Welcome to the first edition of … [taps microphone and grins sheepishly] … Silver Bulletpoints.
You don’t want to know how much time we spent workshopping that name. What you do want to know is what this column will be all about. Here are the parameters: Every week or so, I’ll write about three topics in 300 words per topic or less, not counting headings, words embedded in charts or tables, screenshots of tweets and so forth.1 I’m going to ask FiveThirtyEight’s editors to hold me to those constraints even if I complain about them later, sort of like how you can ban yourself from casinos and even get arrested if you then try to play the slots. For the time being, all the topics will relate to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, but that might change later.
The idea is that I have a lot of thoughts about 2020 — let’s not call them half-baked thoughts, but three-quarters baked might be fair — that are longer than a tweet but shorter than a full-length article. (I tend to write long, the editors tell me.)2 Back in my day in the mid-to-late aughts, we used to call those three-quarters-baked thoughts “blog posts,” so this column is basically an effort to Make Blogging Great Again. We’ll also sometimes take reader questions — if you have a 2020 Democratic primary question that you think I can do justice to in 300 words, drop us a line. I could go on, but that would be defying the spirit of the column. So let’s get back to politics.
Bulletpoint No. 1: The Buttigieg boom isn’t just a media bubble
Pete Buttigieg is everywhere on your TV these days. Last week, he ranked second among declared Democrats in cable news coverage, behind only Bernie Sanders. And as tends to happen with these things, there’s already a backlash to the Buttigieg boom, from jokes mocking the media’s admiration for his language skills to Columbia Journalism Review articles describing him as the “flavor of the month.”
Here at Silver Bulletpoints, we like nothing better than to backlash against the backlash when we think the data supports our case. And in this case, we’re wary of the notion that the Buttigieg boom is solely a media concoction.
There’s no doubt about the initial spark for the Buttigieg bump: It was his CNN town hall on March 10. You can see it in itemized donations to Buttigieg’s campaign, which begin to spike on March 10 and continued from there.
But how the public and the media responded to that initial spark was different — and the public responded sooner. Here is a comparison of Buttigieg coverage on cable news to how much Google search traffic he’s been getting.
Notice how that Google search spike (like the fundraising spike) began immediately after the town hall and then slowly but steadily built. The media coverage boom lagged behind, by contrast, and largely didn’t accelerate until the past two weeks, long after Buttigieg’s rise had begun to be apparent in polls and in other ways.
Yes, it’s complicated. Public interest and media attention have a self-reinforcing, symbiotic relationship. The CNN town hall was itself a type of media coverage. But this looks like a reasonably organic surge in voter interest in Buttigieg and not just a media fixation.
Bulletpoint No. 2: High-information voters may be leading indicators; high-education voters may be misleading ones
But maybe we should be cautious about Buttigieg for another reason. As my former colleague (and still friend) Harry Enten points out, Buttigieg’s support is concentrated among demographics overrepresented in the media. He overperforms, for example, among highly educated Democrats. For better or worse, journalists are also highly educated, and they mostly live in highly educated neighborhoods and have highly educated peers. If journalists are going by what they hear in their social networks, they may overrate candidates like Buttigieg and underrate those like Joe Biden. According to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 65 percent of voters in the Democratic primary electorate in 2016 did not have a four-year college degree.
We’ve also detected this when interacting with FiveThirtyEight readers. Buttigieg drew huge applause when I selected him in a 2020 candidate draft at a live podcast in New York on March 20. He’s not the only candidate popular with our readers; Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are well-liked too. But — no surprise if you know the demographics of our audience — Warren and Harris also rely heavily on college-educated voters.
Here’s the catch: High-education voters also tend to be high-information voters. And we probably do want to hear from high-information voters. They’re more likely to vote — and they may be leading indicators for how other voters behave once they acquire more information. Maybe, for instance, high-information voters like Warren for her wonky policy proposals, while low-information voters don’t have much of an impression beyond that she’s a liberal woman from Massachusetts who flubbed some DNA test — but they’ll come around once they learn more.
In other words, if education is correlated with informedness, then performing well among college-educated voters could be a bullish sign.
Bulletpoint No. 3: Why it’s hard to rank the Democratic candidates
One recurring bit you’ll see in Silver Bulletpoints — maybe we’ll try to rotate in different features like different pricing games on the “The Price is Right” — is an attempt to rank the Democrats into different tiers. Here’s a version of that from last week, for instance:
I’d like to propose one tweak, which is to further subdivide tier 1b. Specifically, I’m keeping Sanders and Buttigieg in 1b while demoting Warren and Beto O’Rourke into a new tier, 1c. That isn’t a huge difference, but that’s how I’d bet.
I have mixed feelings about this exercise. On the one hand, ranking the candidates without a model or some other rigorous methodology is exactly the sort of thing that can get me in trouble. On the other hand, I have a mental list of candidates and tiers in my head at all times, and I feel like I owe y’all an occasional, explicit glimpse into that thinking rather than forcing you to guess.
But this is a tricky race to diagnose. Most primaries either take the form of a follow-the-leader race where everyone is chasing a single clear front-runner (say, Hillary Clinton in 2008 or 2016) or a free-for-all in which there’s no obvious heir apparent (say, Democrats in 1992 or 2004). This year is somewhere in between; there are two sort-of front-runners (Biden and Sanders), but for lots of reasons (age, lack of support from party elites), they’re much less formidable than someone like Clinton. I feel reasonably comfortable comparing Biden and Sanders to one another — I have Biden higher because he’s polling quite a bit better than Sanders — but comparing them to the rest of the field will be a challenge until other candidates become better known.
From ABC News: