What The Heck Is Going On With Tom Steyer’s Poll Numbers?

Last Thursday, billionaire activist Tom Steyer picked up two really good early-state polls that catapulted him onto the debate stage at the last minute. He hit 15 percent in a Fox News poll of South Carolina — he had 4 percent support in October — and 12 percent in a Fox News poll of Nevada, up from 5 percent in November.

These results had pretty big repercussions for Steyer in both our Nevada and South Carolina state polling averages, putting him at 8 percent in Nevada and 10 percent in South Carolina, as of Monday afternoon. For context, that South Carolina number is roughly the same as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s:

But before you cry “Steyer surge!” remember that once you get past the top four candidates — Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg — he and all the other candidates combined currently have a 1 percent chance of capturing a majority of delegates, according to our forecast. And even though his standing in the polls has substantially improved in those two states, he still only has a 2 percent chance of winning South Carolina or Nevada. (He’s also still at 2 percent in our national polling average.)

In fact, those two Fox News surveys might be outliers, as they are the only two early-state polls released after the last debate (Dec. 19) that show Steyer getting that sort of bump, though there have admittedly been relatively few polls to kick us off here in January.

In the other five early-state polls we have — aside from those two Fox News surveys — Steyer’s numbers are far less impressive, although these are polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, not Nevada and South Carolina, where Fox found Steyer surging:

To really understand what’s going on with Steyer’s numbers, we need more polls — especially of South Carolina and Nevada — but at this stage, there is at least one other pollster besides Fox News who has found that Steyer might be making a real dent in the early states: Morning Consult. The pollster’s weekly tracking poll takes stock of the race nationally but also gives its results for the four early states (unfortunately, the early states are treated as a group, so the pollster does not display results for individual early states). And since late November, Morning Consult has found Steyer polling between 8 and 10 percent among early-state voters, including 10 percent in its most recent survey. (He was only at 4 percent nationally.)

What’s more, there’s some evidence in both South Carolina and Nevada that Steyer has made inroads among nonwhite voters, which could be a sign that Biden’s grasp on more diverse states like South Carolina is not as strong as we think. In that Fox News poll of South Carolina, Biden led among black primary voters with 43 percent support, but Steyer was in second with 16 percent — which put him ahead of the rest of the field, including Sanders, who was in third at 12 percent. And in Fox News’s survey of Nevada, no one candidate has a firm grasp on nonwhite voters. Sanders and Biden were running neck and neck at around 25 percent, while Steyer placed third among that group with 14 percent.

Again, it’s hard to know exactly what’s behind this uptick in Steyer’s numbers, but one obvious explanation is his prodigious spending on broadcast television ads. According to data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, Steyer ads aired 5,721 times in Nevada-based media markets and 7,914 times in South Carolina-based markets from Dec. 1 through Jan. 9.1 The other Democratic candidates combined have aired six spots in Nevada and 2,195 in South Carolina during that same time period.

For comparison’s sake, Steyer has aired a similar number of ads in Iowa, but he is sharing the airwaves there with several other candidates. For instance, from Dec. 1 through Jan. 9, Sanders (7,678) and Andrew Yang (6,932) each aired more spots in Iowa than Steyer (6,675). And in tiny New Hampshire, neither Steyer nor other Democrats have been advertising as aggressively. This could explain why Steyer hasn’t (yet) seen a polling bump in the first two states to vote but has done so in the third and fourth.

That said, Steyer has dominated the airwaves in Nevada and South Carolina for months; it’s not clear what changed to cause a sudden spike in his polling numbers here in January. However, it’s worth noting that polling of Nevada and South Carolina has been extremely sparse; before those Fox News polls came out, mid-November was the last time a live-interviewer poll was conducted in South Carolina and the last time any poll was conducted in Nevada. Perhaps more people have tuned into the primary race since then and have only now begun to react to Steyer’s ads.

So we’ll be keeping a close eye on Steyer’s debate performance Tuesday and on the post-debate polls to see whether he has serious staying power. It’s too soon to tell, but Steyer might just be a January surprise no one was expecting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iowa matters … a lot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s favored in the first four states?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How a raucous convention revolutionized our primary system


We’ve Already Seen Twice As Many Presidential TV Ads As At This Point In The 2016 Election

Over the course of the entire 2016 presidential election, TV ad spending approached a whopping $761 million, with more than 920,000 spots flickering across the airwaves. But that might be nothing compared to what we see in 2020. Thanks to Tom Steyer, who is pouring an enormous amount of money into TV ad buys, we are already ahead of 2016’s pace.

Using data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, we can compare the pace of TV ad spending so far in 2019 with the same point in 2015. And so far, the 2020 campaign has seen more than twice as many television ad spots as the 2016 race. From January 1 through October 20, 2019, campaigns and outside groups spent an estimated $33.3 million on 76,030 television ad spots for the 2020 presidential election. By contrast, through the week of Oct. 18, 2015, campaigns and outside groups had aired only 32,191 TV spots — despite spending more money than they have so far this year ($43.1 million compared with $33.3 million).3

That disparity is especially wild considering that there were two competitive primaries in 2016 — on both the Republican and Democratic sides — while 2020 features just one spirited nomination fight. But already a total of 73,117 pro-Democratic spots have been aired in the presidential race so far compared with only 23,649 spots aired in 2015 by Republicans, whose primary (a record number of candidates, no dominant front-runner) resembles the current Democratic one.

And there’s basically one reason for that; his name is Tom Steyer. The self-funding billionaire has already aired 59,615 spots touting his candidacy, or 78 percent of all 2020 presidential spots so far — dropping an estimated $23.2 million in the process. In fact, without Steyer, advertising levels in the 2020 race look a lot more like 2016. Only 16,415 spots have been aired by sponsors other than Steyer, which is right in between the 23,649 GOP spots and the 8,388 Democratic spots aired through this point in 2015. It also wasn’t until Steyer jumped into the race in July that 2020 advertising really took off.

There wasn’t really a Steyer figure in the race in 2016, either. The most prolific advertiser at this point four years ago was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, which had aired 7,380 spots (accounting for nearly a quarter of 2016 advertising at the time). Right to Rise, the super PAC created to support former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s campaign, was close behind with 6,590 spots aired, followed by the Opportunity and Freedom PAC (former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s super PAC) with 3,441 spots aired. However, that’s more than anyone else (aside from Steyer) has aired so far in 2019 (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand aired just 2,788 spots before dropping out, and President Trump has aired only 2,540 spots so far).

One underappreciated difference between 2016 and 2020 that can help explain what’s going on (in addition to Steyer’s well-lined pockets) is that super PACs are playing much less of a role this year. At this point in 2015, outside groups were behind 69 percent of all spots that had been aired, but here in 2019, campaigns have accounted for 98 percent of the spots so far. (This also might explain why TV spending is lower in 2019 than in 2015 even though more spots have been aired — campaigns get better rates than super PACs.) It has become increasingly fashionable in the Democratic primary to eschew big-money donors; 11 of the 18 “major” candidates by FiveThirtyEight’s definition have sworn off super PACs specifically, including all three top contenders.

It’s hard to know what this will mean for the rest of the 2020 cycle, particularly if Steyer doesn’t keep up his furious advertising pace. But for all the talk about the rise of digital campaign ads, it’s clear the 2020 candidates still think television is an effective way to reach their audience.