Dr. Kalyanaram is a highly cited scholar whose research covers Management Science; Education and Public Policy; Economics; and Innovation.  He has been a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, and the East-European and Russian Research Center.  

What does the data tell us about Democratic Party Presidential Primaries: Joe Biden is the clear (and even compelling) leader, He is most electable, and All other inferences are not robust(for Now)

What does the data tell us about Democratic Party Presidential Primaries: Joe Biden is the clear (and even compelling) leader, He is most electable, and All other inferences are not robust(for Now)

This essay was published in medium.com.

The Democratic Party presidential primaries are now in full force. At least, twenty candidates are seeking the nomination. Already, one candidate has ended his campaign.

As we enter the second debate among the candidates on July 30th and 31st in Detroit, here is what polling data tells us.  (For all polling data, please see here and here.)

The Data is Consistent and Clear: Joe Biden is the leader, but the immediate rival is muddled

1.      With the entry of Joe Biden in late April, the field was set.  All through the months of May and June, Joe Biden was the leader of the group polling on average about 33-35 percent of the primary votes and about 12-15 points ahead of the nearest rival. While this number was stable, it was not clear who was the second in command.  Sanders was the second in command initially, but later Warren gained and she was second in command at least in some of the surveys.

2.      The first debate among the candidates in late June marked the first significant event to evoke the interest of the electorate.  After the debate, Joe Biden was still the leader (even by the low numbers estimated by Quinnipiac and CNN polls immediately after the debate) and on average by at least 5-6 points.  Biden was polling around 25-27 percent.  But, yet again, the order in the next tier was unclear.  Some surveys showed Kamala Harris as the clear second, others Sanders and yet others Warren.  But more often than all the three candidates – Harris, Sanders and Warren – were relatively close enough to share the second place. 

3.      A month later, as we enter the second debate, Joe Biden is again the leader – almost prohibitive leader – averaging about 31-32 percent and leading the nearest rival by about 15 points.  The same Quinnipiac poll which placed Biden at 22 percent and Harris at 20 percent immediately after the first debate now places Biden at 34 and Harris at 12 percent.  Yet again, the data tells us that Biden is the leader – no ifs and buts.  But what about the second place?  That continues to be contingent on the estimate.  Some measures show Warren and others show Sanders as the closest rival.  It is also fairly clear that Harris has fallen to the fourth place averaging about 10-12 percent.

4.      Throughout the period, Cory Booker has remained stable – but stagnant – about 2 percent.  Though he did well in the first debate, that did not change the dynamics.  The first debate produced a bounce for Kamala Harris but that bounce has not sustained.

Early Polling Leaders Generally Win the Nomination: Advantage Biden

Data from the last 30 years tells us that Joe Biden is likely to the nominee of the Democratic party for presidency.  “The early polling leader often went on to win a party’s nomination.”

Why is this the case?  Empirical research tells us that human beings are risk-averse, and tend to stay with their initial preference unless there is extra-ordinary reason to switch – and that switch to be permanent it is even more challenging. Two, human beings also rationalize their choices.  They defend their preferences.  They always compare their choice more favorably to the other alternatives (asymmetric comparison.)  

And then we have these two biases favoring Joe Biden.  One, when consumers/human beings are presented with too many choices then there is cognitive over load and inertia over takes assessment.  Two, when a choice/brand is well-known most of the information (positive or negative) are priced in.  Three, human beings bring a sense of “fairness” to their assessment. 

Can a Rival Displace Joe Biden?
So, contrary to changing narratives in media Joe Biden has been the leader and will continue to be the leader unless there is a structural change in the contest. What might be the structural changes?

1.      Extra-ordinarily adverse information on Joe Biden.  Not policy nuances.  This is unlikely because Biden has been in public life for 50 years.

2.      The race narrows to 2-3 individuals.  That is unlikely too – at least not till the race is almost decided.  Sanders, Warren and Harris are in for good.  Possibly even Peter Buttigieg.

3.      One of the candidates shows that she/he is more electable – that is, she/he would beat President Trump more persuasively.  That is not likely because if that were to be the case, she/he would be the front-runner or at least a close second. It is a recursive/endogenous phenomenon.  Or put it differently, it is a virtuous cycle.

4.      Dramatically different positioning from Biden.  That is not emerging because it is difficult and there are too many candidates.  A great example of differentiated positioning is Sanders in 2016 – very different from Clinton. He almost beat Clinton in the primaries.

What about those exceptions?  Exceptions prove the Rule

What about those exceptions when the leading candidate did not get the nomination?  They are just that.  Exceptions.  It is fallacy to generalize the exceptions.  In fact, the exceptions reinforce the generalization.  This is called ‘falsiability’ in science.  For a rule/generalization to be true, it must be falsiable.  That is, there must be exceptions. 

One oft-cited exception is the 2008 Democratic party contest, where Clinton was leading Obama by over 10 points 4-5 months before the start the primaries.  Fair enough.  This and other exceptions prove the rule.  But the 2008 contest can also be explained by many elements but one of them is the ever-disappointing favorability rating of Hillary Clinton.  When she was contesting against Barack Obama, her favorability rating was in the low 50s at best.  In 2018 when she was in political combat, her favorability rating was 36.

Too many choices are paralyzing, and lead to inertia: Advantage Biden

Science tell us that when human beings are offered too many choices, they freeze.  Cognitive overload leads to inertia, and assessments are minimal. There is literally a paralysis in decision-making.  Given that there are 20 candidates, most voters are overwhelmed.  So, the front-runner is an easy choice.

Will Biden Beat Trump?  Why is Biden so ‘Electable’?

If Biden is here to say, will Biden beat Trump?  The data is persuasive that Biden will beat Trump.  But even more persuasive is this:  of all the contenders, Biden beats Trump most handsomely not only in national numbers but also even in an improbable state such as Texas.  In a California poll which found Harris as the leader by small margin, Biden was considered most “electable” by a large margin.  Biden beats Trump in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  So it goes.

Why is he considered so electable?  Because, for a variety of reasons, Biden is affable and likeable.  For someone who has been in electoral politics for almost 50 years, Biden’s favorability ratings are astounding: in the high 60s or low 70s.  Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Biden’s sometimes awkward conduct and gaffes humanize him, and make him authentic.  In public life, authenticity is perhaps the most compelling attribute.

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