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Is Joe Biden Still The Front-Runner?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Joe Biden’s status as the 2020 Democratic primary front-runner has started to crack. Following the first Democratic debate, three different polls have found his lead slip into the low 20s, as compared to his standing in the high 20s to mid-30s prior to the June 27 debate. So let’s talk about the case for Biden as the front-runner and the case against him.

To get us started … a show of virtual hands: Who still thinks Biden is the front-runner?

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): ✋

Though I’m raising it slowly, kind of like Biden did when answering questions during the debates.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Yes, Biden is the front-runner.

micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): I staked out an extreme position on the pod.

sarahf: … that you’d like to walk back?

micah: I don’t think Biden is the front-runner in any meaningful sense.

sarahf: 🔥

OK … that’s two votes in favor of Biden as the front-runner and one vote against him. So let’s first talk about the case for why Biden is still the front-runner.

perry: He is clearly the front-runner, without caveats:

  1. He leads in the national polls.
  2. He leads in the early state polls.
  3. Even Democratic voters who don’t like him see him as the most electable candidate, and I think that matters because when voters go to the polls next year, they will be thinking about who can beat President Trump first and foremost.
  4. He has a racially diverse coalition, which means he can potentially make up for losses in the early states by doing well with black voters in the South.

geoffrey.skelley: Biden had a bad debate, and the polls are showing it to some degree. But that doesn’t mean he can’t recover. He raised $21.5 million in basically two months and as Perry said can still make the case that he’s the candidate with the strongest electability argument against Trump.

sarahf: But on the subject of 💰 … isn’t it a bad sign that Pete Buttigieg outraised Biden in the second quarter? (We won’t have all the Q2 numbers until next week, but we know Biden raised $21.5 million compared with Buttigieg’s $24.8 million.)

geoffrey.skelley: The Biden campaign would have liked to outraise everybody. But considering Biden didn’t officially launch his campaign until the end of April, he did miss out on about one-third of the quarter to fundraise.

micah: But Butiggieg is at like 5 percent in most polls!

I feel like both Biden and Bernie Sanders’s numbers were both a little disappointing. (Sanders reported he raised $18 million, which is also less than Buttigieg).

geoffrey.skelley: Biden would have more to be concerned about if, say, Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren had Buttigieg’s fundraising total. Warren raised $19 million in the second quarter while Harris raised $12 million.

And that’s because after their debate performance, they’re practically tied with Sanders for second in the polls behind Biden, whereas Buttigieg is, like you say, Micah, polling around 5 percent.

micah: Harris’s fundraising really picked up post-debate. But obviously the debate came late in the quarter, so it’s impact won’t be entirely captured in her Q2 numbers.

sarahf: But maybe the fundraising primary isn’t all that telling. … Perry, you’ve written about this for the site.

perry: Yeah, campaign donors, even small donors, tend to be upper-income, white and well-educated. So if you are Biden, your fundraising numbers may understate your support, because some of your support is from groups like black voters, who don’t give a ton of money to political campaigns.

And the flip side of that is that fundraising data may inflate the support of someone like Buttigeig, who seems to be doing well among well-educated whites.

sarahf: Moving on from the fundraising primary, how is Biden doing in the endorsement primary?

micah: So … can I use endorsements to make my anti-Biden case?

sarahf: Go for it.

micah: OK, so …

Since the debate, Biden has fallen into the mid-to-low 20s in national polls. We have only a couple post-debate Iowa polls, but he’s in the same vicinity there, too. And we don’t have any post-debate polls from New Hampshire.

So even though his support hasn’t fallen that much, he’s crossed an important threshold — perhaps from being a favorite against the field to being a clear underdog:

But more importantly, given how early in the campaign we are and how much uncertainty comes with any prediction about what will happen, Biden’s advantage is now small enough as to be all but meaningless.

And all of this is sorta perfectly encapsulated by the endorsements race.

Sure, Biden is leading there:

But in reality, almost all the potential endorsers haven’t endorsed yet:

So Biden’s lead in endorsements isn’t really worth anything right now.

For instance, we wouldn’t publish a big piece headlined “Biden Winning Endorsement Race” — instead, we’d headline it “Most Endorsers Still On Sidelines” or whatever.

Does that make sense?

perry: Let me probe this a bit.

First of all, people may be gun-shy when it comes to endorsing a candidate because Trump won without a lot of endorsements in 2016, so now there may be some fears about supporting the “establishment candidate.”

But at the same time, isn’t the Democratic Party’s leadership pointing voters toward Biden? That is, isn’t House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s repeated calls to not impeach Trump, and to be cautious, a way of endorsing Biden’s more moderate brand of politics?

micah: If that’s what party leadership is doing, they are being too subtle about it.

There’s some debate, I think, about why elite endorsements are correlated with primary success — i.e. which way does the causation run? But if it’s about elites influencing voters, I don’t think subtlety works.

Let me try putting this another way, though …

If Biden were still polling in the upper 30s or 40s, I’d have no problem calling him the front-runner. Or, if the polling stays the exact same come December, I’d have no problem calling him the front-runner.

But even if that’s literally true now — let’s say he has an 18 percent chance of winning the nomination and the next closest person has a 15 percent chance — I don’t think it’s the best way to look at the race.

Instead, I think the headline right now is more like “Top Tier Of Democratic Race Solidifies” or something like that.

sarahf: Geoffrey, you’ve looked at the question of what the polls say about Biden’s strength as a front-runner in depth, and have a piece coming out this week on it. Give us a sneak peak.

micah: Drumroll!

geoffrey.skelley: Well, for the first half of 2019, Biden’s numbers did make him a front-runner — but not an unbeatable one.

He polled at around 31 percent in an average of all national polls from January through June of this year. And historically, a candidate in his position has had about a 40 percent chance of winning the nomination, so that’s not terrible news for Biden.

But then again, Hillary Clinton was polling above 60 percent through the same period in 2015, which meant her probability of winning the nomination was pretty close to 100 percent, so things could definitely be better for Biden.

micah: What about a candidate polling around 25 percent (which is closer to where Biden sits now)?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, the timing of the first Democratic debate is an interesting part of this discussion because it fell right at the end of the first half of the year, so it’s hard to know how to best think about Biden’s odds.

So, say, in the second half of 2019, Biden stays where he fell after the first debate, around 25 percent, that would drop his chances of winning the nomination to about 1 in 4.

Or say he does even worse and only hits around 20 percent in the polls, then he’s got about a 15 percent chance of winning, according to our historical data.

And based on the fact that Biden is almost universally known, you could probably lower his chances, too, because it may be more difficult to get people to change their opinions about him, compared to someone like Buttigieg, who isn’t nearly as well-known, and therefore, may have a higher ceiling of support.

So here I am arguing against my case as Biden the front-runner.

micah: 🍾

I win!

perry: Hold on. Another argument for Biden as the front-runner is his candidacy taken in the context of his top competition.

I would argue that the fact that Biden’s top competitors are two women and a socialist, helps him a lot — provided Democratic voters remain obsessed with electability and view electability as being correlated with being male.

micah: A democratic socialist!

sarahf: But what evidence do we have that Biden is the most electable candidate?

perry: I don’t think we have any hard evidence that Biden is the most “electable,” and honestly, this whole electability exercise is a bit silly. But I do think we have a ton of evidence that voters think Biden is the most electable — after all, they’ve repeatedly said it in poll after poll.

geoffrey.skelley: Bingo.

And Biden should point that out ad nauseam because like Perry said, Democrats say they really value electability in 2020.

micah: Very true, but that’s changed a bit post-debate:

Also, while you’re at that YouGov link, check this out:

But yeah, voters are certainly still telling pollsters that they think Biden has the best chance of beating Trump and that beating Trump is really important to them.

perry: Over time, I think Democratic voters will perceive Warren and Harris as more electable. I also think some Democratic voters will come to understand that they should not say out loud (or tell pollsters) that they view women running for president as unelectable, even if they act on that belief.

And the comparisons between Obama and Harris should be viewed with extreme caution. Democrats view Trump as a threat in a way they did not view the potential GOP nominee in 2008 — and they had not just watched a black person lose in 2004. In other words, I think the number of Democrats spooked by Clinton’s defeat in 2016 and are wary of women for that reason may be understated.

micah: But that’s all the more reason for us (and other members of the media) to be really careful in how we describe the race. Biden is seen as the most electable because he’s a white man. That’s certainly true. But I also think he’s been helped by his “front-runner” status. Nothing makes you seem more electable than winning elections.

perry: I should also note, part of my skepticism here is that Biden lost ground to Harris, a candidate who I think is going to suffer from increased media scrutiny of her record.

We are already getting coverage of Harris as a flip-floppy candidate. I don’t agree with all of that coverage, but her health care positioning (is she for Medicare for All or not) has been very confusing.

And I think that the polls right now are perhaps overinflating Harris’s support.

micah: Totally. That goes back to what Geoffrey was laying out — do we think the current polls are the best reflection of the race or a six-month average?

Are they underrating Biden?

geoffrey.skelley: I tend to think polls that cover a longer time span have more value. And considering we really only hit the first inflection point of the race with the first debate, there’ll be many more debates and campaign events that could shake things up further.

So maybe Biden comes out strong in the next debate and recovers to some extent. Some of the voters who moved away from him after the first debate might be open to reconsidering him, too — after all, they supported him once already.

micah: True.

sarahf: Another way to look at this is to set Biden’s standing in the polls aside and look at Sanders’s … the polls following the debate have not been good for Sanders, which means even if Biden is still the front-runner, the question of who’s in second is really an open question now.

micah: That’s an even harder question!

geoffrey.skelley: Haha

perry: And, who is in second now and who is the second most likely to win the nomination are different questions.

I think Sanders is still in second. But I think Harris is the second most likely to win the nomination, at least right now.

micah: Isn’t an easier question who is in the top tier?

Biden, Harris, Sanders, Warren.


perry: I kind of think Buttigieg belongs there too, because of his fundraising numbers. And I think he’s already proved that he can sustain a moment and take off in the polls.

sarahf: He really didn’t get that much of a post-debate bump though.

I was surprised by that.

perry: The Harris-Biden exchange was so covered that it blotted out the sun.

sarahf: Ha, that definitely seems to be the case for many of the candidates who hardly saw any movement in their numbers after the debate, but what will you be looking for to assess whether Biden is still the front-runner in the second half of the year? Does it really boil down to just his standing in the polls? Or is there something else you’ll be watching?

micah: To me, the “Is Biden the front-runner?” question is really about language/journalism more than the fundamentals of the campaign. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had a small lead in polls but most media outlets described the race in a way that left the impression that Trump couldn’t win. (Not us. 😉) My anti-Biden-is-the-front-runner stance comes out of concern for that kind of disconnect.

perry: I see this in the other direction.

The media was too slow in 2015 to acknowledge Trump’s strength because his coalition was not the kind of Republicans who were in NYC/DC. And because Biden Democrats aren’t the ones who tend to tweet a lot, I’m trying to be extra careful reading the polls and not really guessing at what I think will happen.

micah: That’s fair.

geoffrey.skelley: Biden’s poll numbers in the first half of 2019 were those of a front-runner, but not of one who’s got this race in the bag. And while the recent downtick in his numbers might be a sign of things to come, I don’t think we should deem a recovery impossible.

So I want to watch for signs suggesting that this is a blip, or the new normal, although we may have to wait until after the second debate to get a true feel for this.

I guess I just don’t quite see the front-runner 👑 on the ground just yet. It’s still on Biden’s head, but it could definitely fall off.

From ABC News:

Former VP Joe Biden offers an apology on the campaign trail

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.