Election Update: It’s Cherry-Picking Season

As of our most recent Election Update this weekend, I noted that polls since last week’s debate had been — this is a scientific term — “pretty weird.”

Well, it’s time to revise that statement. There have been a whole bunch of new polls over the past couple of days. And they’ve been not just pretty weird … but really weird. As far as I’m concerned, that means it’s exactly the sort of time when it’s helpful to take an average instead of fixating on individual polls.

On balance, national polls have been pretty good for Bernie Sanders — but there’s a lot of variation from survey to survey. On Wednesday morning, for instance, a CNN poll came out showing him leading Joe Biden nationally and having gained 7 percentage points from the previous CNN poll in December. But a couple of hours later, YouGov’s weekly tracking poll came out showing Sanders in third place — or having lost ground since last week’s debate.

If you’ve come looking for confident assertions about which poll is “right” and which one is “wrong” — well, that’s just not how we do things around here. And any such claims would be a bit ridiculous given the inherently high margin of error on primary polls. Primary and caucus polling is always a struggle, so the hope is that by accounting for a wider range of pollsters and methods, an average will prove to be a bit less wrong than any individual poll might be. At a bare minimum, averaging or aggregating polls increases the sample size, which is a relevant factor since primary polls often use considerably smaller sample sizes than general election ones.

What you don’t want to do, of course, is to cherry-pick data. There’s actually been quite a bit of post-debate polling, and if Sanders had actually gained 7 points nationally, as the CNN poll shows, we would have seen more signs of it by now.

It would be an equally big mistake, however, to “throw out” or ignore the CNN poll. CNN has not shown especially strong results for Sanders before, and CNN’s pollster, SSRS, is reasonably highly rated. It’s a sign that a pollster is doing honest work when it’s willing to publish a poll that differs a bit from the consensus. So stick the CNN poll in the average instead … and you’ll see there’s still some good signs for Sanders.

National polls show Sanders and Bloomberg gaining, others flat

In fact, at 20.4 percent, Sanders is in his strongest position in our national polling average since April. State polls have been much more of a mixed bag, with Sanders having fallen slightly in our Iowa and New Hampshire polling averages since the debate — but we’ll cover those in the next section. A bit more about those national polls first.

In addition, to CNN and YouGov, Morning Consult and Monmouth University also released national polls on Wednesday morning. These join earlier post-debate national polls from SurveyUSA and Ipsos. Here’s a table showing those polls for the top six candidates:

Biden leads, Sanders second in post-debate national polls

Where the top six candidates stand in six national polls, after the last debate

Post-debate toplines
Pollster Biden Sanders Warren Buttigieg Bloomberg Klobuchar
CNN/SSRS 24 27 14 11 5 4
Ipsos 19 20 12 6 9 2
Monmouth 30 23 14 9 6 5
Morning Consult 29 24 15 8 10 3
SurveyUSA 32 21 14 9 9 2
YouGov 28 18 21 8 6 4
Simple avg. 27.0 22.2 15.0 8.5 7.5 3.3
FiveThirtyEight avg. 26.6 20.4 15.8 7.6 7.3 3.2

Current FiveThirtyEight national polling average and most recent polls, as of Jan. 22

And here’s a companion table showing the change from the previous pre-debate poll for each pollster. Note that the pre-debate poll wasn’t necessarily that recent; the last time that SurveyUSA had polled the race nationally was in November, for instance.

National polls show gains for Sanders, Bloomberg

How the top six candidates’ standing changed from each pollster’s previous pre-debate poll

Pollster Biden Sanders Warren Buttigieg Bloomberg Klobuchar
CNN/SSRS -2.0 +7.0 -2.0 +3.0 +0.0 +1.0
Ipsos -4.0 +0.0 -3.0 +1.0 +1.0 +1.0
Monmouth +4.0 +2.0 -3.0 -2.0 +4.0 +1.0
Morning Consult +0.0 +1.0 +1.0 +0.0 +2.0 +0.0
SurveyUSA +2.0 +4.0 -1.0 -2.0 +6.0 +0.0
YouGov +1.0 -2.0 +2.0 +1.0 +1.0 +1.0
Raw avg. change +0.2 +2.0 -1.0 +0.2 +2.3 +0.7
FiveThirtyEight avg. change* -0.1 +1.7 -0.3 +0.2 +1.5 +0.1

*Calculated change in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average since Jan. 14

In the tables, you can see how a simple average of the six most recent polls compares to the much fancier FiveThirtyEight polling average: They’re really pretty darn similar. There are some differences, though. For instance, it’s worth noting that the SurveyUSA poll had about three times (1086) as many respondents as Monmouth (372) and more than twice as many as CNN (500); our averages account for that by giving SurveyUSA more weight. House effects are also something of a factor; for instance, SurveyUSA tends to show good numbers for Biden, Morning Consult tends to show good numbers for Sanders, YouGov tends to show good numbers for Elizabeth Warren; and Ipsos tends to show poor numbers for all candidates except Sanders. Those explain some of the differences between the polls, too.1

But none of this really matters that much. As you can see, the FiveThirtyEight average and a simple average of the six post-debate polls produce highly similar results. Likewise, the average change in the polls is pretty similar regardless of which method you use. Take a simple average of the change in Sanders’s numbers since the last time these six pollsters surveyed the field, and he’s gained 2.0 percentage points since the debate. Similarly, he’s gained 1.7 percentage points in the fancy version of the FiveThirtyEight average, calculated since Jan. 14, the day of the debate. Michael Bloomberg has also gained ground regardless of what method you choose and is close to catching Pete Buttigieg in our national average.

State polls haven’t been great for Sanders, though

There have also been quite a few state polls since the debate, however, and they don’t tell a terribly consistent story with the national polls. They’re actually on the weak side for Sanders. Iowa polls from Neighborhood Research and Media and David Binder Research, both conducted since the debate, have Sanders in 5th and 4th place, respectively in the Hawkeye state. But Sanders does have some decent excuses here; the David Binder poll has generally been one of his worst ones in Iowa, and the Neighborhood Research poll has a small sample size and is from a Republican pollster that hasn’t previously released data in Iowa (as such, it receives a relatively small weight in our model).

Nonetheless, based on recent Iowa polls — both before and after the debate — Iowa would appear to be Biden’s state to lose more than Sanders’s. Biden has been ahead or tied for the lead in 4 of the 5 Iowa polls since the new year, as compared with just two for Sanders. (Although one of the polls that had Sanders ahead was the highly-rated Selzer & Co. poll.) In fact, Sanders has basically slipped into a three-way tie for second place in Iowa with Warren and Buttigieg.

Iowa and N.H. trends have been medicore for Sanders

How the top five candidates’ polling averages in Iowa and New Hampshire changed, before and after the last debate

Iowa New Hampshire
Candidate Jan. 14* Current Change Jan. 14 Current Change
Biden 20.1 21.4 +1.3 21.8 17.9 -3.9
Sanders 19.9 17.8 -2.1 20.1 19.5 -0.6
Warren 14.9 16.4 +1.5 16.0 13.8 -2.2
Buttigieg 17.4 16.6 -0.8 13.1 13.9 +0.8
Klobuchar 6.7 8.4 +1.7 4.7 7.1 +2.4

* Polling average as of the day before the debate.

In New Hampshire, true to the theme, the polling has also been weird. Two new polls conducted wholly or partially since the debate, from Emerson College and Suffolk University, each show Sanders leading there — but having lost ground relative to the previous editions of the same polls. Instead, these polls show growth for candidates outside of the top three, such as Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. And in the case of the Suffolk poll, there are also a large number of undecided voters. (Sanders, despite being the leading candidate in the Suffolk poll, has only 16 percent of the vote in the poll.) Sanders leads in our New Hampshire polling average, but no candidate should feel particularly secure in the Granite State.

Wednesday also saw the release of polling in four delegate-rich Midwestern swing states from a consortium of universities there, Baldwin Wallace University, Oakland University and Ohio Northern University. Sanders led in Wisconsin, but Biden held leads in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

How much do national polls matter?

Overall, our forecast just hasn’t changed that much since we first released it two weeks ago. Biden has a 43 percent chance of a delegate majority, followed by Sanders at 20 percent, Warren at 14 percent and Buttigieg at 8 percent. The chance of no candidate winning a majority of delegates is 15 percent. Technically, Biden is up very slightly and Sanders is down very slightly since we first launched the forecast, but the differences are small and not worth spending a ton of time worrying about.

If you look carefully, though, you can see how the model tends to privilege state polls over national polls (or at least it does so right now, with Iowa set to vote in less than two weeks). For example, Sanders did gain ground in the model following the release of the Selzer poll of Iowa on Jan. 10, but — despite his standing in national polls improving — he’s given those gains back because of an underwhelming series of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.

You might be wondering: How does the model even use national polls? There is no national primary, after all. But national polls have several uses in the model. To simplify, here are the three most important ones:

    1. We use national polls to calculate a trendline adjustment, which can influence states that haven’t been polled recently. For instance, if there are no recent polls of Oregon, but Sanders has gained 3 points in national polls since the last time Oregon was polled, the model will assume he’s gained ground in Oregon, too.
    2. National polls are used as a baseline to calibrate the bounce a candidate will potentially receive after winning or finishing strongly in a state. The twist is that the higher a candidate’s standing in national polls, the less her bounce after winning a state (and the more she might decline after losing a state). Empirically, the bounce that a candidate gets after winning a state depends strongly on expectations, and national polls are a good proxy for voter and media expectations. Less abstractly, the fact that Sanders is now seen as a national front-runner means that — as is also the case with Biden in Iowa — he might gain less ground following a win there, and lose more ground nationally if he finishes in anything other than first place or a strong second. Warren or Buttigieg, on the other hand, would probably be seen more as underdogs, and those sort of candidates have historically gotten bigger bounces after winning Iowa.
    3. In various implicit and explicit ways, national polls help the model to predict the outcome of states where there isn’t much polling.

So basically, factors No. 1 and No. 3 tend to help a candidate in the model when their national polls are strong, but factor No. 2 (rising expectations) actually hurts them. To be clear, our experience with the model so far — keep in mind that this is the first time we’ve run a full-fledged primary forecast — is that No. 1 and No. 3 usually outweigh No. 2. In other words, a candidate would usually prefer to gain ground in national polls, as far as the model is concerned. Still, there is some ambiguity about the influence of national polls in the model, especially when there is a lot of recent state polling and so the timeline adjustment (No. 1) doesn’t have as much impact.

Essentially, this leaves us with three plausible interpretations of the post-debate polling:

  • National polls tell the true story of the race, and the slightly quirky set of recent Iowa and New Hampshire polls since the debate are misleading. If so, Sanders should expect to do better in the next set of Iowa and New Hampshire polls. This would be good news for Sanders.
  • All of this is noise, and none of the candidates’ positions have changed much since the debate. This would be neutral news for Sanders.
  • Whether or not Sanders is gaining in national polls, Iowa and New Hampshire have their own dynamics, and Sanders does not appear to be closing strongly there. This would be bad news for Sanders.

Polling since the debate just doesn’t provide a lot of clarity on which one of these stories is correct. So we’ll have to wait and see if the picture clears up by the weekend.

Election Update: The First Post-Debate Polls Are In! And They’re … Pretty Weird.

The first handful of polling since Tuesday night’s debate is out. But it doesn’t tell a terribly consistent story. Pretty much whichever Democrat you’re rooting for, you can find some polls to be happy about and others that you’d rather ignore. Here’s a quick list of those polls:

  • SurveyUSA has a new national poll that shows Joe Biden leading with 32 percent of the vote, followed by Bernie Sanders at 21 percent, Elizabeth Warren at 14 percent and both Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg at 9 percent. As compared with their previous national poll in November, Biden is up 2 percentage points, Sanders is up 4, Warren is down 1, Buttigieg is down 2, and Bloomberg is up 6.
  • SurveyUSA also published a new California poll, which has Biden leading there at 30 percent, with Sanders and Warren tied for second at 20 percent and Buttgieg in fourth at 8 percent. Biden and Sanders are both up 2 percentage points since their November California poll, when California senator Kamala Harris was still in the running, while Warren has gained 7 points since polling at 13 percent in November.
  • While SurveyUSA has seemingly good news for Biden, an Ipsos national poll for Reuters does not. Instead, it has Sanders ahead nationally at 20 percent, followed by Biden at 19, Warren at 12, Bloomberg at 9, and Buttigieg at 6. As compared with the Ipsos/Reuters national poll conducted roughly a week before the debate, Sanders is unchanged, but Biden is down 4 percentage points and Warren is down 3 points.
  • I should also mention the Ipsos poll conducted with FiveThirtyEight, which surveyed a single group of voters both before and after the debate. It did not include a traditional horse-race question (i.e., “Who is your first choice?”) so it doesn’t figure directly into our polling averages or primary model. However, it showed strong results for Warren, with her making gains on favorability, perceived electability, and the number of Democrats who said they were considering voting for her.
  • Finally, an Emerson College poll of New Hampshire, conducted partially since the debate, has Sanders ahead there with 23 percent of the vote, followed by Buttigieg at 18 percent, Biden and Warren each at 14 percent, and Amy Klobuchar at 10 percent. As compared with Emerson’s previous poll of New Hampshire, in November, Sanders is actually down 3 points and Buttigieg is down 4 points, while Biden and Warren are unchanged and Klobuchar is up 8 points.

As I said, you can cherry-pick your way to pretty much whatever narrative you like. Biden fan? Both those SurveyUSA numbers look nice. Sanders stan? You’ll probably want to emphasize the Ipsos/Reuters poll. Warren aficionado? The SurveyUSA California poll and the Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight poll look good; the others, not so much.

But some of these polls are also pretty confusing. If you’re Sanders, for instance, should you be happy that the Emerson poll in New Hampshire still has you leading, or unhappy that it has you having lost a few points? Or to abstract the question: Should you pay more attention to the trendline within a poll or to the absolute result?

This question does not have a straightforward answer (other than that both are important to some degree). Ideally, you should be comparing a poll not only against the most recent survey by the same pollster, but really against all previous surveys by the pollster in that state — and for that matter also in other states — to detect whether it generally shows good results or poor results for your candidate. And when evaluating trendlines, you should account for when the previous polls were conducted. For example, any poll conducted in October is likely to have shown good results for Warren, since she was at her peak nationally then. So if a new poll came out today showing Warren having fallen by 2 points in Iowa since October, that might might be comparatively good news for her since you’d have anticipated a steeper decline.

If all this sounds like a lot of work … well, it’s the work that our polling averages and our model are doing for you behind the scenes. Usually our model moves in the direction you might expect intuitively, e.g., Sanders gained ground both in Iowa and in our overall delegate forecast after a Selzer & Co. poll showed him leading the Iowa caucuses.

In the presence of strong house effects, however, the model might move in surprising directions. Just as polls can have house effects in general elections — Rasmussen Reports polls have a notoriously pro-Trump/pro-Republican lean, for example — certain pollsters in the primaries persistently show better or worse results for certain candidates.

And it just so happens that all the pollsters who have released polls since the debate have fairly strong house effects. Emerson College has often shown strong results for Sanders, for instance. And SurveyUSA — both in its California polls and its national polls — has consistently had some of the best numbers for Biden. This is good news for Biden in one sense since SurveyUSA is one of our highest-rated pollsters. But it also means that it isn’t necessarily new news when a SurveyUSA poll comes out showing Biden doing well; such a result will be in line with our model’s expectations. Conversely, Ipsos has consistently shown some of the worst results for Biden, so it doesn’t necessarily move the needle in our model when another Ipsos poll comes out showing Biden doing mediocrely.

To give you a sense of the magnitude that house effects can have, here are the various post-debate polls with and without our model’s house effects adjustment:

House effects can make a big difference

Polls since the January debate, with and without FiveThirtyEight’s adjustments for house effects

SuvreyUSA national poll, Jan. 14-16, 2020
Candidate Raw Adjusted
Biden 32.0% 28.0%
Sanders 21.0 20.1
Warren 14.0 14.7
Bloomberg 9.0 9.0
Buttigieg 9.0 8.5
Ipsos/Reuters national poll, Jan. 15-16, 2020
Candidate Raw Adjusted
Sanders 20.0% 20.2%
Biden 19.0 22.9
Warren 12.0 16.1
Bloomberg 9.0 8.5
Buttiigeg 6.0 7.4
SuvreyUSA California poll, Jan. 14-16, 2020
Candidate Raw Adjusted
Biden 30.0% 26.1%
Sanders 20.0 19.1
Warren 20.0 20.8
Buttigieg 8.0 7.5
Bloomberg 6.0 6.0
Emerson College New Hampshire Poll, Jan. 13-16, 2020
Candidate Raw Adjusted
Sanders 22.9% 18.0%
Buttigieg 17.7 17.7
Biden 14.1 13.4
Warren 13.5 13.4
Klobuchar 10.0 10.3
Yang 6.3 5.0

Only candidates polling at 5 percent or more in each survey are shown

Source: Polls

While the SurveyUSA national poll had Biden at 32 percent and Ipsos had him at 19 percent, the gap is a lot smaller once you account for house effects. The adjustment brings the SurveyUSA poll down to 28 percent and the Ipsos poll up to around 23 percent, a difference that is well within the polls’ sampling error given their respective sample sizes.

To be clear, house effects are not the same thing as statistical bias, which can be evaluated only after a state has conducted its voting. For example, SurveyUSA is implicitly suggesting that Biden is underrated by other pollsters. If they’re wrong about that, SurveyUSA polls will turn out to have had a pro-Biden bias. But if Biden’s results match what SurveyUSA’s polls project, then their polls will have been unbiased and all the other polls will have had an anti-Biden bias. Obviously, we think you should usually trust the polling average — that’s the whole point of averaging or aggregating polls. But especially in the primaries, where turnout is hard to project, it’s also worth paying attention to the differences between polls — and sometimes pollsters with strong house effects (even to the point of being “outliers”) turn out to be correct.

For all that said, polls with strong house effects, because of the additional complications they present, aren’t necessarily ideal for evaluating polling swings following news events such as debates. So while it’s tempting to infer from the polls we have so far that the debate didn’t change things very much — no candidate is consistently seeing their numbers surge or crater — we should wait for a few more polls to confirm that.

In the meantime, our topline forecast is largely unchanged. Biden remains the most likely candidate to win the majority of pledged delegates, with a 41 percent chance, followed by Sanders at 23 percent, Warren at 12 percent and Buttigieg at 9 percent. There is also a 15 percent chance no one wins a majority, a chance that could increase if Bloomberg, who has now almost caught Buttigieg in our national polling average, continues to rise.

The Iowa Caucuses Are In 17 Days. What’s Going On In The Early States?

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

Throughout the primary, we’ve been tracking polls in the four early states to better understand how the race differs in each of them, as each state tells its own story about how the 2020 Democratic primary could shake out.

For instance, Iowa is a very tight race between former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. And New Hampshire is really competitive, too, with less than 10 percentage points separating Sanders and Biden in our forecast. (Warren and Buttigieg aren’t too far off either.) Nevada, on the other hand, appears to be more of a two-way race between Sanders and Biden, while South Carolina remains — at least at this point — in Biden’s column, as our forecast gives him a 3 in 5 shot at winning the most votes there.

Of course, things could once again shift before the voting starts in Iowa, but here’s a deep dive on where things stand as of Friday morning in each of these states.

Biden, Sanders neck and neck In Iowa

Iowa and New Hampshire are really competitive

Remarkably, Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg are all in the hunt in both Iowa and New Hampshire: No one has more than a 35 percent chance of winning either state, according to our forecast.

And our state polling averages illustrate just how close things are. Sanders and Biden are essentially tied in Iowa, with Buttigieg and Warren trailing, but within about 5 points of the lead. And Sanders holds a slim lead over Biden in New Hampshire, although one might expect the Vermont senator to have an advantage there — New Hampshire tends to favor politicians from neighboring states. In New Hampshire, too, Warren and Buttigieg aren’t too far behind the leaders.

Iowa and New Hampshire are wide-open contests

Democratic presidential candidates’ polling averages in Iowa and New Hampshire, as of Jan. 17 at 9 a.m.

Iowa New Hampshire
Candidate Average Candidate Average
Bernie Sanders 20.1% Bernie Sanders 19.6%
Joe Biden 19.5 Joe Biden 18.5
Pete Buttigieg 16.8 Elizabeth Warren 15.1
Elizabeth Warren 15.2 Pete Buttigieg 13.9
Amy Klobuchar 6.7 Amy Klobuchar 6.7
Andrew Yang 3.5 Tom Steyer 3.8
Tom Steyer 3.1 Tulsi Gabbard 3.7
Michael Bloomberg 2.2 Andrew Yang 3.7
Tulsi Gabbard 1.7 Michael Bloomberg* 2.9
Michael Bennet 0.1 Michael Bennet 0.4
John Delaney 0.1 Deval Patrick 0.3
Deval Patrick 0.0 John Delaney 0.2

*Michael Bloomberg didn’t file to run in New Hampshire, but some pollsters have included him when surveying the state.

Source: Polls

But the dearth of state-level polls in December means that some of the polls feeding our averages may no longer reflect the current state of the race, so let’s take a closer look at some of the bigger polls released in the last 10 days. Monmouth University’s latest Iowa poll underscored how important voters’ ideological leanings could be in that state, as many caucus-goers will end up backing their second-choice candidate — not their first — in the realignment process. (If a candidate does not have enough support, usually at least 15 percent of voters at a caucus site, their supporters are asked to align themselves with another candidate.) Overall, Biden was first in that poll with 24 percent support, but he also had the most support (35 percent) among voters who said they were moderate or conservative — and that group made up a majority of the poll’s respondents. Buttigieg came in second among these voters at 15 percent, followed by Sanders at 13 percent. By contrast, among very liberal voters, Sanders led with 29 percent support with Warren in second at 25 percent, while Buttigieg had 14 percent and Biden had just 11 percent. But among the “somewhat” liberal voters in between, Buttigieg actually led with 22 percent, followed by Sanders at 20 percent. In other words, a different candidate led in each ideological “lane,” with a ton of overlap — in particular, Sanders and Warren — which could play to either Sanders’s or Warren’s detriment.

Similarly, a new poll from RKM Research and Communications on behalf of Franklin Pierce University, the Boston Herald and NBC 10 Boston showed New Hampshire has some of the same ideological divides. Overall, the survey found Biden in first with 26 percent, but once again Biden did best among more moderate (and conservative) voters with 27 percent, compared to 16 percent for both Sanders and Warren. Meanwhile, Sanders led among liberal voters with 29 percent, followed by Biden at 26 percent and Warren at 20 percent. (The pollster didn’t separate “somewhat liberal” and “very liberal” like Monmouth did.)

So as some progressives have feared, it’s possible that Sanders and Warren are hindering each other because of the ideological overlap among their supporters. After all, a new Quinnipiac University national poll found that more than 50 percent of Sanders’s and Warren’s supporters picked the other progressive as their second choice. And in New Hampshire, there’s another way they might be holding one another back: Since they both represent neighboring states, they could be limiting each other’s home-field edge.

Nevada’s close, Biden dominates South Carolina

Nevada and South Carolina look a bit different from the first two states in that their polls are less top-heavy, with fewer contenders in the mix. However, Nevada is still very much up for grabs — Biden and Sanders are separated by about 3 points in our polling average, and our forecast gives them both about a 1 in 3 chance of winning. But Biden still has a notable advantage in South Carolina, where he leads the polls by more than 20 points and has nearly a 60 percent chance of winning, per our forecast.

Nevada is competitive, but South Carolina is Biden’s to lose

Democratic presidential candidates’ polling averages in Nevada and South Carolina, as of Jan. 17 at 9 a.m.

Nevada South Carolina
Candidate Average Candidate Average
Joe Biden 22.7% Joe Biden 35.2%
Bernie Sanders 19.6 Bernie Sanders 14.5
Elizabeth Warren 14.4 Elizabeth Warren 11.0
Tom Steyer 8.2 Tom Steyer 9.8
Pete Buttigieg 6.4 Pete Buttigieg 4.2
Andrew Yang 3.9 Michael Bloomberg* 3.8
Amy Klobuchar 2.8 Andrew Yang 2.3
Michael Bloomberg* 2.2 Amy Klobuchar 1.7
Tulsi Gabbard 1.4 Tulsi Gabbard 1.4
John Delaney 0.4 John Delaney 0.3
Deval Patrick 0.2 Deval Patrick 0.2
Michael Bennet 0.1 Michael Bennet 0.1

*Michael Bloomberg didn’t file to run in Nevada or South Carolina, but some pollsters have included him when surveying those states.

Source: Polls

Part of the reason the dynamics of these two states are so different is that Iowa and New Hampshire still haven’t voted, which could dramatically shift the race, and that Nevada and South Carolina’s electorates are just much more diverse than those of the first two states to vote — and Biden has made the most significant inroads with voters of color, followed by Sanders and Warren.

Nevada is a particularly interesting case because even though Biden tends to lead among nonwhite voters nationally because of his strong support from black voters, nonwhite voters in Nevada are more likely to be Hispanic, and two recent Nevada surveys found Sanders narrowly ahead of or tied with Biden among Hispanics.

First, a Nevada survey from Fox News found Biden in first overall with 23 percent and Sanders in second at 17 percent, but both attracted the same share of Hispanic voters (24 percent); Biden’s edge among white voters (22 percent) might have been what tipped him over the edge, as Sanders attracted only 13 percent of that group. Meanwhile, another Nevada poll by Suffolk University, conducted for USA Today and the Reno Gazette-Journal, found Biden and Sanders essentially tied for first with around 20 percent support and neck and neck at about 20 percent among nonwhite voters. Biden had an ever-so-slight edge over Sanders among white voters (19 percent to 16 percent).

As for South Carolina, Biden has consistently led there due to his strong support among black voters, who made up about 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016. A Fox News poll released late last week found Biden’s edge in South Carolina mostly holding as he led the field with 36 percent overall, including 43 percent of black voters. Billionaire Tom Steyer did make noise by coming in second with 15 percent overall, though that may partly be the result of him flooding the airwaves in South Carolina. Still, Steyer got support from 16 percent of African American voters, which could be evidence that some black voters are open to alternatives other than Biden. For now, the Biden firewall in the Palmetto State is holding up, though that could, of course, change if he performs poorly in earlier contests.

With just over two weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, there’s definitely a traffic jam at the top of the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire that makes those states fairly unpredictable at this point. And whatever happens in those initial contests will likely affect Nevada and South Carolina, too, so stay tuned as we keep a close watch on how the polls move once the voting starts.

Other polling bites

  • Speaking of Biden’s base, a new national poll from The Washington Post and Ipsos found 48 percent of black Democratic registered voters supported Biden. Sanders was second with 20 percent support, and no other candidate reached double-digit support. There was a noticeable age difference in Biden and Sanders’s supporters: Among registered voters 50 years and older, Biden captured more than 50 percent support. He also led Sanders, 41 percent to 16 percent, among voters 35 to 49 years old. Yet among those under the age of 35, Sanders attracted 42 percent support versus Biden’s 30 percent.
  • An LX/Morning Consult poll asked Americans about Iowa and New Hampshire’s role in the nominating process and found that only 41 percent felt that these states represented their views in the presidential primary “very well” or “somewhat well” while 59 percent said “not very well” or “not at all.” Still, 59 percent said they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire kicking things off, compared to 41 percent who were dissatisfied.
  • In the wake of reports that Sanders told Warren in 2018 that he believed a woman couldn’t beat President Trump, YouGov asked Americans about their views on this issue. Fifty-three percent of respondents said that either a man or woman could defeat Trump, while 11 percent said that a man could beat Trump but not a woman. Another 20 percent said that neither a man nor a woman could defeat Trump, including 60 percent of Republicans.
  • In a new poll from Pew Research Center, 48 percent of Americans said that the airstrike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani was the right decision while 43 percent said it wasn’t. However, 54 percent felt that the Trump administration’s approach to Iran has increased the chances of a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran and a plurality — 44 percent — said it has made the country less safe.
  • A HuffPost/YouGov survey asked Americans their views on trade and the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, finding that many Americans are relatively unaware of the trade deal, which the Senate passed on Thursday. Forty-four percent said they favored the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, another 44 percent said they weren’t sure what they thought of it and 11 percent opposed it. Two explanations for why so many Americans weren’t sure? Four out of five respondents said they had heard little or nothing at all about the trade deal. And Americans are also generally somewhat uncertain about trade agreements between the U.S. and other countries — 43 percent said such deals are a good thing, while 20 percent said they were a bad thing and 37 percent said they weren’t sure.
  • In a survey of American attitudes toward vaccines, Gallup found that there is still uncertainty about the debunked claim that vaccines can cause autism. Although only 10 percent said that certain vaccinations can cause autism and 45 percent said they do not, a plurality — 46 percent — said they weren’t sure. However, 86 percent said that the diseases vaccines prevent are more dangerous than the vaccines themselves.
  • In a new poll from YouGov measuring attitudes toward the Confederate flag among Americans, a plurality of respondents in two former Confederate states — Arkansas and Louisiana — said that the flag represented heritage more than racism. Of the other nine states that were part of the Confederacy, pluralities in seven said that the flag represented racism more than heritage, while respondents in Alabama and Florida were split evenly.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.4 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.9 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.5 points). At this time last week, 41.9 percent approved and 53.3 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -11.4 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 43.2 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.5 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.3 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 5.9 percentage points (47.0 percent to 41.1 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.6 points (47.5 percent to 40.9 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.6 points (47.2 percent to 40.6 percent).

The January Democratic Debate In 6 Charts

We’re less than three weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, and the Democrats held their first presidential debate of 2020 on Tuesday night in Iowa. Just six candidates took the stage this time, the smallest grouping yet.

Much of the debate centered on foreign policy, given President Trump’s recent decision to authorize a drone strike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, which has escalated tension between the U.S. and Iran. Another topic of debate was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s claim that Sen. Bernie Sanders told her in 2018 that a woman couldn’t win the presidential election, which led to an onstage disagreement between them. But Warren seems to have gotten the upper hand — she got the highest debate grade from viewers and she now has the highest net favorability rating, according to our poll with Ipsos, which used Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel to interview the same respondents before and after the debate.

Anyway, maybe you missed the January debate because you’re gearing up for the three debates in February (it’s a marathon, not a sprint), or maybe you just want more analysis of how this debate will affect the race. Either way, we’ve got you covered.

Warren got high marks

First up, who viewers thought had the best debate performance. To answer this, we compared candidates’ pre-debate favorability ratings1 to how well respondents who watched the debate thought the candidates performed. Candidates are graded on a four-point scale where higher numbers are better; comparing those grades to favorability ratings helps us adjust our expectations, since people may be inclined to view well-liked candidates in a positive light. Warren got the highest marks for her performance on Tuesday night, and they were strong enough to be impressive even after you account for her high favorability. That represents an improvement for her, after she fell slightly below expectations during the December debate. Sanders, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Biden didn’t do poorly per se, but because they were already well-liked, we expected a lot of voters to view their debate performance favorably.

Voters’ priorities affected candidates’ grades

Democratic voters really care about picking a nominee they think can beat Trump. Nearly two-thirds of likely Democratic primary voters in our poll with Ipsos said they prefer a candidate who they think can win the general election over a candidate who shares their stance on issues — and those numbers didn’t budge after the debate.

In December, voters who prioritized winning in November thought Biden had the best performance, but this time they thought Warren performed the best — perhaps a sign that her pitch for why a woman can win the presidency resonated with viewers. Sanders, meanwhile, did best with voters who preferred a candidate whose position on the issues was similar to their own, which is consistent what we found after the last three debates.

Voters who prioritize beating Trump thought Warren did best

How debate-watchers scored candidates’ performances (on a four-point scale where higher is better) in the January Democratic debate, by which type of candidate they prefer

voter Prefers a candidate who …
candidate shares stance on issues can beat trump
Warren 3.0 3.4
Biden 2.6 3.1
Buttigieg 2.7 3.1
Sanders 3.1 3.1
Klobuchar 2.6 3.0
Steyer 2.7 3.0

From a survey of 3,057 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Jan. 10 to Jan. 13. The same people were surveyed again from Jan. 14 to Jan. 15; 659 responded to the second wave and said they watched the debate. The average ratings are out of 4 points, where 4 is best and 1 is worst.

Source: Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight

Voters warmed to Klobuchar

Most of the candidates on the stage made good impressions with voters Tuesday night, according to changes in their net favorability ratings (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating). But perhaps unsurprisingly, the candidates who gained most were those who many voters didn’t already have an opinion on. For instance, around 40 percent of voters had neither a favorable nor an unfavorable view of Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer before the debate — easily the highest percentages of anyone on stage — and they also saw the biggest gains in net favorability, racking up 5 points or more on this measure. The other candidates saw more modest gains (Buttigieg and Warren) or lost some ground (Sanders and Biden).

In fact, thanks to Warren’s gains and leading candidates’ stumbles, Warren now has the highest net favorability rating overall.

Some voters soured on Sanders

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

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
Klobuchar +12.3 +18.1 +5.8
Steyer +9.9 +14.9 +5.0
Buttigieg +26.5 +31.2 +4.7
Warren +43.3 +47.2 +3.9
Biden +45.3 +43.7 -1.6
Sanders +47.8 +44.3 -3.6

From a survey of 3,057 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Jan. 10 to Jan. 13. The same people were surveyed again from Jan. 14 to Jan. 15; 1,743 responded to the second wave.

Women grabbed the mic

In the last three Democratic debates, a female candidate has led the group in number of words spoken, and the same was true again Tuesday night. Warren topped the list by speaking 3,428 words in total, just 134 more than Klobuchar. On the other end of the spectrum, Steyer spoke the least with only 2,285 words, though that’s still more than he’s said in past debates. In contrast to the other candidates, however, when he was talking, Steyer was often agreeing with his opponents. Of the 11 times he was able to give a substantive response,2 he spent at least part of five of them agreeing with another candidate.

Who held the floor?

Number of words spoken by candidates in the January Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Elizabeth Warren 3,428
Amy Klobuchar 3,294
Joe Biden 3,178
Pete Buttigieg 3,088
Bernie Sanders 2,824
Tom Steyer 2,285

Transcript is preliminary and may contain errors that affect word count.

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

But Steyer speaking the least isn’t all that surprising given that lower-polling candidates tend to get less air time. However, both Klobuchar and Buttigieg managed to buck that trend, speaking just about as much as higher-polling candidates like Biden and Warren, which was similar to what we saw in the December debate. Overall, the relationship between a candidate’s polling average3 and the number of words he or she spoke was not as strong as in the early debates when the stage was much more crowded.4 That said, Sanders still spoke relatively little given where he is polling nationally.

Trump came up more often

Klobuchar mentioned Trump by name more often than other candidates in Tuesday’s debate, which was consistent with her strategy in the December debate, when she also mentioned him the most. But the president’s name also came up more often in general than it did last time — candidates mentioned him an average of about eight times each on Tuesday, compared with about six times each in December.

Who talked about Trump?

How often each candidate mentioned Trump’s name in the January Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Amy Klobuchar 12
Bernie Sanders 10
Elizabeth Warren 8
Pete Buttigieg 7
Tom Steyer 7
Joe Biden 6

Transcript is preliminary and may contain errors that affect word count.

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

Warren, for instance, only mentioned Trump once in the December debate, but this time she called him out on eight occasions. Biden talked about Trump six times in both the January and December debates, but while that put him in third last time, he was the candidate to mention Trump the least this time around.

Do you want even more debate coverage?

Cool graphics from other sites:

  • The New York Times tracked how much time each candidate spent speaking about various issues, finding that Warren, Sanders and Klobuchar spent more time on health care than other topics. Biden, on the other hand, spent a lot of time talking about the military.
  • And despite the Warren-Sanders clash over whether a woman can be president, it was actually Klobuchar who attacked her opponents the most, according to NBC News’s attack tracker. Warren came in a close second.
  • Bloomberg News compared which issues dominated this debate with previous debates and found that health care, which has taken up less time in the last two debates, was revived on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, economic inequality and social issues took a backseat compared to past debates.

And here’s more great post-debate analysis:

Of course, we think our debate coverage is pretty good too:

Biden, Sanders neck and neck In Iowa

What The Heck Is Going On With Tom Steyer’s Poll Numbers?

Last Thursday, billionaire activist Tom Steyer picked up two really good early-state polls that catapulted him onto the debate stage at the last minute. He hit 15 percent in a Fox News poll of South Carolina — he had 4 percent support in October — and 12 percent in a Fox News poll of Nevada, up from 5 percent in November.

These results had pretty big repercussions for Steyer in both our Nevada and South Carolina state polling averages, putting him at 8 percent in Nevada and 10 percent in South Carolina, as of Monday afternoon. For context, that South Carolina number is roughly the same as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s:

But before you cry “Steyer surge!” remember that once you get past the top four candidates — Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg — he and all the other candidates combined currently have a 1 percent chance of capturing a majority of delegates, according to our forecast. And even though his standing in the polls has substantially improved in those two states, he still only has a 2 percent chance of winning South Carolina or Nevada. (He’s also still at 2 percent in our national polling average.)

In fact, those two Fox News surveys might be outliers, as they are the only two early-state polls released after the last debate (Dec. 19) that show Steyer getting that sort of bump, though there have admittedly been relatively few polls to kick us off here in January.

In the other five early-state polls we have — aside from those two Fox News surveys — Steyer’s numbers are far less impressive, although these are polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, not Nevada and South Carolina, where Fox found Steyer surging:

To really understand what’s going on with Steyer’s numbers, we need more polls — especially of South Carolina and Nevada — but at this stage, there is at least one other pollster besides Fox News who has found that Steyer might be making a real dent in the early states: Morning Consult. The pollster’s weekly tracking poll takes stock of the race nationally but also gives its results for the four early states (unfortunately, the early states are treated as a group, so the pollster does not display results for individual early states). And since late November, Morning Consult has found Steyer polling between 8 and 10 percent among early-state voters, including 10 percent in its most recent survey. (He was only at 4 percent nationally.)

What’s more, there’s some evidence in both South Carolina and Nevada that Steyer has made inroads among nonwhite voters, which could be a sign that Biden’s grasp on more diverse states like South Carolina is not as strong as we think. In that Fox News poll of South Carolina, Biden led among black primary voters with 43 percent support, but Steyer was in second with 16 percent — which put him ahead of the rest of the field, including Sanders, who was in third at 12 percent. And in Fox News’s survey of Nevada, no one candidate has a firm grasp on nonwhite voters. Sanders and Biden were running neck and neck at around 25 percent, while Steyer placed third among that group with 14 percent.

Again, it’s hard to know exactly what’s behind this uptick in Steyer’s numbers, but one obvious explanation is his prodigious spending on broadcast television ads. According to data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, Steyer ads aired 5,721 times in Nevada-based media markets and 7,914 times in South Carolina-based markets from Dec. 1 through Jan. 9.1 The other Democratic candidates combined have aired six spots in Nevada and 2,195 in South Carolina during that same time period.

For comparison’s sake, Steyer has aired a similar number of ads in Iowa, but he is sharing the airwaves there with several other candidates. For instance, from Dec. 1 through Jan. 9, Sanders (7,678) and Andrew Yang (6,932) each aired more spots in Iowa than Steyer (6,675). And in tiny New Hampshire, neither Steyer nor other Democrats have been advertising as aggressively. This could explain why Steyer hasn’t (yet) seen a polling bump in the first two states to vote but has done so in the third and fourth.

That said, Steyer has dominated the airwaves in Nevada and South Carolina for months; it’s not clear what changed to cause a sudden spike in his polling numbers here in January. However, it’s worth noting that polling of Nevada and South Carolina has been extremely sparse; before those Fox News polls came out, mid-November was the last time a live-interviewer poll was conducted in South Carolina and the last time any poll was conducted in Nevada. Perhaps more people have tuned into the primary race since then and have only now begun to react to Steyer’s ads.

So we’ll be keeping a close eye on Steyer’s debate performance Tuesday and on the post-debate polls to see whether he has serious staying power. It’s too soon to tell, but Steyer might just be a January surprise no one was expecting.

Election Update: Sanders Now Leads A Wide-Open Iowa Race

Welcome to your first FiveThirtyEight Election Update of the 2020 primary cycle! This is a column in which we’ll talk about the primary race through the lens of our forecast model, which we released earlier this week. Sometimes it will be rather brief, and we’ll quickly run through the latest data — while other times, we’ll go into a deep dive on upcoming states or some aspect of how the model works.

We don’t necessarily plan to publish an Election Update as a result of each single new poll, but Friday’s Selzer & Co. poll of the Iowa caucuses, published by the Des Moines Register and CNN, warrants an exception and did have a somewhat material effect on the model.

Why is it worth focusing on this one individual poll — something that we’d usually advise against?

The poll showed Bernie Sanders ahead with 20 percent of the vote, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 17 percent, Pete Buttigieg at 16 percent and Joe Biden at 15 percent. This is a reasonably big shift from the previous Selzer & Co. poll, in November, which had shown Buttigieg ahead with 25 percent of the vote. (Although, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, the model views the latest poll as more neutral than negative for Buttigieg.) Amy Klobuchar was next in the poll at 6 percent, but that was unchanged from November despite a couple of debate performances since November that voters rated strongly in our polling with Ipsos. Andrew Yang was sixth at 5 percent.

So then, how did the new poll affect our model? Here’s what our current national numbers look like:

Biden remains the most likely candidate to get a delegate majority, with a 38 percent chance, followed by Sanders at 24 percent, Warren at 13 percent, and Buttigieg at 10 percent. There’s also a 14 percent chance that no one wins a majority, which could potentially lead to a contested convention.

But those numbers do represent an improvement for Sanders and Warren and a decline for Biden. Here’s a before-and-after comparison:

How a new Iowa poll affected our numbers

Candidates’ before-and-after chances of winning a majority of pledged delegates following the Selzer & Co. Iowa Poll on Jan. 10, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

Candidate Last model run before Selzer & Co. poll Current forecast
Biden 41% 38%
Sanders 22 24
Warren 11 13
Buttigieg 10 10
No majority 14 14

Current forecast as of Jan. 11 at 12 p.m. ET

Biden’s majority chances fell by 3 percentage points, from 41 percent to 38 percent, while those of Sanders and Warren each gained 2 percentage points. Buttigieg’s chances were unchanged.

I really like having a model at times like this because it allows for a fairly rigorous and objective answer to the question: How much should I update my priors as a result of this new piece of information? If you’re just winging it, it’s super easy to screw that up in either direction, either dismissing new data as being “an outlier,” etc. — or claiming that the new data has massively inverted the trajectory of the race when it probably hasn’t. (The latter is usually the more common mistake in media coverage of the campaigns since it makes for more dramatic headlines.)

In FiveThirtyEight model terms, swings of this magnitude — Biden falling from 41 percent to 38 percent — are a relatively big deal. They will likely be on the high end of the shifts you see as a result of a single state poll, with the possible exception of final polls conducted on the eve of a primary or caucus. (Let me back up with a caveat: I think that this will be on the high end of poll-induced swings based on what we’ve seen in our past general-election models, but since the primary model is a new product for us, I’m not quite sure.)

At the same time, if this poll has completely upended your view of the race, then — I’m trying to put this constructively — you need to go back and add a little more rigor to your mental model of the primaries. Iowa still has four highly plausible winners; that was true both before and after the poll. Our model has Sanders (with a 29 percent chance) and Biden (also with a 29 percent chance) as being a bit more likely than the others to win, but it’s not really much of an edge. (We have Buttigieg’s chances at 22 percent and Warren’s at 16 percent.) Perhaps the candidate who had the most reason to be disappointed by the new poll was Klobuchar. Making a very late surge to win Iowa is not completely out of the question — Rick Santorum did it in 2012 — but we have her chances down to 2 percent.

Biden remains the most likely overall winner of the delegate race, meanwhile, with Sanders in the next-best position. That’s because Biden, leading in national polls, would be awfully hard to catch if he won Iowa. For the other three candidates, there would be the question of whether the Iowa bounce would be enough to propel them past Biden, with Sanders being in the best position to do so because he’s second in national polls and because his polling is also relatively strong in both New Hampshire and Nevada.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that we do have some other recent information about Iowa apart from this poll. A YouGov poll of Iowa released last weekend showed a three-way tie between Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg. And our model also makes inferences about candidates’ standing in Iowa based on trends in national polls. That’s the reason the model didn’t have Buttigieg’s chances falling as a result of this poll; it had already anticipated that his numbers would decline as a result of his slump in national polls. Conversely, even though the numbers didn’t seem that terrific for Warren on the surface — her 17 percent in the new Selzer & Co. poll is only a 1-point improvement from her 16 percent in November — it comes during a period when she’d been declining in national polls. So it’s a bullish sign for her campaign that she’s still one of the front-runners in Iowa.

By the way, “one of the front-runners” is about as precise as it’s possible to realistically be in Iowa. Our forecast will get a bit more accurate as more polls come in and as the Feb. 3 caucuses approach, but the model assumes that caucuses are awfully hard to poll, which means there are high margins of error.

That’s especially so in Iowa given some of the quirks of the caucus process, the most important of which is that in each precinct, voters for candidates who don’t have at least 15 percent of the vote must “realign” themselves to candidates who do. Iowa will also release three different ways of counting its vote. More about that stuff in future Election Updates. And although I’m not going to get into it today, some of the data from the poll that the model doesn’t use — like favorability ratings and second-choice preferences and how many voters have firmly decided on a candidate (not many, although Sanders supporters are something of an exception) — should contribute to the sense that the race is open-ended.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying there’s a lot of ambiguity about what will happen in Iowa. Through that fog, our model picked up some good news for Sanders and Warren and some bad news for Biden in this poll. But the fog is pretty dense.

Why Marianne Williamson’s Unconventional Presidential Bid Didn’t Catch On

Marianne Williamson’s run is over. On Friday — just over a week after laying off her entire campaign staff — the self-help author and motivational speaker announced she was dropping out of the presidential race.

We can’t say this result was a shock. Williamson started her campaign with both an unconventional résumé for a would-be president and an unconventional message of healing the country’s divisions with spiritualism and love. Her large following (her books have sold more than 3 million copies, and she is close with several celebrities) was enough to separate her from a pack of literally hundreds of other non-politicians waging quixotic presidential campaigns, as she and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang became the only two non-elected-officials to qualify for the first two debates.

But those debates required a polling threshold of only 1 percent and a donor threshold of only 65,000 unique contributors — relatively achievable goals. As the thresholds increased, Williamson was unable to keep pace and didn’t appear in any more debates. She has languished with a FiveThirtyEight national polling average of less than 1 percent all cycle long, and only one debate-qualifying pollster (Monmouth University) ever found her above 1 percent.

Maybe one reason why Williamson didn’t fare better in the polls is that the more voters got to know her, the less they liked her. According to an average of polls conducted in May, Democrats were not very familiar with Williamson; 13 percent of them had a favorable impression of her, 10 percent had an unfavorable one and the remainder didn’t have an opinion. And even though Williamson’s favorable rating increased by 9 points after the first two debates (according to an average of polls conducted Aug. 1-25), her unfavorable rating increased more — by 16 points. This made her one of the few Democratic candidates who was more unpopular than popular among members of her own party — generally speaking, not a good place to be.

Williamson may have hoped that her New Age rhetoric (“I’m going to harness love for political purposes”) would help her appeal to the spiritual side of the Democratic Party, but it looks like it just turned voters off. As my colleague Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux wrote in September, although “spiritual but not religious” people make up around one-third of the Democratic Party, they are not a cohesive group, do not vote as a monolith and tend to prioritize shared values and policy positions over a shared spiritual identity. They also tend to be more highly educated than the broader public, which might disabuse them of a candidate who has heterodox views on vaccines and antidepressants or who ridiculed the idea that “wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country.” Ultimately, it was harder than Williamson probably expected to get, as she once quipped, “everyone who has a yoga mat” to vote for her.

But there is a long tradition of quirky presidential candidates staying in the race throughout the primaries and keeping the flame of their contrarian gospel alive — think former Rep. Dennis Kucinich in 20041 or former Rep. Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012. Why couldn’t Williamson pick up their mantle and at least keep running as a protest candidate? In a word, money. From November 2018 through September 2019, she raised just $6.1 million and spent $5.4 million, for a pretty high burn rate of 88 percent. (Every non-self-funding candidate with a burn rate above 80 percent has now dropped out.) It was this lack of cash that forced Williamson to lay off her staff — which reportedly once numbered around 45 — on Jan. 2. From there, the writing was on the wall.

Biden Is The Front-Runner, But There’s No Clear Favorite

Joe Biden is the most likely person to win a majority of pledged Democratic delegates, according to the FiveThirtyEight primary model, which we launched on Thursday morning. This is our first-ever full-fledged model of the primaries and we’re pretty excited about it — to read more about how the model works, see here.

But saying the former vice president is the front-runner doesn’t really tell the whole story. He may be the most likely nominee, but he’s still a slight underdog relative to the field, with a 40 percent chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates7 by the time of the last scheduled Democratic contest — the Virgin Islands caucus on June 6. If one lowers the threshold to a plurality of delegates, rather than a majority, then Biden’s chances are almost 50-50, but not quite — he has a 45 percent chance of a delegate plurality, per our forecast.

I want to emphasize that there’s still a lot of room for another candidate to surge because nobody has voted yet, the primaries are a complex process, and frankly here at FiveThirtyEight, we’re a little self-conscious about how people interpret — or sometimes misinterpret — our probabilistic forecasts. The Democratic primary still features 14 candidates, and while most of them have little to no shot, there are still several fairly realistic possibilities:

So while Biden’s in a reasonably strong and perhaps even slightly underrated position, it’s slightly more likely than not that Biden won’t be the nominee. Sen. Bernie Sanders has the next-best shot, with a 22 percent chance at a majority, followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 12 percent and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 10 percent. There’s also a 14 percent chance — about 1 in 7 — that no one will win a majority of pledged delegates by June 6, which could lead to a contested convention.

The model works by simulating the nomination race thousands of times, accounting for the bounces that candidates may receive by winning or losing states, along with other contingencies — such as candidates dropping out and polls moving in response to debates and news events. Like all of our models, it’s empirically driven, built using data from the 15 competitive nomination races since 1980.8

Since the primaries themselves are fairly complex process, the model is fairly complex also — which we mean as a warning as much as a brag. Models with more complexity are easier to screw up and can be more sensitive to initial assumptions — so we’d encourage you to read more about how our model works.

As an illustration of how one race can affect the following ones in our model, here are each of the leading candidates’ chances of winning a plurality or majority of delegates conditional on winning or losing Iowa:

Iowa matters … a lot

How candidates’ chances of winning a majority or plurality of delegates changes if they win Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

With an Iowa win With an Iowa loss
Candidate Majority Chance Plurality Chance Majority Chance Plurality Chance
Biden 80% 84% 20% 26%
Buttigieg 37 42 2 3
Sanders 61 67 8 10
Warren 55 60 5 7

As of 8 a.m., Jan. 10, 2020

Biden, for instance, would be a heavy favorite if he wins Iowa, with an 80 percent chance of a delegate majority and an 84 percent chance of a plurality. His majority chances would fall to 20 percent following an Iowa loss, however. Sanders would be a slight favorite to win a majority after an Iowa win, with a 61 percent chance, but his majority chances would fall to 8 percent with a loss there. Warren would also be a slight favorite to win a delegate majority after an Iowa win, but Buttigieg would not be (although his position would be substantially strengthened).

These scenarios account for Iowa wins of all shapes and sizes — big, emphatic wins and narrow, perhaps even disputed ones. With a landslide win in Iowa, Sanders might be a fairly heavy overall favorite for the nomination. If Iowa were a four-way pileup instead — with Sanders narrowly winning and Biden in a strong second place, for instance — Sanders’s projected bounce might not be enough to help him overtake Biden in national polls and the nomination could remain fairly open-ended.

Speaking of open-ended, the first three states all have highly uncertain outcomes. Biden is the nominal favorite to win Iowa, but has just a 33 percent chance of doing so.9 In New Hampshire, Sanders has a 31 percent chance and Biden is at 27 percent. And in Nevada, Biden has a 35 chance, with Sanders at 31 percent. Biden is a clearer front-runner in South Carolina — although even that lead might not be safe if he performed poorly in the first three states.

Who’s favored in the first four states?

Candidates’ chances of winning the early states, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

State Biden Sanders Warren Buttigieg Other
Iowa 33% 27% 14% 22% 4%
New Hampshire 27 31 15 23 3
Nevada 35 31 16 13 4
South Carolina 54 20 10 9 7

As of 8 a.m., Jan. 10, 2020.

The model also plays out the rest of the primaries on Super Tuesday and beyond — although they’re subject to more uncertainty, both because they come later in the process and because they have less polling. In states with little or no polling, our model infers odds based on demographic and geographic factors — see the methodology primer for more.

For a flavor of how this works, here are the states and territories that the model thinks each of the four leading candidates is the most likely to win.

Where each front-runner is most likely to win, in one table

The top four candidates’ chances of winning the primaries or caucuses where their position is strongest, per FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

Biden Sanders
Primary/caucus chances Primary/caucus chances
Alabama 61% Vermont 62%
Mississippi 58 Utah 33
Delaware 55 Washington 32
South Carolina 54 California 32
North Carolina 53 Colorado 32
Louisiana 51 New Hampshire 31
Warren Buttigieg
Primary/caucus chances Primary/caucus chances
Massachusetts 28% New Hampshire 23%
Maine 20 Iowa 22
Colorado 19 Indiana 20
Democrats Abroad 19 Democrats Abroad 16
Oklahoma 18 North Dakota 15
Minnesota 18 Minnesota 15

As of 8 a.m., Jan. 10, 2020.

Biden’s strengths are concentrated in the South, among states with large numbers of black voters. Sanders and Warren are expected to perform well in New England and in western states such as Colorado and California, where the Democratic electorate tends to be pretty liberal. Buttigieg’s strongest states figure to be largely white states in the Midwest and otherwise in the northern part of the country.

We’ll have a lot more to say about the forecast in the weeks and months ahead. But let me conclude by briefly considering the forecast from each of the major candidates’ perspectives, tackling each one in 100 words or less.

Biden. The optimistic case for Biden is fairly simple. He’s ahead in national polls. He’s also ahead in our “fundamentals” calculation. (Although Biden hasn’t raised all that much money, he has by far the most endorsements.) His strength among black voters will help him in the South, where none of the other candidates look particularly strong. So a win in Iowa would put Biden in a commanding position. And a loss there could be more survivable than it would be for another candidate. Still, Iowa is more likely to hurt him than help him, according to our model.

Sanders. Sanders’s early-state polling is fairly robust. He probably wouldn’t have any problem parlaying an Iowa win into a sequel in New Hampshire, and our model likes his position reasonably well in Nevada also. California is another potential strength for Sanders on Super Tuesday, as a source of both delegates and momentum. All that said, perhaps the biggest question about Sanders — namely, how would the establishment and voters react if he appeared to be on the verge of winning the nomination — remains unanswered, and it’s not necessarily something our model can answer by itself.

Warren. The conventional wisdom about Sanders is fairly bullish, while being fairly bearish on Warren. But it’s worth keeping in mind that there are only a few points separating them in the polls, nationally and in the early states. They’re an important few points — in part because they coincide with the 15 percent threshold that Democratic rules require candidates clear to win delegates. That’s part of why our model gives Sanders roughly double Warren’s chances of securing a delegate majority. But even a small-ish burst of momentum for Warren could restore her to a highly competitive position.

Buttigieg. Buttigieg can win Iowa — but he also runs the risk of stalling out afterward. The problem isn’t in New Hampshire, where his position is nearly as strong. But Buttigieg is weak among nonwhite voters, especially black voters, which makes Nevada and South Carolina uphill battles for him. With that said, Buttigieg is the sort of candidate who the model figures could get a relatively large bounce from wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. In general, the lower a candidate’s standing in national polls, the bigger the bounce they get from early-state success.

What about … Klobuchar? Sen. Amy Klobuchar has picked up a percentage point or two in the polls since the December debate. But if that’s all she gets, it’s probably a case of too little, too late. Her position is not hopeless — the model does have her as the fifth most likely winner. But the model simply thinks it will take a lot to leapfrog four other candidates. With that said, there’s been little polling recently, and a single strong poll in Iowa could change the equation for Klobuchar.

What about … Bloomberg? If you’re a Michael Bloomberg optimist, you could point toward the 14 percent chance that no candidate wins a delegate majority as a bullish sign. The former New York mayor’s plan clearly involves hoping for a murky outcome in the early states and playing the long game. But there are many, many questions here. The first four states probably will produce a clear front-runner or two, and even if they don’t, it’s not clear why Bloomberg would emerge as the alternative. Still, his unconventional strategy is difficult to model.

What about … Steyer? Billionaire Tom Steyer has risen in recent polls of Nevada and South Carolina after a monthslong advertising barrage there. It’s not quite clear what that gets him, though. On the one hand, his position will be weaker in those states by the time they get around to voting if he hasn’t also performed well in Iowa and New Hampshire. On the other hand, he hasn’t invested in Super Tuesday states (as Bloomberg has) to follow up on any potential success in Nevada and South Carolina. He’s worth watching, but the model doesn’t see a clear path for him.

Enjoy the weekend — and the CNN/Selzer/Des Moines Register poll that is scheduled to come out on Friday night — and we’ll be back at you with more updates soon.

How a raucous convention revolutionized our primary system

Our Presidential Primary System Is An Accident

It’s going to be hard to avoid coverage of the Democratic primary in the coming months. It’ll be portrayed as a grand exercise in democracy, a way for voters to express their opinions about the future of a party, and potentially the nation. But unlike the general election, presidential primaries are not laid out in the Constitution. Instead, they’re the product of happenstance and reactionary decision-making, most notably in response to a single disastrous nominating convention in 1968. Modern presidential campaigns wouldn’t be the same without that convention, and neither would the country.

For the past few months, the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast has been reporting on exactly how our modern primary system came to be, and what effect it has had on recent American history. Over the next few weeks, in an audio documentary series we’re calling the Primaries Project, we’ll tackle three key questions: 1) how we got the system we have today, 2) what its consequences are and 3) how things could be different.

Today, we’re releasing the first episode, answering the first of those questions:

Prior to the 1970s, presidential nominees were chosen by the party establishment, with little input from rank-and-file voters. The parties generally used caucuses, where party insiders would select delegates to eventually go to the national convention. The delegates were usually well-known people within the parties, not required to vote for any one candidate and often chosen before candidates even entered the race. At the national convention, delegates would wheel and deal and eventually land on a nominee.

That all changed after the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where the Democratic Party fractured dramatically over support for the war in Vietnam. To hear the story of how those events led to the creation of our modern primary system, click play above or subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast. Check back throughout the month of January as we investigate the consequences of the modern system and how it could be different.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

How a raucous convention revolutionized our primary system

Julián Castro Never Really Found His Base

On Thursday, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro finally called it quits. Castro’s campaign had been on the rocks for some time now — in late October, he even threatened to drop out if he didn’t raise enough money to make the November debate — but after missing that debate and the December one, it seems as if Castro has finally determined there isn’t a way forward for him.

As I wrote back in January when Castro announced he was running for president, he was always something of a long-shot candidate. He’d been out of the political spotlight after his two and a half year term as President Obama’s housing secretary ended, and his candidacy may have been overshadowed by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who also hails from Texas. But what Castro did have going for him was an inspirational personal story about rising out of poverty to eventually become the mayor of San Antonio, one of the country’s largest cities. Also as a young (45 years old) Latino, he had the potential to win over Hispanic voters and younger voters. He even ran unabashedly to the left on issues like immigration, pushing the Democratic Party to engage with ideas like decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings. But unlike some other candidates, such as former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg or even Sen. Kamala Harris, Castro never found his footing. As the chart below shows — he languished at 1 or 2 percent nationally.

Part of the reason Castro might not have been able to break out in the polls was because of an exchange he had with former Vice President Joe Biden in the September debate. Castro attacked Biden on health care, accusing him of not working to insure every American and forgetting something he had said only minutes earlier — a clear shot at Biden’s advanced age — but as it turned out, Biden hadn’t said what Castro claimed he said.

Castro’s net favorability rating (favorable percentage minus unfavorable percentage) had improved markedly after the first debate, in which he had a heated exchange with O’Rourke over immigration, but this time his attacks on Biden backfired. In FiveThirtyEight’s polling with Ipsos, primary voters gave Castro the lowest September debate performance rating of the 10 candidates on stage. And his net favorability rating tumbled, going from +22 before the debate to just +10 afterward.

Tellingly, Castro only made one more debate after September — the October debate — he missed out on both the November and December ones. However, he always managed to meet the Democratic National Committee’s donor thresholds — amassing the 165,000 donors needed for November, and the 200,000 for December. In fact, when Harris dropped out of the race in early December, Castro was able to attract some of her supporters by arguing that she was held to a double standard by the media. It was reportedly Castro’s best fundraising day of the quarter, and did help him reach 200,000 donors, but there was no sign of a polling surge. In the end, Castro failed to get a single qualifying poll for either the November or December debates, and he probably had even less hope of picking up a poll to make the stage in January, where the thresholds are even higher.

Considering his poll numbers, Castro’s exit doesn’t come as a shock. But it does reduce the diversity of the Democratic field, which was once heralded as the most diverse ever. It’s hard to imagine that this is the final chapter of his political career, though. Castro is only 45 years old, and as Sen. Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter, she expects him “to be a leader in our party and our country for many years to come.” And having been a contender for the 2016 vice presidential nomination, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the 2020 Democratic nominee ends up considering Castro for that job, too. (Maybe Warren herself.)

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: The biggest political moments of 2019