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Is There An Anti-Biden Lane In The Democratic Primary?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): After months of presidential candidate announcements, the Democratic primary field appears to be set (although never say never). And former Vice President Joe Biden is still the early polling front-runner. With candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg jockeying to peel off support from him, the race is on among Democrats to figure out who the non-Biden Democrat is.

So what does that race look like? Where, if anywhere, do we see support coalescing around a candidate who isn’t Biden? And what kind of strategies do we think candidates will use to take him on?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I just think it’s really hard to take on a popular former president’s vice president who is universally known and is well-liked within the party.

Certainly it’s not impossible — I think there’s a good chance Biden isn’t the nominee — but it’s not a task I envy the other candidates.

sarahf: But are we surprised that Biden has been able to hold onto such a large lead in the polls?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): What we know is that Biden’s support isn’t purely a matter of the field being divided. He also does very well in one-on-one matchups against potential opponents.

But am I surprised that he’s held onto this lead? Well, no, not really, because NOTHING IS F—ING HAPPENING. THE NEWS CYCLE IS REALLY BORING, AT LEAST AS FAR AS 2020 GOES.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Haha, but as Nathaniel pointed out, Biden is quite popular among Democrats. For an article that I wrote earlier this month, I looked at three national polls that had been conducted since April 26, and according to those, Biden was not only the best-known candidate but also had the highest favorable ratings among people who had an opinion about the candidates.

Biden is a polling front-runner and well-liked

Average of favorable ratings among Democratic voters in three national polls published in late April and early May

Candidate Avg. Share with opinion avg. favorable rating favorable rating among those with opinion
Joe Biden 91.0% 75.0% 82.4%
Kamala Harris 67.0 53.7 80.1
Pete Buttigieg 55.0 44.0 80.0
Elizabeth Warren 77.3 61.0 78.9
Bernie Sanders 91.3 71.7 78.5
Beto O’Rourke 63.7 49.3 77.5
Cory Booker 60.3 46.7 77.3
Julian Castro 47.0 34.7 73.8
Jay Inslee 30.0 21.7 72.2
Amy Klobuchar 49.0 34.7 70.7
Kirsten Gillibrand 53.0 37.3 70.4
Andrew Yang 32.3 21.3 66.0
John Hickenlooper 32.3 20.7 63.9
John Delaney 26.0 16.3 62.8
Tim Ryan 34.0 20.0 58.8
Tulsi Gabbard 34.7 18.7 53.8
Seth Moulton 23.0 12.3 53.6

Includes all candidates FiveThirtyEight considered “major” who were tested in all three polls.

Share with an opinion is favorable rating plus unfavorable rating.

Sources: The Economist/YouGov, HarrisX, Morning Consult

nrakich: Yeah. My guess is that someone is going to have to go negative.

natesilver: I’m not sure about that. You need a multipronged strategy, but candidates need to make the case for why they’re electable. Because if voters like you from an aesthetics or policy standpoint, they usually want to find excuses to vote for you, electability be damned.

So I think maybe a softer, more positive sell — introducing yourself — is better than trying to make this complicated tactical argument about electability, which won’t always look great, especially if Biden is doing better in head-to-head polls against President Trump, as he is for the time being.

nrakich: Yeah, the idea that Biden is electable is kind of built on a house of cards. We don’t know much about what makes a candidate electable, and you could just as easily make the case that Biden isn’t electable (e.g., by focusing on his age).

But also an earlier Echelon Insights poll implied that Biden’s support isn’t just a function of voters seeing him as electable. In an open-ended question, only 10 percent of Biden supporters said they supported him because of his ability to beat Trump. By contrast, almost half said it was because of his experience — something we know from other polls that Democrats are valuing this year.

geoffrey.skelley: Also, many of the candidates the political press view as very well-known — Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker — actually aren’t that well-known yet.

natesilver: Even someone like Harris, who might have 75 percent name recognition or whatever … in some ways, that overstates how well-known she is. Maybe 75 percent of voters know something about her, but they don’t know nearly as much as they know about Biden and Bernie Sanders.

nrakich: Yeah, in a recent Monmouth University poll, 82 percent of registered Democrats said they had heard of Harris, but only 67 percent had an opinion.

The only candidate who is truly as well-known as Biden is Bernie Sanders. And he’s still running behind Biden, which is why I don’t think he’ll be the one to overtake him (if someone does).

sarahf: Sure, but do we think part of Biden’s success is because the field is so large and unwieldy? The debates may help level the playing field, but I wonder if what really needs to happen is for some candidates to drop out. Geoff looked at this question in elections dating back to 1980 and found that, on average, roughly 1 in 4 candidates dropped out before the Iowa caucuses. Do we think that happens this year?

nrakich: I’m sure that a few candidates will drop out this fall after failing to make an impression in the debates (and perhaps as the filing deadline to seek reelection to their current office approaches … lookin’ at you, Eric Swalwell). But I don’t think consolidating the field would really hurt Biden.

natesilver: I think Biden would still be ahead with a smaller field — that’s what that Echelon poll says — but, yeah, the dynamics of a large field help him. Partly by taking time away from the Amy Klobuchar/Cory Booker tier of candidates who might be more threatening to him if they got the airspace to make their case.

nrakich: That’s a good point — it’s more about taking away others’ media attention than their voters (at least at this stage). And if the only two candidates were Biden and, say, Harris, then the two might get roughly equal airtime.

geoffrey.skelley: Right. Hillary Clinton clearly beat Sanders in 2016, but the fact that he was really the only opposition she faced helped him win 43 percent of the primary vote.

nrakich: Exactly.

Pour one out for Martin O’Malley.

geoffrey.skelley: So aiming to be Biden’s chief alternative makes some sense. The field will likely winnow pretty quickly after the early contests, so being one of the maybe five candidates left when Democrats get to Super Tuesday on March 3 gets you into the late innings of the game.

sarahf: It does seem at least, regardless of Biden’s lead in the polls, early-state party activists are at least a little less keen on him.

On Monday, The New York Times published an article based on conversations with Democratic Party leaders and strategists, many of whom hailed from early-nominating states like Iowa, and they described a more fluid race, which reflects what FiveThirtyEight contributor Seth Masket found in his April survey of early-state Democratic Party activists.

As you can see in this table, support for Biden actually dropped from earlier surveys, while support for candidates like Warren and Buttigieg grew. Of course, what’s really happening is that many activists are still deciding between multiple candidates. But why do we think there is such a disconnect in Biden’s support among early-state party activists and the polls?

Which candidates early-state activists are considering

Share of respondents who said they were considering a candidate or had already committed to support a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary

activists considering supporting
Candidate Dec. 2018 Feb. 2019 April
Harris 61%
Booker 45
Warren 24
Klobuchar 34
Gillibrand 21
Sanders 29
Biden 39
McAuliffe 5
O’Rourke 34
Hickenlooper 21
Delaney 16

Source: Seth Masket, “Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020”

natesilver: Yeah … I do think it’s conceivable that party elites are having trouble deciding because of the large number of candidates. This New York Times article on Warren pretty much said that.

geoffrey.skelley: They may feel Biden is a good choice but are worried because he’s really, really old.

It’s worth repeating that Biden will be 78 by Inauguration Day in 2021. President Trump was already the oldest president to ever take office at 70, but we’re talking close to a decade more for Biden.

natesilver: I don’t know why that hasn’t been more of a focus from the other candidates.

And frankly also from the media.

sarahf: Two recently released polls from Gallup and the Pew Research Center echo that most Americans don’t want a presidential candidate in their 70s and suggest that voters prefer younger candidates. According to the Pew study, just 3 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the 70s is the best age for a president.

Three percent!!!

But as our colleague Perry Bacon recently pointed out, should we take these findings seriously? After all, according to the Gallup poll, 37 percent of Republicans said they wouldn’t vote for a “generally well-qualified” presidential candidate from their party if the candidate was older than 70, yet Trump will be 74 in 2020.

nrakich: Remember, though, voters are apt to change what they say they want in a president based on whom they have already decided to support.

natesilver: Part of the issue is that Bernie Sanders has been billed as the main alternative to Joe Biden … and he’s just as old, of course. Actually, more than a year older.

Do people even realize how old they are?

Sanders would be older on Day 1 than Trump would be at the end of his second term!

Anyway, I think Bernie Sanders makes a fairly poor anti-Biden candidate, for several reasons.

sarahf: Which are what exactly?

natesilver: For one, they’re both old white dudes who have been around forever.

For another, Bernie doesn’t have a great electability argument because he’s just as well-known as Biden but is doing (slightly) worse in polls against Trump.

For yet another, Bernie has never had a good strategy for how to beat Biden one on one. He’s running as somewhat of a factional candidate — not really trying to bridge gaps with other parts of the Democratic Party — and instead his whole strategy rests on the hope that the field remains divided so that he can start to rack up delegates with a 30 percent plurality.

Finally, both candidates have talked a lot about the importance of the white working-class vote.

So it’s not just that they’re white men, but also that they’re sort of leaning into that as an electoral advantage. But someone like Harris could make a much different argument about how the Democratic Party needs to evolve.

sarahf: So what is Harris’s strategy as the anti-Biden candidate? She can make the argument that she represents a new direction for the party, but what else can she point to?

natesilver: She’d also make an argument about the importance of high turnout, energizing the Obama voter coalition, etc.

Also, she can make an argument about how “electability” encourages voters to engage in thinking that’s racially prejudiced and biased against women, etc., and critique that.

Which Bernie Sanders can’t do.

nrakich: Yeah, but for Harris to turn that into a positive in a presidential race, she needs people to stop thinking Hillary Clinton lost because she focused on identity politics.

sarahf: Granted, that study just looked at white Democratic voters, but it does seem as though one of the many overcorrections after 2016 (at least at this stage) is that candidates should not make an overt appeal to “identity politics.”

nrakich: In a sense. But, also, I think Biden is benefiting from a form of identity politics of his own.

sarahf: Meaning his appeal to white working-class voters, Nathaniel?

nrakich: Right. And it’s almost a prerequisite for believing that a white man is the most “electable” candidate against Trump that voters buy into the “identity politics” narrative of 2016.

natesilver: A lot of liberals who are very against that narrative were encouraging it for a long time — until they realized that it seemed to be helping Biden.

So it isn’t like voters are picking this up out of nowhere.

For Bernie Sanders to post that tweet only days after Clinton lost the presidential election is at least adjacent to the idea that a white man is more electable.

sarahf: So why do we think we haven’t seen more pushback against this narrative? Is it because the white working-class voter is a key part of Trump’s base?

natesilver: Well, the white working class was awfully important.

geoffrey.skelley: But it may be hard for candidates to push back against this narrative when the media has spent more than two years focusing a lot of energy on the white working class and how it relates to Trump’s election, instead of focusing on lower turnout among African American voters in Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia — the three big metro areas in the three closest states that went for Trump in 2016.

natesilver: But Trump won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote. And maybe I disagree a bit with Geoff — I think that was more about the white working class shifting than a decline in, for example, African American turnout. Since Clinton was probably never going to do as well turning out black voters as Obama did.

nrakich: I think that’s true, Nate. But an increase in African American turnout also could have swung those states.

Democrats still would have had an Electoral College disadvantage, but they could have won the election in spite of it. And Harris can easily make the argument that she’ll turn out black voters at levels more similar to Obama than Clinton.

natesilver: Overall Democratic turnout was reasonably high by historical norms, though:

In the aggregate, the topline on Clinton in 2016 just wasn’t that different from Obama in 2012. They won by about the same margin in the popular vote. It’s where the votes were distributed that made a huge difference.

geoffrey.skelley: And Clinton’s losses in the Midwest were disproportionately costly relative to her gains on the coasts.

nrakich: Honestly, Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by such narrow margins, there are almost certainly multiple paths for Democrats to take them back, which is another reason that this electability debate is taking up way too much oxygen, IMO.

natesilver: I’m anti-anti-electability.

nrakich: I’m anti-electability.

geoffrey.skelley: I’m ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I don’t know what to say about it.

sarahf: Lol, OK. Let’s avoid this fight and talk about what kinds of strategies the candidates should use to position themselves as the anti-Biden candidate.

It’s not really clear to me right now what will work well because Biden has done a good job making the election about him and Trump.

nrakich: Yeah, that’s not clear to me either, Sarah.

I think chipping away at Biden’s advantage on electability and reminding voters of his age, as we’ve discussed, could be a good foot in the door.

But I don’t know if that will be sufficient.

natesilver: Age, sure. But on electability, I think you need to be careful. Because Biden’s electability arguments, including the white working-class emphasis, are more robust than people tend to assume. And when you tell voters that Biden is too moderate or bipartisan, they might actually read that as his being more electable.

geoffrey.skelley: I think Warren’s policy-heavy approach is good for her in particular. It’s a way to differentiate herself and plays to one of her strengths.

Perhaps the other candidates are struggling to nail down an approach that will set them apart.

natesilver: Yeah, I do think Warren has a pretty good approach.

“Hey, let’s just focus on policy and do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may” is going to have a lot of appeal to high-information voters.

And to the media, which purports to love policy and hate the horse race.

That write-up Warren got in the Times on Tuesday was extremely favorable, for instance, in contrast to the coverage she got in the early stages of her campaign, before the policy focus.

Also, saying that you haven’t hired a pollster, as Warren has said, is probably a line that would poll really well!

nrakich: Haha. I could fill an entire chat with rants about that.

geoffrey.skelley: The whole “I don’t have a pollster” thing gets a :face_with_rolling_eyes: from me, but whatever works for you.


natesilver: But the media has largely endorsed the idea that she’s an authentic policy wonk who doesn’t care that much about what might be popular.

geoffrey.skelley: So leaning into policy and saying that she doesn’t worry about the polls do seem pretty smart!

natesilver: Also, almost all the positions that Warren has rolled out would probably poll fairly well in the context of a Democratic primary. So it’s not like she even really has to make a trade-off.

But it does make for a good contrast to Biden, who is deliberately vague on the details. And unlike Bernie Sanders, Warren plausibly can get some support from the Democratic establishment. She’s a fairly loyal, partisan Democrat when she needs to be.

sarahf: What about Buttigieg, someone else who is a bit vague on the details but like Biden enjoys high favorable ratings and has a good standing in the polls? What should be his strategy?

geoffrey.skelley: Keep speaking Norwegian?

natesilver: Try to be Gary Hart to Biden’s Walter Mondale?

nrakich: Ah yes, 1984 Democratic nominee Gary Hart.

(I kid, I kid. I don’t even really disagree, but it just goes to show that it will be hard to topple Biden!)

geoffrey.skelley: But seriously, Buttigieg can keep trying to appeal to liberal whites. It has worked for him so far.

natesilver: For all of these not-Biden candidates, it’s a problem that Biden is very popular among black voters, at least for the time being.

nrakich: That’s a good point.

I wonder if attacking Biden on his role in the 1994 crime bill or the 1991 Anita Hill hearing could be an effective strategy.

sarahf: Trump is certainly trying it out.

geoffrey.skelley: Yes, that’s the sort of thing that could become a 10-minute segment of the debates and put Biden on his heels a bit.

nrakich: And then get replayed a bunch on cable news.

natesilver: Maybe. But there has already been a lot of effort to re-litigate Biden’s past, and eight years as Obama’s vice president seem to give him a lot of credibility with voters.

nrakich: It’s going to require some coordination on the part of all these not-Biden Democrats. If they can’t agree on what to attack him on, the individual punches probably won’t land. But if everyone is hitting him on, say, the crime bill, that is likelier to catch on as a #narrative.

natesilver: Yeah, the debates are a good opportunity for the other candidates. And they’re coming at a sort of bad time for Biden, in that the media is probably pretty ready to move on from the “Biden is surging” narrative.

sarahf: Yeah, Democrats don’t really lack options when it comes to an anti-Biden candidate. Making a dent in Biden’s lead may be a matter of coalescing around a candidate or two. Do we see evidence of that happening? Or what should we be looking for as Democratic candidates try to position themselves as the anti-Biden candidate?

geoffrey.skelley: Sanders’s numbers (and those of others) have fallen a bit since Biden got into the race, so the anti-Biden field might be even more wide open than it was when he was in pre-campaign mode.

nrakich: I don’t see much evidence of it yet. And coalescing is easier said than done when you’re a party with millions of voters and several coalitions. Republicans found this out the hard way in 2016.

natesilver: I think other than Bernie Sanders, whose strategy relied on winning by plurality and for whom Biden is therefore especially problematic since he has a larger plurality, the other candidates don’t necessarily need to worry about Biden all that much.

Or to be clear, they ABSOLUTELY have to worry about him, but it’s not clear that there’s much they can do about it right now.

geoffrey.skelley: Except try to position themselves to do well enough in the early states — maybe even win one of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina — to keep their campaigns going into March.

natesilver: Yeah, if I were Warren or Harris, I’d be looking at how I can position myself as a clear No. 2.

By the way, I don’t take for granted that Biden will necessarily have one of the early-state tickets. It’s possible that he’ll fall very flat in the debates, for instance.

But again, one reason it’s nice to be No. 2 is because you become No. 1 if the front-runner runs out of gas.

I went to the Indy 500 this weekend, so I’m thinking entirely in terms of motorsports analogies. Basically, debates serve as caution flags that bunch the field together, except you still need to be on the lead lap when that happens or you have big problems.

nrakich: I have no idea what you just said.

natesilver: I’m saying that car racing makes for a much better metaphor for presidential politics than horse racing.

There’s more strategy and more randomness.

sarahf: And more crashes.

natesilver: Yeah, and those crashes can have unintended and unpredictable consequences on the rest of the field.

Biden leading FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.