Kamala Harris is the Democratic frontrunner, but she’s not the favorite

Posted at 1:24 PM, Feb 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-15 16:27:19-05

Our 2020 new Democratic primary power rankings were released on Thursday. Sen. Kamala Harris from California remains the most likely to win the nomination.

But what exactly does that mean?

Let’s just say there’s a reason we have said our rankings “can and will change between now and when the first ballots are cast.” That is, the fight for the 2020 Democratic nomination is wide open.

Although we don’t issue odds about the nomination, we can get a pretty good idea of where things stand by looking at the betting markets. This a place where people bet on the chance of a candidate winning the nomination. From these bets, we can derive probabilities of each candidate winning. PredictWise has done exactly that. I should note that these odds will fluctuate during the primary season.

For now, Harris is the frontrunner in pretty much all the markets, but that doesn’t make her the favorite. This distinction is important because, depending on which market you look at, Harris has between a 1-in-5 (20%) chance and 1-in-4 (25%) chance of winning the nomination. While this is higher than all the other candidates individually, it’s not particularly high. There is a 3-in-4 (75%) to 4-in-5 (80%) chance that someone other than Harris is the Democratic nominee in 2020.

Put another way, Harris’ chance to win the 2020 Democratic nomination at this moment is less than about the chance that you’ll get heads twice in a row when flipping a coin. Sure, there are many times when that happens, but usually you end up with at least one tail.

The 2020 Democratic primary is the mirror opposite of the 2016 Democratic primary in the betting markets. At roughly this point in that cycle, the betting markets gave Hillary Clinton a 3-in-4 (75%) chance of winning the Democratic nomination. So the chance of someone other than Harris winning the nomination is roughly equivalent of the chance that Clinton, who was regarded as a heavy favorite and did eventually win, had of taking the 2016 Democratic nomination.

Still, Harris is the frontrunner compared to where other candidates are. If you believe the markets, the candidates ranked 2nd and 3rd in our power rankings (Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke) each have about a 1-in-6 to 1-in-7 (15%) chance of winning the nomination. In other words, each have the same chance of rolling a 6 on a six-sided die. Assuming statistical independence, the chance of either Biden or O’Rourke winning the nomination is greater than chance of Harris taking it.

Even when you add together the probabilities of the top three in our rankings, it indicates that there’s roughly a 50% chance someone outside our top three will become the Democratic nominee. So, it’s basically a coin toss of whether Biden, Harris, O’Rourke or someone else will become the Democratic nominee in 2020.

Of course, knowing who the candidate who might emerge who isn’t Biden, Harris or O’Rourke is less clear. All of the other candidates individually have roughly a 1/10 (10%) or less chance of winning.

Keep in mind too, there are candidates who are officially running or may end up running who aren’t even in our power rankings. Using the betting markets again, there’s about a 1-in-20 (5%) to 1-in-10 (10%) chance that someone who isn’t in our top 10 wins the nomination. That may seem small, though it’s roughly the chance of randomly asking a 2016 general voter who they cast a ballot for and them answering “third party”. Now obviously most people voted for either Clinton or Trump, though you probably know a few Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin or Jill Stein voters.

The bottom line is you cannot sleep on the 2020 primary. Harris is the frontrunner, but there’s a real chance for something surprising to happen.