I hadn’t expected to begin my regular coverage of the 2020 Presidential campaign so early, but I better get started sooner rather than later because, as you may have heard, there are currently 19 candidates for the Democratic nomination. Or 20 if you believe that Mike Gravel is actually running, and not being held captive in a basement by a bunch of 4Chan teenagers who are impersonating him on social media. And with the inevitable Biden still pending, it will soon be 21.
How on Earth can anyone keep track of 21 candidates? Well the good news that I’m here to deliver is that you don’t have to because, in reality, there aren’t 21 candidates. There are really only eight candidates. I’ll explain in a moment.
First, let’s address the issue of analyst bias. Specifically, mine. Like anyone, I have some candidates I like more than others. In the interests of full disclosure: In the 2016 primary I supported Sanders, and made contributions to his campaign through the final primary. So far this year, I have made at least one contribution (sometimes more) to Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Wayne Messam, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, William Weld, and Marianne Williamson.
In fact, I have a color-coded classification of my preference for all the declared candidates. If you correctly decipher the coding, you’ll know exactly what I think:
So, I have opinions, leanings, etc. Those are entirely irrelevant to this exercise though, because what I’m actually going to look at is three measures that have a high degree of correlation to who the eventual nominee will be. It’s a little early for all of them yet, but by the eve of Iowa, they’ll give a pretty solid indication of which way the nomination will go. Already, certain patterns can be seen.
First up, rather straightforwardly, is polling. It seems a little silly on the face of it to look at national polling for what is in fact 50-something individual caucuses and primaries, but it turns out that, by the time you get to Iowa, who’s leading in national polls has about a 60% correlation with who will win the nomination.
If you look at current rankings (courtesy of Real Clear Politics), you can easily spot a top tier of two front-runners, a second tier, and then a third tier I might name “well, at least he’s not dead in the water”. All told, seven candidates who appear to be contenders:
Another leading indicator is fundraising. The early fundraiser leader ends up being the nominee 62% of the time. We have a ways to go before this measure becomes predictive at that level, but already based on the Q1 fundraising numbers, we can spot a similar three-tier structure. There’s a clear front-runner, a strong second tier, and a third-tier who are around $5 million:
Finally, there’s a theory in political science circles known as “The Party Decides”. The basic idea is that institutional support from party elites is the key indicator of who the nominee will be. Once you reach the eve of Iowa, this measure does in fact call the winner 63% of the time.
Most potential endorsers are staying on the sidelines until things develop further, but with the party leaders who have committed so far, you’ll see a familiar three-tier structure. Two front-runners on top, a strong second tier placer, and then a third tier clustered within 10 points or so of each other:
You would naturally suspect these three measures have a lot of correlation with each other, and aren’t really totally independent variables. Like, of course, somebody doing well in the polls is probably also doing well in fundraising, and is thus attracting potential endorsements. But they probably also aren’t perfectly correlated. So, if they’re 60% accurate individually, collectively they might be 2/3? 75%? accurate.
Keeping that in mind, looking at the three measures together, each is calling out pretty much the same set of people, albeit in different order. Put together, the candidates who seem to have any shot at all are:
Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren
That’s it. You may dispense with the other thirteen!
The necessary caveat at this point is that it’s still very early. To give two examples, Bernie Sanders at this point in ’16 was polling around 4%, and Rudy Giuliani at this point in ’08 was the clear Republican front-runner. That being said, I was pretty generous with my tiers, and while somebody on the lower end now might well be in the upper tier by the end of the year, I’d be pretty surprised if the eventual nominee isn’t in this group at all.
But, hey, if I’m wrong, you’ll see! Tune in again in mid-July for further refinement following the first debates and Q2 fundraising numbers!