2016 Democrats, Poll Watch

Poll Watch: Episode 1 (Biden’s Conundrum)

August 19, 2015

Do poll numbers almost six months before anybody votes matter?  Yes. Definitely. A lot.  The only thing they can’t help us with is determining who will win the nomination, or even who will win Iowa or New Hampshire.

Polls are bread crumbs in the wilderness, used by donors (large and small), media and analysts, party insiders (the type who make endorsements that matter—think of the Kennedys and Majority Leader Harry Reid endorsing Candidate Obama over Hillary in 2008), and the campaigns themselves to make sense of things and plot strategy.

Surge too soon and get attention and scrutiny you aren’t prepared for.  Wait too long and you can’t fully capitalize.  Each group has a version of this problem.  The party establishment and big hitters don’t want to miss out on someone who can connect, but also don’t want to bet on an unproven horse.

The media doesn’t want to write about candidates nobody cares about, but doesn’t want to miss out on the Next Big Thing.  Candidates don’t want to fire all their bullets (i.e. spend all their money) too soon, but also can’t miss their window.

For all these decisions, there is past history to refer to, the compendium of open nomination fights (no incumbent) since 1972, when the entire rule book was changed.  Sounds great, right? Plenty of reference points.  Not so much.  Between the two parties, we’re looking at 14 examples.

The Internet didn’t impact half of them.  The first couple didn’t even have CNN.  No previous derby had as many credible candidates as the 2016 Republicans.  No previous non-incumbent front-runner had Hillary’s polling, endorsement and fundraising advantages.  None of any of those three things, let alone all.

So this is all guesswork.  We don’t have the slightest idea what’s going to happen.  Too many variables, too little precedent.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t play.  As long as we are willing to acknowledge and accept that no individual scenario is likely correct, we can build plausible paths and routes for candidates and the race itself as new bread crumbs hit the forest floor.

On to the show….

New CNN poll out today.  Hillary 47, Bernie 29, Joe 14, others microscopic.  Matches FOX poll from a couple days ago: Hillary 49, Bernie 30, Joe 10, others invisible.

Unlike GOP Demolition Derby, in which one poll can show Ted Cruz with twice the support of Marco Rubio, and another taken at about the same time shows Rubio ahead of Cruz, Dem polls taken at the same time have shown similar results for months, with the only variable being the occasional absence of Biden in a survey.

Two weeks ago, it became apparent (AKA, I made a timely Wild-Ass Guess) that this email/server stuff was moving from a curiosity to possible campaign water torture, a potentially debilitating trickle of bad news.

Mainstream, left-leaning journalists were talking about it, plus the discovery of classified emails upped the stakes.  Combined with the Biden Bubble and Surging Sanders, there was motive and opportunity for some Democratic voters to waver.

Well, they have.

The two new polls have Hillary just ahead of Biden + Sanders.  The average July poll had her at double their combined support.  In March-April it was quadruple.

There is no reason to doubt these polls are a legit representation of how things sit currently.  However, there are a few things to consider as we try to interpret them.

Where is Hillary’s floor?

In this case it’s a floor with a trap door.  In 2013, recently departed SecState Clinton had the highest approval ratings of her 20+ years in DC.  Even a few Republicans liked her a bit.  By early 2015, she’d shed them, but still had many Indpendents on board.  They bailed in April/May, but Democrats stuck around.

Now 45% of Democratic primary voters are temporarily missing.  Until polling evidence to the contrary shows up, as of several days ago, many of these people still view Hillary favorably, even with the drip of possible scandal.  Assuming the defectors aren’t suddenly super angry with her, why would they shift support?

  1. Viable Bernie
  2. Electability Fears with Hillary
  3. Prefer Biden

It is not Option #3.  If Hillary is losing voters to Joe, they are hiding it very well.  Averaging the two newer polls, Biden is at 12%.  He’s been in the 10-15% range in most polls for months.  The difference is Sanders gradually moved from 3% to 30%.

So it’s a combination of #1 and #2.  With the conviction of a dart thrower, I’m going to tell you it’s 75% Viable Bernie, 25% Uh-Oh Hillary.  Sanders moved from low single-digits to 15-20% nationally before anybody Democrats would listen to started worrying about General Election Hillary or FBI investigations.  So that’s half of his support increase.

Split the other half between increased name recognition for Sanders outside of Iowa/New Hampshire/more engaged voters, and people fleeing a ship with an iceberg on the horizon.  Only so many people could have determined in two weeks that Bernie was suddenly viable or that they like what he stands for better.  At least a chunk is Hillary fears, but not the majority.

This is the worst of all worlds for Hillary.  Some voters are abandoning her due to electability fears, showing that as the email fun continues and worsens (it can get worse over the next several weeks, but she won’t be exonerated anytime soon), she can lose additional support, but most haven’t left yet for that reason.  So the floor is still further below her.

Bernie’s name recognition is much higher than a few months ago, but not all Democrats have really examined his positions compared to Hillary or other mainstream Democratic elected officials.  Most have not.  Most have not heard him speak for more than a sound bite or six.  She can still lose more voters for non-scandal reasons.  Some of her remaining 45-50% agree with Bernie more than Hillary.

If the numbers in February are where they are now, even where they are now with a little erosion as 5% of voters move toward Bernie for ideological/hey we really can make everyone Feel the Bern reasons, that still leaves Hillary with enough support to squeak across the finish line.  However, a few other things are very possible:

  1. Biden enters race
  2. Scandal gets worse
  3. Hillary loses support with African-Americans

Any one of these things will cost Hillary 5-7 points.  If all three happen, she’s done.  Worst of all, any or all can happen at any point in the next several months.  I’ve listed them in the most likely order, but if Biden passes on running now, he could decide to jump in if Hillary weakens further.

Hillary’s true floor, assuming she isn’t indicted, is in the 25% range.  There is a segment of voters who have supported her through thick, thin and Bill over three past couple decades.  Women of a Certain Age will stay on board.  Some Bill Clinton fans will stay on board.  A few admire Hillary’s Rocky-like ability to get up off the canvas.

There is another swath of Democrats who would support her to the death if she was running against a Republican, but progressive ideologues would have Bernie and Democratic partisans Biden.  African-Americans are favorably disposed to Hillary, but they were in 2008 too.  As late as December 2007, polls had Hillary ahead of Obama among black voters (his initial support was among many of the voters favoring Sanders now).

Right now, Hillary has overwhelming support.  The only direction to go is down.  Bernie Sanders knows how to count.  He knows you can’t win a Democratic primary with 8% African-American support.  Yes, there is some friction between the pasty left and #BlackLivesMatter.  No, this will not turn into ugly intercine warfare.  Sanders is already starting to pivot.  He can grab 20-25%.

Remember, a 26-year-old black voter doesn’t remember Bill “Toni Morrison Called Me the First Black President” Clinton very well.  However, he or she may have a solid inkling of the 25-35% unemployment rate for younger African-Americans (depending on which numbers you use).

Joe Biden might suffer from occasional verbal dysentery, but he can count too.  Joe knows #BlackVotesMatter.  To win, Joe needs a plurality of African-American votes, but to make Hillary bleed out, he just needs another 20-25% for himself.

Again, this is assuming no indictment, no deal cut with prosecutors, no President Obama official endorsement of his Veep, no behind the scenes release of records to push Hillary out.

Back to the odds.

I’m going to say there’s a 70% chance of the scandal getting noticeably worse.  We’ll dock Hillary 5 points (70% x 7 points impact).

I’m going to say there’s a 80% chance Bernie picks up another 15 points of black support.  At 25% of the Democratic primary electorate, that’s 3.75 points, multiply by 80% and that’s 3 points.

Hillary is at 45-50% now.

Further ideological/viability drift to Bernie: 5

Scandal: 5

African-Americans: 3

Total is 13, pulling Hillary down to 32-37%.

With Biden on the sidelines, 11 to 12 of those points go to Bernie, at most one or two to bystander Biden.

Bernie moves to 40-43%.

Let’s say this is now November/December.  Can Joe enter?  Don’t think so.  His floor of support is in the 10-15% range.  Hillary’s floor is 25%.  If you pull the whole 7-10% of her remaining support above that amount to Biden, he’s somewhere between 17-25%.  Now you need to hope a bunch of Sanders voters are worried about electability.

I have a (unproven) feeling that Bernie’s current 28-30% number is closer to his floor than ceiling, at least until it would become mathematically impossible for him to get nominated.  This makes it really hard to get Biden past the 30-35% range.  This is assuming nobody defrosts the politically cryogenically frozen Al Gore or John Kerry.  It assumes nobody else jumps in.  It assumes people continue to disregard Martin O’Malley.

With the lowest floor of the three, Biden would be a late-entry competitor of well-funded and organized opponents.  Not only would the nomination be a tremendous fight, but his possible status as a convention (or sooner) fallback in case nobody can get a delegate majority or Hillary got indicted is harmed each time he finishes third in a primary or caucus.

So, strategically, Biden either needs to go now, or much later.  What does much later look like?  The old days.

If he waits much past October/November, Biden misses filing deadlines in a bunch of places.  His goal as a late entrant is as a compromise candidate or Indicted Hillary replacement.  Both involve showing he could win in November 2016.  That involves giving his campaign team a road test and running in a few strategic primaries, ideally in competitive states (think Ohio if the deadline works).

He could make up for starting late and having fewer resources by choosing the field of battle.  This would also help block either Hillary or Bernie from reaching a delegate majority.  About 20% of the delegates are not part of the primary/caucus process.  If Biden grabbed 10-15% on his surgical strikes, unless Hillary or Bernie got the vast majority of the remainder, nobody would have this locked up.

2012 had very early primaries and caucuses and very late conventions.  This year, candidates (and their PACs) have deeper pockets too.  So last time, there was an incentive to decide things early.  Hillary tried to knock Obama out in February.  When she couldn’t, and ran short of funds, insiders effectively ended things by telegraphing their support for Obama.

Even if Republicans have a pre-convention candidate, the odds aren’t great there will be a clear nominee before California votes in early June (the irony of a hella blue state picking the GOP standard-bearer is another issue for another post).

This takes the pressure off of Dems to make an early decision.  Better to wait and see what happens with the scandal, wait to see if you’re running against Rubio or Cruz, Jeb or Walker, maybe Kasich, etc.  The Republicans have the first convention, so will show their cards first.

If Joe goes now, he’s got to be really ready.  Ready to organize.  Ready to fight on two fronts.  He needs voters from Bernie and Hillary, and the arguments are totally different.

The first debate is October 13 in Nevada.  That incidentally is a state that Go Now Joe probably needs to win.  Biden will decide by Labor Day if he’s getting in anytime soon, but if her opts in, should probably let suspense build until 9/20-25.  That would give him 2-3 weeks to warm up while also building pre-debate momentum.

A good debate performance and this gets really interesting.

I think Biden’s best odds are choosing the very late entry option.  It’s the easiest to execute and puts him in a position to peak over the summer and then push toward the November finish line.

I don’t think Biden will choose that option.  It requires a ton of patience.  Biden is dogged and determined.  He’s a great family man.  He’s no more patient than quiet.  If he doesn’t think he wants to run, he won’t pick that option.  He’ll stay quiet and either enter in November if Hillary takes on more water, or stay out if he really doesn’t want to do this.

I still think he’ll pick option one and enter the race in September.  Two weeks ago, I thought in by Labor Day.  Slightly amending that to deciding to enter by Labor Day, possibly announcing up to two weeks later.

If Biden enters on that timetable, his odds of nomination are still in the 30-35% range I figured a couple weeks ago.

40-45% for Hillary, down from 50% or better a couple weeks ago.  She’s backslid faster than I figured.

10-15% for Bernie.  He’s looking more viable by the day.

5-15% for Mystery Nominee.

Stay tuned….

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