think it’s a pretty open race. I’ll sell on Warren — I think her chances are a bit lower than 33 percent.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I’ll buy! If only for the argument. I think that Warren is a secure bet in this race and that she’s the only candidate who’s seen steady, significant gains. That’s gotta count for something.

I also think that she’ll pick up establishment-leaning voters as the race goes on and other people drop out — or at the very least, she’s one of a few arms that establishment-leaning types will want to fall into.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I’m boarding a plane, so my answers will be brief at best. Warren’s somewhere between a hold and a sell. And 33 percent is a lot, given where her position in the polls is. That price puts a lot of weight on subjective vs. objective impressions, in other words. I happen to share those subjective impressions, i.e. my “gut” says Warren is a very strong candidate. However, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that my gut is usually full of shit.

clare.malone: NATE’S ON A PLANE 🐍

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): If Biden’s chances are, say, 40 percent based on his standing in polls from the first half of the year, that leaves like 60 percent for everyone else. Does Warren have a bit more than half of that? I’m skeptical of that so I’ll sell — for now.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): I think I’m somewhere between a buy and a hold? (Outing myself immediately as a quasi-coward.)

clare.malone: Lol, it’s fine Amelia — I’m a little less wedded to the strict odds of this. I’m more going on the gut that Nate speaks of and strength on the ground, etc.

ameliatd: Warren’s growth has been impressive. And she stands to gain as the field narrows. It seems like she might be starting to overcome some voters’ worries about nominating a woman, too? Which would be big, if so.

natesilver: I mean Biden is way too low in these markets, so if you’re saying Warren has a 33 percent chance or higher, you’re saying it’s basically a two-horse race. Which, maybe?

clare.malone: I don’t think that’s crazy, Nate.

Not a lot of people are super bullish on Sanders right now.

And Harris is slipping in the polls.

So … it’s not totally nuts to go with the idea that it COULD potentially be a Biden-Warren showdown.

sarahf: Bernie is in third at 14 percent, but that’s a distant third behind Warren (33 percent) and Biden (26 percent) over at PredictIt.

natesilver: If Warren got into the low 20s in national polls instead of the high teens, I might feel more comfy with that. That tends to be a big inflection point. Being in the 20s in a multi-way race is serious business.

nrakich: Harris still has a lot of untapped potential, IMO.

ameliatd: I don’t know, Nathaniel. My “buy” sentiments for Warren are probably contingent on Harris not pulling it together. But based on how her summer went, that seems increasingly plausible. Like, at some point your untapped potential needs to start turning into actual gains.

geoffrey.skelley: I know I said I sell on Warren, but I can certainly see her winning heavily-white Iowa and New Hampshire, building up — Nate’s favorite word — “momentum” and going on to win the nomination.

And that’s the tough thing about this — the sequential nature of the primary means we can look at the national polls and early-state polls, but the moment Iowa happens, that will influence what happens in New Hampshire, and so on.

sarahf: Speaking of Iowa and New Hampshire … Warren has a 35 percent chance in Iowa and a 34 percent chance in New Hampshire … does that change anyone’s wager? The markets do give Biden a 48 percent chance in South Carolina, though, and Warren only a 14 percent shot.

nrakich: I think that 35 percent in Iowa is considerably closer to reality. I think her odds of winning Iowa are higher than her odds of winning the nomination writ large.

She has an excellent ground game, which could help her in a low-turnout, activist-driven caucus state like Iowa.

And she has performed better in Iowa polls than national ones so far.

geoffrey.skelley: There are 26 days between Iowa and South Carolina and 18 days between New Hampshire and South Carolina. That’s A LOT of time for the “Biden’s a loser” theme to permeate things if he can’t win either Iowa or New Hampshire. Nevada, as it’s worth reiterating, is BEFORE South Carolina, which could maybe help him. But the Silver State is a bit of a black box.

natesilver: I’d buy on Warren in IA/NH. There should be more of a spread in these markets between her Iowa price and her nomination price. The fact that there isn’t proves these markets are kinda dumb.

ameliatd: That underscores my very definitive wager of “somewhere between a hold and a buy.” She’s doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire — which is why I would say her chances are better than you might think if you just look at the national polls.

clare.malone: Warren is going to have an easier time in those very white first two states — Biden, for a number of reasons, enjoys an advantage with black voters in South Carolina, which is pretty much how you win that state.

But Warren’s campaign was one of the two or three campaigns that people in South Carolina talked about as being strong in voter outreach. Even a lot of pro-Biden people there told me they liked her. So, I could see momentum or winning in IA and NH upping her odds in South Carolina and then perhaps in other southern states where black voters are key.

But that probably involves Biden faltering so she becomes more dominant — or doing something that finally sticks as a criticism.

natesilver: If you had a market for “will the Iowa winner win the nomination?” I’d probably be a seller of it.

Like, I think it would be priced at 70 percent when it should be priced at 50 or something.

The Democratic electorate used to be a lot whiter and have a lot more caucuses, so Iowa used to be a lot more representative.

But Iowa is no longer a good representation of the overall Democratic electorate right now.

geoffrey.skelley: Oh definitely, but if Warren wins Iowa and New Hampshire, I bet she’ll be polling better in Nevada and South Carolina than she is right now.

Also, keep in mind, Bill Clinton is the only recent nominee of a major party not to win one of the first two states, although that is complicated by the fact that no one really contested Iowa in 1992 because Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was running.

sarahf: Interestingly though, the betting markets seem less bullish on Warren winning the presidency. Buy, sell or hold: President Trump wins the 2020 presidential election? (41 percent)

natesilver: Lol I’m not touching that question.

ameliatd: Wow, Sarah, you really went there!

clare.malone: I give a hold on that.

I truly don’t know where things stand.

There are a lot of plausible arguments to be made that Democrats come out of the nomination fight irritated at each other and unhappy with their candidate, and there’s less enthusiasm on Election Day.

nrakich: I’ll hold. Forty-one percent sounds right. Close to 50-50, as we are amid an era of close presidential elections. But every indicator right now, from his dropping approval rating to polls of the generic ballot to special elections to early general-election polls that you probably shouldn’t trust, indicates it’s a Democratic-leaning environment, so I’m willing to make a 9-point concession to that.

clare.malone: On the other hand, it could very well be a different ballgame from ’16, and people ARE really motivated to turn out against Trump, no matter who the Democratic nominee is, and the Democrats prevail against a GOP Electoral College advantage in a high-turnout election on both sides??

ameliatd: I would also say hold just because there are so many unknowns. A recent Pew poll found that most Democrats are excited by several 2020 candidates, not just their top choice, so maybe that’s good news for Democrats if it helps insulate voter enthusiasm against a potentially long and bruising primary? But I’m not sure.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, my feelings are similar to Nathaniel’s, though you could also make the case that 41 percent is too low for an incumbent president in a closely-divided country. So I’d say hold or maybe buy.

natesilver: He’s not much of an incumbent. He barely won last time. And the track record of incumbents who barely won is not so hot.

sarahf: And as Nathaniel mentioned, his presidential approval number seems to be 📉 (his approval rating is still above 40 percent though).

geoffrey.skelley: But his approval has about as good a chance of going up again as going down in the long run — it’s been remarkably steady overall.

natesilver: That isn’t good news for Trump, though, because he probably needs his approval rating to improve for him to win reelection.

clare.malone: Nate’s not touching this, though.

natesilver: Like it’s not good news when your weight is steady if you weigh 300 pounds.

clare.malone: It could be good news if you’re 7 feet tall.

geoffrey.skelley: A BMI discussion is what we need here.

clare.malone: Clare googles “what does LeBron weigh?”

sarahf: OK … let’s pivot back to the 2020 Democratic primary. We’ve talked about where people stand on Warren’s chances of winning the nomination, and as a result where Biden or Sanders stand — but what about some of the lower polling candidates like, say, Kamala Harris? Markets put her at 10 percent. Buy, sell, hold?

ameliatd: I am not especially bullish on Harris, but that seems a little low to me. I’d say buy?

nrakich: I’m definitely buying on Harris — I think her chances are significantly higher than 10 percent.

Harris still has the potential to appeal to multiple wings of the Democratic Party — especially two very influential wings in college-educated whites and black voters. I also think her prosecutorial background means she has several good debates left in her.

geoffrey.skelley: As for Harris, I think I’d buy there just based on potential. It may be unrealized so far, but it’s still there, whether she ends up being Marco Rubio 2.0 or not.

sarahf: What about Pete Buttigieg, at 5 percent? Buy, sell, hold?

clare.malone: What the hell, sell. I do not think he has a good chance. Maybe an Iowa win? Maybe?

nrakich: I’d buy Buttigieg at 5 percent, but I think it’s a closer call than Harris.

clare.malone: I think that the markets are incredibly sensitive to the narratives of the news cycle.

So, the fact that Harris had a purportedly shitty back half of the summer, means that her odds go waaaay down — too low.

natesilver: Y’all should actually add everyone chances up because I bet you’d be at like 130 percent.

You can’t be a buy on everyone.

clare.malone: Nate, you’re not even participating fully!

Peanut Gallery!!

natesilver: The best way to participate is half-assedly.

clare.malone: Also, close read: People have sold.

sarahf: OK, so we’ve talked about some of the leading contenders for winning the nomination — Warren, Biden and Sanders. And we’ve talked about Harris, whom the markets seem a bit bearish on. But setting those candidates aside, what about the rest of the debaters? Andrew Yang is at 11 percent (insert Yang Gang joke) while everyone is at 10 percent (Harris) or lower. Would you buy any of the other candidates on Thursday night’s stage? Or sell them all?

natesilver: I’m probably the most bullish on Yang of any of the election-analyst-types, and I think that price is kind of insane and a discredit to PredictIt tbh.

geoffrey.skelley: Definitely sell on Yang at that mark. Buttigieg is harder because he, too, has potential and a lot of resources given his fundraising. But he really needs to win Iowa or finish 2nd, maybe 3rd there to be in the mix, and I’m struggling to see how that happens with the other candidates in the field — so I’ll sell him, too.

clare.malone: I’m bullish on Cory Booker, though not incredibly so (and I do remain, sadly, sensitive to Nate’s buying spree comment).

I think that Booker has the same kind of coalition-building potential — very much unrealized yet — but I think he’s probably worth being slightly-higher-valued? I think he’s investing on the ground and could have an appeal to white voters in Iowa, and if he did decently, proving his mettle there, black voters in South Carolina or Hispanic voters in Nevada might see him as more electable?

nrakich: At 2 percent, I’d be willing to buy a few of these names just because you don’t have much to lose.

I will probably get ridiculed for this, but I think Beto O’Rourke still could have something left in the tank. There’s a reason he caught fire in Texas last year — he’s a charismatic, appealing guy — and he has been holding a ton of campaign events.

ameliatd: Here’s my problem with this lower tier. A lot of these candidates have potential upside — but mainly if one or more of the higher-polling candidates stumble. That certainly seems to be the case with someone like Booker. So how much do you bake in the possibility of another candidate falling apart?

nrakich: I am also bullish on Booker, Clare, but it looks like PredictIt is too — he’s a bit higher than all the other lower-tier candidates, at 4 percent.

natesilver: If one of the front-runners stumble, wouldn’t one of the other front-runners benefit?

geoffrey.skelley: Yes, I agree with Clare and Amelia. Booker definitely could be there to pick up the pieces if Harris slides, so I’d buy at that price.

natesilver: But Harris is in 4th place now. Which pieces is he picking up?

sarahf: Yeah, I think it’s becoming increasingly harder for some of the candidates like Booker, Amy Klobuchar or O’Rourke to see any gains.

nrakich: Sarah, I think that is obviously literally true, in that every day that passes is one fewer day until the primaries. But I still think there are several months and several opportunities to stand out (e.g., debates) left.

natesilver: I’m bullish on Booker’s odds of finishing in 3rd place. I’d pay 10 percent for that.

sarahf: I keep coming back to Julián Castro, who had a strong moment in the first debate and saw a big jump in his favorability ratings and name recognition as a result, but then nothing in the polls.

ameliatd: But I’d put Castro’s chances higher than O’Rourke’s right now (if I’m choosing between the Texans). Maybe I’m wrong and O’Rourke will wow everyone in the debate … but his performances have been super snoozy so far.

clare.malone: I think Castro suffers from not being a national figure. He hasn’t had the same kind of grist as the senators have during the Trump years, and O’Rourke, his home-state rival, really crowded him out in the roll-out department.

nrakich: Yeah, I agree with Sarah that if Castro was going to make his move, he would have done it already, as he performed quite well in the first two debates.

To me, he suffers from inconsistency. He was great in the debates, but I thought he was really flat in the latest CNN town hall.

clare.malone: In the end, no one remembers who he is. The twin thing doesn’t help either …

NEVER TRUST A TWIN.

natesilver: I’d just say I have about 15 percent total to give out at most for everyone who’s not in the top 4. I’m not sure how I’d distribute that 15 percent, but it’s not a ton of wealth to go around.

nrakich: Yeah, I’m definitely splitting hairs — who cares if O’Rourke has a 5 percent chance instead of a 2 percent chance.

natesilver: FiveThirtyEight readers do!

ameliatd: Hair-splitting is what it’s all about, Nathaniel! Lean into it!

natesilver: And 20:1 vs 50:1 is a nontrivial difference

sarahf: OK, what about the candidates not on the stage? Lest we forget, Tom Steyer has made the October debate … but does that really change anything in your mind regarding who wins the nomination? My guess is maybe not … so here’s a buy/sell/hold I made up — Warren, Biden, Sanders, Harris don’t win the nomination (5 percent).

nrakich: I’d buy that, Sarah. As I said, there’s still a lot of time left, and several more debates where someone like O’Rourke or Booker or Castro could have their moment. I think Biden, Warren, Sanders and Harris are by far the most-likely nominees, but I wouldn’t be gobsmacked if it’s someone else.

clare.malone: I really don’t think anyone is going to have a moment who hasn’t already.

geoffrey.skelley: I think I would cautiously buy that. It’s obviously very likely that the nominee will be one of those four, but we’re still nearly five months out from Iowa so things could shift.

clare.malone: Call me a cynic, call me a stinker, but if you haven’t really started to prove you’ve got the potential for a coalition by mid-September … sorry, but it’s curtains.

nrakich: Clare, you’re the one who always says it’s early!

clare.malone: RIght, but now it’s September — people outside the top 4 or 5 have no shot.

And that’s the scope of this q.

natesilver: I mean I just said I think it’s a 15 percent chance on the high end. Maybe it’s more like 10 or 12. But definitely higher than 5. Five percent isn’t a lot!

nrakich: By this point in the 2012 Republican cycle, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all had yet to have their “moment.”

sarahf: President Cain was such a good president. 😉

clare.malone: heh heh

natesilver: I don’t think this race has much to do with 2012. The frontrunners are a much more robust group than Romney alone was.

And to Sarah’s snarky comment … all those candidates lost anyway!

ameliatd: I guess the way I’d think about it is — what are the odds that some series of events manages to tank the chances of all four of those candidates? That seems quite unlikely to me.

natesilver: Yeah it’s like being five games behind but in 5th place in the MLB wild card standings. #sports

Doesn’t seem like you’re that far behind, but it’s unlikely that everyone else gets cold.

geoffrey.skelley: I think everyone wants every cycle to be like 2012 because it was exciting and messy. Also because who can forget Gingrich and Cain having a “Lincoln-Douglas” debate? But yeah, I don’t think you’re going to see a collapse of all those candidates.

ameliatd: And it’s not like if Warren suddenly starts slipping, Buttigieg or one of the lower-polling candidates will grab her supporters.

I think there’s room for movement — but mostly within that upper tier.

nrakich: Nate, you had to turn this chat into a dig at the Mets.


FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: How to win this week’s debate


What We’re Watching For In The Second Democratic Debate

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): It’s hard to believe it’s been a month, but the Democratic primary debates are baaack. And on Tuesday and Wednesday evening, 20 candidates (10 each night) will take the stage, with one potentially big new showdown (Elizabeth Warren vs. Bernie Sanders) on the first night and one big rematch (Kamala Harris vs. Joe Biden) on the second night.

For reference, here’s Tuesday’s lineup: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Marianne Williamson, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, Steve Bullock.

And Wednesday’s: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Michael Bennet, Jay Inslee, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio.

So yes, let’s talk about the lineups and matchups, but first let’s also take a step back to talk about the role of primary debates — how do they change the race?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I think it’s clear that debates can change the race. But the effects might be fleeting, as after one debate the race might move in one direction while subsequent debates might push things in a different direction.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Debates also tend to ramp up in importance as the campaign goes along. It might feel like we’ve been covering this race forever. But we’re still in the rather early stages, as far as voters are concerned.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think I might have a slightly different take on this than Nate. My sense, based on the research, is that the debates will produce diminishing returns as opinions become solidified, but that might apply more for minor candidates than for contention between major ones like Harris and Biden. (Though there’s still a notable big name-recognition gap between the two.)

nrakich: I’m with Julia on this one. In 2016, the first Democratic primary debate had the highest ratings.

natesilver: But in some sense, the purpose of these early, very-inclusive debates is to see if any of the minor candidates can break through. Which didn’t really happen after the Miami debates, although you could argue the case for Castro I guess.

sarahf: Castro was interesting. His favorability numbers shot up, but he didn’t really see as much of a swing in support, or at least that is what we found in our poll with Morning Consult.

nrakich: But Castro is a great example of someone for whom the debates could build on each other to increase his support. He got people’s attention in the first debate; maybe, with another good moment this week, he’ll start to get their support. Or at least get enough backing to clear the third-debate thresholds.

natesilver: I’m skeptical that Castro is likely to break through. I mean, shouldn’t we take the opposite lesson from the first debates, in fact? That you can have a good debate and it doesn’t help you break through because the top of the field is pretty entrenched?

nrakich: We didn’t say he was likely to, though — just that the possibility existed.

He’s already at 130,000 donors, the threshold for the third debate, in large part due to his first debate performance.

natesilver: I guess I’m just saying that I think people are maybe underestimating how much voters like the top-tier candidates when they say they expect a middle-tier candidate to break out.

julia_azari: What we’ve seen so far leaves me questioning whether the top tier is really open to newcomers at this point. I think there’s contention over who will be in that second tier of candidates who meet the requirements for the fall debates, but most of those candidates won’t come close to winning the nomination.

sarahf: Or maybe even making the next debate!

This might be the last time we see many of these candidates on stage because September’s qualifying thresholds will be difficult for them to meet. (Candidates must have at least 2 percent support in four recent qualifying polls1 and 130,000 unique donors.2)

natesilver: There are a lot of middle-tier candidates, so what are the odds that at least one of them will break into the top tier at some point in the race? Maybe fairly high. Let’s say it’s 60 percent, just to make a number up. But that 60 percent is divided between a lot of different candidates.

sarahf: OK, so as to this top-tier vs. middle-tier debate …

Let’s look at night one and unpack some of the dynamics there. As a reminder, night one includes: Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Williamson, Delaney, Hickenlooper, Ryan, Bullock.

So given the lineup, there’s potential that some of the more moderate candidates — say, Buttigieg, O’Rourke and Klobuchar — maybe try to position themselves against Warren or Sanders, right? And that can maybe help them break through to the top tier? Or at least make the top tier look less fixed?

julia_azari: Yeah, “Can a middle-tier candidate move up?” seems like the unofficial slogan of night one.

sarahf: More so than night two?

julia_azari: I think so. But I reserve the right to flip-flop if one of you convinces me.

nrakich: Agreed, and in fact I’d pay even closer attention to the lower-tier candidates: Hickenlooper, Ryan, Bullock, Delaney. They know that this is their last chance to make a splash before the third debate’s stricter thresholds. And they all have little love for Sanders’s socialism/Warren’s progressivism.

I think they will lash out pretty hard.

julia_azari: And, in fact, I might convince myself to flip-flop because of the timing. If Buttigieg, O’Rourke or Klobuchar has a strong performance (say, on the level of Castro last time) and emerges as the official Biden Alternative for the Heartland Moderate (or whatever, don’t @ me), I think there’s still a strong chance that something else happens on night two that overshadows it.

nrakich: I also think the potential for Sanders-Warren fireworks is overrated. Despite their ideological similarities, they aren’t really competing for the same bloc of voters. Warren supporters are more likely to be higher-income or have a college degree, while Sanders’s support is more working-class.

natesilver: I strongly disagree with Rakich on the Sanders-Warren lanes thing!

sarahf: 🍿

nrakich: 🎆

natesilver: 🍿

sarahf: Finally, the two in-house Nathaniels fighting!

julia_azari: I’m just here for the ratio.

natesilver: But OK, I don’t think looking at the characteristics of Sanders’s current voters is the right way to go about it.

Because he’s lost a shit-ton of support since his last presidential run.

Roughly two-thirds of his supporters from 2016 have gone to other candidates. We know that because he got more than 40 percent of the vote then and is now polling in the mid-teens.

And a lot of those voters probably went to Warren.

Probably some went to Buttigieg, Biden, etc. too.

nrakich: Indeed — according to an Emerson poll conducted earlier this month, 25 percent of Sanders’s 2016 voters still support him, but 20 percent now support Biden, 15 percent support Warren, and 9 percent support Harris.

natesilver: I’m just saying, Sanders has already lost a lot of the voters that he was gonna lose to Warren. Maybe he lost most of them at the start of the cycle and then a few more as she’s gradually gained ground. The voters who are still with Sanders now might be fairly lukewarm on Warren, but that reflects a type of selection bias: They’re the ones who haven’t defected to Warren yet.

nrakich: I take your question, Nate.

And I agree with you generally that Sanders needs to go on the attack more. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he will. Especially when he and Warren are reportedly good friends.

natesilver: Friends, schmends, people are trying to WIN THE PRESIDENCY!!!!

sarahf: And what does that mean for the debate? Does Sanders have an incentive to go hard on Warren?

natesilver: Sanders probably — maybe definitely — needs some of Warren’s current voters to have a shot at the nomination. It doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to go after her, though, which could fairly easily backfire.

His staff, at times, has seemed a little prickly about Warren. Maybe they thought it was Sanders’s turn — he was the second-place finisher last time, after all. But she’s the one who seems to have momentum and whose chances the media is taking more seriously.

But, again, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good look for Sanders to go after her. I’m not sure what he’d even say, exactly.

He has, at times, tried to emphasize his electability vis-a-vis Warren, a strategy that I think is a bit dubious.

nrakich: I feel like that won’t win him a lot of friends among people who already don’t like the way he treated the last woman he faced in a primary.

natesilver: He has sometimes tried to act like he was the OG Democratic Socialist and she’s stepping on his turf, which I don’t think is a particularly compelling message either.

julia_azari: One thing I want to note about Warren and Sanders is how we (media, voters, everyone) understand what goes on within parties in a nomination contest. Because you essentially have two people competing who have somewhat different approaches to their shared ideological lane. So is this competition about candidates and their personalities? Or is it about which approach gets to bear the standard for the economically left wing of the party? It’s kind of remarkable that we’re seeing public contestation at this level — not just between factions but within them.

nrakich: I definitely think it’s a competition of personalities, not ideologies. I think a lot of elites who support Warren really don’t like Sanders because of his “revolution” rhetoric and somewhat ornery personality.

sarahf: What are some other dynamics we expect on night one? Do we think, tactically speaking, it makes sense for the other candidates to position themselves against the front-runners, i.e. Warren and Sanders?

natesilver: I think it makes sense for Klobuchar to push back against them.

nrakich: Yeah, I think it makes a lot of sense for the moderates like Klobuchar, Hickenlooper and Delaney to set themselves up as a foil against Sanders or Warren.

julia_azari: The smart move for Klobuchar-O’Rourke-Buttigieg is to try to emerge as the leader of that pack. I think, if we conceptualize the nomination as a process of coalition-building, there’s potential for Klobuchar to build on her status as a woman, a Midwesterner and a pragmatic candidate. But the staff stuff may have sunk her, I don’t know.

natesilver: Klobuchar might actually have a shot at the nomination. I’m not sure I care what Delaney does though.

nrakich: DeLaNeY sHoUlD bE aT cEnTeR sTaGe

(Nate, did I do that right?)

natesilver: I don’t think you can troll effectively with Delaney.

It’s not like Yang or Williamson, where there’s something inherently trollish about their candidacies.

sarahf: And Steve Bullock, while I don’t think he has a shot at winning the nomination, could still be an interesting addition. At the very least, he wasn’t in the first debate, so voters won’t have heard him make his case yet.

nrakich: Yes, Bullock is a strong candidate on paper: two-term governor of a red state, and he has some institutional support in Iowa. Unlike some of the other lower-tier candidates, you can see a path to the nomination for him, however faintly.

But I would guess that virtually no one has heard words come out of his mouth, so this week will be big for him.

julia_azari: Bullock also has anti-establishment cred from being excluded from the first debate. Will anyone care? I don’t know. As someone writing about party legitimacy, I’m way into watching that unfold.

natesilver: Overall, the moderates would rather be on the stage against Biden, no?

nrakich: Yeah, I think so, Nate, but with Sanders, they’ll still have material to work with.

sarahf: Is the idea here it’s better to be on a stage where you can show what you have in common with someone who’s polling better than you? Rather than showing how you’re different?

julia_azari: Yeah, I think this debate might be a good test of whether it’s good for these kinds of candidates to be on a stage with the front-runner in their “lane” or if it’s better to go up against the front-runner not in their “lane” to establish themselves as the main alternative.

nrakich: I think it’s just because you can make the most effective attack on Biden in person (as Harris showed), and if it lands, you’re likely to be the beneficiary.

natesilver: I think a lot of the moderates need Biden to implode to have a shot, so you’d rather just be on the stage with him so that you can benefit directly from him imploding. It’s harder if you have to count on a parlay of you doing well in one debate and then Biden doing poorly in the other debate but somehow none of the candidates from the other debate get credit for dismantling Biden.

sarahf: OK, on to night two!

Reminder, the stage is: Biden, Harris, Booker, Yang, Castro, Gabbard, Bennet, Inslee, Gillibrand, de Blasio.

nrakich: All of the nonwhite candidates are debating on this night. I find this fascinating.

Also, Biden sharing the stage with them is fascinating.

Harris and Booker in particular have shown that they are eager to attack Biden on racial-justice issues.

sarahf: Right, and we’ve got the potential for a rematch on our hands. What are the non-probabilistic odds, you think, that Harris and Biden spar again?

nrakich: High.

And I think Biden will be readier for it. (Or at least he should be — he has no excuse now.)

natesilver: I think Harris-Biden Round 2 is fairly likely to be the headline that emerges, yeah.

sarahf: My bet is that Booker joins the headline, largely because, as Nathaniel mentioned earlier, he’s also taken Biden to task on issues of race.

Booker also is a pretty strong debater, I think.

natesilver: Could Harris, in theory, rely on Booker to be the more aggressive one and try to remain a bit above the fray?

I’m not saying it’s a good strategy or a bad strategy, but it’s one she could consider.

Biden is still very popular with Democrats and she doesn’t necessarily want to alienate his voters.

julia_azari: I think that’s definitely a possibility and a strategy she could consider. The dilemma with tackling Biden’s record on race is that candidates may want to do it as long as something like reparations isn’t pinned to them when the general election rolls around. Not saying this is right or wrong morally or strategically, but I do think it’s a calculation.

And to some degree, I think that’s sorta the larger dilemma of this primary (I’m really liking the word “dilemma” today, leaning into it) — how does one compete fiercely in this kind of field without alienating the supporters of other candidates?

sarahf: And as we’ve talked about before, if Biden were to falter, both Harris and Booker have some chance of benefiting from supporters switching to them instead. So it will be a fine balance between weakening Biden while not alienating his base too much.

nrakich: FWIW, I think Harris’s attack in the first debate was excellent precisely because it conveyed respect to Biden while also totally destroying him.

sarahf: Yeah, she even started her attack by saying how much she respected Biden.

natesilver: Ohhhh I don’t really think it conveyed much respect.

I mean, it wasn’t out of bounds.

But saying you respect someone as a rhetorical strategy is only loosely correlated with actually conveying respect.

julia_azari: I’m not sure about the respect thing either.

But I think it was a great piece of political theater, and there’s some evidence that debates are good for changing people’s impressions of how viable or electable a candidate is. Harris perhaps helped people envision her on a debate stage with Trump.

nrakich: I have no idea if Harris actually respects Biden, but it’s about how people interpret it, and I think she managed to land a devastating attack in a way that didn’t come off as mean. So I don’t think it alienated anyone but the most diehard Biden fans who think he is above reproach.

Harris’s unfavorable rating went up just 1.4 points after the debate, according to our tracking poll, so few voters seemed put off by her approach.

sarahf: OK, let’s wrap. Top line, what will you be looking for on Tuesday and Wednesday?

nrakich: It’s kind of a boring answer, but I’ll again be looking to see if any of the middle- or lower-tier candidates have a moment that earns them a burst in support. Otherwise, it’s going to be the same old cast of characters on the September stage, and you’ll probably see multiple people drop out. (Note: That may happen anyway.)

natesilver: I’d be interested in if O’Rourke, Buttigieg and/or Klobuchar explicitly play to the center.

Klobuchar seemed reluctant to do that in the first debate.

julia_azari: The four things I’ll be looking for are: 1) movement among top-tier candidates; 2) the porousness of the top tier, i.e. can anyone else get into it; 3) who is competing against whom (e.g. what “lanes” emerge); and 4) what issues emerge as the ones that will define the primary race?

Because how the candidates link themselves to and prioritize issues might give us a sense of how fault lines will emerge as the primary season progresses.


FiveThirtyEight's most memorable debate moments


How The Top Candidates’ Supporters Rated The Debaters, In One Chart

We’ve done a lot of post-debate analysis unpacking the findings from the panel survey we conducted with Morning Consult. But while we’ve looked at how respondents as a whole rated the candidates’ performances, we also wondered: How did each candidate’s supporters rate the performances of each of the seven front-runners?3 (Hint: There were two candidates who everyone thought seemed to do well — Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, each candidate’s highest rating came from his or her own supporters. While Harris and Warren got good grades across the board — generally, an average debate performance score of 3.9 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5 — Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke, in particular, did not do well with other supporters. (Even their own supporters rated their debate performances lower than other supporters rated the performances of their candidates.) And as for the undecided voters in our survey, they, too, were most impressed with Harris and Warren — and least taken with O’Rourke.

CORRECTION (July 3, 2019, 2:30 p.m.): A previous version of this post incorrectly said that the supporters of each candidate gave that candidate the highest rating. The candidates got their best marks from their own supporters, but some of those supporters gave other candidates higher ratings.

The First Democratic Debate In Five Charts

Thursday night was the conclusion of the first Democratic primary debate, and, like everybody else, we’re trying to make sense of what we watched. Some candidates had breakout moments while others were pushed to the sidelines. But did these moments really make a difference to viewers?

In an attempt to answer this question, we are trying to sum up the first debate in five charts, including: our poll with Morning Consult, which is tracking the same group of voters’ feelings about the candidates and how they change after the debates; a look at which candidates gained the most followers on Twitter; and of course, how much each of the candidates spoke, including whether they mentioned President Trump.

Who overperformed?

Going into the debates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris both had favorability ratings of more than 50 percent among likely Democratic voters. And after their respective debates, they came out even stronger — respondents who watched the debates gave them the two highest average ratings on performance, according to our poll with Morning Consult.

The debates were also big for some lesser-known candidates, such as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. He went into the debates with a favorability rating just under 30 percent, and respondents rated his debate performance highly, which suggests that it’s more than just his existing fans who thought he did well (as you can see in the chart below). Sen. Cory Booker also had a strong debate performance. But the two candidates currently leading in the polls, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, both underperformed.

Who’s gaining followers?

After the first night of the debates, Castro was the one to watch — at least on Twitter. He had gained more than 50,000 followers by Thursday afternoon.

But following Thursday night’s debate, Harris gained nearly 60,000 new followers — the most new followers acquired by any of the Democratic candidates between the day of their debate and the following afternoon. This might not come as a surprise, as Harris had a particularly powerful moment when she called out Biden for his remarks about working with segregationist senators and his opposition to school integration via busing in the 1970s, saying the issue affected her personally.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

Who gained the most Twitter followers?

Change in Twitter followers from the afternoon before each candidate debated to the afternoon after their debate night

No. of Twitter followers
Debate Night Candidate Before debate Increase
2 Harris 2,729,541 59,588
1 Castro 220,987 54,886
2 Buttigieg 1,160,106 40,209
2 Yang 404,329 39,363
2 Williamson 2,621,444 31,246
1 Warren 2,673,496 30,240
1 Gabbard 381,316 19,278
1 Booker 4,258,986 10,676
2 Sanders 9,341,166 7,299
1 Klobuchar 706,774 5,480
1 Inslee 65,487 4,366
2 Gillibrand 1,427,945 3,785
2 Biden 3,607,252 3,751
1 De Blasio 157,535 2,666
1 Delaney 22,467 2,483
1 O’Rourke 1,432,328 2,426
2 Swalwell 93,960 2,098
1 Ryan 22,365 1,460
2 Hickenlooper 146,734 1,312
2 Bennet 23,459 1,145

Who held the floor?

Of course, in order for any of these candidates to impress viewers or gain followers, they needed to get their message out. As you can see in the table below, Harris and Booker were among the candidates with the highest number of words spoken on either night. But just holding the floor wasn’t enough. Biden, for instance, spoke more words than any other candidate, but according to results from our poll with Morning Consult, he lost supporters, dropping from nearly 42 percent before the first night of the debate to 32 percent after his appearance on Thursday.

Who spoke the most?

Number of words spoken by candidates participating in either night of the first Democratic debate

Debate Night Candidate Words spoken
2 Joe Biden 2475
1 Cory Booker 2181
2 Kamala Harris 2147
2 Pete Buttigieg 2072
1 Beto O’Rourke 1932
2 Bernie Sanders 1676
1 Elizabeth Warren 1637
1 Amy Klobuchar 1614
1 Julián Castro 1588
2 Michael Bennet 1462
2 Kirsten Gillibrand 1421
1 Tim Ryan 1383
1 Tulsi Gabbard 1243
1 John Delaney 1060
2 Marianne Williamson 983
2 Eric Swalwell 966
2 John Hickenlooper 951
1 Bill de Blasio 881
1 Jay Inslee 875
2 Andrew Yang 594

Excludes words spoken in Spanish

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

So we also compared the number of words candidates spoke to their polling averages (using all 23 polls that the Democratic National Committee sanctioned for candidates to use in qualifying for the debate). And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of words spoken by each of the candidates roughly correlated with their polling averages over both nights, with the correlation being somewhat stronger during the second debate.

But there were notable outliers, like Booker and Harris, who both spoke more than their polling averages might have predicted. Sanders and Warren were also outliers, in that they spoke less than their standing in the polls might have suggested. And then, of course, there’s Andrew Yang, who spoke the least out of all the candidates even though he was in the middle of the pack in polling average.

Avoid Trump, or invoke him?

One of the most obvious differences between the two nights of debates was how many times the candidates mentioned — or didn’t mention — Trump’s name. The candidates on stage Thursday mentioned the president a total of 34 times, while the candidates on Wednesday mentioned him just 20 times. Notably, Sen. Elizabeth Warren did not use his name a single time on the first night, making her the only one of the five polling front-runners not to mention Trump explicitly.

But on the second night, Trump and his administration’s policies took center stage. For example, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has positioned herself as the most anti-Trump candidate, mentioned the president eight times (the most of any candidate on either night), at one point saying he has “torn apart the moral fabric of who we are.”

Which candidates talked about Trump?

How often President Trump’s name was mentioned by candidates participating in either night of the first Democratic debate

Debate Night Candidate Trump Mentions
2 Kirsten Gillibrand 8
2 Bernie Sanders 6
2 Marianne Williamson 6
1 Amy Klobuchar 5
2 Joe Biden 4
2 Kamala Harris 4
2 Andrew Yang 4
1 Jay Inslee 4
1 Cory Booker 3
1 Beto O’Rourke 3
2 Michael Bennet 2
1 Tulsi Gabbard 2
1 Julián Castro 2
1 Tim Ryan 1
2 John Hickenlooper 0
2 Pete Buttigieg 0
2 Eric Swalwell 0
1 Bill de Blasio 0
1 John Delaney 0
1 Elizabeth Warren 0

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

What We’re Watching For In The First Democratic Debates

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): The first Democratic primary debates are finally here. And with two back-to-back nights, featuring 10 candidates each, it’ll be a challenge for many candidates to make an impression, especially those hovering around 1 percent in the polls.

For reference, here’s Wednesday’s lineup: Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee and John Delaney.

And Thursday’s: Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and Eric Swalwell.

So let’s talk about the goals we think candidates have for each debate and what we see as the stakes, starting with Wednesday’s lineup.

Sound good?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Sounds great. I can’t believe it’s debate season already — we were watching 2018 election returns come in just seven months ago!

sarahf: Haha. But watching a debate is such a different experience than watching election results trickle in. So, what are you all looking for on night one?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Power ties.

That’s it.

Nothing else.

Listen, I’ll say it up front and then engage more deeply: Presidential debates are not real debates. They are chances for candidates to slot in their talking points. They are pseudo-events — PR opportunities manufactured by parties and news organizations to provide turning points and tension during a long slog. They are only meaningful because we decide to give them meaning. (I will repeat this when we have to cover political conventions.)

But I guess that said, I’m curious to see what the people at the dregs of the polls are going to do with their time and if any of them are impressive. I think for someone like Gillibrand who’s polling poorly but has been in politics for a long time, the debates are a real moment.

nrakich: True, but I will say debates can be meaningful precisely because they are PR opportunities. For many of these candidates, it will be by far the most exposure their talking points have gotten yet.

And maybe, say, Eric Swalwell has really good talking points, and the nation realizes that and he jumps to 7 percent in next week’s polls.

Debates may be theater, but they can also have an impact.

That said, we probably shouldn’t expect the entire landscape of the race to change.

clare.malone: I don’t say my debate piece to be glib. I just think we need to be cognizant of who and what are shaping the presidential election right now.

I’m also curious to see how many people actually tune in. That says a lot.

nrakich: Agreed, and I wonder how this week’s debates will rate. The highest-rated Democratic debate of 2016 had 15.3 million viewers; the highest-rated Republican debate had 24 million.

Republicans drew more eyeballs than Democrats in 2016

Ratings, in millions of viewers, for the 2016 Democratic and Republican prime-time primary debates

Debate Democrats Republicans
1st 15.3m
24.0m
2nd 8.5
22.9
3rd 7.8
14.0
4th 10.2
13.5
5th 4.5
18.2
6th 8.0
11.1
7th 5.5
12.5
8th 6.0
13.3
9th 5.6
13.5
10th
14.5
11th
16.9
12th
11.9

Democrats had only nine primary debates in the 2016 cycle.

Sources: News Reports

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): I’m with Clare that it’s going to be interesting to see how the potential also-ran candidates try to have a moment (or moments). There are 20 candidates, 10 in each debate, but most of them are polling below 5 percent if you average all the polls the Democratic National Committee considered for debate qualification.

The second debate features more heavyweight candidates

Combined polling averages of the candidates in each of the first two 2019 Democratic debates

June 26 debate No. of Polls Avg June 27 debate No. of Polls Avg
Warren 23 8.7% Biden 23 29.9%
O’Rourke 23 5.1 Sanders 23 18.3
Booker 23 2.6 Harris 23 7.6
Klobuchar 23 2.0 Buttigieg 23 5.8
Castro 22 0.9 Yang 21 1.0
Ryan 16 0.6 Gillibrand 23 0.5
Gabbard 23 0.5 Hickenlooper 23 0.4
Inslee 22 0.4 Bennet 16 0.3
De Blasio 15 0.4 Williamson 19 0.2
Delaney 23 0.2 Swalwell 18 0.2
Total support 21.4 Total support 64.0
Average support 2.1 Average support 6.4

Candidate averages based on 23 qualifying polls sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee for determining debate qualification that have been conducted since the start of 2019. Total support does not add up to 100 percent due to undecided respondents, support for candidates who didn’t end up running for president and support for candidates who didn’t qualify.

Source: Polls

sarahf: What do we make of the argument that the first night is Elizabeth Warren’s to lose? Too much of a simplification?

nrakich: Well, as the table above shows, and as Geoffrey and I wrote earlier, Warren is the only top-tier candidate in Wednesday’s debate. That could work to her advantage.

But on the other hand, it’s dangerous to have high expectations like that!

Other candidates in that debate may be skilled debaters as well — in particular, I’m thinking Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker.

clare.malone: I think night one is likely to be friendlier. Warren is going to be targeted, I’d guess, in the same way that Sanders and Biden will be, but maybe won’t be quite as under fire.

geoffrey.skelley: Given the fact it’s the first debate, I lean toward the camp that thinks Warren might benefit from being the lone star on stage. As the polling leader, she’ll likely get the most time and questions, which I think will let her policy mojo shine.

And because it’s the first debate, it’ll still get eyeballs even though a lot of big hitters go Thursday.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Wow I just got warped into this chat!

And I just wanna start off by saying that I think the tone so far is verging on the side of underestimating the impact of the debates. It’s not that they’re that important, but that everything else isn’t that important.

sarahf: That’s fair, Nate. FiveThirtyEight contributor Julia Azari wrote a piece earlier this week on what we know about primary debates, and I thought it was interesting that she found that studies generally show that primary debates actually have a better chance of changing voters’ minds than general election debates. And that’s because voters can’t rely on their party identification as much when selecting which candidate to support.

natesilver: But in terms of the first night, I think the idea that it’s “Candidate X’s night to lose” is generally a dangerous position for that candidate to be in because it means expectations are set fairly high.

I also think Warren may be someone who does better with repeated, prolonged exposure. So she could be good in say a four-person debate, but I’m not as sure about a 10-person debate.

With that said, I think the media is still generally bullish on the “Warren emerges as Biden’s main rival” angle.

clare.malone: “Repeated prolonged exposure” sounds oddly gruesome, Nate.

nrakich: The New York Times had a whole article about Elizabeth Warren’s academic debate career.

That’s definitely expectations-raising.

geoffrey.skelley: I get the expectations danger — it’s a huge part of the primary process. But I wonder if it’ll be a wash because the only candidate who really has a target on his/her back is Biden.

sarahf: Why do you think that, Geoff?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, the media is going to look for storylines, of course, but Warren probably isn’t in much danger of having other candidates on stage attacking her. After all, she’s been more in the driver’s seat on policy issues.

nrakich: I think it depends on who is doing the attacking. Someone like Tim Ryan might attack Biden because he thinks Biden is in his “lane.” But Bernie Sanders might go after Warren, perceiving that he is losing support to her.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, but Warren won’t be on the stage with Sanders or Biden.

So in terms of optics, I think the fact she’s undoubtedly the one star on that stage might help her.

nrakich: I don’t think a candidate has to be on stage for candidates to attack them.

For example, I think a certain 45th president is going to be on the receiving end of more attacks than all of the Democratic candidates put together.

sarahf: Yeah, I’m with Rakich. And I think it might even be a good strategy for Warren to pit herself against the other Democratic front-runners, even if they aren’t on the stage.

natesilver: So if you’re, like, Klobuchar or Booker, what are your goals in the debate?

clare.malone: I think someone like Klobuchar needs to introduce herself on some level.

nrakich: 1. Have a viral moment or a killer line that will be replayed on cable news/can be leveraged for fundraising. 2. Chip away at the candidates who are ahead of you in your “lane.” That’s probably Biden for both of them.

clare.malone: Booker might be likely to use some of his anti-Biden momentum from the last week or so.

sarahf: Right, he’s already seen an uptick in cable news clips.

natesilver: But don’t Clare and Rakich’s arguments contradict one another?

nrakich: I wouldn’t say so, Nate. Often, the best introduction can be a defining moment.

clare.malone: Which part of Rakich’s thing?

natesilver: Like, re-introducing yourself and trying for a killer one-liner seem like different objectives.

geoffrey.skelley: The one danger in attacking is that you can’t know how it’s going to affect things, if it does at all. This is especially true in a super-crowded field. For instance, what if Booker comes off looking bad for going “too far” in attacking Biden, and somehow Klobuchar benefits because of how she handled herself?

natesilver: But by going on the attack don’t you cheapen yourself to some degree?

When you want to project seriousness and steadiness?

clare.malone: Killer lines don’t have to be flip.

That seems like YOUR projection 🙂

I think someone like Buttigieg could engineer that whole “I’m no fisherman, but I know bait when I see it” and could turn it into a moment where he shows how he’s above the fray.

That is, killer line (in the eye of the beholder) + delivered seriously.

natesilver: But I mean if you’re Harris or Buttigieg, I think you wanna be above the fray, especially if Bernie and Biden go after one another.

I also think Harris and Buttigieg are in a considerably more secure position than, say, Klobuchar.

clare.malone: For sure, Klobuchar and Gillibrand I put in the same category of needing to have a big night.

sarahf: So, that’s something I want to probe a bit more. It seems as if we’re all operating under the assumption that these first debates could shake up the polling in the race, right? So I guess my question is when do we think this will happen?

And is there a possibility that things might not change that much until later in the cycle?

geoffrey.skelley: I would think the early debates have the potential to have a bigger effect than the later debates because people aren’t yet familiar with many of the candidates.

nrakich: I think things definitely have the potential to change within a week or two.

I think we’ll need a couple of days to see how the debate is playing out on cable news — what’s getting replayed, etc.

Then we’ll need a week — or a little less — for that to start reverberating in polls.

natesilver: I mostly disagree. I think the effects will tend to be strongest in the first 24-48 hours, which, yeah, could take a few days for us to detect.

But I think it happens pretty fast.

clare.malone: Everything Nate says in this chat sounds like he’s dealing with a deadly virus.

sarahf: But do you think we could be overestimating folks’ interest in the debates? What was it that AP-NORC poll found this week, that only 35 percent of Democrats are really paying attention to the race so far? I mean, clearly, that’s not us … but I guess I’m torn on whether these debates will really move the dial much. (Also reader, stay tuned — we’re going to be tracking some of these questions in real-time with a new poll from Morning Consult!)

natesilver: Well, if only 35 percent of Democrats are paying a lot of attention to the campaign, how many of them will actually vote in the primaries?

clare.malone: How many, Nate?

natesilver: There were about 30 million votes in 2016, which is a lot but not that many.

By comparison, there are somewhere on the order of roughly 160 million registered voters.

Of whom let’s say 70 million are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents in states with open primaries.

So 35 percent of 70 million is about 25 million, which is not far from 2016 primary turnout!

geoffrey.skelley: This is all just a complicated way of saying a lot people don’t really tune into politics until the general election.

If they do at all.

sarahf: I don’t know, 25 million was probably more than I was expecting.

nrakich: But remember that more people than usual are saying they are interested in the 2020 election.

Sixty-nine percent of voters said in an April/May NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that they were very interested in the 2020 election, which is almost as many as said that in October of 2012 or 2016!

natesilver: I’m just saying I think people are learning the wrong lesson from the “daily controversy of the week didn’t move the numbers” stories.

The debates tend to generate a LOT more polling movement than the daily controversies.

clare.malone: But does that movement last?

Or is it a proverbial “bump”? Like a bump from a convention or when you hop in the race?

natesilver: It’s often a bump.

But everything can be a bump.

clare.malone: 🤰

[bump]

nrakich: But the thing about a bump is that your horse-race numbers might fall back to earth, but people don’t un-remember you.

And boosting your name recognition is half the battle.

Look at Pete Buttigieg — his polling numbers have fallen down a bit, but he still has pretty high name recognition and favorability ratings.

natesilver: I’m most curious about the candidates who have good favorables but not that much first-place support, like Harris and Booker in particular.

sarahf: This story compared candidates’ net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) in May to the first of the year, but I think there’s still a lot of room for these candidates to become better known and improve their favorability ratings. Even someone like Buttigieg, who has seen tremendous growth in name recognition since he entered the race, has the potential to be better known and better liked. After all, only about 60 percent of Democrats have an opinion of him.

Major 2020 Candidates change in the polls and name recognition

nrakich: Well, I would be cautious about going too far there, Sarah — those last 40 percent are probably the hardest people to get the attention of.

And I’d guess the Democrats who will tune into the debates this week are probably disproportionately from the 60 percent of Democrats who have heard of him.

sarahf: That’s fair, but I think if he has a good debate performance, he could still get closer to, say, Harris’s or Warren’s lower bound.

And as to my meta-debate question: What impact do we think, if any, the moderators are going to have on shaping the debate?

natesilver: How they divide time between all 10 candidates and the 3-4 candidates in the middle of the stage each night will be important.

If I were a moderator then TBH I’d be like “fuck these candidates polling at zero percent” and focus on the ones with more plausible shots at the nomination.

I think that serves the audience better.

But that’s why I’d never be asked to be a moderator.

clare.malone: That’s why you’re not a moderator.

Jinx.

natesilver: Haha.

clare.malone: And in some ways, they’re playing within the strictures that the DNC has laid out.

nrakich: We’ve had this debate in previous Slack chats, Nate. I think, especially for these early debates, the moderator really has a responsibility to give equal time to everyone.

If they haven’t made their case after being given fair time in the first few debates, then I think it is fair for the media to start #winnowing.

geoffrey.skelley: I don’t know. I’m pretty skeptical of the notion John Delaney deserves equal time with, say, Warren. But he should get a shot to answer some questions, of course.

natesilver: Nah, fuck those people. They already get way too much media attention I think.

And it’s to the point where they’re sort of exploiting the media’s goodwill in certain ways.

nrakich: John Delaney was mentioned in 0.3 percent of cable news clips last week! Warren was mentioned in 15.5 percent.

natesilver: Which is 0.2 percent more than he should be in probably.

I feel differently about the ones who actually have credentials, like Inslee or Klobuchar or Booker.

clare.malone: That feels like a shot at Marianne Williamson.

natesilver: But if you’re just some random backbench U.S. rep. or mayor, you’d better earn your media attention.

geoffrey.skelley: I mean, the Democrats did set up rules that ended up keeping out a twice-elected U.S. governor and let in a spiritual adviser to Oprah.

But everyone knew the rules, so that’s also on Steve Bullock, too.

clare.malone: It’s definitely on Bullock!

I don’t begrudge Williamson for being popular amongst a certain set of voters.

sarahf: Yeah, I thought Williamson had some engaging, thoughtful answers in that New York Times video series where they interviewed all the candidates.

And she was way more dynamic than Yang.

Sorry, but I’m not sorry.

nrakich: She’s charismatic, I will give her that. (It’s hard not to be when you’re a motivational speaker by trade.)

natesilver: She’s not actually popular, though.

It doesn’t take much to hit one percent in three polls and get 65,000 people to donate to you in a country of 330 million people.

clare.malone: Well, to be fair, a lot of the candidates are not that popular.

sarahf: That’s true. But it does seem as if operatives in the Democratic Party would be upset with a Williamson nomination (as they would be with Sanders or Tulsi Gabbard).

Gabbard or Williamson draw a lot of opposition

Share of respondents who said they would not consider supporting a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary

Activists Oppose
candidate april 2019 june
Gabbard 59%
69%
Williamson
66
Sanders 50
59
Moulton
59
Yang 35
55
Messam
55
De Blasio
52
Delaney 38
45
Ryan
45
Hickenlooper 29
41
Swalwell
41
Bullock
38
O’Rourke 29
34
Bennet 26
34
Biden 41
31
Klobuchar 29
28
Gillibrand 26
28
Buttigieg 26
21
Inslee 21
17
Warren 18
14
Castro 15
10
Booker 6
10
Harris 3
7

Respondents were asked about the 23 commonly mentioned candidates listed above, but they were also provided space to write in candidates not listed.

Source: SETH MASKET, “LEARNING FROM LOSS: THE DEMOCRATS, 2016-2020”

But OK, I don’t think we’ve actually talked about what we’re expecting in night two specifically.

… Is it clarity on Biden’s policy positions?

natesilver: No, I think it’s whether Biden and Bernie look old and stale up there and whether that means that something clicks in voters’ heads just from seeing a number of younger, credible alternatives to them.

nrakich: Yeah, I think the biggest difference-maker could be whether Biden shows his age.

The Joe Biden that most people remember is from the 2008 or 2012 campaign trail.

He hasn’t debated since that vice presidential debate against Paul Ryan seven years ago.

He’s 76 now. And we know that Americans are hesitant about electing a president who’s over 70.

sarahf: OK, fine, Biden is old. But so is Trump. And I think the moderators will at least push him a little on the issues as he hasn’t made his views on many policies known.

geoffrey.skelley: And the other candidates.

clare.malone: Definitely, the other candidates.

natesilver: Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh I’m not sure that isn’t at least halfway a media trope rather than a reality about Biden.

Other than Warren, a lot of the candidates have fairly vague policy positions.

nrakich: Agreed, Nate.

natesilver: And Biden has provided detail on some issues like climate and immigration.

nrakich: He’s also surprisingly liberal on issues like the minimum wage (he wants to raise it to $15 an hour). I think the media narrative around Biden’s policy positions is a little out of step with reality and shaped more by decades-old controversies.

clare.malone: What are you arguing?

That moderators won’t push him?

That’s slightly beside the point. I think other candidates will likely go after him.

Bernie, for instance, comes to mind.

nrakich: I just don’t see what Bernie has to gain from going after Biden? On the other hand, that assumes he is a rational strategic actor …

natesilver: Oh, see, I don’t see what Bernie has to lose from going after Biden.

I think Bernie has to be like “I’m the best overall contrast with Biden.” Right now, I think he’s done too much playing to his niche and not enough to the broader electorate.

It’s a tough balance to strike.

But Sanders has been on a downward trajectory in the polls, and I don’t think he’s someone who should be too risk-averse.

clare.malone: But … do you think he’s going to try to broaden?

geoffrey.skelley: Not especially.

clare.malone: That doesn’t seem too Sanders-y.

natesilver: I think he’s been getting bad advice by not trying to broaden more.

geoffrey.skelley: But Sanders’s strategy is predicated on winning with a plurality in a fragmented, crowded field.

natesilver: In which case I guess you have to take out Biden.

And sorta win ugly.

But, like, I think his strategy has been mistaken from the get-go.

Maybe it’s too late to change it now, though.

nrakich: I guess he does have lots of practice going after “establishment Democrats” from his 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton.

Maybe that is his comfort zone.

geoffrey.skelley: Right. I guess the approach Sanders takes at the debates might give us insight into whether he’s considering an alternate path to win the nomination.

natesilver: I think Sanders maybe doesn’t realize that running as the anti-establishment candidate might have been a good strategy to finish a respectable second place to Hillary Clinton given the unique circumstances of 2016, and that it’s probably a pretty bad strategy otherwise for winning presidential nominations.

clare.malone: I think he wants to run his way, though.

natesilver: Well, good for him but I think he’s quite unlikely to win the nomination that way.

clare.malone: Fair, Nate, but I think we have to consider what might be driving his logic. Which means I think we have to concede that Sanders sees himself as an ideological purist, or a totally alternate choice.

sarahf: OK, last question. Two back-to-back nights of debates complicates the viewing experience — the candidates are split, some lower-tier candidates maybe shouldn’t even be on the stage, and other candidates didn’t even make the cut. But, setting that aside, what are the big takeaways you’re looking for?

geoffrey.skelley: I feel like one of the lower-tier candidates is going to have a viral moment of sorts, so who is that? They’re actively trying to do this, by the way.

nrakich: Took the words right out of my mouth, Geoffrey.

natesilver: AnDrEw YaNg.

sarahf: mArIaNnE wILlIaMsOn.

Woo, fun lettering.

nrakich: What does the fun lettering thing mean? Are you being serious, but in a winking way? Or are you mocking the thing you are writing?

natesilver: It’s a troll font.

nrakich: Right, which kind of troll?

natesilver: With good trolling you’re never sure what type of trolling it is.

sarahf: To be clear, I’m just trolling Nate.