None of the first three Democratic presidential debates have moved the world. At least not on their own. But you never know when a fleeting moment will launch or smash a campaign. Let’s take a look at where the contestants are now on the eve of the event.
We’ve got new polling in most of the early voting states, and plenty of recent national surveys. A few candidates are waiting until the 10/15 deadline to announce their Q3 fundraising numbers, but unless Beto O’Rourke has a shockingly robust number to surprise us with, there won’t be much news.
The Front-Runners: Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden
National: 26.0%, 27.8%
IA: 22.7%, 19.3%
NH: 28.0%, 24.3%
NV: 18.5%, 22.5%
SC: 15.8%, 39.5%
Money: $24.6M/$19.2M, $15.2M/22.0M
These two are way, way, way ahead of everyone else. I’ve got Warren listed first, because she’s close in national surveys, leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and has a clear funding advantage.
Not only did she out-raise Biden by about $10 million in Q3, a far smaller percentage of her donors have maxed out. On the other hand, he’s shown resiliency for several months and has a larger advantage in South Carolina than she has anywhere.
Biden has remained above 25% in the RCP average the whole time. Warren has never backslid by more than a point or two at any time since she began her climb in late winter. If either find themselves down around 20% a couple weeks after the debate, something changed, and that candidate is suddenly more vulnerable.
So far, they’re both untouchable in debates. Warren, because she’s literally been untouchable. Few have tried to punch, none have connected. Biden, because his supporters have decided they support him over a period of many years, and short of his head actually exploding on live TV, not much seems to move them.
The Enigma: Bernie Sanders
Sanders is well ahead of everyone not named Warren or Biden. He didn’t drop in most polls after the health scare. If a 78-year-old can have a heart attack and keep most of his support, that’s a very strong sign. But he’s already lost two-thirds of his 2016 supporters. Warren has leapt past him in New Hampshire, a state they each border. His Iowa poll averages are being held up by a single strong survey.
His campaign remains a glass half full or empty depending on your perspective. None of the previous debates moved his numbers much. If he’s in the 11-12% range nationally in two weeks, he’s dropped to a dangerously low level. If he’s at 18-20%, he got a bump.
He’s got plenty of money and is continuing to effectively raise more, even with many other candidates available for donations. Assuming his health holds up under his new, more mortal schedule, there’s no reason for him to abandon the fight. Whether that’s a fight to get nominated or merely to influence remains to be seen.
The Hopeful: Pete Buttigieg
You can’t be in a more distant fourth place than this. Buttigieg is still short of his national numbers from the spring. His name recognition isn’t universal, but it’s also not to blame for a 5% poll average. He lacks a firm hold on any particular demographic group.
His best cohort, the most educated and upper-income, is one that has flocked to Warren over the past few months. Despite being the youngest contender, he’s not polling higher with Millennial voters.
He’s done fairly to very well in each debate, and had no perceptible poll momentum afterwards. He goes on Sunday shows with regularity, and sounds good, but always the same. I don’t suspect this debate will suddenly launch him forward.
But he’s in good shape regardless. His best state is Iowa. His next best is New Hampshire. Not only does he have a ton of money, but he’s shown strength with both small and larger donors. And he’s done this without having huge poll numbers. A strong Iowa result and funds will flood in.
For purposes of debate results, if Buttigieg is at 7% or higher nationally, or is above 15% in Iowa (in polling averages, an individual survey doesn’t count), then he finally got a bump.
The Flailing: Kamala Harris
Harris has almost identical national numbers to Buttigieg, but I’m convinced her strategic position is infinitely worse. Her early state numbers are both similar to her national results and similar to each other. Warren has her educated, upscale voters. Biden still has older African Americans on lockdown. Buttigieg has more money and way more momentum in Iowa.
Her only saving element is a high percentage of voters who are still considering her. Debates are supposedly her thing, but she only performed well the first time. Tulsi Gabbard successfully went after her in the second, and she spent the third cackling at her own rehearsed one-liners.
There’s limited room to stand out on policy, and she stays away from Sunday shows so that she can control her narrative and avoid inconvenient questions (at least that’s my guess on why.) She does command the room in a debate better than her second-tier peers. If the debate worked for her, you should see her numbers double within two weeks, and have half of the increase hold at four weeks out.
The Wild Card: Andrew Yang
I started following Yang on Twitter a few weeks ago. It can really distort your image of how much progress a candidate is making. He’s very active, and I think effective. One might think the Yang Gang is taking over the universe. He’s in 6th place nationally, ahead of plenty of prominent senators.
His Q3 fundraising was 4x what he did in Q2. Yang seems to have lots of appeal to some Sanders voters. He’s beginning to connect with younger voters. He does well, if not amazingly so, with Asian voters, an overlooked group that could decide who wins a few coastal primary states.
Yang doesn’t need to worry about dropping out to contest an election for a different office in 2020 like Booker does. He’s almost entirely dependent on small donors, so there’s plenty of room to pull in more money. All this sounds great.
The problem is his poll numbers aren’t really moving. And they’re worse in Iowa than nationally. He’d need to make a huge push to start reaching the 15% level to qualify in individual caucus precincts. You wonder what would happen if he had a really strong debate at some point. That hasn’t happened yet. He consistently gets the least amount of talking time.
With 12 people on stage this time, he’s even more likely to get marginalized. The first thing to look for is if he can wind up talking as much as a normal second-tier candidate. The second is if he can hit 5% in the national poll averages, or 6-7% in New Hampshire by end of October. Odds are he needs the debate space to make that happen.
The Rest: Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro
National: 1.8%, 1.3%, 1.3%. 1.0%
IA: 2.0%, 2.3%, 2.7%, 0.3%
NH: 0.7%, 1.3%, 2.3%, 0.0%
NV: 0.5%, 2.0%, 0.5%, 0.5%
SC: 1.3%, 2.8%, 0.8%, 0.5%
Money: TBD/$3.6M, $6.0M/$4.5M, $4.8M/$3.9M, TBD/$2.8M
Ugh. The past month has not smiled on these four. Castro is moving backwards. I mentioned him because he’s debating, and there wasn’t another group to put him in, but he has no money, no national support, and though it’s almost mathematically impossible, he’s worse off in the early states.
Klobuchar has pretty much held serve since the last debate. But her strategy seemed based on picking up the pieces when Biden crumbled, and each day that passes is another day where he wobbles but continues not to fall. She’s not a great debater, and there will be too many people on stage.
Don’t pay attention to her national numbers. They won’t be good no matter how well she does. Her whole existence is based on Iowa. Where fellow Midwesterner Buttigieg is pulling well ahead of her. If she had a good debate, she’ll trail him by 5 points instead of 10 in the Iowa polling averages a month from now.
Booker hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s debated well. Unfortunately, he’s still in line behind Buttigieg and Harris and neither of them are collecting enough voters that stealing some away would catapult Booker into contention.
He’s tried going after Biden in debates, but Warren has more of the voters who would consider him. Perhaps he’ll go at the queen. He may think of himself as a good Veep option for her and pass though. Realistically, Booker needs to reach 5% nationally within 2-4 weeks to have any reason to continue.
Then there’s Beto. I thought it was smart to propose a mandatory assault weapon buyback. He distinguished himself on an issue, and a majority of Democrats agree with him. O’Rourke had his best debate last time. And was rewarded with a modest drop in the polls.
So he went a step further and recently suggested churches who aren’t on board with gay marriage should get their tax exemptions pulled. On both issues, he’s setting up a contrast with the more measured Buttigieg. Unless the Mayor has a pile of votes the polls aren’t catching, this isn’t a good plan. Like Booker, if there’s anything here, we’ll see Beto at 5% by early November. I don’t expect this. And far more than the gun issue, he’s set up a great GOP talking point for next fall.
The Spoilers: Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard
National: 0.7%, 0.7%
IA: 2.3%, 2.3%
NH: 2.7%, 2.3%
NV: 3.5%, 1.0%
SC: 2.8%, 0.8%
Money: TBD/NA, TBD/$1.6M
Steyer is willing to drop the GDP of a medium-sized island nation on the contest, so it doesn’t matter how much money he raises. Large ad buys have propelled him into the debates. He’s already qualified for the next one. No clue how he’s going to do on stage. It’s not like he’s protecting an existing political career, so interesting things could happen.
If his national numbers match his current state figures by the end of the month, he scored. If his early state numbers clear 5% on average, he scored. Steyer isn’t getting the nomination, but he’s very possibly a factor. Any oxygen he’s taking up isn’t going to someone else.
Gabbard has slipped a little in the past month. She’s not likely to qualify for the next debate. With Syria in the news, she’ll get her moment to address the current foreign policy situation. If she has a breakout moment that pushes her above 5% in New Hampshire and into qualification for the next debate, it will be from that. Not counting on it. More likely, she roughs up another candidate. She can do more damage to another than help to herself.