Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): Hey, everyone! Our politics editor, Sarah Frostenson, is on vacation this week, so you’re stuck with me as your chat moderator. (Don’t bother complaining — I’ll edit any and all complaints out.)
For today, we’re going to debate what the best historical comparison is for most of the major Democratic presidential candidates. This was inspired by a few recent articles along the lines of “[INSERT 2020 Candidate] Is The [Insert Past Candidate] Of 2020.” (See here and here, for example).
So let’s just work our way down the polling charts, beginning with the leader:
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Yes, sounds like a lot of fun
julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Yes!
Do we have any ground rules? I thought through some historical comparisons who weren’t nominees, though I’m prepared to stay with winners.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): NO. RULES.
This is electoral Thunderdome.
micah: Yeah, they don’t have to be nominees.
micah: OK, let’s start with former Vice President Joe Biden.
Friend-of-the-site David Byler over at The Washington Post compared him with Mitt Romney. Anyone wanna make that case — or another?
geoffrey.skelley: The Romney comparison is quite apt, but for me, Walter Mondale sticks out as another good comparison. In 1984, he was a former VP running as the front-runner but had a challenging time winning the nomination against Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. He had to go all the way to the convention to clinch it, which maybe could happen this time too …
nrakich: I’m a David Byler stan, and I thought his analysis was right on the nose. Like Romney, Biden is a strong, but not dominant, polling leader. Like there was among Republicans in 2012, there appears to be a healthy appetite among Democrats in 2020 for a nominee who isn’t the polling front-runner. (In 2012, that manifested itself in how seemingly every candidate, from Rick Perry to Herman Cain, had a “moment” or a period in which they surged in the polls. That looks like it could happen among Democrats in 2020, too — Pete Buttigieg may have already had his “moment.”)
But ultimately, in 2012, the GOP went with the “safe” choice in Romney. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats in 2020 ultimately went with the “safe” choice in Biden, too.
julia_azari: I have a few for Biden: Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, James Blaine.
micah: OK, so the Mondale and Romney comparisons are relatively good for Biden — they both won.
Julia, wanna tell us more about those others?
julia_azari: Yeah, I second being both a Byler fan, and I liked the Romney analysis. And Jonathan Bernstein’s bit about Mondale this morning.
None of mine are quite right, but I think they offer different ways to think about Biden. I thought of Truman and Roosevelt because of the vice presidency angle, first off. For the Truman comparison, I guess part of it was that people sort of struggled to pin down his exact commitments and beliefs. Was he Southern? Aligned with Northerners? Truly liberal on civil rights? Just being strategic?
micah: Yeah, Biden has a bit of that going on. What exactly is his pitch? Well, it’s hard to say.
julia_azari: And I see some of that lack of a clear platform in Biden’s candidacy, and he also has a similar sort of potential path to victory to Truman in the nomination process, where there are factions opposed but he still pulls it out.
geoffrey.skelley: I’m really here for the James Blaine comparison.
nrakich: Both have the initials JB, Geoffrey. #illuminati
julia_azari: Blaine sought the Republican nomination when the party was pretty divided on process issues — civil service reform and how to treat the South post-Reconstruction, for example. And Blaine sorta tried to carve a middle course as the leader of a group that wanted to seek out the party middle ground on this stuff.
micah: At the risk of stepping on a piece Geoff is working on: Are there historical comps for Biden in terms of the polling — near-universal name recognition, really good favorable ratings, clear-but-not-overwhelming horse-race leader — who failed to win the nomination?
geoffrey.skelley: Ed Muskie comes to mind. He is interesting because he won the New Hampshire primary in 1972 — and the Iowa caucuses, though Iowa wasn’t a big deal quite yet — but still lost the nomination in part because he failed to meet the new expectations game by not doing as well as anticipated. It was also the first race after changes had been made to the nomination process, so everyone was adjusting to the new rules that broadened participation — like requiring state parties to advertise delegate selection events in advance — and the new realities of campaigning for primary and caucus votes and delegates, rather than focusing as much on backroom support.
nrakich: I think Hillary Clinton in 2008 is the bad-case comp for Biden.
julia_azari: Hillary Clinton in 2008.
geoffrey.skelley: Yes, also a good one.
nrakich: She was a universally known name, closely tied to the previous Democratic administration, started off with polling numbers in the 30s. But she struggled to amass majority support, and the rest of the party coalesced around Barack Obama.
I’m not sure I buy that there’s an anti-Biden majority out there, for reasons discussed in last week’s chat. But that’s at least a plausible path to a Biden loss.
micah: On Clinton, it sorta seemed like a candidate better-suited to the moment came along (Obama). That does seem like a danger for Biden.
nrakich: Yep, that could certainly be the case in 2020. Although I think “better-suited to the moment” is kind of a retrospective label — i.e., we don’t know that until it happens, and then it seems obvious.
micah: Yeah. Obama was also … a once-in-a-generation political talent.
The Muskie vs. Clinton bad-case comps are interesting in terms of how it could go wrong for him.
OK, anything else on Biden?
Next up: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders!
julia_azari: Al Smith (the Democratic nominee in 1928).
Smith is probably best-known for being the first Catholic nominee, and there’s a bit of a parallel since Sanders would be the first Jewish nominee (and the first nonreligious nominee, but we can debate that another time).
But the more important point, IMO, is that he represented a pretty distinct facet of the party. He was “wet” (anti-Prohibition), and there was very much disagreement on that issue. He was also connected to old-style machine politics as the party was moving in a different direction.
Sanders is obviously not a machine politician, but what I mean is that he’s very much tied to a particular wing/perspective in the party.
geoffrey.skelley: George McGovern in 1972 is an obvious choice. McGovern was seen as too liberal by many in his party, won his party’s nomination despite narrowly losing the national primary vote, and had extremely committed supporters who helped him win a bunch of delegates from caucus-convention states (which won’t be as open to Sanders, with many caucus states moving to primaries in 2020).
nrakich: I was gonna say Eugene McCarthy in 1968. He was an activisty (at the time, that meant anti-war) candidate who put a stronger-than-expected shock into the establishment (which went ahead and picked the last Democratic VP, Hubert Humphrey, at the convention anyway).
I mean, doesn’t this (from an NPR retrospective on McCarthy in 2005) sound like Sanders in 2016?
“Humphrey won the Democratic presidential nomination, leaving Eugene McCarthy to pick up a bullhorn outside the Hilton Hotel in Chicago to speak to his youthful admirers and supporters.”
But actually, on that score, I kinda think that the best comp for Bernie in 2020 is … Bernie in 2016. He’s kind of his own political animal.
micah: I’ve been surprised by how much Sanders has stuck to the script he followed in 2016.
nrakich: Right. It’s almost the same campaign.
micah: Anyway, one major theme here seems to be the (so far, at least) factional nature of Sanders’s bid.
nrakich: He’s an unprecedented figure in many ways. Openly (Democratic) socialist. Independent trying to win a party’s nomination. Has that ever happened before, Julia? At least in a major way?
julia_azari: Not in a major way.
geoffrey.skelley: Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee in 1940, might be a weirdly apt comparison in terms of coming from outside the party establishment.
julia_azari: I mean, Eisenhower was drafted by both parties.
The idea of an independent coming in and imposing themselves on a party establishment — it’s hard to exaggerate how much parties used to be designed to prevent that. I wrote a piece about it in late 2015 that I’ll dig up.
nrakich: I don’t think it’s the same as Willkie or Eisenhower, though. Sanders is an elected independent. Those guys joined a political party when they decided to enter politics.
julia_azari: No, not the same at all. Eisenhower is also a unique figure, but that’s another chat. Micah’s going to kill me. 🙂
micah: This is what we’re here for! LOL
What’s the best-case comp for Sanders?
julia_azari: I mean, Smith won the nomination …
nrakich: So did McGovern. But neither became president.
julia_azari: President Trump?
(ducks away from everyone on Twitter)
(and all my students)
(and about half my friends)
micah: It is Trump, right?
julia_azari: I think so.
geoffrey.skelley: Trump is an excellent pick for best case. Capture party, win nomination and win the presidency.
nrakich: Yep, and take advantage of a divided establishment to do so.
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, the Democratic establishment is not necessarily that divided right now. But if Biden fades in the polls, you could see even more of a struggle to coalesce around one candidate with such a crowded field full of big names.
julia_azari: I’ll get to this later in a much different context, but the last person who made people go, “holy shit, really that person?” and then became president was Ronald Reagan. Both because he was seen as extreme by some and unserious by some. But he won a national majority in the popular vote twice.
micah: Wait, so it’s Sanders as Reagan?
I 💙 that!!!
You also have the ran and lost and ran again angle. And people took him (Reagan and Sanders) more seriously the second time.
julia_azari: And the conflict between party factions that revolves around extremes and ideology: The Smith comparison is about a very specific issue position and faction; on the other hand, moderates thought Reagan was too extreme, and moderates think Sanders is too extreme.
micah: OK, coming up next: California Sen. Kamala Harris!
geoffrey.skelley: Let me just go ahead and jump in with Marco Rubio in 2016. Seems strong on paper but never pans out.
julia_azari: I got two for Harris: James K. Polk and FDR. And, yeah, both sorta follow the same logic as Rubio.
geoffrey.skelley: Re: FDR — Harris is going to come back a lot stronger in about 12 years if she doesn’t win this time? Just thinking of his vice presidential bid in 1920.
julia_azari: Polk: No one’s favorite. Good politician. Affiliation with last big name Democrat (Andrew Jackson — Polk was in the House then; for Harris, I’m thinking about her connection with Obama). Had appeal for different factions of the party.
micah: How much does Harris being the first major, major black woman to emerge make historical comparisons more tricky?
nrakich: But she’s not the first major potentially boundary-breaking candidate.
In that vein, my best-case scenario for Harris is Obama in 2008. Unites a diverse coalition, is seen as symbolically turning the page on the incumbent Republican president, pretty strong orator.
My bad-case scenario for Harris is kind of a weird one: Mike Huckabee in 2008. Kind of a happy warrior, wins a bunch of Southern states but can’t quite seal the deal.
julia_azari: That’s a solid comparison too, I think.
BTW, I said on television that I thought Huckabee would be the 2008 Republican nominee.
micah: Do you have a link to that?!
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
julia_azari: So this is where I was going to make the Reagan comparison.
nrakich: I’m bullish on Warren’s chances, so my first comp for her is a pretty good one: John McCain in 2008. He trailed in the polls for much of 2007 but remained a respected and well-liked figure in the party (as Warren is), so he was well-positioned. Once voting started, people went for a name they trusted.
geoffrey.skelley: John Kerry in 2004? Not really the out-and-out leader through much of the year before, also from Massachusetts, but then wins Iowa and New Hampshire and runs away with the nomination.
nrakich: That was going to be my second choice, Geoffrey! (I am probably too bullish on Warren.)
julia_azari: OK, so someone who is sort of the carrier of a major message within the party, who reflects concentrated beliefs among party activists and core voters and is met with some skepticism by moderates in the establishment … I have another one that’s gonna get me so much hate mail: Sen. Robert Taft, who ran for the Republican nomination in 1952 as a conservative Republican against Eisenhower.
geoffrey.skelley: Oh, Bob Taft — that’s good.
julia_azari: I spent some time with his papers at the Library of Congress this spring, and I found a ton of letters/telegrams to Taft and his campaign managers that were like, “I love your ideas and commitment, but I doubt you’re electable.”
nrakich: That’s amazing, Julia.
geoffrey.skelley: Warren could be “Ms. Democrat” in the same way that Taft was “Mr. Republican.”
micah: OK, so best case for Warren is Reagan or McCain. Worst is Taft? Or maybe Sanders in 2016?
Wait — Julia, did you mean Reagan in 1976 or in 1980?
nrakich: Depends how it works out!
julia_azari: I guess either one? That’s not helpful, I realize, but I think the dynamics are similar.
In 1980, you had an unpopular incumbent from the other party, which is maybe a more clear comparison for 2020. And in 1976, the Democrats were challenging an incumbent under weird circumstances. (It was right after Watergate.)
micah: Next!!! This should be an interesting one: Beto O’Rourke.
geoffrey.skelley: I tried to find decent presidential primary performances by House or former House members, and here’s what I came up with: Mo Udall.
julia_azari: All my O’Rourke comparisons suck.
nrakich: I have always thought O’Rourke was too funny to be president.
geoffrey.skelley: Udall probably would’ve been a solid bet to go viral in the mid-1970s.
nrakich: Best Udall quote (which may not be appropriate for a chat): “I have learned the difference between a cactus and a caucus. On a cactus, the pricks are on the outside.”
julia_azari: How about JFK or George W. Bush? OK, you are minimally qualified, good at articulating certain ideas and rich. And that’s enough to unify a party even if it leaves certain factions seething and/or unsatisfied.
nrakich: Yeah, JFK is definitely the best-case comp for O’Rourke.
One that I was toying with was John Edwards in 2008. Young, attractive candidate with lots of buzz from his previous election.
micah: That’s our headline: Beto Is Either JFK Or Mo Udall.
OK, we’re picking up the pace!
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
geoffrey.skelley: Well, the worst case for Buttigieg is Larry Agran, but I think we can all agree that Buttigieg is doing a lot better than the Irvine, California, mayor ever did in the 1992 Democratic primary.
julia_azari: I already wrote my Buttigieg take: “Is Pete Buttigieg the next Jimmy Carter?”
His “we can transcend politics” outsider schtick is pure Carter. I have the hate mail to prove it.
nrakich: Yeah, I think Julia’s Carter comparison nails it.
micah: Julia, that might be the most poli-sci dek ever: “He sounds a lot more disjunctive than transformative.”
geoffrey.skelley: Carter is certainly the best-case scenario for Buttigieg — President Pete.
nrakich: What about Newt Gingrich in 2012? He tried to be the intellectual in that race — remember how he kept bragging about being a historian? Plus, Gingrich had a “moment”/bump, like Buttigieg has already had.
julia_azari: Yeah that’s a good one — although Gingrich had a deep history in the party while Buttigieg is a newcomer.
But all of these comparisons break down on scrutiny, so don’t mind me.
micah: There also may be a 2012 Michele Bachmann comparison to make. Maybe not her or Gingrich specifically, but the surged-and-went-nowhere path is certainly possible for Buttigieg.
micah: Cory Booker!
The most optimistic comparison, which our colleage Perry made in Booker’s theory of the case, is Obama. As Perry wrote,
“A charismatic, liberal-but-not-super-liberal black man is running for president. He has degrees from two of America’s most prestigious universities. He was a community organizer before serving in elected office. He was touted very early in his career as the potential first black president. He served a stint in local government before becoming one of the very few African-Americans ever elected to the U.S. Senate. And he is running on a message of optimism.”
geoffrey.skelley: That’s sort of the best-case situation for him.
nrakich: But maybe it should be someone less famous from a previous election, given that Booker is not polling super great.
julia_azari: Yeah. Like I kinda keep thinking of Hubert Humphrey’s presidential bids. Pre-1968. Or like peripheral presidential eligibility, not even really bids, I guess.
micah: Here’s a weird one: John Kasich in 2016. At least in the positive tone and that he may not really catch on.
nrakich: Maybe Mo Udall works here too. Booker is funny!
geoffrey.skelley: That feels pretty Kasich-esque.
Henry “Scoop” Jackson crossed my mind as a Democratic senator who seemed to have a lot of potential but struggled to take off in both the 1972 and 1976 presidential races. Though Jackson won the Massachusetts and New York primaries in 1976 but didn’t win the nomination.
nrakich: Can we end with a lightning round with some of the lower-tier candidates??
micah: Why doesn’t everyone give everyone else they did?
- Tulsi Gabbard: Dennis Kucinich in 2004. Stays in the race a long time promoting a “peace” platform, wins a decent chunk (~15 percent) in late primaries.
- John Delaney: Chris Dodd in 2008. Goes all in on an early-state strategy, practically moves to Iowa and gets nothing to show for it.
- Mike Gravel: Mike Gravel in 2008. 🤑
geoffrey.skelley: Chris Dodd is a great comp for Delaney. Dodd moved his family to Iowa and enrolled his kids in school there.
julia_azari: Haha. I wore myself out with the historical stuff and didn’t get to the bottom of my list.
- John Hickenlooper or Steve Bullock could be Bruce Babbitt in 1988. Western governor who didn’t take off.
- Amy Klobuchar as Paul Simon — the Illinois senator, not the singer — in 1988. Midwestern, had potential but never shot to the lead.
- Jay Inslee as Bill Richardson in 2008. Lot of federal experience, western governor.
- And maybe my favorite — Bill de Blasio as John Lindsay, another liberal New York mayor who ran for president. Honestly, that’d be an OK outcome for de Blasio. Lindsay actually did well in a few contests in 1972 — second place in the early Arizona caucus, for example — and I have to say that it’s hard to see de Blasio winning much of anything right now.
julia_azari: Those are good.
micah: OK, to close: Which comp are you most confident in? (Or just proud of/think is fun?)
julia_azari: The Sanders-Reagan one came out of the blue, and I kind of like it. And also Buttigieg-Carter, if I can flog my piece on my other blog again.
geoffrey.skelley: I think Mondale-Biden and Sanders-McGovern comparisons are pretty reasonable, though it’s very early. I’m a fan of Nathaniel’s Kucinich-Gabbard comp — makes a lot of sense. Iconoclastic types.
Also Dodd-Delaney. That one made me laugh the most.
nrakich: I can’t choose between my children, Micah.
micah: CHOOSE, NATHANIEL!
nrakich: I like the Buttigieg-Carter comparison, except I don’t really think he’ll end up winning the nomination. I think the most likely scenario to come true right now is Biden-Romney, to be honest. (Well done, David!)