Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): The 2020 Democratic field was once hailed as the most diverse ever. But now, even as many candidates try to position themselves as the best person to build on the “Obama coalition of young people, women and nonwhite voters,” the four front-runners are nevertheless all white, and three are men.
On Tuesday, Kamala Harris dropped out of the race, and candidates like Julián Castro and Cory Booker have all struggled to break out, languishing below 4 percent in the polls nationally. Harris, in particular, had a bruising race, once sitting at 15 percent nationally to only plummet to 3 percent before ending her campaign.
Is this surprising? What are some possible explanations?
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): My somewhat complicated theory is that Booker kind of lost the informal black candidate primary to Harris from 2017 to early 2019. Harris then got all the buzz as the most viable black candidate when she entered the race. But then she struggled. I’m not sure if her campaign had the clearest of messages, but I also think she faced electability questions, which dog female candidates in particular.
julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think it’s pretty surprising that the top of the field is now dominated by white candidates. And I think there are a couple of explanations that don’t fall under the usual “electability” catch-all, although that certainly deserves consideration, too.
One is that Obama’s election removed the novelty of a person of color winning the nomination, which means it’s harder to frame media coverage in a way that doesn’t have to tackle really tough questions about minority representation and what it might mean to actually address those inequalities.
Another explanation is because people have changed their views on race to more closely match their political parties, white Democrats have adopted (superficially at least) pretty racially liberal opinions, which means all the candidates can now talk about race and the concerns of black and Latino communities to various degrees. Obviously, with varying levels of success, but still, that’s a big change from a few years ago.
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Joe Biden’s standing in the race has been a big hindrance, too, because he’s just so strong among older nonwhite voters, particularly black voters, who might have been a potential base for some of these other candidates.
meredithconroy: (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): If I had to give a blanket explanation for why the nonwhite candidates aren’t polling well among Democrats, my answer is that there was never going to be a lot of room between a former VP (Biden) and former runner-up (Bernie Sanders). Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Harris and Pete Buttigieg all made inroads at some point, although only Warren’s has really been sustainable. Why Castro and Booker haven’t (yet) is, in my view, related to their race and the “electability” overcorrection following 2016, or this idea that only a white, moderate male can take on Trump at the ballot box. Because sexism and racism motivated voters’ choice at the ballot box in 2016, I think Democrats are reluctant to be all-in for a candidate that will make those attitudes more salient in 2020.
julia_azari: What’s interesting to me about that, Meredith, is that this electability message seems to have somehow turned into one about race and less about gender.
sarahf: In other words, it should be equally surprising Warren has continued to do well?
julia_azari: Yeah, and while Amy Klobuchar isn’t doing great in the polls, she hasn’t really been attacked on her electability credentials (which is not to say that attacks on her haven’t been gendered). Similarly, Kirsten Gillibrand didn’t drop out because of electability critiques. She lacked elite support and did poorly in the polls.
That’s not to say that women are doing great in this field; they’re not, as a group. But the fact that concerns over electability also affect Booker and Castro after Obama won big majorities is interesting to me. Perhaps a message Democrats took away from 2016 is to be generally cautious about demographics, but not ideology. I find that odd, but there’s a lot going on.
sarahf: What’s so hard to untangle in all of this, too, is just how much of it is about the individual candidates and the competition they face. Like Meredith said at the outset, with both a former VP and a former runner-up in the race, did that ever really leave that much oxygen in the race for other candidates?
geoffrey.skelley: Sanders’s appeal is just so narrow, though. His ceiling of support just isn’t as high as some of the other candidates, which is why Biden’s relative strength looms large to me. He’s taken hits in the race, but he hasn’t really fallen down.
Perry has written about this before, but black voters have a pragmatic streak in the primaries, which means they have traditionally backed establishment candidates, which is one explanation for Biden’s continued success.
But in a universe where there is no Biden running, I think someone like Harris or Booker fills that lane better than Sanders or Warren. Considering Harris’s appeal earlier in the cycle among white college graduates, she might’ve had the best chance, too, to weave together that same sort of coalition that boosted Obama in the 2008 primary. But obviously that didn’t happen, and I think you can point to Biden as part of that, for eating up her support among nonwhite voters, and to Warren for grabbing college-educated voters.
perry: Would Stacey Abrams, Michelle Obama or Oprah have done better?
In other words, how big is the electability problem (a candidate’s gender and race) vs. the Biden problem (he is fairly popular with black people, even setting electability arguments aside)?
sarahf: In a race where a candidate’s perceived ability to beat Trump has been paramount, that’s hard for me to answer. I do think it’s notable how the conversation around electability has centered less on what characteristics voters think are important for winning vs. what they say they believe their neighbors think is important, and how that limits their choice as a result. For instance, in “magic wand” polls, where respondents are asked who they’d make president if they had the power to magically bypass the election, Warren has routinely beaten Biden, which stands out to me as a pretty stark example of just how different the race could be if electability wasn’t a factor.
julia_azari: I sort of doubt that any of those candidates would have done a lot better, Perry. That’s partly because the field is so crowded, and because there are so many existential questions about what the party should be doing.
meredithconroy: I think Abrams would’ve done fine, depending when she jumped in, because she has political experience. But I think Michelle Obama and Oprah wouldn’t have done as well because Democrats are generally more wary than Republicans of outsiders and people without formal governing experience.
julia_azari: Would Abrams have cleared the field, though? I doubt it. Sanders and possibly Warren would probably still have run, and if they’re in, then Biden jumps in, too. And I don’t see Buttigieg being put off by Abrams either.
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I don’t think there was a single field-clearer out there. Someone with Biden’s resume, maybe, if he or she were considerably younger and without as many failed presidential runs.
perry: Why Booker hasn’t done better is super interesting to me as well. I don’t think he actually has an electability problem, considering on the surface he’s the most similar to the last Democrat who won — black, male and running on a message of hope.
Yet, that hasn’t worked for him. Maybe he has been unlucky (people found another Rhodes Scholar mayor). Then again, maybe it’s because he’s been unable to pick a lane.
Buttigieg says I’m young; Biden says I’m experienced and electable; Warren and Sanders both say they’ll bring big structural change.
Booker, on the other hand, says I’m kind of left, but not that left, kind of young, but not that young, etc.
sarahf: And so you think it’s kind of inexplicable, Perry, that Booker hasn’t done better given all that?
julia_azari: My hunch is that this is the year of the factional candidate.
perry: Yeah, that is my view as well.
sarahf: Wait, what does the year of “the factional candidate” mean?!?
perry: Buttigieg and Biden are running as decidedly center-left. Warren and Sanders to the left. Harris and Booker on the other hand have refused to pick a lane, and in my view, fusion is failing.
julia_azari: Yeah, it’s the year of the candidate who can excite some segment of the party, rather than someone who seems OK to most segments.
perry: Better said.
sarahf: But isn’t trying to appeal to a wide swath of the party versus any one specific group kind of Biden and Buttigieg’s whole appeal? Hence, the whole “Vote for me, I won’t rock the boat too much” strategy?
Or would you say, no — they’ve still staked out an ideological lane more explicitly.
julia_azari: Look at the demographic trends. Biden does well mainly with older voters and minority voters, while Buttigieg really only does well with white voters, particularly those with a college degree. Which is similar to Warren, although she does a little bit better than him with nonwhite voters — but not by much. That’s factional support!
perry: Additionally, Harris and Booker lost the black left to Sanders and Warren, while black voters who are not-that-left ideologically flocked to Biden. That same kind of ideological split exists among white voters, except Buttigieg has done better with more moderate white voters than Harris and Booker have done with moderate black voters.
I do think, in defense of Harris and Booker, perhaps a black candidate can’t run on super-left platform and be seen as viable. There’s a reason why the Jesse Jackson model (a black candidate running on populist platform) has not been replicated and why there is no black Bernie Sanders-style candidate in the race.
sarahf: This theory of the year of the factional candidate is an interesting one and would also help explain to me why someone like Andrew Yang has overperformed expectations as an outsider-y type candidate in a field that has otherwise been not that receptive to candidates of color like Harris and Booker, who have taken a more middle-of-the-road approach. Tulsi Gabbard falls under this category as well I think, given her small-but-loyal fan base.
But this still doesn’t explain someone like Castro, right? After all, he did make being super liberal a core part of his campaign at one point — remember how he got everyone (except O’Rourke) to raise their hand at the first debate in support of making it a civil, not criminal, offense to cross the border without the proper documentation?
perry: In my view, Warren and Sanders don’t leave a lot of room for other super liberal candidates.
meredithconroy: I mostly agree. But I think Castro was smart to carve out space for a candidate who openly supports issues of social and racial justice. He is championing issues that often get sidelined. Only it hasn’t had much impact. Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said that embracing progressive positions on things like immigration may not have done much to help Castro, given liberal voters’ loyalty to Sanders and Warren. So Castro’s poll numbers continue to languish.
sarahf: That’s the thing — he missed the last debate and doesn’t seem likely to make the next one in December either.
But OK, with Harris’s departure from the race, does that mean there really are only four possible front-runners at this stage? Or do people think this could still change?
perry: After every debate, people in the media, myself included, say Booker and Klobuchar did well. Yet they remain stagnant in polls.
Do more donors support Booker now, in part because he would be one of the few minority candidates on the debate stage and is probably more viable than Castro?
Maybe. If I had to bet on a fifth candidate to emerge, I would bet on Booker.
But I am not confident of that bet at all.
julia_azari: I agree with Perry.
meredithconroy: Sanders, Biden and Warren have cemented themselves as front-runners, I think. which I think leaves room for one, maybe two more. I would bet on Buttigieg, Booker or … maybe Yang? AM I TOO ONLINE?
geoffrey.skelley: The problem for Booker is he needs four qualifying polls for the December debate by Dec. 12, and he has zero at the moment. Maybe he can take advantage of Harris’s exit to pick up some of her support — not that there was a ton at this point — but the problem is he’s running out of time.
Yang, on the other hand, is currently one poll short of qualification and the “Yang Gang” is a legit financial resource — he raised about $10 million in the third quarter, which could keep him going for awhile.
sarahf: How will you think about the race moving forward?
julia_azari: The big question for me is whether Castro or Booker picks up any steam as a result of Harris dropping out. Or Klobuchar.
geoffrey.skelley: Maybe the absence of a nonwhite candidate at the top of the polls causes some people to shift their support, but I think we should keep in mind that many of Harris’s supporters will most likely flock to one of the other leading candidates. According to a recent poll from CBS News/YouGov that looked at who voters’ second-choice candidates would be in the early states, 80 percent of Harris supporters named one of the four leading candidates as their second choice.
julia_azari: Yeah, you’re probably right.
I’m on Twitter too much.
geoffrey.skelley: That said, I do think that Gabbard and Yang have very committed supporters who will keep them in the race for a while, but if I’m trying to figure out if there’s a nonwhite candidate who can actually win the Democratic nomination. That list may be empty at this point if Booker doesn’t improve substantially.
meredithconroy: Big picture, the lack of nonwhite front-runners signals to me that a vast number of voters are reluctant to support a nonwhite candidate because they are worried about winning swing states. For voters who are more concerned with policy than beating Trump, my thought is they have probably already settled on Sanders or Warren, which leaves a candidate like Castro — who also has a progressive agenda — out to dry. Long term, it should be a wake-up call for the Democratic party as an organization. They need to continue to build a diverse bench and do more to elevate nonwhite and non-male candidates.
geoffrey.skelley: General election turnout really matters for Democrats. Yes, Hillary Clinton lost for multiple reasons in 2016, but one big reason was lower turnout among black voters. Now, I don’t think anyone expected it to be at the same level as in 2008 or 2012 with Obama not on the ballot, but if you look at cities like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, which were located in the three states that decided the election, black voter turnout was down in all three. Clinton only lost those states by a combined 78,000 votes or so.
So if you’re a Democrat trying to figure out how to win electorally important and fairly white states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, turnout among nonwhite voters is key. The same is true if you’re thinking about other potential swing states like Arizona and North Carolina.
Which means it should be at least somewhat concerning for the Democratic Party that there are really no viable nonwhite candidates left in the race two months before Iowa.