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:
|b||Klobuchar, Castro, O’Rourke|
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.
From ABC News: