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.

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 Will Democrats Talk About Race In 2020?

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


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): A powerful moment on the second night of the Democratic debates came when Sen. Kamala Harris confronted former Vice President Joe Biden for his remarks about working with segregationist senators, as well as his opposition to school integration via busing in the 1970s. Biden has stood by his original comments, arguing that he meant them as an example of his ability to work across the aisle, and in the debate he invoked his record of supporting civil rights.

Other candidates, notably Sen. Cory Booker, have also criticized Biden on issues of race. Nevertheless, at least going into last week’s debates, Biden was the most popular Democratic candidate among Democratic voters. But did Thursday night’s exchange show that Biden is out of touch with the modern Democratic Party? Is there a generational divide at play here? And how are the other candidates positioned — or not positioned — to talk about issues of race?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I would say there are actually two things at stake here. First, there is the question of whether there is a divide. I don’t think the Democratic Party has a racially conservative wing anymore, but I do think there’s a split over how so-called identity issues are approached by the party.

And the second issue is about the candidates themselves, particularly how this impacts Biden’s core arguments for why he should be the nominee.

julian.wamble: (Julian Wamble, a political science professor at Stony Brook University): The Democratic Party has certainly changed on how it discusses race, and this is particularly true among white Democrats. But what we’re seeing here is both a generational divide and a change in the racial landscape of American politics.

Biden is from a generation where his past choices concerning race are coming back to haunt him in ways that he may not have expected, and that’s because issues surrounding race are at the forefront of the political conversation.

And generally speaking, white candidates have only had to contend with not being overtly racist, but now the Harris-Biden moment shows how that may have changed.

meredithconroy: (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I agree that the Democratic Party doesn’t have a racially conservative wing anymore. That could be because these voters have left the party. However, a recent study after the 2016 election found that white Democrats are changing their views about race to align with their partisanship.

Now whether that means someone like Biden is disqualified for previous positions like opposing school integration via busing in the 1970s isn’t clear.

julia_azari: Why, in 2019, anything can still surprise me is an open question for perhaps another chat, but I was legitimately surprised to see people relitigating the busing debate of the 1970s on Twitter on Saturday.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Do we all agree this was bad for Biden?

On net, I think this was a bad week for Biden, but at the same time, I think there is a group of Democrats who aren’t that liberal on racial issues and basically agree with him.

A study from the Pew Research Center found, for example, that about 22 percent of Democrats thought people were “seeing discrimation where it does not exist.”

meredithconroy: It was bad for Biden because he looked ill-prepared. His record is long — and to be clear, all the candidates have a past they’ll have to defend at some point — but his defense was particularly weak.

perry: We should note that Politico/Morning Consult found that he lost 5 points since the debate (nearly 8 points among voters in our Morning Consult survey), with Harris going up by 6. A CNN poll found that Biden’s support had fallen to 22 percent, down from 32 percent this time last month. Harris was in second at 17 percent, compared to 8 percent a month ago. So it seems clear this debate and the fallout from it hurt Biden and helped Harris. That said, I think Biden is still the front-runner.

julian.wamble: I actually don’t think black voters are going to be so quick to withdraw their support from Biden given the perception that he is best situated to beat Trump. However, it is possible that discussions of his past missteps regarding race and racial policies could hurt him with black voters in the future, especially if another candidate seems poised to be able to defeat Trump.

perry: I agree. I also think that these racial controversies are as much of a problem for Biden (and Pete Buttigieg) with white liberal voters, who care a lot about racial issues, as with black people.

sarahf: So in that chart Perry shared, a majority of Democrats (78 percent) were likely to say that it’s a big problem that Americans don’t see discrimination where it exists.

This means that for these Democrats, Harris’s exchange with Biden should have been a powerful moment, right?

perry: The overwhelming majority of Democrats are liberal on racial issues. But Biden has proof that he is, too. He loves to mention that he was Barack Obama’s vice president, but more than that, I think Biden is actually in the mainstream of the Democratic Party on many racial issues.

sarahf: Do others agree? What is the evidence we have for Biden being in the mainstream on racial issues vs. Biden being out of touch?

julia_azari: As a parties scholar, I think what’s meant by “the mainstream” is malleable. That is, people are going to be responsive to elite cues about how race fits into other issues, or what kinds of problems should be prioritized (race vs. class), and how to frame both the causes of racial injustice and the solutions to it.

perry: And the elite cues are confusing right now. The post-debate media coverage for Biden has been largely negative. But influential black Democrats like Jim Clyburn and John Lewis generally defended him on comments he made before the debate. So I don’t think the message that “Biden is bad on racial issues” or “black people don’t like Biden” is clear to voters. I also think that will be a hard message to have resonate — Biden spent eight years defending Barack Obama.

julian.wamble: What we’re seeing is a crisis of what it means to be white in America, and white liberals are bearing the brunt of it. This means the need to create distance from the “bad moments” is heightened which I think the response to Biden is a manifestation of, and could foster the belief that Biden is out of touch with the Democratic Party.

sarahf: Is it fair to say that this is the next fracture point in terms of cultural issues in the primary? Or where do you see the next divide? It does seem to be an area where Biden is particularly vulnerable.

perry: Biden supporters are older and more moderate and so unlikely to break with him en-masse over these kinds of issues on race or gender. (The CNN poll showed Biden with a 12-point advantage over the next-closest Democrat (Harris) among Democrats over 45, but trailing Harris, Sanders and Warren among Democrats under 45.)

Which means that the better case for Harris and others to make is not that Biden has bad racial views, but that his debate performance suggests Biden is a weak candidate and can’t beat Trump, which cuts against one of his biggest strengths — Democratic voters care a lot about electability and generally see Biden as the most electable candidate.

julian.wamble: Yes, what Biden has going for him is the perception that he can beat Trump and that some of his “authenticity” will make him appealing to certain voters.

meredithconroy: But on the electability question, at least one poll after the debates found that voters thought Elizabeth Warren and Harris were more electable than before (although Biden was still said to be the most electable).

julia_azari: So the Democratic Party has traditionally been divided on race — the last 40 years are a break away from that. But if issues like reparations or other race-conscious policy initiatives become part of the national agenda, we might see more of a split in the party.

You can already see this happening on the question of criminal justice.

perry: Right. If reparations or really aggressive school integration programs become big issues, we might see that even some white liberals aren’t totally on board, because these policies will be perceived as giving black people things at the expense of non-black people. And if there is a racial divide on those issues, I’d imagine that more moderate whites will be more drawn to candidates like Biden.

meredithconroy: Well, the elevation of those issues don’t benefit Biden or Harris, right?

perry: No, but they might help Warren.

julia_azari: But as Meredith pointed out, this is an area of vulnerability for Harris too.

At this stage, there really isn’t a candidate who is an obvious pick for serious racial justice activists. Nearly all the major candidates have liabilities — even Julian Castro, given his background as the Housing and Urban Development secretary). But Biden, Harris and Buttigieg in particular have serious liabilities.

So it’s really unclear which candidate (if any) this would benefit.

meredithconroy: Very unclear!!!

perry: Sanders came out in support of allowing people currently incarcerated to vote, while most Democratic candidates favor voting rights only for people after they have left prison. Warren was one of the first candidate to embrace a study on whether there should be reparations for black Americans, and Castro has called to change the law to make illegally entering the country a civil offense, instead of a criminal one.

So some candidates have and will push forward fairly strong stances on racial issues in a way I’m not sure Biden, Harris or say Cory Booker are inclined to.

The question I’m most curious about is whether this was good for Harris or not.

I tend to think it was mostly good for Harris. (And the polls suggest it was.) She got more media attention and I think it’s fair to say she appealed to white liberals, who say they are progressive on racial issues. But this doesn’t mean she necessarily cut into Biden’s advantage with black voters.

julian.wamble: I’m not sure it was as good for her as some think it was. It was effective to show that Biden has some problems when it comes to race, but not that she is a better choice to represent voters with those interests.

meredithconroy: Right. In terms of positioning her as a strong candidate, who can confront opponents, it helps her. But it also opens up her Attorney General record and her time spent as a prosecutor in California to greater scrutiny.

sarahf: Biden seemed to try to push on that in the debates by pointing out his background as a public defender, but that didn’t really seem to go anywhere.

Do we think that it will come up in other debates?

julian.wamble: Harris’s prosecutorial background, particularly the truancy laws, which have been shown to disproportionately affect communities of color, will definitely come up in future debates. I think especially now, given the new polls showing her making strong gains among Democratic voters. If she is viewed as one of the candidates to beat, then her time as prosecutor will definitely gain higher levels of scrutiny.

meredithconroy: Yeah, strategically speaking, Biden probably should have leaned into that attack more. But I’ve also been critical of those questioning Harris’s record as Attorney General, given that women often have to have more experience than their male counterparts in order to gain political influence and power.

perry: My bet: The backlash to Harris’s background as a prosecutor is largely contained to a small number of very progressive voters, and is not a real barrier among the vast majority of Democratic primary voters.

When I ask voters about Harris, I hear way more often their concern that she is not electable than anything about her criminal justice record. (I also think it will be hard for Biden to campaign on the idea that a black female candidate wants to send lots of black people to jail in the same way that it will be it will be hard for Harris to prove Obama’s VP doesn’t support allowing black kids to attend integrated schools.)

julia_azari: I sort of disagree, Perry. If, say, the Bernie left came out against Harris that could get ugly fast.

perry: But she was never going to win those people.

She is a fairly establishment-friendly candidate.

julia_azari: You’re right that she was never going to win those voters. But the question is whether their messaging does other damage. I’m not sure I would have previously considered this a possibility, but after 2016 I do.

perry: When I watched that moment, I initially thought it was bad for Harris because it could become framed by her critics as an electability issue. Obama did well in 2008 and 2012 because he rarely spoke about race in a way that might alienate white moderate general-election voters. But Harris went over that line.

And now New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has blasted Harris for “making white Americans feel racially on trial.” Granted, Stephens is an anti-Trump conservative, so not exactly representative of the Democratic primary electorate, but I still think of it as evidence that Harris may have provoked white people who don’t want to be criticized on racial issues unless they do something over-the-top like Trump.

It has the potential for a lot of backlash.

julian.wamble: Obama definitely had his own challenges with electability, particularly in 2008, but that was a question of whether the United States was ready for a black president. The 2020 election is different insofar that Democrats are looking for a candidate who can beat Trump. And the notion of “electability” is different this time around, especially for the female candidates who are seen, by some, as not being “strong” or “tough” enough to take on Trump. So I saw Harris calling out Biden as a signal that she wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with a man.

julia_azari: Also, I think that Harris’s approach spoke to white Democrats who want to congratulate themselves for supporting her, which I saw as part of Obama’s calculus, as well. I know it sounds reductive, but voters feeling good about themselves often drives political decisions. (See Lilliana Mason’s work on identity politics.)

meredithconroy: Yeah, especially among Democrats who are concerned that electability arguments exclude women and people of color.

sarahf: Were there other candidates who were hurt or helped by this exchange? Or phrased another way, is a stronger Harris bad for Booker?

meredithconroy: I thought Booker opened the door for Harris’s attacks, after he went after Biden for his segregationist comments. And it seemed to elevate his candidacy (at least in terms of media coverage), so I’m not sure its bad for Booker, necessarily.

perry: A stronger Harris is probably bad for Booker. A Harris who disqualifies Biden (by showing him as an inept) but also raises questions about herself (can she be cast as too left and unelectable in the general) is good for Booker.

A weaker Biden is good for everyone.

meredithconroy: Yeah, I think Perry is right.

julian.wamble: A strong Harris isn’t great for Booker in the long run, but considering he’s also getting media attention and talking about race as a result, it’s not bad for him yet.

Which I think is to Perry’s point — a weaker Biden is good for everyone else.

The First Democratic Debate In Five Charts

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

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

Who overperformed?

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

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

Who’s gaining followers?

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

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

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

Who gained the most Twitter followers?

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

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

Who held the floor?

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

Who spoke the most?

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

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

Excludes words spoken in Spanish

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

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

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

Avoid Trump, or invoke him?

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

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

Which candidates talked about Trump?

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

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

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

Will The Midterms Decide Who Runs In 2020?

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


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): It is now 21 DAYS UNTIL THE MIDTERMS!! And while voters will mainly be deciding who controls Congress, they’ll also maybe be deciding what kind of Democrat should run in 2020. For instance, if Democrats don’t take back the House, does that mean a Joe Biden run in the 2020 Democratic primary is more likely? Or if there is a blue wave and Democrats gain 60+ seats, does that make the road easier for a more progressive Democrat like Sen. Kamala Harris?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Man, if the Democrats lose the House, I think there will be some straight-up PANIC.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): There would be, although one could ask whether it was warranted or not.

clare.malone: I don’t think Joe Biden needs them to lose the House to prove he’s a good candidate. He could just point to Democratic Senate losses, maybe?

Assuming that Democrats lose in a couple of red states, a candidate like Biden could say, “Look, I will make inroads in a place like that.”

But I’m interested in Nate’s House take.

natesilver: I mean, to a first approximation I think a lot of this stuff is silly.

Here’s why:

As David says, there isn’t much of a pattern for how midterms affect the next presidential election.

Certainly. it will affect Democrats’ attitude, but how much that attitudinal change affects 2020, and whether that is helpful or hurtful to Democrats, is pretty up in the air, IMO.

clare.malone: Right — I mean was just about to say, proof aside (proof! facts!), I think candidates and party apparatchiks always use a loss to motivate their constituents.

That attitudinal thing can be pretty powerful in a primary campaign. See: Bernie Sanders.

natesilver: I’m skeptical that Biden could use Senate losses to justify the need for more conservative candidates … if Democrats also win the House.

We’ll see, though. There are some pretty wacky scenarios that are within the realm of possibility, like Democrats winning 35 House seats but losing four Senate seats.

clare.malone: I think people’s minds are on the Senate right now, though. And the Republican majority there does lie in smaller states and regions that Democrats have gradually lost over the past couple of decades.

It’s not an absurd argument to make in 2019.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I think Biden has to decide if he wants to run or not. He was kind of confused about whether to run in 2016. And based on what he’s been saying, he doesn’t seem to know now either. I think a really strong push to draft him might encourage him to get in the running. And I think Democrats not winning the House (assuming that they lose the Senate too) will get more people to encourage him to run. Biden would be an important figure if he got in the race, in large part because others in this more “centrist” lane might not run if he is in.

clare.malone: I don’t think Biden is a Mario Cuomo: I think he’ll get in the race. I’m not sure how much he’ll toy with people up until the very end.

natesilver: Are people’s expectations that Democrats will win the Senate? If so, people aren’t paying much attention (certainly not paying much attention to our forecast).

clare.malone: I don’t know. I don’t think people expect that. I guess you hear “blue wave” bandied about and you could make assumptions.

sarahf: And it wasn’t always so dire in the Senate either — it wasn’t until early October that Democrats’ odds worsened dramatically.

But OK, let’s set aside what could happen in the Senate for a moment and assume that there is a huge blue wave in the House and even in some key gubernatorial races like Stacey Abrams’s, in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum’s, in Florida.

It doesn’t mean Democrats win in 2020, but doesn’t it change the playing field of candidates in the Democratic primary? Or would Sens. Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker run no matter what?

clare.malone: I think Gillum or Abrams wins would be huge. It would challenge some norms about what sorts of candidates win in states where you need to win over moderates or Republican-leaning independents.

natesilver: Gov. Scott Walker losing his re-election bid in Wisconsin might have some interesting narrative implications too, although not in the same way that Gillum and Abrams do.

perry: I’m interested in Abrams’s and Gillum’s gubernatorial bids and Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Texas Senate run because they are all making the case that it is a better strategy to try to amp up the base to get greater minority and youth turnout rather than trying to win over swing voters. If they do significantly better in their states than more moderate candidates from previous years, I think that would buttress Democrats like Warren and Harris, who are more likely to run more decidedly liberal campaigns.

But the Midwest is interesting, as Nate is hinting at. The Democrats are doing well in the Midwest with a bunch of candidates who are kind of bland and fairly centrist-friendly. The South and the Midwest are, of course, very different regions, too.

natesilver: I guess I’ve just never dealt with an election before where you’d get the sort of split verdict like the one we’re predicting, where Democrats win the House and do pretty darn well in gubernatorial races but fall short –– and possibly even lose seats –– in the Senate. And some of the high-profile toss-up races could also go in different directions. Maybe Gillum wins in Florida but Abrams loses in Georgia, for example.

In that case, there would be a sort of battle-of-narrative-interpretations over the midterms.

sarahf: As our colleague Geoffrey Skelley wrote, the last time the Senate and House moved in opposite directions during a midterm was in 1982, during under Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Part of that was because Reagan had a pretty bad approval rating, in the low 40s … which isn’t too far off from where President Trump’s sits now.

natesilver: And I guess 1982 was interpreted as being pretty bad for Reagan? I was 4 years old then, so I don’t remember. 😉

sarahf: But we could get a really weird coalition of Democrats with competing priorities in 2019 if they do take back the House.

And that could make finding a general-election candidate that appeals to both the more moderate and more progressive wings of the party … challenging.

clare.malone: I guess this is why so many people in the post-2016 party were enamored of the Sanders economic message.

It gets to the progressive heart of things while trying to avoid the touchy culture stuff.

But, of course, Democrats have to figure out the Trump factor. Trump will inevitably drag culture wars stuff into a campaign.

perry: Sens. Tammy Baldwin, Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey and Amy Klobuchar are likely to win in the Midwest, an important region of the country for Democrats electorally — and some of that group could win easily. Post-election, we will be able to see the counties in Minnesota where Trump won in 2016 but that Klobuchar carried in 2018 — and I think there may be a lot of them. Plus, that’s the kind of thing she could talk about if she decides to run for president.

clare.malone: Right. But none of those senators have the buzz factor in this shadow primary that we’re in right now.

Nor the fundraising.

But that could change post-November.

sarahf: Speaking of fundraising …

What do we make of all the 💰💰💰 pouring into O’Rourke’s campaign?

Why aren’t more Democratic supporters funding races where the Democratic candidate actually stands a chance of winning?

natesilver: Oh no, you’re going to trigger me, Sarah.

The O’Rourke fundraising narrative is so fucking dumb.

Democrats are raising huge amounts of money EVERYWHERE.

EVERYWHERE.

clare.malone: We spend a lot of time here on numbers, but I always think of people reacting to politicians they really like in almost pheromone-tinged ways. People are irrational actors when it comes to politics — it’s why they vote by party even when the party positions do a 180 (see, ahem, the post-2016 GOP on trade, Russia, and so on.)

perry: In terms of O’Rourke, I was surprised the majority of the money came from Texas, according to his campaign. So it was not just coastal elites who liked seeing a white man delivering Black Lives Matter talking points. Houston, Austin and Dallas all have plenty of Democrats, but they are not Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., or New York. That also pushes back on the idea that he is somehow taking money away from other close races around the country.

clare.malone: Democrats see inspirational stuff in O’Rourke’s response to the NFL kneeling issue and the incident where a black man was shot and killed in his own home.

They like that he’s saying this stuff in Texas.

They also really dislike Ted Cruz.

perry: I think this kind of small-dollar fundraising is a real talent and shows real political appeal. It is what made Howard Dean, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders such viable candidates.

clare.malone: O’Rourke’s also gotten a lot of media buzz, so people know his name, unlike, say, Sen. Joe Donnelly (running for re-election in Indiana) or former Gov. Phil Bredesen (running for Senate in Tennessee).

So they send O’Rourke money!

natesilver: Texas is also a big state with a lot of wealth, and Democrats there haven’t had a lot to donate to in a while.

perry: I can’t tell if O’Rourke should run for president if he loses the Senate race. But he should definitely think about it.

Hard.

clare.malone: I mean, the thing about O’Rourke running in 2020 is that he’s proved he can fundraise and he’s still young(-ish), but he’s been in Congress awhile, which is an asset. People can’t call him too inexperienced the way they could with, say, failed Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander.

perry: But I’m not sure how the midterms affect the political outsiders like lawyer Michael Avenatti, billionaire Tom Steyer and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That is the one group I’m probably the most curious about. I feel like I know who the main established candidates are — the senator and governor types like Warren, Booker or Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. I suspect the more it seems like Democrats are in crisis, the more these outsiders have a rationale to run.

sarahf: Bloomberg did just re-register as a Democrat.

clare.malone: Real question: Does Avenatti actually want to run or does he just like the attention?

I don’t think he really wants to run.

natesilver: I think Avenatti’s chances are overrated because people are overcompensating for their failure to see Trump last time.

natesilver: He massively, massively, massively fucked up in the Kavanaugh thing.

He’s polling at 1 percent.

I don’t think his chances are zero … I just think he’s one from a long list of long shot possibilities.

clare.malone: POLLS!

Bloomberg’s flirtations feel so off for this political moment with the Democrats.

perry: I think Avenatti, Bloomberg and Steyer would love to be president, so if there is demand for their candidacies, they will be more than eager to jump in. But whether there’s demand for their candidacies is going to depend on whether Democrats need a savior.

sarahf: I guess what I’m trying to wrap my head around is: Under what scenario does it make sense for these outsider candidates to run?

perry: If Democrats lose the House and Senate.

natesilver: Make sense for them or make sense for Democrats?

perry: It makes sense for them.

natesilver: If Avenatti thinks it will help to sell more books and put him on TV even more, he’ll run.

If he thinks it will damage his brand in the long term, maybe not.

perry: Yes, Avenatti may just want the fame.

clare.malone: Right.

Steyer and Bloomberg are more interesting because they actually have $$$$.

perry: Bloomberg endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Maybe he feels like he should just run.

He tried to be a team player, and it didn’t work.

sarahf: No matter the national environment for Democrats?

clare.malone: E G O

perry: I think a lot of these candidates are more responsive to, say, “Morning Joe” than FiveThirtyEight.

I will be watching what “Morning Joe” says the day after the election.

sarahf: OK, so, what happens in 2018 means nothing for 2020 … but in a world where they are related, what are you looking for on election night to give you clues about 2020?

perry: I’m looking for results that will create narratives that make it easier for people to run — or not run. I assume Klobuchar wants to be president. Does she win her Senate election by so much that she convinces herself (and others) that she is the electable candidate Democrats want?

Or do Democrats do poorly enough in swing states that people who are too centrist for the party’s activist crowd (e.g., Biden, Bloomberg or Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper) convince themselves and others that they are the solution?

Maybe O’Rourke, Abrams and Gillum do so well that it’s clear Democrats should try to grow the base and focus on swing voters less. Or they do terribly — and the message is that Democrats should be thinking about the center more.

natesilver: Again, it depends a lot on what happens (obviously). If Democrats sweep both chambers, or lose both chambers, there are some pretty clear takeaways. Otherwise, I’m not sure that the midterms will affect people’s behavior that much. I do think the Abrams and Gillum gubernatorial races are important, though. Plus, there’s the fact that Democrats have nominated an awful lot of women. And if women do well, it could (perhaps quite correctly!) lead to a narrative that Democratic candidates should look more like the party they’re representing, which is to say diverse and mostly female.

perry: I think I might view the 2018 election results less as telling us important information about 2020 and more as data points that will be spun by self-interested people into rationales for what they already wanted to do anyway.

clare.malone: I guess I’m mostly focusing on what kinds of women turn out to vote for Democrats in this election. I want to see whether there’s elevated turnout in communities we don’t usually see elevated turnout in, particularly with women. There are a huge number of female candidates potentially on the Democratic docket for 2020, and Warren, for example, has already made an interesting ad about running as an angry women in the age of Trump. What I’m saying here is that I’m eager to see what the zeigtgeisty take away from Nov. 6 will be, in addition to what stories “Good Morning America” is running vs. “Morning Joe” (as a proxy for what Americans who aren’t microscopically interested in politics will take away from the election).

sarahf: Indeed. And I’ll be looking for FiveThirtyEight’s 🔥 takes as well.