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Silver Bulletpoints: I’m Revising My 2020 Tiers To Better Match The Polling

Welcome to the second edition of Silver Bulletpoints. If you missed last week’s debut, the premise of this column is simple: Each week, I cover three topics related to the 2020 primary in 300 words or less.

One habit I don’t want to get into is re-evaluating my candidate tiers each week, since there are usually more interesting and informative ways of talking about the field. But I am going to review the tiers again this week now that former Vice President Joe Biden has officially entered the race.

Bulletpoint No. 1: The polls tell us Biden is a half-step in front of everyone else

This week, we evaluated what one can learn from early polling. Answer: more than you might think. For instance, a well-known candidate polling like Biden (about 28 percent in national polls) should win the nomination about 35 percent of the time, other factors held equal. But polling like Elizabeth Warren (around 7 percent) works out to roughly a 3 percent chance, other factors held equal.

I’m emphasizing “other factors held equal” because polls aren’t the only thing to look at. But they do provide a reality check.

Suppose you’re a GM preparing for the NFL draft and you have a simple algorithm that sorts college quarterbacks into two groups. In Group 1, historically, 35 percent of quarterbacks have become star players. In Group 2, 3 percent have.

A scout comes to you, says he’s evaluated every factor, more than the algorithm considers, and you should draft a Group 2 quarterback ahead of a Group 1 guy.

Do you buy it? Maybe. But that’s putting a lot of faith in the scout. The algorithm tells you the Group 1 player is about 12 times more likely to succeed. Perhaps you can overcome that prior with a deeper analysis, but the circumstances should be special.

The upshot: I think my tiers should align more closely with the polling. Maybe we can liberally scramble candidates around by half a tier, but more than that should require a really solid argument. Looking at it that way, Biden should probably be alone in the penthouse level since he clearly has the best polling. You should also adjust polls for name recognition, however, and once you do, it’s clear that Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have the next-best polling.

So here’s where I have the candidates in my revised, still-subjective-but-now-more-poll-driven tiers:

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

For the Democratic nomination, as revised on April 26, 2019

Tier Sub-tier Candidates
1 a Biden
b Harris, Sanders, Buttigieg
2 a Warren, O’Rourke
b Booker, Klobuchar, Abrams*
3 a Castro, Gillibrand, Inslee, Yang
b Bennet*, Hickenlooper, Ryan, Bullock*

* Candidate is not yet officially running but is reasonably likely to do so.

Bulletpoint No. 2: Kamala Harris is doing fine, but where are her endorsements?

You’ll notice my tiers don’t exactly follow the polling. Instead, I have Harris in the bottom half of Tier 1 with Buttigieg and Sanders even though her polling isn’t as strong. That’s actually a demotion from before, when I had her at the top of Tier 1 with Biden.

Maybe it helps to define the tiers more precisely. Here’s how I think of them:

Tier 1: Things are coming together, to one degree or another. Maybe not everything has gone exactly to plan, but events are broadly in line with a script where the candidate takes a fairly linear path to the nomination.

Tier 2: Things aren’t quite coming together now, but it’s reasonably easy to imagine how they could in the future.

Tier 3: Things aren’t coming together now, and there’s no particular reason to think they will. But it wouldn’t be entirely shocking if they did. The candidate isn’t quite waiting in the wings, but maybe they’re backstage — waiting to wait in the wings.

I still think Harris fits the Tier 1 description. There’s no real reason to think she can’t win. She raised a decent amount of money, her favorability ratings are roughly as good as anyone’s, party activists like her, and she’s the only woman or person of color in a top tier full of white dudes.

But I wonder why Harris hasn’t gotten more endorsements. Harris fits the archetype of a coalition-building candidate, and endorsements are a pretty good benchmark for how well you’re building your coalition. Instead, Biden pulled ahead in our endorsement tracker after just one day and is already getting endorsements from black leaders that Harris is missing.

Bulletpoint No. 3: A theory for why Warren isn’t getting more of Sanders’s voters

Warren epitomizes what I think of as a Tier 2 candidate. She’s not polling like one of the front-runners. And her endorsements and fundraising totals don’t have her at the top of the field. She may still be dealing with the fallout of her DNA test, so you wouldn’t say her campaign has gone according to script.

From ABC News:

But it’s easy enough to imagine scenarios where she becomes a front-runner. Voters could gradually overcome their doubts about her electability. Or she could maybe reorient perceptions if she keeps focusing on policy. Rank-and-file voters don’t care that much about policy, but being policy-focused can be a good way to get favorable media coverage and influence party activists.

Or if Sanders falters, maybe Warren would stand to gain ground as the leading candidate of the left. Or would she? One question is why she hasn’t picked up more support from Sanders voters in the first place. Her policy proposals, if anything, have been a little bolder than his — for instance, she proposed a wealth tax rather than just an increased estate tax. Yet she’s sitting at 7 percent in the polls while he’s at 20.

There are a lot of plausible answers, but this tweet from Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of the socialist magazine Jacobin, suggests one explanation:

It isn’t just about policy, Sunkara is saying. It’s about the candidates’ attitudes toward American institutions, including the institution of capitalism. Perhaps by extension, it’s also about attitudes toward the institution of the Democratic Party, of which Sanders isn’t a member. If Sunkara is right, it means Sanders and Warren may not be swimming in the same lane after all. It may also mean Sanders’s upside is limited since it’s hard to win the Democratic nomination when running against the Democratic Party.

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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