The 2020 primary is peak ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ right now 📊 February 16, 2020

For a variety of reasons, the Democratic presidential primary is entering uncharted waters

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist at The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! This is my weekly email where I write about politics using data and share links to what I’ve been reading and writing. 

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The 2020 primary is peak ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ right now

For a variety of reasons, the Democratic presidential primary is entering uncharted waters

Analysts have talked a lot about “lanes” (ideological and demographic constraints on voting behavior) throughout the 2020 Democratic primary campaign. I do think those “lanes” exist, to an extent, but would like to talk about different type of lane right now: bowling lanes. Permit yourself to imagine that the primary so far has been a child gently pushing a ball down a lane with the guard rails on. But now his turn is over, the guard rails have come off, and baby there’s no telling what type of bowl is coming next. (Probably a gutter ball, if my experience is any guide.)

Last week was one of those weeks where there was just way too much news to absorb. Even if you focus in on the Democratic primary, there was the New Hampshire primary to watch, Amy Klobuchar’s “#Klobucharge” to think through, Michael Bloomberg’s record polling numbers to note (and a drove of opposition research into his past to dig through) and Joe Biden’s campaign to issue a perhaps-too-early-autopsy on.

Although in weeks like this it’s impossible to know which way to look, it’s also my job to tell you what all this news means. And rest assured! I’m here to tell you all that they mean… well, that’s actually pretty unclear.

You see, in weeks like this, it’s tempting to craft opinions on every little facet of the news cycle. The New Hampshire primary was probably bad for Warren and Biden, I’d say. Klobuchar looks on the rise but has little infrastructure in other states. Bloomberg had a bad week in the press and yada yada yada something about Buttigieg’s prospects with non-whites.

But I don’t think all this opining is helpful. There’s not a lot of data on what all these different events mean and our intuitions about how the media, voters and campaigns interact are rarely better than a new set of polls in key situations.

Instead, what we really learned last week was that the 2020 primary is a mess. There are a few big factors that are contributing to the uncertainty in the race today. Keep this fact in mind: according to FiveThirtyEight, the most likely outcome of the primary today is a contested convention.

First is the fractured field. None of the candidates so far have won more than a third of the vote in either of the states that have voted. It’s unlikely that any one candidate can win the primary with such low margins. Of course, a due amount of winnowing would usually increase the margins in later contests, but the fracturing has given low-polling candidates an excuse for their poor performances, letting them (perhaps credibly) claim small victories and stay in the race.

Second are the conflicting coalitions that each candidate has built. Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have so far relied on white voters, of varying classes, for most of their support. Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg, on the other hand, are particularly popular among non-whites. This means that each candidate will have a hard time winning a variety of states in a diverse country, a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that each demographic group is split between different options. Here, Bernie Sanders has an advantage, in polling well among both white and Latino voters—wins in the north, California and Texas would be a winning coalition.

Finally, Mike Bloomberg is also a Super Tuesday wildcard at present. His soaring popularity has come disproportionately in states with big delegate tallies that vote on March 3rd. That might be too late for him to emerge as a serious contender for the nomination but certainly gives him some latitude to harm the odds for everyone else.

From a handicapping perspective, all of these issues are worsened by a dearth of polling in Nevada and South Carolina, the next two states where Democrats will cast ballots. In Nevada, a big Sanders win might propel him to success in nearby and demographically similar California next month, whereas falling flat could materially hurt his odds. Similarly in South Carolina, Joe Biden has pinned his hopes for the nomination on performing better than the other candidates. But such an outcome has gotten less likely as Bloomberg and Sanders have risen there.

Much of the primary depends on what happens over the next month. Perhaps the news from weeks like last will prove consequential, but perhaps not. For now, it looks like the primary race with a front-runner (in Bernie Sanders—a modest one, to be sure) but with no clear favorite.

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Phantom swings in Trump’s approval polling

I wrote last week for The Economist’s newsletter on US politics about why pollsters that don’t weight their data by political variables—like party identification or past vote—might be susceptible to artificial fluctuations in questions like Trump’s approval rating or the 2020 generic ballot. Read my tweets about it and sign up here:

What I'm Reading and Working On

I was in a video for The Economist’s films team that is supposed to come out soon, maybe next week. I’ll share it online when the time comes! We’re also gearing up for the 2020 general election (I know, so early!) so I will have some data-driven findings about the presidential race to share with you all in due course.

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