Where Kamala Harris’s New Voters Came From

Last week, FiveThirtyEight partnered with the survey firm Morning Consult to poll how Democratic voters’ opinions changed as a result of last week’s two-night presidential primary debate. Before the debate, Morning Consult asked thousands of likely Democratic voters questions such as whom they supported and whether they had favorable or unfavorable views of each candidate; then, they asked the same voters the same questions after the debate was over, as well as who the voters thought performed the best.1 The poll yielded some fascinating findings, the toplines of which you can see at our “Who Won The First Democratic Debates?” page, and the details of which we’ll be writing about here. (Note: This, of course, is just one poll — others have been released since the debate.)

We’ll start simple: How did the debate (or coverage of the debate — as we shall see, not everyone in our poll actually watched it) change people’s prospective primary votes?

Roughly speaking, before the debate, our poll showed a clear front-runner in Joe Biden (35.0 percent support), a clear second tier in Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (both in the teens) and a single-digit bottom tier led by Kamala Harris.2 After the debate, Biden was still alone in the first tier, albeit much weakened. And Harris had joined Sanders and Warren right in the thick of the second tier. Everyone else, led by Pete Buttigieg at 5.3 percent, remained in the third tier.

Harris more than doubled her support; Biden took a hit

Share of support for candidates before and after the debate

Candidate Pre-Debate Post-Debate Change
Joe Biden 35.0% 28.2% -6.8
Bernie Sanders 19.2 18.3 -0.9
Kamala Harris 6.9 16.3 +9.4
Elizabeth Warren 13.2 14.1 +0.8
Pete Buttigieg 6.6 5.3 -1.3
Beto O’Rourke 4.1 2.7 -1.4
Cory Booker 2.4 2.3 -0.1
Andrew Yang 1.5 1.6 +0.1
Julián Castro 0.4 1.5 +1.1
Tulsi Gabbard 0.6 0.7 +0.1
Kirsten Gillibrand 0.8 0.6 -0.1
Amy Klobuchar 0.5 0.6 +0.1
John Hickenlooper 0.4 0.3 -0.1
Michael Bennet 0.2 0.3 +0.1
Tim Ryan 0.2 0.3 +0.0
John Delaney 0.3 0.2 -0.1
Marianne Williamson 0.2 0.2 +0.0
Bill de Blasio 0.0 0.2 +0.1
Jay Inslee 0.4 0.1 -0.2
Eric Swalwell 0.1 0.1 +0.0
Don’t know/no opinion 6.5 5.9 -0.6
Someone else 0.5 0.3 -0.2

Numbers may not add up due to rounding

Source: Morning Consult

In other words, perhaps because of how Harris and Biden’s exchange on race seemed to dominate impressions of the debate, Harris and Biden were the only two candidates whose vote shares changed significantly in the wake of the debate. But it’s not as simple as a big chunk of voters switching from Biden to Harris. Here’s whom people who supported Biden before the debate said they supported after the debate:

About one in 10 Biden supporters switched to Harris after the debate. That made Harris the biggest single beneficiary of Biden’s loss of support. But about twice as many people — about one in five Biden supporters — switched from Biden to a non-Harris candidate or became undecided. And as a reminder that debates usually don’t turn elections completely on their head, more than two-thirds of Biden supporters stuck with him after the debate.

Those voters who switched from Biden to Harris may not have represented a big share of Biden’s support, but they made a big difference to Harris. Almost a quarter of Harris’s post-debate supporters were Biden converts — by far her biggest single source of added support. However, she also picked up support — more than two-fifths of her post-debate support — from former backers of Warren, Buttigieg, Sanders and several other candidates. Only about a third of her post-debate support was also with her before the debate.

We were also curious about how reaction to the debate might have changed minds independent of the debate itself, so we took a look at how candidate support differed between respondents who watched the debate3 and respondents who didn’t.4 Unsurprisingly, but importantly for our conception of how and why debates matter, those who did not tune in were less likely to switch their vote. For example, Harris gained just 3.9 points among non-watchers, but her support increased by an impressive 13.3 points among those who watched her performance firsthand. The discrepancy was not as stark for Biden. Although he lost more support among debate watchers than among non-watchers, he still dropped 5.9 points among those who missed the debate — the biggest change of heart that non-watchers had.

How did debate watchers and non-watchers differ?

Share of debate watchers and non-watchers who said they would vote for each candidate before and after the debate

Debate watchers Non-watchers
Candidate Before After Change Before After Change
Joe Biden 35.8% 28.0% -7.8 35.2% 29.2% -5.9
Kamala Harris 7.7 21.0 +13.3 5.7 9.6 +3.9
Bernie Sanders 17.8 16.5 -1.3 20.0 21.4 +1.4
Elizabeth Warren 14.7 14.9 +0.2 11.3 12.7 +1.4
Pete Buttigieg 7.6 6.0 -1.6 4.3 3.6 -0.7
Julián Castro 0.6 2.2 +1.7 0.2 0.4 +0.2
Cory Booker 2.6 2.0 -0.5 2.5 2.1 -0.4
Beto O’Rourke 3.9 1.8 -2.1 4.5 3.9 -0.5
Andrew Yang 1.4 1.5 +0.2 1.2 1.3 +0.2
Amy Klobuchar 0.6 0.9 +0.3 0.4 0.3 -0.1
Tulsi Gabbard 0.5 0.6 +0.0 0.8 0.7 -0.2
Kirsten Gillibrand 0.7 0.5 -0.2 0.7 0.6 -0.1
Tim Ryan 0.3 0.3 +0.0 0.2 0.1 -0.1
Marianne Williamson 0.3 0.3 +0.0 0.0 0.1 +0.0
John Delaney 0.2 0.2 +0.0 0.4 0.1 -0.2
John Hickenlooper 0.3 0.2 -0.1 0.7 0.4 -0.4
Eric Swalwell 0.1 0.1 +0.1 0.2 0.0 +0.0
Michael Bennet 0.1 0.1 +0.1 0.4 0.7 +0.3
Jay Inslee 0.3 0.1 -0.2 0.4 0.3 -0.2
Bill de Blasio 0.1 0.0 +0.0 0.0 0.1 +0.0
Don’t know/no opinion 4.1 2.6 -1.4 10.2 11.8 +1.7
Someone else 0.5 0.1 -0.4 0.7 0.4 -0.3

Source: Morning Consult

This could suggest one of three things (or two of three, or maybe even all three). First, hearing about a debate from a secondary source is less likely to change voters’ minds than something they see with their own eyes. Second, those secondary sources — be they news coverage, social media reaction, word of mouth, etc. — have communicated a fairly superficial “Biden lost” and, to a lesser extent, “Harris won” message. This second theory is further supported by the fact that other candidates, such as Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke, experienced small gains and losses in support among debate watchers, but virtually no change among non-watchers. Third, debate-watchers and non-watchers might be different in ways we’re not capturing here. (For example, the latter may be less politically engaged.) The different effects therefore also may be due to these underlying differences between the two samples.

But the horse-race question alone understates the extent to which voters’ opinions of candidates shifted, as Castro and O’Rourke can attest. Several candidates other than Biden and Harris saw significant changes in their favorable or unfavorable ratings. (That’s important because changes in how voters feel about the candidates can lead to changes in vote preference later on.) In fact, Castro and O’Rourke experienced the biggest changes in net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) of any of the candidates — perhaps as a byproduct of their disagreement over immigration on the first night of the debate. Castro’s ratings improved by 15.5 points, and O’Rourke’s fell by 11.6 points; essentially, they switched places.

Other than Castro and O’Rourke (and Harris and Biden), Warren and author Marianne Williamson also saw meaningful increases and decreases, respectively, in their net favorability ratings. In Williamson’s case, it was enough to have more people view her negatively than positively, which is a rare (and unenviable) position to be in among members of your own party.

Overall, the debate was the biggest deal for two candidates — Biden and Harris — above all and may have bunched the top of the field closer together. And it may have downstream implications for Castro and Warren (in a good way) as well as O’Rourke and Williamson (in a bad way). While the debate did not turn the race totally on its head, it certainly appears to have been one of the few opinion-moving events of the campaign so far.

What We’re Watching For In The First Democratic Debates

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


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): The first Democratic primary debates are finally here. And with two back-to-back nights, featuring 10 candidates each, it’ll be a challenge for many candidates to make an impression, especially those hovering around 1 percent in the polls.

For reference, here’s Wednesday’s lineup: Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee and John Delaney.

And Thursday’s: Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and Eric Swalwell.

So let’s talk about the goals we think candidates have for each debate and what we see as the stakes, starting with Wednesday’s lineup.

Sound good?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Sounds great. I can’t believe it’s debate season already — we were watching 2018 election returns come in just seven months ago!

sarahf: Haha. But watching a debate is such a different experience than watching election results trickle in. So, what are you all looking for on night one?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Power ties.

That’s it.

Nothing else.

Listen, I’ll say it up front and then engage more deeply: Presidential debates are not real debates. They are chances for candidates to slot in their talking points. They are pseudo-events — PR opportunities manufactured by parties and news organizations to provide turning points and tension during a long slog. They are only meaningful because we decide to give them meaning. (I will repeat this when we have to cover political conventions.)

But I guess that said, I’m curious to see what the people at the dregs of the polls are going to do with their time and if any of them are impressive. I think for someone like Gillibrand who’s polling poorly but has been in politics for a long time, the debates are a real moment.

nrakich: True, but I will say debates can be meaningful precisely because they are PR opportunities. For many of these candidates, it will be by far the most exposure their talking points have gotten yet.

And maybe, say, Eric Swalwell has really good talking points, and the nation realizes that and he jumps to 7 percent in next week’s polls.

Debates may be theater, but they can also have an impact.

That said, we probably shouldn’t expect the entire landscape of the race to change.

clare.malone: I don’t say my debate piece to be glib. I just think we need to be cognizant of who and what are shaping the presidential election right now.

I’m also curious to see how many people actually tune in. That says a lot.

nrakich: Agreed, and I wonder how this week’s debates will rate. The highest-rated Democratic debate of 2016 had 15.3 million viewers; the highest-rated Republican debate had 24 million.

Republicans drew more eyeballs than Democrats in 2016

Ratings, in millions of viewers, for the 2016 Democratic and Republican prime-time primary debates

Debate Democrats Republicans
1st 15.3m
24.0m
2nd 8.5
22.9
3rd 7.8
14.0
4th 10.2
13.5
5th 4.5
18.2
6th 8.0
11.1
7th 5.5
12.5
8th 6.0
13.3
9th 5.6
13.5
10th
14.5
11th
16.9
12th
11.9

Democrats had only nine primary debates in the 2016 cycle.

Sources: News Reports

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): I’m with Clare that it’s going to be interesting to see how the potential also-ran candidates try to have a moment (or moments). There are 20 candidates, 10 in each debate, but most of them are polling below 5 percent if you average all the polls the Democratic National Committee considered for debate qualification.

The second debate features more heavyweight candidates

Combined polling averages of the candidates in each of the first two 2019 Democratic debates

June 26 debate No. of Polls Avg June 27 debate No. of Polls Avg
Warren 23 8.7% Biden 23 29.9%
O’Rourke 23 5.1 Sanders 23 18.3
Booker 23 2.6 Harris 23 7.6
Klobuchar 23 2.0 Buttigieg 23 5.8
Castro 22 0.9 Yang 21 1.0
Ryan 16 0.6 Gillibrand 23 0.5
Gabbard 23 0.5 Hickenlooper 23 0.4
Inslee 22 0.4 Bennet 16 0.3
De Blasio 15 0.4 Williamson 19 0.2
Delaney 23 0.2 Swalwell 18 0.2
Total support 21.4 Total support 64.0
Average support 2.1 Average support 6.4

Candidate averages based on 23 qualifying polls sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee for determining debate qualification that have been conducted since the start of 2019. Total support does not add up to 100 percent due to undecided respondents, support for candidates who didn’t end up running for president and support for candidates who didn’t qualify.

Source: Polls

sarahf: What do we make of the argument that the first night is Elizabeth Warren’s to lose? Too much of a simplification?

nrakich: Well, as the table above shows, and as Geoffrey and I wrote earlier, Warren is the only top-tier candidate in Wednesday’s debate. That could work to her advantage.

But on the other hand, it’s dangerous to have high expectations like that!

Other candidates in that debate may be skilled debaters as well — in particular, I’m thinking Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker.

clare.malone: I think night one is likely to be friendlier. Warren is going to be targeted, I’d guess, in the same way that Sanders and Biden will be, but maybe won’t be quite as under fire.

geoffrey.skelley: Given the fact it’s the first debate, I lean toward the camp that thinks Warren might benefit from being the lone star on stage. As the polling leader, she’ll likely get the most time and questions, which I think will let her policy mojo shine.

And because it’s the first debate, it’ll still get eyeballs even though a lot of big hitters go Thursday.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Wow I just got warped into this chat!

And I just wanna start off by saying that I think the tone so far is verging on the side of underestimating the impact of the debates. It’s not that they’re that important, but that everything else isn’t that important.

sarahf: That’s fair, Nate. FiveThirtyEight contributor Julia Azari wrote a piece earlier this week on what we know about primary debates, and I thought it was interesting that she found that studies generally show that primary debates actually have a better chance of changing voters’ minds than general election debates. And that’s because voters can’t rely on their party identification as much when selecting which candidate to support.

natesilver: But in terms of the first night, I think the idea that it’s “Candidate X’s night to lose” is generally a dangerous position for that candidate to be in because it means expectations are set fairly high.

I also think Warren may be someone who does better with repeated, prolonged exposure. So she could be good in say a four-person debate, but I’m not as sure about a 10-person debate.

With that said, I think the media is still generally bullish on the “Warren emerges as Biden’s main rival” angle.

clare.malone: “Repeated prolonged exposure” sounds oddly gruesome, Nate.

nrakich: The New York Times had a whole article about Elizabeth Warren’s academic debate career.

That’s definitely expectations-raising.

geoffrey.skelley: I get the expectations danger — it’s a huge part of the primary process. But I wonder if it’ll be a wash because the only candidate who really has a target on his/her back is Biden.

sarahf: Why do you think that, Geoff?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, the media is going to look for storylines, of course, but Warren probably isn’t in much danger of having other candidates on stage attacking her. After all, she’s been more in the driver’s seat on policy issues.

nrakich: I think it depends on who is doing the attacking. Someone like Tim Ryan might attack Biden because he thinks Biden is in his “lane.” But Bernie Sanders might go after Warren, perceiving that he is losing support to her.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, but Warren won’t be on the stage with Sanders or Biden.

So in terms of optics, I think the fact she’s undoubtedly the one star on that stage might help her.

nrakich: I don’t think a candidate has to be on stage for candidates to attack them.

For example, I think a certain 45th president is going to be on the receiving end of more attacks than all of the Democratic candidates put together.

sarahf: Yeah, I’m with Rakich. And I think it might even be a good strategy for Warren to pit herself against the other Democratic front-runners, even if they aren’t on the stage.

natesilver: So if you’re, like, Klobuchar or Booker, what are your goals in the debate?

clare.malone: I think someone like Klobuchar needs to introduce herself on some level.

nrakich: 1. Have a viral moment or a killer line that will be replayed on cable news/can be leveraged for fundraising. 2. Chip away at the candidates who are ahead of you in your “lane.” That’s probably Biden for both of them.

clare.malone: Booker might be likely to use some of his anti-Biden momentum from the last week or so.

sarahf: Right, he’s already seen an uptick in cable news clips.

natesilver: But don’t Clare and Rakich’s arguments contradict one another?

nrakich: I wouldn’t say so, Nate. Often, the best introduction can be a defining moment.

clare.malone: Which part of Rakich’s thing?

natesilver: Like, re-introducing yourself and trying for a killer one-liner seem like different objectives.

geoffrey.skelley: The one danger in attacking is that you can’t know how it’s going to affect things, if it does at all. This is especially true in a super-crowded field. For instance, what if Booker comes off looking bad for going “too far” in attacking Biden, and somehow Klobuchar benefits because of how she handled herself?

natesilver: But by going on the attack don’t you cheapen yourself to some degree?

When you want to project seriousness and steadiness?

clare.malone: Killer lines don’t have to be flip.

That seems like YOUR projection 🙂

I think someone like Buttigieg could engineer that whole “I’m no fisherman, but I know bait when I see it” and could turn it into a moment where he shows how he’s above the fray.

That is, killer line (in the eye of the beholder) + delivered seriously.

natesilver: But I mean if you’re Harris or Buttigieg, I think you wanna be above the fray, especially if Bernie and Biden go after one another.

I also think Harris and Buttigieg are in a considerably more secure position than, say, Klobuchar.

clare.malone: For sure, Klobuchar and Gillibrand I put in the same category of needing to have a big night.

sarahf: So, that’s something I want to probe a bit more. It seems as if we’re all operating under the assumption that these first debates could shake up the polling in the race, right? So I guess my question is when do we think this will happen?

And is there a possibility that things might not change that much until later in the cycle?

geoffrey.skelley: I would think the early debates have the potential to have a bigger effect than the later debates because people aren’t yet familiar with many of the candidates.

nrakich: I think things definitely have the potential to change within a week or two.

I think we’ll need a couple of days to see how the debate is playing out on cable news — what’s getting replayed, etc.

Then we’ll need a week — or a little less — for that to start reverberating in polls.

natesilver: I mostly disagree. I think the effects will tend to be strongest in the first 24-48 hours, which, yeah, could take a few days for us to detect.

But I think it happens pretty fast.

clare.malone: Everything Nate says in this chat sounds like he’s dealing with a deadly virus.

sarahf: But do you think we could be overestimating folks’ interest in the debates? What was it that AP-NORC poll found this week, that only 35 percent of Democrats are really paying attention to the race so far? I mean, clearly, that’s not us … but I guess I’m torn on whether these debates will really move the dial much. (Also reader, stay tuned — we’re going to be tracking some of these questions in real-time with a new poll from Morning Consult!)

natesilver: Well, if only 35 percent of Democrats are paying a lot of attention to the campaign, how many of them will actually vote in the primaries?

clare.malone: How many, Nate?

natesilver: There were about 30 million votes in 2016, which is a lot but not that many.

By comparison, there are somewhere on the order of roughly 160 million registered voters.

Of whom let’s say 70 million are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents in states with open primaries.

So 35 percent of 70 million is about 25 million, which is not far from 2016 primary turnout!

geoffrey.skelley: This is all just a complicated way of saying a lot people don’t really tune into politics until the general election.

If they do at all.

sarahf: I don’t know, 25 million was probably more than I was expecting.

nrakich: But remember that more people than usual are saying they are interested in the 2020 election.

Sixty-nine percent of voters said in an April/May NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that they were very interested in the 2020 election, which is almost as many as said that in October of 2012 or 2016!

natesilver: I’m just saying I think people are learning the wrong lesson from the “daily controversy of the week didn’t move the numbers” stories.

The debates tend to generate a LOT more polling movement than the daily controversies.

clare.malone: But does that movement last?

Or is it a proverbial “bump”? Like a bump from a convention or when you hop in the race?

natesilver: It’s often a bump.

But everything can be a bump.

clare.malone: 🤰

[bump]

nrakich: But the thing about a bump is that your horse-race numbers might fall back to earth, but people don’t un-remember you.

And boosting your name recognition is half the battle.

Look at Pete Buttigieg — his polling numbers have fallen down a bit, but he still has pretty high name recognition and favorability ratings.

natesilver: I’m most curious about the candidates who have good favorables but not that much first-place support, like Harris and Booker in particular.

sarahf: This story compared candidates’ net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) in May to the first of the year, but I think there’s still a lot of room for these candidates to become better known and improve their favorability ratings. Even someone like Buttigieg, who has seen tremendous growth in name recognition since he entered the race, has the potential to be better known and better liked. After all, only about 60 percent of Democrats have an opinion of him.

Major 2020 Candidates change in the polls and name recognition

nrakich: Well, I would be cautious about going too far there, Sarah — those last 40 percent are probably the hardest people to get the attention of.

And I’d guess the Democrats who will tune into the debates this week are probably disproportionately from the 60 percent of Democrats who have heard of him.

sarahf: That’s fair, but I think if he has a good debate performance, he could still get closer to, say, Harris’s or Warren’s lower bound.

And as to my meta-debate question: What impact do we think, if any, the moderators are going to have on shaping the debate?

natesilver: How they divide time between all 10 candidates and the 3-4 candidates in the middle of the stage each night will be important.

If I were a moderator then TBH I’d be like “fuck these candidates polling at zero percent” and focus on the ones with more plausible shots at the nomination.

I think that serves the audience better.

But that’s why I’d never be asked to be a moderator.

clare.malone: That’s why you’re not a moderator.

Jinx.

natesilver: Haha.

clare.malone: And in some ways, they’re playing within the strictures that the DNC has laid out.

nrakich: We’ve had this debate in previous Slack chats, Nate. I think, especially for these early debates, the moderator really has a responsibility to give equal time to everyone.

If they haven’t made their case after being given fair time in the first few debates, then I think it is fair for the media to start #winnowing.

geoffrey.skelley: I don’t know. I’m pretty skeptical of the notion John Delaney deserves equal time with, say, Warren. But he should get a shot to answer some questions, of course.

natesilver: Nah, fuck those people. They already get way too much media attention I think.

And it’s to the point where they’re sort of exploiting the media’s goodwill in certain ways.

nrakich: John Delaney was mentioned in 0.3 percent of cable news clips last week! Warren was mentioned in 15.5 percent.

natesilver: Which is 0.2 percent more than he should be in probably.

I feel differently about the ones who actually have credentials, like Inslee or Klobuchar or Booker.

clare.malone: That feels like a shot at Marianne Williamson.

natesilver: But if you’re just some random backbench U.S. rep. or mayor, you’d better earn your media attention.

geoffrey.skelley: I mean, the Democrats did set up rules that ended up keeping out a twice-elected U.S. governor and let in a spiritual adviser to Oprah.

But everyone knew the rules, so that’s also on Steve Bullock, too.

clare.malone: It’s definitely on Bullock!

I don’t begrudge Williamson for being popular amongst a certain set of voters.

sarahf: Yeah, I thought Williamson had some engaging, thoughtful answers in that New York Times video series where they interviewed all the candidates.

And she was way more dynamic than Yang.

Sorry, but I’m not sorry.

nrakich: She’s charismatic, I will give her that. (It’s hard not to be when you’re a motivational speaker by trade.)

natesilver: She’s not actually popular, though.

It doesn’t take much to hit one percent in three polls and get 65,000 people to donate to you in a country of 330 million people.

clare.malone: Well, to be fair, a lot of the candidates are not that popular.

sarahf: That’s true. But it does seem as if operatives in the Democratic Party would be upset with a Williamson nomination (as they would be with Sanders or Tulsi Gabbard).

Gabbard or Williamson draw a lot of opposition

Share of respondents who said they would not consider supporting a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary

Activists Oppose
candidate april 2019 june
Gabbard 59%
69%
Williamson
66
Sanders 50
59
Moulton
59
Yang 35
55
Messam
55
De Blasio
52
Delaney 38
45
Ryan
45
Hickenlooper 29
41
Swalwell
41
Bullock
38
O’Rourke 29
34
Bennet 26
34
Biden 41
31
Klobuchar 29
28
Gillibrand 26
28
Buttigieg 26
21
Inslee 21
17
Warren 18
14
Castro 15
10
Booker 6
10
Harris 3
7

Respondents were asked about the 23 commonly mentioned candidates listed above, but they were also provided space to write in candidates not listed.

Source: SETH MASKET, “LEARNING FROM LOSS: THE DEMOCRATS, 2016-2020”

But OK, I don’t think we’ve actually talked about what we’re expecting in night two specifically.

… Is it clarity on Biden’s policy positions?

natesilver: No, I think it’s whether Biden and Bernie look old and stale up there and whether that means that something clicks in voters’ heads just from seeing a number of younger, credible alternatives to them.

nrakich: Yeah, I think the biggest difference-maker could be whether Biden shows his age.

The Joe Biden that most people remember is from the 2008 or 2012 campaign trail.

He hasn’t debated since that vice presidential debate against Paul Ryan seven years ago.

He’s 76 now. And we know that Americans are hesitant about electing a president who’s over 70.

sarahf: OK, fine, Biden is old. But so is Trump. And I think the moderators will at least push him a little on the issues as he hasn’t made his views on many policies known.

geoffrey.skelley: And the other candidates.

clare.malone: Definitely, the other candidates.

natesilver: Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh I’m not sure that isn’t at least halfway a media trope rather than a reality about Biden.

Other than Warren, a lot of the candidates have fairly vague policy positions.

nrakich: Agreed, Nate.

natesilver: And Biden has provided detail on some issues like climate and immigration.

nrakich: He’s also surprisingly liberal on issues like the minimum wage (he wants to raise it to $15 an hour). I think the media narrative around Biden’s policy positions is a little out of step with reality and shaped more by decades-old controversies.

clare.malone: What are you arguing?

That moderators won’t push him?

That’s slightly beside the point. I think other candidates will likely go after him.

Bernie, for instance, comes to mind.

nrakich: I just don’t see what Bernie has to gain from going after Biden? On the other hand, that assumes he is a rational strategic actor …

natesilver: Oh, see, I don’t see what Bernie has to lose from going after Biden.

I think Bernie has to be like “I’m the best overall contrast with Biden.” Right now, I think he’s done too much playing to his niche and not enough to the broader electorate.

It’s a tough balance to strike.

But Sanders has been on a downward trajectory in the polls, and I don’t think he’s someone who should be too risk-averse.

clare.malone: But … do you think he’s going to try to broaden?

geoffrey.skelley: Not especially.

clare.malone: That doesn’t seem too Sanders-y.

natesilver: I think he’s been getting bad advice by not trying to broaden more.

geoffrey.skelley: But Sanders’s strategy is predicated on winning with a plurality in a fragmented, crowded field.

natesilver: In which case I guess you have to take out Biden.

And sorta win ugly.

But, like, I think his strategy has been mistaken from the get-go.

Maybe it’s too late to change it now, though.

nrakich: I guess he does have lots of practice going after “establishment Democrats” from his 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton.

Maybe that is his comfort zone.

geoffrey.skelley: Right. I guess the approach Sanders takes at the debates might give us insight into whether he’s considering an alternate path to win the nomination.

natesilver: I think Sanders maybe doesn’t realize that running as the anti-establishment candidate might have been a good strategy to finish a respectable second place to Hillary Clinton given the unique circumstances of 2016, and that it’s probably a pretty bad strategy otherwise for winning presidential nominations.

clare.malone: I think he wants to run his way, though.

natesilver: Well, good for him but I think he’s quite unlikely to win the nomination that way.

clare.malone: Fair, Nate, but I think we have to consider what might be driving his logic. Which means I think we have to concede that Sanders sees himself as an ideological purist, or a totally alternate choice.

sarahf: OK, last question. Two back-to-back nights of debates complicates the viewing experience — the candidates are split, some lower-tier candidates maybe shouldn’t even be on the stage, and other candidates didn’t even make the cut. But, setting that aside, what are the big takeaways you’re looking for?

geoffrey.skelley: I feel like one of the lower-tier candidates is going to have a viral moment of sorts, so who is that? They’re actively trying to do this, by the way.

nrakich: Took the words right out of my mouth, Geoffrey.

natesilver: AnDrEw YaNg.

sarahf: mArIaNnE wILlIaMsOn.

Woo, fun lettering.

nrakich: What does the fun lettering thing mean? Are you being serious, but in a winking way? Or are you mocking the thing you are writing?

natesilver: It’s a troll font.

nrakich: Right, which kind of troll?

natesilver: With good trolling you’re never sure what type of trolling it is.

sarahf: To be clear, I’m just trolling Nate.