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- For frontrunners like Joe Biden, the debates are a zero-sum game where his ample but finite support is lost and won.
- For candidates like Andrew Yang, every minute plugging his ambitious if polarizing idea on national television is a chance incrementally grow his audience and secure his ticket to the next debate.
- Biden, maxed out on notoriety, stands to gain very little from the debate, as his key electability argument is undermined each time someone also looks presidential.
- Yang is only known by a quarter of Democrats, but people who know him tend to be satisfied with him as nominee compared to other long shots.
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The debate on Wednesday was our second look at how frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden can contend with a scrum of rivals trying to land a hit on former President Barack Obama’s right hand guy. It was also our second look at how a candidate like Andrew Yang, who is light on political experience but heavy on one ambitious policy proposal, can hang in the debates.
The results are clear: the debates are a gauntlet to be braved by the likes of Biden, whose key advantage in the race is the perception he’s best equipped to beat President Trump in a general election. On the other hand, they’re a major opportunity for candidates like Yang, who is pushing a universal basic income proposal that’ll motivate a smaller yet ravenously motivated group of supporters and organizers.
Simply put, Biden gains nothing by getting attacked on television by a half dozen politicians two hours a month every month through January, while Yang’s using the specific debate entry requirements laid out by the DNC to fuel his momentum.
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We can see this in the data: INSIDER has been conducting a series of national polls through SurveyMonkey Audience over the course of the primary, specifically listening to respondents who said they were registered to vote and would likely participate in their state’s Democratic primary or caucus.
Other polls are valuable because they determine the current state of the race by asking people who they’d support. Ours instead asks who among the field voters would be satisfied with as nominee, which lets us analyze different shared constituencies and who’s fighting who for the same voter.
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Biden’s core strength is electability.
Based on our data, two thirds of the the 3,330 voting Democrats we’ve surveyed since April who know Biden said they think he’d beat Trump in a general election. Less than 20 percent think he’d lose.
A majority of people surveyed, politics aside, think he’d beat Trump.
Not one other candidate can claim that perception. That’s why he’s in the lead, that’s why he’s the person everyone is going after.
Perception is also very malleable, and that’s one reason that some of the most potent attacks of the evening — thinking specifically of Sen. Cory Booker‘s critique of his role in the 1994 crime bill, which led to an extended discussion of criminal justice issues that Biden seemed to struggle on — come down to issues where Biden could falter in a general.
What’s more, Biden doesn’t even have to look less electable to forfeit this advantage. Other people just have to look more electable than they currently are.
Biden’s fans like every other candidate less than your typical Democrat.
We can determine, based on the overall results of the survey, the percentage of Democrats who’d be satisfied with a given candidate. We can also determine the percentage of Biden fans who’d be satisfied with every other candidate.
With those two pieces of information, we can figure out which candidates are favored or disfavored by a his constituency compared to the overall set. Most candidates have rivals their constituencies are sympathetic to — Sen. Kamala Harris‘ fans were more likely to also like Sen. Elizabeth Warren by 16 percentage points, Sen. Cory Booker by 9 percentage points, and Biden by 5 percentage points — but Biden’s fans are down on all the other candidates.
They’re down on Mayor Pete Buttigieg by 20 points, down on Harris by 11 points, Warren by 7 points and Booker by 8 points. But when Biden is on stage next to those people, that’s a chance for those supporters to get exposure to rivals, and maybe like them a bit more. Sure, every time he’s on stage is 20 minutes he gets to address America, but 2 hours and 40 minutes for his rivals to appeal to his supporters too.
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Yang’s policy is polarizing, but in the DNC debate format polarizing is better than neutral.
On the other hand, as Andrew Yang pointed out, he’s in the fourth position on the stage. He’s polling better than a suite of senators and representatives and one mayor. Why that is remains complicated, but in a lot of ways it comes down to a bold if polarizing policy that appeals to a type of wonkish Democrat.
There are 11 candidates we’re polling who are known by fewer than a third of Democratic voters, and Yang — known by a quarter of respondents — has by far the best satisfaction rate among them.
A quarter of people familiar with him would be satisfied with him as nominee. Not to belabor that, but compared to the overall field, that’s better than Marianne Williamson, Rep. Seth Moulton, Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Tim Ryan, Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Rep. John Delaney, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Michael Bennet, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and on par with former HUD Secretary Julian Castro.
The DNC, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to make small donors and national polling the thresholds for punching a ticket to the next primetime debate. A candidate with a polarizing but attractive policy for a subset of the party is well-suited to make that threshold, as Yang has very nearly already done.
Contrast that with any number of rivals who are struggling to assemble the passionate donor base Yang enjoys thanks to his ambitious if divisive policy.
Biden maxed out on recognition. Yang’s only known by a quarter of Democrats.
This all leads to the major point that Biden has very little to gain by being up there. Eighty-three percent of Democratic respondents are familiar with him, which at this early stage in the race is about the best you’re going to get. That’s been flat since December. Yang, with a quarter recognition, as well as other issue-based candidacies like the climate-based appeal of Gov. Jay Inslee, stand to gain quite a bit.
Inevitably, frontrunners will attract attention in a crowded debate field. But looking at some early frontrunners of previous years — be they Sen. John McCain, Gov. Howard Dean, Gov. Mitt Romney, Gov. Mike Huckabee, or Donald Trump — they still, at least, stood to gain something be it notoriety or political messaging by being in the mix. Biden stands to gain quite little, as by and large his case of winability doesn’t work particularly well in a sloppy debate format.
But for Yang, it couldn’t be better. Nowhere to go but up, and a monthly allocation of 10 minutes to plug UBI.
In short, Biden’s advantage diminishes with every minute a rival has on national television, while Yang’s advantage only grows. For a frontrunner and serious candidate like Biden, each debate is a zero-sum game, where finite support is won and lost minute by minute. For a long shot like Yang, each debate is a value add.
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