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Our First 2020 Dropout Draft

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


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): All right, we’re back with a 2020 draft — but with a twist. This time we’re not interested in discussing who we think will win the Democratic nomination; we want to debate who we think will drop out next.

Already the days of a debate stage maxed out with 20 candidates seem to be a thing of the past: As Geoffrey wrote on Tuesday, only nine candidates have qualified for the third debate so far. So we’re interested in debating how the field will (or won’t!) winnow in the coming weeks.

Welcome to the first 2020 “Dropout Draft”!!!

The rules are simple: Three rounds (with three of us playing, that means nine picks in total) in which we pick from among the candidates FiveThirtyEight considers “major.” No 🐍 draft, because, well, that would be nuts. Whoever’s “team” includes the most candidates who drop out by the October debate (or by the time Iowa rolls around, if we want to be a bit more judicious and save face) will be the winner.

The order:

  1. Geoffrey
  2. Nathaniel
  3. Sarah

OK, Geoff, you’re up! End our suspense and let me and Nathaniel know how royally screwed we are.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): OK, so my first pick is former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He had just 13,000 donors at the end of June and is very unlikely to make the September debate, considering he also has just one qualifying poll (he still needs three more). Plus, he has an exit ramp available to him: running for Senate in Colorado.

And it seems like Hickenlooper might be open to the idea of mounting a challenge to GOP Sen. Cory Gardner. There’s also some evidence that this might be a good move for Hickenlooper, too. A poll released Tuesday found him ahead of Gardner, 51 percent to 38 percent, and another survey this week showed Hickenlooper leading the crowded primary field by about 50 percentage points.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Good pick.

Yeah, Hickenlooper has resisted calls for him to run for Senate for a loooong time.

He even said back in February that “I’m not cut out to be a senator.” It seemed pretty definitive.

But then last week, he appeared to subtly change his tune when his communications director said “he hasn’t closed the door to anything.”

To me, that’s a sign that he may be preparing to jump ship.

sarahf: Do we think Hickenlooper is jeopardizing his Senate chances by continuing to stay in the presidential primary?

geoffrey.skelley: Sarah, he might be, but the Colorado Democratic primary field for the Senate race is crowded, too, with no obvious front-runner, and that is good news for Hickenlooper. It means he doesn’t have to rush to get into the race.

sarahf: And I guess with Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold ruling out running (she’d been speculated as a possible contender) … there really isn’t a clear front-runner yet.

geoffrey.skelley: Bingo. And maybe her avoidance of the race is a sign that she’s not sure Hickenlooper won’t end up running.

nrakich: This was kind of a silly story, but it was also reported a couple weeks ago that a firm that had previously worked for Hickenlooper registered domain names like “HickForSenate.com.”

geoffrey.skelley: Oh, I love a good domain registration story.

nrakich: None of these pieces of evidence is strong on its own, but in total, they might be pointing to something.

sarahf: OK, Geoff … so does Hickenlooper drop out before October? Or … before Iowa?

geoffrey.skelley: I think he drops out before October after failing to qualify for the September debate.

sarahf: All right, you heard it here first folks! You’re up next, Nathaniel.

nrakich: OK, with the second overall pick, I choose Rep. Seth Moulton.

sarahf: 😴 He’s still running?

nrakich: Haha, indeed. I’m a bit surprised that he is.

He didn’t even qualify for the first two debates, which every other major candidate without a good excuse (i.e., jumped in the race after the qualifying deadline for the first debate) did.

He’s almost certainly not going to make the September debate.

In addition, he reportedly had to let go of half his campaign staffers, indicating his campaign might be in financial trouble.

Finally, although he can legally run for president and for reelection to his House seat at the same time, it’s not a good look.

sarahf: Yeah, I imagine his calculus has to be pretty similar to Eric Swalwell — a House member who also ran for president but has since dropped out to focus on his 2020 reelection bid.

geoffrey.skelley: All this makes sense to me, though I wonder if Moulton might hang around awhile longer. After all, the candidate filing deadline for Massachusetts isn’t until May 2020, whereas Swalwell had a December 2019 deadline to worry about if he was going to seek reelection.

nrakich: I hear that, Geoffrey, but Moulton is also already attracting primary challengers in the Massachusetts 6th District.

And he was already catching flak back home after he led a failed attempt to deprive Nancy Pelosi of the speakership after Democrats took back the House in 2018.

So I think he’d be smart to focus on his House primary, which I think he could be in real danger of losing.

geoffrey.skelley: But when does he drop out?

nrakich: Yeah, the one thing that gives me pause is the fact that he hasn’t already.

But I would say soon — particularly if he is indeed running out of money.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, hard to get people to work for you if you can’t give them a paycheck.

Now let’s see if Sarah will take my preferred next pick…

sarahf: Haha. l think I might get the first “bad pick” of the draft.

geoffrey.skelley: There are no bad picks … until there are bad picks. Lol.

sarahf: But first a step back to explain my rationale. I think there are two big groups of candidates when we’re talking about who drops out before Iowa.

You’ve got your unconventional, “never stood a chance” candidates like Mike Gravel, who simply don’t have the resources (or interest) to stay in any longer.

And then you’ve got your “also rans” like Swalwell (and Moulton), who I think could have held out until Iowa if they wanted to, but purposefully chose not to in order to avoid jeopardizing their political reputation. Like I wouldn’t be surprised if Swalwell mounts a Senate bid when Dianne Feinstein’s seat is up in 2024.

A candidate I think that falls into that category (although arguably, she shouldn’t) is … Kirsten Gillibrand!!!

nrakich: Outside the box!!

geoffrey.skelley: Now that is an interesting pick.

sarahf: She’s a talented career politician — she’s been in the Senate since 2009 and was in the House before that. And she maybe even picked up some momentum after the second debate (e.g., she now has one qualifying poll where she’s cracked 2 percent).

But to be clear, she’s still polling at 0.3 percent nationally, on average, according to RealClearPolitics.

So I think Gillibrand and her campaign are going to have some tough talks in the lead-up to October about her campaign and whether to fold it, because she’s got too many Senate colleagues in the race with whom she has close working relationships. In particular, I’m thinking Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, but even Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

And so if she stays in too much longer without earning more support, I think there will be a lot of internal pressure from the party asking her to drop out.

Now … if she makes the September debate, discount everything I’ve said. But I don’t think she’ll make it. And I’m not convinced she’ll hang around for the October debate either, even though the DNC has said it will keep the polling and donor threshold the same as the September debate. As I’m not sure how much those few extra weeks would matter to her.

nrakich: I think that’s totally defensible. She was one of my late-round sleeper picks.

geoffrey.skelley: On the one hand, I think Gillibrand has the resources to fight on. But on the other hand, she really might miss the September debate and maybe decide to pull the plug.

sarahf: I totally agree on the resources front. I just think she’ll care more about exiting when it’s still the “no hard feelings” period.

nrakich: To me, Gillibrand is the one candidate who was supposed to be in the top tier but who has flopped the most.

So she might be the Scott Walker of 2020 — the big-name candidate who drops out because it just didn’t come together.

geoffrey.skelley: Though at least Walker led the polls in Iowa early on. But yeah, Gillibrand has never caught fire. The fact that Gillibrand pushed for former Sen. Al Franken’s resignation over allegations of sexual misconduct could be part of it, but there are also just a lot of top-tier candidates in the race.

nrakich: She has an outside shot to make the October debate, as Geoffrey wrote yesterday. If she makes that, I agree, she’ll obviously stay in. But if she doesn’t, she’s not one of these vanity candidates like Steyer or de Blasio. She really thought she could win, and if things aren’t going according to plan, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see her pull the plug.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, she’s a politician who wants to win office. She’s not running just to bring an issue or two to the forefront.

sarahf: OK, Geoffrey, you’re up.

geoffrey.skelley: Well, Sarah didn’t take my pick, so I’m going with Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. He’s already suspended his campaign once in the wake of the shooting in Dayton to return to Ohio, and he’s definitely not going to make the September debate. So I can see him dropping out by October.

Something to keep in mind with Ryan is that a successful reelection bid in the House is probably more important than sticking out the presidential race, as it could set him up to run for the Senate in 2022, when Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s seat is up, or for governor against GOP Gov. Mike DeWine.

I’m sure Ryan figured that a presidential run would help expand his name recognition and make connections for a potential future statewide bid. He’s routinely floated as a potential candidate for higher office, and with redistricting after the 2020 census, Ohio might lose a seat in reapportionment and put Ryan’s seat on the chopping block. Seeking to be Sherrod Brown 2.0 isn’t the worst strategy for an Ohio Democrat.

nrakich: Yeah, Ryan is an obvious pick … although personally I’d rank him below the person I’m going to choose next.

But Ryan did run with a clear purpose: He really seems to believe in winning back the white factory worker for the Democratic Party. He also doesn’t face pressure to drop out to run for reelection, because Ohio law allows him to run for both.

On the other hand, he raised less in the second quarter — and had less cash on hand — than any other candidate FiveThirtyEight considers “major,” so he may not have the option to keep going.

sarahf: True. OK, Nathaniel, you’re up!

nrakich: My next pick is … Washington Gov. Jay Inslee!

The debates seem very important to Inslee. He tried to get one debate organized solely around his pet issue, climate change.

Yet he seems quite unlikely to make either the September or October debates.

I’m not sure why he would continue running if that happens.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, he’ll likely get the donors for September and October, but it seems unlikely he’ll get the polls he needs.

nrakich: Crucially, Inslee has the ability to run for a third term as governor in 2020.

But legally, he cannot be on the ballot for both governor and president.

And the potential gubernatorial field in Washington is in a holding pattern waiting for Inslee to make up his mind.

As a sitting governor, he is probably aware of pressures back home.

sarahf: Wow, two of the governors in the race out by October.

geoffrey.skelley: Inslee is a good pick. Once again, a candidate with some home-base electoral considerations. And as a governor who can run for a third term, that’s a pretty attractive alternative.

sarahf: When does Inslee have to decide if he’s going to run for a third term?

nrakich: The candidate filing deadline isn’t until May. But politically, that is untenable. He knows he needs to give other Democrats in Washington the chance to build up their campaigns before then if he’s not going to run.

geoffrey.skelley: Right. And this is a good moment to remind folks that a lot of states have multiple primaries: one for president and then a separate one for Congress or state offices. We’ve already talked about some states where this is true — Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington.

But there are also some states with consolidated primaries — their presidential and state-specific primaries take place the same day, which is the case in states like California, Illinois and Texas. Anyway, I mention this because the differences in filing deadlines can play a big part in the decision-making process for many of these candidates when it comes to deciding whether to drop out.

sarahf: OK, I’m up!

My second pick is less bold than my first but arguably more likely to happen, at least by October anyway — Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio always had a tough road ahead of him, and as much as I can’t believe that the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, stands more of a chance than the mayor of New York City, that’s where I think we currently are. De Blasio strikes me as a candidate who never really stood a chance, or wasn’t running to win — although, I can’t exactly tell you what issue he was running on, per se.

And the most damning stat of his candidacy was his popularity at home — New Yorkers don’t like him and didn’t want him to run!

It’s like if those at home, who in theory know you best, don’t like you all that much, why try to catapult yourself onto a national stage? Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was at least popular when he mounted his 2008 presidential bid.

nrakich: Oh, see, Sarah, that’s kind of why I don’t think he’ll drop out anytime soon.

De Blasio strikes me as the kind of candidate who isn’t really running to win, just to throw some rhetorical bombs and maybe have a good time.

So why let having almost no chance of winning the nomination stop you?

Reportedly, de Blasio doesn’t like his day job as New York City mayor. So I think he’ll try to prolong his presidential campaign as long as possible — to stay away from City Hall.

geoffrey.skelley: Resources could be a problem though — de Blasio raised only $1.1 million by the end of June and had just 6,700 donors. Yeesh. So yeah, I can see him leaving just because he can’t afford to stay in.

sarahf: Yeesh is right. OK, Geoffrey. Last round! Make it count.

geoffrey.skelley: All right, I think there’s an easy pick that I would take if we had four rounds, but given we only have three picks, I think I’m going to go for my sleeper choice: former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. I think it’s possible that he might actually consider running for Senate again. He’s polling at 2 percent nationally with no obvious path for improvement, and he’s even worse off in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Not to mention that O’Rourke abandoned the campaign trail to go home to El Paso after the mass shooting there. So if I squint, I can see him deciding to drop the presidential bid for a more winnable race — at least in terms of his party’s nomination. At this point I think he would be much, much more likely to win the Democratic nomination for Senate in Texas than the presidency, and given his performance in the 2018 Senate contest, maybe he could even win the general. He’d be an underdog, but he’s been there before.

nrakich: Yesssss. I’m so glad someone chose him!

Mostly so I wouldn’t be tempted to waste my own pick on him. 😜

But I totally agree. O’Rourke has been home in El Paso helping his community heal. And that’s the kind of campaign break that leads to self-reflection — maybe the people at home are the ones you’d rather be trying to help.

To be more crassly political, it might also be a chance to step back and see that your campaign has been a pretty big flop so far — after you entered the presidential race expecting to be one of the four or five front-runners.

sarahf: Right, has anyone experienced a bigger flop in the polls?

nrakich: At one point, O’Rourke registered in the double digits — sometimes in third place! — in some polls right after his announcement. Now he’s at 2 points in the RealClearPolitics average.

geoffrey.skelley: Pete Buttigieg’s campaign really stepped all over O’Rourke.

sarahf: Right, and Nate wrote about this last month, but something tricky about O’Rourke is that his base (young, white, moderate Democrats) is smaller than you’d expect, so he’s running to attract a segment of the party that isn’t all that big to begin with. It doesn’t help that he’s faced stiff competition in candidates like Buttigieg or Warren in trying to diversify his appeal.

nrakich: O’Rourke also seems to be a guy prone to a lot of soul-searching. So if any candidate who has already made the September debate (as he has) is going to drop out for personal reasons before then, I bet it would be him.

geoffrey.skelley: And while he’s not leading in most Texas presidential primary polls, he still does OK, so I think he could successfully pivot to the Senate race. Anyway, I wouldn’t take it to the bank, but his leaving to go to El Paso really made me wonder if he might drop out.

sarahf: Good pick.

All right, Nathaniel, you’re up!

nrakich: OK, I’m going to go with the easy pick, then (thanks, Geoffrey!): Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

sarahf: Ahh!! Stole my pick.

nrakich: Bullock will continue to face a lot of pressure from party elders (and even in his Twitter replies!) to switch to the Senate race.

He’s similar to Hickenlooper in that regard, although frankly I think Democrats’ chances in Colorado’s Senate race don’t change that much if they nominate Hickenlooper vs. someone else. Whereas in Montana, Bullock is legitimately the only candidate who can probably put that Senate seat in play.

Now, like Hickenlooper, Bullock has denied any interest in the Senate.

But maybe, if he doesn’t make the September or October debates, that will change.

He is term-limited as governor, so the alternative is basically to go home and retire.

geoffrey.skelley: But unlike Hickenlooper, Bullock would probably enter a Senate general election in Montana as a clear underdog against Republican Sen. Steve Daines. The state did reelect Democratic Sen. Jon Tester last year, but Tester was an incumbent and it was a favorable environment for a Democrat. And even still, it was close! Bullock probably wouldn’t have as favorable as national environment working in his favor.

nrakich: That’s true.

sarahf: OK, last pick!! This pick is also not that surprising, but it speaks to a similar trend of many of our picks (although, not all) — another lesser-known moderate in the party dropping out: Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.

He’s done a good job cracking 1 percent pretty consistently in the polls, but he hasn’t achieved more than that, so I don’t see his campaign catching on otherwise.

That said, there’s not necessarily a good reason why he’d be the next to drop out (no pressing filing deadline), but he also strikes me as someone who is going to approach this fairly pragmatically, so if he thinks he doesn’t have support, I do think he’ll bow out.

What do you make of many of the more moderate members of the party being some of the first candidates to go?

nrakich: Yeah, we didn’t name a single person of color in this draft, and only one woman! I think the “electable white men” are definitely the favorites to drop out soon.

geoffrey.skelley: Some of them were likely to be also-rans to begin with (Ryan, Moulton, former Rep. John Delaney), but the fact that statewide electeds like Bennet, Bullock and Hickenlooper are struggling probably has a lot to do with both the mood of the party as well as Joe Biden’s presence in the race.

nrakich: Right, at the risk of stating the obvious, I think part of what we’re seeing is there’s already a popular electable white man in the race sucking up all the oxygen: Biden.

geoffrey.skelley: Though I will say that it’s hard for me to see some of these guys being able to pick up Biden’s mantle if the former vice president weren’t in the race. The fact that they’re ideologically similar to Biden could help, but sharing the same moderate approach as Biden will only take these candidates so far. It’s not like all of Biden’s backers would just default to these candidates.

nrakich: Agreed, but that’s why I think it’s less about being moderate and more about being a white man/being seen as “electable” (which is probably related).

Like, de Blasio and Inslee aren’t moderate.

But I agree, Geoffrey — the field is so crowded that I don’t think any one of them would be doing significantly better if Biden weren’t in the race. Biden’s support would probably spread out evenly rather than going entirely to, say, Hickenlooper.

But even in that case, maybe someone like Inslee would be polling at 3 percent and would make the debates. So it could have made a difference for some of these candidates.

sarahf: OK, let’s recap. Here’s our teams. Who wants to vote first?

Who will drop out before the October debate?
Round Geoff Nathaniel Sarah
1 John Hickenlooper Seth Moulton Kirsten Gillibrand
2 Tim Ryan Jay Inslee Bill de Blasio
3 Beto O’Rourke Steve Bullock Michael Bennet

 

I think I’m going to go with the safe pick here. Nathaniel’s draft picks seem the most likely on average to actually drop out before October.

nrakich: Yeah, I like my team. But I appreciate how you guys were willing to pick some dark horses! You should get extra credit if those turn out to be true.

geoffrey.skelley: I agree that Nathaniel’s team probably has the best overall chance to go three for three on dropping out.

nrakich: But let’s be real — will even two of these nine candidates still be in the race come Iowa?

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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