Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): Welcome all. This is a special, extra edition of our weekly politics chat. Why are we here? To talk … 🚨🚨🚨 WINNOWING!!!! 🚨🚨🚨
On Thursday, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio announced that he would not be running for president in 2020. It’s probably the biggest I’m-not-running news we’ve gotten so far. Earlier this week, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also passed.
So let’s talk about what Brown passing means for the 2020 field. And, more generally, what the people who have decided not to run have taught us.
Let’s start with Brown …
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Joe Biden is probably running? While Brown is to Biden’s left, Brown’s path to victory would partly include attracting blue-collar voters and types turned off by someone like Hillary Clinton. The former vice president would ostensibly have a similar strategy but a bigger name.
julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): The way I see it, there are three main reasons someone might decide not to run when they were otherwise considering it:
- They “got winnowed” by others in the party who convinced them it wouldn’t work out well or be the best thing for the party;
- They thought they’d lose big and look stupid;
- They have something embarrassing in their past that would come out in the course of a campaign.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I thought Brown would have had a very interesting candidacy. So, unlike some of the other people who have turned down a run but who didn’t (IMO) stand much of a chance — Bloomberg, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley — this one could have some knock-on effects on the rest of the field.
julia_azari: Yeah, I think it’s unlikely that Brown dropped out because he thought he’d lose big, unlike most of the other people who’ve declined to run so far.
micah: So you all seem to think Brown, had he gotten in the race, would have been a contender.
natesilver: I mean, he was doing an early-state tour. Is it possible he discovered there wasn’t much of an appetite for him?
julia_azari: That is possible. He seemed like he could be the Scott Walker of the Democratic 2020 field. In 2016, Wisconsin’s then-Gov. Walker had the characteristics of someone who could bring the party together, but he never caught on.
As our colleague Seth Masket found out, Brown had some considerable support among activists.
|Candidate||Dec 2018||Feb 2019|
But one thing to watch for is gaps between activists, elected officials and primary voters.
geoffrey.skelley: Bernie Sanders’s bid and a possible Biden run might squeeze Brown’s potential base of support among liberals, populists and “beer-track” voters. Brown also didn’t exactly raise a ton of money after it became clear he was exploring a presidential bid.
julia_azari: One of the things that’s kinda puzzled me about the talk around Brown was the idea that he’d run in the “moderate” lane. I am old enough to remember when Brown was seen as a pretty liberal senator. Maybe he couldn’t see maximizing either group.
natesilver: I think of him as sort of a left-liberal in a moderate shell. Which is actually a pretty nice sweet spot in the Democratic primary, maybe! That’s why I thought he was a formidable candidate.
geoffrey.skelley: Agreed, he made a lot of sense on paper.
micah: Marco Rubio “made a lot of sense on paper” too.
julia_azari: I have a long “The Party Decides”-related diatribe about this, but am I not supposed to go on rants in chats?
natesilver: DIATRIBE AWAY, JULIA!!!!!
natesilver: DI-AH-TRIBE! DI-AH-TRIBE! U-S-A! U-S-A!
“The Party Decides” has this idea of a “factional candidate” — someone who is “favored or perhaps even revered by members of her political base” but lacks broad appeal beyond it — which is what the party coordination process is supposed to prevent from happening. This is how they describe segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and anti-Vietnam South Dakota Sen. George McGovern in 1972, before people figured out how to game the new system. And I think “The Party Decides” authors would probably describe Trump that way.
But I think there are just moments in party politics when that’s what’s going to happen, that a factional candidate will be nominated for president. It was 2016 for the Republicans, and I have a hunch the same is likely to happen for Democrats in 2020, because the distrust is so deep around issues like should candidates be members of the establishment or not, should they try to compromise or not.
A candidate like Sherrod Brown isn’t going to bridge that gap; instead you’re looking at an actual primary fight.
natesilver: So that means Sanders is going to win?
geoffrey.skelley: I was just typing that same thing.
julia_azari: That is a not-unlikely outcome, yeah.
Bring on the hate mail.
natesilver: BERNIE’S GOING TO WIN, Y’ALL!
julia_azari: He’s not the only possible factional candidate, but he’s the one with the largest following right now.
Sen. Kamala Harris could also win as a multi-factional candidate who doesn’t quite rise to the level of unifying all factions — there’s been some pretty vocal opposition to her record as a district attorney and as California attorney general.
geoffrey.skelley: I mean, if Sen. Elizabeth Warren isn’t making huge inroads with voters on the left that Sanders is supposed to appeal to, then maybe he’s going to dominate the lefty lane more than we first suspected. Of course, his appeal goes beyond that — he could go out and win in places like West Virginia again.
micah: Let’s talk ripple effects, which gets at Brown’s positioning. Which campaign(s) are toasting Brown’s winnowing today?
natesilver: When I talked to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s people, I got the sense that they thought Brown could be a problem.
julia_azari: I think Brown was being positioned as the main competitor to Klobuchar.
geoffrey.skelley: With apologies to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Klobuchar, who’s from Minnesota, still has the Midwestern candidacy mostly to herself. Then again, she’s still relatively unknown. But it’s also March 2019, so there’s plenty of time to change that.
natesilver: It’s actually amazing how few Midwesterners are running. I guess Biden is a quasi-Midwesterner because he’s sort of (not really) from Pennsylvania which is sort of (not really) in the Midwest.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke will probably compete hard in Iowa and I think sort of reads as Midwestern, but he’s from the West (EL PASO IS THE WEST NOT THE SOUTH, FOLKS).
micah: For the record, here are the official FiveThirtyEight Midwestern states:
Pennsylvania is about 10 percent Midwestern.
julia_azari: Can I say the elephant-in-the-room thing? The “lanes” in the Democratic primary have a distinct racial dimension. When you all were talking on the podcast this week about who Biden voters might vote for if he doesn’t run, that list of candidates was all the white ones. The candidates and maybe-candidates who are likely happy about Brown bowing out are Biden, O’Rourke and Klobuchar.
natesilver: And maybe Sanders, because there was talk of organized labor staying away from him in the hopes that Brown would run instead.
julia_azari: Does this development mean much for Harris or New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, two of the arguably leading contenders?
geoffrey.skelley: It’s actually unusual for a major Democratic candidate to come from Texas, too, given how Republican the state has been. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in 1976 is probably the last one.
micah: I thought the elephant in the room was … there may not be any lanes.
natesilver: I’m already backlashing against the backlash to lanes.
julia_azari: The “there are no lanes” might turn out to be true, but we ignore the race dimension at our peril, IMO.
Also Nate’s comment is making me actually rethink the nature of space and time.
natesilver: Geography matters, just because there’s a pretty big geographic advantage in the primaries. And, yeah, race matters.
For some reason I’m thinking of the Blind Melon song “No Rain” except it’s “No Lanes.”
geoffrey.skelley: If there are lanes, they might take shape more later on. Things are pretty amorphous right now, especially with Biden hanging out there as an unknown. Plus, polling will become more useful once people like Biden and O’Rourke have actually made their intentions known.
natesilver: It’s the ideology stuff that’s really fuzzy, I think.
micah: So wait, before we move on, sum up for me: Who benefits from Brown not running?
julia_azari: Klobuchar, Biden, O’Rourke and Sanders, in that order. (She says confidently with no real data.)
natesilver: Yeah, something like that sounds right, Julia. And Buttigieg, I suppose!
julia_azari: Yeah, Buttigieg, who I think is an interesting politician to keep an eye on but a pretty minor player in the field.
geoffrey.skelley: I guess Warren might have been hurt if Brown had waged a campaign on economic populism and taking on Wall Street, big banks, etc., so maybe she benefits a bit, too.
natesilver: Basically all the “B” candidates benefit (Biden, Beto, Bernie, Buttigieg) from another “B” not running.
geoffrey.skelley: Also kloBuchar.
natesilver: Blokuchar, as I call her.
micah: Let’s talk about the non-field more generally (that’s what I’m calling the list of people who have decided not to run).
Here it is, according to The New York Times:
What lessons are we drawing from who’s passed? In particular … Bloomberg!
From ABC News:
Michael Bloomberg will not be running for president in 2020
julia_azari: I think one of the fairly obvious lessons from the non-field is that experience matters, at least as far as one’s contacts and national reputation go.
I was actually sort of interested in seeing how a former attorney general (Holder) or big-city mayor (Eric Garcetti) might fare.
geoffrey.skelley: Some of it is geographic — Garcetti, who is the mayor of Los Angeles, probably decided that he would have more trouble making inroads with Harris in the race.
natesilver: I don’t think we’ve learned very much from the people who haven’t run, other than Brown.
natesilver: I mean, we’ve learned that they have decent judgment to know they probably can’t win.
natesilver: Like, we’ve learned that Bloomberg is a much, much smarter person than Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO who’s teasing a run.
micah: Nate, you mean Bloomberg has better political advisers.
geoffrey.skelley: The billionaire funders of liberal campaigns like Bloomberg and Tom Steyer knew they couldn’t win the primary. And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has likely gathered that he’s made too many enemies on the left to jump in. (He’s been fairly adamant that he’s not interested, though he wouldn’t be the first politician to change his mind about running). Also, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is running from his state, so there’s the geographic consideration again.
micah: Here’s a 🔥-take on the non-field: They do seem to be looking at things from a lanes perspective.
natesilver: That’s right, Micah. Bloomberg knew the early-in-the-alphabet lane, particularly the B lane, was crowded.
natesilver: In all seriousness, I’d have to imagine that his folks were worried about Biden.
micah: And Schultz.
natesilver: Mostly Biden. That’s been pretty clear from the reporting on his no-go decision, and that’s what I’d heard unofficially as well. So, yeah, maybe you can impute that Biden really is going to run after all.
geoffrey.skelley: I’ve been somewhat skeptical, or at least offered evidence that it wouldn’t be that shocking if Biden didn’t run in the end. But I think Bloomberg’s and Brown’s choices might tip off that he’s running. Then again, we’ll probably get another article about how Biden is 90 percent of the way decided to run.
julia_azari: I think we learn that the Democratic field is still dominated by people who have served in Congress, especially the Senate (though with John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee, that is maybe changing) and the three non-white politicians on the winnowed list are among the less traditionally experienced and less nationally known. (Garcetti, Deval Patrick, Holder.)
Also there are no women on Seth Masket’s version of the winnowed list right now. I know there was a Twitter discussion yesterday among some of the usual nomination-geek suspects about whether Hillary Clinton belongs there.
These are small numbers, so I’m not over-interpreting the patterns, but to me, it sorta suggests that there is some rhyme or reason to it.
natesilver: Has Michael Dukakis ruled out a bid yet?!?!?!?
geoffrey.skelley: Clinton said she’s not running, so she’s been winnowed if we include her.
julia_azari: Right. The question was whether she was legitimately considering running.
micah: Yeah, that was a stretch, to me.
geoffrey.skelley: I think it’d be better to include her than not, given the controversy surrounding the 2016 election and that she won the popular vote. If we included Al Gore as winnowed in 2004, then I’d include Hillary Clinton in 2020.
julia_azari: This is the problem with winnowing as a theory. If it works, we should never know about it.
natesilver: Overall, though, I think the real takeaway of the winnowed list is that THERE ARE A SHITLOAD OF DEMOCRATS RUNNING!
julia_azari: I am 100 percent with you on that, Nate, and not at all biased because I’m writing a book about party weakness.
micah: For the record … I’m not running.
natesilver: I’m not either.
micah: Julia and Geoff?
natesilver: PUT ME ON YOUR WINNOWED LIST, SETH MASKET!
julia_azari: It’s the year of the woman, and I live in Wisconsin, y’all. Midwestern lane is wide open.
geoffrey.skelley: I have an announcement to make, I guess.
geoffrey.skelley: I’m not running.
natesilver: Julia is running so you got winnowed, Geoff.
Just admit it. None of this bullshit about spending time with your family.
geoffrey.skelley: I can’t compete in the Midwest, so, yeah, just don’t think I can win.
micah: OK, Seth, please add Nate, Geoff and I to the winnowed list.
To wrap here, the biggest winnowed names so far, in order, seem like:
- Everyone else
Of the people yet to decide — based on the Times’s “likely,” “might” and “unlikely” categories — who are the biggest ones to watch for #winnowing?
(Besides Biden and O’Rourke, which are the obvious Nos. 1 and 2)
geoffrey.skelley: I guess Montana Gov. Steve Bullock might be interesting if he runs. In another year, Terry McAuliffe is a bit interesting to me as a relatively popular former governor of a battleground state (Virginia). But I don’t think it will matter that much if either of them decide not to run.
julia_azari: Honestly, it gets real weird after that, but I’ll keep an eye on Rep. Eric Swalwell, because there aren’t too many House members in the race so far, he’s from a pretty solidly blue district in California, and he was in Iowa early despite not being a big national figure.
natesilver: Overall, if I compare today’s situation with the probabilities we published last month, I show the field having shrunk by the equivalent of about 1.5 candidates, relative to our expectations then.
|Chance of running|
|CANDIDATE||SOURCE for March 7 chance||Feb. 12||MARCH 7|
|Sherrod Brown||PredictIt||87||Not running|
|Steve Bullock||New York Times guesstimate||75||75|
|Eric Holder||PredictIt||66||Not running|
|Eric Swalwell||New York Times guesstimate||60||75|
|Jeff Merkley||New York Times guesstimate||50||Not running|
|Tim Ryan||New York Times guesstimate||40||50|
|Seth Moulton||New York Times guesstimate||40||50|
|Michael Bloomberg||PredictIt||33||Not running|
|Bill de Blasio||New York Times guesstimate||25||25|
|John Kerry||New York Times guesstimate||25||25|
|Stacey Abrams||Nate’s wild guesstimate||20||25|
|Running before Feb. 12||10||—|
|Total projected candidates||20.6||19.1|
I think Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race last year, would be a very interesting candidate if she were to run.
geoffrey.skelley: Yes, agreed.
natesilver: Otherwise, yeah, it’s pretty much Biden and O’Rourke that I care about.
geoffrey.skelley: Abrams is the one name on Nate’s list outside of Biden and O’Rourke that really jumps out.
micah: The Times doesn’t include her.
geoffrey.skelley: Given the reporting, I think it’d be reasonable to include her in the “unlikely” or “might” category.
micah: OK!!! Final thoughts on Brown or #winnowing in general?
geoffrey.skelley: Brown might have been a compelling candidate, but he decided that it wasn’t the right move to run. That might be good news for people like Klobuchar and Sanders. Also, I take it as a possible “Biden signal” that the former VP is more likely than not to get in.
natesilver: To get back to Julia’s three reasons for being winnowed earlier … it’s hard to say anything too definitively about Brown without knowing which of the reasons made him decide not to run.
Let me bring one last thing up, though. Ohio has become a pretty red state, so Brown’s Senate seat is very valuable for Democrats.
I’m generally very down on the people who are like “Democrat X should run for Senate rather than president” because the presidency is a hell of a lot more important than one Senate seat.
But that was a consideration for Brown, who would have been replaced by a Republican. (Definitely in the short term, because Ohio has a Republican governor who would make an interim appointment, but probably also in the long term once a new election was held.)
Furthermore, Brown might have put his re-election in 2024 at risk by running in the Democratic primary.
He’d probably have to take a bunch of positions that more clearly identified him as being on the left culturally, as well as on economics.
So it’s more costly for him to run than, say, Gillibrand, who is probably already more worried about a primary challenge in New York than losing the general election and so doesn’t mind running to the left of where New York voters see her now.
julia_azari: My final thought is that I don’t see this as a huge victory for winnowing, nor do I see winnowing as something we should be excited about if we want to see a good nomination process. Winnowing tends to either imply elites are influencing the process behind the scenes or that the rules as written (for primaries) don’t actually work. Not something to cheer.
natesilver: Anti-winnowing 🔥
geoffrey.skelley: Let the votes do the winnowing in February 2020, then.