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Is The 2020 Democratic Field Down To 10 Candidates?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Wednesday marked the last day candidates could qualify for the Sept. 12 Democratic primary debate, and in the end there were 21 DNC-approved polls, with 10 candidates able to hit 2 percent support in four qualifying national or early-state polls1 and reach 130,000 unique donors (including at least 400 individual donors in at least 20 states).2

The ten candidates who have qualified are: Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang.

So now that we have one debate with the top 10 candidates, how’s that change the dynamics? Who could it help and who could it hurt?

micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): No. 1 benefiter: Us. Back-to-back debate nights are horrible.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Yeah, now I get to watch UVA raise its national championship banner on Friday instead.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Yeah, it helps people who were hoping to make plans on Friday night. And — just full disclosure here — we think it’s pretty cool that the network we work for, ABC News, is gonna get to host the first debate where all the major candidates are on the same stage.

sarahf: Now, now — I meant this when I tweeted it earlier — it goes beyond self interest:

micah: But Sarah, I assume you wanted a more substantive answer that readers will actually be interested in?

sarahf: Yeah, we’re finally about to watch the candidates people are (theoretically) most interested in!! And I, for one, am excited to see Warren and Biden go head-to-head.

What about you all?

micah: Yeah, that’s true. So maybe Democratic voters are the real beneficiaries.

natesilver: I’m not sure it helps voters, to be honest.

I think maybe it hurts voters.

What they could do instead is put all the good candidates on one night and then all the weird ones in a JV debate. That way, people who want to watch the weird candidates still can, but it doesn’t deprive them of the opportunity to see, say, Warren vs. Biden.

geoffrey.skelley: There were plenty of people in my Twitter mentions complaining that there should be two debates with smaller numbers. I think you arguably could have had Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg one night, and put the other five on the second night.

sarahf: Are we sure we think that’s a good idea? The JV debates were ridiculed on the GOP side during the 2016 primaries. I just think there’s no good way for the parties to handle the winnowing process, and the candidates had 21 polls to hit 2 percent in, so I’d argue these are the 10 candidates voters are most interested in hearing.

micah: OMG, we just got down to 10 candidates, and people are already complaining that that’s too many!!!?

geoffrey.skelley: In the context of one debate stage, yeah.

natesilver: It’s kind of been demonstrated by now that a candidate like Castro or Booker can have a pretty darn good night — and he or she is still overshadowed by what the 4-5 main candidates are doing.

Hell, have the JV debate first, and then have some system where whoever does best according to a poll of Democratic voters gets a seat on the second night.

geoffrey.skelley: Oh, now that’s fun.

micah: But this is certainly an improvement for voters over two 10-person debates.

Even by your logic, Nate.

sarahf: But OK … to get back on track …

geoffrey.skelley: Story of Sarah’s life as politics editor.

micah: OK, my ЁЯФе take …

This might also be the most obvious, conventional-wisdom take — but isn’t Biden presented with the most downside risk now that the focus gets tightened to 10 candidates?

Instead of having to worry about mainly one top-tier challenge (Harris or Bernie or whomever), he now risks getting outshone by any or all of them.

The assumption behind this, which might be wrong, is that Biden is a worse performer in these debates than the other top-tier candidates. Also, just as the front-runner, he has the most to lose.

natesilver: Doesn’t Biden actually get less speaking time, though, than if there had been two 6-person debates?

micah: Yes, so I guess that’s a plus for him?

But I would argue that the narrative power of being down to one stage and one debate (and thus constricting the number of “viable” candidates) outweighs that.

geoffrey.skelley: Especially since he’s the one candidate trying to stay within the time limits when talking on stage.

I think there’s merit to Micah’s case in that it’s in the interest of the other leading candidates to hit Biden, and now all three candidates who are more or less right behind Biden in the polls all get to attack him.

micah: Right, so the chances of a Warren-Biden dustup increase, but so do the chances of another Harris-Biden clash, or a Bernie-Biden or Buttigieg-Biden clash.

Or Beto-Biden!

geoffrey.skelley: Booker-Biden, too.

micah: Klobuchar-Biden!

natesilver: Not to be pedantic — OK, TO BE PEDANTIC — but I don’t think anybody is right behind Biden. He leads by double digits in the polling average.

Also, didn’t everyone go after Biden in the Detroit debate? That didn’t seem to move the needle much, though.

micah: But that’s the point — most of those people who went after Biden were “also-rans.”

To me, Warren going after Biden has more potential to hurt him than the pass-the-torch guy going after Biden.

Even Booker or Klobuchar going after Biden has more potential to hurt him than the more anonymous candidates.

geoffrey.skelley: RIP Eric Swalwell.

sarahf: I guess the flip side of Micah’s argument is that there isn’t necessarily an immediate upside for some of the lower-tier polling candidates like Klobuchar or Castro either.

But perhaps I’m not giving enough credit to how the dynamics of this debate will be different than the previous two.

natesilver: Yeah I think if you’re the Klob, you might actually want a night where it’s just you, Biden and some other rando candidates on stage.

micah: Nate, I’m not sure what argument you’re making.

natesilver: I’m not sure what argument any of us are making.

Look, if you think Warren’s gonna clean Biden’s clock, then it’s good for her that they’re finally on the same stage together.

I don’t think that’s good for, like, KLOBUCHAR though, because all the focus is gonna be on the Warren-Biden confrontation.

micah: The question here is how do the dynamics change from two 10-person debates with a mix of top-tier and lower-tier candidates each, to one stage with the top 10. It isn’t whether two six-person debates would be better for Biden.

natesilver: Nothing really matters except that Warren and Biden are gonna be on the same stage.

sarahf: ЁЯФе

micah: Except maybe it’s bad for the middle-tier candidates too, such as Klobuchar? (As you said, Nate.)

natesilver: From Biden’s perspective, I think the options are ranked this way: 1) Don’t debate Warren 2) Debate Warren on a 10-person stage 3) Debate Warren on a six-person stage.

micah: And from the Castros, Yangs and Klobuchars of the field it’s the reverse? Right?

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, those three would have benefited from the two small five- or six-person debates. Now, they could be heavily overshadowed, but there still might be an opportunity on certain issues for one of them to break through — Castro on immigration, for example.

natesilver: Yeah, I think Castro or Klob would rather be part of a smaller debate against Biden, where everyone else is not ganging up on Biden, and certainly not where you have Warren around, who’s gonna command all of the attention.

micah: Agreement!

sarahf: OK … so who exactly stands to benefit from the dynamics of this debate?

natesilver: It’s good for Warren to be guaranteed a slot against Biden. Unless she blows it.

micah: And I would also argue that it’s good for the other top-tier candidates — Harris, Sanders and maybe Buttigieg.

sarahf: It’s certainly make or break for those three, but I’m not sure it’s good, given everything we’ve just said about the Castros, Yangs and Klobuchars of the field.

natesilver: I don’t think it matters much for Bernie either way; he’s always a highly competent, but not spectacular debater, and the circumstances don’t seem to matter much.

micah: That’s fair.

And it’s obviously good for Klobuchar, Castro et. al. in the sense that they made the debate, but they probably would have preferred two nights.

natesilver: Harris is interesting, though. She and Warren have NOT been on the same stage together.

Maybe Harris should go after Warren! Or Bernie!

micah: Warren busting Biden is maybe good for Harris?

natesilver: I think Warren busting Biden is better for Warren than it’s bad for Biden.

Because Biden’s already had one really shitty debate and one OK one and …. well, he’s still polling at 29 percent or whatever. I’m not sure his voters care that much or see the debate the same way that media folks like us do.

micah: So yeah, then maybe it doesn’t help Harris even if Warren gets the better of Biden.

natesilver: WHAT IF HARRIS GOES AFTER WARREN ON THE NATIVE AMERICAN STUFF?!?!? She can be pretty cut-throat.

geoffrey.skelley: With some of the overlap of college-educated voter support for Warren and Harris, you could make a case that Harris should think about going after Warren to win over more of those voters. But I guess I’m having some trouble seeing it. And yeah, no one has criticized Warren for claiming Native American ancestry yet — even though that might be her most obvious non-policy weakness. That could be explosive if it happened.

micah: So the goal there would be to try and win over some of the liberal, white, college-educated support Warren has?

natesilver: I mean, she needs some of Warren’s college-educated white support, and she needs some of Biden’s black support.

She needs both of those things, and right now she has neither, really.


sarahf: Well, as we learned in our poll of the first debate, while the bulk of Harris’s new supporters came from those who supported Biden, she did also make inroads with voters who were supporting Warren and Buttigieg — so probably a fair amount of white, college-educated voters. And I think it’s definitely plausible that this happens again.

geoffrey.skelley: If Harris is the second choice for a fair number of Warren supporters, there’s an opportunity to convert them to her, too. But yeah, to Nate’s point, Harris really does need some more of Biden’s black support.

micah: And as you note, Sarah, we did find that Biden lost support after the first debate, and much of it went to Harris.

So you do wonder if, had Harris had followed up with a better second debate performance, whether more of that support would have stuck. Which is all to say that I’m not positive Biden’s ~30 percent is all that durable.

sarahf: But OK … is the field now just those 10 candidates? Or what happens to the other 10 candidates FiveThirtyEight considers “major?” Do we expect more dropouts? Or do we think many of the candidates will try and stick it out for the October debate, as the qualifying criteria isn’t changing?

geoffrey.skelley: Given her campaign’s irritation with the debate qualification rules, I think Tulsi Gabbard might stick around to see if she can make the October debate. Tom Steyer is also only one poll away from making the October debate, so he might just keep spending mountains of cash in the early states in the hopes of getting that survey. Marianne Williamson — who knows? But it’s hard to see any other candidates having a chance of making the October debate.

sarahf: Well, you say that, Geoff. But Zach Montellaro over at Politico made an argument earlier in August that the October debate stage could grow, not shrink, and while I’m not totally sure how much it could grow, I do think more than 10 candidates will qualify. So now, I think more candidates on the cusp will stay in the race in the hopes they make the cut.

geoffrey.skelley: Sure, the candidates who weren’t that far away from making the third debate probably want to see if they can get enough polls or donors (or both) to make the fourth one. But everyone else is pretty much done and dusted.

micah: So, if making that October debate is among the more important things at this point in the campaign, do we think Steyer and Gabbard potentially have the most staying power, among the people on the outside looking in for the September debate?

sarahf: I’d think so?

micah: BOLD!

sarahf: And then maybe we get one of these magical six-person debates you all keep talking about.

micah: I like it!

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I’d say two smaller debate nights in October is quite possible because Steyer was so close to making it, and he can spend millions in Iowa and other early states to try to attract enough notoriety to get 2 percent in one more state-level poll.

natesilver: I mean, I guess Steyer is likely to qualify.

micah: I’m surprised more candidates didn’t at least try to outsmart the system in the way Steyer did.

natesilver: In the abstract, you’d think the DNC would consider putting all candidates on the same stage if there were, say, 11 of them. But it seemed to be pretty clear this time that they were drawing a bright line at 10.

sarahf: I still can’t believe Steyer spent more than $10 million on digital and television advertising since he announced he was running in July — that’s more than any other Democrat in the race and President Trump!!

natesilver: Yeah, are we really sure he’s a winner here, Micah?

He spent a shit-ton of money, he missed the first debate, and maybe he’ll make another debate in six weeks?

micah: Well, just given his overall prospects, I’d say him being currently more likely to make the October debate than Steve Bullock or whomever is a sign he did something smart?

Or maybe I just underrated him from the jump.

natesilver: It’s a sign that that system isn’t set up super well.

micah: Yes, that too.

natesilver: Granted, any system would be exploitable.

But, like, maybe the DNC should subtract X donors for every Y amount you spend,

such that you don’t actually get credit when the cost of fundraising exceeds the amount you receive.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, there’ve been plenty of complaints that the debate qualification rules create perverse incentives, like spending more money to get the donors you need than the amount you actually pull in per donation.

sarahf: Well, I mean all the polls Steyer has qualified in have been early-state polls, right, Geoff?

So his design on dropping boatloads of money in early states wasn’t exactly misguided.

geoffrey.skelley: Right. He has three qualifying early-state polls and no national polls.

micah: Yeah, I don’t think it’s worked super well for Steyer. But it’s worked a little, at least.

But some rule, like the one Nate describes, would preclude that kind of “gamesmanship.”

sarahf: OK, so we think maybe Steyer and Gabbard stick it out until October, but what about everyone else? Anyone else want to make the bold prediction that Kirsten Gillibrand drops out before the October debate? [Editor’s note: After this chat concluded, Kirsten Gillibrand dropped out of the race, making her the sixth candidate to drop out this summer.]

Seriously, though, do we think a lot of the candidates now drop out?

micah: I’m sure a bunch will drop out.

geoffrey.skelley: I don’t think it’s completely bonkers to think that Gillibrand will drop out.

micah: Who’s most likely?

Yeah, definitely Gillibrand.

natesilver: Gillibrand is in the Jay Inslee category of “someone who has a future to lose.”

micah: Right. And political science research actually shows that having closer ties to the party — and thus having more to lose by staying in toooo long — correlates with dropping out.

natesilver: Although unlike Inslee, she doesn’t have anything to run for this year.

geoffrey.skelley: Gabbard has a congressional seat to defend, though.

But her primary is in August 2020, so she’s got plenty of time until the June candidate filing deadline.

natesilver: But there’s been talk of a primary challenge, right, Geoff?

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Gabbard does have a legit primary challenger. So that might encourage her to drop out sooner rather than later, and go home to defend her seat.

micah: Maybe Tim Ryan drops out, too?

natesilver: I mean if we got a text alert right now saying Candidate X dropped out, the names we’d be most likely to guess are what? Gillibrand and Bennet-with-one-T?

micah: (ЁЯШ│ I thought Bennet already dropped out.)

But yeah.

geoffrey.skelley: Ryan actually might be able to wait a bit longer because, technically, he doesn’t have to drop out to seek reelection to his House seat (Ohio law permits candidates to run for president and Congress at the same time.) And Ryan had previously said he would file for reelection while continuing to run for president.

natesilver: Ryan does seem to be having fun on the campaign trail.

And he’s getting to do a bunch of podcasts that he’s always wanted to be on and stuff.

geoffrey.skelley: Namaste, Nate.

sarahf: Seems #offbrand with the yoga shirts he’s also selling, but maybe I’m too close-minded.

micah: (Ryan is going for the Harry vote.)

sarahf: I also think Bullock could drop out soon, as I think he, too, could have a future in the party, too (if he wants it).

But maybe Bill de Blasio and Williamson are in for the long haul though, or at the very least, they don’t have the same incentives to drop out.

geoffrey.skelley: Could definitely see Williamson hanging around. Why not?

micah: Yes, let’s argue about de Blasio!

Does de Blasio have a future in the party to worry about? (Drops out.)

Or does he need his campaign to end in a better spot? (Stays in.)

natesilver: de Blasio? More like de Lusional.

I’m not sure why he ever ran in the first place.

sarahf: l o l

One theory I heard tossed about was he was interested in raising his profile for a cushy job at a think tank. But I don’t really get that logic, as I’m not sure how this has helped him.

natesilver: I literally laughed at my own joke out loud. Thank god not very many people are in the office today.

geoffrey.skelley: Maybe de Blasio was annoyed that all these relative nobodies, including the mayor of a small city in Indiana, were running for president — and thought: “Why not me?”

micah: lol

But I’m genuinely not sure if he’ll just stay in forever. Or “save face.” I tend to think the latter?

sarahf: Let’s wrap — the first one-night debate is upon us. Ten candidates have made it, and we’ve talked about who that helps, who that hurts and what we expect of those who haven’t made the stage. Any last thoughts?

micah: I guess my takeaway from this chat is that if everyone thinks that, of the people to have not made the debate, Steyer and Gabbard are the most likely people to make some noise … then I feel pretty comfortable saying that the 2020 Democratic primary is down to the 10 September debaters.

geoffrey.skelley: This is definitely an opportunity for Warren to separate herself from the rest of the pack — or to borrow from Nate’s tiers a bit, solidly position herself as a 1B to Biden’s 1A. Right now, there isn’t one obvious alternative to Biden.

micah: Yeah, and in terms of what happens on Sept. 12, I think Geoff is right. Can Warren solidify her a place as 1B?

And maybe also — between Harris and Buttigieg, can one of them push closer to that top three?

natesilver: Warren is already a 1B. This is about whether she can become a 1A.

micah: ЁЯШС


  1. Released between June 28 and Aug. 28.

  2. We rely on self-reported figures from the campaigns for candidates’ fundraising numbers, and we’ve assumed that candidates who have reported having at least 130,000 donors also have at least 400 donors from each of 20 states, though it’s possible that some of them haven’t hit that mark yet.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

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

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.