Election Update: It’s Cherry-Picking Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

National polls show Sanders and Bloomberg gaining, others flat

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

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

Biden leads, Sanders second in post-debate national polls

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

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

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

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

National polls show gains for Sanders, Bloomberg

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

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

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

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

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

State polls haven’t been great for Sanders, though

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

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

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

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

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

* Polling average as of the day before the debate.

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

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

How much do national polls matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How a new Iowa poll affected our numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iowa matters … a lot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s favored in the first four states?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How a raucous convention revolutionized our primary system

The December Democratic Debate in 6 Charts

This holiday season, the Democratic National Committee gave the gift of one last primary debate in 2019. The stage featured just seven candidates, and despite a sleepy first hour, there was a lot of tension in the two-and-a-half-hour affair. Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg came under fire from the rest of the field, fielding attacks from Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren in particular. According to the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, which used Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel to interview the same respondents before and after the debate, Klobuchar had a good night, attracting the most new potential support. Former Vice President Joe Biden also did well, earning the highest debate performance score from the viewers in our survey.

Maybe you were out holiday shopping — or watching the new Star Wars movie! — and missed it (hey, we don’t blame you), or you just want to know more about how the December debate may affect the race as we move into 2020. Either way, here’s the Democratic debate, summed up in 6 charts:

Which candidates performed best?

To kick us off, which candidates did viewers think had a strong performance? A weak one? To answer this, we compared each candidate’s pre-debate favorability rating1 to viewers’ ratings of his or her debate performance to see how candidates performed. This time, Biden walked away with the highest marks from respondents in our poll. But if it’s hard to see a decisive winner from last night, that’s because Biden, Warren and Sanders all performed roughly as well as we would expect given their pre-debate favorability. Buttigieg and Steyer received the worst marks for their performances, relative to their pre-debate favorability ratings.

How did voters’ priorities affect their views of the candidates?

According to our Ipsos survey, nearly two-thirds of likely Democratic primary voters prefer a candidate who has a good chance of beating President Trump over someone who shares similar stances with them on the issues. How these types of voters evaluate the candidates and their performances can vary, though, even if the differences are relatively small.

Voters who prioritize beating Trump thought Biden had the best debate performance, with Warren, Sanders, Klobuchar and Buttigieg tied with the second-highest marks. Among voters who prioritized issue stances, Sanders and Yang fared best.

Among voters who prioritize beating Trump, Biden did best

How well debate-watchers thought candidates performed in the sixth Democratic debate, by which type of candidate they prefer

Type of candidate preferred
candidate Similar issue positions Able to beat trump
Biden 2.8 3.3
Warren 2.9 3.1
Sanders 3.1 3.1
Klobuchar 2.7 3.1
Buttigieg 2.5 3.1
Yang 3.0 3.0
Steyer 2.5 2.8

From a survey of 3,543 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Dec. 13 and Dec. 18. The same people were surveyed again from Dec. 19 to Dec. 20; 720 responded to the second wave and said they watched the debate. The average ratings are out of 4 points, where 4 is best and 1 is worst.

Source: Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight

Who left a good impression?

We also wanted to see if any of the candidates managed to leave a good impression, as captured by their net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) before and after the debate. By this metric, Yang and Klobuchar saw the largest gains, roughly six points each. But even with these increases, their net favorability scores are still lower than much of the rest of the field — better-known candidates like Biden, Sanders and Warren are viewed more favorably.

Yang and Klobuchar made positive impressions

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

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
Yang +16.1 +22.4 +6.3
Klobuchar +11.0 +17.1 +6.1
Steyer +4.3 +7.3 +3.1
Warren +40.0 +43.0 +2.9
Sanders +40.5 +42.6 +2.1
Biden +43.2 +45.1 +1.9
Buttigieg +29.4 +27.5 -1.9

From a survey of 3,543 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Dec. 13 and Dec. 18. The same people were surveyed again from Dec. 19 to Dec. 20; 1,908 responded to the second wave.

Who spoke the most?

Klobuchar stole the mic Thursday, speaking the most words of any candidate. This was the first time the Minnesota senator earned this distinction, significantly improving upon her position in the last debate, where she came in fifth for words spoken. Buttigieg wasn’t too far off from Klobuchar, though, speaking just 200 fewer words.

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the sixth Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Amy Klobuchar 3,557
Pete Buttigieg 3,327
Elizabeth Warren 3,087
Bernie Sanders 2,891
Joe Biden 2,869
Tom Steyer 1,937
Andrew Yang 1,729

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

The fact that Klobuchar and Buttigieg spoke the most last night may be surprising given that they are significantly behind Biden, Sanders and Warren in the national polls. Normally, higher-polling candidates tend to get more air time, but in Thursday’s debate, the relationship between a candidate’s polling average2 and the amount of words he or she spoke was not particularly strong.3 For instance, while Sanders spoke about as much as his polling average would suggest, Biden spoke far less than expected.

Who mentioned Trump the most?

The candidates may not have spoken for equal amounts of time, but one thing they did have in common was name-dropping Trump. Klobuchar, for example, talked about Trump way more than Warren, who only mentioned him once. (This doesn’t seem to be a new strategy for Warren: She came in second to last in Trump mentions at the November debate, too, saying his name just twice.)

Who talked about Trump?

How often Trump’s name was mentioned by candidates in the sixth Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Amy Klobuchar 11
Bernie Sanders 8
Joe Biden 6
Pete Buttigieg 6
Tom Steyer 4
Andrew Yang 4
Elizabeth Warren 1

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

On average, each candidate said Trump’s name about six times. But of course, this doesn’t cover every reference to Trump, as some didn’t call out the president by name — like when Sanders said “we have a president who is a pathological liar.”

Do you want even more debate coverage?

Cool graphics from other sites:

  • Going into the debate, The New York Times had a cool primer, which included tidbits like which candidates they expected to attack each other. It’s fun to look back now and see whether they were correct; notably, their speculation that Buttigieg might come under fire proved prescient, particularly in the back and forths with Warren and Klobuchar.
  • And if you want to see exactly how many times the candidates attacked one another, NBC News tracked it! Buttigieg came under fire the most, while Sanders dished it out more than any other candidate.
  • The New York Times also tracked how long each candidate spoke on each issue. Sanders spoke the most about health care, while Klobuchar dominated the conversation on electability. And foreign policy was the longest-discussed topic of the evening, racking up 15 minutes total.

And here’s more great post-debate analysis:

But really, all you need is … our debate coverage:

Who Has The Most To Gain Or Lose In Tonight’s Democratic Debate?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): For the first time this cycle, fewer than 10 candidates qualified for Thursday night’s debate. Under the DNC’s tougher criteria (4 percent support in at least four national or early-state polls or 6 percent support in at least two early-state polls, plus 200,000 unique7 donors), just seven candidates made the cut: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang.

What does that mean for tonight’s debate? Are there really only seven viable candidates at this point? (There are still 15 “major” candidates running, according to FiveThirtyEight’s definition.) Fewer than seven?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): In my opinion, the candidates who meet the DNC’s standards and the candidates whom voters are seriously considering are pretty divorced from each other.

And the latter list has been in flux all year (and may continue to be in flux through the early-state primaries).

Right now, it seems pretty clear that Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg are the most serious contenders. Earlier this year, though, that list would have been Biden, Sanders, Warren and Kamala Harris (after the first debate) or just Biden and Warren (for much of the fall).

sarahf: But you’re not arguing that candidates who didn’t make the stage are still being seriously considered, Nathaniel? Or are you?

nrakich: No, definitely not.

But I do think the DNC has two choices when it comes to debates at this stage: either 1) aim for a small debate among just the serious contenders, in which case the standards for qualification should be stricter, or 2) open the debate to all major candidates until the voting actually starts to happen.

This seven-candidate debate is neither. So it’s kinda frustrating.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Yeah, the DNC is in a tough position. Cory Booker and Julián Castro have both criticized the DNC for its debate qualification criteria, and Booker even sent a letter calling on the DNC to include candidates who had hit either the donor threshold or the polling threshold. I’m not sure it would solve the problem Nathaniel is outlining, but under Booker’s suggestion, Booker, Castro and Tulsi Gabbard would have all qualified.

sarahf: But is the field really so in flux that more candidates on the stage would help voters decide?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): A lot of Democratic voters said they are still making up their minds — 34 percent in a recent Huff Post/YouGov survey, compared to 48 percent who said they had a “good idea” of who they are voting for. So I don’t think voters are totally set yet. But I think there is a media effect here, too. Only a few candidates (Buttigieg, Warren, Biden, Sanders) are getting a lot of coverage, so I think it’s hard for voters to see other candidates as viable, but that’s in part because the DNC and the media have written off the rest of the field.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): It seems like increasingly we’re in a situation, as Nathaniel mentioned, where there are four main contenders and the rest of the candidates are pretty much indistinguishable in terms of their support. That does make the stakes higher for Klobuchar, Steyer and Yang since they aren’t doing as well in the polls and could benefit from the spotlight tonight.

But on the other hand, many of the lower-tier candidates have had good debates (Booker, for example) and it hasn’t really made a difference for them.

nrakich: Right, we’re at the point where voters have had plenty of exposure to candidates like Booker, and they’re just not that interested.

geoffrey.skelley: But with just seven candidates, there’s a chance Klobuchar, Steyer and Yang could all get a bit more time to make their case tonight. And that could make a difference, particularly for Steyer and Yang, who spoke the fewest words in the last debate.

perry: Klobuchar has lucked out in that she is the only candidate on tonight’s stage with traditional credentials, outside the top four. (Harris would have fit in this group as well, but she’s dropped out.) Now I don’t think this necessarily means Klobuchar will pick up support, but she is the most logical person for people to go to next if they have concerns about the top four.

geoffrey.skelley: And conveniently for Klobuchar, her strongest early state is Iowa, the first state to vote. So an uptick in her numbers after the debate could pay dividends right at the start of voting.

nrakich: She does seem like the candidate most likely to go on a Carter- or Clinton-esque tear based on a strong early-state performance. But Carter and Clinton have historically been the exception, not the rule.

sarahf: What’s been so surprising to me in watching the debates is just how much the “middle tier” has struggled to break out. Arguably, Buttigieg and Klobuchar have had the most success in this regard, but as you can see from our latest poll with Ipsos there is a real disparity among the top four candidates — Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg — and everyone else.

Never say never, but it seems so unlikely that this overall picture dramatically shifts tonight.

perry: Looking back on this process, I think I have to either rethink what I consider a good debate performance (I have always thought Klobuchar and Booker did well and yet, they often went nowhere) or rethink whether debates matter much (in my view, Biden has been bad in several of the debates, yet that has not hurt him much).

ameliatd: It just seems like the issue isn’t so much that voters dislike the Klobuchars and Bookers of the race — they just have options they like more. So Klobuchar doesn’t just need a good debate performance — she needs some of her rivals to stumble. And that’s the tricky thing to predict here.

perry: That’s well put.

So by that logic, she really needs Buttigieg to be bad, right?

ameliatd: I do think of the top four contenders, the stakes are highest tonight for Buttigieg and Warren.

sarahf: Why Warren, Amelia?

ameliatd: She’s had the slip in the polls, and voters I’ve talked with seem pretty concerned about her health care plan. She didn’t really get a chance in the last debate to defend her plan — maybe you’d call that an escape — but it’s not great if people are looking for reassurance. So if there are questions about health care tonight, that could be an opportunity for Warren to do some reframing. On the campaign trail, for instance, she’s been talking more about voters having a “choice” with health care, perhaps in response to concerns about Medicare for All getting rid of private insurance.

sarahf: And what about the “Bernie is Back narrative” … any nibblers?

geoffrey.skelley: No, at least not yet.

For every national poll that has Sanders at 22 percent, there’s another with him at 16 percent. We shouldn’t write off Sanders, and it’s possible that his polling numbers are ticking up slightly, but to characterize it as “Sanders Surges” is misleading.

nrakich: Sanders is where he’s always been — hovering around 15 percent!

It’s just that, with Warren’s support several points lower than it was this fall, Sanders’s 15 percent (well, 18 percent according to our tracker) is good for second place now instead of third.

perry: I do think the stakes are high for Sanders tonight, though. Buttigieg and Biden will probably try to cast him as the crazy liberal tonight as much as they will Warren — or maybe even more, considering she has plunged so far down in the polls.

Warren has been attacking Buttigieg and Biden more directly on the campaign trail, so it will be interesting to watch for that as well. I tend to think this is a mistake for her, because Buttigieg is good at counterpunching and the moderators so far have been deeply invested in the “Democrats have moved too far to the left” narrative so she has that working against her, too.

nrakich: Hm, Perry, I disagree that Buttigieg and Biden should train their fire on Sanders. Buttigieg still needs to gain more ground in order to become a serious threat for the nomination, so he might want to continue chipping away at Warren’s support. And I think Biden might like having Sanders in a strong position; after all, Biden was in a much more precarious position when Warren had consolidated much of the liberal vote.

ameliatd: I tend to think Buttigieg will go after Warren simply because she’s been going after him. That back-and-forth has taken kind of a personal tinge — both of them are attacking each other’s corporate backgrounds/connections. But it can be riskier for a female candidate to go on the attack because of gender stereotypes about how women should present themselves. Not to say Warren can’t thread that needle, but it’s another layer of difficulty for her to navigate.

geoffrey.skelley: One plus for Warren is that she regularly scores well in debates. In October and November, she had the strongest rating (or was tied for it) in our polling with Ipsos.

nrakich: Yeah, Geoffrey, but she also fell in the polls right after the November debate, so that didn’t necessarily matter.

geoffrey.skelley: Sure, but she could use this debate to shift the conversation toward something more appealing to voters — say, her plan for a wealth tax — which polls significantly better than Medicare for All.

ameliatd: She has been pivoting pretty explicitly to it on the campaign trail. And as Geoffrey mentioned, that makes sense given it’s quite popular. It also helps that it’s her signature policy. But Booker also attacked it in the last debate, saying it’s “cumbersome” and pointing out that wealth taxes failed in other countries. Granted, he won’t be on stage tonight, but I wonder if Buttigieg might attack it, too.

sarahf: The Warren vs. Buttigieg conflict you all are highlighting is interesting, because even though they’re pretty different ideologically, they pretty much appeal to the same types of voters (college-educated whites). The catch, of course, and maybe one reason they should focus on attacking other candidates, is they both need a way more diverse base of support to have a serious chance at winning the nomination.

perry: Buttigieg’s lack of support from black voters has become one of the biggest narratives of the campaign. And I think it’s what I’m most interested in ahead of this debate. How do the moderators ask him about this? What do the other candidates say, since none of them are black? Does Biden, the person with all the black support, attack Buttigieg on these grounds? And most importantly, how does Buttigieg respond?

It’s not just how black voters think about this either. When I talk to white voters who like Buttigeig, they’ll say something like, “What is the deal with black people and Pete?” I think this is a real barrier for him.

ameliatd: Yeah, I think that will be really interesting to watch, Perry. I’ve also heard that concern about Buttigieg from white voters. Interestingly, not as much about Warren, even though she is also struggling somewhat among voters of color.

sarahf: This piece from The Washington Post earlier this week offered a pretty sympathetic portrayal of some of Buttigieg’s issues with winning over black voters. So part of me wonders whether he will be able to talk a bit more candidly tonight about reaching black voters or if he sticks to more rehearsed, well-trodden talking points. For instance, in that article it talked a lot about Buttigieg coming to terms (or at least thinking about) his own white privilege, and I think he could maybe have some powerful moments on what white privilege means if he chose to move in that direction.

perry: Pete’s problem right now isn’t with black voters as much as it is with white voters who need reassurance that he is good on racial issues with black people. The best way for him to win black voters is probably to win Iowa and New Hampshire. But as for these next two months, I’m not sure I know what he should do. His comments in that Post piece were kind of weird, like he was studying black people.

ameliatd: Talking about privilege is a hard thing for the white candidates to do, too. I remember when Kirsten Gillibrand said in an early debate that she could explain white privilege to white women in the suburbs — and it fell kind of flat. It’s just a challenge for white candidates to do in a way that seems genuine and unrehearsed.

sarahf: I thought that, too, in reading the piece, Perry. He’s treating it like a problem he has to fix … which is probably a very white way of thinking about things.

ameliatd: It feels very on-brand for Buttigieg, too, which I think is part of the problem. The consultant’s approach to fixing your standing with voters of color.

perry: There is a small cohort of young black people who are more liberal and who support Sanders or Warren. But the issue for Buttigieg is that the older, more moderate voters he attracts tend to be white, while the older, moderate black voters tend to be very pro-Biden. And I don’t think any of that changes in the short-term. So I feel like Buttigieg is kind of stuck. If I were him, I would talk about electability if I were trying to boost my black vote numbers.

geoffrey.skelley: It’s hard to make the case that you’re electable if the most votes you’ve ever captured in an election you won is 11,000.

perry: Yes, but it’s better than talking about white privilege, I think.

My other somewhat related question is, Yang made it to the debate, which means we don’t have to have a discussion about why there are no minority candidates. But do we think that discussion happens anyway? Do the other candidates have to pretend to be sad that Harris, Booker and Castro aren’t there? (It’s a competition, those people lost.)

nrakich: I am sure they will pay lip service to Booker and Castro. It is a competition, but it helps in a competition to appear like a gracious winner!

Also, if Booker and Castro are on the brink of dropping out, their endorsements could soon be in play.

perry: I found the whole narrative around Harris leaving the race to be odd — that somehow this is a big void because there are not enough prominent minority candidates. The concerns of black and brown voters are not being ignored. I can’t remember a field that has talked about racial issues more.

ameliatd: I think candidates like Warren are probably genuinely not happy with the fact that Steyer is on the stage and Booker isn’t. On the campaign trail, Warren has been attacking unnamed billionaires (cough cough, Bloomberg) for trying to buy their way into the race. So I wonder if lamenting the absence of Booker/Castro can also be a way to go after Steyer.

geoffrey.skelley: The question is, of course, whether it’s worth attacking Steyer, who doesn’t have much obvious space to move upward in the race.

nrakich: That’s smart, Amelia. Something like, “I’m running against a system where it’s easier for a billionaire candidate to get a public platform than it is for a black candidate.”

perry: That would be a good argument.

I am sad Bloomberg won’t be there because Warren and Sanders seem to really dislike him and I think the feeling is mutual.

ameliatd: Steyer is a less appealing billionaire punching bag, imho.

sarahf: So we’ve talked about how tonight could be crucial for Warren and Buttigieg, which makes sense considering they’re both a bit behind Biden and Sanders and need to close the gap. (In our national polling average, she’s at almost 15 percent and Buttigieg is at 10 percent. Biden, on the other hand, is in the lead by a fairly healthy margin — 27 percent — with Sanders in second at 18 percent.)

But couldn’t Biden also do something tonight to help solidify his support? That’s just as crucial a question, right?

nrakich: It is an important question, but I’m not sure his performance will matter much. We’ve seen him struggle in past debates without suffering any real polling consequences. I guess if he has a really strong performance, it could help him? But honestly, I feel like he’d have to have a few strong performances in a row in order to really convince people, “OK, yeah, this guy has it together.”

ameliatd: Biden has yet to have a really stellar debate performance. I wonder what would happen if he managed to have a gaffe-free night and stayed consistently on point until the very end. Maybe nothing? But maybe it would allay some voters’ concerns.

geoffrey.skelley: A “Biden Dominates Debate” kind of headline would certainly mark a big change of pace.

ameliatd: But does the debate really have the potential to help Biden surge? This is on the same night the new Star Wars movie opens, after all.

nrakich: Yeah, Amelia, plus the holidays are coming up … I bet this will be the least-watched debate so far.

ameliatd: On the other hand, I was in Iowa this past weekend and talked to a not-insignificant number of voters who are just starting to tune into the process. So even though I remain a skeptic about the impact of the debates, I think it’s important for us tired journalists to remember not all voters have been watching since June.

perry: One question I have is whether this is all just a 2016 replay? The candidate with the support of non-college voters in his party gets a steady lead, watches the other candidates attack each other and just wins? (This is how Trump won the 2016 GOP primary.) I’m struggling to see Biden losing — or gaining — much support from this debate until some of the candidates drop out after Iowa and New Hampshire. Like the one thing we know so far about his numbers is they are just really stable, right?

geoffrey.skelley: Right, but the state-by-state nature of the actual primary process is something we can’t forget about. Biden may be leading in the national polls right now, and will likely be leading them when Iowa votes on Feb. 3, at least at the current rate. But we don’t know how voters will react if Biden loses a couple contests coming out of the gate.

So even if the debate isn’t all that impactful, that doesn’t mean this race is over by any means.

nrakich: I do think the January and February debates will be more impactful, for the reason Amelia says. People in New Hampshire will watch the New Hampshire debate that happens four days before they vote and is aired on their local news station, for instance.

perry: The particulars of what happens the next few months are important, yes. But right now, I am having a hard time seeing anything other than a gradual march toward a Biden victory.

geoffrey.skelley: I guess I’m leaving the door open for other changes. We’ve seen candidates have late surges in Iowa before — Rick Santorum in 2012 or John Edwards and John Kerry in 2004.

But Biden’s strength among black voters is absolutely a key factor, and none of the other candidates on stage — or Bloomberg, for that matter — have a record of appealing to that part of the Democratic base. So if no one else can make serious inroads with African American Democrats, it may be difficult to beat Biden for the nomination.

What Makes Our New 2020 Democratic Primary Polling Averages Different

Does the world really need another polling average?

Well, sure. Actually, we think having a variety of polling averages matters a lot in the presidential primaries — and the one you look at can change how you view the race. So we’ve just launched our national polling average for the 2020 Democratic primary, as well as one for every state where there’s an adequate amount of polling. Here’s Iowa, for instance:

Here’s South Carolina:

Here’s Nevada. Here’s California. We’d encourage you to click around a bit and then come back here once you’ve gotten a sense for how the numbers look.

Constructing a polling average is never quite so straightforward as it seems, but that’s doubly true in a primary campaign. Since turnout is relatively low compared to a general election, polls can differ a lot from one another given their assumptions about who’s going to vote. Public opinion can change quickly during the primaries; unlike in the general election, where the large majority of voters can reliably be expected to vote for one party or the other, primary voters are usually considering multiple candidates, so the overall process is a lot more fluid. Having a polling average that moves too slowly can be a big problem, as can having one that overreacts to every new poll. The pace of polling can be irregular — sometimes you’ll get several high-quality polls in a day, and sometimes you’ll go a couple of weeks without any. All of these factors make the methodological choices behind a polling average more important.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Democratic primary, according to the early states

So here’s a description of our version of a polling average: a relatively brief overview of the features that make FiveThirtyEight’s primary polling averages different (and, we hope, slightly more accurate) than the alternatives. I’m keeping this relatively brief for two reasons: First, none of this differs that much from the polling averages we’ve constructed in the past for general elections, and second, these polling averages will soon be followed by our full-fledged primary forecast, which uses these averages as an “ingredient” but also considers a host of other factors. We’ll save the discussion of the forecast for later, though. For now, listed in rough order of how much they can affect our averages, here are the five key things that make our polling averages a little different:

Differentiator 1: We adjust state polls based on trends in national polls

A hallmark of our general election forecasts, dating all the way back to our first versions in 2008, is what we call a “trend line adjustment.” Basically, in states that haven’t been polled recently, we make inferences about what’s going on there using national polls or polls from other states that have been surveyed recently. If President Trump gained 3 percentage points in national polls, for instance, but North Carolina hadn’t been polled recently, you could probably infer that he’d also gained 3 points, or thereabouts, in North Carolina.

We apply this adjustment for a good reason: Trend-line-adjusted averages have been quite a bit more accurate, historically. That is, once someone does get around to polling North Carolina, it usually turns out that Trump did gain about 3 points. Trend-line-adjusted averages have also been insightful so far this cycle — they anticipated, for instance, that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s numbers would decline in state polls in November and early December once she began to slump in national polls.

So we’re now applying a slightly simplified version3 of the trend line adjustment to the primaries. (Note that all polling averages you see on our state polling pages reflect this trend line adjustment.) Say that Sen. Cory Booker has surged by 5 points in national polls, for instance, but we haven’t seen a recent poll in Nevada. Our average would assume that he’d also improved his standing by 5 points in Nevada, other things held equal.

There are a few complications: For instance, the adjustment is nonlinear, which can have meaningful effects if a candidate is polling in the low single digits. But in short, the trend line adjustment can have fairly large effects if a state hasn’t been polled much recently. It doesn’t affect our numbers much, conversely, if there are a lot of recent, high-quality polls from that state.

Differentiator 2: We adjust for house effects

House effects” are when certain pollsters consistently show better results for certain candidates. Emerson College, for instance, has usually shown optimistic results for Sen. Bernie Sanders in polls it has published so far in the primary campaign, while Morning Consult’s polls tend to have pretty good numbers for former Vice President Joe Biden.

All of FiveThirtyEight’s general election polling averages adjust for house effects, and we’re now doing the same for our primary averages. In fact, we found that the house effects adjustments we’ve used in the past were slightly too consevative for the primaries, so they’ll be a bit more aggressive this year.4

House effects are calculated for each candidate separately. So, for instance, Morning Consult has a Biden house effect adjustment, a Pete Buttigieg adjustment, a Tom Steyer adjustment, and so on. National polls can influence the house effects adjustment in the states and vice versa, and polling in one state can influence the house effects adjustment in other states.

Differentiator 3: Our average adjusts more quickly after major events

We’ve long recommended that you should consider news events when determining whether a polling shift is signal or noise. If Trump literally did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, or the Martians invaded Washington and he valiantly fought them off, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were a sharp shift in his approval rating. Conversely, if we were in the midst of a boring news cycle where nothing much was happening, a poll showing a big swing in his numbers would be more likely to be an outlier.

We’re now applying this sort of logic to our primary polling average, though in a much more formal and rigorous way. While we aren’t expecting a Martian invasion, there are certain types of events in the primaries that predictably can have large effects on the polls (i.e. they have historically). Specifically, these include, in order of importance:

  • The outcomes of primaries and caucuses (e.g. a candidate can get a bounce after Iowa or Super Tuesday)
  • Major candidates entering or exiting the race
  • Debates

Following these three types of events, our polling average will be more aggressive about deeming swings in the polling average to be signal rather than noise. As a corollary, it will be less aggressive when there are apparent polling shifts that aren’t precipitated by one of these events. We’ll revisit this in future articles, but note that the importance the model assigns to events works on a sliding scale. No offense to our Guamanian readers, for instance, but, historically, Iowa or Super Tuesday tends to move the polls a lot more than the Guam caucus — and our averages reflect this.

Differentiator 4: We’ve carefully set our average so it doesn’t move too fast or too slow

Over the years, we’ve found that there’s no particular default set of assumptions that will give you a good polling average in every circumstance. Applying the aggressive settings from our presidential approval rating average to our generic ballot tracker makes the generic ballot much too “bouncy,” for instance. (We learned that one the hard way.) Conversely, applying the conservative settings from our generic ballot tracker would make our presidential approval rating average too sluggish to pick up on real swings in Trump’s numbers.

So we think the only good way to determine the “right” settings for a polling average is to do it empirically. There are a couple of ways that you could do this:

  1. You can tune the settings so that they optimally predict future polls. That is, if our approval rating average has Trump at 42 percent, that means 42 percent is our best guess for what a new Trump approval rating poll would say.
  2. Highly related to the above, you can tune the settings to minimize autocorrelation. That is to say, the current polling average should reflect all information about the current state of the polls and your average shouldn’t predictably move upward or downward from that point in time. For example, if Sanders improves from 15 percent to 17 percent in your polling average, he should be equally likely to continue gaining ground (improve beyond 17 percent) or to revert to where he was before (decline from 17 percent) in future editions of your polling average.
  3. For polling sequences that culminate in an election, like the New Hampshire primary poll average, you can test how accurately the polling average predicts the eventual election result.

The settings we chose for our primary polling averages are designed to optimize these qualities based on our historical database of primary polls since 1972. In general, it’s appropriate to apply relatively aggressive settings in the primaries as compared to the general election, as the former tend to be much more dynamic than the latter due to the lack of partisan guardrails.

I’ll refrain (for now) from going into more detail on exactly what these parameters are and how we’ve set them. (There are actually quite a few parameters, ranging from how you trade off recency versus having a larger sample of polls to which kernel density function to apply.) As a matter of practice, though, the FiveThirtyEight polling average represents something of a compromise between the RealClearPolitics approach of averaging recent polls and The Economist’s technique of drawing a trend line.

Differentiator 5: We use objective criteria to decide which polls to include

For many reasons, we prefer to avoid having to make any ad hoc decisions about which polls to include in our average. So our approach has always been to include almost all polls but to weight them based on our pollster ratings (which in turn reflect a combination of how accurate the pollster has been historically and the methodology it uses) and the polls’ sample size. We’re applying this long-standing process to our primary polling averages as well.

Note that I said “almost all polls” rather than “all polls” because there are some rare exceptions. We don’t include polls from firms that are banned by FiveThirtyEight because we suspect them of having faked data. And for the primaries, we won’t be including internal polls that are released to the public by one of the campaigns,5 or surveys that test super hypothetical matchups, such as a head-to-head poll conducted when more than two candidates are still running.

And that’s about it. Again, we’ll have much more detail on some of this when we launch our forecast. But in the meantime, please go click around and see how the race looks nationally and in the various states. Is Buttigieg losing steam in surveys of Iowa? Has Warren arrested her decline in national polls? Now you can decide for yourself.

How Did The Democrats End Up With A 2020 Field So White And Male? 

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): The 2020 Democratic field was once hailed as the most diverse ever. But now, even as many candidates try to position themselves as the best person to build on the “Obama coalition of young people, women and nonwhite voters,” the four front-runners are nevertheless all white, and three are men.

On Tuesday, Kamala Harris dropped out of the race, and candidates like Julián Castro and Cory Booker have all struggled to break out, languishing below 4 percent in the polls nationally. Harris, in particular, had a bruising race, once sitting at 15 percent nationally to only plummet to 3 percent before ending her campaign.

Is this surprising? What are some possible explanations?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): My somewhat complicated theory is that Booker kind of lost the informal black candidate primary to Harris from 2017 to early 2019. Harris then got all the buzz as the most viable black candidate when she entered the race. But then she struggled. I’m not sure if her campaign had the clearest of messages, but I also think she faced electability questions, which dog female candidates in particular.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think it’s pretty surprising that the top of the field is now dominated by white candidates. And I think there are a couple of explanations that don’t fall under the usual “electability” catch-all, although that certainly deserves consideration, too.

One is that Obama’s election removed the novelty of a person of color winning the nomination, which means it’s harder to frame media coverage in a way that doesn’t have to tackle really tough questions about minority representation and what it might mean to actually address those inequalities.

Another explanation is because people have changed their views on race to more closely match their political parties, white Democrats have adopted (superficially at least) pretty racially liberal opinions, which means all the candidates can now talk about race and the concerns of black and Latino communities to various degrees. Obviously, with varying levels of success, but still, that’s a big change from a few years ago.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Joe Biden’s standing in the race has been a big hindrance, too, because he’s just so strong among older nonwhite voters, particularly black voters, who might have been a potential base for some of these other candidates.

meredithconroy: (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): If I had to give a blanket explanation for why the nonwhite candidates aren’t polling well among Democrats, my answer is that there was never going to be a lot of room between a former VP (Biden) and former runner-up (Bernie Sanders). Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Harris and Pete Buttigieg all made inroads at some point, although only Warren’s has really been sustainable. Why Castro and Booker haven’t (yet) is, in my view, related to their race and the “electabilityovercorrection following 2016, or this idea that only a white, moderate male can take on Trump at the ballot box. Because sexism and racism motivated voters’ choice at the ballot box in 2016, I think Democrats are reluctant to be all-in for a candidate that will make those attitudes more salient in 2020.

julia_azari: What’s interesting to me about that, Meredith, is that this electability message seems to have somehow turned into one about race and less about gender.

sarahf: In other words, it should be equally surprising Warren has continued to do well?

julia_azari: Yeah, and while Amy Klobuchar isn’t doing great in the polls, she hasn’t really been attacked on her electability credentials (which is not to say that attacks on her haven’t been gendered). Similarly, Kirsten Gillibrand didn’t drop out because of electability critiques. She lacked elite support and did poorly in the polls.

That’s not to say that women are doing great in this field; they’re not, as a group. But the fact that concerns over electability also affect Booker and Castro after Obama won big majorities is interesting to me. Perhaps a message Democrats took away from 2016 is to be generally cautious about demographics, but not ideology. I find that odd, but there’s a lot going on.

sarahf: What’s so hard to untangle in all of this, too, is just how much of it is about the individual candidates and the competition they face. Like Meredith said at the outset, with both a former VP and a former runner-up in the race, did that ever really leave that much oxygen in the race for other candidates?

geoffrey.skelley: Sanders’s appeal is just so narrow, though. His ceiling of support just isn’t as high as some of the other candidates, which is why Biden’s relative strength looms large to me. He’s taken hits in the race, but he hasn’t really fallen down.

Perry has written about this before, but black voters have a pragmatic streak in the primaries, which means they have traditionally backed establishment candidates, which is one explanation for Biden’s continued success.

But in a universe where there is no Biden running, I think someone like Harris or Booker fills that lane better than Sanders or Warren. Considering Harris’s appeal earlier in the cycle among white college graduates, she might’ve had the best chance, too, to weave together that same sort of coalition that boosted Obama in the 2008 primary. But obviously that didn’t happen, and I think you can point to Biden as part of that, for eating up her support among nonwhite voters, and to Warren for grabbing college-educated voters.

perry: Would Stacey Abrams, Michelle Obama or Oprah have done better?

In other words, how big is the electability problem (a candidate’s gender and race) vs. the Biden problem (he is fairly popular with black people, even setting electability arguments aside)?

sarahf: In a race where a candidate’s perceived ability to beat Trump has been paramount, that’s hard for me to answer. I do think it’s notable how the conversation around electability has centered less on what characteristics voters think are important for winning vs. what they say they believe their neighbors think is important, and how that limits their choice as a result. For instance, in “magic wand” polls, where respondents are asked who they’d make president if they had the power to magically bypass the election, Warren has routinely beaten Biden, which stands out to me as a pretty stark example of just how different the race could be if electability wasn’t a factor.

julia_azari: I sort of doubt that any of those candidates would have done a lot better, Perry. That’s partly because the field is so crowded, and because there are so many existential questions about what the party should be doing.

meredithconroy: I think Abrams would’ve done fine, depending when she jumped in, because she has political experience. But I think Michelle Obama and Oprah wouldn’t have done as well because Democrats are generally more wary than Republicans of outsiders and people without formal governing experience.

julia_azari: Would Abrams have cleared the field, though? I doubt it. Sanders and possibly Warren would probably still have run, and if they’re in, then Biden jumps in, too. And I don’t see Buttigieg being put off by Abrams either.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I don’t think there was a single field-clearer out there. Someone with Biden’s resume, maybe, if he or she were considerably younger and without as many failed presidential runs.

perry: Why Booker hasn’t done better is super interesting to me as well. I don’t think he actually has an electability problem, considering on the surface he’s the most similar to the last Democrat who won — black, male and running on a message of hope.

Yet, that hasn’t worked for him. Maybe he has been unlucky (people found another Rhodes Scholar mayor). Then again, maybe it’s because he’s been unable to pick a lane.

Buttigieg says I’m young; Biden says I’m experienced and electable; Warren and Sanders both say they’ll bring big structural change.

Booker, on the other hand, says I’m kind of left, but not that left, kind of young, but not that young, etc.

sarahf: And so you think it’s kind of inexplicable, Perry, that Booker hasn’t done better given all that?

julia_azari: My hunch is that this is the year of the factional candidate.

perry: Yeah, that is my view as well.

sarahf: Wait, what does the year of “the factional candidate” mean?!?

perry: Buttigieg and Biden are running as decidedly center-left. Warren and Sanders to the left. Harris and Booker on the other hand have refused to pick a lane, and in my view, fusion is failing.

julia_azari: Yeah, it’s the year of the candidate who can excite some segment of the party, rather than someone who seems OK to most segments.

perry: Better said.

sarahf: But isn’t trying to appeal to a wide swath of the party versus any one specific group kind of Biden and Buttigieg’s whole appeal? Hence, the whole “Vote for me, I won’t rock the boat too much” strategy?

Or would you say, no — they’ve still staked out an ideological lane more explicitly.

julia_azari: Look at the demographic trends. Biden does well mainly with older voters and minority voters, while Buttigieg really only does well with white voters, particularly those with a college degree. Which is similar to Warren, although she does a little bit better than him with nonwhite voters — but not by much. That’s factional support!

perry: Additionally, Harris and Booker lost the black left to Sanders and Warren, while black voters who are not-that-left ideologically flocked to Biden. That same kind of ideological split exists among white voters, except Buttigieg has done better with more moderate white voters than Harris and Booker have done with moderate black voters.

I do think, in defense of Harris and Booker, perhaps a black candidate can’t run on super-left platform and be seen as viable. There’s a reason why the Jesse Jackson model (a black candidate running on populist platform) has not been replicated and why there is no black Bernie Sanders-style candidate in the race.

sarahf: This theory of the year of the factional candidate is an interesting one and would also help explain to me why someone like Andrew Yang has overperformed expectations as an outsider-y type candidate in a field that has otherwise been not that receptive to candidates of color like Harris and Booker, who have taken a more middle-of-the-road approach. Tulsi Gabbard falls under this category as well I think, given her small-but-loyal fan base.

But this still doesn’t explain someone like Castro, right? After all, he did make being super liberal a core part of his campaign at one point — remember how he got everyone (except O’Rourke) to raise their hand at the first debate in support of making it a civil, not criminal, offense to cross the border without the proper documentation?

perry: In my view, Warren and Sanders don’t leave a lot of room for other super liberal candidates.

meredithconroy: I mostly agree. But I think Castro was smart to carve out space for a candidate who openly supports issues of social and racial justice. He is championing issues that often get sidelined. Only it hasn’t had much impact. Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said that embracing progressive positions on things like immigration may not have done much to help Castro, given liberal voters’ loyalty to Sanders and Warren. So Castro’s poll numbers continue to languish.

sarahf: That’s the thing — he missed the last debate and doesn’t seem likely to make the next one in December either.

But OK, with Harris’s departure from the race, does that mean there really are only four possible front-runners at this stage? Or do people think this could still change?

julia_azari: Klobuchar-mentum!

perry: After every debate, people in the media, myself included, say Booker and Klobuchar did well. Yet they remain stagnant in polls.

Do more donors support Booker now, in part because he would be one of the few minority candidates on the debate stage and is probably more viable than Castro?

Maybe. If I had to bet on a fifth candidate to emerge, I would bet on Booker.

But I am not confident of that bet at all.

julia_azari: I agree with Perry.

meredithconroy: Sanders, Biden and Warren have cemented themselves as front-runners, I think. which I think leaves room for one, maybe two more. I would bet on Buttigieg, Booker or … maybe Yang? AM I TOO ONLINE?

geoffrey.skelley: The problem for Booker is he needs four qualifying polls for the December debate by Dec. 12, and he has zero at the moment. Maybe he can take advantage of Harris’s exit to pick up some of her support — not that there was a ton at this point — but the problem is he’s running out of time.

Yang, on the other hand, is currently one poll short of qualification and the “Yang Gang” is a legit financial resource — he raised about $10 million in the third quarter, which could keep him going for awhile.

sarahf: How will you think about the race moving forward?

julia_azari: The big question for me is whether Castro or Booker picks up any steam as a result of Harris dropping out. Or Klobuchar.

geoffrey.skelley: Maybe the absence of a nonwhite candidate at the top of the polls causes some people to shift their support, but I think we should keep in mind that many of Harris’s supporters will most likely flock to one of the other leading candidates. According to a recent poll from CBS News/YouGov that looked at who voters’ second-choice candidates would be in the early states, 80 percent of Harris supporters named one of the four leading candidates as their second choice.

julia_azari: Yeah, you’re probably right.

I’m on Twitter too much.

geoffrey.skelley: That said, I do think that Gabbard and Yang have very committed supporters who will keep them in the race for a while, but if I’m trying to figure out if there’s a nonwhite candidate who can actually win the Democratic nomination. That list may be empty at this point if Booker doesn’t improve substantially.

meredithconroy: Big picture, the lack of nonwhite front-runners signals to me that a vast number of voters are reluctant to support a nonwhite candidate because they are worried about winning swing states. For voters who are more concerned with policy than beating Trump, my thought is they have probably already settled on Sanders or Warren, which leaves a candidate like Castro — who also has a progressive agenda — out to dry. Long term, it should be a wake-up call for the Democratic party as an organization. They need to continue to build a diverse bench and do more to elevate nonwhite and non-male candidates.

geoffrey.skelley: General election turnout really matters for Democrats. Yes, Hillary Clinton lost for multiple reasons in 2016, but one big reason was lower turnout among black voters. Now, I don’t think anyone expected it to be at the same level as in 2008 or 2012 with Obama not on the ballot, but if you look at cities like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, which were located in the three states that decided the election, black voter turnout was down in all three. Clinton only lost those states by a combined 78,000 votes or so.

So if you’re a Democrat trying to figure out how to win electorally important and fairly white states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, turnout among nonwhite voters is key. The same is true if you’re thinking about other potential swing states like Arizona and North Carolina.

Which means it should be at least somewhat concerning for the Democratic Party that there are really no viable nonwhite candidates left in the race two months before Iowa.

Most 2020 Candidates Have Something In Common: Their Supporters Also Like Warren

At this stage in the Democratic primary, many likely Democratic voters are still considering multiple candidates — and this was true for more than two-thirds of respondents in our poll with Ipsos. Which got us thinking, how many respondents were only considering one candidate?

FiveThirtyEight partnered with Ipsos to conduct a poll, using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, that asked respondents who they were thinking about voting for and allowed them to pick multiple candidates (or “someone else,” or no one). And while most respondents in the post-debate round of polling were considering more than one candidate (66 percent of respondents), 33 percent only picked one candidate.2

And as you can see in the table below, about a fifth of former Vice President Joe Biden’s supporters weren’t considering supporting anyone else, a higher share of exclusive supporters than any other candidate. Likewise, 14.6 percent of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s potential supporters weren’t looking anywhere else.

Which candidates’ supporters are considering only them?

Share of each candidates’ supporters who are only considering voting for that candidate, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

candidate Exclusive* Total Share
Biden 218 996 21.9%
Sanders 100 683 14.6
Gabbard 11 83 13.1
O’Rourke 29 245 11.7
Warren 107 917 11.6
Yang 14 187 7.4
Buttigieg 27 437 6.2
Castro 6 105 5.7
Harris 23 433 5.2
Klobuchar 8 180 4.2
Booker 4 201 2.2
Steyer 1 84 1.4

*Only considering one candidate

From a survey of 1,761 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16.

So what do we make of the fact that such a high share of Biden’s and Sanders’s potential supporters were only considering them? It’s definitely a good sign for their campaigns, as it might be harder for other candidates to win these voters over. But it’s also not the only way to understand the strength of someone’s campaign, especially at this early stage in the primary. If you’re a candidate, getting a lot of voters to at least consider supporting you is important, too, as it means you’re still in the hunt for their vote, and the other candidates on a voter’s list tells you something about what parts of the party your message is appealing to.

Overall, more respondents were considering Biden than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (56.5 to 52.1 percent), but Warren actually shares a lot of potential supporters with the other candidates. Take the rest of the top five candidates — Biden, Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The lion’s share of voters who were considering each of those four were also considering Warren — even though Biden had more total potential supporters. Sanders was also being considered, but the percentage of respondents who also chose him wasn’t as large.

And it isn’t just among the top five candidates whose potential supporters were also thinking about Warren. For all but three candidates — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire Tom Steyer — the person they were most likely to share potential supporters with was Warren. (Gabbard shares the most potential supporters with Sanders and businessman Andrew Yang, while Klobuchar and Steyer share the most with Biden.)

It’s clear Warren appeals to a wide range of Democratic voters, which puts her in a good position to gain supporters if another candidate drops out of the race. But she’s not alone in that position — just as many potential supporters of other candidates are considering Warren, many of Warren’s potential supporters are considering other candidates. So if Warren’s campaign were to run into trouble, candidates like Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Harris could stand to benefit.

The October Democratic Debate In 6 Charts

Last night, 12 candidates duked it out in Westerville, Ohio, in the fourth Democratic debate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren built on her past debate successes, receiving high marks from both voters who care more about defeating President Trump and voters who care more about a candidate whose positions they agree with. But she was not the only winner in the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar had strong performances, too, and used the debate as an opportunity to push back on whether Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s progressive policies are realistic.

We will be keeping an eye on the polls to see if Warren’s solid performance will help her pull ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden, or if Buttigieg and Klobuchar will manage to shore up more support. But for now, here’s a look at how the candidates performed, summed up in six charts:

Which candidates performed the best?

First, we wanted to see which candidates impressed the viewers we surveyed. To do this, we compared each candidate’s pre-debate favorability1 to debate-watchers’ rating of their performance to see if any well-liked candidates disappointed during the debate or if any less-liked candidates received good ratings. By this metric, Klobuchar and Buttigieg were the two candidates who exceeded expectations given their pre-debate favorables, though Warren still received the highest debate grade overall.

Warren performed well among voters who care about defeating Trump

In our poll, about two-thirds of Democratic voters said they value a candidate who has a good chance of beating Trump over someone who agrees with them on the issues — and that didn’t change after the debate. So with “electability” central to the election thus far, we wanted to see whether there was a difference in debate performance evaluations from respondents who said they cared about electability and respondents who said they cared about issues. Differences were small, but there are a few things that stand out.

First, even though Warren has pitched herself as the “issues” candidate — and she did do well among voters who care about the issues — her performance also appealed to respondents who said they prioritized defeating Trump. In fact, they rated her performance higher than that of any other candidate. Sanders also got high ratings from both voters who care more about defeating Trump and voters who care more about the issues, which means candidates making more issued-based appeals can still do well among voters who care about defeating Trump. But it’s a tricky balance. Buttigieg and Biden, for instance, did not do quite as well among voters who cared about the issues, but they did almost as well as Warren among voters who care about beating Trump.

How voters who care about the issues, defeating Trump rated the candidates

How well debate-watchers thought candidates performed in the fourth Democratic debate, by which type of candidate they prefer

Type of candidate preferred
candidate Similar issue positions Able to beat trump
Warren 3.1 3.3
Buttigieg 2.9 3.2
Sanders 3.1 3.1
Biden 2.7 3.1
Klobuchar 2.7 2.9
Booker 2.6 2.9
Harris 2.7 2.9
Yang 2.8 2.7
O’Rourke 2.5 2.7
Steyer 2.4 2.6
Castro 2.5 2.6
Gabbard 2.4 2.3

From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 712 responded to the second wave and said that they watched the debate.

Source: Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight

Who made a positive impression?

We also wanted to see how viewers’ opinions of the candidates changed as a result of the debate. So, to see who made a positive (or negative) impression, we calculated the candidates’ net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) before and after the debate.

Although both Buttigieg and Klobuchar were on the attack, their net favorability increased by 2.6 points and 3.2 points, respectively. That said, even with her modest bump, Klobuchar is still not viewed as favorably as candidates like Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris. And not every candidate made a positive impression: former Rep. Beto O’Rourke lost the gains he made in the last debate and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s return to the stage did not impress viewers either.

More people like Klobuchar; O’Rourke took a hit

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

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
Klobuchar +11.8 +15.0 +3.2
Buttigieg +30.9 +33.5 +2.6
Warren +52.1 +54.3 +2.2
Sanders +43.1 +45.2 +2.1
Biden +47.4 +48.6 +1.2
Steyer +0.8 +2.0 +1.2
Yang +14.2 +14.5 +0.3
Booker +26.3 +25.3 -1.0
Harris +30.8 +28.4 -2.4
Castro +11.6 +8.2 -3.3
Gabbard -2.3 -6.8 -4.5
O’Rourke +22.6 +16.9 -5.7

From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 1,761 responded to the second wave.

Who spoke the most?

Warren got her first taste of being the race’s front-runner, and spent much of the debate deflecting other candidates’ attacks. She spoke almost 3,700 words — more than any other candidate and 600 words more than the second-most-prolific talker, Biden. This is a notable change from the September debate, when Warren was third in words spoken behind both Biden and Booker. Impressively, O’Rourke and Klobuchar — who were both near the bottom for words spoken in the last debate — clocked in at third and fourth in words spoken, respectively. They surpassed Booker, who after being second in words spoken last time spoke the fifth-most words last night.

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the fourth Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Elizabeth Warren 3,695
Joe Biden 3,064
Beto O’Rourke 2,584
Amy Klobuchar 2,559
Cory Booker 2,267
Pete Buttigieg 2,266
Kamala Harris 2,256
Bernie Sanders 2,085
Andrew Yang 1,791
Julián Castro 1,666
Tulsi Gabbard 1,497
Tom Steyer 1,318

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

We also compared the number of words candidates spoke to their polling average, to see if higher-polling candidates spoke as much as expected or if lower-tier candidates managed to steal the mic. (The polling average is based on nine debate-qualifying polls released since the third debate on Sept. 12.)

O’Rourke and Klobuchar way outspoke their lower polling averages. Warren, Buttigieg, and Harris also outperformed their averages, but not by as large of a margin. On the other hand, Sanders and Biden held the floor less than we might expect considering their standing in the polls.

Harris led the pack in calling out Trump

In addition to tracking who spoke most, we also counted how many times the candidates mentioned the president by name:

Who talked about Trump?

How often Trump’s name was mentioned by candidates in the fourth Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Kamala Harris 11
Andrew Yang 9
Pete Buttigieg 8
Amy Klobuchar 7
Tulsi Gabbard 6
Elizabeth Warren 5
Cory Booker 4
Bernie Sanders 4
Tom Steyer 4
Joe Biden 3
Julián Castro 3
Beto O’Rourke 3

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

As a group, the candidates mentioned Trump’s name almost twice as often as in the previous debate — perhaps because the first question asked about impeaching the president. Once again, though, Harris mentioned Trump the most. Candidates who barely mentioned the president by name in the last debate — like Klobuchar (0), Buttigieg (1) and Andrew Yang (2) — name-dropped Trump more often, too, trailing only Harris in number of mentions. After saying Trump’s name the second-most number of times in the previous debate, former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro dropped to the bottom of the group. The candidates who held the floor the longest, such as Warren, Biden and O’Rourke, didn’t mention Trump as much as the other candidates who spoke less.

While the September debate — the first one-night event — was watched by about 15.3 million viewers, preliminary ratings indicate that this debate drew just over half of that, a mere 8.3 million people, despite featuring two more candidates. Interest may be dropping, but the debates will go on: The next debate is scheduled for Nov. 20, and so far eight candidates have qualified. We will be here live blogging and analyzing the debate, so stay tuned!

A Lot Of Americans Say They Don’t Want A President Who Is Over 70. Really?

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

Gallup recently released new data on Americans’ willingness to vote for presidential candidates with certain traits. About 1,000 adults were asked3 whether they’d vote for a well-qualified candidate who was nominated by their party and was black, gay or had one of 10 other characteristics that are rarely or never seen in presidential nominees.

Almost all Americans said they’d be comfortable voting for a woman (94 percent), or a Catholic (95 percent), Hispanic (95 percent) or black (96 percent) candidate. But there are characteristics that big swaths of Americans said would be disqualifying — in particular being older than 70, being an atheist and being a socialist.

What types of candidates would Americans NOT vote for?

Share of respondents to an April survey who said they would not vote for a “generally well-qualified” presidential candidate from their own party if the candidate had each of the following characteristics

Democrats Independents Republicans Overall
Socialist 24% 48% 80% 51%
Atheist 28 33 56 39
Older than 70 35 37 37 37
Muslim 14 26 62 33
Younger than 40 21 28 34 28
Gay or lesbian 17 18 39 24
Evangelical Christian 27 20 6 18
Jewish 5 9 5 7
Woman 3 6 9 6
Catholic 4 6 3 5
Hispanic 3 3 8 5
Black 1 4 5 3

Source: Gallup

These results are fairly similar to what Gallup found when it previously asked this question, in 2015. There were a couple of interesting exceptions, however. Americans in 2019 said they were slightly more comfortable with a candidate who is an evangelical Christian (the share who said they’d vote for such a candidate rose from 73 percent in 2015 to 80 percent this year) or a Muslim (from 60 percent to 66 percent). Socialists, meanwhile, remained unpopular (47 percent in both 2015 and 2019).

So with Democrats obsessed with finding an “electable” candidate, does this mean that Bernie Sanders (who’s over 70 and identifies as a democratic socialist) and Joe Biden (who’s over 70) have big problems? Not so fast. So how seriously am I taking these numbers?

For the 2020 presidential election, I’m not taking them too seriously. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans said they would not back a GOP presidential candidate over the age of 70. Well … yep, President Trump was 70 on Election Day in 2016, and he’ll be 74 in 2020. I’ll bet that more than 63 percent of Republicans will vote for him — his job approval rating among GOP voters is currently in the 90s. In short, it’s important to remember that the survey question asks about categories of people, not individuals. The negative feelings that some Americans might have toward the idea of a gay or socialist presidential candidate, for example, might not apply to Pete Buttigieg or Sanders specifically.

On the other hand, these numbers could be understating some Americans’ resistance to certain characteristics. In particular, I’d view the numbers on ethnicity, race and gender skeptically. It could be true that virtually all Americans are comfortable with a black, female or Hispanic president, as the Gallup data implies. But I’d expect Americans who aren’t comfortable to be unlikely to express that view to a pollster. So I wouldn’t use this data to suggest that, say, Julian Castro wouldn’t run into electoral problems caused by racism or Elizabeth Warren because of sexism if either were the Democratic nominee.

In terms of which groups might face overt discrimation in the U.S., I’m taking these numbers more seriously. The results generally lined up with my expectations of which categories of people Americans are both somewhat wary of and willing to say so to another person.

Being a socialist is an expression of left-wing political views, so it’s natural and unsurprising that a lot of Americans, particularly Republicans, would openly oppose a socialist candidate. Similarly, it’s not surprising that some Americans wouldn’t want a president who is in her 70s as president (maybe they suspect that person wouldn’t have the energy for the job) or who is younger than 40 (a lack of experience). This is also a view that is perhaps not particularly controversial to express — columns suggesting that Biden (76) and Sanders (77) are too old to be running for president are published regularly.

What views about candidates are more controversial? Disqualifying people based on gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality. Again, I’d expect some Americans with negative attitudes toward certain religious groups, racial groups and sexual orientations not to admit that to a pollster.

Here’s where it gets interesting, however: The share of Americans who were willing to tell a pollster that they would not back an atheist, evangelical Christian, gay or Muslim presidential candidate was nonetheless fairly high. That lines up with how these four groups are treated in American culture — they face open, direct criticism based on their identities. (I don’t want to cast all parties as equal here — Republicans’ high level of opposition to an atheist or Muslim candidate jumps out.)

In terms of understanding the diversity of the Democratic Party, I’m taking these numbers very seriously. I’ve written that Biden is essentially the candidate of the un-woke Democrat (or maybe “less woke” is more accurate) and that those voters still represent a substantial bloc of the Democratic Party. This data is more evidence of that bloc’s existence. I was surprised that the share of Democrats who are uncomfortable with an evangelical Christian president was matched by about an equal share wary of a president who is an atheist or a socialist, since the Democratic Party is often characterized as becoming less religious and more liberal on economic issues. The share of Democrats who said they would not vote for a gay or Muslim candidate was also larger than I anticipated.

Other polling bites

  • 46 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina say they would vote for Biden, according to a new Post and Courier/Change Research poll, with only two of his rivals reaching double digits. Sanders (15 percent) and Kamala Harris (10 percent) are far behind the former vice president, as is the rest of the 2020 Democratic field.
  • Biden leads in Pennsylvania too, with 39 percent of the vote, according to a new Quinnipiac University survey. The only other candidate in double digits was Sanders (13 percent).
  • The Quinnipiac survey also found Biden leading Trump 53 percent to 42 percent in Pennsylvania in a hypothetical general election matchup. Sanders also bested Trump (50-43).
  • In the Republican nomination contest, Trump leads former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld 72 percent to 12 percent in New Hampshire, according to a recent Monmouth University survey.
  • 61 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, and 31 percent oppose it, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Support for same-sex marriage varied by party (75 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, compared with 44 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents). It varied by race (62 percent of white Americans, 58 percent of Hispanic Americans, 51 percent of black Americans). And it varied by religion (79 percent of those who are religiously unaffiliated, 66 percent of white mainline Protestants, 61 percent of Catholics, 29 percent of white evangelical Protestants).
  • 47 percent of registered voters rated the economy as “excellent” or “good,” according to a new Fox News poll.
  • Also from that Fox News poll: The share of voters who said Trump hasn’t been tough enough with North Korea is up to 50 percent; that number was 19 percent in September 2017.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.0 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.1 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.1 points). At this time last week, 42.4 percent approved and 52.7 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.3 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.1 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.3 percent, for a net approval rating of -10.2 points.

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