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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A Midsummer Overview Of The Democratic Field

When people ask me who I think is going to win the Democratic nomination, I shrug my shoulders and say, “I have no freaking idea.” It’s worth keeping in mind that in a field of 20-something candidates with no runaway frontrunner, all of the candidates are fairly heavy underdogs. Joe Biden is probably going to lose. Kamala Harris is probably going to lose. Elizabeth Warren is probably going to lose. Bernie Sanders is probably going to lose. And so forth.

But the first debate last month, the subsequent polling and the latest set of fundraising numbers provide some clarity about where the race stands, sorting the candidates into what I’d consider to be four relatively distinct tiers. So after taking a couple of weeks mostly off to work on NBA metrics and vacation in Las Vegas playing poker,1 here’s how I currently see the race:

Nate’s not-to-be-taken-too-seriously presidential tiers

For the Democratic nomination, as revised on July 10, 2019

Tier Sub-tier Candidates
1 a Biden, Harris
b Warren
2 a Sanders
b Buttigieg
3 a Booker
b Klobuchar, Castro, O’Rourke
4 a Inslee, Gillibrand
b Gabbard, Yang
c Everyone else

We’ve used these tiers before, and as the headline says, they’re not to be taken too seriously. They’re mostly based on the polling — not just national polls, but also early state polls, favorability ratings, polling adjusted for name recognition, etc. — with some further adjustments upward or downward based on other factors, the most important of which I consider to be support from party elites and the ability to build a broad coalition. But they’re not based on any sort of statistical model, and they involve an element of subjectivity.

Let’s go ahead and start from the top, with the three candidates I’d consider to be front-runners.

Tier 1: The front-runners: Biden, Harris and Warren

Biden, Harris and Warren represent three relatively distinct, but fairly traditional, archetypes for party nominees:

  • Biden, as a former vice president, is a “next-in-line” candidate who is rather explicitly promising to perpetuate the legacy of President Obama and uphold the party’s current agenda. It might not be exciting, but these candidates have pretty good track records.
  • Harris is a coalition-builder who would hope to unite the different factions of the party — black, white, left, liberal, moderate, etc. — as a consensus choice.
  • Warren is offering more red meat (or should it be blue meat?) and would represent more of a leftward transformation from the status quo. But she’s simpatico enough with party elites and has broad enough appeal that she isn’t necessarily a factional candidate in the way that Sanders is. Instead, a better analogy for Warren might be Ronald Reagan; they are not comparable in terms of their backgrounds or their political styles, but they are both candidates who straddle the boundary between the ideological wings of their party and the party establishment.

On an empirical basis, the Biden and Harris strategies have produced more winners than the Warren one, although all three approaches are viable. That doesn’t mean that Biden, Harris and Warren are the only candidates pursuing these strategies. Cory Booker’s coalition could look a lot like Harris’s, for instance, were he ever to gain traction. But they’re the only candidates who are both (a) taking approaches that have worked well in the past and (b) polling reasonably well at the moment. That puts them in the top tier.

How you would rank them within the top tier is harder. But we should probably start with the fact that Biden is still ahead of the other two in the polls. It’s closer in early state polls, and it’s closer once you account for the fact that Harris and Warren still aren’t as well-known as Biden is. But Biden’s lead is nontrivial — he’s ahead of Harris by 12 percentage points (and Warren by 13) in the RealClearPolitics average.

And while you might claim that Harris and Warren have momentum, you need to be careful with that. Often, polling bounces from debates and other events fade, so it’s at least possible that Harris and Warren are at their high-water marks. Or not. But Biden is (POKER ANALOGY ALERT!) a bit like a poker player who’s just lost a big pot. Before, he had way more chips than Warren and Harris did; now, he has only slightly more than they do. But you’d still rather be the candidate with more chips than fewer, momentum be damned.

Unless … the way you lost that hand reveals something about your game that could come back to bite you again in the future. Biden wasn’t very effective in the debates, according to the voters we surveyed along with Morning Consult. And some of his decline in the polls has to do with what could be Biden’s two biggest vulnerabilities: his electability halo bursting and voters expressing concern about his age. The age problem isn’t going away. And while Biden can still make an electability case — there are plenty of polls showing him doing better than other Democrats against President Trump — voters are at least likely to scrutinize his argument rather than take it for granted.

Biden and Harris are a fairly clear No. 1 and 2 in endorsements, meanwhile, with Harris having recently picked up a number of endorsements from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, an indicator that coincides with her gaining support among black voters in polls. Warren lags in endorsements, meanwhile. Also, it’s worth noting that whichever candidate wins the plurality of black voters usually wins the Democratic nomination — something that Biden and Harris probably have a better chance of doing than Warren does. For those reasons, I have Biden and Harris a half-step ahead of Warren. That said, I see the dropoff from Biden and Harris to Warren as being considerably smaller than the dropoff from Warren to the rest of the field.

Tier 2: They can win Iowa, but can they win the nomination?

For Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the data is a lot more mixed.

Let’s start with the good news for Sanders: He’s still roughly tied for second place in most polls. His favorability ratings are pretty good. He had a decent second-quarter fundraising number. He should have a pretty good on-the-ground organization in Iowa and other early states. He potentially has a fairly high floor relative to the other candidates, and voters know what he stands for.

The bad news: His polling is less impressive given his high name recognition; in fact, he’s in a zone (15 percent-ish in the polls with 100 percent name recognition) that’s usually associated with losing candidates. He’s polling worse in Iowa than he is nationally, a bearish indicator given that it should be a strong state for him demographically. He’s failing to win the support of influential progressive groups like MoveOn.org that backed him four years ago, or to receive many endorsements of other kinds. His fundraising totals are underwhelming as compared with the numbers from his best quarters in 2015 and 2016. Warren’s emergence has produced another strong candidate in his lane. And to the extent that age is a consideration for voters, it’s a problem for Sanders as much as it is for Biden.

That’s a pretty long list of negatives to weigh against decent-but-not-great topline polling numbers. And it leaves out what might be the biggest problem of all for Sanders, which is that even if he were to win Iowa — and New Hampshire — that might not slingshot him to the nomination in the way it would for the other candidates. That’s because Sanders doesn’t have a particularly broad coalition. He has some support among black voters but not a ton, he doesn’t perform well with older voters, and he’s alienated enough moderate and pro-establishment Democrats that he’s usually near the top of the list when pollsters ask voters who they don’t want to see win the nomination. Meanwhile, the party establishment probably won’t do him any favors in the event of a campaign that remains undecided late into the race.

I don’t want to go overboard. If you’re comparing Sanders against, say, Booker, all of Sanders’s liabilities aren’t enough to outweigh the fact that Sanders is at 15 percent in the polls and Booker is at just 2 percent. But they do explain why I don’t have Sanders in the same tier as Warren and Harris, who are in a superficially similar position as Sanders is in national polls. None of those candidates are in a position to win the race right now with 15 percent of the vote, but Sanders has the least obvious path toward expanding his coalition.

Buttigieg offers a different mix of positives and negatives. Pluses: the best second-quarter fundraising numbers of any Democrat; high favorability ratings among voters who know him; stronger polling in New Hampshire and Iowa than he has nationally. Minuses: his topline standing in the polls has reverted back to only about 5 percent of the vote as college-educated voters flock to Warren and Harris; his credentials aren’t as impressive as the other leading candidates; his media attention has atrophied from his initial bump to some degree.

And then there’s Buttigieg’s big challenge, which is similar in some respects to Sanders’s: It’s not clear if Buttigieg can build a broad-enough coalition to win the nomination. He has very little support among black or Hispanic voters and relatively little support among non-college Democrats. Is there a niche for college-educated white voters who think Warren and Sanders are too far to the left, but Biden is too old and/or too moderate? Sure, and it’s a niche that probably includes a lot of FiveThirtyEight readers. 😬 But it’s not a particularly large niche, and that helps explain why Buttigieg is at 5 percent in the polls instead of 20 or something.

With all that said, a Buttigieg win in Iowa would be expectations-defying enough that it could reset how the media covers him. It could also sway voters who like him, but don’t necessarily have him as their first choice, to overcome their doubts about his campaign.

Tier 3: There’s potential, but these candidates are underachieving — for now

One of the lesser-noticed aspects of polling after the first debates is how several candidates who were deemed to have performed well in the debates by voters didn’t really see their topline numbers improve. That especially holds for Booker and Julian Castro. Both got high marks for their debate performances, and both saw their favorability ratings improve, but they’re still polling at just 1 or 2 percent in the toplines. That ought to read as a bearish signal for Booker, Castro and other candidates in this tier. They can have a good night, and it still isn’t necessarily enough to move the vote choice needle for them.

Perhaps that’s a sign that the top four or five candidates are fairly strong. Biden, Harris, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg collectively give almost every voter in the Democratic Party something to be happy with. Some of the other candidates are more redundant, meanwhile. A potential Beto O’Rourke voter probably sees a lot of what he likes in O’Rourke in Buttigieg, for instance; or a Booker voter could gravitate toward Harris, instead. So it’s not clear what’s distinctive about what these candidates have to offer to voters, although I should note that Castro is the only Hispanic candidate in the field.

With that said, it’s early, and an alternative way to interpret Harris’s and Warren’s emergence is that serious candidates with good résumés will get their opportunities sooner or later. And Booker, Castro and Amy Klobuchar are all serious, well-credentialed candidates.

O’Rourke is in a slightly different category. He’s a little bit like (BASEBALL ANALOGY ALERT!) a baseball player who gets called up from the minors and surprises everyone by hitting .330 in 100 at-bats in September, only to hit .206 when he’s named the starting third baseman the next season before promptly getting sent back to the minors. What O’Rourke accomplished against Ted Cruz in Texas’s U.S. Senate race in 2018 was genuinely impressive — but he may not get another chance to prove that he wasn’t a flash in the pan.

Tier 4: These candidates are also running for some reason

Pretty much everyone else is in asterisk territory in the polls, and is raising relatively little money, and so is in danger of missing the third debate in September. To the extent I have any of these candidates ranked ahead of any of the others, it’s pretty much entirely subjective. But I think Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee are well-enough credentialed and have distinctive-enough messages — Gillibrand around women’s issues, Inslee around the environment — that they’re slightly more likely to surge than the others.

Beyond that … I’m deliberately avoiding listing overall percentage chances (i.e. “Biden has an X percent chance of winning the nomination”) until and unless we release a statistical model to forecast the primaries. But just to be clear, once we get down to Tier 4, we’re not talking about candidates with even a 10 or 20 percent chance of winning the nomination. Maybe it’s 1 or 2 percent. Maybe it’s 0.1 or 0.2 percent. Maybe it’s even less than that. I haven’t really thought about it much. The chances are not high, though.

How to differentiate such small probabilities from one another is tricky. But other things being equal, if you’re betting on extreme longshots, you’d probably prefer weird candidates who have higher variance to milquetoast candidates with lower variance. Maybe 98 out of 100 times, Andrew Yang or Tulsi Gabbard fade out after failing to qualify for one of the debates and are never heard from again. But the two times out of 100, it turns out that American politics are way different than we thought — it wouldn’t be the first time! — and their eccentric approach proves to be effective. It’s a weird world where Gabbard becomes the Democratic nominee. But I’m not sure there’s any world where, say, Seth Moulton does.

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

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

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

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

Is Beto O’Rourke Learning How To Troll The Media?

At 5:03 a.m. on Monday, Politico published a story on former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s “rocky rollout” to his presidential campaign, which launched last week.1

Roughly two hours later, O’Rourke’s campaign announced that it had raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours after launch — more than any other Democratic candidate including Sen. Bernie Sanders, who raised $5.9 million.

Presumably, this was intentional on the O’Rourke campaign’s behalf. Having some good news in its pocket, it waited to announce its fundraising haul until a busier news cycle (Monday morning instead of Friday afternoon) and until the media narrative surrounding his launch had begun to overextend itself. O’Rourke’s $6.1 million in fundraising is important unto itself — more money allows a campaign to hire more staff, open more field offices, run more ads and compete in more states — but it sounded like an even bigger deal to journalists who had begun to hear whispers of fundraising totals that would fall well below that.

Indeed, I too had thought it was probably a bad sign for O’Rourke that he had not disclosed his fundraising on Friday when the 24-hour period ended, although I said that it would be a “good troll” if he had intentionally held off on announcing just to screw with media expectations:

It could be more than a good troll, in fact, if it suggests that O’Rourke and his staff are learning to manage media expectations, something that had been a problem for the proto-campaign in its pre-launch phase. Expectations management is a key survival skill for a modern presidential candidate — one that could come in handy later on when the media is trying to interpret, for example, whether a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses was a good finish for O’Rourke or a bad one.

For better or worse, the primaries are partly an expectations game, meaning that it’s not just how well you do in an absolute sense that matters, but how well you do relative to how well the media expects you to do. Historically, for instance, the candidates that receive the biggest bounce to their national and New Hampshire polls after the Iowa caucuses are those who most beat their polls in Iowa — and therefore most beat media expectations, which are usually closely tied to the polls — and not necessarily the actual winners. The canonical example of this dynamic is Sen. Gary Hart and former Vice President Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic caucuses in Iowa. Even though Mondale dominated the caucuses with 48.9 percent of the vote to Hart’s 16.5 percent, it was Hart who got the favorable headlines as the media had finally found an alternative to the boring, predictable Mondale “juggernaut.” The next week, Hart came from well behind in the polls to win the New Hampshire primary.

The expectations game is dumb — among other things, it gives the media too large a role in the primary process — and maybe both voters and the media have become more sophisticated to the point where it matters less than it once did. (Recent Iowa caucuses have not produced especially large bounces, for instance.) I wouldn’t be so sure about that, though. Keeping expectations in check was a big problem in the Democratic primaries in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, who had one of the more robust victories of the modern primary era but who didn’t (and still doesn’t) get a lot of credit for it.

Conversely, one of President Trump’s big strengths in the primaries was to completely dominate media coverage — a big advantage when you need to differentiate yourself in a field of 17 candidates — while keeping expectations low. Usually, more coverage and higher expectations go hand-in-hand; the more hype you get, the more the press expects you to perform well in debates, polls, fundraising and, ultimately, in primaries and caucus. But Trump had a knack for trolling the media and for hacking the news cycle to make sure that he remained the center of the conversation. It’s not that this necessarily required great skill on Trump’s behalf, but he was canny enough to know that the media’s behavior is fairly predictable and therefore easy to manipulate. Meanwhile, lots of folks in the media — and certainly us here at FiveThirtyEight — were way too willing to dismiss polls showing Trump well ahead of the Republican field from the summer of 2015 onward. A high volume of coverage but low expectations is the best of both worlds for a candidate in the primaries, and Trump got it.

O’Rourke is going to get a lot of media coverage — and he’s one of those candidates who, like past failed candidates such as then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2012 and Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016, but also like successful ones such as then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 — simultaneously seems to be overrated and underrated by the press and never quite at equilibrium. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s particularly important to stay at arm’s length when evaluating candidates like these, to wait for polling data or fundraising data or other hard evidence on how well they’re doing, and to avoid reading too much into the media narratives surrounding them because they’re prone to shift on a whim. O’Rourke’s fundraising numbers — as the most tangible sign to date of how his campaign is performing — were a fairly big deal, but so was his campaign’s apparent awareness about the importance of managing expectations.


From ABC News:
Beto O'Rourke faces criticism for saying he was 'born to run' for president