Why Bill de Blasio’s Campaign Failed (Hint: Nobody Liked Him)

There is officially only one mayor11 left in the 2020 presidential race — and it is the one who runs a city of 100,000 rather than the chief executive of the biggest city in the United States. On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ended his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — leaving us now with 18 major candidates remaining, per FiveThirtyEight’s definition.

However, the list of candidates with realistic shots at winning the nomination may be even shorter than that; just 10 candidates met the polling and donor thresholds to participate in last week’s Democratic debate in Houston. And de Blasio was not among them, nor did it seem possible for him to qualify for the next debate, in Ohio in October. As of July, only 6,700 people had donated to his campaign (debaters need 130,000), and he has only hit 2 percent support in a handful of polls all year long (none of which are counted by the Democratic National Committee for debate qualification). In short, it’s no mystery why de Blasio called it quits.

De Blasio was always an extreme long shot. He entered the race quite late, on May 16 — after more than 20 other major candidates had declared and the field was already drawing headlines for being historically saturated. In fact, only one successful presidential nominee since 1976 (Bill Clinton) kicked off his campaign later than de Blasio did. And although de Blasio was arguably one of the most progressive candidates in the field — having brought universal pre-K and other liberal reforms to the five boroughs — he was crowded out of the primary’s left lane by the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who combined for 56 percent support among “very liberal” voters in the most recent Quinnipiac poll (de Blasio had less than 1 percent).

But probably de Blasio’s biggest problem was simply that Democratic voters did not like him,12 which is quite an unusual place to be among voters of one’s own party. In an average of national polls of 2020 candidates’ favorability from May, de Blasio was the only candidate at the time whom more voters viewed unfavorably than favorably (his net favorability rating — favorable rating minus unfavorable rating — was -1). That’s especially bad because de Blasio wasn’t some little-known candidate; 46 percent of Democrats were able to form an opinion of him. All other candidates who were at least as well-known had net favorability ratings of +21 or better!

It is very difficult to win a presidential nomination when you are well-known but not well-liked among voters in your party early in the campaign. Only one candidate has done so since 1980 — President Trump, who went from a -42 net favorability rating among Republicans in May 2015 to a +28 net favorability rating that September. But Trump had the advantage of tons of earned media coverage, something no future candidate could bank on. De Blasio certainly didn’t get it, appearing in less than 1 percent of cable-news clips the week of Sept. 8, for example. And unsurprisingly, his net favorability rating failed to improve; in fact, it actually dropped over the course of the campaign (it was -6 in our average of August polls).

One group with whom de Blasio became especially unpopular this summer? His own constituents. According to the Siena College Research Institute, de Blasio’s net favorability rating in New York City dropped from -1 point in March to -25 points in September. And there has been a lot of grumbling among New Yorkers about all the time de Blasio was spending out of state — such as when a blackout struck Manhattan and the mayor was campaigning in Iowa, or reports that de Blasio spent just seven hours at City Hall during the month of May.

Although term limits prevent de Blasio from seeking another term as mayor, his doomed presidential campaign may have drained whatever political capital he had remaining in his last two years as mayor. And although running for president is often portrayed as a risk-free way for politicians to build a national profile, de Blasio’s campaign is a cautionary tale that there can be major downsides as well.

The Third Democratic Debate In 7 Charts

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

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

Which candidates wowed the crowd?

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

 

Who gained (or lost) potential supporters?

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

Which candidates appeal to the same voters?

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

Who made a positive (or negative) impression?

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

More people like O’Rourke, but Castro lost ground

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

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

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

Who spoke the most?

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

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the third Democratic debate

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

Excludes words spoken in Spanish

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

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

Who mentioned Trump?

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

Who talked about Trump?

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

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

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

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


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

Do you want even more debate coverage?

Cool graphics from other sites

And here’s more great post-debate analysis:

Finally, check out the rest of our debate coverage:

Additional contributions from Aaron Bycoffe.

Buy, Sell Or Hold? A Special Democratic Debate Edition

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

clare.malone: NATE’S ON A PLANE 🐍

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Harris is slipping in the polls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

natesilver: Lol I’m not touching that question.

ameliatd: Wow, Sarah, you really went there!

clare.malone: I give a hold on that.

I truly don’t know where things stand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t be a buy on everyone.

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

Peanut Gallery!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEVER TRUST A TWIN.

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

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

natesilver: FiveThirtyEight readers do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s the scope of this q.

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

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

sarahf: President Cain was such a good president. 😉

clare.malone: heh heh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Americans’ Views Of The Economy Are Partisan, But They’re Not Immune To Bad News

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

“How is the economy doing?” is a question that we have several hard, objective metrics with which to answer. But increasingly, how Americans think the economy is doing seems to depend on their party. But just because views of the economy are polarized, that doesn’t mean they’re stagnant — and that could prove pivotal for President Trump in 2020.

Quinnipiac University’s latest national poll of registered voters, conducted Aug. 21-26, found a huge gap between how Republicans and Democrats perceive the state of the economy: 43 percent of Republicans described it as “excellent,” and another 45 percent described it as “good”; among Democrats, however, just 2 percent described the state of the economy as “excellent” and 37 percent said it was “good.” A plurality of Democrats, 43 percent, thought it was “not so good,” while 17 percent called it “poor.”

In total, 88 percent of Republicans used a positive adjective for the state of the economy, while only 39 percent of Democrats did the same. That 49-point gap in how the two parties perceived the strength of the economy was the second-largest that Quinnipiac has measured in the last three years.10 (The largest gap came this January, amid the government shutdown.)

Granted, it’s not unusual for voters’ politics to color their perceptions of the economy. During the Obama administration, Democrats were generally more optimistic about the economy than Republicans were; that flipped a few months into Trump’s tenure. Since then, Republicans have consistently viewed the economy more positively than Democrats have, but as the chart above shows, the gap between parties has really widened over time.

Most of this is due to Republicans warming to the economy, going from having a slight majority with positive views at the beginning of the Trump administration to near-universal approval today. Under the surface, Republicans haven’t just gotten more likely to feel positively about the economy, they’ve also been reporting more strongly positive feelings. As late as April 2018, only 18 percent of Republicans said the state of the economy was “excellent” and 65 percent said it was “good.” In May 2019, 50 percent rated it “excellent” and 42 percent rated it “good.” That said, a bit of that enthusiasm did wear off in the latest poll, when the “excellent” number dropped by a few points. This could be the result of heightened anxiety that a recession might be around the corner.

But while Republicans’ views on the economy have largely been on a steady march upward, Democrats’ views appear to be more sensitive to events. In February 2018, after Trump’s first State of the Union address and a strong month in the stock market, 62 percent of Democrats had a positive view of the economy, but at moments like the January 2019 government shutdown or this most recent poll, positive views of the economy among Democrats have dipped to as low as 39 percent. But electorally, Republicans’ and Democrats’ views on the economy may not matter all that much; their 2020 votes are largely already set in stone.

So what’s perhaps more troubling for Trump is that independents’ opinions on the economy look a lot like Democrats’ — they often react to current events in a similar way, though their recent baseline is about 20 points higher. While it’s plausible that partisan polarization is so strong these days that even a recession would not change many voters’ minds about Trump, the fact that independents appear persuadable on the economy is a point in favor of the theory that a recession would indeed damage his reelection chances.

Indeed, it might be a coincidence that Trump’s overall approval rating has ticked down in recent weeks amid speculation about a looming recession, but it also comes at a time when only 57 percent of independents have kind things to say about the state of the economy — the lowest number Quinnipiac has found since the summer of 2017.

Other polling bites

  • As long as we’re on the topic of partisan gaps, there is also one on whether the U.S. should spend more money for scientific research. According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Democrats and people who lean Democratic would increase federal spending on scientific research, but only 40 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning respondents agreed. That said, that’s still more support among both parties than Pew previously found in almost two decades of polling.
  • Marquette University Law School — one of the best pollsters in a crucial swing state — released its latest poll of Wisconsin this week, and residents gave Trump a 45 percent approval rating and a 53 percent disapproval rating. Interestingly, 37 percent of Wisconsinites said they thought the economy has gotten better over the last year, and 25 percent said they thought it had gotten worse — but when asked how they thought the economy would change in the next year, the results were reversed. Just 26 percent thought things would get better, and 37 percent thought they would get worse.
  • Tune in next week for a full preview of the upcoming do-over election in the North Carolina 9th Congressional District, but don’t overlook the special election in the North Carolina 3rd District that’s happening at the same time. That race has gotten less attention, but this week the Republican blog RRH Elections released a poll of that race that gave GOP state Rep. Greg Murphy a 51-40 lead over Democrat Allen Thomas in this bright-red district. (According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric,11 it’s 24 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole.)
  • Just in time for CNN’s climate town halls with the Democratic presidential candidates, the Sierra Club and Morning Consult released a poll of “climate voters” — those who say that the candidates’ climate plans are “very important” to their vote. And the results looked a lot like polls of the Democratic field overall, with former Vice President Joe Biden at 30 percent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 21 percent and Sen. Bernie Sanders at 20 percent.
  • Turmoil on the Thames! Opponents of a no-deal Brexit successfully took control of the parliamentary agenda away from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and advanced a bill to prevent the United Kingdom from exiting the European Union without an agreement in place. In response, Johnson wants to call a new parliamentary election, and British voters tilt slightly in his favor. A YouGov poll says 41 percent of Britons want their member of Parliament to vote to hold a new election in mid-October, and 31 percent want their MP to vote against such a measure.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 41.4 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.9 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -12.5 points). At this time last week, 41.3 percent approved and 54.2 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -12.9 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.4 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.2 percent, for a net approval rating of -10.8 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.5 percentage points (46.3 percent to 39.8 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.7 points (46.4 percent to 39.7 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.1 points (46.1 percent to 40.0 percent).

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

What Happens When The FEC Can’t Do Its Job?

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


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last Monday, Federal Election Commission Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen announced his resignation, leaving the FEC effectively shut down, as only three positions on the six-seat committee are currently filled and the agency is legally required to have four commissioners to be fully operational.

What this means is that the agency responsible for both enforcing and advising on the nation’s campaign-finance laws is out of commission for the foreseeable future. And because we’re in the middle of a presidential election … things could get hairy fast.

The FEC has said that it will soldier on, continuing to process filings and other reports, and has called on President Trump to nominate new commissioners and for the Senate to confirm them quickly. But Congress is still in recess and Trump has yet to move forward with appointing new commissioners (remember, there are now three vacancies).

So here with us today to unpack what this could mean for the 2020 election (and campaign finance in general) is Dave Levinthal, editor and senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity.

Welcome!

dave.levinthal: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.

sarahf: So, first of all, how did we get to the point that the FEC is basically not operational? And just how big of a deal is this for the FEC?

dave.levinthal: You can trace the situation back to 2008, the last time the FEC found itself in semi-shutdown mode because it lacked enough commissioners to legally conduct high-level business.

That year, the FEC went about six months without a quorum of commissioners, until the Senate and President Bush finally struck a deal to appoint new commissioners and get the agency back on track.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): And by “high-level business,” we mean things like opening investigations into possible campaign-finance violations?

dave.levinthal: High-level business would absolutely include investigating allegations of campaign-finance violations. As I wrote last week:

For now, the FEC can’t conduct meetings.
It can’t slap political scofflaws with fines.
It can’t make rules.
It can’t conduct audits and approve them.

sarahf: So … what can the FEC do in its current situation?

dave.levinthal: The most notable thing the FEC will continue to do is carry out its transparency function. That means that political committees, political candidates and so on must still file their periodic campaign-finance disclosures with the FEC — documents that tell the public how much money they’ve raised, spent, etc. — and the FEC staff will still review and post that material.

But if some political committee screws this up, or for that matter acts in a manner that’s potentially in violation of federal campaign-finance laws, they more or less get a temporary pass because the FEC commissioners don’t have the power for now to do anything about it.

clare.malone: Cool. I was interested to learn that there’s been a lot of discord on the commission for a while. A Democrat and an independent on the committee were apparently irritated that certain investigations they deemed worthy weren’t being looked into because the Republican members kept things from moving forward. So in some ways, it sounds like this is the continuation of an already contentious situation at the FEC.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): And Dave, without enforcement mechanisms, there would be no punishment if a campaign does violate campaign-finance laws, right?

dave.levinthal: Generally speaking, the FEC’s law enforcement capabilities are on ice until the Senate approves at least one more nominee to serve on the FEC.

Right now, Trump has nominated one commissioner — a Texas attorney named Trey Trainor who helped stop an anti-Trump movement at the 2016 GOP convention — who he first nominated in September 2017. But the Senate has yet to give Trainor a confirmation hearing, much less going forth and confirming him.

clare.malone: So … why no hearing? I haven’t really seen an explanation for that in everything I’ve been reading.

dave.levinthal: A complex question! My best crack at it: There’s been a tradition — often adhered to, but not always — that the president would nominate FEC commissioners in pairs: one Republican, one Democrat.

But since President Trump has only offered one nominee, the Senate has chosen not to give that lone nominee a hearing. Could it? Sure. Did it need to? Not really — until now — because the FEC has had enough commissioners to at least conduct its high-level business.

nrakich: I find it interesting that, in an age where the Senate has gotten more comfortable with consolidating power within one party (eliminating filibusters for presidents’ nominees, blocking Merrick Garland’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, etc.), that this norm of nominating one Democrat and one Republican simultaneously to the FEC has persisted.

dave.levinthal: Numbers at the FEC commission level have been going the wrong way since the beginning of the Trump presidency. In March 2017, Democratic Commissioner Ann Ravel resigned. And in February 2018, Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman also resigned. That means the FEC has been operating with a bare minimum four commissioners for 1.5 years.

President Trump could have nominated people filled those vacancies at any time, but he didn’t.

clare.malone: Whew.

Dave, champion explanation.

nrakich: Not to be too cynical, but in practical terms, how much of an effect does this shutdown really have? The FEC’s enforcement mechanisms are already pretty toothless and can take years to be resolved anyway.

For example, earlier this summer, now-Sen. Martha McSally was fined for campaign-finance violations she made in … 2014.

She has served two full terms in the House since then.

And despite breaking the rules by taking $319,000 in excess contributions, she was fined only $23,000. So there was no financial disincentive.

clare.malone: Right, and we didn’t learn about Trump’s campaign-finance violations until well after 2016, so there does seem to be a long lag time on this stuff!

dave.levinthal: I’ve heard from more than a few folks who’ve made that very point — that the FEC is already so dysfunctional that there won’t be much difference.

But even if the FEC deadlocks on investigations, even if it’s unable to make affirmative rulings on whether someone broke the law — and this is often the case — at minimum these situations receive a full public airing. For instance, if special interest groups or others vehemently disagree with an FEC ruling, they’ll sue the organization.

Think of all the big court cases that have “FEC” in their names, with Citizens United v. FEC the biggest among them. Without a functioning FEC, this process grinds to a halt, for all intents and purposes.

clare.malone: Got it. So the shutdown is really affecting the transparency of the FEC.

nrakich: I find it interesting, though, that voters don’t seem to care too much about campaign-finance violations. There’s some research suggesting that they don’t do as much as, say, sex scandals (probably for obvious reasons — they’re much drier!) to hurt candidates at the ballot box.

And I assume that most candidates will continue filing disclosure reports even if the FEC is shut down at the filing deadline. But what if they don’t? Would they really suffer any consequences with voters? I’m not sure they would, and that’s scary to me.

clare.malone: I think that’s in part because it’s so much a part of American political culture — and the culture at large — to see big money and politics as linked. There’s a perception that there’s a degree of unfettered spending going on.

dave.levinthal: While the FEC doesn’t have a quorum, if a political committee wanted to stop filing campaign-finance reports or otherwise violate campaign-finance rules, the FEC would not be in any position to do something about it.

Now, the FEC may very well pick up the matter once it’s in business again. But for now, political committees don’t really have anyone policing their activity in a way that would lead to some immediate penalty.

Said another way: The cops are at the station, they’re doing paperwork, but they’re not answering emergency calls.

sarahf: So given how critical the situation is, won’t one of Congress’s first orders of business be appointing the one commissioner Trump has already nominated to get the FEC back up and running?

dave.levinthal: Actually, Sarah, I don’t think there is a reason to think that Congress will make the FEC its first order of business. That’s not to say that the Senate won’t act quickly. But this is largely in the hands of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and, to a lesser extent, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Also, President Trump plays a major role here. He could theoretically nominate a full slate of new commissioners. He could clean house — float six new nominees. But presidents have largely missed opportunities to proactively replace FEC commissioners. The result: The remaining commissioners continued to serve in “holdover status” — serving even though their term has expired.

sarahf: 😱

dave.levinthal: Bottom line? If Trump wanted to defy political convention — something he’s not exactly shy about doing — he could nominate six new commissioners of his choosing.

Legally, he can’t pack the committee with Republicans — no more than three commissioners can be of the same party — but he doesn’t have to nominate Democrats. He could theoretically nominate three Republicans and three … Libertarians. Or independents.

nrakich: Right. I feel like that would be well within character — but also, I feel like Trump doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the FEC.

sarahf: Or any president, it sounds like.

So if you’re Petersen, why resign now, knowing it would throw the FEC into chaos? Was his resignation a surprise?

dave.levinthal: No, Petersen almost left in late 2017, when Trump nominated him for a federal district judgeship. But Petersen flamed out of the judicial job when he was unable to answer a string of basic questions at his nomination hearing, and he withdrew himself from consideration shortly thereafter. His consolation prize? He continued to serve on the FEC.

At the time — December 2017 — CPI wrote that even then it seemed like the FEC had a strong possibility of losing its quorum of commissioners.

So it’s not as if this problem somehow snuck up on people.

nrakich: Yeah, I keep coming back to the fact that the public doesn’t seem to care about campaign finance.

It’s a big problem, IMO, since this is one of the main mechanisms by which we keep candidates accountable.

clare.malone: Well, very few people ever end up serving jail time for these violations, for instance. And unlike a sex scandal, a lot of people will be bored reading about campaign-finance violations.

dave.levinthal: But there are some money-in-politics sex scandals! (cough Stormy Daniels cough) And the FEC plays a role in those … or could.

nrakich: Right, and there are some types of campaign-finance scandals, like when politicians (for example, California Rep. Duncan Hunter) use campaign money for their personal benefit, that I think appeal to voters’ instinct against politicians abusing their office. But I think that’s different from, say, McSally’s case, where her only crime was accepting more than the legal limit in donations.

I fear Americans see the latter as just violations of arbitrary bureaucratic rules, rather than as an immoral act.

clare.malone: Well, not everyone sees breaking the law on certain things as a moral violation. The law doesn’t necessarily equate with morality! Lots of people might think the ends (big money) justify the means. They might not think that the moral universe extends to bureaucratic violations.

dave.levinthal: Great point, Clare, and yes — there are wide swings in opinion on whether the Stormy Daniels matter is a campaign law violation in the first place. (Michael Cohen certainly has some thoughts on this.)

clare.malone: What about for media watchdog organizations like CPI and Open Secrets, though, Dave?

How will your work potentially change because of this?

dave.levinthal: Our job is to report about the role money plays in American politics. And while most people often don’t care about the legal or technical particulars of campaign-finance law, I’ve never gotten the sense that they don’t care about campaign money, especially in the context of their favorite candidates raising cash.

There are tens of thousands of people every day who make campaign contributions, millions every year. The sophistication of political fundraising has made it as easy as ever to support a candidate or cause. That’s why, for example, you see presidential candidates — President Trump and the gaggle of Democrats — raising huge amounts of money from small-dollar donors.

nrakich: Right — and voters do seem to care about the source of the money candidates raise.

For example, every Democratic presidential candidate has pledged not to accept money from corporate PACs, and most have pledged not to accept money from the fossil-fuel industry or federal lobbyists. They wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t think voters cared about those issues.

clare.malone: Have we seen any irregularities from any of these Democratic candidates? Or from the Trump campaign (this time around)?

dave.levinthal: No, but the FEC also won’t be in a position to address some novel questions about how political candidates should act. For example, lots of cities have sent the Trump campaign bills for police and public safety costs — related to Trump campaign rallies — that they believe the campaign should pay. The Trump campaign doesn’t acknowledge these bills and doesn’t list them as debt, or even “disputed debt,” on campaign-finance reports. It’d be the FEC’s job, ostensibly, to figure this situation out. It can’t now.

clare.malone: Oh that’s really fascinating. NYC certainly saw a lot of controversy over the cost of Trump Tower security right after his election in 2016.

sarahf: So to wrap, it sounds like as long as the FEC can still perform some of its basic functions (like getting candidates to file their reports), we might not see Petersen’s replacement for a while, right? Where does this political fight head next?

clare.malone: I guess … nowhere? Dave is certainly the expert on this, but I don’t think there’s much political will to replace the FEC positions. And I say that mostly from the point of view of public pressure — there’s no incentive to change the course of behavior toward the FEC.

nrakich: As Dave said earlier, President Bush and Congress did finally reach a deal in 2008 the last time the FEC went into limbo because it didn’t have enough members. But I agree with Clare — I think this is so far down on the to-do list for both Trump and McConnell.

Maybe the FEC becomes a poor man’s Merrick Garland — no action until one party regains full control of government.

dave.levinthal: I talked last week with Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington, about the broader issue of the FEC’s role in government and politics. And he made the case that the FEC needs to be fundamentally reformed and given greater independence and strength.

He even has a bill that would make the FEC a five-commissioner body, which would address the issue of deadlocked votes. The bill isn’t going anywhere, but his hope is that Democrats will win everything in November 2020, and come 2021, the FEC will be reformed.

So I’d say keep a close watch on Schumer in the Senate. If he wants to make a big stink about this, he could. But he, too, has been pretty quiet about the FEC lately. I will also be curious to see if this comes up during the presidential debate next week, since several candidates have been very anti-Citizens United and anti-BIG MONEY in their campaign rhetoric.

nrakich: Yeah, Steve Bullock presented campaign finance as his big issue when he launched his campaign. But in general, I’ve felt that the candidates have not done a good job sticking to what was supposed to be their signature issue (Eric Swalwell and guns, Jay Inslee and climate change, etc.).

dave.levinthal: Even though Bullock has made it his signature issue, he’s had his own little bumps in the road.

clare.malone: Gillibrand also made public funding a thing, if I recall. That did not catch on.

nrakich: That said, if the FEC is shut down for a full year or more — say, through the 2020 election — I bet there will be more of an appetite to reform it come 2021 if Democrats are in charge.

Just speculating, but I think an FEC shutdown might be the kind of thing that gets more noticeable with time.

dave.levinthal: An FEC that effectively sat out the 2020 election would be monumental. It’d take us back to a pre-Watergate era of campaign-finance regulation in certain ways. (The FEC was created after Watergate to help defend against campaign money problems, irregularities and potential lawlessness.)

In fact, I’d say it’d be the most incentive Congress has probably had since Watergate to fundamentally change the nation’s campaign-finance regulation regime.

What If The Third Debate Were Based On Different Polls?

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

The deadline to make the third Democratic primary debate has passed, and thanks to harder qualifying rules, just 10 candidates made the stage. This, of course, was unwelcome news among candidates such as billionaire activist Tom Steyer and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who were on the cusp of making the debate. Steyer needed just one more qualifying poll, and Gabbard needed two.

And this got us thinking: What would the debate stage look like if the list or type of eligible polls were different? Gabbard, in particular, has taken the Democratic National Committee to task for the specific pollsters included in its list of approved polling organizations, arguing that had the list of pollsters been expanded, she would have had at least 2 percent support in more than 20 polls conducted during the third debate qualification window. And in fairness to her, understanding how the DNC determines its list of approved polling organizations can be confusing. Gabbard did hit 2 percent in YouGov’s latest national survey sponsored by The Economist, but it didn’t count toward qualifying for the debate.

So to better understand how including different pollsters or relying on different pollster methodologies could affect who made the debate stage, we checked to see who would have qualified if:

  1. all polls had been counted;
  2. just polls from pollsters with a grade of at least B- or better, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Pollster Ratings (as this grade captures a mix of high-quality phone polls and respected online polls); and
  3. only live phone interviews polls, which are often considered the gold standard in polling.

And in this thought exercise, we also kept many of the DNC’s requirements for the third debate, meaning we also included only polls released between June 28 and Aug. 28 — and only counted a candidate as qualified if he or she hit 2 percent support in four polls and attracted the support of 130,000 individual donors (including at least 400 individual donors in at least 20 states).2 We also adhered to the DNC’s rules that limit qualifying polls to national and early-state surveys3 and that said two polls by the same pollster in the same geography can’t be counted.4

OK, so first up: Who would have made the stage in our most generous scenario where all polls are counted? Well, maybe not as many candidates as you’d expect given the parameters. Gabbard and Steyer would make the stage with nine and seven polls, respectively. And author and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson comes a little closer to making it with two qualifying polls. (She also has met the donor requirement.) But this still leaves out seven candidates that FiveThirtyEight considers “major” as well as the candidates who have dropped out since the second debate.

What if all polls had been counted for the third debate?

Candidates who would have qualified for the third debate had the DNC used all polls* in the FiveThirtyEight database released from June 28 to Aug. 28

Met DNC criteria Met hypothetical
Candidate 130k+ Donors 2% in four polls All polls
Joe Biden
Cory Booker
Pete Buttigieg
Kamala Harris
Amy Klobuchar
Beto O’Rourke
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Andrew Yang
Julián Castro
Tulsi Gabbard
Tom Steyer

For candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

We adhered to the DNC’s donor requirements and polling support threshold. To qualify for the third debate under the DNC’s rules, a candidate had to reach 2 percent in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and needed at least 130,000 unique donors, including at least 400 donors in at least 20 states.

*We excluded polls conducted by partisan pollsters, head-to-head polls, polls with open-ended questions and polls in the same geography by the same pollster.

Sources: Polls, Media reports

So, OK — what about the scenario in which we limit our scope to pollsters with at least a B- grade, according to our pollster ratings? It makes sense that the DNC would want to limit at least some of the pollsters included. So we chose pollsters that are still high quality, but our list of pollsters ends up being a little more expansive than the list of DNC-approved pollsters. And under this scenario, the same 12 candidates would make the stage as in the “all polls” scenario, but it’s a much closer cutoff — Steyer would have ended up with exactly four qualifying polls and Gabbard five — just one fewer than former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.

Only pollsters with a grade of at least B- counted?

Candidates who would have qualified for the third debate had the DNC included pollsters that FiveThirtyEight has given a grade of at least B-, with polls* released from June 28 to Aug. 28

Met DNC criteria Met Hypothetical
Candidate 130k+ Donors 2% in four polls Pollster rating of at least B-
Joe Biden
Cory Booker
Pete Buttigieg
Kamala Harris
Amy Klobuchar
Beto O’Rourke
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Andrew Yang
Julián Castro
Tulsi Gabbard
Tom Steyer

For candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

We adhered to the DNC’s donor requirements and polling support threshold. To qualify for the third debate under the DNC’s rules, a candidate had to reach 2 percent in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and needed at least 130,000 unique donors, including at least 400 donors in at least 20 states.

*We excluded polls conducted by partisan pollsters, head-to-head polls, polls with open-ended questions and polls in the same geography by the same pollster.

Sources: Polls, Media reports

On the other hand, what if the DNC had been more — not less — strict with its requirements? For instance, what if the DNC had chosen to just use pollsters that use live phone interviews? Yes, these polls are facing many challenges right now, including low response rates and high costs, but they remain the best performing type of poll. So if the DNC had limited qualification to these types of polls, the number of debate participants would have actually shrunk from 10 candidates to nine. The odd man out would be Castro, who would have ended up with only three qualifying polls, ahead the two for Gabbard and Steyer.

Only polls conducted by telephone counted?

Candidates* who would have qualified for the third debate had the DNC only included pollsters that do live telephone surveys, with polls* released from June 28 to Aug. 28

MET DNC Criteria Met Hypothetical
Candidate 130k+ Donors 2% in four polls Live phone Polls
Joe Biden
Cory Booker
Pete Buttigieg
Kamala Harris
Amy Klobuchar
Beto O’Rourke
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Andrew Yang
Julián Castro

For candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

We adhered to the DNC’s donor requirements and polling support threshold. To qualify for the third debate under the DNC’s rules, a candidate had to reach 2 percent in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and needed at least 130,000 unique donors, including at least 400 donors in at least 20 states.

*We excluded polls conducted by partisan pollsters, head-to-head polls, polls with open-ended questions and polls in the same geography by the same pollster.

Sources: Polls, Media reports

So big picture, you could say the exact DNC rules don’t make a huge difference — most of the same set of candidates makes it on stage regardless. Of course, for the individual candidates on the edge of qualification, that give or take is everything. Suffice it to say, the rules matter quite a bit to them. And in this case, there’s an argument to be made that the DNC’s list of eligible pollsters helped make or break qualification for those candidates on the bubble — Gabbard and Steyer in particular.

Other polling bites

  • New polling from Politico/Morning Consult suggests that Democrats prefer “Medicare for All” to building on the Affordable Care Act. The survey found that 65 percent of Democratic primary voters were either “much more likely” or “somewhat more likely” to back a presidential candidate who supported a single-payer health care system like Medicare for All over “preserving and improving” the ACA. Just 13 percent said such a position would make them “much less likely” or “somewhat less likely” to support such a candidate. Among all voters, 53 percent supported a Medicare for All-type health system compared to 34 percent who opposed it.
  • A new report from the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 38 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases. And though Pew found stark partisan divides over abortion policy, it did find evidence that there was more support for policies advocated by the Democratic Party (42 percent) than the Republican Party (32 percent) – though 24 percent said they don’t agree with either party’s policies.
  • In a recent report on trust, media and democracy, Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that Americans are at least somewhat worried about local news organizations being consolidated under large media companies, especially if the parent company had strong political views. Sixty-six percent said they would be “very” concerned that the political views of the parent company “would influence the fairness of news coverage,” and 26 percent said they would be “somewhat” concerned. Large majorities also said they were worried about the inclusion of more news from outside the local area and less investment in news gathering and reporting.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders said last week that he would hold companies accountable for their role in climate change, and YouGov Blue/Data for Progress found that about 62 percent of voters would support holding energy producers legally liable “if it could be proven that they misled the public about the consequences of climate change.” Another 20 percent opposed the idea. And perhaps unsurprisingly, support for the idea fell along partisan lines — 77 percent of Democrats supported the idea as did 63 percent of independents, while 39 percent of Republicans supported it.
  • Ahead of Labor Day, Gallup released a survey on labor unions in the United States, finding that 64 percent of Americans approve of labor unions; that is one of the highest approval ratings in the past 50 years. Since the late 1960s, approval of labor unions has mostly hovered below 60 percent.
  • Pro-Brexit Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that the United Kingdom’s parliamentary session would be suspended until mid-October, not long before the Oct. 31 deadline for the U.K. to agree to a managed transition to leave the European Union. Johnson’s move gives members opposed to exiting the EU without an agreement less time to maneuver against a “no deal” Brexit, and a new poll from YouGov found that 47 percent of Britons oppose Johnson’s decision, while 27 percent support it.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 54.2 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president, while 41.3 percent approve (a net approval rating of -12.9 points). At this time last week, 41.5 percent approved and 54.0 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -12.5 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.5 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.4 percent, for a net approval rating of -10.9 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.7 percentage points (46.4 percent to 39.7 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.3 points (46.2 percent to 39.9 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 5.9 points (46.1 percent to 40.2 percent).

Why Running To Win Women Didn’t Work For Gillibrand

The 2020 Democratic primary’s historic field of women candidates just got a little smaller. On Wednesday, after failing to qualify for the September debate, two-term New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced that she was ending her candidacy.

It’s not hard to see why Gillibrand dropped out — the writing was on the wall. She still hadn’t met the donor threshold for the September debate, and had only hit 2 percent in one qualifying poll (she needed three more). Her debate performances didn’t do much to help her stand out from the other candidates — even on women’s issues, which she had made the centerpiece of her campaign. And although her name recognition rose over the course of the campaign, she didn’t become better-liked.

Her poll numbers barely shifted, too. In the month after she announced she was running for president, she hit a high of 3 percent in one February poll, but she never reached 3 percent again.

In the end, Gillibrand just couldn’t convince women voters — or most voters for that matter — that she was their candidate. But why her candidacy never picked up steam was always a little bit of a mystery. Of course, she had some hurdles to overcome. Like the other women running for president, she faced voters’ biases against women candidates. She also had the baggage of sparking Democratic Party heavyweights’ ire after she called on former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign when sexual harassment allegations against him came out in 2017.

On paper, though, Gillibrand’s campaign didn’t seem especially quixotic. She was on the national stage for more than a decade before throwing her hat in the ring, and established herself as a strong advocate for women’s rights issues such as paid family leave and sexual assault in the military. She was also explicitly pitching her candidacy toward groups like white college-educated suburban women, whose political enthusiasm had just helped sweep a record-breaking number of women into office in the 2018 midterms.

So Gillibrand’s biggest problem may have simply been that there wasn’t a clear base for her in the Democratic electorate — at least not one for which there wasn’t also fierce competition in the rest of the primary field. After all, she was running against a number of other women who are also strong on issues like abortion rights and equal pay. Without another signature issue to help her stand out, she often got lost in the melee of the primary.

For instance, when several states passed laws dramatically restricting abortion in May, Gillibrand seemed like she could have had a breakthrough moment. She even traveled to two of the states to hold rallies in support of abortion rights, and she called for a federal law that would stop state legislatures from passing limitations on abortion — but so did Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and even Cory Booker. In the second debate, Gillibrand tried again to seize the spotlight by taking Joe Biden to task for his position on a childcare tax credit in 1981 — but unlike Harris’s attack on Biden for his stance on school busing a month earlier, the moment didn’t really land.

In those moments and others, her rivals seemed to harness policies that were key to Gillibrand’s candidacy more effectively than she did. It was Harris, not Gillibrand, who grabbed headlines for her plan to penalize companies for failing to pay men and women equally. And in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, respondents said that Warren was best qualified to address gender equality, followed by Biden, Sanders and Harris — Gillibrand didn’t even crack the top 10.

In some ways, Gillibrand’s campaign may have also shown just how tricky outreach to women voters can be, even in a year where issues such as abortion and the #MeToo movement are prominent. Women make up about 60 percent of the Democratic base, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that they gravitate automatically toward female candidates because of their shared identity, or even because of shared priorities. In that Politico/Morning Consult poll, for instance, only 5 percent of Democratic women voters said that gender equality was a top voting priority. And Warren and Harris appear to be polling only very slightly better with women than men; that gap is actually bigger for Biden.

Finally, although Gillibrand said she had no regrets about calling for Franken’s resignation, it may have hurt her among donors and party elites. Her campaign at one point suggested that anger over her role in Franken’s departure was hurting her among major party donors. That may be true: Despite having been a formidable fundraiser in the past, she raised substantially less than others in the field. Moreover, unlike her fellow senators, who all drew the backing of political influencers from their home states, Gillibrand netted only one endorsement.

As the first woman to leave the race, Gillibrand’s departure is noteworthy, particularly since she could, in theory, have stuck around and tried to make it into the October debate — after all, the criteria to qualify isn’t changing. So her decision to drop out now may signal some strategic decision-making for candidates who are prominent within the party. and therefore have more to lose by staying in the race too long. It’s possible that even if the White House isn’t in the cards for Gillibrand this time, she may be thinking about running for another office, like governor of New York, and doesn’t want to fall out of grace with the party. Or she may be withdrawing with the goal of helping to pave the way for Harris or Booker — both of whom are friends.

The question now is whether other candidates follow Gillibrand’s lead. She is the sixth candidate to have dropped out this summer, and it’s possible that her departure could be a harbinger of more winnowing. Particularly for anyone else who is thinking about running for office in the future, and wants to stay on the Democratic Party’s good side by helping to narrow the field.

After Two Debates, Warren Is Getting More Popular

If you had walked into a Democratic party (that is, a social gathering of Democrats) back in May and asked, “What do you think of the 20+ Democrats running for president?” people may not have been prepared to answer the question. But it’s been a summer of education, as two debates have introduced the Democratic presidential candidates to a broader swath of the potential electorate. More Democrats than ever have an opinion of the 2020 hopefuls, so let’s check in once again on whether those opinions are positive or negative.

Since the beginning of the year, FiveThirtyEight has been tracking polls of the candidates’ favorable and unfavorable ratings. Those ratings are important because, unlike in general elections, primary voters are often considering several different candidates, even if they tell pollsters they have a first choice. (And at this point, only a small percentage of Democratic primary voters — 12 percent, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from July — say they have made up their mind about whom to vote for.) Candidates who are well-liked are in a much better position to pick up support than those who are not.

Below is the share of Democrats1 who have a favorable and unfavorable view of each candidate FiveThirtyEight considers “major,” according to an average of national polls2 taken between Aug. 1 and Aug. 25 (i.e., since the second debate). From these numbers, we’ve also calculated each candidate’s net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) among Democrats and the share of Democrats who can form an opinion of them (favorable rating plus unfavorable rating), a rough proxy for name recognition.

Warren is popular, de Blasio is underwater

2020 Democratic candidates ranked by their net favorability ratings among Democratic respondents, according to an average of national polls conducted Aug. 1 through Aug. 25

Candidate Share With Opinion Favorable Unfavorable Net
Warren 83% 68% 15% +54
Biden 94 73 21 +52
Sanders 92 72 20 +51
Harris 79 60 20 +40
Buttigieg 63 49 14 +34
Booker 69 50 18 +32
O’Rourke 68 50 19 +31
Castro 56 41 16 +25
Yang 52 37 15 +22
Gillibrand 59 39 20 +18
Klobuchar 53 35 18 +17
Bennet 38 23 15 +8
Gabbard 49 28 21 +7
Bullock 35 21 14 +7
Steyer 40 22 17 +5
Ryan 44 24 21 +3
Delaney 40 20 20 +1
Sestak 27 13 14 -2
Williamson 47 22 26 -4
De Blasio 56 25 31 -6

For the 20 candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight

Source: Polls

By this measure, Democrats’ favorite candidate is not polling leader and former Vice President Joe Biden: It’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who sports the highest net favorability rating (+54 percentage points). Indeed, according to The Economist’s 2020 primary tracker, slightly more people are considering voting for Warren than are considering Biden, even though Biden is currently the most popular first choice. He leads in most (though not all) polls.

In fairness, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders aren’t far behind Warren, with +52 and +51 net favorability ratings, respectively. But Warren’s standing is still impressive because she is not as well-known as Biden or Sanders. While 90+ percent of Democrats have an opinion of the two men, only 83 percent offer one on Warren; in other words, a higher proportion of people who have an opinion of Warren like her. This could suggest that Warren has not yet reached her full potential and may eventually climb from third place to first in the horse-race polls.

In fourth for both net favorability and the share of Democrats with an opinion of her is Sen. Kamala Harris, who has remained in the top tier of candidates after a breakout performance in the first debate. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg takes fifth place with a +34 net favorability rating despite relatively low name recognition, resembling Warren’s feat. Although Buttigieg’s polling surge has faded, he is still beloved among those who have gotten to know him, and he has the potential to grow, as more than a third of Democrats don’t have an opinion of him. By contrast, more Democratic voters have opinions of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker (which means that, yes, Cory Booker is a household name), but they each have a lower net favorability rating than Buttigieg.

The other candidates are not as well-known, and only a few are actively disliked. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has managed to get 31 percent of Democrats to view him unfavorably — no small feat, given that only 56 percent can form an opinion of him. His -6 net favorability — among members of his own party, remember! — is the biggest anomaly in the field. And Marianne Williamson is only slightly better off. Her net favorability rating is -4 among the 47 percent of Democrats who have an opinion of her. Only one other candidate is underwater: former Rep. Joe Sestak, who has a -2 net favorability rating. But he has more of an excuse: He is the least well-known candidate in the race. And it isn’t unusual for low-name-recognition candidates to have roughly equivalent favorable and unfavorable ratings, as they are essentially blank slates. Many other 2020 candidates started at this point but became better-liked as they became better-known.

Indeed, much of that growth has happened in just the past few months, coinciding with the first two debates. Since we wrote about the candidates’ favorability numbers in May, every current Democratic aspirant for whom we have data3 has become better-known — many of them significantly so. (More than half boosted the share of Democrats with an opinion of them by double digits.) But this hasn’t necessarily translated to making a better impression on the electorate; 10 of the 18 have actually seen their net favorability ratings decline since May.

This is exactly what happened to Williamson. The share of Democrats who could form an opinion of her grew by 24 points (the biggest increase in the field), but her net favorability rating declined by 7 points. Another candidate who made big moves was former Rep. John Delaney, who greatly upped his name recognition after playing a starring role in the second debate. But audiences may not have liked what they heard, as his net favorability rating has also decreased by 5 points since May. But there were candidates who made the most of their moment in the sun. Andrew Yang’s net favorability rating rose by 12 points — around twice as much as any other candidate increased theirs — as he boosted the share of Democrats who were familiar with him from 30 percent to 52 percent.

And changes in candidates’ net favorability didn’t just come about because more people got to know them: The data suggests that some people who already had an opinion of Biden and Warren changed their minds. Warren’s net favorability rating increased by 6 points even as total opinions of her crept up by only 4. Meanwhile, the share of Democrats with an opinion of Biden barely changed (in fairness, it’s hard to increase your name recognition when almost everyone has already heard of you), but his net favorability fell by 8 points — the biggest drop of any candidate.

The debates — especially the first one — were rough on Biden (and good for Warren), but Biden’s declining popularity has actually been a trend we’ve observed since February. Comparing against an average of national favorability polls conducted from Jan. 1 through Feb. 5, Biden’s net favorability rating has plummeted 17 points so far this year. During this time period, of course, Biden went from above-the-fray party elder to active candidate under scrutiny for his interactions with women, his checkered record on civil rights and his advanced age. But so far, Biden has stayed on top of the polls, although his numbers have appeared soft at times. As the months wear on, something to watch is whether more Democrats will switch from liking to disliking Biden. If they do, then all bets are off.

Derek Shan contributed research.

Democrats’ Desire For Electable Candidates May Be Driven By Older Voters

Many Democrats say the most important quality they look for in a 2020 candidate is that the person can beat President Trump. But this might not be true of younger Democrats, many of whom are saying that they care more about a presidential candidate’s policies — and less about their chances of beating Trump.

Recent polls from YouGov/HuffPost and Gallup show an age split on whether voters prioritize policy or electability. Both polls found that younger Democrats tended to prioritize nominating a candidate whose positions on issues were closest to their own over a candidate who they believed had the best chance of defeating Trump. Conversely, older Democrats were more likely to want an electable candidate even if they disagreed on the issues.

And this generational divide may be reflected in the patterns of support for former Vice President Joe Biden. Voters of all ages often name Biden as the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump. But a Quinnipiac University poll from early July found that while 28 percent of Democrats over 50 rate Biden as their first choice, just 17 percent of Democrats between 18 and 49 said the same.

It’s possible that the reason more older Democrats prioritize choosing a candidate who can win in the general election is that they have lived through other administrations and have seen how they’ve governed, according to Rey Junco, a senior researcher at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Junco said older Americans could be “more concerned about the autocratic tendencies in the current administration” than younger Americans, and as a result want a candidate that has the best chance of winning in 2020.

But by prioritizing electability, older Democrats may wind up backing a candidate with a major weakness: an inability to drive youth turnout. While younger voters tend to lean heavily Democratic — in 2016, for instance, they backed Hillary Clinton by around 20 percentage points — the challenge has always been getting them to the polls. But when they do mobilize, younger voters can have a profound impact on the election. The blue wave of 2018, for example, was powered in part by Gen Z, Millennial and Gen X voters,1 who cast more votes than Baby Boomers and people from older generations, according to the Pew Research Center.

In addition, a CIRCLE report that looked at youth voting patterns in three key battleground races in 2018 found that support for Democratic candidates was higher in counties with a high youth population in all three races. Researchers found that in the Montana Senate race, Sen. Jon Tester’s big margins in youth-heavy counties were decisive in his narrow victory. In counties with a low youth population, Tester won just 31.8 percent of the vote, but in counties with a high youth population, he won 52 percent. Strong Democratic support in counties with a high youth population also helped make the Georgia gubernatorial race and the Texas Senate race close, though both those Democratic candidates ultimately lost. According to Junco, politicians have taken note of the impact that young voters can have on close races and they may be adjusting their campaigns accordingly.

“I think you’re seeing candidates and campaigns take notice [of younger voters] in a way that they haven’t in more recent cycles,” Junco said, “And I think that you’re going to see that [form] a positive feedback loop.”

So what might this mean for 2020? It’s still early, but Sen. Bernie Sanders — who won more votes from people under 30 in 2016 primaries than Trump and Clinton combined, according to a CIRCLE analysis of 21 states — is currently leading in the polls among younger voters, with 22 percent of Democrats under 50 saying they would vote for him if the primary was held today, according to a Quinnipiac poll. But three other candidates were close behind, with Biden at 17 percent, Warren at 14 percent, and Harris at 12 percent.

Only time will tell whether younger voters continue to prioritize candidates that align more closely with them on policy issues over candidates they think can win the general election. But, for candidates hoping to win over younger voters, taking clear stances on specific policies may be the way to go. “I think there are going to be a number of issues, a number of battles being fought — especially among this generation — that reflects the nuanced nature of the young voter,” said Richard Sweeney, a 20-year-old and the chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, which polls adults under 30 twice a year. But Sweeney cautioned that young voters are not a monolith. “We don’t have homogenous views on all these issues. We care about a variety of substantive issues, and we have nuanced views of those issues.”

So while there may not be an easy way to do it, if any 2020 candidates do manage to get young people excited, they could use that voter bloc to argue that they’re the most electable candidate of them all.

What We’re Watching For In The Second Democratic Debate

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sarahf: Or maybe even making the next debate!

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

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

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

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

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

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

sarahf: More so than night two?

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

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

I think they will lash out pretty hard.

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

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

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

sarahf: 🍿

nrakich: 🎆

natesilver: 🍿

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

julia_azari: I’m just here for the ratio.

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

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

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

And a lot of those voters probably went to Warren.

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

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

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

nrakich: I take your question, Nate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nrakich: DeLaNeY sHoUlD bE aT cEnTeR sTaGe

(Nate, did I do that right?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sarahf: OK, on to night two!

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

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

Also, Biden sharing the stage with them is fascinating.

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

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

nrakich: High.

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

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

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

Booker also is a pretty strong debater, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, it wasn’t out of bounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klobuchar seemed reluctant to do that in the first debate.

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

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


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