August 11, 2019 📊 The end for Joe Biden

Plus, what divides Democrats, "Blue Texas" and the Russian threat in 2016 (and 2020).

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, data journalist for The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! Here’s my weekly email with links to what I’ve been reading and writing that puts the news in context with public opinion polls, political science, other data (some “big,” some small) and looks briefly at the week ahead. Feedback? Drop me a line or just respond to this email. 


Dear Reader,

I want to explore the reasons for Joe Biden’s likely coming decline in the 2020 primary. He has always been a subpar campaigner, and while it looked like he could overcome these criticisms by arguing he was better suited than any Democrat to beat Donald Trump in November, that may no longer be the case.

Plus, links to good analyses of how likely Texas is to vote for a Democrat next cycle and what influence Russians had on the 2016 the election.

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—Elliott


This Week's Big Question

Biden's end: what does it look like?

The vice president hasn’t consolidated support as well as the others. If he doesn’t turn that around, he won’t win the primary.

Image: PredictIt

As of today, Joe Biden is no longer favorite to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, according to traders at the political prediction website PredictIt. He has been overcome by Elizabeth Warren. Market punters—many of whom are hobbyist politics watchers and young men with a lot of money to waste—may not actually have the best aggregate forecasting ability, and things may change in the months ahead, but it is worth discussing the change. Why is Biden losing ground?

Biden’s support has come from two things, I think. First, disproportionate support among African American voters. And second, the idea that he is “inevitable” and/or best able to beat Donald Trump. While his support with black Democrats is still sky-high (though falling) there is good reason to suspect that his appearance as the heir-apparent nominee, the only one able to take out Trump is fracturing.

First, Biden has been involved in two sleepy debates so far. In his first, he was trounced by Kamala Harris over his complicated history on civil rights issues. This no doubt has hurt him among woke white liberal Democrats. In the second debate, he fended off other candidates’ attacks on his moderation, and pulled off the feat of not being the center of attention.

Second, true to firm, the former vice president has made several gaffes in the last week. At the Iowa State Fair, Biden said he was president during the Parkland shooting—which he wasn’t, a fact that he ought to know. Last week, he also said that “poor kids are just as bright as white kids”. He has since said he “misspoke”.

The issue with these gaffes is not that they explicitly cost him votes, but that they convince Biden’s critics that their criticisms—that he is old, error-prone, not polished enough to wage a successful general election campaign, etc—are right. But hey, maybe he can still win the primary with ~30% of the vote?

I think not. Treading water is probably not a viable strategy for the Vice President. When Biden announced his campaign in April he was polling at about 35%. Today, he is pulling in support from roughly 28% of voters. Over the same time period, Elizabeth Warren’s polling has gone from 7 to 17%, and Kamala Harris has increased from 6 to 9. To make a bad swimming metaphor worse, if Biden keeps treading water while the other candidates are swimming forward, he’ll never finish his lap.

Let’s not forget that Biden’s polling lead is still anywhere from 10 to 15 percentage points. Leads this large have disappeared in the past. But for today he’s still the favorite. Still, as I’ve been saying for months, Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate who has steady, upward movement in her polling average—so if you’re looking for another horse to back, she’s probably a good (though not safe) bet.

EDIT: PS I’ve got more to say about this at this Twitter thread.


And now, some of the stuff that I read (and wrote) over the last week.


Posts for subscribers:


Political Data

Nate Silver: “Forget ‘Lanes.’ The Democratic Primary Is A Whole Freaking Transit System”

Among the major candidates, there are quite a few Sanders 2016 –> Biden 2020 voters, although not nearly as many as there are Clinton 2016 –> Biden 2020 voters. Harris gets her support mostly from Clinton voters; relatively little comes from 2016 Sanders voters, consistent with our hypothesis.

Warren is, by contrast, drawing about equal shares of Clinton 2016 and Sanders 2016 voters. Maybe you’re surprised that Warren’s numbers aren’t more slanted to former Sanders supporters, but keep in mind that (i) there are plenty of connections between Clinton and Warren too, e.g. in their appeal to college-educated women; (ii) whereas Clinton’s voters need to look around for a new candidate, Sanders 2016 voters have the option of picking Sanders again. One way to look at it is that 44 percent of Sanders 2016 voters are voting for either Sanders or Warren this time around, while just 24 percent of Clinton 2016 voters are.

So there almost certainly is a robust left policy/ideology lane in the Democratic primary. It’s probably even one of the more well-traveled routes. It’s just far from the only road in town.

David Byler (Washington Post): “Blue Texas is a Democratic dream. Shifting left is a reality.”

Now Democrats are crossing their fingers about finally turning Texas blue, or at least purple, in 2020. Turning Texas blue in the medium-term isn’t a pipe dream — the Trump-era GOP doesn’t play as well as the George W. Bush-era one did in an urbanized, diverse state such as Texas. But turning Texas truly purple by 2020 is still a big lift. Democrats should probably think of it more as possible icing on the cake rather than a core part of their strategy in the next election.

When Republicans nominated Trump in 2016, they assented to an electoral trade-off that benefited Texas Democrats. Trump earned the votes of blue-collar whites by temporarily chucking GOP orthodoxy on economic issues and moving hard to the right on racial and cultural issues. But by doing so, he alienated many of the white-collar suburbanites who once formed the backbone of the party.

And many of those college-educated suburbanites are Texans.

Alan Abramowitz (UVA Center for Politics): “Did Russian Interference Affect the 2016 Election Results?”

I find no evidence that Russian attempts to target voters in key swing states had any effect on the election results in those states. Instead, the results were almost totally predictable based on the political and demographic characteristics of those states, especially their past voting tendencies, ideological leanings, and demographics. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Russians weren’t trying to influence the results or that they might not succeed in the future. Nor does it speak to Russian efforts to hack into U.S. voting systems and potentially alter voter registration data or even election results themselves.

There are plenty of grounds for real concern here. Indeed, the Electoral College system used to choose the president almost invites efforts to interfere in the election. Whereas trying to affect the national popular vote results would probably be prohibitively expensive, efforts to target a few key swing states could be much more cost-effective and harder to detect. As a result, there is little doubt that these efforts will continue in 2020 and beyond, especially if we have a president who seems to be inviting them.

Nate Cohn (The Upshot): “Policy Fissures in the Debates Aren’t What Divide Voters”

Ms. Warren does best among highly educated voters who self-identify as “very liberal.” They’re generally affluent and white.

Kamala Harris, not Mr. Sanders, is the second choice of most of Ms. Warren’s supporters, according to Morning Consult and Reuters/Ipsos polls last month.

Mr. Sanders, perhaps surprisingly, seems to have relatively limited appeal to these voters. He has no particular strength among Democrats who identify as “very liberal.” He does just as well among self-identified moderates, and he does best among less affluent Democrats.

The second choice of Mr. Sanders’s supporters isn’t Ms. Warren. It’s Joe Biden. And perhaps just as surprisingly, Mr. Sanders is the second choice of Mr. Biden’s supporters.

This is not what you would expect if you’re used to thinking about electoral politics in terms of policy or ideology. The debates might play out along those lines, between the left and the center, but it’s not the way that many voters make up their minds.


Other Data and Cool Stuff:

Christopher Ingraham (Washington Post): "Police shootings are a leading cause of death for young American men, new research shows”

Among men of all races, ages 25 to 29, police killings are the sixth-leading cause of death, according to a study led by Frank Edwards of Rutgers University, with a total annual mortality risk of 1.8 deaths per 100,000 people. Accidental death, a category that includes automotive accidents and drug overdoses, was the biggest cause at 76.6 deaths per 100,000, and followed by suicide (26.7), other homicides (22.0), heart disease (7.0), and cancer (6.3).

The data used in this study do not differentiate between police killings that were later determined to be justified and those that were not. FBI data, which is widely acknowledged to be incomplete, shows that 400 to 500 homicides each year are determined to be justified, which is defined as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” Those deaths represent about half of the roughly 1,000 annual police killings that independent tallies, including those by The Washington Post and The Guardian, have found.

For a black man, the risk of being killed by a police officer is about 2.5 times higher than that of a white man. “Our models predict that about 1 in 1,000 black men and boys will be killed by police over the life course,” the authors write.

Police killings account for 1.6 percent of all deaths of black men age 20 to 24, the study found. Among white men, police are responsible for 0.5 percent of all deaths in that age group. A 40-year-old black man has about the same risk of being killed by a police officer as a 20-year-old white man.

Laura Bliss (CityLab): “How Much Traffic Do Uber and Lyft Cause?”

The new findings show that Uber and Lyft account for just 1-3 percent of total VMT in the larger metropolitan regions surrounding the six cities. But they have a far heavier traffic impact in core urban areas, as the table below shows: In San Francisco County, Uber and Lyft make up as much as 13.4 percent of all vehicle-miles. In Boston, it’s 8 percent; in Washington, D.C., it’s 7.2 percent.

These numbers suggest that ride-hailing is hitting traffic harder in many cities than previously understood. For example, independent research by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority in 2017 showed that, as of fall 2016, TNCs generated about 6.5 percent of the county’s total VMT on weekdays, and 10 percent of weekends. And the agency found that the growth in ride-hailing was already a major contributor to noticeable slow-downs on San Francisco streets.


Political Science, Survey Research, and Other Nerdy Things

Martin Wettstein, Anne Schulz, Marco Steenbergen, Christian Schemer, Philipp Müller, Dominique S Wirz, and Werner Wirth: “Measuring Populism across Nations: Testing for Measurement Invariance of an Inventory of Populist Attitudes“, International Journal of Public Opinion Research

The rising voter support for populist parties in Western Democracies in recent years has incited academic interest in populist voters and attitudes connected to the voting propensity of populist actors. In line of this research, numerous scales to measure populist attitudes among voters have been proposed. In most cases, however, the measurement of populist attitudes was tailored to specific countries and its applicability to cross-national research on populism was not assessed. This article uses a cross-national survey to assess the measurement invariance, reliability, and validity of a deductively developed inventory for populist attitudes. The findings suggest that there is a common attitudinal base to left- and right-wing populism which may be measured reliably and invariantly across nations.


What I'm Reading and Working On

I want to put some more thought into the idea that Texas is turning blue, so you may see some work from me on that this week. The Economist also soon launching a big online project on the 2020 Democratic primaries, so stay tuned for news on that front.

I’m re-reading Francis Fukayama’s “Political Order and Political Decay” to help me figure out what’s going to happen to the UK when it (likely) crashes out of the EU later this year.


Something Fun

This picture from FiveThirtyEight’s Galen Druke gave me a chuckle: Apparently these dudes were just trying to have a beer at the Iowa State Fair when Joe Biden showed up and ruined their hangout.


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