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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iowa matters … a lot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s favored in the first four states?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How a raucous convention revolutionized our primary system


How Seriously Should We Take Michael Bloomberg’s Potential 2020 Run?

Like any self-respecting election nerd, I keep a spreadsheet of prospective 2020 presidential candidates, which includes a column called “Odds They Run.” When a candidate declares, I move it to 100 percent; when a candidate passes on the race, I move it to 1 percent.

The reason I move it to 1 percent and not 0 percent is people like Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg announced in March that he would not run for president, but on Friday, he is expected to file paperwork to become a candidate in the Democratic primary in Alabama, as today is the state’s filing deadline. This move doesn’t mean Bloomberg is definitely running, however. At this point he’s just keeping his options open, although Bloomberg advisers told The New York Times on Thursday that he would decide for sure whether to run within a matter of days, not weeks.

Even so, Bloomberg’s move is a big surprise given just how late it is in the electoral calendar. (Since 1976, the latest an eventual nominee has launched his or her presidential campaign was August of the year before the election.) Now there are fewer than three months before the Iowa caucuses, and if Bloomberg does end up running, he’ll have to scramble to make the debate stage, let alone get himself in a position to win any states.

The reason, though, why Bloomberg is considering a last-minute bid is that he is reportedly worried about the way the Democratic primary is unfolding, as one adviser told the Times. Back in March, Bloomberg said he believed that it was essential that the Democratic nominee be able to defeat President Trump, and last month it was reported that he would reconsider his decision not to run if former Vice President Joe Biden continued to struggle. Presumably, Bloomberg has now changed his mind after seeing Sen. Elizabeth Warren — whose ideas, especially the wealth tax, he has lambasted as socialism — gain ground in the polls and Biden struggle with fundraising.

But there is arguably very little appetite among Democratic voters — donors may be a different story — for yet another presidential candidate. In October, a YouGov/HuffPost poll found that 83 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters were either enthusiastic or satisfied with their presidential choices. And it looks like there is even less appetite for Bloomberg specifically. According to last week’s Fox News poll, just 6 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they would definitely vote for Bloomberg should he enter the race. And a hypothetical Harvard-Harris Poll of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Bloomberg mixed in with the rest of the Democratic field gave Bloomberg the same 6 percent of the vote.

And those polls would probably qualify as good news for Bloomberg, given that he was generally registering around 2 or 3 percent in national primary polls before first taking his name out of consideration in March (which is also when pollsters largely stopped asking about him).

In a field this crowded, entering the race in the high single digits wouldn’t even necessarily be a bad thing, but the problem is that it might be harder for Bloomberg to build on that support than it would be for other candidates. In an average of polls from January and early February, I found that 62 percent of Democrats knew enough about Bloomberg to form an opinion (which was pretty high), but his net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) was only +11 (which was pretty low). As you can see in the chart below, Bloomberg was a real outlier — for as well known as he is, we would have expected him to be much better-liked, with a net favorability of about +35, not +11.

And history suggests Bloomberg’s low favorability ratings would be a major obstacle to winning the nomination. Our past research indicates that people who win presidential primaries tend to either be (a) already well known and well liked or (b) relative unknowns to start off the campaign. Only one nominee since at least 1980 has been in Bloomberg’s position (well known but not well liked), and that’s Trump himself.

Assuming Bloomberg does decide to run, where would he fit into the race? Well, as the former Republican-turned-independent mayor of New York City (he reregistered as a Democrat last year), he would be running as a moderate alternative in the Democratic primary. He favors liberal but not progressive solutions to issues like health care and climate change, and he can be downright libertarian on fiscal issues, like the regulation of banks and, of course, taxes. (It’s little wonder that he has denounced Warren for years.) That said, he has become a progressive leader on the issue of gun control, founding and investing millions in the group Everytown for Gun Safety, which has emerged as a powerful political counterweight to the National Rifle Association. Unfortunately for Bloomberg, though, candidates from the more moderate end of the party (other than Biden) have struggled to gain traction in the polls, so there’s a real question of how much support he can reasonably expect to attract. His candidacy may depend on eating into Biden’s support (which, ironically, could make it likelier that someone like Warren wins the nomination).

Thanks to his successful financial services and media company, Bloomberg will at least have money at his disposal (he has a net worth of $52 billion) to help him overcome his late start. It’s not hard to imagine Bloomberg doing what fellow billionaire-turned-presidential-candidate Tom Steyer has done — use his own money to saturate the early states with advertising and augment his state-level polling numbers just enough to qualify for the debates. However, as we noted when Steyer entered the race, wealthy self-funders don’t actually have an electoral advantage. For example, in 2018, we found that self-funders1 in congressional and gubernatorial races won Democratic primaries at about the same rate as non-self-funders did. And getting 4 percent in four individual polls (the polling threshold for the December debate) is a far cry from being in legitimate contention to win the nomination.

Instead, it seems likelier that Bloomberg will affect the race primarily because of the effect he will have on other candidates. For example, he could cause Biden to slip in the polls by chipping away at his moderate base or throw cold water on the ascent of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He could also turn voters away from Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders by becoming the designated attack dog against progressive policies. Or he could fail to make much of an impact at all, leaving the current state of the race unchanged. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though; it’s still possible he won’t run at all. Either way, there’s a long way to go before Bloomberg is a factor in this race.

How 17 Long-Shot Presidential Contenders Could Build A Winning Coalition

It might seem obvious that having a wide-open field, as Democrats have for their 2020 presidential nomination, would make it easier for a relatively obscure candidate to surge to the top of the polls. But I’m not actually sure that’s true. Democrats might not have an “inevitable” frontrunner — the role that Hillary Clinton played in 2016 or Al Gore did in 2000. But that very lack of heavyweights has encouraged pretty much every plausible middleweight to join the field, or at least to seriously consider doing so. Take the top 10 or so candidates, who are a fairly diverse lot in terms of race, gender and age — pretty much every major Democratic constituency is spoken for by at least one of the contenders. After all, it was the lack of competition that helped Bernie Sanders gain ground in 2016; he was the only game in town other than Clinton.1

So as I cover some of the remaining candidates in this, the third and final installment of our “five corners” series on the Democratic field, you’re going to detect a hint of skepticism about most of their chances. (The “five corners” refers to what we claim are the the five major constituencies within the Democratic Party: Party Loyalists, The Left, Millennials and Friends, Black voters and Hispanic voters2; our thesis is that a politician must build a coalition consisting of at least three of these five groups to win the primary.) It’s not that some of them couldn’t hold their own if thrust into the spotlight against one or two other opponents. Instead, it’s that most of them will never get the opportunity to square off against the big names because the middleweights will monopolize most of the money, staff talent and media attention. Rather than pretend to be totally comprehensive, in fact, I’m instead going to list a few broad typologies of candidates that weren’t well-represented in the previous installments of this series.

This type of candidate has been popular in the minds of journalists ever since Gary Hart’s failed presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 — but it never seems to gain much momentum among actual Democratic voters. In this scenario, a Western governor or senator (e.g. Hart, Bruce Babbitt or Bill Richardson) runs on a platform that mixes environmentalism, slightly libertarianish views on other issues (legal weed but moderate taxes?) and a vague promise to shake things up and bring an outsider’s view to Washington.

This platform makes a lot of sense in the Mountain West, but I’m not sure how well it translates elsewhere in the country. In theory, the environmental focus should have some appeal among millennials. (That particularly holds for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who would heavily focus on climate change in his campaign as a means of differentiating himself.) And Party Loyalists might get behind an outsider if they were convinced that it would help beat President Trump, but “let’s bring in an outsider to shake things up” was one of the rationales that Trump himself used to get elected, so it doesn’t make for as good a contrast in 2020 as it might ordinarily. The Left isn’t likely to be on board with the Great Western Hope platform, which tends to be moderate on fiscal policy. And while the states of the Mountain West have quite a few Hispanic voters, they don’t have a lot of black ones. It’s not that Inslee or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper aren’t “serious” candidates — being a multi-term governor of medium-sized state is traditionally a good credential — but it’s also not clear where the demand for their candidacies would come from.

You might say something similar about the various mayors that are considering a presidential bid.What niche are the mayors hoping to fill, and are there actually any voters there?

Maybe in “The West Wing,” a hands-on problem solver from Anytown, USA, would make the perfect antidote to a Trumpian president. In the real world, Democrats think the country is in crisis under Trump, and there are a lot of candidates who have more experience dealing with national problems.

But Eric Garcetti and Bill de Blasio, the current mayors of Los Angeles and New York, respectively, have at least had to build complicated coalitions in big, complicated cities — and so they would probably be more viable than the mayors from smaller cities. De Blasio cruised to an easy re-election in New York in 2017 on the basis of support from black, Hispanic and leftist white voters, a coalition that could also be viable in the presidential primary. (De Blasio hasn’t taken concrete steps toward a 2020 bid, but he also hasn’t ruled one out.) Garcetti, who has what he describes as “Mexican-American-Jewish-Italian” ancestry, could find support for his bid among Hispanic voters.

Bloomberg might belong in a different group, as someone who’s not just a former mayor but also fits into the entrepreneur/celebrity/rich person category below and has some of the baggage that comes with that. And unlike de Blasio, Bloomberg wasn’t especially popular with nonwhite voters in New York.

This is a group of candidates I’m quite bullish about, by contrast — especially Stacey Abrams, if she runs. In defeating longtime incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District last year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who is too young to run for president until next cycle) built a coalition of Hispanics, The Left and millennials. Not that everyone necessarily has Ocasio-Cortez’s political acumen, but the potency of this coalition seems rather obvious, in retrospect. Since The Left tends to be pretty white on its own, a Hispanic, black or Asian left-progressive candidate has more potential to build a broader coalition. And millennials, who are sympathetic to left-wing policy positions but also care a lot about diversity, might prefer a Latina or a black woman to an older white man.

In fact, it’s not clear why, other than for reasons having to do with her race and gender, Abrams isn’t getting more buzz as a potential candidate than Beto O’Rourke. (It’s true that Abrams might have designs on Georgia’s 2020 Senate race instead of the presidency; it’s also true that there wasn’t a “Draft Abrams” movement in the same way that influential Democrats almost immediately called on O’Rourke to run for president after his loss to Ted Cruz.) Both performed quite well relative to how Democrats usually do in their states, with Abrams losing to Brian Kemp by 1.4 percentage points in the Georgia governor’s race and O’Rourke losing to Cruz by 2.6 points in Texas’s Senate race. (Andrew Gillum, who barely lost Florida’s governor’s race, can’t make this claim, since Florida is much more purple than either Georgia or Texas.) Both became huge national stories. And both are lacking in the kind experience that traditionally sets the stage for a presidential run. It’s not that I’m down on O’Rourke’s chances; the opposite, really (see Part 2 of this series). But if O’Rourke can build a winning coalition from millennials, Hispanics and Party Loyalists, Abrams (or possibly Gillum) could create one from black voters, millennials and The Left.

I’m not going to spend too much on this category because, in practice, both New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe are likely to have a lot of problems if they want to ascend to the presidential stage. Party nominations are not just about building coalitions but also creating consensus, and McAuliffe and Cuomo have probably picked one too many fights with liberals and spent too much time critiquing liberal policy proposals to be tolerable to a large enough share of Democrats to win the nomination. Of the two, Cuomo would probably be the more viable as he’s shifted toward his left recently, although he’d still have a lot of work to do to repair his relationship with progressives.

Were it not for their abrasive approaches, the Cuomo and McAuliffe coalitions might be a bit more viable than you might assume. In particular, those coalitions consist of minority voters plus relatively moderate Party Loyalists. Cuomo assembled a similar coalition last September and soundly defeated the more liberal Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary for governor before being elected to a third gubernatorial term in November thanks to a landslide 84-14 margin among nonwhite voters.

What about the various billionaires considering a presidential run? Count me as skeptical that a CEO title will impress Democrats. Money has never been terribly predictive of success in the primaries (see e.g. Steve Forbes or Jeb Bush) — and candidates such as former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire who last week decided that he wouldn’t run for president, have fared notably poorly in early surveys of Democrats. And that makes sense, because it’s not really clear what sort of Democratic voter they’re supposed to be appealing to. The Left is likely to regard the billionaires suspiciously, at best. Nor are rich white men who have never run for office before liable to have a lot of initial success in appealing to black or Hispanic voters. Finally, their timing is poor given that the president is Trump and that the last thing most Democrats will want is another billionaire with no political experience.

Want a billionaire whose chances I’d take seriously? How about Oprah. One three-pronged coalition we haven’t discussed yet is one consisting of Black voters, Hispanic voters and Millennials and Friends; a nonwhite celebrity who was able to engage voters that didn’t ordinarily participate in primaries3 could potentially win on that basis.

Finally, there are a few people running for president who don’t have anything resembling the traditional credentials for doing so, but who at least have pitches that are a little different than what voters will be hearing elsewhere. Tulsi Gabbard, the four-term representative from Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, was one of Sanders’s early endorsers last cycle, but she also has a heterodox set of positions, such as her frequent defenses of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and her former opposition to gay rights, that won’t win her fans among any of the traditional Democratic constituencies.

Richard Ojeda, a crew-cut Army veteran and former West Virginia legislator who says he voted for Trump in 2016 and looks the part of a (stereotypical) Trump voter, is presenting what’s essentially a left-wing set of economic policies in a very different package than voters would normally to get that message from. I’m not quite sure how the pitch would go over if, say, Ojeda makes it to a debate stage, which might never happen because the Democratic National Committee and the networks might consider him too obscure. But it’s worth bearing in mind that The Left is the whitest and most male of the Democratic constituencies, so a candidate who intentionally plays into that identity might not be the best one to build bridges to the rest of the party.

Then there’s John Delaney, who decided not to run for re-election to Congress so he could run for president instead — and in fact has already been running for president for well more than a year. He’s preaching a message of bipartisanship, which could win him plaudits from the pundits on the Sunday morning shows, but which it’s not clear that many actual Democrats are looking for. Instead, more Democrats are willing to identify as “liberal” than had been in the past and fewer say they want a candidate who compromises.


That’s all for now! As I mentioned in the first installment of this series, some things we’ve written here are surely going to seem laughably wrong in retrospect. It wouldn’t necessarily have been obvious at this point four years ago that Clinton would do so well with black voters, for example (a group she lost badly to Barack Obama in 2008), or that Sanders would become such a phenomenon among millennials. Fundamentally, however, the U.S. has “big tent” parties, consisting of groups that may not have all that much in common with one another. And so, the nomination process is a coalition-building process. Candidates such as Sanders and Joe Biden, who poll well among one or two groups, may lead in the polls initially. But ultimately the candidate who wins the nomination will be the one who can best bridge the divides between the different constituencies within the party.