Debate Prep: Advice Time

The last few debates haven’t shaken the ground much. Not saying they were irrelevant, but less interesting/meaningful than the average pre-primary debate cycle. Think that’s gonna change tomorrow. Don’t look for giant changes in national polls. Instead, it’s likely to influence Iowa and New Hampshire. At this point, that’s where the game is anyway.

If I was talking to the candidates about tomorrow, this is what I would tell them:

Control Their Own Destiny Group:

Nobody in this group needs to wait for someone else to mess up. Each have a path to the prize. As of this writing, PredictIt clusters their respective nomination odds between 14% and 26%. That’s not quite a four-way tie, but as close as you’re going to see at this point.

They’re separated by less than 5 points in the Real Clear Politics Iowa average too. New Hampshire is an 8 point spread. In both cases, the gap between 4th and 5th is larger than between 1st and 4th.

Joe Biden

Forget the panic over him potentially finishing fourth in Iowa. Yes, it could really happen. He also is lead in ten straight polls of any kind tracked by FiveThirtyEight. National, Texas, Georgia, California, Arizona, South Carolina. Basically everywhere the Democratic electorate isn’t 80-90% white.

Unless Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, or Buttigieg or Warren start really connecting with voters of color, he’s going to have the chance to compete in Nevada, South Carolina, and on Super Tuesday.

The bar for Biden is so, so, so low in these debates. Nobody expects or hopes for more than occasional coherence and avoidance of getting his foot wedged too far down his throat. He did pretty decently in a recent CNN town hall in Iowa. At times it looked like he wanted to be there.

Beyond unforced errors, that’s the key for him tomorrow. If Biden can look like he’s happy to attend, it will lead to good results.

Elizabeth Warren

Lots has changed in the past month. And not to the good for her. She’s now dealing with Bernie on the left and Mayor Pete on the right. Iowa is a must win and New Hampshire is a should win if she’s going to be the nominee. We have an Iowa poll with her trailing Buttigieg by 9. As I’m typing this, a new survey in New Hampshire has her trailing him by 10.

It’s one poll. Buttigieg hasn’t dealt with the front-runner fire that Biden spent months facing or Warren has recently seen. But in these two crucial states, he’s stolen the only somewhat liberal part of her support. For many, she’s still their second choice. This decision is not made yet.

Saying he doesn’t believe in anything or lacks courage isn’t working. Warren has tried this line of attack and it’s backfiring. She’s going to need to explain how her approach has more chance of working than his does. That her positions are more electable than his. That there’s more chance of the Senate going Democratic with her at the head of the ticket. That Trump is more afraid of her.

That Republicans were shooting at her while he was still at Oxford. And she survived, thrived, and got things done. In Buttigieg’s only statewide contest, he got crushed. I’m not sure this would actually work. Between Sanders and Mayor Pete, she’s a bit trapped, and Biden is throwing punches while they’re holding her.

But the previous script is doomed to failure, so she better try something new.

Bernie Sanders

He got a free ride last time. Back on stage a couple weeks after a heart attack, competitors weren’t going to pile on. Warren was seen as a much stronger contender. It won’t be as easy this time. He’s picked up a couple points in the polls and is in contention in both Iowa and New Hampshire. The gap between Sanders and Warren in national surveys shrunk considerably.

If Bernie can give another high energy performance, while Warren has to walk a tightrope between him and the more moderate choices, he could launch himself past her relatively quickly. Voters over 50 are very skeptical a self-described Democratic Socialist can win a general election.

I don’t see this changing soon. But if Sanders can get a bit larger share of the younger voters who already like him, contrasting himself as the true believer while Warren has to posture and position herself, it’s enough to make a crucial difference in the first several states. The prescription is to repeat as much of the last debate as possible.

Pete Buttigieg

He won an exchange with Beto O’Rourke last time. He made friends and influenced people when he jousted with Tulsi Gabbard. Now the Mayor will have the whole stage gunning for him. He’s taken supporters from Biden and Warren. He’s in Klobuchar and Harris’s way. He’s blocking Cory Booker.

He had plenty of time to practice for whatever gets thrown at him. Candidate attacks are almost always telegraphed in the media ahead. He’ll be asked what he truly believes in. What he’s actually accomplished. How he’s going to finally connect with the African American community.

Last time, he got to show more aggressiveness. This time he needs to use some jujitsu and turn the energy of the inevitable attacks against the attacker. It’s easy to wind up sounding defensive. This is a tricky balance. But if he can, not only will he retain his position in Iowa, but he’ll start improving in polls elsewhere. He’s the candidate with maximum variance based on how things go.

Waiting in the Wings: Amy Klobuchar

She’s still a distant fifth in Iowa, which is pretty much a must win. But her underlying numbers are improving, and 2.5 months is a long time. Klobuchar has improved in each debate so far. Last time she was a tag team with Buttigieg against Warren. This time the Mayor is more specifically in her way.

The timing is ideal. You can argue Buttigieg peaked too early. Now that he’s collected a good 20% or more of Iowan support, those voters are now strongly considering an option separate from the Big Three. There’s a lot of overlap in the voters who like them. Both do best with older, more educated voters. Buttigieg is a bit more acceptable to younger Gen Xers and older Millennials. He’s a bit stronger with voters who didn’t finish college.

She’s not getting any Sanders votes. Biden supporters who are worried about his clarity, Buttigieg voters who are concerned about his experience, or Warren leaners who are thinking she’s too liberal are available. There’s no reason for Klobuchar to try to do to much, rely too much on packaged zingers, or do anything other than take the next step from her last effort.

She’s already qualified for December. There will be at least one additional debate before Iowa votes. One foot in front of the other and she’s going to like where she winds up.

Honey Badger Squad:

None of these three are winning the nomination. None need to go away anytime soon. Each have something distinct to offer that the more traditional candidates don’t. Each are close to qualifying for the December debate. Each have a chance of taking enough votes in New Hampshire to strongly influence the outcome, even if it would be a shock for them to win.

They’re a problem for the others because they will take votes that could go to someone else. They’re a problem because none are worried about winning their next election to a different office. The other seven candidates are operating under a different set of rules. None of the Honey Badgers are under the illusion they could be a VP nominee.

Andrew Yang

Last debate, he began the process of a very compelling debate with Warren about the best ways to deal with economic change and Big Tech. Their prescriptions are very different, as is their conception of what’s happening now. Yang’s base is with younger voters, and Warren’s outlook/worldview is based in the findings of research she did last century.

Assuming he realizes the odds are against his nomination, and he both wants to build a foundation for getting his ideas into the mainstream (as Sanders did in 2016), and providing a platform for another run (Bernie again), continuing this line of debate and contrast with Warren is the best step.

When Biden and Buttigieg complain about Warren’s approach, they say she’s going too far, and they say she doesn’t think anything she didn’t think of is a good idea. Both of these points are resonating. Warren’s dipping numbers show that. But neither is very clear on what they’re doing instead. So Yang has an opportunity to win some voters ove

Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi is going to keep doing Tulsi things. She’s building a constituency in New Hampshire of disaffected Republicans and more conservative Independents. Given there’s still no indication any Trump competitors are making a dent, it’s reasonable to think anyone who can vote on the Democratic side in New Hampshire will.

Most Democratic primaries allow independent voters to participate. Some are ok with GOP crossovers. If she’s in fact building up to running next November, she’ll continue working on this constituency of people who aren’t happy with Trump’s job performance, but also aren’t the sort of internationalist, interventionist Never Trumpers who would lean toward a Biden, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar.

Tom Steyer

His first debate was weak. Most humans don’t do well the first time they’re in an overstuffed presidential “debate” with tons of contestants. His opponents had more practice and it showed. Meanwhile, the early state advertising carpet bombing is working. Mr. Bloomberg has some work to do before he equals Steyer’s poll numbers.

I’m not sure what the endgame is here. Gabbard is a plausible niche 3rd party candidate. Yang could have a bright future. Steyer can afford to spend, spend, and spend, including in the Super Tuesday states. Most candidates quit when the money dries up and his won’t.

But to get the delegates he’d need to have influence at a brokered convention, Steyer would need to start clearing 15% in various states. The best he’s polled so far is half of that level in a couple of early state surveys. For tomorrow, the goal is likely to make sure he reminds voters they already have a Bloomberg in the race.

Help These Two!

Deval Patrick’s entry is a shot against the bow for these two formerly promising candidates. Each based their strategy on being able to do well enough in Iowa or New Hampshire to challenge Biden in South Carolina for African American votes, adding them to some upscale white voters to create a version of the Obama Coalition.

In the three most recent polls taken there, Harris’s best result is 5%, and in addition to Biden, Warren, and Sanders, she’s trailing Steyer and Buttigieg. Booker posted three 2% results. Both are running low on funds. Neither has picked up an endorsement since September 12.

At the same time, these aren’t terrible candidates. Nationally, 27% of voters are considering Harris, very similar to Buttigieg’s number. Booker still has strong favorability numbers, and is at least somewhere on the list of a third of Iowans. But Patrick would have stayed out if he’d thought either could get anywhere.

Kamala Harris

This is easier said than done, but I think she just has to relax. She’s already qualified for the December debate. The campaign she wanted isn’t going to happen. Odds are she’s done after Iowa, New Hampshire at the latest. That should give her some freedom to ditch the packaged lines and let loose.

Buttigieg has done her a service by segmenting off enough Iowa (and New Hampshire) votes to create a legit fourth lane. The entire world knows he’s got issues appealing to black voters. Harris has yet to fully articulate in a debate how she would use her prosecutorial experience to create social justice progress, but now that she’s no longer a target, there’s a window here.

Whatever’s next in her career, be it a VP candidate, making sure to avoid a 2022 primary challenge in California, trying again for the presidency in 2024/28, she’s going to need to figure out this language. Might as well start now.

Cory Booker

Ten candidates qualified for November. Six of those ten are already in for December. Three are very close. The other is Booker. He has zero qualifying polls. He has zero polls that would be good enough if only the pollster was on the approved list. He has zero variance between national numbers and early state numbers. He has zero variance among the early states.

Pick a poll from the last month, any poll at all. You’ll find him between 1% and 3% every time. Maybe this just isn’t Booker’s cycle. But also, I’d be mad as hell about Deval Patrick. There’s nothing about him that’s more compelling. Steve Bullock wasn’t necessary after Michael Bennet existed. This is the same. All early surveys show Patrick = Bullock in terms of initial voter impact.

Booker has three choices:

1. Pack it in. Do his regular act. Hope it’s what the winner wants in their Veep.

2. Pick on Pete. Not overtly, the way he went after Biden in Debate #2, but as a matter of contrast. Hope that somebody thinks he’s a better option.

3. Get mad. Go after the donors and establishment folks who foisted Patrick on the field. Say, I think they’re wrong. I think we need me. This is why. It’s a time for choosing, and I’m the best option. Speak directly to the audience that likes him, but has him 3rd, 4th, or 5th on their list.

I vote for option #3, but understand why someone who needs to get re-elected in New Jersey next November, and could run in 2044 being younger than Biden is today would opt for one of the first two.

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