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So … About That Supposed Lack Of Enthusiasm For Biden?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Over the weekend, an ABC/Washington Post poll found that most Democrats now back former Vice President Joe Biden, but enthusiasm for his candidacy was, on the other hand, pretty lackluster.

Just 24 percent of his supporters said they were “very” enthusiastic about supporting him. This marked the lowest level of enthusiasm for a Democratic presidential candidate that ABC/Washington Post has found in the last 20 years. And perhaps even more troubling for Biden was that nearly twice as many of President Trump’s supporters (53 percent) said they were “very” enthusiastic about his candidacy.

This, of course, has sparked comparisons to 2016 when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found herself in a similar situation — running neck-and-neck with Trump and with only 32 percent saying they were “very” enthusiastic about supporting her in September 2016. Biden, of course, is already 8 points below that mark now.

So does Biden have an enthusiasm problem? What’s the case for why he might and the case for why we shouldn’t read too much into this now?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I don’t think this is something Biden should worry about, at least not right now. We’ve just come off a knock-down, drag-out, 15-month-long primary fight. And some would argue it’s still going on, with Sen. Bernie Sanders still contesting the nomination!

It’s a lot to ask for the party to be totally united at this early juncture. I’d guess that, by September, Biden will have as good or better enthusiasm numbers as Clinton did in September 2016.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It feels so quaint to be debating a horse-race question in the middle of a pandemic.

But basically: I don’t think enthusiasm is a terribly meaningful indicator above and beyond what is already reflected in polls.

Sanders’s voters were more enthusiastic than Biden’s in the primaries. But he’s actually tended to underperform his polls. Sometimes higher enthusiasm means you have a narrower base, and the other candidate has more room to turn out undecideds, etc.

An important qualification to all of this is that most of the polls so far are conducted among registered voters when really we want to see likely voter polls, which won’t really be reliable for another several months.

nrakich: Yeah, Biden leads in most general election national polls right now, but likely-voter polls tend to be a few points better for Republicans than registered-voter polls, and as Nate says, we don’t have a ton of these polls right now.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): It’s hard to say much about enthusiasm right now since we are still in the midst of the Demcoratic primary ending. For instance, I think enthusiasm around him could still grow, especially after Barack and Michelle Obama have enthusiastically endorsed him, Sanders is behind him, and he has picked a running mate who perhaps excites the party.

sarahf: That’s fair, but how do we reconcile that Trump’s very enthusiastic support is so much higher than Biden’s — 29 points?

perry: Trump is the Republican Party’s candidate, and he just won his primary with overwhelming support. The party is unified behind him. People have voted for him once. I’m not surprised his supporters are fairly enthusiastic about him.

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natesilver: I don’t care how much higher a quality is that doesn’t matter.

But honestly, I think this discussion is premature in some ways. The general election campaign hasn’t begun. The primary campaign is in a zombie-like state between being sort of finished and sort of not.

We’re in the midst of a pandemic. And we don’t have very many likely-voter polls, and to the extent we do, they’re not liable to be very reliable anyway at this early stage.

Perhaps most importantly, Democrats can be very enthusiastic about beating Trump even if they’re not that enthusiastic about Biden.

perry: Right, that’s the most important thing.

nrakich: Yeah, I find it hard to get worked up by any general-election polling at this point. We’re still so early in this massive news story that could significantly help or hurt Trump.

sarahf: But is it a bad sign for Biden — and enthusiasm for his campaign — that 15 percent of Sanders supporters in the ABC poll say they’ll vote for Trump?

natesilver: Twelve percent of Sanders primary voters voted for Trump in 2016, and another 14 percent voted for a third-party candidate or didn’t vote. So those numbers are in line with four years ago. And there are fewer Sanders voters than there were four years ago, so if anything those numbers are better for Biden than they were for Clinton.

nrakich: Yeah, historically, that would be a totally normal number. In addition to the numbers Nate cites for 2016, another study found that 25 percent of Clinton voters voted for McCain over Obama in 2008.

So it’s not like this is something past presidential candidates haven’t had to overcome as well. It can make a difference in a close election, but bigger factors (e.g., the national environment, the economy) will probably determine the outcome in the end.

sarahf: OK. So what I’m hearing is that the idea that Biden has a real enthusiasm gap is — at least at this point — overrated! But isn’t it at least somewhat worrisome that there now appears to be an effort to draft New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for president?

natesilver: Ohhhhh Sarah, this is such trollbait.

nrakich: Let’s be clear — that “ooh, Andrew Cuomo should run for president!” talk is utterly nonsensical, non-serious and half-baked.

sarahf: It is! I’m not defending it. But look at what happened when that talk took off last fall. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick both entered the race as opposed to throwing their support behind someone else.

natesilver: People don’t understand the process. People think you can magically wave a magic wand and that Cuomo becomes the nominee.

Look, if Biden drops out for some reason (health, scandal, etc.), then, obviously, you’ll need a different nominee.

And I do think Cuomo might be the second-most likely nominee, after Biden.

If you need an emergency replacement nominee because Biden drops out, he’s fairly compatible with Biden ideologically.

And frankly, the “emergency replacement” scenario — while unlikely — is still probably more likely than “Bernie wins all remaining contests by 20 points and wins a pledged-delegate plurality” scenario.

nrakich: I do wonder to what extent people actually believe/want Cuomo to be the nominee, and how much is just a fun daydream.

perry: I live in Kentucky. People are suddenly talking very positively about our Gov. Andy Beshear, who is a Democrat. This is in part because Trump is doing press conferences in which he ignores the evidence and seems as interested in defending himself as he is in addressing the issues. So Cuomo comes off well in comparison, as do other governors, like Ohio’s Mike DeWine, a Republican.

It also helps that Cuomo is doing a lot of media and lives in the media capital of the United States. Plenty of governors would be getting buzz if they were doing a competent job and were based in NYC, for example, Gavin Newsom (California), Jay Inslee (Washington), Beshear, DeWine.

nrakich: I think the Cuomo thing — both talk of him becoming the nominee and his role as a leader on the coronavirus in general — has been overinflated by the New York-centric media.

perry: Also, Biden has not been super-impressive in his media appearances, so there is that.

Cuomo has been better on that front, as have other governors.

sarahf: But Biden has been kind of missing from the coronavirus response, right? Part of that is because, as you all point out, he’s not a current governor tasked with spearheading preventive measures in his state, but it does seem as if it’s harder for him to have a natural place in the conversation.

natesilver: I don’t think anything Biden’s doing right now matters very much.

He’s also done more than the media has generally acknowledged.

perry: I think Biden is in the conversation. But his general ideas (Trump should listen to the medical experts, social distancing should continue) are what basically the media, governors, experts, everyone else is saying. Biden is not trying to stand out in that conversation or be interesting, which I think is normatively good. He is not offering weird ideas to stand out.

natesilver: The narrative is dumb. It’s always dumb at this stage of the campaign, when the primary winner has in all probability been decided but it’s not technically over yet. It would be a lot worse if not for coronavirus since the media would have a lot more news cycles to fill with fake drama.

nrakich: Yeah, Sarah, Biden hasn’t been as much of a presence on our TV sets, but I don’t think that’s his fault, as Nate pointed out. I think cable news just hasn’t been giving him a lot of airtime. The other day, major networks decided to air Cuomo’s briefing on the coronavirus instead of Biden’s speech.

But what Biden has to say on the coronavirus is more relevant to a majority of the country.

natesilver: It shouldn’t give him a lot of airtime!

Biden’s not hugely relevant at the moment.

nrakich: I think they should give him more than Cuomo! Biden might be president at this time next year. Cuomo governs just 6 percent of the country.

natesilver: Cuomo is dealing with the realities on the ground in a way Biden isn’t. And New York has a lot more than 6 percent of coronavirus cases.

He’s also doing a pretty effective job of communicating about coronavirus data and where the state and the country is in combating the epidemic.

I don’t think he’d get as much press coverage if he hadn’t been doing a good job with the communication side of things. It’s earned media in the truest sense of the word.

sarahf: That’s fair. A lot of what’s happening now is outside of Biden’s control, and obviously, there’s a lot we can’t answer, but Americans still rate Trump really highly on the economy — 57 percent said they approve of how he’s handling it, which marked a new high for him in that same ABC/WaPo poll. What’s more, Trump led Biden on this metric, 50 to 42 percent. Couldn’t that pose a real problem for Biden moving forward, especially if it’s harder for him to be a part of the conversation now?

nrakich: I think this is Exhibit A for it being too early to say anything. It seems like the economy is going to be in real trouble. If unemployment hits 30 percent or the gross domestic product growth rate is -15 percent, I don’t think Americans will continue to approve of Trump’s handling of the economy.

natesilver: No, I don’t think anything about the polls right now tells us very much about what the situation is likely to look like in September, or November.

People haven’t been living with this for very long. A lot of the consequences haven’t happened yet. And after the consequences, there’s the opportunity for a rebound, or a second wave.

You just have to be patient. Right now, I spend a lot more time looking at, say, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Italy than at Trump’s approval rating. I’d argue that the former tells us more about his reelection odds than the latter, since it tells us something about the extent to which a coronavirus epidemic can slow down post-peak.

sarahf: I can’t help but think that part of the narrative is being set now, though, about Biden having an enthusiasm problem. Of course, it could be that enthusiasm for Biden doesn’t really matter because enthusiasm to elect anyone but Trump is a bigger motivating factor, but I do wonder how that plays out in the coming months. Even if the enthusiasm gap isn’t real, could the perception of one still hurt Biden?

natesilver: Just one troll question after another.

sarahf: I know! But I think people are thinking about this — and even if it’s premature now — I do wonder how it takes root, even when it shouldn’t.

nrakich: That’s interesting, Sarah. Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if cable news continually covers Biden with the implication that he is somehow inadequate or not up to the task of beating Trump. I don’t know if that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy or not.

natesilver: I think if anything people tend to overlearn the lessons of the most recent election. A lot of the templates that people applied from the 2016 primaries to the 2020 primaries led to completely wrong predictions, like vastly understating Biden’s chances.

The fact that Democrats are worried about an enthusiasm gap because of 2016 could easily help Biden because it will scare Democrats into voting.

nrakich: I certainly agree that people try way too hard to retrofit the lessons of the previous election. To many (especially those with an anti-Sanders agenda), Clinton lost because Sanders voters weren’t united around her. But can’t it just be enough that she lost because it was an extremely tight election and that happens sometimes?

perry: Biden could very well lose the general election. And he could lose in the same way that Clinton did — a center-left Democrat wins the primary on the strength of older voters, particularly older black voters, but then loses in the general, with Trump winning in key swing states even as he loses the national popular vote.

But Clinton almost won and Biden very much could win. I don’t think Biden has an enthusiasm “problem,” but having enthusiastic supporters who are donating a lot of money, volunteering and eventually turning out to vote in large numbers always helps. So getting as much of Sanders’s crowd on board as possible will be useful for Biden.

Do I think it would be better for Biden if polls showed people were excited to vote for him? Yes, because I do think there is the potential that “people are holding their nose and voting for Biden” becomes a narrative.

nrakich: I also think a lot of the problem is that no one media members or the Twitterati know personally is enthusiastic to vote for Biden. Which of course speaks to the bubbles they live in. But that can have real effects on the narrative, as Perry said.

perry: But it’s hard for me to look at these polls right now and say Biden has an actual enthusiasm problem — or really many problems at all.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

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

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.