Pre-Debate Numbers Check

This seems like an appropriate time to take a glance at where the candidates are. Particularly the four who are most likely to win the nomination. None of the others are showing up in double digits anywhere. So if they do soon, it’s likely this debate helped.

Biden is looking better than he has in months

A funny thing happened on the way to Uncle Joe’s Implosion. He’s now up by 13 points in the Real Clear Politics national average. It’s not just that he’s back over 30 percent and Warren is under 20 for the first time in a couple months. Sometimes the fluctuations are based more on who surveyed than how strong the candidate is.

The Economist/YouGov poll is consistently bullish on Elizabeth Warren and relatively bearish on Biden. They began surveying on a roughly weekly basis in early June. Their newest results are the first time Biden has reached 30%. He’s back to 30% for the first time in a couple months in the latest from The Hill.

He’s up by 9 in the most recent Texas poll. Leading narrowly in the most current survey from California. A few weeks ago, Biden was contending in Nevada. Now he’s clearly leading. A new Wisconsin survey from Marquette has him up 13 points on Bernie Sanders and 15 on Warren.

Biden’s advantage in South Carolina is as strong as it ever was. One survey has him at 45%, with Warren next closest at 17%. Another shows him at only 33%. But the next three options combine for 30%. The nightmare scenario was for Kamala Harris or Cory Booker to take flight in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, and then flip a bunch of previously skeptical African American voters, the way Barack Obama did in 2008.

That’s less likely now than any time since the process began. Instead, Pete Buttigieg, the candidate with the largest current gap between white and black support is the shining star of the first two states. Speaking of those places, we’ve heard how Biden is imperiled because he could easily finish an embarrassing third or fourth in one or both of them.

Yes, that’s still possible. But at the moment, he’s within the margin of error in both places, and leading Warren in Iowa. I think he’s at worst even with her in New Hampshire too. The RCP average has her narrowly ahead, but that’s based on a CBS/YouGov poll that only includes registered Democrats.

The real primary will include a huge amount of registered independents, and previous surveys have indicated Warren does *much* better with Democrats. There’s currently no sign that he’s going to get wiped out in the first two states, and as the race is setting up, his people are correct that they are not must win for him. However, if he does win both Iowa and New Hampshire, we’re done. It’s likely over if he gets one of the two.

This means a couple things. Biden has margin for error again. If he doesn’t have a great night (even by his low standards) and backslides a bit, there’s plenty of time and room for recovery. But if he celebrates his 77th birthday in style, he’ll open up a big lead.

Warren is on the precipice

She’s hardly done. The majority of surveys, either nationally, or in states anywhere outside the South, have her as the most frequently considered candidate, or at worst very close to Biden. Her favorability numbers are still mostly favorable. She’s usually the most common second choice.


Iowa is a must-win, and she’s currently in a four-candidate mashup, with Buttigieg having the momentum. Her numbers have dropped since other candidates, Biden and Mayor Pete in particular, began directly challenging her. More voters think she’s too liberal. A series of swing state polls have put her behind Donald Trump in general election matchups.

Biden got attacked repeatedly in the first couple debates. He went through seeing his son’s name plastered on screens everywhere with the Ukraine thing. It still comes up daily. He’s bumbled and stumbled. He’s lost 5 to 7 points in polls, and then retrieved them. Bernie slugged it out with Hillary in 2016, and just bounced back from a heart attack. Warren still needs to prove she can take a few punches.

The danger is she becomes an upgraded version of Harris. Someone considered by many, but picked first by few. Someone not as suitable to true believer liberals and socialists as Bernie, but also not comfortable enough for somewhat liberal to moderate voters. Balancing on that midpoint allows for the widest possible group of voters. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall off and appeal to nobody.

It’s hard to imagine Warren dropping to the low-mid single digits where Harris currently resides. Her floor is probably in the 10-12% range. But that won’t win any states for her. If the debate goes well enough for her to stop the slide and level out where she is now, there’s plenty of time to surge to victory later.

But if she has a rough go and starts looking increasingly unelectable, there are plenty of overlapping candidates to grab her supporters. Warren still has the best ground game in Iowa of any candidate. If she’s anywhere near tied in the final polls, a win is very accessible. But it’s not going to make up a 10 point gap for her.

Bernie is the immovable object

You’d never know it from looking at individual surveys, but the more things change, the more Bernie’s position stays mostly the same. It’s common for him to wind up at 22% in one survey, and 11% in another, even if both were taken in the same week in the same state.

But it all averages out to the same 14-18% range he usually finds himself in. He’s doing about the same in Iowa and New Hampshire as he is nationally. If you combine Nevada and South Carolina (he’s stronger in the Silver State), same thing. If it’s a state where voters skew younger, he does a little better, though not enough to have a big lead.

If the state leans older, he does worse, though not to the point where he’s not still in double digits. He’s pretty level across racial groups. Usually he does better with Hispanic voters than white, but guess what, white voters are older on average. Warren has effectively challenged him on the left and greatly reduced his support from 2016 when he only had one opponent.

But she hasn’t supplanted him among voters under 40. As Warren slid back, and lost some more moderate voters to Buttigieg, back to Biden, or to others, the gap between her and Bernie closed. She’s ahead of him in about 60% of surveys. He leads in the others.

It’s noteworthy that when Warren was at 10%, his numbers weren’t much higher than they are now. When she was at 25% they weren’t much lower. Sure, he’s helped a little when she loses ground, and hurt a little when she gains. But more in comparison than in actual support level.

To notice something is truly different, Bernie would have to start clearing 20% in averages of national polls, or drop to 10%. He’d need to start consistently leading in IA or NH, or start consistently finishing fourth, even with pollsters he’d previously done well with.

With a good amount of his support concentrated in voter groups who often don’t vote, or actual citizens who have never voted before, unless he starts hitting the upper or lower polling points, we’ll need to wait to see who shows up to caucus on February 3 in Iowa.

Buttigieg’s problem with African American voters is exaggerated

There’s no dispute about his current level of support. He doesn’t have any. Often he’s at zero percent, sometimes one, once in a bit two. It’s not a good look. Especially when black voters are about a quarter of the Democratic electorate and over half in some southern states.

The narrative isn’t great. There’s the issue with the South Bend police department. Just this past week, his team in South Carolina put out a list of supporters that was problematic in several ways. First, many individuals had only said they supported his Douglass Plan, not the candidate himself. Second, it was ostensibly a list of African American supporters, but many were white. Third, they used a stock photo that was taken in Kenya.

If you think a candidate is inept at connecting with a key voter group and something like this happens, it has a disproportionate impact. If that candidate is also young and never held a major office, even worse. Dumb things happen on campaigns, and this isn’t a death blow, but it sure doesn’t help. Be sure that you’ll hear about this tonight.

Beyond talking points for opponents, media types, and bloggers, does it matter that he’s not the first choice, or in most cases second or third choice, of the vast majority of African American voters? If we’re still here in April, yes, it probably does. Now? Not at all. Unless the narrative scares some of his current supporters to another candidate.

First, and I can’t emphasize this enough, in a contest with a ton of candidates, there’s a difference between lack of support and lack of acceptance. Cory Booker is running at 2% in Iowa, but you would never suggest white voters hate him. Mostly because they don’t. A full third of Iowans are still considering him. They just like Buttigieg, or Klobuchar, or whomever slightly better for now.

The new Economist/YouGov national poll asks Democrats which candidates they would be uncomfortable with having win the nomination. This is a great measure of lack of acceptance. Someone saying this might, if not actually voting for Trump, decide to stay home next November.

The most repugnant candidate is Tulsi Gabbard, at 37% non-acceptance rate. Fortunately for her, she’ll be running as a third party candidate in a few months. Marianne Williamson is next at 35%. This gives you a baseline. The two least objectionable candidates are Buttigieg and Booker at 12%.

Sure you say, but what about black voters? There is a key difference. While large amounts of white Democrats object to various candidates (44% for Gabbard, 33% for Sanders, 25% for Biden, etc.), no candidates have more than a 16% rejection rate among African Americans.

Gabbard is worst at 16%, Andrew Yang best at 4%. Buttigieg is at 12%. Not great, but Biden and Harris are each at 13%. Mr. Booker has a 6% rejection rate. If only being non-objectionable was a reason for nomination, he’d have this clinched. If there’s an incipient revolt against Buttigieg brewing in the black community, the data is hiding it.

Yes, there are many older African Americans, particularly in the South, who would feel very uncomfortable voting for an openly gay candidate. Anecdotal evidence says this. Polls say this. It’s unlikely the Buttigieg victory plan goes through Alabama or South Carolina. Are we really to believe black voters will stay home in huge numbers to re-elect Trump?

Most specifically, any issues he might have in Milwaukee, Detroit, or Philadelphia are mathematically fixable by getting the results congressional candidates did in the suburbs around those cities in 2018, instead of Hillary Clinton’s numbers from 2016.

In the primary contest itself, as long as no other candidate challenges Biden’s support levels, Buttigieg can win, even without solving this. His numbers with Latinos aren’t much lower than his average. He’s outperforming among Asians. While he has a legit polling issue with black voters, Mayor Pete isn’t for whites only. There are a ton of ways to make his math work in a three (or more) candidate scramble.

Older black voters already passed on Sanders in 2016 and aren’t showing signs of moving now. Warren has made some progress, but that’s moot. If Mayor Pete beats her in Iowa and New Hampshire, she’s done. If he doesn’t, he’s done.

The actual numbers aren’t even slightly an issue yet. The narrative is. Buttigieg will have many chances to answer the narrative and his opponents this evening. If he succeeds, his white, Latino, and Asian supporters will feel better about continuing to support him. Some of those who had him second or third on their list will move him up. If he fails, his numbers with existing support groups will drop.

No matter how it goes, his top line, and even second choice numbers with most black voters will not move. Check back on that in a few months.

You’ll know the others scored if…

Harris starts registering in upper single digits in any early voting state. If her very favorable ratings in Iowa and New Hampshire start going back in the direction they were six months ago.

Booker starts getting polls that qualify him for the December debate.

Klobuchar closes the gap with Buttigieg in Iowa. He’s as much as 20 points ahead depending on the survey, but the actual difference in their appeal is smaller. She’ll go after him with a machete tonight, so if she moves from the 5% range to 10% and he drops from the low 20s to the mid-upper teens, she’s got plenty of time to finish him off by February. Nothing else really matters for her.

Yang starts converting stronger consideration to stronger top line support. He’s not averaging above 3% anywhere. Look for improvement in New Hampshire and other places where independents are a large part of the projected Democratic primary electorate. He’s had a few outlier surveys with better numbers, so it’s the average result that counts.

Gabbard keeps gaining in New Hampshire. She’s hit 5-6% several times. It’s by far her best early voting state. To really make things interesting as a third party Honey Badger in the fall, she’d need to hit 10-12% support in the primary.

Steyer gets any national support. He’s doing relatively well in the early voting states where he’s saturated the airwaves and Facebook. He’s at 1% nationwide, with only a sprinkling of 2% outliers.

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