Heat Check: Who Lost Best?

We’re down to two. Plus Tulsi lol. A week ago, there were seven. A lot can happen in a few days. This seems like a good time to look back on the almost thirty candidates who are no longer with us and ask ourselves: Who Lost Best?

To answer, we need to think about what qualifies as a good defeat. I think there are two important measures.

First: Did the candidate improve their position. Are they a bigger deal because they did this? Do they have more opportunities in the political world, to cash in financially, or both? Are they better positioned for a cabinet job, another office, or to run in 2024 than if they’d sat this one out?

Second: Did they beat or fall short of expectations? Raise your hand if you thought Andrew Yang would start out-raising Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke.

Running for president is one of those things that you can only find out if someone can handle when they do it. No, it wasn’t self-evident that Pete Buttigieg was more ready than John Hickenlooper. You know someone is a good NFL quarterback when they play well as an NFL quarterback. A good classroom teacher is revealed when they’re good in front of a classroom. This is no different.

The Best Losers:

1. Andrew Yang

Quick. Name another person who nobody had ever heard of, had never held or even run for elective office, who both made a serious presidential run and left the race very well thought of. And then please tell me to close the gap in my knowledge. Your definition of serious might be different than mine, but the man raised $16 million from small donors in a single quarter. Yang qualified for all but one debate, and outpolled three quarters of the field.

As a rookie, he was unable to convert increasingly high approval ratings to Iowa results. But it’s rare that a candidate leaves the contest universally better thought of than when he joined. Whether his next stop is the NYC mayoral race, a spot in the Biden cabinet, or just more air time on CNN, we have just begun to hear from Mr. Yang. For good measure, his wife Evelyn was the most impressive political spouse of the season.

2. Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete won(ish) Iowa, finished a close second in New Hampshire, is destined to get a great job offer from Joe Biden (should he become President Biden), will unquestionably be a 2024/28 front-runner, broke a significant barrier, and could continue running again and again and again through 2060 and still be younger than Bernie Sanders is today. It was a good run. An epic run. A run that will have 1,000 mayors looking in the mirror and seeing a national candidate looking back at them.

But he wasn’t as universally liked as Yang. He did have legit issues connecting with the young, AOC supporting left. He’s got tons of work to do winning the trust of the African American community. Buttigieg reached 10% in national polls within a few weeks of his first CNN town hall, and except for a quick spike around Thanksgiving, never really improved on that.

We’ll hear from him again for sure. But he’s blocked in Indiana, and candidates like him, who seem preternaturally mature and win the esteem of much older voters, tend not to age very well. He’s very similar to Tom Dewey and Al Gore. Both had lengthy political careers best remembered for losing presidential elections they should have won. Odds are Pete’s political peak is in the next few years, not few decades. This many seem like an odd comparison, but his best bet for success would to get tabbed as Biden’s running mate and follow Richard Nixon’s path.

Nixon lost a winnable presidential election on his first try also. I guess I’m saying history is telling us Pete will grow up to lose a close presidential election. There are charismatic young national politicians like JFK, Teddy Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Those guys win. There are old before their time, baby faced 60-year-olds at heart, who lose to guys like that. Pete is the latter. But most mayors are never heard from anywhere. So he’s still a winner.

3. Mike Bloomberg

If this were the late 1980s, somebody would have given Mike an “I Spent Half a Billion Dollars and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” t-shirt. So it’s tempting to think this was a failure. Far from it. He got within one adequate debate performance of going toe-to-toe with Bernie for the nomination. Had he managed to prepare for the attacks any sentient human could have told him were coming from Elizabeth Warren, he would have maintained or built on his position in national polls, which was beginning to exceed that of Biden.

For someone too economically centrist for a good chunk of the Democratic electorate, who entered the contest with a negative favorability rating in his own party, which, was not the party he was affiliated with for any of his three terms as mayor, who pushed a stop-and-frisk policy that harmed the very community he needed support from, that’s pretty damn impressive.

But that’s not all. Besides outperforming expectations, and putting himself in a position to contend that required nineteen different things to happen, Bloomberg actually got what he wanted. To prevent Bernie Sanders from becoming the presumptive nominee. Sure, Bernie can still win this. But his odds have fallen tremendously. It’s no longer the most likely scenario.

Had Bloomberg not consolidated the “we don’t want Bernie, but we don’t think Joe can do this” part of the electorate, only to hand it to Biden, candidates like Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar would still be dividing the moderate side of the party, and Bernie would likely be well ahead right now. The spoiler spoiled better than anyone has ever spoiled before.

His massive political team was told they’d have a job until November. And now they don’t need to make the public like their boss. They just need to sell for Biden and against Trump. Should Bernie make a quick comeback, millions upon millions will be dumped on his head. Remember, for Bloomberg, this is like you or I going to buy a t-shirt.

4. Amy Klobuchar

Many semi-centrist governors or senators from flyover (and proud of it) states decided to run for president in 2020. You’ve already forgotten (Steve Bullock) most of them were even there. Klobuchar was the last person standing from that group. She’s more than a decade younger than Warren, so it will be easy for her to try again. She could easily wind up on the ticket if Biden doubles down on the Midwest, and figures gender balance allows him to ignore ethnic balance.

Unlike Warren, she doesn’t need to think about whether she’ll be too old to try again in 2024 or 2028. Her visibility is much higher. She didn’t make any huge unforced errors. If the party establishment is still standing in a few years, they’ll think of her as a team player. A well-thought of but not insanely magnetic senator becomes president on their first try zero times under our current system. Klobuchar ends her stay in the circus better off than she began it, and should be considered a contender going forward.

5. Cory Booker

Most would consider his run a disappointment. His best polls were his earliest. He dropped out before Iowa. Booker was unable to capture any particular constituency of the several potentially available to him. But he made no enemies. Voters did like him. He was a frequent third/fourth choice. He debated well. It just wasn’t his season or his time.

Bob Dole finished eighth in Iowa in 1980. He won Iowa in 1988. He won the nomination in 1996. If it takes Booker another 16 years, he’ll be almost a decade younger than Dole was when he finally reached the summit. Like Booker, Dole was well-known when he got off to a slow start. He’d been the 1976 VP nominee. It’s not always a linear way up.

What’s not in-style one season can be just what the public is looking for a cycle or two hence. Cory Booker really wants to be president. And I think he’ll get a chance to give himself a chance sooner than you may think.

6. Elizabeth Warren

Six months ago, she was the arguable front-runner. Today she’s out. That’s usually not a good loser. But we forget where she was six months before that. In single digits, still recovering from a very ill-advised DNA test result sharing. Consensus was Warren should have run in 2016, when she still had momentum, instead of stepping aside for Hillary Clinton.

Her campaign was already tight on funds. Key personnel had quit in protest of her strategy to avoid certain off-brand donor types. If you’d told people Warren would wind up one of only a few candidates to make it to Super Tuesday, they would have thought you were being optimistic. She debated well. For a lot of the pre-voting phase, she was the leading first + second choice candidate. Even as her campaign was extinguished this week, she still had one of the highest in-party favorability ratings of any Democrat.

There’s still a chance she winds up on the ticket. Warren will be in demand for fall campaigning. She will play a key role in making skeptical Democratic voters accept whichever old man wins the nomination. Never mind what could have happened better for her. She did better than was expected a year ago.

The Worst Losers:

1. Beto O’Rourke

From Top 3 contender to gone in about six months. That’s not a win. He wasn’t prepared. He didn’t have a plan. At all. Turns out Beto was a decent candidate who got to run against Ted Cruz, not a generational prospect. He’s not completely finished. On the eve of the Texas Primary, he endorsed Biden. Early voting in El Paso showed Joe with 17% support. Biden’s Primary Day haul was 39%. I’m sure this was mostly Joemenutm, but Beto retains popularity in his home city. That’s something at least.

He’s not gone forever, but I’d be very surprised to see him representing Texas in the Senate or running for president again anytime soon.

2. Kamala Harris

Why is Harris the #2 loser when Booker is the #5 winner? Both fell short of hopes. Neither were able to make a dent against Biden in the African American community. Or best Buttigieg or Warren for the upscale suburbanites who were supposed to join their winning coalitions.

It’s better to fail quietly than noisily. Harris got her moment in the sun after taking Biden down in the first debate. And was not equal to the challenge. Her campaign overspent and ran out of money. While Booker might not have had the perfect tone for the season, Harris couldn’t find a tone to stick with.

No, her career isn’t over. She can likely continue representing California as long as she’d like. Even if Kamala isn’t super popular at home, running for Senate is incredibly expensive there. She’s not getting primaried by a serious contender. There’s a very decent chance she gets to be Biden’s running mate, which would make her the immediate nomination favorite for 2024. If that doesn’t happen, Attorney General in a Biden administration is on the table.

Most politicians would happily trade places with her. But on the day of her announcement, in front of a crowd of 22,000 people in Oakland, Kamala Harris was the betting market favorite to win the nomination. To not make it to Iowa was a disappointment. And one of the more prominent implosions of the past few decades. It wasn’t bad luck. She was a good idea, but a bad presidential candidate. Of course, Joe Biden was a bad presidential candidate twice. And, if we’re being honest, still isn’t a good one.

3. Kirsten Gillibrand

What? You forgot she was a participant? That’s how she made the list. Four female senators entered the fray. Two became temporary betting market favorites (Warren, Harris), another hit 20% in New Hampshire (Klobuchar.) Then there was Gillibrand. It’s tempting to blame sexism for them all being out already. And while we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, we also need to remember a majority of Democratic primary voters are women.

It’s likely a woman didn’t get nominated because women were worried men wouldn’t vote for a woman. At least it didn’t help. The other reality is if you knew nothing besides one finalist being a successful two-term VP, and the other being the second place finisher the last time, you’d think those would be the two finalists. That’s exactly who normally gets nominated, the same way the 2008 second place finisher got nominated in 2016.

The two most famous Democrats running were Biden and Bernie. Hillary was the most famous in 2016. This could have nothing to do with sexism at all. But lets say it does. And if it does, and given that women decide who Democrats nominate, the key responsibility of a female candidate was to convince other women that men would vote for her. It’s why Obama’s 2008 team knew the way to get African Americans to forsake the Clintons was to show white Iowans were with him.

Gillibrand decided to run on women’s issues. This wasn’t wise and didn’t work. And was a waste of a candidate who, prior to moving leftward after replacing Hillary in the Senate, was a semi-centrist Upstate New York congresswoman of favorable reputation and reviews. She could have run as Amy Klobuchar.

4. Julian Castro

Continuing our litany of candidates who couldn’t appeal to the demographic group they belong to and most actively courted, we have Mr. Castro, a future Democratic presidential prospect since he and his twin brother (and fellow aspirant for higher office, Joaquin) were in diapers.

I’m not sure why he didn’t connect better. His problem wasn’t being too young, or lacking high enough office. Mayor Julian ran a city several times the size of South Bend, Indiana, is several years older than Mayor Pete, and held a cabinet position. He was also short-listed for Hillary’s 2016 running mate.

But he didn’t even poll as well with Latinos in Texas as Beto. And that’s after it was already clear Presidential Candidate Beto was far inferior to Imaginary Presidential Candidate Beto. I think Warren wants a refund on what she thought she was getting in Nevada from a Castro endorsement. As it turns out, five years of Bernie Sanders actively attempting to connect with the Latino community in places like California, Nevada, and Texas was a bigger deal than showing up as the first Latino Democratic presidential aspirant.

At the moment, he’s a million miles behind AOC as the most famous or influential Democrat of his census demographic. And like Buttigieg, is the type of young politician who neither ages particularly well or is actually that inspiring to younger voters. He’s the type of young man that old people like better. And he’s neither *that* young, nor has a clear next political step up the rung.

5. Elizabeth Warren

She got further than it seemed she would a year ago. But if you’re leading the polls and betting markets, have high favorability ratings, capacity to raise money, and then never finish higher than third anywhere, including in your home state, you’re a pretty big loser.

The best losers aren’t guaranteed to win in the future, and the worst losers aren’t incapable of winning. After his 1962 landslide defeat for Governor of California, ex-Vice President, ex-Nominee Nixon was so far gone that ABC aired a special entitled The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon. Ten years later he was re-elected president winning 49 states and more than 60% of the popular vote. And then two years later he was hiding in disgrace at home. Things change sometimes.

But right now, not all 2020 losers are created equally. Some were really winners. And one, Elizabeth Warren, was both a loser and a winner as a loser.

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