Candidate Heat Check: Mid-January Edition

Who’s up? Who’s down? You might already have some ideas without my help. Joe Biden is leading nationwide. Iowa and New Hampshire are very crowded at the top. Bernie Sanders saw his odds go up. Elizabeth Warren dropped badly in the fall, but has stabilized. None of this is news. Neither is Pete Buttigieg still in contention in the first two states and struggling almost everywhere else.

That doesn’t answer the question of who’s hot and who’s cold though. Who should be feeling good, who should be scared, who should be depressed. We know roughly where the campaigns are at. We’ve talked about the odds and requirements for each to win or place in Iowa. FiveThirtyEight’s formula can give us up-to-the-minute odds on who’s most likely to win the nomination.

The hot/cold question has more to do with expectations and goals. For Biden, anything short of winning the nomination is a failure. Something well short of that is a huge win for Andrew Yang.

On Fire: Nobody

Several candidates are doing well, but nobody has experienced a recent positive change in fortune like Kamala Harris after the first debate. Her experience is a good reminder this is a heat check, not a guarantee of future results.

Hot: Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Yang

Tom Steyer’s campaign often seems quixotic. He’s spent millions to appear on the debate stage and make a limited impact. He’s overshadowed (and surpassed in national polls) by a far richer billionaire. He’d done just well enough to qualify for debates, not to matter in any particular state.

But his non-stop assault on the airwaves of Nevada and South Carolina is starting to work. Other candidates are advertising a lot in Iowa and New Hampshire now. Mike Bloomberg has reserved Super Bowl ad time and is setting new spending records in Super Tuesday states. This narrow window gave him space to matter.

An early January South Carolina poll from Fox News (reminder: whatever you think of their programming, their polling is considered top shelf), had Steyer at 15%, in second place. It’s up 10 points from his December numbers, 11 from last time Fox surveyed, but not an outlier. Morning Consult is showing Steyer at 15% across all four early states. Given we know he’s struggling in Iowa and New Hampshire, this would suggest he’s even higher in Nevada and South Carolina than other polls show.

Speaking of Nevada, in two January polls, Fox News has him at 12%, tied with Warren for third, while USA Today has him at 8%, even with Buttigieg for fourth. This is up from 5% in the last Fox survey, and 3% last time USA Today took a look. At a minimum, he can play spoiler. Most importantly, his support is separate from the upscale, white voters being chased by Warren, Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar.

He’s running second among African Americans in South Carolina. With Sanders still strong among the youngest black voters, this makes Steyer the first to seriously dent Biden’s support among older African Americans. In Nevada, only Biden and Sanders are doing better with non-white voters. We’ll explore why this is happening in another piece, but a whole lot of candidates have tried and failed to connect with Democrats of color in the past year.

What keeps Steyer from a higher score is Bloomberg. Their supporters look similar, and the ex-Mayor of New York City is ahead of him nationally and in all the recent Super Tuesday polls I’ve seen. He had to make his mark before the states Bloomberg is competing in and is on track to do so, but he doesn’t yet have a path to acquire enough delegates to have influence in a contested convention (15% odds currently.) Unlike Bloomberg, he’s young enough to try again in 2024 or 2028, so if nothing else, this is a good platform run for future endeavors.

Mr. Bloomberg is beating expectations. He entered the race way too late to make an impact, based on what we’ve seen the past couple of decades. But he’s already tied for fourth with Buttigieg nationally. The extreme ad spending, combined with some name recognition put him in the mix, even while missing out on debates. Steyer doesn’t have the money to match him. Nobody who’s ever run for president has this much money, inflation adjusted or otherwise.

He’s not on fire either. Mid-single digits in California isn’t going to get it done. And early voting begins there on February 3. He could buy every ad on every station in the Golden State, and still not catch enough voters. The delegate math is daunting. He has a less than 1% chance of getting a majority before the convention. Bloomberg doesn’t control his own destiny. If Biden wins three of the first four states, this is over before Bloomberg is even on the ballot anywhere.

But, if he can survive Super Tuesday, and the other March contests, he’s financially able to win a battle of attrition. Even if another candidate has more total delegates, if Bloomberg won the majority of the April through June contests and Democrats could concentrate on raising money for congressional candidates instead of the presidential nominee in the fall, he’d have a persuasive argument. Especially if he chose a strategically appropriate running mate. Like Steyer, voters of color, and voters without means, are willing to consider him. The AOC wing would object vociferously, but otherwise, he’s got most demographics open to him.

He qualifies as hot for operating at a 95th percentile outcome of what could have happened after he announced. He’s not on fire until Biden loses the first three states, or his poll numbers start regularly hitting double digits.

When Donald Trump ran as an outsider, non-politician, he did so as one of the most famous people in America. Andrew Yang was completely unknown a year ago. Qualifying for all but the most recent debate (he’s likely to make the next one) in a huge field is an accomplishment by itself. So is boosting his favorability ratings to just shy of the top tier.

Only Jimmy Carter, who still had served as Governor of Georgia, and had the benefit of candidates not realizing you could start extra early (due to Carter, this is common now), has gone from unknown to nominee in the same cycle. Being well positioned for 2024 or 2028 would be a huge outcome for Yang. As would working himself into a prominent cabinet position.

He’ll need to see his polling numbers hit upper single digits instead of lower on a regular basis to qualify as on fire. Yang has increased his approval tremendously, his consideration some, his second place choice a bit, and his top line support barely at all over the past few months. He’s probably out of time for 2020.

Unless. He’s spending the entire time between now and the Iowa caucus in state. His wife Evelyn somehow managed to discuss a sexual assault while pregnant with her first child in a CNN interview and hold it together. As a result, within the first 24 hours, fifteen more women came forward to accuse the predatory OB/Gyn in question. If you think this was a blatant political stunt, engineered to forward her husband’s campaign, you haven’t seen the interview yet. It will help him for sure, but mostly in earning points for getting Evelyn to become Mrs. Yang.

With his support already strategically concentrated among younger voters who will cluster at caucus precincts, he’s a decent bet to keep some support and finish fifth in Iowa. Should that be a strong fifth, New Hampshire could get pretty interesting. Again, it’s really hard to find a scenario where he’s the nominee. It’s not as hard to see how he goes in to 2024 or 2028 the way Sanders was set for 2020.

In the near term, when nominations aren’t settled early, voters sometimes like something new later in the process. Yang has plenty of money and fundraising capacity to keep going as long as he chooses. Should April and May voters want a change of pace, he could pick up enough delegates to have influence at the convention too. Iowa will move him up to fire or down to tepid status.

Warm: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden

This is really straightforward. These are the two leading candidates right now. Between them, there’s a two-thirds to three-quarters chance one is the nominee. Biden’s national poll numbers are higher, his southern geographic base is stronger, and his odds are better. He can win any or all of the first four contests, while Sanders is only a threat in the first three. Despite lots of bumps over the past several months, Biden is right about where he was the minute his launch honeymoon wore off.

Bernie has more momentum right now, having moved up from the 15% range to 20% range nationally, and past Warren to sit second instead of third. He’s also got the highest floor of any candidate, and the most money to use of any non-billionaire. If either wins Iowa, they’ll officially move from warm to hot or on fire, depending on the margin and where the others land.

The reason they aren’t smoldering just yet is each could very easily lose the first three states too.

Tepid: Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard

Let’s get Tulsi out of the way first. She’s out of your mind, and won’t participate in any future debates, but she still matters. No, there’s no future for her in Hawaii. She’s already abandoned trying to retain her House seat. The sitting senators and governor don’t like her. The Democratic establishment intensely disliked her after she gave up her DNC position to endorse Bernie in 2016. They hate her now.

The Democratic electorate is extra frosty on her too. She has negative favorability ratings among Dem voters. The Economist figures a rousing 6 percent of Dems are considering voting for her. The reason we care about her is New Hampshire is her test run for being a third party candidate in November.

The reason she’s tepid and not warm is the recent lack of progress there. Gabbard is in the upper 3% range on average. Her high of 6% from Emerson, was reached in September, and matched a couple times after. They’re still the only pollster to have her over 5%. But she’s not cold either. Her support isn’t dropping, even though she’s getting zero national attention and doesn’t get to pick fights on the debate stage anymore.

And if exit polls indicate her success with 2016 general election Trump voters isn’t a mirage, a third party run from her won’t necessarily help the incumbent or Vladimir Putin the way most observers expect. We’ll return to this story after Iowa, but Tulsi Gabbard is likely to matter more in November than most people on this list.

Warren and Buttigieg are in similar positions. Each really needs an Iowa win to become a major threat to win the nomination. Buttigieg has to win New Hampshire too if he wants a real shot at a majority of delegates before the convention. Both have led reputable Iowa polls on multiple occasions. Both are well-funded. Both have good ground teams in Iowa. Neither is currently leading, both are still in reach in the first two states.

It looks like both are over the line in Iowa by enough to get hit the 15% requirement in most Iowa caucus precincts. But there’s a huge difference between living to fight another day and rumbling in to New Hampshire with momentum and a real chance. Warren had a better debate. Mayor Pete gets to spend the next two weeks in Iowa, while she’s in D.C. I think he has a higher ceiling in the first two states. I think she has a higher floor.

FiveThirtyEight has Warren at 12% to win the nomination before the convention, Buttigieg at 9%. Biden and Sanders aren’t trading places with them. Anyone else would. But both candidates had better odds 60 days ago than they have now. Sanders is going to be in Warren’s way for the duration, and Bloomberg is candidate-blocking Buttigieg.

Chilly: Amy Klobuchar

She outlasted Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris. She persisted while John Hickenlooper, Steve Bullock, and Jay Inslee went back to their home states. She’s qualified for every debate, including the next one in New Hampshire after Iowa caucuses. Her Q4 fundraising numbers were more than double Q3. Today, Klobuchar picked up one of the first newspaper endorsements in Iowa, from the Quad City Times.

Despite focusing on, and having a home-field advantage in Iowa, she’s arguably doing a little better in New Hampshire. Klobuchar spiked a 10% result in the most recent poll, from Emerson. Her polling average is marginally higher in Iowa (7.0 to 6.3), but the 15% requirement in a given caucus precinct to retain supporters gives her a better chance of registering a result in New Hampshire.

That’s assuming she makes it out of Iowa. If Emerson (which had her at 10% in Iowa back in December), is correct, and the other pollsters are wrong, she’s within striking distance. If they’re an outlier, it’s going to be very hard for her to get to 15% in most places. It’s hard to see how she can push forward if she winds up in the 1 to 3% range in the final standings. There are several outcomes where Yang finishes ahead of her, even with fewer overall supporters, by concentrating them in college precincts.

Sixth Place Amy in a state bordering hers, in a Midwest swing state she’s supposed to be able to contest in November is not a good look heading for New Hampshire. This isn’t even her biggest problem. Nor is a huge funding gap between her and the non-billionaire front-runners, even after her improvement.

It’s the limited range of her supporters. They’re entirely over 50, white, and generally well educated, with above-average incomes. You can’t build a winning coalition without voters of color. It’s not necessary to finish first, or even second, but you’ve got to register. Even Mayor Pete is doing far better with Latino voters, and pretty well with Asians. he really only struggles with African Americans.

It’s not necessary to score with voters under 30 or 35. They never turn out at the same rate as everyone else. But you can’t also punt on older Millennials and younger Gen X’ers. This is another spot where Buttigieg is well ahead of Klobuchar, both in top line polling, and consideration. Even if she were to start really pushing Biden with older, less-affluent, white voters, the math still doesn’t work. And both Buttigieg and Bloomberg are ahead of her there too.

Michael Bennet would trade places with Klobuchar every day and ten times on Caucus Day, but until we see her at 12% or higher in the DMR/CNN/Selzer Iowa poll on the weekend before the Caucus (she scored 6% earlier this month), she’s on the outside looking in.

Cold: Michael Bennet

Unlike the candidates below him, Bennet does sometimes register on national polls. He hit two percent on a recent Monmouth New Hampshire survey. Not the stuff dreams or nominations are made of, but he’s not up for re-election anytime soon, so why not hang out a bit. Bloomberg has blocked him as an option if Biden were to have a health scare after Klobuchar had already fizzled out. If the market for moderate candidates improves in 2024, he’s at least spent time meeting people on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Icy: John Delaney, Deval Patrick

I’m still not sure what Patrick was thinking when he jumped in at the last minute. People know who Michael Bloomberg is. Outside of the Northeast, nobody knows who Deval Patrick is, something that has not changed since he announced. Unlike Steyer, Patrick doesn’t have bottomless pockets to spend his way into consciousness. The cycle is extra unkind to semi-moderate ex-governors, and African American voters have shown no hurry in supporting black candidates until they prove support among the wider electorate.

So entering at the last minute, without billions behind him, and assuming he could somehow stitch together exactly the coalition that the better-known Cory Booker and Kamala Harris couldn’t, was insanity. Being from neighboring Massachusetts would normally help him in New Hampshire. In a world where Sanders and Warren don’t exist. Sometimes a person needs to know for absolute sure that a goal is not achievable. Deval Patrick will never have to wonder.

Delaney is still going. Having surrendered his House seat long ago, so that he could become the first entrant in the race, and having spent a good chunk of his (*way* smaller than Steyer or Bloomberg, but more than most of us) fortune on the campaign, he’s ignoring the concept of sunk costs. He did all the things you’re supposed to do in Iowa, went to every county. Nobody cared. Cest la vie.

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