State of the Race: The Big 2.75

Greetings! It’s time to check back in on our leading contenders. As usual, most of the news revolves around Joe Biden. As usual most of the positive vibes belong to Elizabeth Warren. As usual, Bernie Sanders is being dismissed.

Biden is exactly where we left him a few weeks ago. After a slight blip, his national poll average is back to 30% per Real Clear Politics. Over the past three months, he’s established a floor of 26%, rebounding each time within weeks.

When you catch him at a bad time, it always feels like his campaign could crumble. He’s said or done something that parts of the Democratic electorate regard as disqualifying. He’s reminded us that he’s too old to do this. Another small drop in support, and he’d be easy for Warren to surpass.

And then he recovers. While Biden might not like the comparison, this increasingly looks like Donald Trump’s numbers from 2015. And unlike Trump, who was not yet popular with a majority of Republicans, Biden is still viewed favorably by most Democrats.

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Generational Change isn’t a Thing

Generational change is a key part of Pete Buttigieg’s pitch. One of his favorite topics is talking about how the world will look in 2054 when he’s as old as Donald Trump is now. He’s the first serious millennial presidential candidate (sorry for now Tulsi.)

Others have tried this too. Eric Swalwell, barely older than Mayor Pete, implored Joe Biden to “pass the torch” during the first debate. Julian Castro (age 44) talks about Democrats needing a new, fresh candidate to win, citing JFK, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, three of whom were in their early-mid forties.

It sounds logical. Trump, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren were all born in the 1940s. This should create the perfect contrast.

Not so much. Biden rejected Swalwell’s torch request, and the young congressman dropped out of the race a few days later. Castro told Biden he was a forgetful old man, saw his unfavorable numbers jump, and a Texas Latino endorser leave him for Uncle Joe.

Buttigieg has scrupulously avoided this sort of direct attack and is the better for it. Unlike the other two, he’s got some traction. A few recent polls are showing gains for the first time in months.

There’s no evidence the generational argument has anything to do with his relative success. He’s not more popular with young voters. Mayor Pete has less difference in support across age groups than most other candidates.

Beyond the data, there’s nothing about his candidacy that feels like he’s the pivot point for Millennials. If Mayor Pete becomes Nominee Pete, it’s not going to be on generational change. Why?

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Texas is Texas

Bias Alert: I love Texas. At least most of it. Houstonians are terrible drivers. I once collected half the bugs ever to exist on my windshield driving from San Angelo to Midland at night. But overall, it’s great. You’re sort of in the United States, and kinda not. Hawaii is this way too. So is Canada.

Anyway, the thing to remember is Texas isn’t like any other state. To begin with, it was a country of it’s own for about a decade before joining the Stars & Stripes. Lone Star flags are everywhere. Nothing like passing a billboard advertising the “Official Pest Removal Spray of Texas.” Also Texas is really big. Twice the size of Germany.

Yes, it’s a border state with a large Latino population. That doesn’t mean it’s anything like California or Arizona. Sure, after it’s first experience in the U.S. it joined the Confederacy. That doesn’t mean it resembles Alabama or Mississippi. Texas is Texas.

Beto O’Rourke is a Texan. Aside from a few years in New York when Friends was an exciting new show, he’s spent his life in the El Paso area. Poll numbers say he doesn’t know much about running a successful presidential campaign. He may have no clue how to win the Iowa Caucus. He does know his state, particularly after visiting all 254 counties* during his Senate campaign.

*He also bragged about doing this more than 254 times.

It’s hard for the 20 (or 10, depending on how you’re counting) surviving Democratic presidential candidates to distinguish their policy vision. There are few opportunities to get to the left of the field. Unless you’re Joe Biden, polls say moderation is not a virtue.

In the aftermath of the El Paso mass shooting, Beto decided to take a stand. He’s advocating gun confiscation. This is even a leap too far for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Conventional wisdom is that O’Rourke is committing political harakiri.

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What if Debates Don’t Matter Anymore?

We’re trained to think primary debates matter. Historically they do. Or at least there’s tons of circumstantial evidence. Democrats will give this several more tries this cycle. At some point, maybe something will happen that impacts the nomination contest.

Not yet though. Politico/Morning Consult does a weekly survey of the Democratic field. Conveniently we have one poll from just before the debate (9/2 to 9/8) and another just after (9/13-9/15.) In between, candidates jousted for three hours.

Joe Biden talked about record players, appeared to adjust his dentures, lapsed into incoherence, and prompted calls to drop out of the race due to his inability to talk about racial issues in an appropriately modern way. He also pushed back on Medicare for All, and seemed to prompt the implosion of Julian Castro.

Before: Biden 33%, Castro 1%

After: Biden 32%, Castro 1%

Elizabeth Warren was judged to have performed well. Bernie Sanders needed industrial strength lozenges.

Warren +2, Sanders -1

Couldn’t have hurt her or helped him any, but that’s well within the margin of error.

Then we have the pack of second tier candidates who were striving to make progress. Kamala Harris seemed to perform the worst. Some thought Cory Booker was best. Beto O’Rourke got good marks. Amy Klobuchar was stronger than usual. Some, myself included, thought Pete Buttigieg failed to make enough of an impression.

Harris -1, Buttigieg =, O’Rourke +1, Booker =, Klobuchar +1

Technically, that mostly matches the consensus, but if a one point gain is a debate bounce, why bother?

Andrew Yang began with a bribe of sorts and then faded into the background. No change. Maybe how someone does is of little matter, but it’s a big deal to qualify for the debate. Candidates who don’t even appear should be at a disadvantage.

Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer: No change (still 1% each)

Overall, it seemed the Big Three were not as strong as the second tier. Sanders and Warren disappeared for long stretches of time. Biden was charitably uneven. Many of the others were strong.

Before: Big Three 70%, Next Seven 23%

After: Big Three 70%, Next Seven 24%

Is it really possible debates just don’t matter? I’m sure there’s some influence somewhere. If Biden was performing as well as Warren, he might have a larger lead. If Warren had done very poorly, perhaps Bernie would have separated from her. Or another candidate would take up space right now.

The impact is very limited though. Unless you count keeping things as they were before debates began. Speaking of which, the Politico/Morning Consult poll from June 17-23, before anybody stepped on stage:

Big Three: 69%

Next Seven: 24%

We ain’t moving here. Keep in mind, ten candidates who missed the third debate, participated in the first two. Their share didn’t change either. I’d expected it to matter if there was one night of debating or two. If the Next Seven were on stage with the Big Three, or were medium-sized fish with the Delaneys around.

It didn’t. I’ve spent many words speculating that it mattered when Tom Steyer would qualify for a debate, because that would lead to breaking the candidates up over two nights, having groups of 5 or 6, and giving the second tier more space.

Maybe that’s the magic formula. But there’s no evidence suggesting it will matter. Why?

Biden and Bernie have very, very defined public personas. It may be impossible to get the majority of voters to change their minds on those two. When they have a good moment on stage, it’s within their established range. When something goes wrong, that’s already baked in too.

Warren did legit work to build herself momentum and get her candidate voice figured out. That was already done in the first half of the year. The majority of her improvement in polls was in the second quarter. She too, is well defined. Democrats like her, but still worry she won’t beat Trump.

When (and if) Warren starts winning primaries, this may change. Winning elections, even inside the party, makes a candidate look like a winner. Maybe she wins a Twitter battle with Trump. Neither of those things happen inside a debate.

The other candidates really are pretty decent. In a universe without the Big Three, they might get more space. In 2016, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich needed to deal with Donald Trump. But Jeb(!) was a paper tiger. There was more space for a candidate to get space as a first-time national contestant.

Because there are several of them and because they’re of somewhat equal quality and appeal, none are going anywhere. It seems very premature for them to hold a meeting and decide which one gets to be the fourth contender. Iowa is still four and a half months away.

Rubio wasn’t ready to drop out and join a Cruz-Rubio ticket right after Super Tuesday. It seemed too early with his home state of Florida voting a couple weeks later. He didn’t want to yield to his peer. We don’t know if that would have worked. We do know what refusal meant.

Don’t know if the Other Six (Yang inhabits a different strategic universe) should draw straws, play a rock-paper-scissors tournament, attempt feats of strength, or what, but absent a secret meeting where they all play cornhole and we wind up with a single option, the odds are increasingly leaning towards several more wasted debates.

They are creating some good video for the Trump campaign though.

Hail to the Veep

Whatever you think of Joe Biden’s candidacy, I think we can all agree it doesn’t exist without his vice presidency. In the recent series of CBS/YouGov early state polls, respondents were asked why they supported the candidate they chose. Sanders, Warren, and Harris voters agreed policy positions were a reason more than 80% of the time. For Biden it was 60%

Campaign style was a reason about 45% of the time for the others, 25% for Biden. Though Biden spent 36 years in the Senate, his tenure there was listed as a reason less frequently than Warren and Sanders, and as frequently as Harris, who hasn’t served for 36 months yet.

Where did Biden score higher? Familiarity, where he received the highest score in each state.

It’s likely this comfort is from Biden’s time as Veep. When asked if this was a reason they were supporting him, between 84 (Nevada) and 92 (New Hampshire) percent of his supporters said yes.

He’s the polling front-runner after five months of missteps, misspeaks, and negative media coverage. This from someone who exited the 1988 presidential campaign before voting started, and only improved enough by 2008 to last until Iowa.

You’d have to think if any candidate ever benefitted from being Veep, it’s Biden.

Which got me wondering. How historic is the assist he’s getting? Has anyone ever been more helped by serving as #2? Let’s try to set some parameters.

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Debate Recap: Five Answers

Before the debate, I asked five questions. Here are the five answers:

#1 No, Biden wasn’t a deer in the headlights

He wasn’t good. He wasn’t frequently coherent. Most of his statistics were wrong. If you weren’t for Biden before the debate began, you aren’t for him now. But the looks of confusion that plagued him in the first debate and the CNN climate change event weren’t there.

It’s hard to see how he lost many votes. He aggressively challenged Sanders and Warren to explain how they’re paying for Medicare for All. Julian Castro attempted to call Biden out for not remembering what he’d said two minutes before. Not only did Castro look mean, but when they went to the postgame replay, it turns out Biden’s memory was better than Castro’s hearing.

#2 No, Warren was not ruffled

Biden was the only candidate to go after Warren, and in terms of present verbal skill, that’s like a mouse attacking an elephant. She sailed through the evening mostly unscathed. Nothing happened to harm her top tier status.

I don’t think she gained anything though. And for reasons that mystify me, she’s completely unwilling to directly answer questions about the tax impact of her health care proposals on middle class voters.

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Debate Prep: Five Questions

Yes, debates are kinda overrated. No, they’re not usually as meaningless as the first two Democratic rounds. In two debates over four nights, we’ve see a Kamala Harris bubble which quickly lost helium, and a related panic over Joe Biden, which soon subsided.

Elizabeth Warren probably helped her standing by performing well. Though there’s no particular spot in the data that proves this. Julian Castro may have done just well enough to qualify for rounds 3 and 4 by doing reasonably well in 1 and 2.

Beyond that, it’s a real reach. I think Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker have performed well. I think Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar haven’t. Surveys taken after each debate indicate viewers agreed with me. Regular horse race polling doesn’t show any impact.

Tulsi Gabbard did well the first time and smacked Harris the second. For her trouble, she didn’t qualify for the third round. Tom Steyer, yet to appear in a debate, just qualified for the fourth round.

Speaking of which, if you like seeing all qualifying candidates on stage together tonight, soak it in. Now that Steyer is the 11th contestant for Round 4, next time we go back to dividing over two nights. For candidates who want more space, they only need to endure the crowd once. For those who want to punch up soon, they better not miss tonight.

Here are the five questions I’m most curious about:

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Home Safe Home?

Elizabeth Warren is good shape. Betting markets think she’s the most likely nominee. More Democratic voters are considering her than any other candidate. She’s in the top three in every national survey from August or September that Real Clear Politics lists.

Warren posted strong second quarter fundraising numbers without doing any big donor events. She performed well in both sanctioned debates, plus the CNN town hall on climate change. Her ground team is widely considered the best of any candidate.

The mainstream media is treating her well. She has the most clearly positive polling trend of any candidate. Bernie Sanders turned 78 yesterday. Joe Biden reminds commentators and voters of his age with every other utterance. Warren looks like a spring chicken by comparison, and tends to run on stage during her events to reinforce it.

She’d be the most liberal/progressive nominee since 1972, maybe ever. But that’s where a lot of the Democratic electorate is right now. Even a third of Biden supporters are considering Warren. So are forty percent of Sanders supporters. The math says she can consolidate enough of the party to get nominated. No statistical contortions required.

Is there a catch?

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Berning the Skeptics

I wasn’t a believer either. The 2016 version of Bernie Sanders followed an insurgent model that doesn’t play well as an encore. If you’ve ever seen Hangover 2, you know a sequel with the same plot as the original falls flat. Sure, he had a base of true believers, but many of his primary voters were protesting Hillary Clinton.

There were so many more choices this time. Then Elizabeth Warren took off. An early July national poll from The Economist/YouGov had Bernie at 9%. It was a bit of an outlier, but still. We’re talking about the runner-up from last time, with almost 100% name recognition.

His remaining supporters were paying less attention to the campaign than any other candidate’s. Many surmised all but the most dedicated Berners would abandon him as soon as they woke up from their political hibernation. Conversation was more about how much of a spoiler he would be if he stayed in after losing early primaries. Would this cost Warren her nomination?

A funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. Check out his numbers in the new early state polls from CBS/YouGov:

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Biden Doesn’t Need Iowa. Warren Does.

The Biden campaign is downplaying the necessity of winning Iowa. The media is treating this as an early surrender, a sign of weakness. We’ll save the efficacy of Biden campaign strategy and strategic leaking for another day.

Today I’m here to agree with Team Biden. He doesn’t need to win Iowa. Elizabeth Warren does.

Sorry about the whiplash. If you read yesterday’s post, it’s possible to reach the conclusion I think Joe Biden’s candidacy is on the ropes. It’s not. Just because I’m positive he doesn’t have the communication skills to effectively govern the country until January 2025 doesn’t mean voters won’t let him try.

Betting markets are listing Warren as the most likely Democratic nominee. That’s based partly on her skill as a candidate, reinforced by her town hall performance Wednesday. It’s also based on a faulty reading of the early voting calendar.

Continue reading “Biden Doesn’t Need Iowa. Warren Does.”