Debate Pre-Preview: The Reckoning

After an overly drawn out draw procedure on CNN, we now have the matchups for Debate 2.0:

Biden v. Harris (Night 2)

This is the main event. Also very good news for the people at CNN in charge of booking ads. Over the past 7-10 days, Kamala Harris’s polling bounce has begun fading. Joe Biden’s decline first slowed and is now reversing. His national average, while lower than pre-debate, is still double that of his main competitors.

In various interviews, Biden said he was surprised Harris attacked him in such a manner. This is either disingenuous on his part, or malpractice by his campaign team to have let him believe he would be safe. This shaky excuse is only good for one usage. Biden now has almost two weeks to prepare for the rematch.

We shouldn’t be surprised he was off. Besides being 76, and having lost a step or three from his prime, Biden hadn’t participated in a debate since fall 2012, and a multi-candidate scrum since late 2007.

But he better be ready this time. It won’t take much. As a leading candidate, getting more time than many others, he’s going to speak for ten minutes max. One 30 second properly rehearsed and delivered bit, and the first debate never happened.

Continue reading “Debate Pre-Preview: The Reckoning”

What Matters in Iowa (Part 3–Best Practices)

Hi! If you’re just joining our journey to the center of the Iowa caucus, please consider reading the first piece—an overview, and the second, which covers the positive and negative signs that indicate how a candidate will do on Caucus Day.

Our next project is examining ways candidates can improve their standing. How they can be their best Iowa selves. For each of the options below, we’ll see who is best poised to take advantage, who must take advantage, and who isn’t a fit. At the end, we’ll add up the results for an extremely unscientific score.

NOTE: We aren’t looking at *every* candidate. Twelfth place in the Real Clear Politics national polling average is 0.8%. In Iowa, that’s 0.7%. If someone isn’t at that level in either average, they don’t require analysis. Except Steve Bullock, outgoing Governor of Montana. He has the only two Iowa endorsements on the FiveThirtyEight tracking list.

The Full Grassley

If a 10-year-old asks you what this is, shockingly, it’s safe to tell her. It merely refers to Senator Chuck Grassley’s annual habit of visiting each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Continue reading “What Matters in Iowa (Part 3–Best Practices)”

When Polls Collide: Is Mayor Pete Ahead or Fifth in Iowa?

25%, 1st Place

10%, 5th Place

6%, 5th Place

Average: 13.7%, 4th Place

Hmmmmmm. Does the truth really lie somewhere in between the data points? Or are one of the extremes more on target?

Polling averages exist for a good reason. Surveys have a margin of error. It’s too easy to read too much into one result. The standard measure is the Real Clear Politics average. If you read a piece about poll numbers, and an average is referenced, it’s likely theirs. Standards are good too. Common frames of reference make writing a piece like this easier.

RCP doesn’t count every poll though. They grab all the most-respected surveys and some of the others. There’s good overlap with the polls certified by the DNC to count toward debate qualification. FiveThirtyEight publishes a wider range of polling. If they don’t list it, it doesn’t exist. They also have a poll-rating system.

Outlier results are more common from lower-rated providers, but that doesn’t mean they’re always wrong. Sometimes they’re correct, but in a different way than they thought. AKA, two wrongs can indicate a right.

Let’s visit 2016. Hillary. The Bern. A razor thin Iowa result. South Carolina extinguishing Bernie’s fire. The final RCP average in Iowa was very accurate. Clinton led by 4%, but Martin O’Malley held 4.3%. With the 15% viability rule—a candidate needs to reach 15% at each individual caucus location in order to count—O’Malley’s support was guaranteed to get redistributed. Bernie got most of it and the final result was an effective tie.

Score one for the averages. The road to get there was a bit more fraught. Outliers abounded. Both Gravis Marketing and the Loras College poll frequently showed Sanders trailing Clinton by 20 or 30 points, even when many other surveys had them within single digits.

Two weeks ahead of the caucus, CNN showed Bernie up by 8. Loras had Hillary at +29. These pollsters were viewing two alternative universes. Gravis began showing a tighter contest, with their final survey a few days ahead of the vote recording Clinton +11.

Gravis was wrong. Loras was wrong. Embarrassingly so. Or were they?

Continue reading “When Polls Collide: Is Mayor Pete Ahead or Fifth in Iowa?”

The Generation Chasm







The median American is 37.7 years old. The median voter is 52. The above numbers are ages. They belong to the Speaker of the House, House Majority Leader, House Majority Whip, and 3 of the 4 leading Democratic presidential candidates.

Not all Septuagenarians are created equally. Bernie Sanders is the most popular candidate with the youngest Democrats. Elizabeth Warren is the second best liked. This isn’t news. But as I was hacking through the data in a new set of early voting states by Change Research, there were a few surprises.

Democratic voters were asked how favorably they felt about the primary candidates, as well as a few other famous Democrats. In a same-party situation, I find the strongly/very favorable number the most interesting. It should far, far, far exceed strongly/very unfavorable.

Barack Obama is the most popular Democrat with other Democrats on the planet. He scored at 81% very favorable, 1% very unfavorable (+80). Keep that in mind as a benchmark. Among voters 18-34, he registers as +74. For the Over 65 crowd, +88. Now some others:

Continue reading “The Generation Chasm”

What Matters in Iowa (Part 2–How to Make Predictions)

Before we get rolling here, you might want to check out Part 1. It’s not mandatory. It is helpful.

The reason we’re talking about the February 2020 Iowa Caucus in July 2019 is because I think we can already get an idea of who might win. The Hawkeye State is remarkably consistent. From year-to-year, and in most cases from Democrats to Republicans.

Some of the factors are baked in. Others are more controllable by the candidates. In the next post, we’ll discuss how they and their strategists can play their cards. Today is all about the pre-existing conditions.

Continue reading “What Matters in Iowa (Part 2–How to Make Predictions)”

Requiem for a Candidate: Ross Perot

H. Ross Perot, Reform Party presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996, passed away Tuesday at the age of 89. You’ll see a few obituaries. Invariably, they’ll mention how Perot presaged Trump. This isn’t wrong.

Elements of Perot’s populist message made their way into Trumpism. His “giant sucking sound” reference to NAFTA stealing American jobs, and sending them south of the border, predicted the outcome Trump railed against. Perot got tons of free media via CNN and other cable outlets, going over the heads of pundits, directly to the voters.

The linkage is easy. There’s even a connection through the Reform Party. After Perot’s second attempt in 1996, he stepped away, meaning the party would have an open primary in 2000. Pat Buchanan wound up getting the nomination, but not before Donald Trump contested the California primary.

He would drop out soon after, but the 2016 Republican race was technically not Trump’s first. By the time he rode down the escalator in June 2015, Trump had spent well more than a decade envisioning a presidential run.

If showing the way to Trump was Perot’s only major contribution, he’d be worth more commentary than he’s getting. There’s more to this though.

He was the first businessman to mount a legit campaign for the presidency since Wendell Willkie captured the Republican nomination in 1940. The normal rule was a serious presidential contender must have:

Served as Vice President and/or

Served in Congress, preferably the Senate and/or

Served as Governor and/or

Served as a high-ranking General in a big war

The only exceptions before Willkie were Herbert Hoover, who was a high-profile cabinet secretary for 8 years prior to running in 1928, and Judge Alton B. Parker, tabbed by the Democrats in 1904. There was no precedent for someone with zero public service experience getting picked.

Willkie ran a credible campaign, though he was defeated by FDR in an election that wasn’t very close. This seemed to put the kibosh on outsider candidates. Nobody tried again until the Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1984. He finished third in the Democratic primary, winning two states.

Jackson gave it another try in 1988, and did better, winding up second, with 13 victories. He was joined on the Republican side by televangelist Pat Robertson, who finished second in Iowa, third overall, and won four states.

When Perot became the second businessperson ever to make a credible run at the White House it was a big deal. And unlike the model of a religious leader, which faded after Gary Bauer got very limited traction in 2000, the businessperson as a presidential candidate idea was just getting started.

Steve Forbes ran in the 1996 and 2000 GOP primaries, finishing third in the first of those attempts and winning two states. Herman Cain tried in 2012, and though he was forced out before voting began, due to allegations of sexual harassment, he actually led national polls for a couple weeks in the fall of 2011.

All this set the stage for 2016, when Trump was joined by ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina, and surgeon Ben Carson. You can argue whether Carson counts as a businessperson, but his candidacy was based on him taking his approach from medicine where he made things happen and applying it to the presidency. He was as likely as Perot to explain via aphorism. So I’m counting him as one of Perot’s political offspring.

At least on the Republican side, some version of Perot is now a regular part of the primary field. The 2008 race is the only contested one since 1992 that did not feature at least one entry from the Perot Family of Candidates.

Beyond messaging and using the media in new ways, Perot did two key things. First, he made it normal for someone with no political experience to run for the highest office in the land, using what they accomplished in their careers as both justification and logic for why they were a better choice than a traditional politician.

After two decades, this was normalized enough that Trump didn’t need to do much explaining for voters to start taking him seriously. Having the highest profile of any Perot Family entrant, he leapt to the top of the polls within weeks of announcing his candidacy.

Second, he made it clear the best path for a non-traditional candidate was through a traditional political party. Perot’s 18.9% share of the vote in 1992 was astoundingly good. He was the first third party candidate in double digits since Robert La Follette ran on the Progressive ticket in 1924.

The only third party candidate to ever get a higher percentage is Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. If the only person to do better is on Mount Rushmore, you probably did ok. Given Roosevelt’s status as a highly popular, recent ex-president, I’m comfortable declaring Perot the most successful third party candidacy in American history.

Between showing the opportunity for a non-politician, particularly one with a business background, and the lack of opportunity outside the existing party structure, Perot created an entirely new pathway to the presidency. Where Willkie was considered a one-off fluke, which passed without imitation, Perot was the beginning of an era.

When reporters get excited at the prospect of Michael Bloomberg running every four years, it’s because of Perot. When Bloomberg decides not to run as an independent/third party candidate every four years, it’s because of Perot.

For better, or worse, and odds are you think it’s very much one or the other, H. Ross Perot was one of the most influential losing candidates since the beginning of the Republic. He’s gone, but should not be forgotten. Just think of Howard Schultz, who overlooked the above lessons and paid the consequences before back surgery put his flailing campaign on hold.

What Matters in Iowa (Part 1–An Overview)

Iowa matters. A lot. The modern primary era began in 1972. Since then, only one nominee in either party has finished lower than third in a contested Iowa caucus. Every nominee who finished third or lower then won New Hampshire. As did almost all second place finishers.

As much as Donald Trump upended the universe in 2016, his early caucus and primary results were extremely normal for a nominee. He finished second, won New Hampshire, and the rest is history.

So anyone expecting to get picked, best finish pretty well in Iowa. And if they don’t win outright, the pressure for New Hampshire ratchets up.

A candidate’s history doesn’t matter. At all. Bernie Sanders currently finds himself third in the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls. He’s fourth in the most recent survey. His 2016 virtual tie with Hillary Clinton now only a memory. This doesn’t mean the Hawkeye State won’t feel a Bern again in February. But we shouldn’t expect this just because he connected with voters before.

In 1980, George H.W. Bush launched his national political career with a surprise win over front-runner Ronald Reagan. Though the Gipper won New Hampshire and the presidency, Bush’s Iowa victory helped him get the vice presidency. It made him the favorite for the 1988 caucus.

In which he finished third, with half the support of winner Bob Dole, and trailing TV evangelist Pat Robertson by several points. Past not acting as prelude works both ways. While Dole collected 37.4% of the vote in 1988, he finished with a mere 1.5% on his first attempt in 1980.

This is helpful history for Joe Biden, who collected a rousing 0.9% in 2008. As embarrassing as that was, it should have no bearing on our expectations now. 2008 GOP winner Mike Huckabee, and 2012 victor Rick Santorum, both gave it another try in 2016. They grabbed 2.8%. Combined.

Before you assume Sanders is doomed because he did well last time, it’s not always a rags to riches or riches to rags story. Dole followed his 1988 triumph with another win in 1996. Mitt Romney got almost exactly a quarter of the vote in both 2008 and 2012.

While a candidate’s Iowa history is often misleading, it doesn’t mean the existence of an “Iowa Candidate” is a myth. There are a couple versions of this creature.

Continue reading “What Matters in Iowa (Part 1–An Overview)”

All Your Base Are Belong to Us (Part 4)

If you haven’t yet, please read:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Welcome to the end of the road. We began with the polling leaders. We conclude with a few candidates who need their cards to come up almost perfectly. This group is quantitatively different from the contestants we aren’t mentioning at all. Those individuals need even more to happen, so we’re skipping them until there are dramatic changes in the race.

Julian Castro:

The debate made Castro a topic of conversation. For 24 hours. Then Harris v. Biden wiped him away as though his duel with Beto never happened. Real Clear Politics lists five national polls taken completely after the debate nights. Castro has a single 3% result. Plus four 1% readings.

This rousing 1.4% average is actually good for 8th place, meaning Castro is in the top third of all candidates. Like I said, he needs a few breaks. One number set speaks to his opportunity and challenge.

Going back to the CNN poll we’ve used in this series, respondents who saw the debate viewed Castro favorably by a 63/12 margin. That’s a solid ratio of over 5:1, with 75% of respondents having an opinion. It’s very similar to Kamala Harris’s favorability in the overall survey, and stronger name recognition than Pete Buttigieg.

The catch is voters who didn’t watch gave Castro 24/16 marks. So a full 60% didn’t know enough about him to know if they like him. Those who think they do were only 3:2 favorable.

You can think of his task as first making more voters aware of him, and second, having those who are aware move him up their list, as he still only wound up with 1% support in this poll. Which voters can he target to do this, and with what issues?

Continue reading “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (Part 4)”

All Your Base Are Belong to Us (Part 3)

Note: If you missed Part 1, or Part 2, you’ll want to catch up before reading on.

So far, we’ve confirmed some conventional wisdom. Joe Biden has a base with older, more moderate voters. Bernie Sanders has a base with younger, more liberal voters. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have sunk multiple pylons, but haven’t fully built a foundation yet. If either succeeds at turning their prospects into a real dedicated base, they will be very formidable.

If you had to bet between one of the above four or the rest of the field being the nominee, and the odds were even, I’d vehemently suggest you take your chances with the above four. Off the top of my skull, there’s a 70-90% chance one of them is the pick.

But it’s not 100%. And if it’s not one of them, it will be one of the following :

Pete Buttigieg:

Ten days ago, Mayor Pete was ahead of Harris in more polls than he was trailing her. A few weeks ago, the same was true re: Warren. He raised more money in the second quarter ($24.8 million) than any other candidate. A few million more than Biden. Several million more than Bernie. Twice as much as Kamala.

Warren is waiting until closer to the July 15 deadline to announce her haul. If I had to guess, I’d say it was $8-10 million. This puts Buttigieg in excellent financial position. He’s now ramping up his team. He’s guaranteed to make the fall debate stage. Only 11% of Democratic voters polled by CNN have a negative opinion of him, the lowest number (Harris at 12% is next) of any contestant.

Weighed against the positive above is the 4% poll result. CNN’s numbers aren’t a fluke. The current Real Clear Politics average has him at 5.2%. Where the gap was previously between him and the group below, it’s now between him and the leaders above.

The reason is Mayor Pete’s lack of a base. This begins with the individual issues. He’s positioned himself as more liberal than Biden, more measured than the others. In an ideal world, that’s a Goldilocks situation, where he’s acceptable to most of the Democratic electorate.

It’s also the worst possible way to build a foothold in a contest with this many contenders. He doesn’t have a distinct enough position or approach to most of the items that will come up in debates. The numbers show this.

Continue reading “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (Part 3)”

All Your Base Are Belong to Us (Part 2)

In Part 1, we began breaking down how the candidates are building a base for themselves. Joe Biden went through the MRI first. Now on to a few other leading contenders:

Kamala Harris:

Prior to the debate, Harris wasn’t building that much of a base with any group of voters. This has changed. Her lead issue is now race relations. 29% of respondents think she’s best at this, almost double Biden’s second place result. In particular, college educated voters like her approach. A full 38% put her first.

The other three surveyed issues tell a very different story. She trails Warren, Sanders, and Biden, in varying orders on health care, climate, and the economy. It’s a big gap. She has 10% of voters endorsing her on health care, and only 6% on climate and the economy.

Warren and Sanders have staked out ground to her left. Biden is to her right. The ex-VP appears more incremental for voters concerned about moving too quickly. The other two, more committed to aggressive action. This doesn’t mean voters have problems with Kamala’s approach to the other issues. Just that it’s not going to drive their connection with her yet.

While she might not be ahead of her main competitors on most of the issues yet, she is leading narrowly among self-described liberals, sitting at 24%. This compares to 11% among moderate/conservative voters. Her numbers among the centrist voters haven’t moved much (9% a month ago). The liberal support doubled. Promising, but evidence she hasn’t locked it in yet.

Continue reading “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (Part 2)”