Rock, Paper, Scissors

You can usually tell when pundits are getting bored. It’s hard to do your regular cable news hit, send a constant stream of tweets, when there isn’t that much happening. We aren’t waiting on new candidates to announce they’re entering the race. Anyone quitting this early wasn’t getting attention anyway.

It’s a few weeks until the next debate. And debates get old after a bit too. Donald Trump isn’t really jousting with the Dem candidates very much. Joe Biden has gone a few days without a gaffe. Kamala Harris changed her health care position again. This is what the summertime blues look like.

If you need additional proof, I was thiiiis close to writing a piece about Mark Sanford today. Warning: it’s still fermenting.

So thoughts turn to what if Candidate X was up against Candidate Y one-on-one. It’s easy to get sucked in. We all have our theories. Biden would lose one-on-one because though he’s the most popular, a majority of voters want a non-Biden choice.

Biden would win one-on-one because none of the others are considered safe enough to a majority of voters. Bernie would do better than Warren because he already got 43.5% to pick him last time. Warren would do better than Bernie because he lost the last two-person contest he was in.

Harris would win because once she doesn’t have to worry about standing out, she’s a good compromise. Harris would lose because the other contenders have stronger followings.

Good news. We get to keep speculating for a bit. Results, courtesy of HarrisX are in. It’s a giant game of rock, paper, scissors.

Sanders (43) beats Warren (37)

Warren (41) beats Biden (39)

Biden (44) beats Sanders (38)

Or if you prefer:

Harris (38) beats Warren (33)

Warren (41) beats Biden (39)

Biden (42) beats Harris (38)

We can play all day:

Sanders (42) beats Harris (35)

Harris (38) beats Warren (33)

Warren (41) beats Biden (39)

Biden (44) beats Sanders (38)

Any suggestions on what to call the fourth item? How about rock, paper, scissors, artichoke?

There aren’t very many combinations with a big gap. About a fifth of voters aren’t sure who they’d pick. Combinations with Harris, the least known candidate, have more undecided voters.

There are a couple preliminary lessons:

Branding/identity matters more than ideology

People have debated exactly how left the Democratic electorate is. If it’s all about Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, or free college tuition, then Biden should have similar results against Warren and Sanders. But he’s +6 v. Bernie and -2 v. Warren.

Compared to Sanders and Biden, both of whom lead her, you can argue Harris isn’t left enough or center enough. Except she’s ahead of Warren. Voters are taking many factors in to account. Remember, most Democrats like most of the main candidates. When choosing between pretty decent choices, there’s more opportunity for volatility. A voter won’t have to change their mind on someone in order to support them.

Demographic groups are more up for grabs than assumed

We know Bernie does best with the youngest voters. Right? He did in 2016, and he is now. I wrote a whole post about this. Against the entire field, he’s usually #1 with the 18-34 crowd. Biden tends to do best with older voters.

One-on-one with Hillary in 2016, the age gap was stark. Given this background, you’d expect similar results against Biden. Nope. The age curve is surprisingly flat.

It’s possible the poll is just garbage. But the one-on-one top-line results are fairly consistent with surveys taken in the past several weeks by other pollsters. So I’m going to offer an alternative explanation:

While many young voters rate Bernie first, those who don’t have their reasons. Perhaps they’re not as liberal as their Gen Z/Millennial brethren. Maybe they really liked Barack Obama and want to vote for his wingman. Either way, while Sanders has the most passionate support among the youngest voters, it doesn’t mean they’re uniformly for him against any Democrat.

These numbers indicate Bernie’s overwhelming success in 2016 was a combination of some young voters loving him, and some hating Hillary Clinton. Some of those Hillary haters then didn’t show up in November.

If these crosstabs are correct, and Biden is acceptable to a larger percentage of younger Democrats than Hillary was, he has a good electability argument, beyond stealing some older, working class voters back from Trump.

A similar trend appears with black voters. Biden is the most popular in multi-candidate polling, and certainly holds his own in one-to-one matchups. But he doesn’t sweep the field.

Until people actually start voting, this is all guesswork. But even more than most years, I don’t think it’s safe to make assumptions that a candidate will definitely take most of a demographic group, or definitely not appeal to most of a demographic group if the field narrows to a head-to-head matchup.

When you see Warren or Pete Buttigieg doing far worse with black voters than white, it doesn’t mean they aren’t in contention for African American votes. It just means there are other choices ahead of them. There are a lot of chess pieces still to move.

Candidates have their bases or mini-bases. They’re strong where you think they are. But their coalitions may expand in ways we’d least expect. Don’t jump to conclusions.

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