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Will The Nevada Debate Be All About Bloomberg?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Let’s not bury the lede: Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is joining his first debate of the cycle tomorrow night in Nevada, even though he’s largely skipped competing in the first four states. He’ll be joined by five other candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Amy Klobuchar; Sen. Bernie Sanders; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

And things are sure to get heated fast. Sanders is currently the polling leader in Nevada and favored to win the state, according to our forecast, but Bloomberg is catching up and is now at 16.1 percent in our national polling average, essentially tied with Biden.

So what should we expect tonight? Attacks on Sanders’s newly minted front-runner status? Or will the country’s first look at Bloomberg overshadow everything else?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I’m glad that we finally have an opportunity to talk about Michael Bloomberg since no one else is paying attention to him.

sarahf: Haha, fair. There’s nothing the media loves more than making a non-story a story.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): The safest bet is that Bloomberg will bear the brunt of most attacks, right? That’s how it has played out in the media this week, between allegations he created a hostile workplace for women and renewed focus on the racial dimension of the stop-and-frisk policing strategy, which Bloomberg supported as mayor.


nrakich: Yeah, it’s a pretty sweet deal for Sanders that he has largely been spared attacks even though he’s the primary front-runner after winning New Hampshire (and, arguably, Iowa). He looks on track to win Nevada, too! He’s a more imminent threat than Bloomberg is to the other candidates.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): Honestly, I think Sanders is really lucky that Bloomberg made it into this debate — since it’s Bloomberg’s first debate, it seems like a safe bet that everyone is going to go after him.

sarahf: BUT at this point … shouldn’t we be paying attention to Bloomberg?

He’s tied with Biden in our national polling average!!

[Our Latest Forecast: Who Will Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?]

natesilver: Of course people should be paying attention to Bloomberg, Sarah! But these things are also self-fulfilling prophecies to some extent. The fact that he’s gotten so much more attention than, say, Buttigieg or Klobuchar or Warren is something that media critics should think about. If you take off that media critic hat, he’s obviously a real contender for the nomination now.

ameliatd: I wonder if the attention on Bloomberg will make it harder or easier for the other candidates to stand out. Warren, for instance, could really use a strong performance a la Klobuchar in New Hampshire. I could see it going a couple of ways — maybe being able to attack Bloomberg on stage gives her a little viral moment. Or maybe the fact that everyone will likely be going after Bloomberg makes it harder for her to steal the spotlight.

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, FiveThirtyEight contributor): That’s true, especially when people are eager for the field to start winnowing. Adding a new face might feel like going backwards, and could certainly be distracting.

natesilver: It wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if Bloomberg goes after Sanders in a big way, by the way. His team has certainly been escalating conflict with Sanders. And it plays into his message that he’s the first train leaving the station if you want an alternative to Bernie.

What Bloomberg DOESN’T want is Buttigieg or Klobuchar to surge. He wants to keep things a bit muddled.

Nor does he want a Biden comeback narrative to start brewing. So if he can make news by attacking Sanders or otherwise giving a memorable performance, that probably works for him. It’s not unlike Trump in 2016.

sarahf: And maybe this is less likely, but Sanders could go after Bloomberg. It’s probably too good of an opportunity for him not to at least try and land something. There will literally be a billionaire on stage who has spent a lot of money to buy access for his bid for the presidency. (In fact, Bloomberg has probably spent the most on his campaign out of any other presidential candidate … ever?!?!)

But OK, wait wait. What’s the basis for the idea that we’re NOT paying enough attention to Sanders?

natesilver: That he’s first in national polls and that he’s actually, y’know, had people vote for him and won states, which is what these election things are supposed to be about.

Nobody in the mainstream media has the right to complain about paying too much attention to the polls now, though. Because so far, the Bloomberg thing is entirely based on the polls when there are other candidates who have demonstrated actual support.

kaleigh: But it’s not as if Sanders’s success hasn’t been covered. Certainly there’s room to talk about more than just the front-runners?

There’s also the fact that the vast majority of Democrats have not yet voted. There’s still a race here.

natesilver: I mean, in some narrow but valid sense, Buttigieg is the front-runner (he has the most pledged delegates) and yet, he isn’t getting a ton of coverage.

sarahf: Kaleigh makes a good point, though. Sanders’s successes have been covered. What’s difficult, though, is they haven’t been portrayed as decisive victories. But I kind of get that. Sanders and Buttigieg both “won” Iowa — we’ll see if the recanvassing efforts change that. And he didn’t win the New Hampshire primary by that large of a margin (1.3 points).

So there’s this other narrative emerging around the field being divided and no one candidate having a firm grasp on things — our own forecast puts Sanders’s chances of winning a majority of pledged delegates at roughly the same odds as no one winning a majority — so maybe this is the year every political journalist’s dream comes true … a cOnteSTEd convention … uh, the troll cap is too much work.

nrakich: Sarah, I think some Sanders skepticism is warranted. He has done well in the first two contests but hasn’t dominated, and as you point out, Sarah, our model doesn’t think he has a mortal lock on the nomination.

On the other hand, I think the tone of the coverage of Sanders’s win (covered as if it were a loss) and Klobuchar’s third-place finish (covered as if it were a win) was topsy-turvy.

sarahf: That’s fair, but Klobuchar did manage to double her support in New Hampshire, going from about 10 percent in our polling average to winning 20 percent of the vote. That’s pretty impressive.

natesilver: With Klobuchar, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m just not sure that a fifth-place finish followed by a third-place finish should get you all that much attention. On the other hand, she fits the traditional credentials of a party nominee (not too old or too young, not “too” far to the left or too centrist, experienced) more so than most of the remaining candidates do. And people seem more inclined to chase shiny objects.

sarahf: But to step back for a moment, the New Hampshire debate was one of the more consequential debates of the cycle, yeah?

Probably means Nevada will be a nothingburger, but I am intrigued to see what happens there as Nevada is so weird to poll.

ameliatd: One big question for me is how many Nevadans will actually tune into the debate, too. In general, they tend to be less politically engaged than New Hampshire or Iowa voters. So that could dampen the impact.

natesilver: I guess I think that might make the debate more impactful, in some ways? If people are less tuned in, they may not be as far along in their decision-making process, which could make the debate more likely to sway their opinion.

ameliatd: It’s also worth noting that thousands of Nevadans will already have “caucused” by the time the debate starts. Early voting started on Saturday and ended on Tuesday.

kaleigh: More than 26,000 Nevadans voted in the first two days alone.

nrakich: I do think the debate will have more of an impact nationally than it will in Nevada, to Amelia’s points. Think about how the New Hampshire debate turned into a discussion of South Carolina issues!

And Bloomberg isn’t contesting Nevada, so obviously his debate performance will only affect his numbers in other states.

sarahf: So how confident are we about the situation in Nevada? Our Nevada forecast gives Sanders about a 7 in 10 chance of winning there. Biden is the second most likely winner with a 1 in 7 chance, but Warren is close on Biden’s coattails. Buttigieg and Klobuchar aren’t too far off either.

nrakich: Personally, I’m not confident. The Nevada polls are all over the place.

sarahf: Could a strong second-place finish by someone in Nevada overshadow a Sanders win? Similar to what we saw in Iowa and New Hampshire?

nrakich: Yes, I think if someone surprising finishes second (Warren? Steyer?), it will be New Hampshire all over again, where that person gets more favorable coverage than the outright winner (assuming it’s Sanders).

natesilver: I mean … it’s another state where media expectations (BERNIE CERTAIN TO WIN) seem a little out of line with the reality (probably Bernie, but high uncertainty). If I were a Sanders voter, I’d be annoyed at how Sanders always seems to be the victim of the expectations game.

ameliatd: We also haven’t talked about the fact that this is the first state with a significant population of voters of color. So it’s the first real chance to see if candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar can do well among Latino/black/Asian voters — if they do, that would obviously be a big deal.

sarahf: That’s right. And at this point, the crosstabs suggest that only Sanders and Biden have a lead there, right?

ameliatd: Well, like Nathaniel said, the polls are kind of all over the place — but yes, among Latinos at least, Sanders and Biden tend to do best.

natesilver: Keep in mind that the Latino population is pretty young, and that Sanders obviously does well with young voters.

nrakich: Yeah, I wonder if Buttigieg will bust out some Spanish during the debate. He recently released a Spanish-language TV ad that he himself narrated.

kaleigh: He’s been running a fair amount of Spanish-language Facebook ads, too.

nrakich: That said, when Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker and Julián Castro spoke Spanish in the first debate, some people saw it as a stunt. A YouGov poll in June found that 37 percent of Hispanic Americans found it respectful when a presidential candidate spoke Spanish in a debate, and 27 percent thought it was pandering. White Americans (who as of 2016 were still a majority of Nevada Democratic caucusgoers) thought it was pandering by a nearly two-to-one ratio. And Equis Labs, a polling firm that specializes in polling Hispanic Americans, told me that only 29 percent of Hispanic registered Democrats in Nevada say Spanish is their preferred language.

ameliatd: I know we’ve heard quite a bit about health care in these debates, but I bet it’ll come up again tonight, since Sanders is being attacked by the state’s biggest labor union over Medicare for All — and other candidates, like Klobuchar and Steyer, have been jumping on that bandwagon recently.

sarahf: OK, let’s talk candidate strategy for a moment. Bloomberg is a bit of a curve ball.

He isn’t contesting Nevada, so his strategy is to … stop a debate surge from happening and somehow make a plea for voters to consider him, not in South Carolina (which votes next), but hold out for Super Tuesday instead?

But what does this mean for the other moderate candidates, especially Biden? Biden at this point still leads Klobuchar and Buttigieg in national polls — does he need to nip Bloomberg’s momentum in the bud?

And then what does this mean for Sanders? Does he just hope that no one attacks him directly and let the moderates duke it out?

I guess what I’m really asking is … is Biden toast?

Or does this debate have the biggest stakes for him?

natesilver: Why would Biden be toast? He’s tied with Bloomberg in national polls. And he has an opportunity to get a boost with a win in South Carolina or, less likely, Nevada.

If he loses in South Carolina, he might be toast.

sarahf: What if he finishes in fourth or fifth in Nevada, though?

natesilver: Meh, who cares? South Carolina is coming in a week.

Biden’s media narrative is awful as can be now and it probably doesn’t get any worse if he finishes fourth or fifth in Nevada.

nrakich: It might be good for Biden that Steyer didn’t make today’s debate? Not that Steyer has turned in super compelling debate performances, but Steyer might be Biden’s most direct competition in South Carolina.

sarahf: There has to be some consolidation around a moderate alternative to Sanders, right? Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Bloomberg and Biden can’t all stay in and actually mount a credible campaign against Sanders, can they?

nrakich: They can if they all have visions of emerging as the nominee after a contested convention!

natesilver: Or candidates might think “Sanders v. Bloomberg could go very nuclear, so I need to stick around as the least radioactive option.”

That seems … quite plausible? We probably have to assume that Bloomberg will drop a lot of negative ads on Sanders at some point?

nrakich: He should probably do so sooner rather than later. There are lots of delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday, and Sanders is currently riding high.

ameliatd: Biden has to be hoping that Bloomberg takes a beating in the debate, though, right?

natesilver: Sure, I think that’s right, Amelia.

But Biden also doesn’t want one of Buttigieg or Klobuchar to surge.

kaleigh: Sarah, if we’re assuming Sanders lands the role of the progressive candidate, does that mean you think Warren is DOA?

sarahf: That’s an interesting question, Kaleigh. She’s currently in third in our polling average in the state.

sarahf: And the labor union there didn’t criticize her health care plan as directly as it did Sanders’s.

nrakich: I think Warren needs to show a pulse in Nevada. She’s already basically conceded South Carolina, canceling a bunch of her TV ad reservations there.

sarahf: So I think there’s still room for a Warren comeback maybe? She definitely was pitching that after her disappointing finish in New Hampshire, but as Amelia mentioned earlier, at this point only Sanders and Biden have demonstrated that they can build more diverse bases.

ameliatd: Warren’s argument has basically been that she’s going to make a comeback on Super Tuesday. But if she has another disappointing finish in Nevada, that could definitely slow her down even further.

natesilver: I dunno. Warren is not THAT far behind since nobody is THAT far ahead. Obviously a win or a strong second-place finish in Nevada could reverse the narrative about her, though.

kaleigh: So who has the most to gain (or most to lose) in tonight’s debate? Biden? Warren?

natesilver: The debate is about Bloomberg, like it or not. It just is. The media is fucking obsessed with Bloomberg. And it’s his first debate. He’s 90 percent likely to be the headline, positive or negative.

sarahf: Yeah, he’s likely to be this chat’s headline.

natesilver: wE aRe PaRt Of ThE PrOBLeM.

nrakich: I mean, I think that is somewhat justified for this debate specifically.

We’ve heard Sanders, Warren, Biden, etc., say the same thing a zillion times. We have no idea how Bloomberg will hold up under pressure. So he is the one we will likely learn the most about tonight.

kaleigh: But Bloomberg kind of has nothing to lose at this point. He’s skipping Nevada, and negative or positive, the focus on him only further legitimizes him as a candidate.

sarahf: I actually think he has a lot to lose.

nrakich: Oh, he definitely has a lot to lose. He’s been pumping his message out to people totally unanswered thanks to his millions of dollars in TV spending!

sarahf: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. At this point, he’s largely gotten to control his brand.

nrakich: Until this week’s bad headlines, people haven’t heard a bad word about him.

And a big known unknown for Bloomberg is how good of a debater he is. His team is already lowering expectations.

ameliatd: Yeah, I agree with Nathaniel. Whatever you think of the fact that Bloomberg hasn’t appeared in a debate so far, this is his introduction to a debate audience — and maybe more importantly, his rivals’ first chance to attack him in a debate setting. Which is crazy, since we’ve been covering these things for EIGHT MONTHS.

natesilver: I think he has a lot to lose but also expectations (there’s that term again!) seem to be fairly low, i.e., the media assumes he’ll be a mediocre debater.

nrakich: I think there’s room for him to be a decent debater but also for this debate to represent the first mass airing of anti-Bloomberg grievances to the American public.

Like, even if Bloomberg has answers for the criticisms levied against him, it’s the first time many Americans will hear those criticisms.

natesilver: Bloomberg is the one candidate that sort of unites all the others against him. He’s trying to elbow out the other candidates in the moderate lane. And he obviously has beef with Sanders, and the race could easily come down to those two.

kaleigh: That’s true. I just wonder if a debate-long attack from, say, Sanders will make it seem as if Bloomberg is the de facto moderate candidate.

ameliatd: That’s an interesting point, Kaleigh — maybe Biden does run the risk of seeming even weaker if the debate is largely between Bloomberg and Sanders.

natesilver: Also, Bloomberg has not been a longstanding and loyal member of the Democratic Party. He isn’t owed any particular favors or deference. So I’d expect a higher aggression level than we’ve seen in past debates.

nrakich: Oh, I disagree there, Nate.

He has been arguably Democrats’ most important donor in the last few election cycles.

He helped many members of Congress get elected, for instance.

I would argue that it could actually be tricky for someone like Klobuchar or Biden, who are establishment-aligned and came up through the big-donor system, to go after him directly.

natesilver: OK then they deserve to lose, to be honest.

nrakich: I mean, sure, maybe.

natesilver: They should also be going after Sanders directly.

nrakich: But I think only Sanders and Warren are capable of really taking the gloves off.

All the other candidates probably are hoping Bloomberg runs super PAC ads on their behalf in the general.

kaleigh: 😂

sarahf: Meh, Klobuchar and Buttigieg have both proven they’re adept at landing attacks on their opponents/each other.

natesilver: All of the the candidates except Sanders aren’t very likely to be the nominee right now so they should probably worry about that first.

nrakich: I mean, I agree.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t worry about the other thing.

sarahf: OK, to wrap … The Nevada debate. Bloomberg’s first appearance. There seems to be some consensus that this debate will be about Bloomberg, whether he has a good night or bad night. Final thoughts, particularly about the stakes?

kaleigh: I think the stakes are highest for Biden right now, and to a certain extent Warren. Bloomberg’s presence is going to shake things up one way or another, though you’ve all convinced me there’s a chance it could be to his own detriment.

nrakich: This is a lame answer, but I think the stakes are very high for everyone tonight except Sanders.

He’s the only one who can really afford a “bad” debate — and he’s such a consistent debater that even his bad debates are still OK.

ameliatd: I’m also curious to see how Bloomberg handles the pressure of being on a debate stage, and how effectively the other candidates are able to attack him. This is their first chance to really land punches on him — better make it count!

natesilver: This is a lame answer, but I think the stakes are very high for everyone tonight including Sanders.

nrakich: That is an even lamer answer than my lame answer!

I’ll allow it.

natesilver: The line separating “Sanders as clear front-runner with huge momentum!” and “Sanders underperforming in his strongest states” is QUITE thin.

In New Hampshire, it was about 3,800 votes thin.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

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

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.