Americans Say They Would Vote For A Woman, But …

A record number of women are running for president in 2020, and now two women look like serious contenders for the presidential nomination — Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, both of whom rose in the polls after strong performances in the first Democratic debate. Joe Biden is still in the lead, but Warren and Harris may be starting to chip away at one of the central conceits of the 2020 race so far: the idea that Biden has the best shot at defeating President Trump.

For months now, voters have told reporters that they want to elect a woman — but after Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, they simply can’t imagine a woman winning against Trump. And this calculus is often justified by beliefs about other people’s sexism — an Ipsos/Daily Beast poll in June, for example, found that only 33 percent of Democrats and independents said they believed that their neighbors would be comfortable with a female president. But the performances of Warren and Harris in the first debate may have allowed some of those voters to envision a path to victory for these candidates for the first time.

Even with Warren and Harris on the upswing, though, it’s hard not to wonder if sexism will still make it more difficult for a woman to win the nomination. After all, the other women in the race — including Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, who seemed at the outset like promising contenders — are still barely registering in the polls. Whether these women are struggling because of their gender is pretty much impossible to say right now; in part, this is because there is, of course, no research to tell us how six female candidates might fare against 17 male competitors in a presidential primary.

But that doesn’t mean we’re completely in the dark about how sexism affects women’s electoral chances. Political science research has established that women who run for elected office have to navigate a thicket of stereotypes and double standards that their male counterparts are unlikely to experience. And while most scholars agree that partisanship usually overpowers voters’ biases about female leaders, no matter how deeply held, a long and crowded presidential primary could be especially challenging.

So with the caveat that we will learn a lot about gender and elections over the next 16 months (not that we’re counting), here’s a link-heavy introduction to what we know already — and how that could influence the Democratic primary.

Americans say they will vote for a woman, but they’re still influenced by stereotypes

These days, it’s hard to find voters who openly admit that they’re reluctant to support a woman for president. Only 13 percent of Americans believe that men are better suited for politics than women, according to the 2018 General Social Survey. And a Gallup poll conducted in May found that 94 percent of Americans say they would vote for a woman for president.

But many people’s assumptions about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be an elected leader still don’t line up, which can put female candidates at a disadvantage when they step into the political sphere. The traits most people associate with politicians — for example, competence, ambition, aggressiveness, confidence, toughness — are linked to masculine behavior. And studies have found that as a result, men are often assumed to be viable candidates from the get-go, while women must work to be taken seriously. “Men have a leg up in politics because there’s a basic assumption that they’re qualified to run,” said Nichole Bauer, a professor at Louisiana State University who studies political psychology.

These stereotypes are mostly unconscious — these days they rarely emerge, fully formed, in our political discourse. But we can see them bubbling underneath the surface, like when female candidates are asked if they’re “likable” — a question that’s already in the air in 2020. (Gillibrand was asked this question within minutes of formally announcing her campaign.) And trying to seem “likable” can quickly morph into an impossible bind for female politicians because they’re trying to fill two roles with very different sets of expectations — “woman” and “leader.” Appearing both qualified and likable can mean walking a narrow tightrope between the stereotypically masculine qualities that are associated with political leadership and feminine qualities like warmth, kindness and empathy.

This can be a hard act to pull off. Research has shown that being liked has outsize importance for women because voters will support a man they dislike, but they will not support a qualified, unlikable woman. Take what happened in the 2016 presidential election: Trump and Clinton both had historically low favorability ratings, but Trump still eked out a victory despite Clinton’s political credentials. That speaks to another trap several political scientists told me that women often face: A long political track record can open a candidate up to more criticism, but without an established résumé, a woman might not be taken seriously at all. Men, meanwhile, can run with less experience and get away with talking more vaguely about their policy positions, according to Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Foundation, a nonprofit group that has done research on gender bias and elections. “Women are judged more harshly if it seems like they’re learning on the job,” she said. “So that means they have to be uber-prepared to run, while men can kind of figure it out as they go.”

There are some stereotypes that can work to female candidates’ advantage — but they can be a double-edged sword. Women are more likely to be seen as having expertise on issues that are stereotypically associated with women, like health care or child care, which can give them a boost when those issues are at the top of voters’ minds — a nice edge until you learn that men have an advantage on issues like the economy or national security. Female politicians are generally assumed to be more liberal, too, which can be a good thing in the Democratic primary but can quickly go south in a general election. And studies have shown that women are generally perceived as possessing more honesty and compassion than men — qualities that many voters say are important for politicians. But Cecilia Mo, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, cautioned that even being seen as the more civil or morally upright candidate can become a liability because there’s more room for disappointment.

“We assume female political leaders are more of these good things — warm, honest, caring, smart,” Mo said. “But when women candidates are shown to be flawed in some way, voters are much less forgiving than they are of their male counterparts.” Mo’s recent research suggests that voters punish female candidates more than male candidates for scandals or political attacks, perhaps because voters have higher expectations for women’s judgment or integrity.

There are plenty of metaphors for the limitations female candidates face, but whether they’re on a pedestal or a tightrope, there isn’t much room to maneuver, and there’s a long way to fall. And all of these biases — helpful or not — end up narrowing the possibilities for how a viable female candidate can behave. Of course, the six women running for the Democratic nomination will navigate these stereotypes differently and won’t all be affected by them in the same way. Other factors like race, age and political ideology will also shape how the candidates are perceived by voters, which means that gender bias could have a bigger effect on some candidates than on others.

Stereotypes may not stop women from winning elections — but they probably make it harder

The question, then, is not whether women face gender stereotypes when they run for elected office — they do. But do women actually lose elections because of sexism?

It’s very difficult to get a definitive answer to this question when it comes to presidential races, since only one woman — Hillary Clinton — has ever run on a major party ticket. So instead, researchers have focused on lower-level races to figure out whether voters actually penalize women because of their gender. And they found that women do well at the ballot box, in spite of the barriers they face.

In congressional races, for example, several studies have shown that women win at about the same rate as men. To some political scientists, this suggests that the problem isn’t with voters, who seem entirely willing to elect women when given the opportunity. The logic here is fairly simple — if more women run, more elections will be like the 2018 midterms, in which a historic number of female candidates were elected to Congress.

Despite these promising statistics, some scholars still think sexism is fueling women’s underrepresentation, at least to some extent. For one thing, lurking within those studies of women’s performance in congressional elections is a revealing data point: Female candidates are generally more qualified than their male rivals. “That’s actually a sign that voters may still be biased against women because why else aren’t the higher-quality candidates winning at a higher rate?” said Sarah Anzia, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. And other researchers have found that when a man and a woman run against each other and are equally qualified, the woman is more likely to lose.

It’s also possible that gender bias still poses a significant risk, but women have just gotten better at figuring out how to neutralize it. “If you’re a woman in politics, you know voters are less likely to think you’re qualified or competent,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “So your goal is to make sure that when Election Day rolls around, you’ve responded effectively to those concerns. But that means that on every other day of your campaign, gender bias is influencing your strategy and your experience.”

Presidential races are especially difficult for women, starting with the primary

So what does all of this mean for 2020 and, say, the chances of Harris or Warren in the Democratic primary? It’s hard to arrive at a definitive answer because the vast majority of the studies on how often women win look at general election matchups — not primary contests, in which the candidates are from the same party.

And Kathleen Dolan, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said that while these studies tell us a lot about the power of party loyalty, they can’t signal how voters will act in all elections. “Your uncle Joe could think that women aren’t as good as men,” she said. “But there’s no evidence that he will actually cross over and vote for the other party’s candidate to avoid voting for a woman.” How uncle Joe will behave when he’s choosing between two candidates of the same party is pretty much anyone’s guess.

Several political scientists told me that gender could play a bigger role early in a primary than it does later on. When voters don’t have much information about the candidates beyond basic information like gender, they’re more likely to rely on stereotypes. Several studies have even suggested that voters who make their choice with little or no outside knowledge are more likely to support a man. “There’s more room for gender bias to actually influence your decision if you know very little about who someone is beyond the fact that they’re a woman,” Anzia said. This could help explain why Harris’s and Warren’s standing rose after the debate, when they were able to make a strong impression on millions of potential primary voters who may not have known much about them before tuning in.

But voters’ prejudices about women may also just be stronger when it comes to the presidency. Studies have found that voters may be more biased against women when they run for executive offices. So women in a presidential campaign will likely have to do more than their male rivals to convince voters that they deserve to sit in the Oval Office, even if those voters also say they’re fine, in theory, with the idea of a female president.

If you’re a woman running for president, Democratic primary voters will probably be an especially friendly crowd. A recent experiment conducted by CBS and YouGov looked at the qualities prioritized by Democratic voters in a series of matchups between hypothetical candidates, and it found that Democrats showed a clear preference for female candidates. One of the studies about executive leadership indicated that Democrats are more likely than Republicans and independents to see women as viable leaders, and a meta-analysis of multiple studies also found that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support female candidates, all things being equal.

This enthusiasm for female candidates, though, has to contend in voters’ minds with the still-fresh memory of the sexism Clinton faced on the campaign trail and her ultimate defeat in 2016. And Democratic voters also aren’t wholly immune to sexism, and some do seem more reluctant to vote for women. One ongoing study suggests that gender bias hurt Clinton in her race against Bernie Sanders in 2016. Political scientists Erin Cassese and Kevin Banda looked at how Democratic primary voters in 2016 scored on a scale designed to measure sexism. They found that some Democrats held hostile views toward women, and those voters were less likely to vote for Clinton in the primaries. Cassese expects these voters will be especially open to the notion that women are less electable than men. A survey conducted just before the first debate found that support for Warren and Harris was, in fact, lower among voters with more sexist views.

Scholars, meanwhile, are still divided about the role that sexism played in Clinton’s downfall. But the fact that she lost a campaign defined by her gender — and by Trump’s sexism — could make it hard for voters to imagine another woman charting a different path, at least while Trump is the opponent.

But it’s also too early to know exactly how all of this will play out. Two months ago, Warren’s campaign still hadn’t taken off, and now she has out-fundraised Sanders and is pulling ahead of him in some polls. Harris, similarly, has surged in the polls only in the past few weeks. Their recent success certainly doesn’t mean that they have figured out the key to running for president as a woman — everything can (and probably will) change over the coming months. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether any of the other four women will be able to emerge from the crowded purgatory of candidates who average around 1 percent or below in the polls.

It’s clear that female candidates can win despite sexism, but as the research shows, they probably can’t escape it entirely. This time around, voters and candidates alike are acutely aware of the barriers that remain for women seeking the White House. But will gender biases assume their familiar shape with an unprecedented number of women in the race? We’re about to find out.

Meredith Conroy contributed research.

A Midsummer Overview Of The Democratic Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tier 4: These candidates are also running for some reason

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

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

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

Where Kamala Harris’s New Voters Came From

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

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

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

Harris more than doubled her support; Biden took a hit

Share of support for candidates before and after the debate

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

Numbers may not add up due to rounding

Source: Morning Consult

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

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

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

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

How did debate watchers and non-watchers differ?

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

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

Source: Morning Consult

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

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

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

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

How Will Democrats Talk About Race In 2020?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

perry: No, but they might help Warren.

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

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

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

meredithconroy: Very unclear!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She is a fairly establishment-friendly candidate.

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

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

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

It has the potential for a lot of backlash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A weaker Biden is good for everyone.

meredithconroy: Yeah, I think Perry is right.

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

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

What We’re Watching For In The First Democratic Debates

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


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

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

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

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

Sound good?

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

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

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

That’s it.

Nothing else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans drew more eyeballs than Democrats in 2016

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

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

Democrats had only nine primary debates in the 2016 cycle.

Sources: News Reports

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

The second debate features more heavyweight candidates

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

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

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

Source: Polls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s definitely expectations-raising.

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

sarahf: Why do you think that, Geoff?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you want to project seriousness and steadiness?

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

That seems like YOUR projection 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I think it happens pretty fast.

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

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

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

clare.malone: How many, Nate?

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

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

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

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

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

If they do at all.

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

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

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

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

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

clare.malone: But does that movement last?

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

natesilver: It’s often a bump.

But everything can be a bump.

clare.malone: 🤰

[bump]

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

And boosting your name recognition is half the battle.

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

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

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

Major 2020 Candidates change in the polls and name recognition

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think that serves the audience better.

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

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

Jinx.

natesilver: Haha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

clare.malone: It’s definitely on Bullock!

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

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

And she was way more dynamic than Yang.

Sorry, but I’m not sorry.

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

natesilver: She’s not actually popular, though.

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

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

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

Gabbard or Williamson draw a lot of opposition

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

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

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

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

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

… Is it clarity on Biden’s policy positions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

geoffrey.skelley: And the other candidates.

clare.malone: Definitely, the other candidates.

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

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

nrakich: Agreed, Nate.

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

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

clare.malone: What are you arguing?

That moderators won’t push him?

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

Bernie, for instance, comes to mind.

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

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

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

It’s a tough balance to strike.

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

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

geoffrey.skelley: Not especially.

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

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

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

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

And sorta win ugly.

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

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

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

Maybe that is his comfort zone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

natesilver: AnDrEw YaNg.

sarahf: mArIaNnE wILlIaMsOn.

Woo, fun lettering.

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

natesilver: It’s a troll font.

nrakich: Right, which kind of troll?

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

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

How Will Biden’s Latest Comments Affect His Standing In The Democratic Primary?

Joe Biden’s popularity with black voters is a huge factor in the 2020 Democratic primary. In most state and national polls that show results by race, Biden has big leads over his Democratic rivals among African-American voters. He leads more narrowly, and sometimes trails, among white Democrats. His strong black support creates the potential for Biden to survive an early loss in Iowa and/or New Hampshire by dominating the contests in the South, which tend to have large black electorates.1

So with black voters so vital to his candidacy, this week’s controversy around Biden seems really important at first glance. This wasn’t a single gaffe by the ex-vice president, but really four. In remarks at a fundraiser on Tuesday night, Biden emphasized his ability to work across the aisle by referring to his relationships with James Eastland, a Democratic senator from Mississippi from 1943-1978, and Heman Talmadge, a Democratic senator from Georgia who served from 1957-1981. Both men were strong opponents of desegregation. Making it worse, Biden specifically noted that Eastland had referred to him as “son,” but not “boy” — a cringeworthy comment by Biden because white Americans in that era often called black adults “boy” to demean them. When Sen. Cory Booker said that the vice president should apologize for the “boy” and Eastland comments, Biden responded by saying it was Booker who should apologize, with Biden essentially describing himself as the aggrieved person in this dispute, not Booker, one of only three African-American members of the Senate. Finally, the Democratic front-runner invoked a phrase often used by older white people after making problematic racial comments, “there’s not a racist bone in my body.”

Nothing Biden said this week is likely to be featured in a class on how to discuss racial issues well. But we should be careful not to assume Biden’s inartful comments will hurt the front-runner, particularly with black voters. And If this episode does erode Biden’s support, it’s likely to be with a broad range of Democrats, not just black voters.

To start, black voters aren’t only the Democrats who might find Biden’s comments particularly problematic. As FiveThirtyEight has written before, the intense coverage since 2014 of police shootings of African-Americans and the rise of Black Lives Matter have resulted in a sharp rise in the percentage of white Democrats who believe blacks suffer from both past and current racial discrimination, according to polls.

Here’s Democrats overall on racism:

And Democrats by race on equal rights:

Those charts are a little out of date, but recent data shows a similar dynamic. A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year found that 80 percent of white Democrats feel that the legacy of slavery still affects African-Americans, just shy of the 87 percent of black Democrats who hold that view.2 According to Pew, a higher percentage of white Democrats (78 percent) than black Democrats (71 percent) said that being white helps a person get ahead in America today.

What kind of white Democrats might be the most bothered by Biden’s comments? In the Pew data, the white Americans most likely to say that blacks face particular disadvantages are those who are have college degrees and are under age 30. Remember that polls of Democratic primary voters generally show Biden with big leads among older, less-educated and more moderate Democrats, while younger, more liberal and more educated Democrats are more divided on his candidacy. So one potential outcome is these comments reinforce that dynamic — this is another reason for younger and more liberal Democrats across racial lines to oppose Biden, but his older and more moderate supporters aren’t as annoyed by them. (Biden’s base has essentially shrugged off controversies about how he has touched women in the past.) My bottom line: Don’t assume this controversy cuts along purely black-white lines.

But if these comments could hurt Biden will all Democrats, they could alternatively not really damage him much at all — even among black voters. Poll after poll has found that Biden has very, very high approval ratings among black voters. For example, a survey conducted last month on behalf of the Black Economic Alliance found that 76 percent of black Democrats are either enthusiastic or comfortable with Biden’s candidacy, compared to just 16 percent who are uncomfortable or have some reservations. This was the best favorable/unfavorable of any of the candidates that respondents were asked about. And according to data from Morning Consult, which is conducting weekly polls of the 2020 race with large sample sizes — giving us more resolution on results for subgroups — older black voters really, really like Biden: He is getting more than 55 percent of the Democratic primary vote among blacks age 45 and over, compared to 34 percent among blacks under age 45.

So I’m skeptical that this controversy will substantially erode that support, particularly among older black voters who have such positive feelings about Biden. In the early stages of this race, he has already weathered another issue that involves race: his treatment of Anita Hill during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991, when Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I’m not predicting that Biden, in a much different primary race, wins black voters by Clinton-level margins. But the idea that black voters will swing wildly away from a candidate because a gaffe or controversy involves race just isn’t borne out by history or the data. In 2016, Hillary Clinton faced a lot of flak over a 1994 anti-crime bill that many Democratic activists now argue was overly punitive, specifically toward African-Americans, since her husband was the person who signed it into law. But she still overwhelmingly won the black vote in the Democratic primary. Biden was heavily involved in that bill — but so far, that has not dented his support with black voters. And amid this week’s controversy, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus publicly defended Biden.

In fact, Biden’s comments might reinforce one thing some black voters like about him: Biden might be relatable to people with some racist views, making Biden more electable than, say, a black candidate. It’s hard to get at these dynamics in formal polls. But in interviews I’ve done (and other reporters have found this as well), black voters often express the view that the U.S. elections in 2008 and 2012 were somewhat of an anomaly (that Americans would elect a black president). For them, 2016 was a return to normal (Americans elected a president who had expressed some anti-black sentiments). One of the challenges for Harris’s campaign in particular has been that many African-Americans voters, having watched the hatred of Obama from some Republicans and then Trump’s victory, believe that America is too racist and sexist to elect a black female president.

In short, black voters care about “electability” too — and that is likely benefitting Biden, at least at this stage of the campaign. Lots of polls have found a majority of Democrats are prioritizing beating Trump over issues and policy. That includes black voters. The firm Avalanche Strategy, in data provided to FiveThirtyEight, found that about a quarter of black voters would prefer a different 2020 candidate than the one that they currently favor if they could wave a “magic wand” and just make the person president without him or her having to win the primary or the general election. That share is about the same for Latino and non-Hispanic white voters.

It’s hard to predict what will happen to Biden’s standing in the wake of this week’s news. But I think it’s increasingly clear that the way we think about racial controversies (with the implication that minorities are particularly triggered by them) and the black vote (assuming it is fairly monolithic) are off. Biden’s positive mentions of his work with segregationist senators may have annoyed nonblack Democrats as much or more than black ones. And the biggest question is not whether it pulls all black people from Biden — the younger ones are already kind of ambivalent about him — but whether it breaks his bond with older black people.

Bulletpoint: Is Electability A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

This is Silver Bulletpoints — see the previous Bulletpoint here.

I’d describe myself as “anti-anti-electability.” Electability is a problematic concept in several respects, and it can serve as an invitation to promote white men over women and minorities even though it’s not really clear that white men have any sort of electoral advantage. Nonetheless, Democrats care a lot about who can beat President Trump. If, hypothetically, one candidate had a 70 percent chance of beating Trump and another one had a 40 percent chance, both voters and the media would be right to give that lots of consideration.

The problem is there’s no way to estimate electability that precisely. There’s some empirical basis for some claims about electability, such as that more moderate candidates are more electable, but even those are fuzzy.

And at times, concerns about electability can be self-fulfilling prophecies. A recent Avalanche Strategy poll found Joe Biden in the lead, but when voters were asked to “imagine that they have a magic wand and can make any of the candidates president,” Elizabeth Warren narrowly became the top choice:

Being a woman was the biggest barrier to electability, based on Avalanche’s analysis of the results, and women were more likely to cite gender as a factor than men. So there are a lot of women who might not vote for a woman because they’re worried that other voters won’t vote for her. But if everyone just voted for who they actually wanted to be president, the woman would win!

Obviously, I’m oversimplifying. Voters could avoid a woman in the primary because they’re worried about her chances in a general election. Still, it’s important to keep these feedback loops in mind. If voters start to see other voters supporting Warren (in polls and eventually in primaries), their concerns about her electability may lessen.

Check out the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections, including all the Democratic primary polls.

No, Florida Is Not Redder Than Texas

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

The 2018 election saw some remarkable performances by Democrats — including, prominently, in the red state of Texas, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke came close to defeating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. But in Florida, which is usually considered a swing state, Republicans Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis won the Senate and gubernatorial races (albeit by razor-thin margins), respectively, even as the national political environment favored Democrats by almost 9 percentage points. This gave rise to a narrative among political observers that Florida may now be further out of Democrats’ reach than Texas is. But this … has never made a lot of sense to me, and a new poll has given my side of the argument some ammunition.

This week, Quinnipiac University released a survey of Florida voters that included six possible 2020 general-election matchups between President Trump and different Democratic candidates. It found Trump trailing his Democratic opponent in each case, with margins ranging from 1 to 9 percentage points. As luck would have it, Quinnipiac three weeks ago asked Texas voters about those six general-election matchups. In that poll, five of the six Democrats trailed Trump — only former Vice President Joe Biden beat him (by 4 points).

Now, to be clear, I’m not asking you to put a lot of stock in those individual matchup results — as my colleague Perry Bacon Jr. wrote in this space last week, polls of general-election matchups at this point in the election cycle aren’t terribly predictive of the eventual results. However, we can compare the results of the Texas and Florida polls with a recent national Quinnipiac survey that asked about five of the matchups to get a sense of how much more Republican each state is than the nation as a whole.

And as you can see in the table below, if we compare Quinnipiac’s Florida poll to the pollster’s national survey, it implies that the Sunshine State is about 4 points more Republican-leaning than the nation. Meanwhile, the Texas poll suggests that the Lone Star State is about 10 points more Republican-leaning than the country. So according to Quinnipiac at least (and to be fair, it’s just one pollster’s read on the landscape), Florida is still left of Texas in the national partisan pecking order.

Florida is still bluer than Texas

How five presidential candidates performed against Trump in hypothetical general-election matchups in Florida and Texas vs. nationally

Trump vs. National (June 6-10) Florida (June 12-17) Florida Difference
Biden D+13 D+9 R+4
Sanders D+9 D+6 R+3
Warren D+7 D+4 R+3
Harris D+8 D+1 R+7
Buttigieg D+5 D+1 R+4
Average R+4
Trump vs. National (June 6-10) Texas (May 29-June 4) texas Difference
Biden D+13 D+4 R+9
Sanders D+9 R+3 R+12
Warren D+7 R+1 R+8
Harris D+8 R+4 R+12
Buttigieg D+5 R+2 R+7
Average R+10

Source: Quinnipiac University

I think the reason people have rushed to re-shade Florida from purple to red has to do with misplaced perceptions. Florida went blue in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and red in 2016, leading many to think of it as a bellwether state. But in each of those years, the Democratic presidential candidate did worse in Florida than they did in the national popular vote, so the state was actually a bit red relative to the country as a whole. The results in 2018 were consistent with that.

It’s not that I don’t agree that Florida is a Republican-leaning state — I do think it is light red. But I fear that people are overcompensating for (wrongly) considering it perfectly purple before 2018 by now considering it stubbornly Republican. And while Texas appears to be drifting toward the middle, for now at least, both polling and election results suggest that it is still redder than Florida.

Other polling bites

  • For all the ink spilled about the rules for qualifying for the Democratic presidential debates, a Politico/Morning Consult poll reveals that most Democrats are tuning out the griping. Sixty-one percent of voters who plan to participate in the Democratic primaries said they haven’t heard much, if anything, about some candidates’ criticisms of the debate rules. Instead, many seem content to trust the Democratic National Committee — 54 percent said the DNC is doing a “very” or “somewhat” fair job at running the debates, 33 percent didn’t know or had no opinion, and 13 percent thought the process was being handled “somewhat” or “very” unfairly.
  • Most Democratic presidential candidates — and most Americans — support “Medicare for All,” but there’s a lot of ambiguity in what that term means. According to a poll conducted by Global Strategy Group, 60 percent think it refers to a “plan that lets anyone buy Medicare instead of their current private insurance, if they want to,” while 40 percent believe it “makes everyone get rid of their current private insurance and switch over to Medicare.”
  • In reaction to the May 31 shooting in Virginia Beach, Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session of the Virginia legislature to enact gun control legislation. And a new Public Policy Polling survey sponsored by a pro-gun control group found that among Virginians in four key Republican-held legislative districts, 62 percent of respondents supported a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles, and 63 percent favored a ban on high-capacity magazines (one of which was used in the Virginia Beach shooting).
  • In hopes of eating into Biden’s polling lead, some campaign rivals have tried to attack Biden over his support for the 1994 crime bill that many now argue contributed to the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S. However, a HuffPost/YouGov survey reveals why that might not work: Many Democrats simply don’t seem to know much about the law. Forty-one percent said they are “not very” or “not at all” familiar with the crime bill, and 58 percent said they were not sure which 2020 candidates supported it.
  • Chances are the “song of the summer” has already been released, so Ipsos is asking Americans what they think it will be. Out of 13 options, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Old Town Road” came in first place, with 20 percent of respondents naming it; in second was “ME!” by Taylor Swift and Brendon Urie, garnering 10 percent of the vote.
  • Across the pond, YouGov asked members of the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party what they would be willing to risk in order to realize the country’s exit from the European Union. Respondents said they were willing to endure significant damage to the U.K. economy (61 percent to 29 percent) and even the destruction of the Conservative Party itself (54 percent to 36 percent). However, there was a line that Tories were unwilling to cross. Respondents said 51 percent to 39 percent that they were not willing to achieve Brexit if it meant electing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.5 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.1 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.6 points). At this time last week, 42.3 percent approved and 52.9 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.6 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 41.8 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.3 percent, for a net approval rating of -11.5 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.2 percentage points (46.0 percent to 39.8 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.2 points (46.1 percent to 39.9 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 5.0 points (45.4 percent to 40.4 percent).

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

Should We Take These Early General Election Polls Seriously? $#!% No!

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

A lot of people are talking about hypothetical 2020 general election polls, including the president of the United States.

A national Quinnipiac University poll released this week, for example, showed Joe Biden with a 53-40 lead against President Trump. But it wasn’t just Biden — all the Democratic contenders Quinnipiac included in matchups with Trump were significantly ahead of the president: Bernie Sanders 51-42, Kamala Harris 49-41, Elizabeth Warren 49-42, Cory Booker 47-42 and Pete Buttigieg 47-42. Meanwhile, in an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump dismissed any polls that showed him trailing the Democrats.12 “No, my polls show that I’m winning everywhere,” Trump said.

So, just how seriously should we take hypothetical general election polls more than a year out and before the Democratic nominee has been selected?

Not seriously.

In the runup to the 2016 presidential election, this same question came up, and FiveThirtyEight analyzed general election polls from 1944 to 2012 that tested the eventual nominees and were conducted in the last two months of the year before the election (so for 2012, that would be November and December of 2011). On average, these polls missed the final result by 11 percentage points.13

Polling Accuracy A Year Before The Election
Election Average GOP Poll Lead GOP Election Margin Absolute Error
1964 -50.3 -22.6 27.7
1992 +21.0 -5.6 26.1
1980 -15.5 +9.7 25.2
2000 +11.9 -0.5 12.4
1984 +7.2 +18.2 11.0
1988 +18.0 +7.7 10.3
2008 -0.3 -7.3 6.9
1956 +22.0 +15.4 6.6
1944 -14.0 -7.5 6.5
2004 +8.7 +2.5 6.2
1996 -13.0 -8.5 4.5
1960 +3.0 -0.2 3.2
2012 -2.8 -3.9 1.0
1948 -3.8 -4.5 0.7
Average 10.6

The last presidential election featured one of the more accurate sets of early polls for this point in the cycle: Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump 46.2 percent to 41.2 percent in an average of all polls conducted in November and December 2015, missing the eventual national popular vote margin by about 3 points.14 (The actual result was Clinton 48.0 percent, Trump 46.0 percent.)

But that’s more the exception than the rule, as the table above shows. And remember, these are polls conducted at least five months later in the cycle than where we are now. Jump back to roughly this point in the 2016 cycle, for example, and Clinton was ahead of all eight of her hypothetical GOP opponents in a May 2015 Quinnipiac poll, with a whopping 50-32 advantage over Trump.

There’s just soooo much that can and will change. To take the two biggest ones: Democrats have an entire primary to get through and a nominee to pick. And we really have no idea what the economy will look like by Election Day 2020.

OK, maybe you’re not shocked that very early general election polling isn’t particularly predictive. Do these numbers tell us anything at all? Maybe. I think they hint at two things.

First, the Republican Party under Trump has had a ceiling so far — and it’s south of 50 percent of American voters. The president won 46 percent of the vote in 2016. House Republicans won 45 percent of the national House vote in 2018. Trump’s approval rating for the past two years has been between 37 percent and 43 percent. I doubt that Trump will get just 42 percent of the national vote (and most other national polls pitting him against the Democratic candidates have him in the mid-40s). At the same time, it’s pretty hard right now to see Trump getting the majority of the electorate behind him.

That doesn’t mean he can’t win. But Trump may need, like in 2016, to overperform in the Electoral College relative to the popular vote and for third-party candidates (perhaps Justin Amash or Howard Schultz) to take some of the anti-Trump vote from the Democratic nominee.

Secondly, this poll is more evidence that Trump should probably spend less time courting his political base and more time appealing to voters outside of it. He’s getting more than 90 percent of the Republican vote in head-to-head matchups against these Democratic candidates (even against Biden), according to the Quinnipiac survey. And that’s consistent with other data. Gallup polling suggests that Trump’s approval rating among self-identified Republicans is around 90 percent. In the 2018 midterms, exit polls suggested that about 94 percent of self-identified Republicans backed the GOP House candidate, as did 88 percent of those who approve of President Trump.

Trump’s real political problem is self-identified independents and voters who don’t love him or hate him. In the 2018 midterms, independents broke heavily for the Democrats in U.S. House elections (+12), as did voters who “somewhat” disapproved of the president (+29), according to exit polls. In this Quinnipiac survey, all the Democratic candidates had double digit leads over Trump among independents, and those are the numbers that should worry the president and his political team.

Other polling bites

  • 63 percent of Americans favor allowing transgender people to serve in the U.S. military, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey released this week.
  • According to a new Monmouth University poll, Biden leads among Democratic presidential candidates with 36 percent of the vote in Nevada, which votes third in the Democratic nomination process. Warren (19 percent) and Sanders (13 percent) are the only other two candidates polling in double digits.
  • 79 percent of Iowa Democrats said that to get their vote, a Democratic presidential candidate must support “a woman’s right to abortion,” according to a recently released by Selzer & Co. for the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll; 12 percent said that position was not a must-have.
  • In the same poll, 23 percent of Iowa Democrats said that a candidate must support offering all Americans free tuition to a public four-year college; 15 percent said they would oppose a candidate who took that position.
  • 33 percent of Americans favor Congress starting impeachment proceedings against Trump, compared with 61 percent who do not, according to a Quinnipiac survey released this week; 44 percent believe he “deserves to be impeached,” while 50 percent do not.
  • 72 percent of Americans oppose a proposal to increase the salaries of members of Congress by $4,500, compared with 14 percent who support the idea, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released this week. The proposal would have meant members’ salaries were $178,500 per year.
  • 49 percent of Americans support the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions, compared with 32 percent who oppose it, according to the Politico/Morning Consult survey.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.3 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.9 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.6 points). At this time last week, 41.5 percent approved and 53.6 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -12.1 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.4 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.5 percent (for a net approval rating of -10.1 points).

Congressional generic ballot

According to FiveThirtyEight’s congressional generic ballot tracker — which returned this week! — about 46.1 percent of Americans would vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress, compared with 39.9 percent who would choose a Republican.

Check out the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections, including all the Democratic primary polls.

Silver Bulletpoints: Iowans Seem To Like Warren And Buttigieg

We’re less than two weeks from the Democrats’ first debate in Miami on June 26 and 27. I’m looking forward to the occasion — not so much because I’m eager to hear Bill de Blasio trying to drop some too-clever-by-half insults on the front-runners, but because the debates should help us exit a doldrums phase of the Democratic primary in which not a lot has been happening.

Until then, we’re left with some pretty slim pickings for Silver Bulletpoints. So I want to focus this week’s edition around the recent Selzer & Co. poll of Iowa, which was conducted on behalf of CNN, the Des Moines Register and Mediacom. While I’m a little bit reluctant to give that much attention to a single poll, this is one of the only recent high-quality polls of Iowa — and Selzer & Co. is pretty much as good as pollsters can get.

Bulletpoint No. 1: Things are looking up in Iowa for Warren and Buttigieg

The Selzer poll shows a closer race in Iowa than what we’ve been seeing nationally, with Joe Biden on top with 24 percent of the vote, followed by essentially a three-way tie for second with Bernie Sanders at 16 percent, Elizabeth Warren at 15 percent and Pete Buttigieg at 14 percent. Kamala Harris is next at 7 percent, with no one else above 2 percent.

That’s already a pretty decent result for Warren and Buttigieg — but, in fact, the poll is a bit better than it looks for them on the surface. Selzer also asked voters for favorability ratings on each candidate; I translated those ratings to a 5-point scale in which 5 means “very favorable” and 1 means “very unfavorable,” throwing out voters who didn’t know enough about a candidate to formulate an opinion.

On average, Buttigieg had the highest favorability ratings on the scale (4.1), with Harris (4.0) and Warren (4.0) close behind him. Biden’s (3.8) and Sanders’s (3.7) favorability ratings were decent but behind the top three. Meanwhile, while Cory Booker (3.7), Amy Klobuchar (3.6) and Beto O’Rourke (3.6) have little first-choice support, they retain decent favorables.

Buttigieg, Harris, Warren are viewed most favorably in Iowa

Favorability ratings in the Selzer & Co. Iowa poll, June 2-5, 2019

Candidate Very fav. Mostly fav. Mostly unfav. Very unfav. Favorability score* First-choice support
Buttigieg 32% 29% 7% 5% 4.1 14%
Harris 30 33 8 5 4.0 7
Warren 37 34 10 7 4.0 15
Biden 36 37 14 9 3.8 24
Sanders 32 38 17 8 3.7 16
Booker 20 36 13 6 3.7 1
Klobuchar 12 32 13 4 3.6 2
O’Rourke 15 39 13 8 3.6 2
Castro 7 27 10 4 3.5 1
Inslee 5 16 7 3 3.4 1
Bullock 5 14 8 2 3.4 0
Swalwell 5 17 9 4 3.3 0
Gillibrand 7 31 17 6 3.3 0
Hickenlooper 6 18 12 4 3.3 0
Bennet 3 16 9 3 3.3 1
Delaney 6 21 12 5 3.3 1
Yang 5 14 10 5 3.1 1
Moulton 3 9 8 3 3.0 0
Ryan 2 14 10 4 3.0 0
Gabbard 5 18 11 9 3.0 1
Williamson 2 7 11 7 2.5 0
de Blasio 2 14 27 13 2.4 0
Messam 1 1 6 3 2.2 0

* Calculated based on a weighted average of favorability ratings, giving a candidate 5 points for a “very favorable” rating, 4 points for “somewhat favorable,” 2 points for “somewhat unfavorable” and 1 point for “very unfavorable,” and ignoring voters who don’t know or don’t have an opinion about the candidate.

Favorability ratings were calculated by a weighting of 90 percent of the responses from those who plan to caucus in person and 10 person of responses from those who plan to participate in the caucuses virtually.

I don’t have any hard-and-fast rule about how much to emphasize favorability ratings against first-choice support. It’s probably worth noting that President Trump’s favorables were often mediocre in polls of 2016 Republican voters, but he won the nomination anyway. Still, the Selzer poll is consistent with a story where voters who are paying more attention to the campaign are ahead of the curve on Warren and Buttigieg. And Warren and Buttigieg are good candidates for Iowa with a legitimate shot to win there.

Bulletpoint No. 2: Who makes for a good Iowa candidate, and who’s campaigning there?

What do I mean by a good candidate for Iowa? If I designed a candidate in a lab to win the Iowa caucuses, I’d want them to have four characteristics:

  • Perform well with liberal voters, since voters in the Iowa caucuses are pretty liberal.
  • Perform well with white voters, since Iowa is pretty white.
  • Be strong retail campaigners with good organizational skills.
  • Be from the Midwest.

Warren checks three-and-a-quarter boxes: She polls well among white liberals, she has a strong organization in Iowa, and she sorta counts as Midwestern if you think of her as being from Oklahoma rather than Massachusetts (and if you count Oklahoma as Midwestern). Buttigieg checks at least three boxes: He overperforms with white voters (and underperforms with minorities), he’s Midwestern, and by most accounts he’s a good retail campaigner. Sanders also checks three boxes (everything except the Midwest one).

But are the candidates who are the most Iowa-appropriate actually campaigning there more often? Last month, my colleague Nathaniel Rakich looked at which candidates have campaigned the most in Iowa and New Hampshire. I’m going to provide a twist by accounting for how long a candidate has been in the race. For instance, John Delaney has spent the most days in Iowa, but he’s also been campaigning for president since July 2017 (!).

Bullock, O’Rourke and Ryan are focusing the most on Iowa

Share of days with an Iowa event since campaign launch for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, through June 12, 2019

Candidate First day of CAMPAIGN No. of Days Days with Iowa events Share of days with Iowa events
Bullock 5/14/19 30 7 23.3%
O’Rourke 3/14/19 91 19 20.9
Ryan 4/4/19 70 12 17.1
de Blasio 5/16/19 28 4 14.3
Swalwell 4/9/19 65 8 12.3
Williamson 1/28/19 136 15 11.0
Klobuchar 2/10/19 123 13 10.6
Warren 12/31/18 164 17 10.4
Sanders 2/19/19 114 11 9.6
Bennet 5/2/19 42 4 9.5
Gillibrand 1/15/19 149 14 9.4
Booker 2/1/19 132 12 9.1
Hickenlooper 3/4/19 101 9 8.9
Delaney 7/28/17 685 57 8.3
Biden 4/25/19 49 4 8.2
Buttigieg 1/23/19 141 11 7.8
Gabbard 1/11/19 153 11 7.2
Inslee 3/1/19 104 6 5.8
Yang 2/10/18 488 28 5.7
Castro 1/12/19 152 8 5.3
Harris 1/21/19 143 7 4.9
Moulton 4/22/19 52 1 1.9
Gravel 3/19/19 86 0 0.0

The five leading candidates in the most recent Selzer & Co. poll of Iowa are highlighted.

Campaign launch dates reflect when candidates formed an exploratory committee, even if they hadn’t formally launched their campaign, since candidates generally do engage in campaign-style events during the exploratory phase. However, events only count if they occurred on or after the launch date listed in the table.

Source: Des Moines Register Candidate Tracker

Measured by the proportion of days with an Iowa event since their campaigns began, the most Iowa-centric candidates have been Steve Bullock, O’Rourke and Tim Ryan. Among the top tier, Harris has spent a notably lower share of her time in Iowa than the others. Perhaps that makes sense — she doesn’t check a lot of the boxes I described above. But it may also explain why she isn’t converting high favorability ratings into much first-choice support.

Bulletpoint No. 3: Biden is falling back to the pack

Six weeks ago, amidst Biden’s polling surge, I put him an extra step ahead of the other Democrats in my periodically updating, not-to-be-taken-too-seriously presidential tiers, demoting Sanders, Buttigieg and Harris from tier 1b to tier 1c and leaving tier 1b blank to indicate the distance between Biden and everyone else.

But we’ve promised to make these tiers fairly polling-driven, and while the decline in Biden’s national numbers is predictable — pretty much all the previous candidates to get bounces have also seen them fade — I err on the side of paying more attention to Iowa and New Hampshire polls than to national ones. So that Selzer poll in Iowa is enough for me to repromote Sanders, Buttigieg and Harris back to tier 1b and to move Warren to there for the first time.

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

For the Democratic nomination, as revised on June 13, 2019

Tier Sub-tier Candidates
1 a Biden
b Warren ↑, Sanders ↑, Buttigieg ↑, Harris ↑
2 a O’Rourke
b Booker, Klobuchar
3 a Yang, Castro, Abrams*
b Inslee, Gillibrand, Gabbard
c Bullock, Hickenlooper, Ryan, Bennet, de Blasio, Williamson

* Candidate is not yet officially running but may still do so.

For Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, the case for promotion is reasonably clear. They’re all plausible Iowa winners — and if they win Iowa, they’ll have a pretty good shot at New Hampshire. I continue not to be super-duper impressed by Sanders’s polling, but he’s fairly consistently held on to second place nationally, and I’m not going to try to overthink things too much. Warren has some momentum, even if it’s a little overstated by the national media. Buttigeg’s modest name recognition could give him room to grow later, as he already seems to be doing in the early states.

Harris is the trickiest case, but her favorables remain pretty good, she’s a decent bet to do well at the debates, and it seems unlikely that a party in which 40 percent of voters are nonwhite is going to be entirely content choosing between three or four white candidates. All that said, Harris could also have a Marco Rubio-esque problem of being broadly acceptable but few voters’ first choice.