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Buy, Sell Or Hold? A Special Democratic Debate Edition

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Welcome, everyone, to a special debate-focused preview edition of our weekly politics chat!! In recent weeks, we’ve talked a lot about the different strategies the candidates should use on the debate stage, who the lineup is good for (and who it’s bad for) and whether the field might be consolidating around a handful of candidates.

So today, let’s have a little fun with the question of candidate debate strategy and play a game of buy/sell/hold with PredictIt prop bets (plus some I made up). We checked the prices (given in cents) of a bunch of propositions at noon Eastern on Tuesday and then translated those prices into probabilities. (We know that’s not exactly right, but it’s close enough.)

And in case you forgot how to play buy/sell/hold:

  • Buy means: “I think the chances of this happening are higher than indicated.”
  • Sell means: “I think they’re lower.”
  • Hold means: “I’m a coward and am unwilling to take a stand.”

OK, let’s start with a 🌶 spicy 🌶 proposition. Buy, sell or hold: Elizabeth Warren will win the 2020 presidential Democratic nomination? (33 percent)

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I am bullish on Warren overall, but I still think it’s a pretty open race. I’ll sell on Warren — I think her chances are a bit lower than 33 percent.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I’ll buy! If only for the argument. I think that Warren is a secure bet in this race and that she’s the only candidate who’s seen steady, significant gains. That’s gotta count for something.

I also think that she’ll pick up establishment-leaning voters as the race goes on and other people drop out — or at the very least, she’s one of a few arms that establishment-leaning types will want to fall into.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I’m boarding a plane, so my answers will be brief at best. Warren’s somewhere between a hold and a sell. And 33 percent is a lot, given where her position in the polls is. That price puts a lot of weight on subjective vs. objective impressions, in other words. I happen to share those subjective impressions, i.e. my “gut” says Warren is a very strong candidate. However, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that my gut is usually full of shit.

clare.malone: NATE’S ON A PLANE 🐍

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): If Biden’s chances are, say, 40 percent based on his standing in polls from the first half of the year, that leaves like 60 percent for everyone else. Does Warren have a bit more than half of that? I’m skeptical of that so I’ll sell — for now.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): I think I’m somewhere between a buy and a hold? (Outing myself immediately as a quasi-coward.)

clare.malone: Lol, it’s fine Amelia — I’m a little less wedded to the strict odds of this. I’m more going on the gut that Nate speaks of and strength on the ground, etc.

ameliatd: Warren’s growth has been impressive. And she stands to gain as the field narrows. It seems like she might be starting to overcome some voters’ worries about nominating a woman, too? Which would be big, if so.

natesilver: I mean Biden is way too low in these markets, so if you’re saying Warren has a 33 percent chance or higher, you’re saying it’s basically a two-horse race. Which, maybe?

clare.malone: I don’t think that’s crazy, Nate.

Not a lot of people are super bullish on Sanders right now.

And Harris is slipping in the polls.

So … it’s not totally nuts to go with the idea that it COULD potentially be a Biden-Warren showdown.

sarahf: Bernie is in third at 14 percent, but that’s a distant third behind Warren (33 percent) and Biden (26 percent) over at PredictIt.

natesilver: If Warren got into the low 20s in national polls instead of the high teens, I might feel more comfy with that. That tends to be a big inflection point. Being in the 20s in a multi-way race is serious business.

nrakich: Harris still has a lot of untapped potential, IMO.

ameliatd: I don’t know, Nathaniel. My “buy” sentiments for Warren are probably contingent on Harris not pulling it together. But based on how her summer went, that seems increasingly plausible. Like, at some point your untapped potential needs to start turning into actual gains.

geoffrey.skelley: I know I said I sell on Warren, but I can certainly see her winning heavily-white Iowa and New Hampshire, building up — Nate’s favorite word — “momentum” and going on to win the nomination.

And that’s the tough thing about this — the sequential nature of the primary means we can look at the national polls and early-state polls, but the moment Iowa happens, that will influence what happens in New Hampshire, and so on.

sarahf: Speaking of Iowa and New Hampshire … Warren has a 35 percent chance in Iowa and a 34 percent chance in New Hampshire … does that change anyone’s wager? The markets do give Biden a 48 percent chance in South Carolina, though, and Warren only a 14 percent shot.

nrakich: I think that 35 percent in Iowa is considerably closer to reality. I think her odds of winning Iowa are higher than her odds of winning the nomination writ large.

She has an excellent ground game, which could help her in a low-turnout, activist-driven caucus state like Iowa.

And she has performed better in Iowa polls than national ones so far.

geoffrey.skelley: There are 26 days between Iowa and South Carolina and 18 days between New Hampshire and South Carolina. That’s A LOT of time for the “Biden’s a loser” theme to permeate things if he can’t win either Iowa or New Hampshire. Nevada, as it’s worth reiterating, is BEFORE South Carolina, which could maybe help him. But the Silver State is a bit of a black box.

natesilver: I’d buy on Warren in IA/NH. There should be more of a spread in these markets between her Iowa price and her nomination price. The fact that there isn’t proves these markets are kinda dumb.

ameliatd: That underscores my very definitive wager of “somewhere between a hold and a buy.” She’s doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire — which is why I would say her chances are better than you might think if you just look at the national polls.

clare.malone: Warren is going to have an easier time in those very white first two states — Biden, for a number of reasons, enjoys an advantage with black voters in South Carolina, which is pretty much how you win that state.

But Warren’s campaign was one of the two or three campaigns that people in South Carolina talked about as being strong in voter outreach. Even a lot of pro-Biden people there told me they liked her. So, I could see momentum or winning in IA and NH upping her odds in South Carolina and then perhaps in other southern states where black voters are key.

But that probably involves Biden faltering so she becomes more dominant — or doing something that finally sticks as a criticism.

natesilver: If you had a market for “will the Iowa winner win the nomination?” I’d probably be a seller of it.

Like, I think it would be priced at 70 percent when it should be priced at 50 or something.

The Democratic electorate used to be a lot whiter and have a lot more caucuses, so Iowa used to be a lot more representative.

But Iowa is no longer a good representation of the overall Democratic electorate right now.

geoffrey.skelley: Oh definitely, but if Warren wins Iowa and New Hampshire, I bet she’ll be polling better in Nevada and South Carolina than she is right now.

Also, keep in mind, Bill Clinton is the only recent nominee of a major party not to win one of the first two states, although that is complicated by the fact that no one really contested Iowa in 1992 because Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was running.

sarahf: Interestingly though, the betting markets seem less bullish on Warren winning the presidency. Buy, sell or hold: President Trump wins the 2020 presidential election? (41 percent)

natesilver: Lol I’m not touching that question.

ameliatd: Wow, Sarah, you really went there!

clare.malone: I give a hold on that.

I truly don’t know where things stand.

There are a lot of plausible arguments to be made that Democrats come out of the nomination fight irritated at each other and unhappy with their candidate, and there’s less enthusiasm on Election Day.

nrakich: I’ll hold. Forty-one percent sounds right. Close to 50-50, as we are amid an era of close presidential elections. But every indicator right now, from his dropping approval rating to polls of the generic ballot to special elections to early general-election polls that you probably shouldn’t trust, indicates it’s a Democratic-leaning environment, so I’m willing to make a 9-point concession to that.

clare.malone: On the other hand, it could very well be a different ballgame from ’16, and people ARE really motivated to turn out against Trump, no matter who the Democratic nominee is, and the Democrats prevail against a GOP Electoral College advantage in a high-turnout election on both sides??

ameliatd: I would also say hold just because there are so many unknowns. A recent Pew poll found that most Democrats are excited by several 2020 candidates, not just their top choice, so maybe that’s good news for Democrats if it helps insulate voter enthusiasm against a potentially long and bruising primary? But I’m not sure.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, my feelings are similar to Nathaniel’s, though you could also make the case that 41 percent is too low for an incumbent president in a closely-divided country. So I’d say hold or maybe buy.

natesilver: He’s not much of an incumbent. He barely won last time. And the track record of incumbents who barely won is not so hot.

sarahf: And as Nathaniel mentioned, his presidential approval number seems to be 📉 (his approval rating is still above 40 percent though).

geoffrey.skelley: But his approval has about as good a chance of going up again as going down in the long run — it’s been remarkably steady overall.

natesilver: That isn’t good news for Trump, though, because he probably needs his approval rating to improve for him to win reelection.

clare.malone: Nate’s not touching this, though.

natesilver: Like it’s not good news when your weight is steady if you weigh 300 pounds.

clare.malone: It could be good news if you’re 7 feet tall.

geoffrey.skelley: A BMI discussion is what we need here.

clare.malone: Clare googles “what does LeBron weigh?”

sarahf: OK … let’s pivot back to the 2020 Democratic primary. We’ve talked about where people stand on Warren’s chances of winning the nomination, and as a result where Biden or Sanders stand — but what about some of the lower polling candidates like, say, Kamala Harris? Markets put her at 10 percent. Buy, sell, hold?

ameliatd: I am not especially bullish on Harris, but that seems a little low to me. I’d say buy?

nrakich: I’m definitely buying on Harris — I think her chances are significantly higher than 10 percent.

Harris still has the potential to appeal to multiple wings of the Democratic Party — especially two very influential wings in college-educated whites and black voters. I also think her prosecutorial background means she has several good debates left in her.

geoffrey.skelley: As for Harris, I think I’d buy there just based on potential. It may be unrealized so far, but it’s still there, whether she ends up being Marco Rubio 2.0 or not.

sarahf: What about Pete Buttigieg, at 5 percent? Buy, sell, hold?

clare.malone: What the hell, sell. I do not think he has a good chance. Maybe an Iowa win? Maybe?

nrakich: I’d buy Buttigieg at 5 percent, but I think it’s a closer call than Harris.

clare.malone: I think that the markets are incredibly sensitive to the narratives of the news cycle.

So, the fact that Harris had a purportedly shitty back half of the summer, means that her odds go waaaay down — too low.

natesilver: Y’all should actually add everyone chances up because I bet you’d be at like 130 percent.

You can’t be a buy on everyone.

clare.malone: Nate, you’re not even participating fully!

Peanut Gallery!!

natesilver: The best way to participate is half-assedly.

clare.malone: Also, close read: People have sold.

sarahf: OK, so we’ve talked about some of the leading contenders for winning the nomination — Warren, Biden and Sanders. And we’ve talked about Harris, whom the markets seem a bit bearish on. But setting those candidates aside, what about the rest of the debaters? Andrew Yang is at 11 percent (insert Yang Gang joke) while everyone is at 10 percent (Harris) or lower. Would you buy any of the other candidates on Thursday night’s stage? Or sell them all?

natesilver: I’m probably the most bullish on Yang of any of the election-analyst-types, and I think that price is kind of insane and a discredit to PredictIt tbh.

geoffrey.skelley: Definitely sell on Yang at that mark. Buttigieg is harder because he, too, has potential and a lot of resources given his fundraising. But he really needs to win Iowa or finish 2nd, maybe 3rd there to be in the mix, and I’m struggling to see how that happens with the other candidates in the field — so I’ll sell him, too.

clare.malone: I’m bullish on Cory Booker, though not incredibly so (and I do remain, sadly, sensitive to Nate’s buying spree comment).

I think that Booker has the same kind of coalition-building potential — very much unrealized yet — but I think he’s probably worth being slightly-higher-valued? I think he’s investing on the ground and could have an appeal to white voters in Iowa, and if he did decently, proving his mettle there, black voters in South Carolina or Hispanic voters in Nevada might see him as more electable?

nrakich: At 2 percent, I’d be willing to buy a few of these names just because you don’t have much to lose.

I will probably get ridiculed for this, but I think Beto O’Rourke still could have something left in the tank. There’s a reason he caught fire in Texas last year — he’s a charismatic, appealing guy — and he has been holding a ton of campaign events.

ameliatd: Here’s my problem with this lower tier. A lot of these candidates have potential upside — but mainly if one or more of the higher-polling candidates stumble. That certainly seems to be the case with someone like Booker. So how much do you bake in the possibility of another candidate falling apart?

nrakich: I am also bullish on Booker, Clare, but it looks like PredictIt is too — he’s a bit higher than all the other lower-tier candidates, at 4 percent.

natesilver: If one of the front-runners stumble, wouldn’t one of the other front-runners benefit?

geoffrey.skelley: Yes, I agree with Clare and Amelia. Booker definitely could be there to pick up the pieces if Harris slides, so I’d buy at that price.

natesilver: But Harris is in 4th place now. Which pieces is he picking up?

sarahf: Yeah, I think it’s becoming increasingly harder for some of the candidates like Booker, Amy Klobuchar or O’Rourke to see any gains.

nrakich: Sarah, I think that is obviously literally true, in that every day that passes is one fewer day until the primaries. But I still think there are several months and several opportunities to stand out (e.g., debates) left.

natesilver: I’m bullish on Booker’s odds of finishing in 3rd place. I’d pay 10 percent for that.

sarahf: I keep coming back to Julián Castro, who had a strong moment in the first debate and saw a big jump in his favorability ratings and name recognition as a result, but then nothing in the polls.

ameliatd: But I’d put Castro’s chances higher than O’Rourke’s right now (if I’m choosing between the Texans). Maybe I’m wrong and O’Rourke will wow everyone in the debate … but his performances have been super snoozy so far.

clare.malone: I think Castro suffers from not being a national figure. He hasn’t had the same kind of grist as the senators have during the Trump years, and O’Rourke, his home-state rival, really crowded him out in the roll-out department.

nrakich: Yeah, I agree with Sarah that if Castro was going to make his move, he would have done it already, as he performed quite well in the first two debates.

To me, he suffers from inconsistency. He was great in the debates, but I thought he was really flat in the latest CNN town hall.

clare.malone: In the end, no one remembers who he is. The twin thing doesn’t help either …


natesilver: I’d just say I have about 15 percent total to give out at most for everyone who’s not in the top 4. I’m not sure how I’d distribute that 15 percent, but it’s not a ton of wealth to go around.

nrakich: Yeah, I’m definitely splitting hairs — who cares if O’Rourke has a 5 percent chance instead of a 2 percent chance.

natesilver: FiveThirtyEight readers do!

ameliatd: Hair-splitting is what it’s all about, Nathaniel! Lean into it!

natesilver: And 20:1 vs 50:1 is a nontrivial difference

sarahf: OK, what about the candidates not on the stage? Lest we forget, Tom Steyer has made the October debate … but does that really change anything in your mind regarding who wins the nomination? My guess is maybe not … so here’s a buy/sell/hold I made up — Warren, Biden, Sanders, Harris don’t win the nomination (5 percent).

nrakich: I’d buy that, Sarah. As I said, there’s still a lot of time left, and several more debates where someone like O’Rourke or Booker or Castro could have their moment. I think Biden, Warren, Sanders and Harris are by far the most-likely nominees, but I wouldn’t be gobsmacked if it’s someone else.

clare.malone: I really don’t think anyone is going to have a moment who hasn’t already.

geoffrey.skelley: I think I would cautiously buy that. It’s obviously very likely that the nominee will be one of those four, but we’re still nearly five months out from Iowa so things could shift.

clare.malone: Call me a cynic, call me a stinker, but if you haven’t really started to prove you’ve got the potential for a coalition by mid-September … sorry, but it’s curtains.

nrakich: Clare, you’re the one who always says it’s early!

clare.malone: RIght, but now it’s September — people outside the top 4 or 5 have no shot.

And that’s the scope of this q.

natesilver: I mean I just said I think it’s a 15 percent chance on the high end. Maybe it’s more like 10 or 12. But definitely higher than 5. Five percent isn’t a lot!

nrakich: By this point in the 2012 Republican cycle, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all had yet to have their “moment.”

sarahf: President Cain was such a good president. 😉

clare.malone: heh heh

natesilver: I don’t think this race has much to do with 2012. The frontrunners are a much more robust group than Romney alone was.

And to Sarah’s snarky comment … all those candidates lost anyway!

ameliatd: I guess the way I’d think about it is — what are the odds that some series of events manages to tank the chances of all four of those candidates? That seems quite unlikely to me.

natesilver: Yeah it’s like being five games behind but in 5th place in the MLB wild card standings. #sports

Doesn’t seem like you’re that far behind, but it’s unlikely that everyone else gets cold.

geoffrey.skelley: I think everyone wants every cycle to be like 2012 because it was exciting and messy. Also because who can forget Gingrich and Cain having a “Lincoln-Douglas” debate? But yeah, I don’t think you’re going to see a collapse of all those candidates.

ameliatd: And it’s not like if Warren suddenly starts slipping, Buttigieg or one of the lower-polling candidates will grab her supporters.

I think there’s room for movement — but mostly within that upper tier.

nrakich: Nate, you had to turn this chat into a dig at the Mets.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: How to win this week’s debate

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

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