On Today’s Show

How I define a “major” candidate, what happens when you get a “page not found” error on candidates’ websites, Steyer signs the no-fossil-fuel pledge, and the DNC warns 2020 campaigns not to use FaceApp.


Show Transcript

Note: This is the speaking script for the show, so the audio as delivered will differ very slightly from the below. This script also does not include audio clips from third-party sources, or advertisements, which may appear at various points in the show.

How I define a “major” candidate

First up today, I’m going to revisit a topic I covered way back on April 10th, when, let’s face it, almost none of y’all were listening. If you HAVE binged the whole show, I guess tell me on Twitter and I will send you a special emoji or something.

Anyway, today’s question is, “How do I define a so-called ‘major’ candidate?” This came up on Twitter recently, in light of my ongoing coverage of former Senator Mike Gravel, and it does expose some of the innate problems in trying to sort out what we mean when we say a candidate is major, versus, well, something less than that.

I base my thinking here on an article published in FiveThirtyEight way back on March 28th. That one is by Nate Silver, and it’s titled, “Here’s How We’re Defining a ‘Major’ Presidential Candidate.” In the article, Silver lays out a series of objective points that candidates can get. If they get enough points, they’re major. If they don’t, they’re not.

Now, part of why this matters is that there are literally hundreds of people running on the Democratic ticket right now—you could go do that tomorrow if you wanted to, and had time to fill out the paperwork. So as a matter of media coverage, we have to distinguish between those hundreds of people, many of whom have never raised a single dollar and are presumably running for president just to check it off some weird bucket-list, versus…you know…people who have campaigns and stuff.

Okay, so I think one way to examine this is the story of Mike Gravel, who, let’s face it, is about to cease being a major candidate anyway. But when I first talked about him, Gravel had just announced a few days prior. Let me read from my own script back in early April.

“Let’s talk for a moment about Mike Gravel, who just announced on Monday. He is running a single-issue campaign with the stated intent to do three things: first, get into the Democratic primary debates; second, raise a ruckus during those debates; and third, quit the race after the second debate and donate any remaining money to charities, including clean water for Flint, Michigan.
Now, Gravel is a former US Senator from Alaska. He served from 1969 through 1981, and is currently living as a retiree in California. His candidacy this year was put together—literally, the paperwork was done for him—by a group of students who are enthusiastic champions for his cause.
So, does Mike Gravel count as a major candidate? I mean, he’s a former Senator with decades of experience, so he’s got that. But does his stated goal of not playing to win somehow make him minor? How do we even figure that out?”

Okay, so that’s where the FiveThirtyEight definition becomes really handy. In that rubric, you can either qualify for ANY of the DNC debates—even if you don’t hit the stage, just qualifying would be enough to be considered a major candidate. And we KNOW we have 21 of those right now. But what about the candidates who have not yet qualified? Well, Nate Silver has a plan for that. He wants to see a candidate meet any SIX out of the following TEN requirements. This is a long list, so prepare yourself.

“1. Has formally begun a campaign (not merely formed an exploratory committee)
2. Is running to win (not merely to draw attention to an issue)
3. Has hired at least three full-time staffers (or equivalents)
4. Is routinely campaigning outside of their home state*
5. Is included as a named option in at least half of polls*
6. Gets at least half as much media coverage as candidates who qualified for the debate*
7. Receives at least half as much Google search traffic as candidates who qualified for the debate*
8. Receives at least one endorsement from an endorser FiveThirtyEight is tracking
9. Has held any public office (elected or appointed)
10. Has held a major public office (president, vice president, governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, mayor of a city of at least 300,000 people, or member of a presidential Cabinet)”

When Silver first wrote that, he did the math and came up with 14 major candidates, but did not include Joe Biden because at the time, Biden had not announced his campaign yet. Also, at that time, Silver explicitly said he did NOT see Gravel as a major candidate. If you added up the points back then, Gravel likely would have gotten one point each for: announcing a real campaign; hiring three full-time staffers; getting at least half as much media coverage as candidates who qualified for the debate; having held any public office; and having held a MAJOR public office. That’s only five points, and you need six to become major. Well, at some point Silver DID flip Gravel into his “major” column—and if I remember correctly, it was on the day that Gravel tweeted to say he is indeed in it to win it.

Okay, so this points out yet another problem with this approach. Gravel started out saying, explicitly, he’s a protest candidate and intends to drop out. But then later he says, nope, changed my mind. So…which statement do we trust? To me, it has to be the most recent statement. I can’t assume that a candidate is lying when they say something, unless they have a really consistent pattern of doing that in the past, and Gravel does not have that. So, he’s major. Does that mean he has any chance of winning the presidency? No, of course not. What about the Democratic nomination? Well, no, not that either.

But he’s not alone in being somebody who doesn’t have a solid chance. And here’s my question: does he deserve some kind of media attention given the amount of energy, money, staff time, and though that he’s put into his campaign? Well, yeah. In my opinion, he does. And so does everybody else on my major-candidate list, including people like Mayor Wayne Messam who has a campaign with virtually no money, no national profile, and who likely will never qualify for a debate. Should candidates in that category get AS MUCH COVERAGE as people who are more actively campaigning, or have bigger operations? Probably not. But, if this is a contest of ideas, and I believe it should be, we have to give these people some credit and at least put them on our list.

Another more recent example of this issue was when former Pennsylvania Representative Joe Sestak announced his candidacy, followed by former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. At first, Silver considered NEITHER of them to be major.

So let’s look at why. It’s really simple. Let’s take Sestak as an example. Silver just went back to the points system he already published, added them up for Sestak, and said, not major right now, he’s only got five points. But then by July 15th, that calculation changed when Sestak started appearing on pollsters’ lists of possible candidates. At that moment, Sestak hit the six-point threshold and became a major candidate.

As of July 9th, an article in FiveThirtyEight said that Tom Steyer was NOT yet a major candidate because he only got two or maybe three points on the list, depending on how you count. But, given the long history of watching this now, it seems completely inevitable to me that Steyer will become major, so I don’t think it’s worth pretending he’s not, given that we know he’s walking around throwing money at things, buying TV ads, hiring staff, signing pledges, you name it. He’s gonna get there. So for me, he’s already on my list—I’m tracking him today. And I won’t be surprised if Nate Silver starts doing the same within a week or two.

What happens when you get a “page not found” error on candidates’ websites

Okay, this one is short and sweet, and I think it’s pretty great.

Over at Mashable, Marcus Gilmer took on the unenviable task of visiting every primary candidate’s website and punching in a broken link. In the parlance of web developers, this is called a “404” error, which is web code for “there is no page at this address.” Now, on a lot of websites—like my own—if you go to some random garbage page, or a page that used to be there and moved, you get a super generic message that just literally says, “404 Page Not Found.” But, people with time and budgets like to customize these things. So Gilmer dug in, and decided to rank them.

At the very bottom position, at #26, Gilmer started with President Donald Trump, who, technically, is kind of running as a primary candidate, and does technically have at least one challenger, though that’s probably not going anywhere. Anyway, he does have a 2020 campaign site, and a custom 404 page. That page says, “Oops! This is awkward. You’re looking for something that doesn’t exist. Try going to our homepage.” But what makes it totally Trumpy is a giant image of Hillary Clinton on that page. Well, okay, then, Candidate Trump. Maybe update that one, eh?

In seventh place is Beto O’Rourke, whose 404 page shows a looping GIF of him applying his own campaign bumper sticker to a dented car, along with the headline, “Let’s make this a happy accident.” Below that, there’s some helpful text, and then a link to go buy that sticker for yourself.

And in third place is a real winner. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s 404 page includes a Star Wars reference, a “Nevertheless, she persisted” reference, a Saturday Night Live YouTube clip featuring Kate McKinnon playing Warren on Weekend Update, AND links to Volunteer and Donate. I think she’s covered essentially every nerdy base there is in one page.

There’s a link in the show notes to find the rest of them—the article is actually a little out of date, and you’ll see that the top 404 page is from Eric Swalwell’s site, which is now defunct, and the list doesn’t include some of the most recent candidates.

But still, you’ll be pretty surprised what Cory Booker, Steve Bullock, Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, and Amy Klobuchar managed to do with their pages—very, VERY on-brand.

Steyer signs the no-fossil-fuel pledge

Wednesday evening, the latest entrant to this field, Tom Steyer, took the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. He becomes the 22nd major primary candidate to do this. The only candidates who have NOT signed the pledge are Montana Governor Steve Bullock, former Representative John Delaney, and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.

I’ve covered the pledge before on this show, but it has been several months, and I think it’s worth revisiting. Here’s the full text of the pledge:

“I pledge not to take contributions over $200 [dollars] from oil, gas, and coal industry executives, lobbyists, and PACs, and instead prioritize the health of our families, climate, and democracy over fossil fuel industry profits.”

The website further reads:

“Taking the pledge means that you and your campaign will adopt a policy to not knowingly accept any contributions over $200 [dollars] from the PACs, lobbyists, or SEC-named executives of fossil fuel companies — companies whose primary business is the extraction, processing, distribution, or sale of oil, gas, or coal. Click here for an indicative list of these companies — this is not a complete list, but an indication of the type of fossil fuel company covered by the pledge.”

… and of course there is a link to a spreadsheet of national and regional companies covered by the pledge.

And for it’s worth, this pledge is not just for presidential candidates—any politician can take it, and you go right into their database of signatories as long as you fill out a form and provide some basic proof that you signed the thing.

There’s also a lengthy FAQ, because of course, there are some practical issues that can come up if you happen to receive a donation but did not realize that it was somehow attached to an executive at one of these companies. Here’s an example:

What should a pledge signer do if they receive a prohibited contribution?
If a politician who has taken the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge receives a prohibited contribution, the campaign should act within a reasonable timeframe to address the contribution. The preferred action is for the campaign to return the money. Alternatively, contributing an equivalent amount to a climate justice organization working to stop the climate crisis and protect impacted communities (an organization that is not a No Fossil Fuel Money coalition member) will be considered sufficient action to stay in good standing with the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.”

The DNC warns 2020 campaigns not to use FaceApp

And last up, a warning about Russian artificial intelligence on your smartphones.

Wednesday evening, the DNC contacted all the 2020 primary campaigns to warn them, and their staff, not to use FaceApp on their smartphones. To be super-clear, we’re talking about the app called FaceApp, not the many other things with the word “Face” in them, like FaceTime or Facebook or whatever.

Okay, reading from a CNN article by Donnie O’Sullivan,

“"This app allows users to perform different transformations on photos of people, such as aging the person in the picture. Unfortunately, this novelty is not without risk: FaceApp was developed by Russians," the alert from Bob Lord, the DNC's chief security officer, read.
FaceApp, which was released in 2017, went viral this week with celebrities and other public personalities all around the world sharing photos of themselves edited through the app. The app's makers [say] it uses artificial intelligence technology to edit the photos.
Responding to concerns from some security experts, the makers told TechCrunch, "Even though the core R&D team is located in Russia, the user data is not transferred to Russia."”

Now, if you’ll recall, the DNC has a genuinely valid beef with Russia and computer stuff, after the 2016 election and the Mueller Report and all that stuff, so just trusting the app maker, based in Russia, that it’s not, you know, somehow accidentally doing something with that data…well, let’s just say the DNC isn’t taking any chances.

The DNC recommended that all campaign staffers delete the app immediately, and even broadened this recommendation to include, “people in the Democratic ecosystem.” So I guess that includes me, and maybe you? I don’t know. Good thing I never tried the app, I guess, but this just makes me wonder what’s next?


Well, that is it for one more episode of the Election Ride Home. I have been your host, Chris Higgins. You can always find me on Twitter @chrishiggins. Well, today is a travel day for me so I recorded this very, very early in the morning Pacific time. Tomorrow’s show will be brought to you from Boston, assuming I can figure out the alarm clocks and stuff. On my way to Maine after tomorrow’s show, where I’m told that Saturday’s “feels-like” temperature could be 100 degrees. Oh, that’s a feelin’. As always, thanks for listening and I will talk to y’all tomorrow.