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Silver Bulletpoints: The 4 Meta-Messages Of The 2020 Campaign

Greetings from Houston, where in barely 24 hours on the ground, I’ve already experienced four flash flood warnings and a Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish restaurant.

Sometimes I have bad ideas, and we’re going to talk about one of them in this edition of Silver Bulletpoints, in which we cover three topics related to the 2020 primary, each in 300 words or less.

Bulletpoint No. 1: Here are the four major meta-messages for 2020

With so many presidential candidates — now 20, by FiveThirtyEight’s count — you could almost sort the Democrats into an NCAA Tournament bracket, with the various candidates seeded into our different “regions.” So I thought about asking Emily, FiveThirtyEight’s designer, to draw up a 2020 candidate bracket. We really love brackets here at FiveThirtyEight, after all.

But I decided this was a bad idea. How come? Putting the candidates in a bracket would imply they’re facing off against one another in a series of one-on-one matchups: Live on ESPN2, it’s Pete Buttigieg vs. Beto O’Rourke in the Outsiders Bracket Regional Semifinal. But that’s not really how the primary works. Instead, the primary is more like if the NCAA Tournament committee had invited all 68 teams to the same gym, tossed a few basketballs onto the court, and said, “Play ball, fellas!”

The bracket idea did get me thinking about how you’d sort the Democratic candidates into four groups, however. Indeed, I think there are four major meta-messages that the 2020 hopefuls are taking. By meta-message, I mean an overall rationale for why the candidate is running and why you should choose him or her:

  • Meta-Message No. 1: Liberal Policy Wonk. “I want to move the country to the left, and I have a lot of ideas for how to do it.”
  • Meta-Message No. 2: Coalition-Builder. “I can unite the different factions of the Democratic Party and reflect the diverse identities of its voters.”
  • Meta-Message No. 3: Outsider. “I may not be a traditional candidate, but I have a different perspective and some fresh ideas for how to shake things up.”
  • Meta-Message No. 4: Electability & Experience. “I have a track record, and I know how to get stuff done — and I can beat Trump.”

Bulletpoint No. 2: It’s probably better to pick a lane and stick to it

So which candidates are taking which approaches? Let’s start with the easy ones:

Now for some trickier cases:

  • Bernie Sanders: The obvious answer is Liberal Policy Wonk. But he’s not as policy-focused as Warren, and his campaign incorporates a lot of Outsider messaging and even some electability messaging.
  • Andrew Yang: A blend of Liberal Policy Wonk — although not all his policies are super liberal — and Outsider.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand: Not clear. She’s probably closest to a Coalition-Builder, but she hasn’t had much success at uniting the various factions of the party.
  • Julian Castro: Probably a blend of Coalition-Builder and Outsider — but as we discussed on the podcast this week, I’m not sure any of it is really working.
  • John Hickenlooper: Not clear. Electability & Experience? Outsider? His announcement video featured a variety pack of messages.
  • Michael Bennet: Another Coloradoan with muddled messaging, although probably veering toward Electability & Experience.

If there’s a lesson, it’s that in a divided field, you want a clear meta-message. Sanders is a good enough politician to run on several messages at once — although even he’s slipped in the polls recently. And maybe Yang is sui generis enough to belong in his own category. I doubt someone like Hickenlooper can pull that off, though.

Bulletpoint No. 3: Biden looks slightly weaker in Iowa and New Hampshire than nationally

If you’ve been reading FiveThirtyEight, you’ll know that we were bullish on Biden’s chances before it was cool. And even we didn’t expect him to surge in the polls as much as he has.

But one reason for caution is that neither Iowa nor New Hampshire figures to be a great state for Biden. Neither has a lot of black voters, his greatest strength in polls so far. Their electorates are quite liberal. And both emphasize retail campaigning, where Biden will probably cede ground to Sanders, Buttigieg and other candidates who are sharper on the stump.

There haven’t been a ton of early-state polls since Biden’s announcement, but they do show him lagging his national polls slightly. Biden is at 35 percent in the only recent Iowa poll, for example — lower than his 41 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of national surveys (he’d also slightly underperformed his national numbers in Iowa before his announcement). In New Hampshire, Biden’s averaged just 27 percent in three post-announcement surveys. One piece of good news for Biden: South Carolina looks like a potential firewall for him, as it was for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Early-state polls show a slightly tighter race

Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina polls since Biden launched his presidential bid

National Iowa N.H. S.C.
Candidate RCP Average 0ptimus Change Research 0ptimus Suffolk 0ptimus
Biden 41% 35% 26% 34% 20% 48%
Sanders 15 14 30 16 12 12
Warren 8 10 9 9 8 5
Harris 7 5 8 7 6 4
Buttigieg 7 11 12 10 12 5
O’Rourke 4 3 3 3 3 1
Booker 3 2 2 1 3 4
Klobuchar 1 4 1 1 1 1

Only candidates included in all polls are listed.

Source: polls

Sanders’s early-state numbers are OK, but unspectacular. New Hampshire should be a strong state for him, but his polls have been weird there all campaign long, with recent polls showing him as low as 12 percent or as high as 30 percent. He’s generally polled a point or two worse in Iowa than nationally, and his South Carolina numbers have been poor.

One candidate who’s consistently polled better in both Iowa and New Hampshire than nationally is Buttigieg — a bullish indicator for him. But even though he recently campaigned in South Carolina, his lack of support from black voters could make that state a problem for him.

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

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

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