Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
Biden enters the Democratic field as the polling front-runner and with some serious establishment credentials as both a long-time senator and former VP. But this doesn’t mean he’s a favorite to win. If anything, in a field with so many candidates, it’ll be hard for any one candidate to stand out and win over a significant chunk of voters. Which means that building a coalition and a base of support will be vital. So, how does Biden’s candidacy change the dynamics of the Democratic race? Let’s tackle this by talking through the following questions:
- Which candidates are hurt by Biden’s decision to run?
- Who is his biggest competition?
- And, more generally, what does this mean for candidates looking to cobble together a winning coalition? How does Biden’s entry ease this or complicate it?
OK, let’s get started with question No. 1: Which candidates are hurt by Biden’s decision to run?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Maybe almost everyone is negatively impacted in some way, or maybe almost everyone except Elizabeth Warren.
For the more moderate white Democrats, like Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, Biden is sort of running adjacent to their lane, if not actually in their lane.
He also has a lot of the black vote, so Biden’s candidacy complicates the ability of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker to win South Carolina.
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): For all the candidates who are making electability an implicit (O’Rourke, Jay Inslee) or explicit (Klobuchar, Tim Ryan) part of their campaigns, Biden is a very big threat. Plus, black voters find him appealing, which could hurt those candidates I just mentioned, but especially Booker and Harris.
natesilver: If you’re Bernie, now you can’t really call yourself the front-runner. And if Biden is getting 30 percent, maybe your 20 percent or 25 percent factional support isn’t going to be enough.
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): But at the very least, Biden probably weeds out some of those guys like Ryan and Seth Moulton sooner rather than later, right? That is, if we’re thinking about the field winnowing at some point.
sarahf: Ryan just qualified for the debate stage though, Clare!
clare.malone: Big day in Youngstown.
natesilver: Ryan is the one guy who really seemed to be running on a Poor-Man’s-Version-of-Biden platform. Some of the other candidates who might have done that (e.g., Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Cuomo, Terry McAuliffe) didn’t run.
I think others, like Moulton and Eric Swalwell, are just running because they like doing TV.
And they aren’t really affected by Biden because they didn’t really have a chance to begin with. (If Moulton or Swalwell wins the Democratic nomination, feel free to throw this back in my face, Internet.)
sarahf: Well, as our colleague Nathaniel Rakich pointed out, Nate, Moulton and Swalwell don’t have that much to lose by running — so why not run?
natesilver: Biden probably sees Bernie as competition, although to some extent welcome competition because Biden probably wins a one-on-one showdown with Bernie because he has broader support among both elites and regular voters.
sarahf: What will you all be looking for as a sign that Biden’s candidacy is making a dent in the support of these other contenders?
perry: Biden already leads among moderates, voters over 50 and black people. So I will be looking to see if those leads grow.
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): I don’t know if it’s so much about a dent as about them never getting off the ground. For someone like Klobuchar, is she just going to remain stuck in the polls at 2 percent? Does O’Rourke never consistently get into double digits nationally?
sarahf: I saw some speculation on Twitter that the first 24 hours after his announcement will be crucial for Biden as a test of whether his first-day fundraising number can compete with other candidates’:
And on Friday, the campaign said it raised $6.3 million in the first 24 hours, which puts Biden ahead of both Sanders, who raised $5.9 million in his first 24 hours, and O’Rourke, who got $6.1 million.
perry: I actually don’t think fundraising is a great metric for Biden. That’s because he is getting more support from people who are moderate and black, which I don’t think necessarily is the type of person who gives money to candidates on Day 1.
clare.malone: Going after constituencies that are likely to be a bit more moderate is something that I think Biden will focus on. Another thing I thought was telling was this Spanish language ad he put out first thing on Thursday:
That seems like a conscious play to a group of voters who might be more inclined toward a moderate candidate and might be ready to get active in a 2020 election against Trump, given the tenor of his first term — i.e., child separations that disproportionately affected Latino families and communities.
geoffrey.skelley: Latino voters seem like a wide-open voting bloc. Julian Castro seems like a potential fit. But he’s not attracting much tangible support in either the polls or fundraising so far among Democrats in general, so, as Perry wrote earlier this month, it’s not clear that he’ll be able to make significant inroads there.
natesilver: I don’t think it’s that interesting whether Biden gets a polling bounce, because those bounces usually fade anyway. But if he does get a bounce, I’d wonder how much of it comes at Bernie’s expense.
sarahf: Does it matter, Nate, that more of it come at Bernie’s expense than any of the other candidates?
natesilver: It matters in the sense that it would be quite bearish for Bernie if he fell to, say, 16 percent.
geoffrey.skelley: Well, looking way ahead — if Biden cuts into Sanders’s support, that could have real ramifications for delegates with the Democrats’ 15 percent rule (in each primary or caucus, candidates have to win at least 15 percent of the vote to win delegates statewide or by district). So sliding closer to 15 percent in the polls might signal that a candidate is going to fall short of that threshold in some states. But we’re a long way from thinking about that just yet. (Not that it will stop me from doing so!)
natesilver: If Bernie’s base is a solid 20 percent or 25 percent of the electorate, he’s reasonably interesting as a candidate. But if it’s really just like 15 percent, and the other 5 percent or 10 percent is just sort of foam-at-the-top name recognition, I don’t know that he’s a major player for the nomination.
sarahf: Well, to ask that same name recognition question of Biden, how will we know whether some of his popularity is just name recognition? I know he has higher favorable ratings than Sanders, but how should we think about his polling in the next couple of weeks?
natesilver: Given that there are more reasons to think his polling will decline rather than rise later on, I wonder if it will increase to the low 30s from the high 20s. That would give him more runway for stumbles later.
sarahf: Based on what you’re saying about which candidacies are threatened by Biden’s entry into the race, it seems as though he appeals to both the kinds of voters who’d support Klobuchar/Ryan/O’Rourke and those who’d support Booker/Harris, which is sort of a weird, in-between spot. And yet we don’t necessarily think of candidates like Klobuchar and Harris competing for the same voters.
So what is it about Biden’s candidacy that gives him appeal to different wings of the party? How could he play that to his advantage? And how could that backfire?
geoffrey.skelley: Well, Biden is going to lean hard into his connection to former President Barack Obama, who remains basically the most popular figure in the country among Democrats.
perry: That was hilarious.
sarahf: Setting aside the 1,000 memes sure to follow, what do we make of Biden saying that?
perry: Obama is not going to endorse him, so that was a way to deal with that issue head-on.
natesilver: Nor is Obama going to endorse anybody anytime soon, although I do wonder if he’d weigh in if it came down to a contest between [Candidate X] and Bernie.
clare.malone: The way I’ve been thinking about it and the way I phrased it on Thursday’s podcast is that the Democratic Party has been having a big ideas meeting for the past two years — there are lots of new ideas, lots of people buying into them, and lots of talk about big, structural changes. But Biden is kind of offering the “if it ain’t broke” theory of things, which is that he’s here to remind people of the halcyon Obama days. A familiar face, familiar messages, that kind of thing. Which is how, I think, he could steal voters from a decently broad swath of candidates who are trying to differentiate themselves in this new environment.
natesilver: And a lot of messaging about how Trump is a historical anomaly, rather than being the inevitable culmination of the Republican Party’s drift toward populism.
geoffrey.skelley: Obama was never going to endorse this early, not with so many candidates running. But Biden has eight years of being his VP to use as evidence of his ability to lead the country, which isn’t nothing.
perry: I thought Obama’s spokeswoman’s statement praising Biden was great for him. It’s not an endorsement, but it’s somewhere between not endorsing him and endorsing him, and probably the best Biden could hope for at this stage. And Biden is already featuring pictures of himself with Obama.
Biden had a good campaign rollout in some ways. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey endorsed him, which signals support in an important swing state. And a prominent, young black voice in the party — Symone Sanders — is joining his campaign.
natesilver: This was an interesting endorsement, too:
perry: Yeah, Biden’s endorsements aren’t just from white people, or moderates in the party, or people living in the Northeast.
geoffrey.skelley: Nevada state Sen. Yvanna Cancela hits three important demographics: Latina, union ties, and from a key early state.
perry: Biden wants to build a broad campaign, and all the first indicators are positive.
But what we are seeing right now was all planned I assume for his first day as a candidate, so what happens a month from now will be more telling.
natesilver: Biden’s announcement has made me think of Harris in a slightly different light. Like, why isn’t she getting more endorsements outside of her home state? I’d think she might have more success if she used an argument along the lines of: “The polls are now dominated by three white guys, none of whom really does a great job representing the whole Democratic coalition. I’m the best alternative to them, and it’s time to start building momentum before it’s too late.”
clare.malone: On a debate stage, I think a lot of people might go after Biden’s record. I’m curious to see how cutthroat the primary will get about his past and how much that will stick with the kinds of voters that he wants to win — moderates, including minority voters.
perry: Biden vs. Warren is going to be great.
clare.malone: Warren’s memoir calls out Biden for his opposition to some of her bankruptcy work. Kind of fascinating.
perry: Yeah. Warren has long been concerned about his record and, I think, is the person with the most incentive to take him on. She is the most policy-focused candidate, and he is the exact version of the Democratic Party she is trying to fight.
geoffrey.skelley: The thing is, in a crowded field, you don’t know what the ripple effects will be of attacking someone. This was one of the things that slowed GOP contenders from attacking Trump early on during the 2016 primary. They didn’t know if their attacks might help someone else instead.
clare.malone: Right. There’s some game theory involved.
Or something. I dunno. I was an English major.
sarahf: So, who do we think Biden sees as his biggest competitor? And vice versa?
perry: Harris probably has to win South Carolina. And I think Biden has to be worried about any candidate with the potential to do well with black voters and big donors in the party.
geoffrey.skelley: Harris has to be hoping Nevada is a possible win for her, too, given its proximity to her home state of California, where she is polling well.
perry: If I were Biden, I would be worried about Buttigieg or O’Rourke or Booker taking off and being seen as very “electable” to Democratic voters.
sarahf: As Nate wrote in our theory of the case for Biden, his “ratio of favorable ratings to unfavorable ratings is 4.8, which essentially ties him for second-best in the field with Harris and puts him only slightly behind the leading candidate, Buttigieg.”
|Morning Consult: U.S.||Monmouth: Iowa||Saint Anselm: N.H.||Average|
geoffrey.skelley: Sanders and Harris are my first thought as his biggest competition. Plus, as Perry said, someone like O’Rourke — and I guess Buttigieg, too.
natesilver: Every candidate should probably be worried about Buttigieg right now.
perry: Biden seems like the safe choice. But if other candidates seem like a safe choice but are also exciting, that might pose a problem for Biden. Democrats want a candidate who will be Obama-like, exciting and thrilling to vote for.
Although Biden is going after the youth vote pretty hard, tbh.
perry: Yes, Biden served with Obama, so their connection is strong. But I’m sure that many Democrats would love to elect a first-in-history candidate, whether that be a gay man, woman, South Asian woman, Latino or black woman, if they are convinced that person can beat Trump and would be a good president.
geoffrey.skelley: Buttigieg isn’t that well-known, yet he is getting around 10 percent now in some polls. That is notable given how name recognition plays into early polls.
clare.malone: People like Buttigieg because he’s young blood. That’s central to his appeal, as is the “I’m a smart moderate” thing.
sarahf: But the one big thing working against Buttigieg is that some voters don’t seem ready to say they think he can beat Trump, even though there’s a lot of enthusiasm for him:
|Quinnipiac (CA)||Granite State Poll (NH)|
|Candidate||First Choice||Best Chance||First Choice||Best Chance||Average Diff.|
perry: I think most of Biden’s rivals need Democratic voters to think differently about electability and who is electable. But that’s not great for Biden — a part of his campaign is based on an opinion that the others can’t beat Trump, but that perception could change.
Obama himself has publicly said that people other than white guys can win. If I were one of the candidates, I might start noting that in public.
sarahf: Yeah … What’s the scenario where Biden’s electability argument falls short? Does that happen if that’s the only thing Biden can campaign on?
clare.malone: I’m really curious about what kind of campaigner he’s going to be in 2019! I don’t think we can underrate that.
natesilver: I’m not sure if it’s that Biden’s electability argument would fall short so much as that people become more comfortable with the other candidates. If there’s someone you think would make the best president, you tend to come up with rationales for why they’re the most electable, too.
perry: About 50 percent of Democrats are liberal, and about 50 percent identify as moderate or conservative. Plus, half of Democrats are 50 or older. One advantage Biden has is that there are currently not that many strong candidates appealing to this crowd.
sarahf: So if Biden is able to woo that portion of the party … might he have enough for a winning candidacy?
geoffrey.skelley: To win the Democratic nomination in a crowded field, you might only need a plurality of the primary vote — Michael Dukakis did it in 1988, for example. However, winning a majority of delegates with just a plurality of the vote is not easy in the Democratic primaries as there aren’t winner-take-all contests like there are in the Republican primaries. Still, I’d say there’s an opening for Biden if he ends up being a factional candidate.
natesilver: You need more than just plurality delegate support, though, to win the nomination — it’s the one contest where you need majority support (more or less), or else you have to endure a contested convention.
So I think it is worth thinking about how each candidate would fare at a contested convention. If Candidate X has 35 percent of the delegates and the next-closest candidate has 30 percent, does Candidate X tend to win the nomination at the convention?
For Bernie, I think that answer is “maybe not.” For Biden, I think it’s “probably so, but not sure.”
sarahf: 2-0-2-0 C-O-N-T-E-S-T-E-D C-ON-V-E-N-T-I-O-N!!
I don’t know how you do that, Nate, because that was terrible to type.
natesilver: CoNtEsTeD CoNvEnTiOn
clare.malone: The return of delegate hunting.
geoffrey.skelley: Also, SUPER DELEGATES RAAAHHH
Anyway, yes, it could happen, but I still wouldn’t bet on a contested convention.
sarahf: OK, we’ve talked about which candidates Biden’s candidacy threatens and from which candidates he faces stiff competition. What do we think will change in the field overall now that he’s announced and we continue to move closer to the first debates?
perry: Biden now has to figure out his position on like 50 issues that have emerged in the primary.
I think people might start to give more hedging answers on some of these structural change questions that have been popping up — abolishing the Electoral College and the like.
That is, I think Biden could splash a bit of cold (moderate) water on some of these hot topixx debates.
natesilver: We may be in a relative period of stasis until the debates. We’ll see how much higher the “Buttibump” grows. We’ll see if Biden gets any bounce of his own and how good his initial fundraising numbers look, but there’s not necessarily a whole hell of a lot going on right now.
perry: The stances Biden adopts will help set the stage for the debates — i.e., how big is the ideological divide in the party? But I don’t think voters really are that engaged on policy.
However, at this stage, candidates are asked tons of policy questions by activists and reporters.
And Biden will have to give some answers, which will create fodder for activists, the press and the other candidates.
sarahf: Does Biden risk not offering enough of a vision? For instance, I’m thinking of Klobuchar, who dismissed the idea of free college tuition or canceling student debt by saying that it’d be impossible to pay for and without countering with a vision of her own. I could maybe see Biden finding himself in a similar situation.
natesilver: I think Biden offers a pretty clear vision — defeat Trump and restore America back to Obama’s America.
sarahf: But is that exciting enough for voters?
natesilver: It doesn’t have to be exciting. It just has to intuitively appeal to Democrats. And I think it probably does, and I think that’s more important than the policy specifics, at least to the sorts of voters that Biden is seeking out.
sarahf: I’d bet on the former given the screen-printed totes his campaign is selling.
perry: I don’t think Biden can run on electability solely. I expect him to have policy ideas — just not as many or as liberal as Warren’s. He will have gaffes, but the press will cover them less intensely if he is leading in all the polls.
Also. If the gaffes are really him being insufficiently woke, he might not care about them.
This will be a fascinating part of the campaign. There will be an “Anybody-But-Joe faction” of the party. And we will see if he can steamroll them.
From ABC News: