How Seriously Should We Take Michael Bloomberg’s Potential 2020 Run?

Like any self-respecting election nerd, I keep a spreadsheet of prospective 2020 presidential candidates, which includes a column called “Odds They Run.” When a candidate declares, I move it to 100 percent; when a candidate passes on the race, I move it to 1 percent.

The reason I move it to 1 percent and not 0 percent is people like Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg announced in March that he would not run for president, but on Friday, he is expected to file paperwork to become a candidate in the Democratic primary in Alabama, as today is the state’s filing deadline. This move doesn’t mean Bloomberg is definitely running, however. At this point he’s just keeping his options open, although Bloomberg advisers told The New York Times on Thursday that he would decide for sure whether to run within a matter of days, not weeks.

Even so, Bloomberg’s move is a big surprise given just how late it is in the electoral calendar. (Since 1976, the latest an eventual nominee has launched his or her presidential campaign was August of the year before the election.) Now there are fewer than three months before the Iowa caucuses, and if Bloomberg does end up running, he’ll have to scramble to make the debate stage, let alone get himself in a position to win any states.

The reason, though, why Bloomberg is considering a last-minute bid is that he is reportedly worried about the way the Democratic primary is unfolding, as one adviser told the Times. Back in March, Bloomberg said he believed that it was essential that the Democratic nominee be able to defeat President Trump, and last month it was reported that he would reconsider his decision not to run if former Vice President Joe Biden continued to struggle. Presumably, Bloomberg has now changed his mind after seeing Sen. Elizabeth Warren — whose ideas, especially the wealth tax, he has lambasted as socialism — gain ground in the polls and Biden struggle with fundraising.

But there is arguably very little appetite among Democratic voters — donors may be a different story — for yet another presidential candidate. In October, a YouGov/HuffPost poll found that 83 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters were either enthusiastic or satisfied with their presidential choices. And it looks like there is even less appetite for Bloomberg specifically. According to last week’s Fox News poll, just 6 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they would definitely vote for Bloomberg should he enter the race. And a hypothetical Harvard-Harris Poll of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Bloomberg mixed in with the rest of the Democratic field gave Bloomberg the same 6 percent of the vote.

And those polls would probably qualify as good news for Bloomberg, given that he was generally registering around 2 or 3 percent in national primary polls before first taking his name out of consideration in March (which is also when pollsters largely stopped asking about him).

In a field this crowded, entering the race in the high single digits wouldn’t even necessarily be a bad thing, but the problem is that it might be harder for Bloomberg to build on that support than it would be for other candidates. In an average of polls from January and early February, I found that 62 percent of Democrats knew enough about Bloomberg to form an opinion (which was pretty high), but his net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) was only +11 (which was pretty low). As you can see in the chart below, Bloomberg was a real outlier — for as well known as he is, we would have expected him to be much better-liked, with a net favorability of about +35, not +11.

And history suggests Bloomberg’s low favorability ratings would be a major obstacle to winning the nomination. Our past research indicates that people who win presidential primaries tend to either be (a) already well known and well liked or (b) relative unknowns to start off the campaign. Only one nominee since at least 1980 has been in Bloomberg’s position (well known but not well liked), and that’s Trump himself.

Assuming Bloomberg does decide to run, where would he fit into the race? Well, as the former Republican-turned-independent mayor of New York City (he reregistered as a Democrat last year), he would be running as a moderate alternative in the Democratic primary. He favors liberal but not progressive solutions to issues like health care and climate change, and he can be downright libertarian on fiscal issues, like the regulation of banks and, of course, taxes. (It’s little wonder that he has denounced Warren for years.) That said, he has become a progressive leader on the issue of gun control, founding and investing millions in the group Everytown for Gun Safety, which has emerged as a powerful political counterweight to the National Rifle Association. Unfortunately for Bloomberg, though, candidates from the more moderate end of the party (other than Biden) have struggled to gain traction in the polls, so there’s a real question of how much support he can reasonably expect to attract. His candidacy may depend on eating into Biden’s support (which, ironically, could make it likelier that someone like Warren wins the nomination).

Thanks to his successful financial services and media company, Bloomberg will at least have money at his disposal (he has a net worth of $52 billion) to help him overcome his late start. It’s not hard to imagine Bloomberg doing what fellow billionaire-turned-presidential-candidate Tom Steyer has done — use his own money to saturate the early states with advertising and augment his state-level polling numbers just enough to qualify for the debates. However, as we noted when Steyer entered the race, wealthy self-funders don’t actually have an electoral advantage. For example, in 2018, we found that self-funders1 in congressional and gubernatorial races won Democratic primaries at about the same rate as non-self-funders did. And getting 4 percent in four individual polls (the polling threshold for the December debate) is a far cry from being in legitimate contention to win the nomination.

Instead, it seems likelier that Bloomberg will affect the race primarily because of the effect he will have on other candidates. For example, he could cause Biden to slip in the polls by chipping away at his moderate base or throw cold water on the ascent of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He could also turn voters away from Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders by becoming the designated attack dog against progressive policies. Or he could fail to make much of an impact at all, leaving the current state of the race unchanged. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though; it’s still possible he won’t run at all. Either way, there’s a long way to go before Bloomberg is a factor in this race.

Are Some Democratic Voters Reluctant To Support A Gay Candidate?

There’s nothing like a national election to illuminate the complex and slippery nature of bias at work in the country today. Just ask Pete Buttigieg. Always something of an underdog in the Democratic primary, Buttigieg has started to poll well in Iowa and New Hampshire relative to his national numbers and has proved to be a formidable fundraiser. But as his profile has risen, murmurs about how his sexual orientation might affect his bid have gotten louder and louder.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, why Buttigieg might struggle to gain traction among more voters. His lack of statewide or national political experience is one potential stumbling block. Voters of all races may also balk because he has faced criticism for his handling of the predominantly white police force in South Bend, where a white officer recently shot and killed a black man, and for implementing economic policies that some feel ignore or harm communities of color. And another scapegoat has emerged: Last month, a leaked memo described the results of a focus group conducted by Buttigieg’s own campaign in July, which found that some black voters in South Carolina were uncomfortable with his sexual orientation.

It’s hard to know how much that discomfort truly matters — even a number of the skeptical focus group voters were still open to supporting Buttigieg — and to the extent that it exists, it’s certainly not confined to one group. But regardless of the reasons behind his depressed support, Buttigieg’s candidacy is a case study in the dilemma facing gay and lesbian candidates running at all levels of office today. It’s remarkable, in one sense, how little Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has come up in the primary so far, considering that only 10 years ago, the election of a lesbian woman as Houston’s mayor was enough to make national headlines. Voters’ willingness to support gay and lesbian candidates is at an all-time high, and multiple studies by political scientists have suggested that Democrats are especially unlikely to discriminate against candidates like Buttigieg. “If anything, there are some subgroups of Democrats who would be more likely to vote for a gay candidate,” said Gabriele Magni, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University.

Stop there, and you’d have a pretty rosy electoral prognosis for Buttigieg — focus group skepticism notwithstanding. But it also isn’t the full story. Some Democrats haven’t moved as quickly to the left as others on gay rights issues. And a substantial chunk of Republicans are still comfortable saying they wouldn’t support a gay candidate. As ever, it’s difficult to know what actually keeps a voter for pulling the lever for a particular candidate, but Buttigieg’s sexuality could be a sticking point for some. Experts like Magni said Buttigieg might find it tough to draw support from the most conservative or religious corners of the Democratic primary electorate, not to mention Republicans in the general election. And in a primary driven by voters’ concerns about how electable the candidates are, the perception that a significant slice of voters would never support a gay candidate might be an even bigger hurdle than the reluctant voters themselves.

Just a few election cycles ago, a debate about the electoral impact of a gay candidate’s sexual orientation would have had a clear answer — because being gay was a dealbreaker for almost half the country. As recently as 2007, only 55 percent of Americans said they would vote for a gay or lesbian candidate for president, which is only slightly higher than the share who currently say they would vote for a socialist. But many voters’ qualms about the prospect of a gay or lesbian president evaporated over the following decade, and 76 percent of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — now say they wouldn’t have a problem supporting a gay candidate for president. That’s still not the near-uniform level of hypothetical support the same polls show for a female or black candidate, but it’s also not obviously disqualifying. After all, only 63 percent of Americans say they’d vote for a candidate over the age of 70, which describes the three top-polling candidates in the Democratic primary.

There are plenty of signs, too, that a Democratic primary is particularly friendly terrain for a gay candidate. Political scientists have found in studies and interviews with candidates that gay and lesbian candidates overwhelmingly run as Democrats, in part because Democratic voters don’t seem to penalize candidates for their sexual orientation. A recent experimental study co-authored by Magni found that voters who identify as very liberal and nonreligious were more likely to support a gay candidate over a straight candidate.

The impulse to size up the electoral landscape and run where their support is strongest can partially help explain why gay and lesbian candidates often don’t find their sexuality to be a serious barrier. “When you talk to gay and lesbian candidates, they’ll generally tell you their sexual orientation didn’t matter much in their race, and that’s in part a function of the fact that they tend to run in more liberal areas, like cities,” said Donald Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas and the author of “Out and Running: Gay and Lesbian Candidates, Elections, and Policy Representation.”

But there are still pockets of the Democratic electorate where voters’ views of gay people aren’t as liberal. And that poses a few potential problems for Buttigieg, who has to run a national campaign. A significant chunk of his base is composed of white college-educated Democrats; this is also a subset of voters where his sexual orientation is highly unlikely to be a roadblock, given that several decades of data from the General Social Survey shows that people in this group are especially likely to say that homosexual relationships are never wrong.

But as my colleague Nathaniel Rakich wrote recently, Buttigieg has some fierce competition from Elizabeth Warren for white college-educated voters. And while the groups with whom he might be hoping to expand his support — like religious voters or whites with lower levels of education — are certainly not uniformly opposed to gay candidates, they are groups where his sexual orientation might be more of an issue. People who attend church frequently are much less likely than non-churchgoers to believe same-sex marriage should be legal, according to the Pew Research Center. Likewise, lower levels of education tend to come with lower levels of support for gay marriage.

Voters’ feelings about gay candidates could show up in more nuanced ways as well. The specter of electability, for example, could turn out to be a bigger roadblock for Buttigieg than outright hostility toward gay people. For instance, a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that voters were basically split on whether the country was ready for a gay or lesbian president, and only 26 percent said that their neighbors were ready.

To be clear, several experts told me these electability concerns don’t have a lot of evidence to support them, although that may be partially because there hasn’t been a lot of research on how gay candidates perform in real-life elections, and candidates may also avoid contests — like Republican primaries — where they’re all but destined to lose. But discomfort with gay marriage or homosexual relationships won’t necessarily stop voters from ultimately supporting a gay candidate. And Haider-Markel pointed out that the people with the strongest prejudices against gay people are also highly unlikely to vote for any Democrat, which means that in a general election, Buttigieg’s sexuality would probably matter less than the “D” next to his name. Dislodging gut-level intuitions about electability can be tricky business for a candidate, though. That’s particularly true when significant chunks of the electorate — including almost 40 percent of Republicans — are still perfectly comfortable telling a pollster they wouldn’t vote for a gay candidate. It’s hard not to assume that a neighbor’s stubborn opposition to gay marriage will shape their vote in some way — even though in reality, the forces that influence our choice of candidate are far more complex.

This complexity makes it nearly impossible to say for certain whether it’s Buttigieg’s sexual orientation — rather than his age, or his political inexperience, or his policy positions, or some ineffable combination of factors — that has kept him from rising further in the polls. And that will also make it hard to assess, when all the ballots are cast and the Democratic nominee is chosen, just how much Buttigieg’s electoral chances were affected by his sexuality.

But it also means that even if some voters are being held back by Buttigieg’s sexual orientation now, other parts of his biography, like his military service or Christian faith, could still change the way they think about him. The good news for Buttigieg is that there are months to go before the primaries begin, and he has plenty of cash to spend on introducing himself to voters who might currently know next to nothing about him. “At a very basic level, Buttigieg could reduce some bias just by getting voters to see him as a gay man who was also in Afghanistan and goes to church on Sunday,” Magni said. “Sexual orientation is less likely to play a role in vote choice when people move past the stereotypes they have in their mind about who gay people are supposed to be.”

Why Beto O’Rourke’s Campaign Failed

Beto O’Rourke has played games with the media before, but he got a last laugh of sorts — at least a wistful chuckle — by dropping out of the presidential race on Friday afternoon, sending political writers into a tizzy right before the weekend. And although his candidacy once had great promise, O’Rourke’s exit from the race came down to his weak poll numbers and reduced fundraising numbers, as well as the fact that he may never have had the base of support he needed to truly compete for the Democratic nomination.

Coming off a close loss in Texas’s 2018 Senate race against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke entered the presidential race with great fanfare in March, though some wondered if he had waited too long to fully capitalize on the national notoriety he gained from his 2018 performance. Still, O’Rourke’s initial polling numbers suggested he might really be in the mix to compete for the nomination — he was polling at 10 percent or more in some national polls not long after he announced. However, his survey numbers quickly deteriorated as the race moved along, and he spent the past four months mostly polling below 5 percent even after he tried to revive his campaign in August by tacking left on some issues and focusing more on President Trump.

O’Rourke’s tumble in the polls was also accompanied by fundraising difficulties. Having been a prodigious fundraiser in 2018, he seemed capable of attracting the resources to run a top-level presidential campaign, and he showed early promise by raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign, the second best opening day after only former Vice President Joe Biden. But fundraising dollars started drying up shortly thereafter. He had raised only $13 million by the end of the second quarter, and added just another $4.5 million in the third quarter.

His debate performances didn’t help him recover either; in fact, his most recent performance seemed to have hurt him. After the October debate, O’Rourke’s net favorability among Democratic primary voters fell by about 6 points in our post-debate poll with Ipsos, the biggest decline for any of the 12 candidates on stage. His place at future debates was in serious jeopardy, too. O’Rourke was two qualifying polls shy of making the November debate and had yet to register a single qualifying survey for the December debate.

But O’Rourke might always have struggled to attract a large enough base of support in the primary given the makeup of the Democratic electorate. As a moderate three-term congressman, he won over many suburban white voters in his Texas Senate bid, but as editor-in-chief Nate Silver wrote back in July, a base of white moderates, particularly younger ones, wasn’t enough. As you can see in the table below, only about 12 percent of 2016 Democratic primary voters fit all three descriptors — young, white, moderate — based on data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.1

There aren’t many young, white, moderate Democrats

Share of 2016 Democratic primary and caucus voters, grouped by age, race and ideology

Share of Democratic primary electorate
Group If age, race and IDEOLOGY were uncorrelated Actual
Young, white, liberal 16.9% 19.2%
Old, white, moderate 14.3 16.8
Old, white, liberal 13.6 14.2
Young, nonwhite, moderate 10.6 13.8
Young, white, moderate 17.8 12.4
Young, nonwhite, liberal 10.1 10.1
Old, nonwhite, moderate 8.5 8.4
Old, nonwhite, liberal 8.1 5.1

Source: Cooperative Congressional Election StUDY

This meant O’Rourke needed to make inroads with other groups to build a broader coalition, which might explain his leftward pivot on issues, particularly gun control. He made headlines in the September debate by calling for a mandatory gun buy-back program. It’s also possible that he shifted left because of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s rise in the race, as the mayor has also tried to play to the middle. (Buttigieg’s surge in the polls in March and April also happened to coincide with O’Rourke’s decline.)

But the polls don’t lie: The pivot didn’t work. For a young politician who might be mentioned as a possible candidate in future elections, his leftward turn may have also damaged his ability to run for statewide office in Texas again, as it’s still a Republican-leaning state. Who knows where we might see O’Rourke next, but his exit shows that sometimes early campaign strength doesn’t pan out.

The Media Frenzy Around Biden Is Fading

When news about President Trump’s call to Ukraine first broke in late September, it seemed like former Vice President Joe Biden would be inextricably linked to the story. Biden was mentioned in more cable news clips and online news stories that week than every other 2020 Democratic candidate combined, according to data from the TV News Archive, which chops up cable news across the three networks we monitor — CNN, MSNBC and Fox News — into 15-second clips1 and Media Cloud, a database of online news.2. That week, Biden was mentioned in 74 percent of cable news clips, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the next most-mentioned candidate, was only in 16 percent of clips.

In the past two weeks, however, as the initial flood of impeachment coverage has ebbed, so has the extra attention for Biden.

Last week, almost all candidates were mentioned in a smaller share of cable news clips and online news stories, per a query run early Monday afternoon. That’s likely because of the Oct. 15 primary debate — we’ve noticed that the share of coverage for candidates who participated in debates in the past seemed to go up on debate week and down the week after, just as we see in the table below.

Tulsi Gabbard was mentioned more on cable last week

Share of 15-second cable news clips mentioning each candidate vs. share of online stories mentioning each candidate in a Media Cloud search

Cable TV clips the week of … online stories the week of …
Candidate 10/13/19 10/20/19 diff 10/13/19 10/20/19 diff
Joe Biden 44.1% 39.7% -4.4 59.2% 59.0% -0.2
Elizabeth Warren 26.3 23.0 -3.3 42.1 38.0 -4.1
Bernie Sanders 16.5 17.0 +0.5 34.9 30.0 -4.9
Pete Buttigieg 5.9 6.0 +0.1 19.9 18.2 -1.8
Tulsi Gabbard 7.6 15.4 +7.7 12.9 13.0 +0.1
Kamala Harris 3.8 3.8 +0.0 15.6 12.5 -3.1
Amy Klobuchar 3.8 3.3 -0.6 13.7 8.8 -4.9
Cory Booker 2.3 1.5 -0.8 11.4 7.6 -3.9
Andrew Yang 1.4 0.5 -0.9 9.9 6.0 -3.9
Beto O’Rourke 3.6 2.0 -1.7 5.6 4.0 -1.6
Tom Steyer 2.4 1.8 -0.6 9.6 3.4 -6.3
Tim Ryan 0.0 1.1 +1.1 0.9 2.4 +1.4
Michael Bennet 0.0 0.1 +0.1 1.5 2.1 +0.6
Julián Castro 0.7 0.9 +0.2 3.2 1.9 -1.3
Marianne Williamson 0.2 0.2 +0.0 2.0 1.6 -0.4
John Delaney 0.1 0.2 +0.1 1.2 1.2 -0.1
Steve Bullock 0.1 0.1 +0.0 1.1 0.9 -0.2
Joe Sestak 0.0 0.0 +0.0 0.8 0.3 -0.5

Includes all candidates that qualify as “major” in FiveThirtyEight’s rubric. Each network’s daily news coverage is chopped up into 15-second clips, and each clip that includes a candidate’s name is counted as one mention. For both cable and online news, our search queries look for an exact match for each candidate’s name, except for Julián Castro, for whom our search query is “Julian Castro” OR “Julián Castro.” Media Cloud searches use two of the database’s publication lists: “top online news” and “digital native” publications. Percentages are calculated as the number of stories or clips mentioning each candidate divided by the number of stories or clips mentioning any of the 2020 Democratic contenders for that week.

Sources: Internet Archive’s Television News Archive via the GDELT Project, Media Cloud

While most candidates who participated in the October debate got fewer mentions last week compared to the prior week (the week of the debate), there was one notable exception. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was mentioned in almost twice as many cable news clips this week compared to last. Much of the cable news attention came when former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton suggested that Gabbard was being groomed by the Russians for a third-party run to undermine Democrats’ chances in 2020. In fact, the most common words mentioned in 15-second clips mentioning Gabbard were “Hillary,” “Clinton,” “Russian” and “asset.”

But Gabbard didn’t get the same amount of attention across networks last week. She was mentioned in 66 clips on CNN and 71 clips on MSNBC, but 339 clips (almost five times as many) on Fox News.

Check out the data behind this series and check back each week for an update on which candidates are getting the most coverage on cable news.

How Much Do Iowa And New Hampshire Really Matter For 2020?

Joe Biden’s campaign has claimed he doesn’t need to win Iowa and New Hampshire to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Instead, the former vice president has his eyes on states No. 3 and 4 on the primary calendar — Nevada and South Carolina — plus the 14 states that will vote on Super Tuesday, just three days after the South Carolina primary.

The logic makes a certain amount of sense, too. Biden polls better than other candidates among black and Hispanic voters, so the states after nearly-all-white Iowa and New Hampshire definitely play to his strengths, as they’re far more diverse and representative of the Democratic Party. There’s just one problem: Since 1976, when the Iowa caucuses first became an influential part of the nomination process, the eventual Democratic nominee has almost always won either Iowa or New Hampshire (or both). In fact, there’s only one time this didn’t happen — Bill Clinton in 1992, and the circumstances were unusual.9

But maybe there’s a case to be made that Iowa and New Hampshire don’t matter as much for the Democrats as they once did. The states have never offered that many delegates, and their electorates don’t look much like the modern Democratic Party. Arguably, winning South Carolina’s black voters or clinching California on Super Tuesday could matter a lot more. Of course, it’s hard to argue that losing the first two states in the primary is a good strategy — and to be clear, the Biden campaign hasn’t argued they don’t want to win Iowa and New Hampshire, just that it’s not essential. So does the Biden camp have a point? Let’s go over the case for Iowa and New Hampshire mattering as much as they always have in the Democratic primary — and the case for their declining importance.

Case 1: Iowa and New Hampshire are as important as ever

Following reforms to the primary system in the 1970s and Jimmy Carter’s surprise victory in the 1976 Iowa caucuses, both Iowa and New Hampshire have become highly influential primary states, as they are the first two to vote (although there have been several unsuccessful efforts to change that).

Democratic nominees usually get a win in the first two states

Results of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in competitive Democratic presidential primaries, 1976 to 2016

Candidate who Won …
Cycle Iowa New Hampshire nominee Nominee won Iowa or N.H.
1976 Jimmy Carter* Jimmy Carter Jimmy Carter
1980 Jimmy Carter Jimmy Carter Jimmy Carter
1984 Walter Mondale Gary Hart Walter Mondale
1988 Dick Gephardt Michael Dukakis Michael Dukakis
1992 Tom Harkin† Paul Tsongas Bill Clinton
2000 Al Gore Al Gore Al Gore
2004 John Kerry John Kerry John Kerry
2008 Barack Obama Hillary Clinton Barack Obama
2016 Hillary Clinton Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton

*Technically “Uncommitted” won the 1976 Iowa caucuses, but Carter finished first among the named candidates.

†Harkin was a U.S. senator from Iowa and a heavy favorite there, so the caucuses were not seriously contested by other candidates.

Sources: News Sources

Winning Iowa or New Hampshire will likely be critical for someone in the 2020 Democratic primary, too, especially if the same candidate wins both states. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is currently in the lead in both places, according to a FiveThirtyEight average of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire since the third Democratic debate in September — although she barely leads in Iowa. She has a narrow 1-point lead over Biden in Iowa and a 4-point edge in New Hampshire, according to our analysis. (RealClearPolitics’s average puts Warren roughly 3 points ahead of Biden in New Hampshire and less than a point behind Biden in Iowa.) But in both states, we’re only talking about a few points separating the top two candidates, so to be clear, the race is still incredibly tight.

And that’s important, because the margin by which a candidate wins Iowa or New Hampshire can have big consequences for the primary. A narrow defeat, for instance, wouldn’t necessarily spell doom for Biden’s campaign. Instead, it could give them an opportunity to spin the loss and talk about the relative lack of diversity in the first two states, said Josh Putnam, a political scientist and FiveThirtyEight contributor who tracks the nomination process. Putnam argued that a defeat by a wide margin would be harder to sell, and Caitlin Jewitt, a political scientist at Virginia Tech who studies presidential primaries, agreed. Jewitt stressed, however, that even a loss could be considered a good showing if the candidate lost by less than predicted. “It’s important to win in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Jewitt. “But it’s almost more important to do better than you were expected to do.”

Winning or exceeding expectations in Iowa or New Hampshire seems to have a real effect on Democratic primaries, too — especially as it pertains to a candidate’s ability to attract national support. Take John Kerry in 2004. He was polling at about 8 percent nationally before Iowa, but after he won both Iowa and New Hampshire, his numbers went through the roof — a 37-point gain in the polls in a couple weeks — as he steamrolled to victory at the expense of opponents like Howard Dean. Similarly, in 2008, Barack Obama trailed the favorite, Hillary Clinton, by double digits in national polls, but after he won Iowa, he gained nearly 10 points in national support, even though Clinton recovered to win New Hampshire. Eventually, Obama won the lengthy nomination battle. And while Bernie Sanders didn’t win the Democratic nomination in 2016, his strong start in Iowa and New Hampshire helped force Clinton, once again the favorite, into a drawn-out race.

Good early results can boost a campaign

Results in Iowa and New Hampshire and change in national polls for competitive Democratic contests, 2004-16

primary/caucus results Average* in national polls
Year Candidate Iowa margin N.H. Margin Before Iowa After N.H. Change
2004 John Kerry +4.5 +12.1 8.4% 45.3% +36.9
2004 John Edwards -4.5 -26.3 5.4 11.3 +5.9
2004 Howard Dean -19.7 -12.1 23.9 13.0 -10.9
2004 Wesley Clark -37.0 -26.0 14.9 8.0 -6.9
2008 Barack Obama +3.7 -2.6 24.4 33.5 +9.0
2008 John Edwards -3.7 -22.2 14.9 12.8 -2.1
2008 Hillary Clinton -4.5 +2.6 42.0 41.8 -0.2
2016 Hillary Clinton +0.3 -22.5 57.4 52.9 -4.5
2016 Bernie Sanders -0.3 +22.5 34.1 38.7 +4.6

*An average of the national polls in the three weeks before the Iowa caucus and an average of the national polls in the week after the New Hampshire primary in a given election year. There were at least three polls during each period for each cycle.

The eventual nominee in each election cycle is bolded.

Sources: Polls, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Elections

The bottom line is: Winning or at least outperforming expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire will likely still matter a lot in the Democratic race this year. As Jewitt told me, “If you do well [in Iowa or New Hampshire] … you get more media attention,” and this often means “a rise in the polls, and you get more fundraising.” And as we’ve seen in recent primaries, strong performances in these states can set a candidate up for success.

Case 2: Iowa and New Hampshire matter less and less

There is an argument to be made, however, that while they’re still pivotal for winnowing the field, neither Iowa nor New Hampshire is as critical as they have been historically for securing the Democratic nomination. The main reason being that Iowa and New Hampshire don’t look like the national Democratic Party and, therefore, might not be the best indicators of what the party wants. In 2016, the primary electorate in those two states was 91 percent white and 3 percent black while the national Democratic primary electorate was 66 percent white and 20 percent black.10 Whereas the 14 states that vote on Super Tuesday (March 3) look much more like the Democratic Party — 62 percent of these voters were white in 2016 while 18 percent were black.11 Many of these states also offer far more delegates than either Iowa or New Hampshire — California has the most Democratic delegates and will be voting on Super Tuesday next year, as will Texas, which has the second-most delegates.

And as we saw in the 2016 Democratic primary, Clinton was able to fight on despite underwhelming results in Iowa (where she narrowly won) and New Hampshire (where she lost). Granted, she had overwhelming support from the party establishment that Biden can’t currently match, but her position as the likely nominee was never really in doubt despite a poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire. What 2016 suggests, then, is that as long as expectations aren’t set too high, somewhat underwhelming results in Iowa and New Hampshire are survivable. Putnam described the Biden campaign’s efforts to discount the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire as “a gamble,” but “one that might pay off” if the results are relatively close and South Carolina still looks favorable for him.

The media might also be more receptive to the idea that Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t representative of the Democratic Party, which may make them less important this year. Already there have been a number of stories about how the primary calendar — especially the Super Tuesday states — may shake up which states matter most to candidates. And as CNN analyst Ronald Brownstein wrote in February, the 14 states voting on March 3 “could advantage the candidates best positioned to appeal to minority voters, particularly African Americans.” So if Biden retains his solid support among African American voters and his campaign’s effort to lower expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire works, Biden might get what he wants — South Carolina and Super Tuesday as his real campaign tests.

Having now looked at the cases for and against Iowa and New Hampshire’s continued importance in the Democratic presidential primary, I do think it’s possible that these two states won’t matter as much. But I can’t help but suspect they’ll be as influential as ever. And that’s because even if the media is warier of the unrepresentative demographics of the first two states, it would still be tough for Biden to recover from dual losses at the beginning of the primary calendar. Remember, Bill Clinton is the only Democratic nominee since 1976 who lost both Iowa and New Hampshire. The winner(s) would likely get glowing coverage, too, while Biden would face more scrutiny. Defeat could also raise doubts among his supporters, given that “electability” is a central selling point of his campaign. And donors, with whom Biden is already struggling, might lose faith in him as well. So as long as Iowa and New Hampshire still get to go first, they’ll probably continue to have an outsized influence on the nomination process.

We’ve Already Seen Twice As Many Presidential TV Ads As At This Point In The 2016 Election

Over the course of the entire 2016 presidential election, TV ad spending approached a whopping $761 million, with more than 920,000 spots flickering across the airwaves. But that might be nothing compared to what we see in 2020. Thanks to Tom Steyer, who is pouring an enormous amount of money into TV ad buys, we are already ahead of 2016’s pace.

Using data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, we can compare the pace of TV ad spending so far in 2019 with the same point in 2015. And so far, the 2020 campaign has seen more than twice as many television ad spots as the 2016 race. From January 1 through October 20, 2019, campaigns and outside groups spent an estimated $33.3 million on 76,030 television ad spots for the 2020 presidential election. By contrast, through the week of Oct. 18, 2015, campaigns and outside groups had aired only 32,191 TV spots — despite spending more money than they have so far this year ($43.1 million compared with $33.3 million).3

That disparity is especially wild considering that there were two competitive primaries in 2016 — on both the Republican and Democratic sides — while 2020 features just one spirited nomination fight. But already a total of 73,117 pro-Democratic spots have been aired in the presidential race so far compared with only 23,649 spots aired in 2015 by Republicans, whose primary (a record number of candidates, no dominant front-runner) resembles the current Democratic one.

And there’s basically one reason for that; his name is Tom Steyer. The self-funding billionaire has already aired 59,615 spots touting his candidacy, or 78 percent of all 2020 presidential spots so far — dropping an estimated $23.2 million in the process. In fact, without Steyer, advertising levels in the 2020 race look a lot more like 2016. Only 16,415 spots have been aired by sponsors other than Steyer, which is right in between the 23,649 GOP spots and the 8,388 Democratic spots aired through this point in 2015. It also wasn’t until Steyer jumped into the race in July that 2020 advertising really took off.

There wasn’t really a Steyer figure in the race in 2016, either. The most prolific advertiser at this point four years ago was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, which had aired 7,380 spots (accounting for nearly a quarter of 2016 advertising at the time). Right to Rise, the super PAC created to support former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s campaign, was close behind with 6,590 spots aired, followed by the Opportunity and Freedom PAC (former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s super PAC) with 3,441 spots aired. However, that’s more than anyone else (aside from Steyer) has aired so far in 2019 (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand aired just 2,788 spots before dropping out, and President Trump has aired only 2,540 spots so far).

One underappreciated difference between 2016 and 2020 that can help explain what’s going on (in addition to Steyer’s well-lined pockets) is that super PACs are playing much less of a role this year. At this point in 2015, outside groups were behind 69 percent of all spots that had been aired, but here in 2019, campaigns have accounted for 98 percent of the spots so far. (This also might explain why TV spending is lower in 2019 than in 2015 even though more spots have been aired — campaigns get better rates than super PACs.) It has become increasingly fashionable in the Democratic primary to eschew big-money donors; 11 of the 18 “major” candidates by FiveThirtyEight’s definition have sworn off super PACs specifically, including all three top contenders.

It’s hard to know what this will mean for the rest of the 2020 cycle, particularly if Steyer doesn’t keep up his furious advertising pace. But for all the talk about the rise of digital campaign ads, it’s clear the 2020 candidates still think television is an effective way to reach their audience.

Most 2020 Candidates Have Something In Common: Their Supporters Also Like Warren

At this stage in the Democratic primary, many likely Democratic voters are still considering multiple candidates — and this was true for more than two-thirds of respondents in our poll with Ipsos. Which got us thinking, how many respondents were only considering one candidate?

FiveThirtyEight partnered with Ipsos to conduct a poll, using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, that asked respondents who they were thinking about voting for and allowed them to pick multiple candidates (or “someone else,” or no one). And while most respondents in the post-debate round of polling were considering more than one candidate (66 percent of respondents), 33 percent only picked one candidate.2

And as you can see in the table below, about a fifth of former Vice President Joe Biden’s supporters weren’t considering supporting anyone else, a higher share of exclusive supporters than any other candidate. Likewise, 14.6 percent of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s potential supporters weren’t looking anywhere else.

Which candidates’ supporters are considering only them?

Share of each candidates’ supporters who are only considering voting for that candidate, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

candidate Exclusive* Total Share
Biden 218 996 21.9%
Sanders 100 683 14.6
Gabbard 11 83 13.1
O’Rourke 29 245 11.7
Warren 107 917 11.6
Yang 14 187 7.4
Buttigieg 27 437 6.2
Castro 6 105 5.7
Harris 23 433 5.2
Klobuchar 8 180 4.2
Booker 4 201 2.2
Steyer 1 84 1.4

*Only considering one candidate

From a survey of 1,761 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16.

So what do we make of the fact that such a high share of Biden’s and Sanders’s potential supporters were only considering them? It’s definitely a good sign for their campaigns, as it might be harder for other candidates to win these voters over. But it’s also not the only way to understand the strength of someone’s campaign, especially at this early stage in the primary. If you’re a candidate, getting a lot of voters to at least consider supporting you is important, too, as it means you’re still in the hunt for their vote, and the other candidates on a voter’s list tells you something about what parts of the party your message is appealing to.

Overall, more respondents were considering Biden than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (56.5 to 52.1 percent), but Warren actually shares a lot of potential supporters with the other candidates. Take the rest of the top five candidates — Biden, Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The lion’s share of voters who were considering each of those four were also considering Warren — even though Biden had more total potential supporters. Sanders was also being considered, but the percentage of respondents who also chose him wasn’t as large.

And it isn’t just among the top five candidates whose potential supporters were also thinking about Warren. For all but three candidates — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire Tom Steyer — the person they were most likely to share potential supporters with was Warren. (Gabbard shares the most potential supporters with Sanders and businessman Andrew Yang, while Klobuchar and Steyer share the most with Biden.)

It’s clear Warren appeals to a wide range of Democratic voters, which puts her in a good position to gain supporters if another candidate drops out of the race. But she’s not alone in that position — just as many potential supporters of other candidates are considering Warren, many of Warren’s potential supporters are considering other candidates. So if Warren’s campaign were to run into trouble, candidates like Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Harris could stand to benefit.

The October Democratic Debate In 6 Charts

Last night, 12 candidates duked it out in Westerville, Ohio, in the fourth Democratic debate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren built on her past debate successes, receiving high marks from both voters who care more about defeating President Trump and voters who care more about a candidate whose positions they agree with. But she was not the only winner in the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar had strong performances, too, and used the debate as an opportunity to push back on whether Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s progressive policies are realistic.

We will be keeping an eye on the polls to see if Warren’s solid performance will help her pull ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden, or if Buttigieg and Klobuchar will manage to shore up more support. But for now, here’s a look at how the candidates performed, summed up in six charts:

Which candidates performed the best?

First, we wanted to see which candidates impressed the viewers we surveyed. To do this, we compared each candidate’s pre-debate favorability1 to debate-watchers’ rating of their performance to see if any well-liked candidates disappointed during the debate or if any less-liked candidates received good ratings. By this metric, Klobuchar and Buttigieg were the two candidates who exceeded expectations given their pre-debate favorables, though Warren still received the highest debate grade overall.

Warren performed well among voters who care about defeating Trump

In our poll, about two-thirds of Democratic voters said they value a candidate who has a good chance of beating Trump over someone who agrees with them on the issues — and that didn’t change after the debate. So with “electability” central to the election thus far, we wanted to see whether there was a difference in debate performance evaluations from respondents who said they cared about electability and respondents who said they cared about issues. Differences were small, but there are a few things that stand out.

First, even though Warren has pitched herself as the “issues” candidate — and she did do well among voters who care about the issues — her performance also appealed to respondents who said they prioritized defeating Trump. In fact, they rated her performance higher than that of any other candidate. Sanders also got high ratings from both voters who care more about defeating Trump and voters who care more about the issues, which means candidates making more issued-based appeals can still do well among voters who care about defeating Trump. But it’s a tricky balance. Buttigieg and Biden, for instance, did not do quite as well among voters who cared about the issues, but they did almost as well as Warren among voters who care about beating Trump.

How voters who care about the issues, defeating Trump rated the candidates

How well debate-watchers thought candidates performed in the fourth Democratic debate, by which type of candidate they prefer

Type of candidate preferred
candidate Similar issue positions Able to beat trump
Warren 3.1 3.3
Buttigieg 2.9 3.2
Sanders 3.1 3.1
Biden 2.7 3.1
Klobuchar 2.7 2.9
Booker 2.6 2.9
Harris 2.7 2.9
Yang 2.8 2.7
O’Rourke 2.5 2.7
Steyer 2.4 2.6
Castro 2.5 2.6
Gabbard 2.4 2.3

From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 712 responded to the second wave and said that they watched the debate.

Source: Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight

Who made a positive impression?

We also wanted to see how viewers’ opinions of the candidates changed as a result of the debate. So, to see who made a positive (or negative) impression, we calculated the candidates’ net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) before and after the debate.

Although both Buttigieg and Klobuchar were on the attack, their net favorability increased by 2.6 points and 3.2 points, respectively. That said, even with her modest bump, Klobuchar is still not viewed as favorably as candidates like Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris. And not every candidate made a positive impression: former Rep. Beto O’Rourke lost the gains he made in the last debate and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s return to the stage did not impress viewers either.

More people like Klobuchar; O’Rourke took a hit

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

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
Klobuchar +11.8 +15.0 +3.2
Buttigieg +30.9 +33.5 +2.6
Warren +52.1 +54.3 +2.2
Sanders +43.1 +45.2 +2.1
Biden +47.4 +48.6 +1.2
Steyer +0.8 +2.0 +1.2
Yang +14.2 +14.5 +0.3
Booker +26.3 +25.3 -1.0
Harris +30.8 +28.4 -2.4
Castro +11.6 +8.2 -3.3
Gabbard -2.3 -6.8 -4.5
O’Rourke +22.6 +16.9 -5.7

From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 1,761 responded to the second wave.

Who spoke the most?

Warren got her first taste of being the race’s front-runner, and spent much of the debate deflecting other candidates’ attacks. She spoke almost 3,700 words — more than any other candidate and 600 words more than the second-most-prolific talker, Biden. This is a notable change from the September debate, when Warren was third in words spoken behind both Biden and Booker. Impressively, O’Rourke and Klobuchar — who were both near the bottom for words spoken in the last debate — clocked in at third and fourth in words spoken, respectively. They surpassed Booker, who after being second in words spoken last time spoke the fifth-most words last night.

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the fourth Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Elizabeth Warren 3,695
Joe Biden 3,064
Beto O’Rourke 2,584
Amy Klobuchar 2,559
Cory Booker 2,267
Pete Buttigieg 2,266
Kamala Harris 2,256
Bernie Sanders 2,085
Andrew Yang 1,791
Julián Castro 1,666
Tulsi Gabbard 1,497
Tom Steyer 1,318

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

We also compared the number of words candidates spoke to their polling average, to see if higher-polling candidates spoke as much as expected or if lower-tier candidates managed to steal the mic. (The polling average is based on nine debate-qualifying polls released since the third debate on Sept. 12.)

O’Rourke and Klobuchar way outspoke their lower polling averages. Warren, Buttigieg, and Harris also outperformed their averages, but not by as large of a margin. On the other hand, Sanders and Biden held the floor less than we might expect considering their standing in the polls.

Harris led the pack in calling out Trump

In addition to tracking who spoke most, we also counted how many times the candidates mentioned the president by name:

Who talked about Trump?

How often Trump’s name was mentioned by candidates in the fourth Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Kamala Harris 11
Andrew Yang 9
Pete Buttigieg 8
Amy Klobuchar 7
Tulsi Gabbard 6
Elizabeth Warren 5
Cory Booker 4
Bernie Sanders 4
Tom Steyer 4
Joe Biden 3
Julián Castro 3
Beto O’Rourke 3

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

As a group, the candidates mentioned Trump’s name almost twice as often as in the previous debate — perhaps because the first question asked about impeaching the president. Once again, though, Harris mentioned Trump the most. Candidates who barely mentioned the president by name in the last debate — like Klobuchar (0), Buttigieg (1) and Andrew Yang (2) — name-dropped Trump more often, too, trailing only Harris in number of mentions. After saying Trump’s name the second-most number of times in the previous debate, former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro dropped to the bottom of the group. The candidates who held the floor the longest, such as Warren, Biden and O’Rourke, didn’t mention Trump as much as the other candidates who spoke less.

While the September debate — the first one-night event — was watched by about 15.3 million viewers, preliminary ratings indicate that this debate drew just over half of that, a mere 8.3 million people, despite featuring two more candidates. Interest may be dropping, but the debates will go on: The next debate is scheduled for Nov. 20, and so far eight candidates have qualified. We will be here live blogging and analyzing the debate, so stay tuned!

The Democratic Primary Looks Pretty Different In Each Of The Early States

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

Earlier this week, I looked at national surveys to see what’s behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s rise in the polls, but now let’s zoom in on the early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — to see what’s happening there.

This week we have a new Fox News poll of South Carolina that shows former Vice President Joe Biden still retains a formidable lead there at 41 percent (Warren was in second at 12 percent) despite Warren’s gains at the national level. In Iowa and New Hampshire, recent surveys more closely mirror the overall national picture — Warren has gained while Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders have slipped. But there’s also evidence that someone like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg may be underestimated in national polls.

To see what’s happened in the early states since August, I averaged all state-level polls taken between the second debate (July 30-31) and the third debate (Sept. 12) and compared that to an average of all state polls fielded since the third debate for the five candidates currently sitting at the top of the polls: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris.

And in some states, there weren’t a ton of polls during these two time periods, but we did have at least two polls for each state before and after the third debate.

First up, in Iowa, you can see a real change in the nature of the race — Biden previously led by about 3 percentage points, but now Warren has moved ahead. Sanders also slipped about 5 points, so instead of rivaling Warren for second place as he did before the third debate, he’s now in a race for third. He’s about on par with Buttigieg, who now has double-digit support in the state, although the mayor enjoyed a pretty strong standing there before the debate, too. Harris slipped in Iowa, dropping 3 points, which is similar to her performance in the three other early states.

Warren has edged ahead of Biden in Iowa

Average of Iowa polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Elizabeth Warren 21.3 23.0 +1.7
Joe Biden 24.7 20.3 -4.3
Bernie Sanders 17.3 12.0 -5.3
Pete Buttigieg 9.3 11.3 +2.0
Kamala Harris 8.3 5.3 -3.0

Our “before third debate” average includes three polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average also includes three polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

Next up, in New Hampshire, the story is pretty similar to what we saw in Iowa: Warren’s numbers improved, giving her a narrow lead. In fact, she’s gone up nearly 10 points, far more than in Iowa. However, unlike in Iowa, Biden’s numbers have gone up, too. They didn’t rise as dramatically as Warren’s, but the jump has helped him stay close to Warren in the nation’s first primary state. Meanwhile, Sanders’s slide in New Hampshire has been particularly large, going from a near-tie for first with Biden to 15 points behind Warren. And as in Iowa, Buttigieg is now closer to Sanders than Sanders is to Warren or Biden, while Harris has fallen to the low single digits.

Warren surged in New Hampshire, but Biden gained too

Average of New Hampshire polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Elizabeth Warren 17.6 27.0 +9.5
Joe Biden 21.6 24.3 +2.7
Bernie Sanders 20.9 12.0 -8.9
Pete Buttigieg 7.0 9.7 +2.7
Kamala Harris 6.9 4.0 -2.9

Our “before third debate” average includes six polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average includes three polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

To some extent, Warren’s uptick in Iowa and New Hampshire isn’t that surprising given her strength with white college-educated voters and, as I wrote on Monday, her increasing support from whites without a college degree. After all, 85 to 90 percent of Iowans and New Hampshirites are white. A lot of this can explain why Buttigieg is doing so well there, too, as he also mainly attracts support from white voters, particularly college-educated ones. That said, his performance in these two early states still stands out in comparison to his mid-single-digit standing in the national polls. And this could be a promising sign for Buttigieg given the influence these two states can have on the presidential primary process — once voting begins, he could be positioned for a strong start that could take his campaign to the next level, especially in light of his prodigious fundraising.

But in our next two early-voting states — Nevada and South Carolina — the picture gets a little fuzzier because we don’t have as many polls. Biden continues to lead the pack in both states (although in Nevada, the race looks more like a three-way tie), but there just hasn’t been as much consistent polling in either state. And that’s a problem, because even though both states come later in the calendar, they are much more racially and ethnically diverse than either Iowa or New Hampshire. So these states could offer important insight as to how other more-diverse states may be leaning, as New Hampshire and Iowa look less and less like the Democratic Party.

For Nevada, we had three surveys prior to the third debate and two after, and they showed a tight three-way race among Biden, Warren and Sanders that got even closer after the third debate. Both Biden and Sanders lost some support, but Warren didn’t emerge as the beneficiary.

It’s a three-way race in Nevada

Average of Nevada polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Joe Biden 26.0 22.6 -3.4
Elizabeth Warren 18.7 18.7 0.0
Bernie Sanders 20.3 18.1 -2.2
Kamala Harris 8.3 4.4 -3.9
Pete Buttigieg 5.3 3.7 -1.6

Our “before third debate” average includes three polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average includes two polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

And in South Carolina, where we had two polls before the third debate and four polls after, it seems as if no one has been able to make a serious dent into Biden’s support, although he did see a slight dip in his numbers. Biden’s continued strength among black voters in the state has made South Carolina a crucial firewall for his campaign, especially if things go poorly for him in the earlier contests. Sanders’s decline in South Carolina has also helped make Warren a clear second-place contender (even though she, like Biden, saw a slight dip in her numbers after the third debate).

Biden continues to dominate in South Carolina

Average of South Carolina polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Joe Biden 39.5 37.8 -1.8
Elizabeth Warren 15.5 14.8 -0.8
Bernie Sanders 17.0 9.0 -8.0
Kamala Harris 9.5 4.5 -5.0
Pete Buttigieg 4.5 3.3 -1.3

Our “before third debate” average includes two polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average includes four polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

As always, though, things could shift in the coming weeks. After all, we’ve got the fourth debate coming up on Oct. 15, which could help Sanders or Harris recover to some extent, though we don’t know yet what the polling fallout may be from Sanders’s recent heart attack. But for the moment, what we do know is that the early-state polls in New Hampshire and Iowa look favorable for Warren, while Biden still holds the lead in South Carolina and Nevada. We shouldn’t sleep on Buttigieg, either — although both he and Warren have a lot of work to do to win over more voters of color.

Other polling bites

  • It’s still too soon to know whether Sanders’s heart attack has affected his standing in the polls, but a YouGov poll found that 69 percent of Americans think his health is “a legitimate issue.” Additionally, views were mixed about whether his campaign had been transparent about the event, with 33 percent saying it was transparent and 27 percent saying it wasn’t, while a plurality (39 percent) weren’t sure one way or the other.
  • The share of Americans who identify as either a Republican or a Democrat remained relatively stable during the third quarter of 2019, according to a new Gallup report, with Democrats maintaining a slight edge. Forty-seven percent of adult Americans identified as a Democrat or a Democratic-leaning independent, whereas 42 percent identified as a Republican or a Republican-leaning independent.
  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up about 6 percent of all Americans, and AAPI Data and the Public Religion Research Institute have released a new survey of AAPI voters in California, which is both the country’s most populous state and home to the largest number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. The survey found that 56 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of President Trump, while 33 percent had a favorable view of him. And among the leading Democratic presidential contenders, Biden, Sanders and Harris (who is from California) had the highest favorability ratings.
  • New polling from Ipsos and C-SPAN found that Americans are skeptical the 2020 election will be “open and fair.” Just 53 percent said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence that the presidential election will be “open and fair,” while 46 percent said they did not have much confidence or “no confidence at all.” There were notable differences between Republicans and Democrats, however, with 72 percent of Republicans expressing some degree of confidence contrasted with just 39 percent of Democrats.
  • Of the four states holding state legislative elections in 2019, Virginia is the only one where there’s a real chance that party control of a chamber could flip. (Republicans have solid majorities in Louisiana and Mississippi while Democrats have overwhelming majorities in New Jersey.) And two new generic ballot polls suggest that Democrats are currently favored to capture both chambers in the Virginia General Assembly, which the GOP currently controls. A late-September survey from the Washington Post and the Schar School at George Mason University found Democrats 7 points ahead of Republicans among registered voters and up 52 percent to 41 percent among registered voters who said they were “certain to vote.” A September poll from the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University was even more bullish for Democrats, finding them ahead of the GOP by 13 points among likely voters, 49 percent to 36 percent.
  • Canada will vote for a new parliament on Oct. 21, and the race is unusually tight. CBC News’s poll tracker shows the Liberals (the governing party) and the Conservatives (the main opposition) running neck-and-neck at 33 percent nationally.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.0 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.7 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.7 points). At this time last week, 41.2 percent approved and 53.9 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -12.7 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 41.0 percent and a disapproval rating of 54.1 percent, for a net approval rating of -13.1 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.1 percentage points (46.2 percent to 40.1 percent). At this time last week, Democrats led by 6.9 percentage points (46.9 percent to 40.0 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.5 points (46.3 percent to 39.8 percent).

What Would Happen If American Voters All Got Together And Talked Politics?

There is a story that Stanford University political science professor Jim Fishkin likes to tell about George Gallup, the man who helped popularize public opinion polling in America.

After the 1936 presidential election — which Gallup’s polling correctly called for Franklin D. Roosevelt — Gallup delivered a lecture at Princeton in which he argued that polling could allow voters from across America to come together, like in a New England town meeting, to debate and decide on important issues facing the country. As he saw it, newspapers and the radio would broadcast the debate, and polls would capture what people thought after having heard from all sides. It would be, to quote Gallup, as if “the nation is literally in one great room.”

Eighty-some years later, Fishkin says Gallup’s vision hasn’t quite held up: “He was right in that there could be a shared discussion and polling about it, but wrong in that the room was so big that nobody was really paying attention.”

But what if you could get the whole country into a more manageably sized room?

That is — quite literally — what Fishkin and his Stanford colleague, Larry Diamond, tried to do. Over the course of four days in September, in partnership with Helena, a nonpartisan institute that funded the event, and NORC at the University of Chicago, they gathered a nationally representative sample of 526 registered voters3 in a suburb of Dallas to talk about issues that Americans have said are important to them in 2020: immigration, health care, the economy, the environment and foreign policy. They called it “America in One Room.”

The aims of the project were lofty. If you gather all of America in one room and provide them with facts and a set of arguments from both sides of the political aisle, can respectful, moderated discussion change people’s minds?

The answer: Sort of.

In September, a nationally representative group of registered voters gathered to talk over some of the big issues driving the 2020 election.


There was some movement on the event’s five issues, as captured in the pre- and post-event surveys conducted by NORC, though how much movement differed depending on the question. Fishkin and Diamond found, for instance, that support grew among Republicans for proposals like increasing the number of visas for skilled workers and for less-skilled workers in industries that need them. And support for proposals like a $15 minimum wage and issuing $1,000 per month to all adults (a universal basic income) fell among Democrats.

But it’s unclear how lasting these changes will be, or even whether these types of events are the best way to encourage real political change. They’re not very practical, for one. Moreover, for people for whom these political issues hit close to home — those struggling to pay for health insurance, for example, or worried about family members being deported — the idea of engaging with the other side might seem overly idealistic, daunting or even useless. Some issues just don’t have much of a middle ground when you get down to the level of individual people.

Still, Diamond told FiveThirtyEight that if they could raise the money, they planned to survey the participants again in six or nine months to find out what, if any, changes had endured.

Many of the participants FiveThirtyEight spoke with, though, seemed to think that the emphasis on people changing their minds might be missing the larger purpose of an event like this.

“I don’t think people’s minds are changing,” said Susan Bosco, a retiree living in Fairfax, Virginia. “I think what we’re doing is respecting other people’s opinions more and not seeing them as ogres.” Robert Granger from Bristol, Tennessee, and Jamie Andersen, from Portland, Oregon, who were in Bosco’s group for the event, agreed, saying they had decided to attend so that they could better understand what makes people hold the opinions they do. “We all want to see our country succeed, regardless of race, gender or what part of the country you’re from. But we all have different ideas of how to get there,” Granger said.

One of the discussion groups talking about the economy and taxes.


And the survey results back them up. Pre- and post-event surveys found most people who came as Democrats left as Democrats, and the same with Republicans. But while the experiment didn’t make people change how they identify politically, it did seem to make them more understanding of those who hold a different view. As London Robinson of Chicago told FiveThirtyEight, many people in her discussion group made arguments that she expected given where they were from or their political party, but she was also surprised that people from different parties “think just like I do.” “I didn’t think they would think that way,” Robinson said. “It was breathtaking to see that.”

That’s something. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most Americans don’t watch and read only partisan news outlets. But the country is largely segregated by politics — most people live near and work with like-minded souls, and many dislike their counterparts from across the political aisle. So the America in One Room gathering was designed to give people a low-stakes environment to debate politics, because as Diamond said, “These are dangerous conversations out there in the real world.” For instance, a 2016 Pew Research Center study on partisanship found that 55 percent of Democrats said the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49 percent of Republicans said the same about the Democratic Party.

In a convention hall outside Dallas, though, getting everyone into the same room seemed to change that some:

Participants didn’t identify as more politically moderate after the event, but there is evidence that they viewed those on the other side of the political aisle more positively. When asked to rate their feelings toward the other party on a scale of 0 to 100 — with higher numbers meaning warmer feelings — Democrats’ views of Republicans improved by nearly 12 points on average. For Republicans, the jump was even larger, almost 16 points.4

Before the event, people were also more likely to say that the other side was “not thinking clearly.” On a scale of 0 to 10 — where 10 was strongly agreeing with the statement that your political opponents are not thinking clearly and 0 was strongly disagreeing with the statement — the average response dropped from 6.2 to 4.7, indicating that even if participants didn’t agree with each other more, they had more respect for those they disagreed with.

Participants also left the event with a better opinion of democracy and their place in it. They were asked to rate how well they thought democracy was working on a 10-point scale, with 0 meaning that democracy was working “extremely poorly” and 10 being “extremely well.” On average, respondents’ ratings increased by 1.6 points. There were also increases in the number of respondents who agreed that public officials care a lot about what “people like me” think, and in those who felt they have a say in what government does or who thought that their opinions about politics were “worth listening to.”

Take Rob Snyder of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, one of the participants FiveThirtyEight talked to. He emailed after the event to say that while he’d always considered politics as something “better left for someone else to worry about,” his experience had made him feel like he was no longer just “one person with one voice and one vote.”

And finally, the event may have gotten us one step closer to Gallup’s vision of a more informed and empowered electorate. In the post-event survey, respondents were asked seven multiple-choice questions testing their political knowledge about things like which political party holds the majority in the House and Senate, and what the major provisions of the Affordable Care Act are. And on average, participants answered one more question correctly after the event. Participants also skipped5 about one fewer question on average, suggesting they knew (or thought they knew) the answer to more questions.

For some respondents, like Veronica Munoz of Los Angeles, the event sparked an interest in being better informed. Munoz said that while she was familiar with some of the proposals being discussed, there was a lot she didn’t know, so she was glad she had come. “Now I’m more interested in reading the newspaper to find out what’s going on with our politics and our economy and policies than I was before,” she said.

Granted, the real-world implications of these findings are limited at best. Most people don’t have the opportunity to spend their weekends debating big political issues with a group that’s carefully selected to be representative of their fellow Americans — and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. But in an era in which we’re increasingly polarized as a country and even facts are under fire, the idea that an event devoted to political debate can increase knowledge, decrease skepticism of the other side, and bolster participants’ faith in democracy — and their place in it — certainly seems like good news.