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Which 2020 Candidates Could Still Have A Breakout Moment?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Today we’re back with a 2020 snake draft!!! But with a twist — no discussion of the “Big 6,” which we’re defining as the early polling front-runners: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke.

The idea is that we’ll discuss which candidates still have breakout star potential even though they’re not leading in the polls. For example, Buttigieg is now part of the “Big 6,” but he certainly wasn’t when he announced in late January — some pollsters weren’t even including him! So it’s entirely possible that someone else might capture the lead and oust one of the six. Or someone else could still announce?!

The rules are as follows: Three rounds, so between the four of us, we’ll pick 12 potential 2020 Democratic breakout stars (not necessarily who we think will win the nomination). Let’s determine the order. (I’m going to write our names on scraps of paper and then pester someone in the office to draw them out of a bag.)

The order:

  1. Nathaniel
  2. Nate
  3. Sarah
  4. Perry

And remember, it’s a 🐍 draft, so you’ll get the last pick of Round 1 and the first of Round 2, Perry.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Sweet.

sarahf: Kick us off, Nathaniel.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): You said Nathaniel had the first pick and I’m named Nathaniel — confusing.

nrakich: Wow rude.

sarahf: But Nathaniel Rakich … doesn’t go by Nate?

OK, NATHANIEL RAKICH, take it away.

nrakich: To me, there’s a clear No. 1 pick here, and his or her name is …

Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey.

To me, he’s the strongest candidate in the race after the Big 6.

He hasn’t blown the doors off in the polls, but he’s still getting a nonzero amount, which is something in a field this large!

sarahf: Conveniently, RealClearPolitics’s polling average actually puts him in … seventh place.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Yes, I think he is the most likely candidate outside of the first six to win. But in trying to keep himself viable, I wonder if he ends up 1) not winning, and 2) not saying anything interesting enough to have a moment.

And while voters may not know much about him, journalists do — he’s been in the public eye for a long time. So I wonder if that limits his ability to get all of the “look how cool he is” coverage that Mayor Pete got.

nrakich: Yeah, there is real voter interest in Booker. He gets a lot of Google search interest relative to the other lower- and mid-tier candidates, for example.

And he has gotten the most newspaper coverage (as measured at of anyone outside the Big 6 in the last 30 days, plus the second-most cable news coverage of the lower-tier candidates last week.

perry: I don’t doubt Booker is being covered, but I’d argue it’s different from the way Mayor Pete is covered on MSNBC and CNN, i.e. with a lot of curiosity and interest (“He’s gay” or “He’s young”) that Booker is not getting.

nrakich: That’s fair, but another upside for Booker is that he also has a natural constituency with African Americans, who have regularly backed the winner in recent Democratic primaries (and who are underrepresented among those who make coverage decisions at MSNBC and CNN).

natesilver: It seems fairly likely that some of Biden’s strength among black voters will fade.

Even the Biden campaign expects that, judging by what I heard when I talked to them.

At the same time, if I’m Booker — or Harris — I’m sorta wondering why I’m not making more progress or getting more endorsements from black leaders.

And on the media coverage, Booker got quite a bit of coverage early on, and he’s in the NYC media market, so I don’t know if that’s a great excuse.

With that said, is he the seventh most likely nominee? Sure, I guess, although you could also make a case for the person I’m about to pick.

nrakich: cough Klobuchar cough

sarahf: End the suspense, Nate!

natesilver: I’ll take the Klob.

nrakich: Readers, Nate was kind enough to publish his entire pre-draft ranking in advance.

natesilver: Well, my ratings may have changed since the last Silver Bulletpoints!

But, yeah, I’m taking The Klob.

sarahf: So what’s the case for Klobuchar and her moment?

natesilver: I don’t think her campaign is off to a great start. But, for better or worse, I’m not sure she was expecting to have a great start either. Her campaign’s theory of the case was that they’d perform well in the debates and then surge in Iowa.

That’s still on the table. Although I don’t think she’s helped by some of the other candidates who are doing well. Buttigieg is a problem for her. Maybe Warren too. And Biden is off to a pretty good start, it looks like.

All of those candidates crowd her lanes to one degree or another.

If Biden stumbles, however, she’s one of the more likely beneficiaries.

If Buttigieg stumbles, there’s an opening for a Midwesterner in Iowa.

So she’s sort of waiting in the wings.

sarahf: Klobuchar does seem to be doing well among early-state activists, so if her strategy is to surge and win Iowa, maybe there is still a window for her there, though I agree it would require Biden fizzling out.

Which candidates early-state activists are considering

Share of respondents who said they were considering a candidate or had already committed to support a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary

activists considering supporting
Candidate Dec. 2018 Feb. 2019 April
Harris 61%
Booker 45
Warren 24
Klobuchar 34
Gillibrand 21
Sanders 29
Biden 39
McAuliffe 5
O’Rourke 34
Hickenlooper 21
Delaney 16

Source: Seth Masket, “Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020”

perry: But it’ll be hard for her to win with the electability-focused campaign that she is running — because I think voters have decided that “electablity” means a man. (I disagree with that, but voters keep saying that to reporters.)

I would argue Klobuchar has a strong electability case, based on her history of winning with big margins in Minnesota. But I think voters are not inclined to view women as electable. Also, her platform (“That’s a good idea, but we can’t afford that”) is not ideal for a breakout moment.

natesilver: Amy Klobuchar: That’s A Good Idea, But We Can’t Afford It™

Maybe there’s an opportunity for her on an issue where she’s fairly wonky, but most of the wonks are pretty lefty and she’s more moderate.

sarahf: OK … I guess I’m up. My pick is Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Sure, he’s predominantly running on one issue — climate change — but it’s an issue that’s become increasingly important among Democratic voters to the point where I think it might be ready to have a moment, especially when you consider the ambitions laid out in the Green New Deal.

It’s something that could attract a lot of young voters and members of the party’s left, in particular. (I was also impressed that he got Bill Nye the Science Guy in his announcement video, although he doesn’t count as an endorser at FiveThirtyEight.)

The real issue with Inslee’s candidacy is he would need to broaden his appeal in a general election environment, as climate change is such a polarizing issue between the two parties — but I do think it lends itself well to a moment.

nrakich: Yeah, agreed. Inslee is actually a pretty traditional presidential candidate — governor of a mid-sized state — who in, like, the ’90s probably would have been seen as a big name in the race. So I think that, if the time came when he had to push beyond climate change as an issue, he could do it.

It’s not the worst plan in the world. Step 1: Talk a bunch about climate change. Step 2: Get some attention. Step 3: Start talking about everything else.

perry: I just think he’s too boring. I respect him, but I just think he’s not interesting (he’s not say, gay, young, a self-described socialist or a former VP) and will have a hard time breaking through. Plus, all of the candidates are talking about climate change — O’Rourke just put out a big proposal on the issue. Unless Inslee has some really radical climate idea, that won’t make him pop. And Inslee is not really a radical.

Also, he’s not well-positioned on the electability question — Democrats will win Washington state.

natesilver: I don’t know why Inslee isn’t doing better. And just to be slightly trollish, he sort of cuts against the theory that “only male candidates get attention.”

But he does reinforce the theory that the media doesn’t care that much about climate change.

sarahf: Fair. OK, you’re up, Perry.


perry: So I have interpreted this as who is going to have a moment, not necessarily who is most likely to win.

So in that vein, I think Andrew Yang will have a moment in the debates and that will boost his profile.

Universal basic income is an issue that I think resonates with a lot of nerdy people worried about economic inequality and automation — and the debates could help him, because he is a non-politician who will come off as different from the rest of the field.

nrakich: Yeah, Yang checks a lot of boxes for the “moment” thing — low name recognition right now, but lots of room to grow. He has some passionate fans out there. He’s gotten over 100,000 donors, which is the fifth-most in the field, based on the data we have. And he’s been Googled just as much as Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris over the past 30 days.

natesilver: Also, if we’re talking about long-shot candidates, you’d rather have a candidate who’s really weird (I mean that in the nicest possible way) rather than one who’s boring.

Like, maybe nine times out of 10, Yang doesn’t make a dent at all, but that one time out of 10, he has an interesting ceiling.

perry: In this same vein of a moment, my next pick is Julián Castro.

He is charisma-challenged, but I think immigration will be a big issue in this primary and in the general because of President Trump, and Castro is talking about it more than most of the other candidates. And he is the only Latino candidate in the race so far. At some point, that combination could help him break through.

sarahf: Right, Democrats are going to need to start thinking through how they’d go about addressing immigration reform, and Castro is pretty much the only candidate out there with an extensive platform describing what he’d do.

OK … I’m back up. My next pick is the congressman from Ohio, Tim Ryan.

Part of my rationale is that by our count, he just qualified for the debate stage via the polls, and he’s been running for what, less than a month?

Granted, I realize Biden’s entry into the field casts a wide shadow over some of his electability argument.

perry: I almost picked him, so I think this is a good point. With Democrats so focused on electability, being a white man from Ohio fits well. And this is my bias because I know him a bit from covering Congress, but I think he has a charisma that will come through in interviews, debates, etc.

I tend to think that of the lower-tier candidates, Ryan, along with Booker, is the most likely to win the nomination.

natesilver: Biden overlaps an awful lot with him, though.

And if Biden fades, aren’t there other candidates who will get a second look before Ryan does? Like Klobuchar or Beto?

perry: Totally agree — Biden is a huge, huge problem for Ryan.

sarahf: But, like Klobuchar, I think Ryan has a lot to benefit from if Biden makes too many gaffes — I’m not convinced Klobuchar would necessarily benefit more.

Alright, Nate, you’re up!

natesilver: Oh god, this is hard.

perry: Yeah, it is.

sarahf: It’s three rounds, everybody. We can get through this!

perry: I mean, this is the fun part. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California or former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado? Author Marienne Williamson or Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam?

natesilver: I’m not allowed to pick people who aren’t officially running yet?

sarahf: Sure, why not. There are a few more people who might run. But within reason! The days of picking Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are over.

natesilver: Oh, I can?!? Well, great, I take Stacey Abrams.

Maybe there’s only a 25 percent chance she runs, but I’d rather have like a 25 percent chance of Stacey Abrams than a 100 percent chance of Seth Moulton or something.

perry: Just curious, if Abrams were eligible from the start, wouldn’t everyone have picked her first?

nrakich: No, but I was going to pick her next. She just announced she isn’t running for Senate in 2020, which increases the odds she’ll run for president. But I don’t think she’s No. 1 pick material mainly because I think there’s a pretty low chance that she ultimately runs.

perry: But is she more likely to win than Booker or Klobuchar if she runs?

natesilver: Yeah, I think she’s pretty clearly the best of the rest, and in fact I’d put her third after Booker and Klobuchar.

Every now and then when she’s included in a poll, she tends to get in the mid-single digits, which isn’t bad considering she hasn’t really gotten much media attention.

Abrams probably also only runs if it looks like Booker (and/or Harris?) is struggling, but you can make a case that Booker (and Harris?) is struggling and there’s an opening for another black candidate.

sarahf: It’s just a question of whether she’ll actually run. OK, Nathaniel, you’re up!

nrakich: OK, for my second-round pick, I’m going with Kirsten Gillibrand.

I realize that her stock is pretty low right now, but I think she’s pretty good value at this point in the draft.

natesilver: We’ve reached the Gillibrandoza Line — i.e., if you’re polling below Gillibrand, something isn’t going well.

perry: I was thinking about her and how far she is below the other sitting senators in this draft.

nrakich: The big theory around her struggles is that Democratic donors are sour on her because she was the first Democratic senator to call for Al Franken’s resignation.

Which … maybe? But the reality is that she is doing fine in fundraising! In the first quarter of 2019, she had the fourth-highest fundraising haul among the 2020 candidates.

Not having small donors is a problem because it signals lack of grassroots support, but not having big donors is only a problem because it leads to cash flow problems. And I don’t think she has cash flow problems.

So I could see her pumping some of that money into ads at the right time and having a moment.

natesilver: I dunno, but I think gender has to be a factor there. She’s leaning in to her gender (pun somewhat intended). She has critiqued powerful men. She gets a lot of gendered critiques such as being too “ambitious.”

perry: I think the Franken thing didn’t help. But I also think three senators from blue states who are similar to her ideologically (Booker, Harris, Warren) are in the same lane as her, and I think they are more likely to get the party behind them.

nrakich: To be clear, she has a lot working against her. But at this point in the draft? When my alternatives are Swalwell and Hickenlooper? I’ll take the senator from New York with a $10 million war chest.

natesilver: All’s well that Swalwells.

sarahf: And speaking of your next pick …

nrakich: My third round pick is Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

I certainly don’t think she’ll win the nomination. But I could see her becoming the Dennis Kucinich of this primary — sticks around a long time, gets 5 percent to 10 percent in later primaries on the strength of the “peace voters” that Kucinich kinda made famous.

perry: Does having Democrats harshly criticize you after a debate count as a moment? You mean a positive moment, right?

Well, the peace argument is a good one actually.

nrakich: Haha, yes, I mean positive moment. Among a certain segment of the population!

She has also been Googled more often in the past 30 days than Klobuchar, Gillibrand and Castro. And she’s the only one of those four who didn’t have a CNN town hall during that time!

perry: Interesting. Didn’t know that.

nrakich: She is also one of only nine candidates who has hit the 65,000 individual donor threshold, according to a New York Times analysis. It seems that she has a passionate, if small, following. To me, that’s the makings of a #moment.

natesilver: I guess if you’re really bearish on Bernie, you can sort of make a case that some Bernie fans would migrate to Gabbard rather than Warren or someone else. Not the bulk of them but the hard-core Very Online anti-establishment ones.

But again, that gets her to 5 percent, or maybe she like randomly finishes second in the Hawaii caucuses.

sarahf: She certainly would represent some different ideas on the debate stage, but I doubt that the early debates will focus much on foreign policy … probably to her and Mike Gravel’s chagrin.

nrakich: Dollars to doughnuts she gets Gravel’s endorsement after he drops out after the debates this summer.

Not that that will carry any weight, but it would consolidate the Very Online folks around her even more.

sarahf: OK, Nate. You’re up!

natesilver: Well, shit. I don’t know who I want.

sarahf: Join the club.

natesilver: I guess the Coloradans are intriguing, and there are more of them to pick from than strains of sativa at a dispensary in Denver.

But I think I’ll go with John Hickenlooper over Michael Bennet-with-one-T

nrakich: As I wrote in my overview of his campaign, Hickenlooper is known for his creative TV ads. I could definitely see him making a fun video that goes viral.

sarahf: If Bennet runs, though, that’s a hell of a story — fighting cancer AND running for president.

natesilver: Well, you can pick him! Hickenlooper got off to a slightly earlier start, though, and there aren’t a lot of governors in the field.

So, sorta like for Gillibrand, there’s a pretty good résumé there.

nrakich: He’s also experienced at this, having fought and won three tough elections.

natesilver: I don’t personally see it happening. But he does take eccentric positions here and there that might appeal to a certain narrow cross section of voters:

But probably a very, very narrow cross section.

The problem is we’re trying to distinguish between people who have, I dunno, a 1.2 percent chance of winning the nomination versus a 0.9 percent chance or something. So every little cross section counts!

sarahf: Ugh, OK. I’m back up. And fine, I will piggyback off the Colorado pick with Bennet, and that’s because he already had a moment earlier this year over an impassioned speech he gave during the government shutdown.

He isn’t officially in the race yet, but if he were to get in, we already have a sense of his oratorical skills (viral potential). And he has been battling prostate cancer, which could be inspirational for some voters.

natesilver: Also, as I pointed out before, Bennet has only one T in his last name for some reason, and his name will frequently be misspelled. So I expect him to have a major constituency among copy editors.

To be fair, there’s a lot of competition for the copy-editor vote, though. Buttigieg is another leading candidate.

perry: So this is the final pick, right? My choices are former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Messam, Swalwell, Williamson and Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, who is strongly considering a campaign but is not in the race yet. And I must ask, could even FiveThirtyEight readers tell the difference between Bullock, Delaney, Moulton and Swalwell (all white men) if they walked into a bar?

Anyway, I’m picking Bullock to run and to hit 3 percent at some point.

But he might not run — and he if does, he may never get beyond 0 percent. But he is a white guy whose electability case is pretty strong in that he actually won statewide in a red state — unlike Biden, Buttigieg, Delaney, Moulton, O’Rourke, Ryan, Sanders and Swalwell.

natesilver: Vermont used to be a red state!

sarahf: But, Nate, when was Vermont last a red state?

natesilver: On the presidential level, George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1988.

nrakich: Vermont is kind of like the Democratic version of West Virginia, though. Still has some Yankee Republicanism in its DNA, even to this day.

natesilver: Al Gore won it by “only” 10 points in 2000, compared with a 26-point win by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It’s actually shifted quite a bit, and in contrast to other rural states.

nrakich: Fun fact: A Democrat has never been elected to Sanders’s Senate seat.

natesilver: BeRnIe Is ThE mOsT eLeCtAbLe

Biden leading FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker

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.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.