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

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


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

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

Is this surprising? What are some possible explanations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

perry: Yeah, that is my view as well.

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

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

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

perry: Better said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

julia_azari: Klobuchar-mentum!

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

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

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

But I am not confident of that bet at all.

julia_azari: I agree with Perry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

julia_azari: Yeah, you’re probably right.

I’m on Twitter too much.

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

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

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

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

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

Our Poll Shows That Buttigieg’s Post-Debate Bump Is Still Just His Base

The past few weeks have been pretty good for South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: His polls are on the upswing in Iowa, he’s getting more media coverage, and he even led in a New Hampshire poll. It seems that he carried this momentum through the fifth Democratic debate as well. According to our FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, he saw the largest increase in the number of people considering supporting him, going from 26 percent before the debate to 32 percent afterward.

But where did that 6-point increase come from?

To answer this, we looked at a few metrics in our poll, which surveyed the same group of respondents before and after the November debate. One of the indicators we considered is how support shifted among respondents who prioritized the top five issues in our poll, which were health care, the economy and jobs, wealth and income inequality, climate change, and discrimination. As you can see in the table below, Buttigieg gained potential supporters among voters who prioritized all of the top 5 issue areas — he is the only candidate for which this was true. His gains were not marginal either, mostly around 5 percentage points.

Buttigieg gained among voters who prioritize …

Change in the share of respondents considering supporting each candidate before and after the fifth Democratic debate by which issue respondents said was most important to them, per a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

candidate Health care The economy and jobs Wealth and income inequality Climate change Racism, sexism, discrimination
Biden +1.9 +0.8 +2.4 -2.6 +3.0
Sanders +1.3 -2.9 +3.1 +0.5 +0.6
Warren +0.5 -2.3 +0.3 +2.5 -5.7
Buttigieg +5.0 +4.8 +5.7 +6.3 +3.7
Harris +5.3 +2.2 +2.2 +6.2 -3.0
Yang +1.7 +0.0 +0.8 +1.3 -0.2
Booker +3.7 +1.8 +1.6 +3.5 -0.4
Klobuchar +0.8 +1.3 +1.2 +3.1 -1.1
Gabbard +0.1 +0.6 +0.7 +0.4 +0.5
Steyer +3.8 +1.3 +0.7 +1.2 -0.3

Showing the top five issues out of a set of twelve respondents could choose from. Uses respondents’ pre-debate answer for which issue is most important. From a survey of 3,786 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Nov. 14 and Nov. 18. The same people were surveyed again from Nov. 20 to Nov. 21; 2,077 responded to the second wave.

When respondents were asked to rate candidates’ chances of beating President Trump, Buttigieg gained ground there as well, earning a post-debate average of 49.5 percent, 3 points higher than his pre-debate average. He still trails former Vice President Joe Biden (67.5 percent after the debate), Sen. Bernie Sanders (58.5 percent) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (57.8 percent), but notably, he was the only one of these four candidates who gained in this metric — the other three either lost ground or saw no change.

But if Buttigieg was hoping his high debate marks would help him diversify his base of support, that hasn’t happened yet. The demographic cross-tabs in our poll show that he mainly made inroads among groups where he already enjoyed a disproportionate amount of support, like the college-educated, white voters and older voters. He had little success winning people over among groups where he has tended to struggle, like with black and Hispanic voters.

Buttigieg’s gains were mostly confined to his base

Share of respondents considering supporting Buttigieg in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, broken down by demographics

Age pre-debate post-debate change
65+ 36.6% 44.5% +7.9
50-64 30.1 37.8 +7.7
18-34 19.7 24.4 +4.7
35-49 22.0 24.5 +2.4
education pre-debate post-debate change
College or higher 34.2% 41.6% +7.4
Some college 23.9 28.4 +4.5
High school or less 17.9 22.0 +4.1
race pre-debate post-debate change
White 34.5% 42.4% +7.8
Black 12.2 15.9 +3.7
Hispanic 17.4 16.3 -1.1

Only groups with a sample size of 200 or more were included. From a survey of 3,786 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Nov. 14 and Nov. 18. The same people were surveyed again from Nov. 20 to Nov. 21; 2,077 responded to the second wave.

This lack of diverse support may be a part of why Buttigieg is struggling to gain traction outside Iowa and New Hampshire and continues to sit at about 8 percent nationally, far behind the other three front-runners in the race. And if Buttigieg can’t appeal to people outside his existing base, he might have a hard time getting his numbers up any higher.

Are Some Democratic Voters Reluctant To Support A Gay Candidate?

There’s nothing like a national election to illuminate the complex and slippery nature of bias at work in the country today. Just ask Pete Buttigieg. Always something of an underdog in the Democratic primary, Buttigieg has started to poll well in Iowa and New Hampshire relative to his national numbers and has proved to be a formidable fundraiser. But as his profile has risen, murmurs about how his sexual orientation might affect his bid have gotten louder and louder.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, why Buttigieg might struggle to gain traction among more voters. His lack of statewide or national political experience is one potential stumbling block. Voters of all races may also balk because he has faced criticism for his handling of the predominantly white police force in South Bend, where a white officer recently shot and killed a black man, and for implementing economic policies that some feel ignore or harm communities of color. And another scapegoat has emerged: Last month, a leaked memo described the results of a focus group conducted by Buttigieg’s own campaign in July, which found that some black voters in South Carolina were uncomfortable with his sexual orientation.

It’s hard to know how much that discomfort truly matters — even a number of the skeptical focus group voters were still open to supporting Buttigieg — and to the extent that it exists, it’s certainly not confined to one group. But regardless of the reasons behind his depressed support, Buttigieg’s candidacy is a case study in the dilemma facing gay and lesbian candidates running at all levels of office today. It’s remarkable, in one sense, how little Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has come up in the primary so far, considering that only 10 years ago, the election of a lesbian woman as Houston’s mayor was enough to make national headlines. Voters’ willingness to support gay and lesbian candidates is at an all-time high, and multiple studies by political scientists have suggested that Democrats are especially unlikely to discriminate against candidates like Buttigieg. “If anything, there are some subgroups of Democrats who would be more likely to vote for a gay candidate,” said Gabriele Magni, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University.

Stop there, and you’d have a pretty rosy electoral prognosis for Buttigieg — focus group skepticism notwithstanding. But it also isn’t the full story. Some Democrats haven’t moved as quickly to the left as others on gay rights issues. And a substantial chunk of Republicans are still comfortable saying they wouldn’t support a gay candidate. As ever, it’s difficult to know what actually keeps a voter for pulling the lever for a particular candidate, but Buttigieg’s sexuality could be a sticking point for some. Experts like Magni said Buttigieg might find it tough to draw support from the most conservative or religious corners of the Democratic primary electorate, not to mention Republicans in the general election. And in a primary driven by voters’ concerns about how electable the candidates are, the perception that a significant slice of voters would never support a gay candidate might be an even bigger hurdle than the reluctant voters themselves.

Just a few election cycles ago, a debate about the electoral impact of a gay candidate’s sexual orientation would have had a clear answer — because being gay was a dealbreaker for almost half the country. As recently as 2007, only 55 percent of Americans said they would vote for a gay or lesbian candidate for president, which is only slightly higher than the share who currently say they would vote for a socialist. But many voters’ qualms about the prospect of a gay or lesbian president evaporated over the following decade, and 76 percent of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — now say they wouldn’t have a problem supporting a gay candidate for president. That’s still not the near-uniform level of hypothetical support the same polls show for a female or black candidate, but it’s also not obviously disqualifying. After all, only 63 percent of Americans say they’d vote for a candidate over the age of 70, which describes the three top-polling candidates in the Democratic primary.

There are plenty of signs, too, that a Democratic primary is particularly friendly terrain for a gay candidate. Political scientists have found in studies and interviews with candidates that gay and lesbian candidates overwhelmingly run as Democrats, in part because Democratic voters don’t seem to penalize candidates for their sexual orientation. A recent experimental study co-authored by Magni found that voters who identify as very liberal and nonreligious were more likely to support a gay candidate over a straight candidate.

The impulse to size up the electoral landscape and run where their support is strongest can partially help explain why gay and lesbian candidates often don’t find their sexuality to be a serious barrier. “When you talk to gay and lesbian candidates, they’ll generally tell you their sexual orientation didn’t matter much in their race, and that’s in part a function of the fact that they tend to run in more liberal areas, like cities,” said Donald Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas and the author of “Out and Running: Gay and Lesbian Candidates, Elections, and Policy Representation.”

But there are still pockets of the Democratic electorate where voters’ views of gay people aren’t as liberal. And that poses a few potential problems for Buttigieg, who has to run a national campaign. A significant chunk of his base is composed of white college-educated Democrats; this is also a subset of voters where his sexual orientation is highly unlikely to be a roadblock, given that several decades of data from the General Social Survey shows that people in this group are especially likely to say that homosexual relationships are never wrong.

But as my colleague Nathaniel Rakich wrote recently, Buttigieg has some fierce competition from Elizabeth Warren for white college-educated voters. And while the groups with whom he might be hoping to expand his support — like religious voters or whites with lower levels of education — are certainly not uniformly opposed to gay candidates, they are groups where his sexual orientation might be more of an issue. People who attend church frequently are much less likely than non-churchgoers to believe same-sex marriage should be legal, according to the Pew Research Center. Likewise, lower levels of education tend to come with lower levels of support for gay marriage.

Voters’ feelings about gay candidates could show up in more nuanced ways as well. The specter of electability, for example, could turn out to be a bigger roadblock for Buttigieg than outright hostility toward gay people. For instance, a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that voters were basically split on whether the country was ready for a gay or lesbian president, and only 26 percent said that their neighbors were ready.

To be clear, several experts told me these electability concerns don’t have a lot of evidence to support them, although that may be partially because there hasn’t been a lot of research on how gay candidates perform in real-life elections, and candidates may also avoid contests — like Republican primaries — where they’re all but destined to lose. But discomfort with gay marriage or homosexual relationships won’t necessarily stop voters from ultimately supporting a gay candidate. And Haider-Markel pointed out that the people with the strongest prejudices against gay people are also highly unlikely to vote for any Democrat, which means that in a general election, Buttigieg’s sexuality would probably matter less than the “D” next to his name. Dislodging gut-level intuitions about electability can be tricky business for a candidate, though. That’s particularly true when significant chunks of the electorate — including almost 40 percent of Republicans — are still perfectly comfortable telling a pollster they wouldn’t vote for a gay candidate. It’s hard not to assume that a neighbor’s stubborn opposition to gay marriage will shape their vote in some way — even though in reality, the forces that influence our choice of candidate are far more complex.

This complexity makes it nearly impossible to say for certain whether it’s Buttigieg’s sexual orientation — rather than his age, or his political inexperience, or his policy positions, or some ineffable combination of factors — that has kept him from rising further in the polls. And that will also make it hard to assess, when all the ballots are cast and the Democratic nominee is chosen, just how much Buttigieg’s electoral chances were affected by his sexuality.

But it also means that even if some voters are being held back by Buttigieg’s sexual orientation now, other parts of his biography, like his military service or Christian faith, could still change the way they think about him. The good news for Buttigieg is that there are months to go before the primaries begin, and he has plenty of cash to spend on introducing himself to voters who might currently know next to nothing about him. “At a very basic level, Buttigieg could reduce some bias just by getting voters to see him as a gay man who was also in Afghanistan and goes to church on Sunday,” Magni said. “Sexual orientation is less likely to play a role in vote choice when people move past the stereotypes they have in their mind about who gay people are supposed to be.”

The October Democratic Debate In 6 Charts

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

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

Which candidates performed the best?

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

Warren performed well among voters who care about defeating Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight

Who made a positive impression?

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

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

More people like Klobuchar; O’Rourke took a hit

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

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

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

Who spoke the most?

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

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the fourth Democratic debate

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

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

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

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

Harris led the pack in calling out Trump

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

Who talked about Trump?

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

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

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

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

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

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

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

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

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

What types of candidates would Americans NOT vote for?

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

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

Source: Gallup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other polling bites

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

Trump approval

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

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

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.