21 Democrats still running for president

Most only have a small chance of winning

By Harry Enten, CNN
Copyright 2019 CNN

On stage: Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, Andrew Yang, Bill de Blasio, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

(CNN) - The Democratic primary dropouts are coming a mile a minute now. Earlier this week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee decided to depart the 2020 presidential race. Now, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton is bowing out.

Both, like most of the primary field, were polling well below 5%. Both, like a majority of the field, were unlikely to make the September debates because they failed to hit 2% in any qualifying poll. (You need at least 2% in four qualifying polls.)

Inslee and Moulton seemed to see the writing on the wall. Indeed, the chance that any of the remaining candidates polling below 5% win the nomination isn't zero, but it is small.

With those dropouts, there are 21 Democrats running for president. All but five (former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren) are averaging below 5% in the polls. That is about 75% of the field below 5%.

While we still have a while to go until the Iowa caucuses, a FiveThirtyEight study shows that national polls in the second half of the year leading up to the primary have been telling. In primaries without an incumbent running since 1972, I count 86 candidates who ended up running and averaged less than 5% in the polls. Just one, Jimmy Carter, went on to win the nomination (and, as we know, the presidency).

Another way to look at it is that we're examining 16 primaries since 1972. Only one time (6%) has a candidate polling below 5% in the second half of the year before the primaries gone on to win the nomination. That's not nothing, but it's certainly not indicative of a wide open contest where anyone can win.

This lines up with what potential Democratic primary voters are telling pollsters. In our latest CNN poll, voters were asked to name up to three candidates, besides their current choice for the nomination, they wanted to hear more about. None of the candidates polling below 5% in the horserace were able to get above 10% on this question. Voters, at least at this point, aren't all that interested in the lower tier.

The national picture matches up with what we see in Iowa. The same five 2020 Democratic candidates are at or above 5%. None of the other candidates reach the 5% threshold. If we examine primary fields since 1980 (when we have polling), there have been 52 candidates polling below 5% at this point. One, George H.W. Bush, went on to win the caucuses in 1980. He didn't go on to win the nomination.

In fact, Bill Clinton is the only candidate since 1980 who has won the Democratic nomination while polling below 5% in Iowa at this point. That 1992 primary season featured home state Sen. Tom Harkin, which makes it a somewhat ahistorical comparison.

In other words, one of 14 times (7%) has a major party nominee been polling below 5% in Iowa at this point. This is the same percentage of the time the Iowa caucuses winner has been someone polling below 5% in Iowa at this point.

Our June CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll points to the problem for those polling under 5%: Likely caucusgoers are overwhelmed. Only 18% of likely in-person caucusgoers liked that they have so many choices. Most (79%) wanted at least one or two of the candidates to drop out. A similarly high 74% wanted several or most of the candidates to drop out.

Eventually, that reality will begin to set in for most of the campaigns. This will either happen when the fundraising dries up or actual election results show a lack of support.

Of course, maybe this year will be a lucky one for the under 5% club. To quote Angels in the Outfield, "It could happen." There are so many low polling candidates running, after all.

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