The Heartbeat of the Democratic Party

Bernie Sanders is recovering from the procedure that put two stents in one of his arteries. It’s taken a couple days, but the media is finally using correct terminology. He’s tweeting about why Medicare for All is necessary. The campaign has confirmed he will attend the October 15 debate in Ohio.

We can now safely ask the crass political questions about the impact of his hospitalization. Say what you will about the candidate who isn’t even a registered Democrat, but the insurgent of 2016 is now the heartbeat pushing policy through the party’s arteries.

Elizabeth Warren is running on a version of his platform, and the two combine for 40% of the total polling support. Virtually all non-Biden candidates have adopted a chunk of his agenda. Beyond the presidential campaign, AOC and the Squad have built on Bernie’s foundations.

Given that, here’s what I’m curious about:

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Who Had a Neutral Quarter?

As interesting as the big winners and losers are, some candidates had a neutral third quarter. If they don’t make it to the nomination, they’ll look back on the summer of 2019 as a missed opportunity. If one should upset the leaders to grab the prize, the story is how they didn’t collapse while others did. While we wait to see which it is, here’s how they scored:

Pete Buttigieg (C+): Could have been worse. Mayor Pete is roughly where he was in the polls 90 days ago. He’s arguably in fourth. He was in fifth. His Iowa and New Hampshire numbers are still better than his national polls. He’s still on the statistical outside looking in.

When he was fifth in July, the gap was between fourth and fifth. Now that he enters October in fourth, the gap is between third and fourth. Buttigieg’s most notable Q2 success was on the funding side. He narrowly led the entire field. For Q3, he managed another $19.1 million. It’s down about 25% from last quarter, and trails Bernie Sanders ($25.3 million), with Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren yet to report.

For the second straight quarter, he raised significantly more than Kamala Harris ($11.6 million.) Mayor Pete clearly has a very dedicated donor base, both large and small denomination versions.

He didn’t do anything wrong. No big fumbles, no bad debates, no clips that are sure to cause trouble in 2020. Mayor Pete just didn’t stand out. The voters weighing him and Elizabeth Warren have lined up behind her so far. If he’s a semi-moderate Biden alternative, few voters have actually moved yet.

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Who Had a Bad Quarter?

Yesterday was about the winners. Today we hang out with the losers. You won’t see any of the candidates who dropped out here. None of them started the quarter with a prayer. Succumbing to the inevitable is at worst neutral. We still have plenty of candidates to discuss.

From failing to capitalize to failing to get traction to the grease fire that is Kamala for (not enough of) the People, here’s the dishonorable list:

Amy Klobuchar (D+): She’s ahead of Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, et al. She didn’t need to drop out like John Hickenlooper. She’s not scorned like John Delaney. But Klobuchar is barely hanging in. Unless her poll numbers improve, she won’t qualify for Debate #5.

And it’s questionable that debates are forwarding her campaign in any way. She gets to appear on Sunday shows with decent regularity. The media takes her as seriously as they can given her poll numbers. There’s just no hook to her campaign. She lacks charisma, and her platform is electability due to her electoral results in Minnesota.

It’s 1000% clear her only path is a Biden implosion. Since he ended the quarter with equal or better numbers than he started it with, Klobuchar had a bad quarter.

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Who Had a Good Quarter?

Time for the end of quarter report card. The criteria is simple. If you’d talked to the candidate and/or their team on June 30, told them their status on September 30 would be as it is now and they would have leapt to their feet clicking their heels together, they get an A. The more subdued than that, the lower the grade.

Spoiler Alert: Kamala Harris didn’t get an A.

Here we go:

Elizabeth Warren (A+):

This couldn’t have gone any better. First, she’s polling better than at the beginning of the quarter, and it’s a slow, steady gain, not a bubble. Second, the gain has come mostly at the expense of Harris, while other hopefuls like Pete Buttigieg have stalled out.

She’s in perfect shape in Iowa. Strong enough position in New Hampshire. Crowds are large, media favorable. Biden didn’t collapse, which prevented any of the newer centrist faces from getting oxygen. But he also didn’t leave her in his dust.

From a strategy perspective, it’s ideal to keep drafting off Biden as long as possible. She’s not having any trouble with name recognition or funding, so why take more fire than necessary.

The final event of the quarter, Ukraine + Impeachment, is likely good for her too. While many will circle the wagons around Biden, it’s better to be the candidate who doesn’t have an adult son who took money from oligarchs and cut deals in China. This plays perfectly into Warren’s attack on large corporations and corruption.

Warren ends the quarter as a 50/50 shot to win the nomination according to PredictIt. I think that’s too high, but it gives you an idea of how successful her last 90 days were.

Joe Biden (B+):

I know, this seems too high. Didn’t he rumble, stumble and bumble through the past three months. Didn’t I just say Warren is dangerously close. Isn’t he an uneven debater at best, who isn’t improving quickly. Yup. All true.

Thing is his poll numbers are at least as good as they were at the start of the quarter. He even got back most of what he lost in the aftermath of the first debate. On June 30, it looked like Kamala may have knocked him down. Instead, she’s the one who might not be around in a month or two.

Biden is not a historically strong front-runner. But we already knew that the day he announced. Any quarter that ends with him in front is a good quarter. He’s not anywhere near the finish line yet. On Warren’s current trajectory, she’d catch up or pass him in national poll averages by the end of Q4.

Even if that doesn’t happen, Biden may have to shake off losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. All he’s done is complete another lap. That lap started with him in the lead and ended that way too.

And while Ukraine isn’t uniformly great for him, Democrats would have hit him on Hunter eventually. This makes it harder for them. It also shows who Trump is afraid of. The best scenario for Biden involves having no credible alternatives to Warren and Sanders. The lack of oxygen now in the race is bad for any of the semi-moderate, would-be challengers.

Bernie Sanders (B):

When the quarter began, he was basically tied with Warren for second. Now he’s clearly in third. Some Iowa polls have him fourth. Most stories about his campaign are negative. Too much dissention, he’s not adjusting, Warren left him in the dust, etc.

Sure, that’s a crap narrative. His poll numbers haven’t moved though. I bet Kamala would trade places in a second. Holding serve is a lot harder than it seems. While Warren is ahead of him, it’s not by a ton. He’s still even with or ahead of her in selected surveys. Bernie has money and plenty of ability to get more. During the quarter, he announced the millionth individual donor of the campaign, a number none of his opponents have reached yet.

The Ukranian eclipse of the campaign doesn’t hurt Sanders either. Voters know who he is, and this sets him up to both tell Joe “he doesn’t care about his damn children” and continue hammering away at corporations and billionaires. Bernie was never going to be the favorite. Each quarter that ends with him in an upper tier is a win.

Tom Steyer (B):

He’s purchased himself a place in the fourth debate. The strategy of concentrating resources on early voting states to qualify worked. What keeps this from being an A is his complete absence from the national conversation.

The standards for the fifth debate in November are harder to reach. Steyer could rely completely on money over the summer, now he’ll need to show some candidate chops too.

Tulsi Gabbard (B):

She’s the only candidate to participate in the second debate, miss the third, but recover to qualify for the fourth. Most importantly, Gabbard has shown she has a perceptible voting base, one that’s getting her some decent New Hampshire polling numbers.

Compared to a candidate like Cory Booker, Tulsi has fewer voters considering her, but a much higher percentage of those thinking about her actually prefer her as their first choice. That’s important for survival.

So is being able to hang in and move forward while missing a debate. The higher barriers for the fifth round may prove insurmountable, but that doesn’t mean she won’t outlast some competitors and show up again later. She’s suffered from having many of her better poll results not count, which may help Gabbard with her non-conformist base.

She will also be able to put a good scare into the DNC if she gives any thought to a 3rd party run. Tulsi doesn’t get an A because she didn’t make herself a contender. But she earns the B for building and maintaining relevance, something most of the field struggled with.

Andrew Yang (B):

The Yang Gang is alive and well heading in to Q4. He’s very likely to qualify for the fifth debate, something Booker, Beto, Klobuchar, and Castro can’t say yet. Only Warren improved her polling in the quarter more than Yang did. His fundraising numbers will be up on what he did during Q2.

He’s less dependent on traditional media attention than most of the second tier, so impeachment is less of a threat to his campaign. So why not an A? First, Yang proved unable to make an impact in debates. Perhaps this will change in October, when only 6 people will be on stage each night. For now, he’s been unable to leverage making debates into expanding his range of consideration.

Second, like Gabbard, he gets a lot of those thinking about him to choose him. Like her, he’s not a contender unless many more consider him. Yang is 6th in the RCP average, ahead of a whole pile of credentialed candidates. This is a very good effort. It’s not a path to the nomination though.

Check back tomorrow to see those who struggled this quarter. Then we’ll finish up on Wednesday with the neutrals.

Warren Levels Up

Elizabeth Warren is officially up a level. It’s not at the expense of Joe Biden. She’s also not ahead of him yet. Like usual, the narrative to bury him is premature. But make no mistake, she got a pile of good poll results this week.

She’s distinctly ahead of Sanders nationally now. There are eight national surveys in the current Real Clear Politics average. Warren leads in 6. The two where Bernie leads are inside the margin of error. The Economist weighted average has her 5 points ahead of him (21/16).

He didn’t drop. She gained. Of those eight polls, Sanders is up an average of one point in each from the most recent previous survey. He’s up in 5, down in 3.

Biden is down an average of a single point in those same 8 polls. Up twice, down three times, even three times. You’ll hear he’s collapsing, but the numbers say otherwise. He’s been in the upper 20s, low 30s nationally for months. That’s still where Biden resides, if to the lower part of the range.

Warren has a structural advantage on him in Iowa, and New Hampshire is a toss-up, so you can wonder whether his electability argument will survive to South Carolina, but that was a topic we covered weeks ago. If Sanders and Biden haven’t moved, where is the bump coming from?

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Trump is at Peak Popularity

We know Democratic primary voters are prioritizing defeating Donald Trump. At least that’s what they tell pollsters. We know there’s a new controversy, perhaps an impeachable one. The president has admitted telling a foreign leader to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden and more than implied that yes, the release of a financial aid package was linked.

This seems like a really good time to see how the country feels about the guy in the White House. Nancy Pelosi has spent the last several months holding off the part of her caucus that has yearned to begin impeachment proceedings.

Her resistance was predicated on a few things:

First, the Democratic majority in the House rests on districts that voted for Trump in 2016, but a Democrat in the 2018 midterms. Without those members, she can’t impeach, with them, she could become a one-term speaker.

Second, even if Democrats voted to impeach in the House, it requires two-thirds in the Senate to convict. That’s not going to happen, especially with several GOP senators facing primary challenges for 2020.

Third, Trump was viewed as very beatable in 2020. Why take the risk when you could just vote him out, retain the House, and ideally win the Senate too (would just take a 50/50 tie with a Dem president.)

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State of the Race: Team Afterthought

With Bill deBlasio’s departure, there are 19 declared candidates. We covered the Big 2.75 on Monday. Then we explored the Next Five, who will either form a single contender by the end of Iowa caucus proceedings or all fade into the mist. This leaves 11 others, none of whom will be the Democratic nominee, all of whom are persisting for one reason or another.

The Disruptors: Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard

Both are good candidates. Both are better, more interesting candidates than Amy Klobuchar. There’s a very narrow path for Klobuchar to contend for the nomination. There are a couple of scenarios where she’s somebody’s Veep.

Neither Yang, nor Gabbard are going to be on the 2020 Democratic ticket. Neither are likely to hit 15% in enough Iowa precincts to be a true factor in the caucus, though who their supporters would turn to as a second choice could impact a close contest.

But they’re both very interesting to me. Beyond having unique messages and being good at conveying them, they have youth and New Hampshire in their corner. Yang is 44. Gabbard is 38. We don’t know what direction the party will take over the next decade. Either or both could well find themselves viable next time, or the time after.

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State of the Race: Door #4

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:

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State of the Race: The Big 2.75

Greetings! It’s time to check back in on our leading contenders. As usual, most of the news revolves around Joe Biden. As usual most of the positive vibes belong to Elizabeth Warren. As usual, Bernie Sanders is being dismissed.

Biden is exactly where we left him a few weeks ago. After a slight blip, his national poll average is back to 30% per Real Clear Politics. Over the past three months, he’s established a floor of 26%, rebounding each time within weeks.

When you catch him at a bad time, it always feels like his campaign could crumble. He’s said or done something that parts of the Democratic electorate regard as disqualifying. He’s reminded us that he’s too old to do this. Another small drop in support, and he’d be easy for Warren to surpass.

And then he recovers. While Biden might not like the comparison, this increasingly looks like Donald Trump’s numbers from 2015. And unlike Trump, who was not yet popular with a majority of Republicans, Biden is still viewed favorably by most Democrats.

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Generational Change isn’t a Thing

Generational change is a key part of Pete Buttigieg’s pitch. One of his favorite topics is talking about how the world will look in 2054 when he’s as old as Donald Trump is now. He’s the first serious millennial presidential candidate (sorry for now Tulsi.)

Others have tried this too. Eric Swalwell, barely older than Mayor Pete, implored Joe Biden to “pass the torch” during the first debate. Julian Castro (age 44) talks about Democrats needing a new, fresh candidate to win, citing JFK, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, three of whom were in their early-mid forties.

It sounds logical. Trump, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren were all born in the 1940s. This should create the perfect contrast.

Not so much. Biden rejected Swalwell’s torch request, and the young congressman dropped out of the race a few days later. Castro told Biden he was a forgetful old man, saw his unfavorable numbers jump, and a Texas Latino endorser leave him for Uncle Joe.

Buttigieg has scrupulously avoided this sort of direct attack and is the better for it. Unlike the other two, he’s got some traction. A few recent polls are showing gains for the first time in months.

There’s no evidence the generational argument has anything to do with his relative success. He’s not more popular with young voters. Mayor Pete has less difference in support across age groups than most other candidates.

Beyond the data, there’s nothing about his candidacy that feels like he’s the pivot point for Millennials. If Mayor Pete becomes Nominee Pete, it’s not going to be on generational change. Why?

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