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Silver Bulletpoints: Are More Moderate Democrats More Electable?

I have a dilemma for you, dear reader. I have a righteous little bulletpoint-sized rant to make about ill-informed media coverage of polling in the recent Australian election. But this column, Silver Bulletpoints, promises to give you three items about the 2020 Democratic primary in 300 words or less. And while I’m sure Pete Buttigieg speaks fluent Guugu Yimithirr or something, the Democratic primary doesn’t really have much to do with Australia. So instead of using up one of this week’s bulletpoints on Australia, we’re including a bonus Australia-related bulletpoint at the end of this week’s column. For now, though, let’s stick with the Democrats …

Bulletpoint No. 1: Actually, maybe the moderate Democrats are more popular with swing voters

Be careful with general election polls for candidates who aren’t well-known.

At Vox this week, Ezra Klein — I’m usually a fan — points out that Bernie Sanders is doing second-best among Democrats in head-to-head polls against President Trump (worse than Joe Biden but better than everyone else). This is true as far it goes, at least if you ignore a couple of outlier-ish polls for Beto O’Rourke.

This challenges the theory, Ezra says, that “Americans are ideological moderates who punish political parties for nominating candidates too far to the left or right.”

The problem is that none of the other Democrats have the near-universal name recognition that Sanders and Biden enjoy. And people are reluctant to say they’ll vote for candidates who they don’t know much about. For instance, Trump gets about 44 percent in polls against both the well-known Sanders and the relatively unknown Buttigieg. Sanders is ahead by a larger margin — but it’s because he gets 49 percent whereas Buttigieg gets 44 percent with a lot more undecideds, probably including a lot of people who would vote for Buttigieg if they knew who he was.

An alternative is to look at candidates’ favorability ratings among the general electorate, which give voters the option of saying they don’t know enough to have an opinion about a candidate. Here’s an average of those polls since Biden entered the race:

Biden, Buttigieg have most positive favorability ratings

Average of favorability ratings in polls conducted wholly or partly since Biden entered the race

Candidate Favorable Unfavorable Net
Joe Biden 50.4% 39.8% +10.6
Pete Buttigieg 28.3 24.5 +3.8
Julián Castro 20.7 20.3 +0.3
Bernie Sanders 45.3 45.5 -0.3
Marianne Williamson 11.7 12.3 -0.7
Tim Ryan 15.0 15.8 -0.8
Jay Inslee 13.7 14.7 -1.0
Kamala Harris 34.2 36.2 -2.0
Andrew Yang 14.3 17.0 -2.7
Michael Bennet 12.0 15.0 -3.0
Amy Klobuchar 21.0 24.3 -3.3
Cory Booker 28.0 31.5 -3.5
Steve Bullock 9.5 13.5 -4.0
John Delaney 10.3 14.7 -4.3
John Hickenlooper 13.3 18.3 -5.0
Beto O’Rourke 28.5 33.8 -5.3
Eric Swalwell 12.3 17.5 -5.3
Seth Moulton 7.3 12.8 -5.5
Elizabeth Warren 35.2 40.8 -5.6
Kirsten Gillibrand 21.5 28.5 -7.0
Tulsi Gabbard 13.0 20.7 -7.7
Bill de Blasio 13.5 45.5 -32.0

Polls are included if they were still in the field when Biden entered the race on April 25. If a pollster asked about a candidate multiple times, only the most recent poll was used. Polls included in the average include YouGov (registered voters), CNN/SSRS (registered voters), Gallup (adults), Rasmussen Reports (likely voters), HarrisX / Harris Interactive (registered voters) and Quinnipiac (registered voters). Not all pollsters asked about all of the candidates, but each candidate was included in at least 2 polls.

Source: polls

Sanders’s numbers are decent — but in general moderate candidates have slightly better favorables. Buttigeg’s net-favorable ratings are a little better than Sanders, for instance, and Biden, Buttigieg and Julián Castro are the only Democrats with net-positive ratings. The worst ratings belong to liberal candidates such as Kirsten Gillibrand (who has opposed Trump more often than any other senator) and, especially, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Bulletpoint No. 2: High-information voters love Elizabeth Warren — and not Bernie Sanders

In a previous Silver Bulletpoints, I asked whether candidates who are popular among high-education voters, such as Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, are also popular among high-information voters. There’s no particular advantage to overperforming with college-educated voters; almost 65 percent of voters in the 2016 Democratic primaries did not have a four-year college degree. But doing well with high-information voters is usually a bullish sign. These voters are more likely to judge the candidates on factors beyond name recognition, and so may be leading indicators for how other voters will view the race once they’ve acquired more information. Moreover, high-information voters are more likely to eventually turn out to vote.

Quinnipiac addressed this in their most recent poll, asking Democrats how much attention they’ve been paying to the campaign and breaking out their topline results on that basis. Among voters paying a lot of attention to the campaign, Warren got 15 percent of the vote, and Sanders got just 8 percent. Among voters who are paying little or no attention, however, Warren got just 5 percent of the vote against Sanders’s 28 percent.

Warren, Biden gain ground among high-information voters

Share of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters who supported each candidate, by how much attention they’ve been paying to the election campaign for president

Attention being paid to election
Candidate Overall A lot Some Little / none
Biden 35% 42% 33% 23%
Warren 13 15 16 5
Harris 8 9 8 5
Buttigieg 5 9 3 1
Sanders 16 8 19 28
O’Rourke 2 3 1 2
Booker 3 2 2 4
de Blasio 1 1
Klobuchar 2 1 1 6
Gillibrand 1
Gabbard 1 1 2
Yang 1 2 1
Hickenlooper 1
Bennett 1
Bullock 1
Castro 1 1 1

Poll dates from May 16-20, 2019

Source: Quinnipiac

Some of this is age-related — younger voters aren’t paying as much attention yet — but It’s hard not to see it as a bearish indicator for Sanders. Voters have a lot more alternatives than four years ago, and former Sanders voters who have started their shopping process already have often come home with candidates like Warren or Buttigieg instead. That includes voters in Sanders’s core constituency, very liberal voters, who preferred Warren over Sanders 30-22 in the Quinnipiac poll.

Does something similar hold for Biden? Actually not. To my surprise, Biden did a little better with high-information voters than with the electorate overall in this poll. Maybe it’s Sanders, and not Biden, whose support has been propped up by name recognition.

Bulletpoint No. 3: I’m adding Bill de Blasio to my presidential tiers — he’s in the very bottom tier

It’s not clear that anything major has changed since Biden entered the race a month ago. Biden’s post-announcement polling bounce has probably faded a bit, but polling bounces usually do. Warren has continued to gain ground a point or so at a time, but it’s been a slow burn. Whatever happened over the past few weeks will probably pale in comparison to the polling movement after the debates, which begin next month. So while I’ve been looking for excuses to update my presidential tiers, I can’t really find any.

Three additional candidates — Bill de Blasio, Steve Bullock and Michael Bennet — have entered since Biden, however. Of these, I’d probably consider Bullock the most viable because he can make a fairly strong electability argument, having been elected to two terms as Montana’s governor. But I’m not going to stake much on that until he breaks out of the asterisk range in polls.

Nate’s not-to-be-taken-too-seriously presidential tiers

For the Democratic nomination, as revised on May 23, 2019

Tier Sub-tier Candidates
1 a Biden
b [this row intentionally left blank]
c Harris, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg
2 a O’Rourke
b Booker, Klobuchar, Abrams*
3 a Yang, Castro, Gillibrand, Inslee
b Bullock, Hickenlooper, Ryan, de Blasio ↑, Bennet, Gabbard

* Candidate is not yet officially running but may still do so.

So the only change I’m making is to add de Blasio to the list, but only in the very bottom tier. (That does put him ahead of the likes of Eric Swalwell, Seth Moulton, Marianne Williamson and John Delaney, who aren’t listed.) As we discussed on this week’s podcast, de Blasio has a fairly interesting resume. Being mayor of New York City is no small thing, and he has some progressive accomplishments and was re-elected by 39 points in 2017. Some job candidates make a bad first impression no matter how good their resumes, however. Judging by those favorability ratings, de Blasio — with no help from the New York-based media, with whom he has an adversarial relationship — is one of them.

Bonus bulletpoint: Something is rotten down under, and it isn’t the polls

So what was that about Australia? Stop me if this one sounds familiar.

Polls showed the conservative-led coalition trailing the Australian Labor Party approximately 51-49 in the two-party preferred vote. Instead, the conservatives won 51-49. That’s a relatively small miss: The conservatives trailed by 2 points in the polls, and instead they won by 2, making for a 4-point error. The miss was right in line with the average error from past Australian elections, which has averaged about 5 points. Given that track record, the conservatives had somewhere around a 1 in 3 chance of winning.

So the Australian media took this in stride, right? Of course not. Instead, the election was characterized as a “massive polling failure” and a “shock result”.

When journalists say stuff like that in an election after polls were so close, they’re telling on themselves. They’re revealing, like their American counterparts after 2016, that they aren’t particularly numerate and didn’t really understand what the polls said in the first place. They may also be signaling, as in the case of Brexit in 2016, their cosmopolitan bias; the Australian election, which emphasized climate change, had a strong urban-rural split.

Dig in deeper, and you can find things to criticize in the polls. In particular, they showed signs of herding: all the polls showed almost exactly the same result in a way that’s statistically implausible. If Labor was ahead by only 2 points, a few polls should have shown conservatives winning just by chance alone because of sampling error.

Still, some of the headlines in the Australian media are idiotic and embarrassing. When polls show a race within a couple of percentage points, nobody — least of all journalists, who are paid to be informed about this stuff — should be shocked when the trailing side wins.

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