If we believe the odds, there’s at least an 80% chance the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders. You might think the number is even higher. But none are in the sort of unassailable position that guarantees nomination.
If you get anywhere near even odds on those three against the field, take the three. This isn’t over yet. And even more likely than a nominee from the second tier is one of these candidates making some real noise. There’s one big condition. It can only be one of them.
I can’t game out a reasonable scenario where two or more of these candidates survive Iowa and have enough space for either to start winning primaries soon after. The way one wins or places high enough in Iowa is to effectively eliminate the others. Making a dent on Super Tuesday is near impossible if there are multiple alternatives to the Top Three.
There are five candidates I believe are technically capable of going on a run and contending for the nomination. Given that the first step is doing well in Iowa, I’m listing two stats from the new CNN/Des Moines Register Iowa poll.
First is the percentage of voters that have the candidate as their first choice, second choice, or further down but under active consideration. Second is the percentage of voters who view that candidate very favorably.
In a general election, it’s best to look at overall favorability. In a primary, most voters are picking someone they view very favorably. If a candidate has a small first choice poll number, but high very favorable numbers and high under consideration numbers, they have a lot of upside if and when they get any polling momentum.
These five do not have equal odds. Not even close. Here they are in current order of feasibility:
#1 Pete Buttigieg (55% at least considering, 33% very favorable)
If I were betting, I’d give Mayor Pete better odds than the rest of the list combined. He’s by far the best positioned. First, he’s ahead of them in the polls. Just barely in front of Harris, noticeably past the others.
Not sure if it was the most recent debate, the regular ebb and flow of a campaign, or what, but Buttigieg reversed the negative momentum that cut his national support in half over the previous several months. It was a gradual drop, and he didn’t have the highs Kamala did, but his days of being close to Warren in polls were long over.
His most recent national Economist/YouGov poll is up 3 over the previous. Latest Fox News survey up 2 over the preceding. This isn’t a ton, but the others would gladly trade with him. Moving from having every survey neutral or down to having each one neutral or up is a big deal.
More importantly, he runs well ahead of his national numbers in Iowa. And he’s a bit ahead of them in New Hampshire. The first two states set up very well for Mayor Pete. A recent Iowa poll had him third, ahead of Sanders. The “gold standard” Des Moines Register survey has him a solid fourth.
He’s got a lot of money. Only the top three have matched his effectiveness. Even if his Q3 numbers are down because he dropped in the polls, he’s got plenty in the bank. Indications are he still brought in a good amount. He has more small donor support than Biden and is more willing to chase large contributors than Sanders and Warren. If he starts having electoral success, the potential is endless.
The weakness of Harris and possible withdrawal of Booker limits two candidates who appeal to many of the same upper income, more educated voters Buttigieg does. The trick for any of these candidates is to get far enough in polls to convince voters to jump on the bandwagon.
Mayor Pete has the second best (to Warren) very favorable numbers of any candidate in Iowa. Only Warren and Biden are at least under active consideration by more voters. Warren is the clear favorite to win the caucus right now.
If he can beat Biden and Sanders, which is hardly a leap, Buttigieg would go into New Hampshire as a strong alternative for anyone who didn’t want Warren. A second place in Iowa, followed by a first in New Hampshire makes him a legit contender.
It would just be contender, not favorite. But no other candidate on this list has such a clear path to being a threat.
#2 Beto O’Rourke (38%, 13%)
If the current version of Beto existed in January, and he’d sounded like this and announced his candidacy then, he’d be in the top tier. Instead, he waited a couple months to announce and lost momentum. And then he sounded like crap for months.
As such, he’s trailing Mayor Pete everywhere outside of Texas. He’s not an Iowa candidate the way Buttigieg and Klobuchar are. He’s not camping out there the way Harris will now. So it’s going to be tough for Beto to finish a very close fourth or higher there, while eliminating the other second tier choices.
Guns may not be the most important issue in the primary, but it scores higher than many, and he owns it now. Given that he’s otherwise semi-moderate by Dem standards, it’s important to have this.
The media is willing to pay attention to him. He has a national small donor base from running against Ted Cruz. Booker could be out in a week. Klobuchar isn’t inspiring anyone. Harris likely missed her chance. Beto is a better fit for voters of color than Buttigieg. His words are more resonant, his polling much stronger compared to his overall numbers.
If each of the five people on this list make it to Caucus Day in Iowa, O’Rourke could easily finish fifth among them. But if he survives, he can put together a larger coalition than any of them. There are seedlings of support across all ethnicities, ideologies, and income levels.
In sports, there’s frequently a talented, but underachieving team that gets their act together too late in the season. They usually miss the playoffs as a result. You really hope your team doesn’t have to play them if they somehow sneak in. That’s Beto. He’s likely done before mid-February, but if he isn’t, look out.
#3 Kamala Harris (55%, 23%)
She began the campaign with many of the strengths and weaknesses as Marco Rubio in 2016. That was a compliment. He was one debate malfunction from putting real fear into Trump. His team planned to finish third in Iowa, a place that wasn’t a perfect fit for him, second in New Hampshire, where he was running second before the face plant, and first in South Carolina.
This could have worked for Harris. Good showings in the first two places, compete well in Nevada, and then have African American voters in South Carolina flip to her the way they did Obama in 2008. Very plausible.
Rubio was a strong debater (pre-meltdown). He appealed to upper-income, more educated voters. It wasn’t enough to get nominated by itself, but definitely somewhere to start. Kamala’s problem was peaking a little too soon, and having a shaky debate too soon.
She hit the wall in debate two. And as Rubio saw, if your biggest perceived strength is debate skill, having a bad debate can really blunt momentum. He looked a little weak and a lot contrived. She looks very contrived.
Her second quarter fundraising trailed the polling leaders and Mayor Pete by millions. Her donors are particularly sensitive to how she’s polling. Third quarter numbers aren’t going to be great. She’s now planning on “moving to f***ing Iowa” for the next few months.
It’s more figurative than completely literal, but after going more than a month without visiting, she’s committed to weekly appearances. Harris will skip the normal slate of fundraisers that were keeping her away from Iowans and other early state voters.
She’s not from the Midwest. She doesn’t have a pile of key local endorsements. She doesn’t have the funds or head start to out organize her top competitors. Given what she was facing, this is likely the correct choice, but her odds of nomination success are now very low. PredictIt has her at 4%. The same as Hillary Clinton.
Iowa voters are still open to her. Next to Buttigieg she has the best numbers of this group. The way she sounds today, she can’t capitalize. Beto sounded awful several weeks ago too. If she can find her voice, she’ll move up the list quickly.
#4 Cory Booker (42%, 18%)
On paper, Booker still looks like a solid candidate. He’s done well in each of the debates. Harris has faded. Mayor Pete hasn’t connected with African American voters. Castro turned voters against him. Klobuchar hasn’t resonated. Beto probably missed his window. The leading men are too old. Warren is still a general election risk.
Problem is Booker is broke. His campaign sent a fundraising SOS the other day. They need $1.7 million more by end of month to avoid pulling the plug. It’s an arbitrary figure, but a reasonable one. A campaign that can’t raise that much in a ten day period isn’t very viable, regardless of credentials or the failings of other candidates.
He very much wants to be president. So much that he’s not willing to risk a subpar effort this time, when he can and will try again in the future. He knows there’s only one door beyond the top three. And that he’s not running through it if he’s completely outgunned financially.
Think of him as a promising startup that still isn’t getting necessary traction in the marketplace. Will his investors let him continue? We’ll know in less than a week.
#5 Amy Klobuchar (37%, 17%)
If Booker secures his necessary funding by month end, the gap between #4 and #5 here is pretty big. Their Iowa numbers are similar. But she represents a bordering state. For each of the others, I can see how they can pull 15-20% of Iowa voters, even if none of the Top Three crater.
Klobuchar has a couple of extra problems. She has a lot of overlap with Biden. While none of the others would cry if he imploded, she really needs him to stumble. Iowa voters are going to be strategic. They aren’t going to throw in with her if she’s still in low-single digits nationally.
There’s also the matter of qualifying for Debate #5 in November. The rules are increasing the poll result requirements from four qualifying surveys of at least 2% to four of 3%. There is another path if a candidate gets at least 5% in two early state polls. Unlike the other measure, they can be two different surveys from the same pollster in the same state. The individual donor requirement is increased from 130,000 to 165,000.
Buttigieg and Harris are going to qualify easily. Based on a FiveThirtyEight analysis, if polls over the next few weeks are similar to the past few weeks, O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar are on the bubble, with Klobuchar having the most to worry about. Booker also needs to grab a few more donors.
A candidate like Tulsi Gabbard (who just qualified for Debate #4 today), can miss a debate without injuring her numbers much. She has a very contrarian constituency. Klobuchar is pitching herself as a sensible choice. That sort of candidate can’t miss a debate.
Her biggest issue is Buttigieg. If there’s another moderate sounding, calm and collected Midwesterner touring Iowa on a bus, and that person has more money, more media attention and more polling support, it’s an obstacle.
For now, Klobuchar is the “In Case of Danger, Break Glass” candidate, not a contender. But she’s still around, polled 8% in a recent non-DNC qualifying Iowa survey, and would match up well with Trump in a general election. If she makes the fifth debate and a couple people trip, we’ll start talking about her more.
Where each prospect needs to finish in Iowa:
Buttigieg: 3rd, ideally 2nd
O’Rourke: 4th, ahead of all others on this list
Klobuchar: 2nd, 3rd if Biden is 4th or worse
This is why Beto is high on the list. I don’t have a ton of confidence in his Iowa prospects, but he needs a great result the least. Even finishing fourth would be viewed as a comeback, and he can do a good job competing for independents in New Hampshire, and voters of color elsewhere.
We’ll take a fresh look at what remains of this group in a few weeks.