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A 2020 Dropout Draft: Who Will Leave Before The December Debate?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): All right, we’re back by popular (?) demand with our second 2020 “dropout” draft. That’s right, we’re not discussing who we think will win the Democratic nomination; instead, we’re debating who we think will drop out next.

On Friday, Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke became the ninth candidate to drop out since California Rep. Eric Swalwell dropped out in July. So now the question is: How many more candidates do we think will join their ranks before the Dec. 19 debate?

The rules are simple: Three rounds (with three of us playing, that means nine picks in total) in which we pick from among the candidates FiveThirtyEight considers “major.” No 🐍 draft, because, well, that would be nuts. Whoever’s “team” includes the most candidates who drop out by the December debate will be the winner.

The order:

  1. Nathaniel
  2. Sarah
  3. Geoffrey

OK, you’re up, Nathaniel!

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I’d just like to take a moment to congratulate Geoffrey on winning our first dropout draft.

All three of his picks dropped out.

Who will drop out before the October debate?
Round Geoff Nathaniel Sarah
1 John Hickenlooper Seth Moulton Kirsten Gillibrand
2 Tim Ryan Jay Inslee Bill de Blasio
3 Beto O’Rourke Steve Bullock Michael Bennet

sarahf: Hahaha, but technically two of his picks dropped out after the October debate though.

So …

nrakich: I think this draft is a lot harder, too, because a lot of the obvious dropout candidates have, well, dropped out.

But with my first pick, I choose former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.

Castro is almost certainly not going to make the November debate — he has gotten zero qualifying polls, and there’s only a week left to qualify.

sarahf: Good pick (furiously reorders roster).

nrakich: And Castro got in this race to win — i.e., he’s not a John Delaney who’s just running for the heck of it.

So for a candidate like Castro (and O’Rourke before him), there’s really no point to continuing your campaign if you’re not in the debates.

sarahf: I mean Castro has essentially said as much — he’s sent at least one email to supporters where he’s said that if he did not qualify for the November debate, it would “be the end of my campaign.”

nrakich: He also has an incredibly high burn rate and ended the third quarter with just $1.1 million on hand.

His recent campaign moves (laying off staffers in New Hampshire and South Carolina) also suggest to me that he’s running on fumes.

Also… Just gonna leave this here… The filing deadline for the Texas U.S. Senate race is Dec. 9.

Now, Castro has said that he wouldn’t run for Senate. But, as John Hickenlooper can tell you, talk is cheap.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Oh, that would be a particularly crazy curveball!

nrakich: On the other hand, he’d be a pretty natural VP choice for any of the current presidential front-runners, which could be a reason for him to just sit at home and wait by the phone.

sarahf: Oof, I guess that means I’m up.

I’m going with the other low hanging fruit out here … Sen. Cory Booker.

geoffrey.skelley: Oh! My pick. Dang.

nrakich: Whoa!

Interesting — I had him ranked seventh on my board.

This is a Gillibrand-esque pick, Sarah. Which probably means you’ll be right.

sarahf: Ha, I don’t know about that. But no matter how you slice it, this primary has not had a lot of breaks for Booker. Despite being a talented politician, he’s continually languished at what — 2 or 3 percent in the polls? Granted, he has made the November debate. But I do think making the December debate — while not impossible — will be a stretch for him with the higher thresholds (4 percent support in four national or early-state polls or 6 percent in two early-state polls). After all, he doesn’t have a single qualifying poll yet.

And similar to Kirsten Gillibrand, he still has a career in the Senate, so if it looks like he won’t make December (hitting that 4 percent threshold is going to be hard), I think he bows out. I mean, when was the last time Booker even hit 4 percent in a poll?

geoffrey.skelley: Booker last hit 4 percent in a debate-qualifying poll from Monmouth University in late August. He hasn’t managed to pull that off in a November or December debate poll yet.

sarahf: So tell us, Nathaniel, why did you have him so low on your draft list?

nrakich: I guess I didn’t realize how long Booker’s odds were to make the December debate.

I do think he’ll last another month, though, since as you said he’s qualified for November already.

And I think there are other candidates who will drop out first.

It’s worth noting, though, that Booker’s net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) among registered voters in his home state of New Jersey is down to +5, per Monmouth. That’s a decrease from +23 last year!

Mind you, I don’t think he’s in serious danger of losing reelection (he’s up in 2020), but he might not want to keep letting that discontent fester.

sarahf: Eesh, yeah. OK, Geoff you’re up!

geoffrey.skelley: Hmm, well you guys took the top two people on my list:

nrakich: Haha.

I used pen and paper. Old school.

geoffrey.skelley: So unlike Castro and Booker, my pick is someone who may not be thinking about her political future: Marianne Williamson. And her exit comes down to money, in my mind.

nrakich: Yes, good pick.

geoffrey.skelley: She had about $700,000 in the bank at the end of the third quarter, and a burn rate of nearly 90 percent. This makes me wonder if she can keep things going. I know she has a lot of small-donor potential, but we also haven’t heard her campaign talking about passing debate donor thresholds in a while, either.

sarahf: It does seem as if a lot of the most likely candidates to drop out are the ones with money woes (see O’Rourke, Ryan).

nrakich: And she hasn’t made any debates since the thresholds increased.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, the last debate she made was in July. She hit the donor requirements for the September and October debate, but didn’t meet the polling threshold. So it’s hard to imagine her making the November or December debate given that.

nrakich: Yeah, I agree — if Williamson wants to keep running, she’s going to have to run a leaner campaign. We’ll see how much her heart is really set on being president, I guess.

geoffrey.skelley: “Leaner” is probably a good lead-in to some of our next choices, I would guess.

sarahf: I’d argue she had Tulsi-Gabbard energy in terms of building a dedicated following, but I suppose her fan base had its limitations.

OK, you’re up, Nathaniel!

nrakich: With my second pick, I’ll go with my one pick from the last draft who’s still in the race: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

The same reasons still apply: His campaign has not gained traction. He hasn’t made a debate since July. Eventually, you ask yourself, what’s the point?

And considering the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is probably whispering in his ear about running for U.S. Senate in Montana — where he’s basically the only Democrat who could make that seat competitive — there’s a strong argument for him dropping out soon.

Although he, too, has denied interest in running for Senate, I could see him pulling a Hickenlooper.

geoffrey.skelley: Democrats would certainly welcome that development in Montana. Election forecasters seem pretty confident that Republican Sen. Steve Daines will win reelection. Bullock entering the race could make things interesting, though.

nrakich: Yeah. Basically, he’s one of the few presidential candidates left with a political incentive to drop out sooner rather than later.

He’s not doing great on the money front, either ($1.4 million on hand), although he’s running a pretty lean campaign (he spent $2.4 million last quarter).

sarahf: OK, I’ve got a ~ risky pick. ~ Risky because she did just qualify for the December debate, but … Kamala Harris.

nrakich: Readers, Sarah has flown too close to the sun.

geoffrey.skelley: I’m not so sure, Nathaniel — Harris was higher than I expected on my list, too.

nrakich: Wow, outnumbered.

sarahf: Ha, Nathaniel is probably right. But hear me out! Harris seems stuck at around 4 percent in the national polling averages, and considering she once hit 15 percent nationally, it seems as if the trend for Harris after the first debate has been losing supporters. She was once fourth nationally, but Pete Buttigieg has edged her out, I think. And as Geoff noted in his piece on Warren’s rise in October, it’s possible that much of Harris’s support has shifted to Warren, as there is some demographic overlap in their support — both candidates have a fair amount of backing from college-educated voters and more progressive voters, meaning it could be really hard for her to win this support back, especially if Buttigieg does well with some of the same voters.

And similar to Castro, Harris has also been cutting staff operations, putting all her eggs in the Iowa basket, it would seem.

nrakich: So, here’s the difference for me between Castro and Harris. Castro’s decision seems to be clearly motivated by lack of cash. But Harris raised $12 million last quarter and had $10 million cash on hand. Her campaign staffing move doesn’t strike me as dire, but more so as strategic.

geoffrey.skelley: She’s only polling at around 3 percent in the Hawkeye State, though, so her campaign might be on the brink.

nrakich: But with all that money, Harris isn’t going to drop out for financial reasons. And she’s not going to drop out for debate reasons since, as you said, she’s already qualified for November and December. So why drop out?

sarahf: It’s a fair point, and obviously she’s in much better shape than some of the other candidates still running (cough, Joe Sestak), but I don’t think Harris has run a good campaign. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but I thought our colleague Perry Bacon did a nice job outlining some of the pitfalls of her campaign. Namely, I think flip-flopping on issues like health care has cost her — and with a field this large, any misstep can have pretty big consequences, especially if, as Perry notes, the field already has a lot of good candidates. And since she’s yet another Democratic senator who has too much of a political career left to stay in if it becomes clear that the party is coalescing around one or two other candidates, I think it makes sense for her to make an early exit — especially if this November debate doesn’t move the dial for her.

geoffrey.skelley: There’s certainly a world where President Trump wins reelection in 2020 and Harris is a leading candidate for the 2024 Democratic nomination.

nrakich: I dunno, I just think she still has a lot of potential — and a lot of runway to convert that potential into reality. I agree that it’s bad for her that she’s only stood out in one out of the four debates. But I think she has the talent to make another splash, and then she’s right back in it given her twin appeals to college-educated whites and black voters.

geoffrey.skelley: Fair point. Plus, Warren’s upward movement in the polls may be ebbing as she’s attracting more scrutiny as a front-runner, so perhaps Harris can take back some of the support she may have lost to Warren.

sarahf: It was a risky pick! OK, Geoff — you’re up.

geoffrey.skelley: Hmm, well, there’s one name left from our last dropout draft who’s still in the race, and I’m going to pick him: Michael Bennet. Similar story to Bullock in that he’s barely graced the debate stage and doesn’t have a ton of resources to keep a fledgling campaign going.

But unlike Bullock’s potential Senate consideration, Bennet isn’t faced with an electoral choice seeing as he was reelected to the Senate in 2016 and isn’t up again in Colorado until 2022.

And given the remaining names, I think he’s the most likely to drop out by mid-December.

sarahf: Good pick. I should have picked Bennet again!

nrakich: Agreed, Geoffrey. He was next on my board. Not a sexy pick, but he has a political career to tend to, and he can’t keep up a hopeless presidential run forever.

sarahf: He has gotten some interesting media coverage for someone who hasn’t made the debate stage in awhile, though. I thought this Politico piece where a reporter watched the last debate with Bennet was … a good profile for someone polling so poorly.

And I guess given Buttigieg’s success with his moderate pivot, I’m kind of surprised someone like Bennet didn’t do better?

geoffrey.skelley: Buttigieg is certainly more dynamic on the stump, and he’s got some interesting aspects to his bio that differ quite a bit from Bennet. Young, veteran, gay. Bennet, on the other hand, is sort of white bread.

Still, he’s only 54 years old and has a political future to worry about.

nrakich: Bennet is a conventionally qualified candidate, though. Experience in local and federal government. Son of a Carter and Clinton administration diplomat.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, we may well hear from him again on the national stage. He’s a battleground-state senator, so he might be on a VP shortlist, depending on who the nominee is.

See: 2016 — Tim Kaine, Virginia.

sarahf: OK, Nathaniel, you’re up.


nrakich: I pick former Rep. Joe Sestak.

Now, I have mixed feelings about this pick.

Sestak by far has the least cash of any major candidate — $204,561. So you’d think he’d be forced to drop out any day now.

BUT, you want to talk about lean campaigns. … He has spent only $169,634 since May. So at that rate, he could keep going if he wants to.

geoffrey.skelley: I suspect his campaign apparatus is basically him and maybe two other people.

nrakich: Ha, right.

The question is just how long he is going to continue a bare-bones presidential campaign that has basically consisted of him walking across states and meeting with a handful of curious voters in each town.

geoffrey.skelley: Could drop out tomorrow and it wouldn’t surprise me. Could also stay in until Iowa votes and it wouldn’t surprise me.

nrakich: Exactly.

sarahf: Yeah, I agree. It could go either way with very little repercussion.

sarahf: Oof, OK, for my last pick I’m going to try and be a little more measured — Tom Steyer.

geoffrey.skelley: Ohhh, interesting. This is definitely getting hard after Sestak!

sarahf: Indeed. And I know he has made the November debate, and heck, with all the money he’s dropping in the early states (which is where all his qualifying polls have come from), there’s reason to believe he could make the December debate, too. His burn rate is high, but again, given he’s a billionaire who’s largely self-funding his campaign, money doesn’t seem to be an obstacle.

But! He didn’t seem to wow people after his first debate performance. In fact, in our poll with Ipsos, he received one of the worst marks on average — and sure, he’s got money to burn, but I think if he can’t inch up his national support by December, he’s got to see the writing on the wall and bow out.

Of course, as I think about this more, maybe he’s the perfect candidate to cling on and wage a campaign of attrition, but I like to think he’d take the Bill de Blasio route and exit quietly.

nrakich: I don’t know. In the “self-funders” category, I think former Rep. John Delaney is likelier to drop out than Steyer. At least Steyer’s money is getting him into debates.

Delaney, on the other hand, has loaned his own campaign more than $24 million total for the cycle and has nothing to show for it.

At what point do you say, “Hm, I think I’d rather keep my money”?

geoffrey.skelley: I don’t know. He seems dedicated. Delaney completed the “Full Grassley” — named for Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley — by visiting every county in Iowa, and obviously, he has a ton of personal wealth to keep him going, so who knows.

sarahf: Ha. OK, Geoff, if not Delaney, who??? LAST LAST PICK.

geoffrey.skelley: So, in my mind, there are three candidates left to choose from — Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang. None are very likely to drop out by mid-December. But I’d argue only one of them has anything to lose by staying in longer, and that’s Klobuchar. So she’s my pick, though I doubt she’ll drop out by mid-December.

I just don’t see Gabbard or Yang dropping out before her. Gabbard has decided she isn’t running for reelection in the House, and considering she’s no friend of the party establishment, it seems like she’s in it for the long haul. And Andrew Yang is an outsider pushing a pet issue — universal basic income — plus he has the Yang Gang propping him up, so I don’t see him leaving anytime soon either.

nrakich: Makes sense. But yeah, Klobuchar was way down my list because she’s actually just one poll away from making the December debate. And she may be experiencing an uptick of sorts on the heels of her fourth-debate performance, so I don’t expect her to just walk away from that.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, it wasn’t an easy choice. I just had an easier time seeing her leaving than Gabbard or Yang.

sarahf: Fair enough! This was hard — so we’ll see how we do this time around.

Who will drop out before the December debate?
Round Nathaniel Sarah GEoff
1 Julián Castro Cory Booker Marianne Williamson
2 Steve Bullock Kamala Harris Michael Bennet
3 Joe Sestak Tom Steyer Amy Klobuchar

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.