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.

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.

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.

 

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.