Written by Ben Szioli
It’s a new year. My self-imposed winter break is over, and it’s back to work. The first caucus of the 2020 election is less than a month away, and candidates’ positions are beginning to crystallize. The January debate is tonight, and it promises to be tense. [See Sanders and Warren below.]
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (IN) is now Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (IN). Marianne Williamson, Senator Cory Booker (NJ), and Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (TX) dropped out.
Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) took first place in two Iowa polls and one California poll, as well as placing first nationally in a fourth poll. In polling averages, Senator Sanders now ties Former Vice President Joe Biden (DE) in the first two states: Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders also has narrowly surpassed Former Vice President Biden in delegate-rich California, which the DNC scheduled extra early this year, to front-load those delegates. Why? I don’t know. To help Senator Kamala Harris? A bit conspiratorial, but possible. Whatever reasoning they had, Sanders now looks to be the primary beneficiary of an early California primary.
- Joe Biden
- Bernie Sanders
- Elizabeth Warren
- Pete Buttigieg
- Michael Bloomberg
- Andrew Yang
- Amy Klobuchar
- Cory Booker
- Tulsi Gabbard
- Tom Steyer
- Julián Castro
- John Delaney
- Michael Bennet
- Marianne Williamson
- Deval Patrick
IOWA & THE LIMITS OF POLLING
Iowa, of course, is the elephant in the room. Well, the first elephant. The second elephant is the impeachment trial, discussed in the next section.
The polling has mostly settled. Former Mayor Buttigieg is falling very gradually while Sanders and Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg trend upwards just as gradually. It’s hard to imagine a drastic change before polling begins. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean the predictions of today’s polls will come to pass. People are really, truly weird. They say they want these candidates now, but suddenly the numbers will rearrange when voting happens. I’m curious just how wide the swings will be, in this Golden Age of polling averages.
Polling averages are good for establishing positions in the race and for understanding the current sentiments of voters, but the primary is not a one-day affair. This isn’t a general election. We don’t all vote at once.
When you poll a general election the day before the election, you pretty much are asking people, “Who will you vote for tomorrow?” Polling a primary on the national level is asking a far more complex question, since some of the respondents will be voting soon, and some will not.
For that reason, national pre-election polls aren’t terribly meaningful. They are polling the primary as if it were a general. And by the time the elections happen in the later states, voters are certainly going to be voting on a smaller field of candidates than the one they currently choose from when answering polls. The loss of candidates from the race immediately after the first few contests will be a shake-up, and beyond that, once the delegate totals start to add up, they become a ranking system separate from the polls. Voters and polling respondents will form their opinion about who leads the race based on the delegate totals and the polling averages together, whereas currently the polls have a unilateral influence on voters and respondents.
So what Iowa signals is that the polls are going to be simultaneously de-emphasized and shaken up in the next month. In a sense, all of the polling we discussed for weeks will be thrown out, or at least twisted into knots, when the voting begins.
IMPEACHMENT & THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
As mentioned above, the second elephant in the room is the impeachment trial. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA) is set to send articles of impeachment to the Senate tomorrow, triggering a trial in which Senators are sworn to secrecy and impartiality. This will take Sanders and fellow Senators Elizabeth Warren (MA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), and Michael Bennet (CO) off the campaign trail at least partially, for at least a couple weeks. That will leave the pecking order of fully active campaigners as follows: Biden, Buttigieg, Former Mayor Bloomberg, Andrew Yang (NY), Tom Steyer (CA), and Representative Tulsi Gabbard (HI).
Will this harm the Senate candidates? I don’t believe so. They have access to planes and stuff. Sanders and Senator Warren often work packed campaign schedules. While impeachment will reduce the volume of their campaigning, their campaigns shouldn’t meaningfully halt.
Senators Klobuchar and Bennet are in less certain situations. A recent polling bump should keep Klobuchar in the race for the time being. By contrast, impeachment may overshadow the last remnants of Bennet’s campaign and force him out of the race. In the past, Bennet has seemed less than fond of the idea of campaigning during impeachment. Still, the impeachment does loom over the race, and it will have its impact when the time comes.
WAR WITH IRAN & THE KEYS TO THE WHITE HOUSE
There’s been no change to the state of the race as far as The Keys to the White House model [from State of the Race, parts 3 and 5] is concerned, but the topic has come up indirectly. On January 3rd, President Donald Trump (FL) authorized a missile strike that killed a top Iranian military leader. This has led to speculation that President Trump is seeking a war to boost his re-election plans. Traditional political wisdom says that vulnerable incumbents can start wars in order to help their campaigns. Whether it applies to 2020 is a different question.
Trump has already had at least one military victory and at least one defeat: the two Keys to the White House that relate directly to the military. The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a more clear-cut victory than the killing of Qassem Soleimani this month. And Trump clearly has faced several foreign policy defeats at NATO summits, where he is often isolated and marginalized. A single victory and a single defeat decide the two Keys forever. Those Keys can never change hands again. We would therefore not expect an ongoing war to change the state of the Keys for Trump.
In my view, the most clear-cut way that an incumbent in Trump’s situation might use war to boost their chances would be if there were an ongoing recession. In that case, the war effort could be used to overcome the recession and give the incumbent a better economy to campaign on. This is still not of benefit to Trump in real life. Despite fears about quantitative easing (QE), the United States economy does not appear vulnerable to a recession.
So this provides an interesting point of contrast. The wisdom that an ongoing war helps the incumbent (if a war were to occur) predicts one thing, and the Keys to the White House predict something else. Depending on how this shakes out, we may see that one of them was right and the other was wrong.
THE LIBERTARIAN PRIMARY
The Libertarian Party primary is an absolute gift from the universe. Last time they got together to nominate a candidate, the eventual Libertarian nominee Former Governor Gary Johnson (NM) was booed for trying to explain to that drivers’ licenses are constitutional. A candidate for the party’s chair position also stripped naked.
So from this ragtag band, it’s only natural that an absolute madman would be picking up steam in the Libertarian Party: perennial satirical candidate Vermin Supreme. The Massachusetts native has never held office, but not for a lack of trying.
He actually stood up for Sanders in 2017 despite his Libertarian party membership. When Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (NY) criticized Sanders’ plans as constituting “free ponies,” Supreme argued that all Americans have the right to a pony. This is a policy position (free ponies for all) that Supreme has held since at least 2012. Interestingly, Sanders’s economic advisor Stephanie Kelton has explained that given enough time and dedication, every American could receive a free pony. It’s implied that such an exercise could even have job-creating benefits.
I digress. Supreme seems to have won the nominating poll for the 2020 Libertarian primary in New Hampshire. While the NH delegates are not bound to vote for him, it’s possible that at least one of them will, since Supreme did receive one delegate’s vote in 2016. Could he win? Almost certainly not, even in a party of madness. But will it be entertaining? You bet your boot hat.
Former Vice President Joe Biden (DE): Biden has become furniture. His polling barely fluctuates, and with Sanders on the rise and candidates dropping out left and right, Biden has hardly made ripples in the news.
Biden’s polling is unlikely to fall below 25% before the primary, in any case. It’s during the first few contests that Biden will potentially be cut down to size, perhaps mirroring the doomed Jeb! 2016 campaign for Former Governor Jeb Bush (TX). If Biden fails to win one of the first few states, he could be bounced out of the primary before it really begins. His polling is likely to undergo a major correction as polling respondents realize that Biden’s support level is not what they thought.
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Senator Bernie Sanders (VT): Right when I’d neatly prepped my article, some anonymous knuckleheads, reportedly with connections to Senator Liz Warren (MA), shook the entire race up. CNN published an egregious hit piece yesterday in which Sanders was accused (based on paraphrases of his comments by four people who, CNN admitted, were not even in the room) of saying that women cannot win the presidency. Or something like that. What were his actual words? Who knows. On Monday, Warren put out a statement backing the accusations against Sanders, without clarifying what he actually said.
In reality, Sanders has supported women running for president as far back as 1988 and as recently as 2016, when he enthusiastically endorsed and campaigned for Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (NY). In his own statement, Sanders pointed out that he would have had no reason, a year after a woman beat Trump by 3 million votes, to say that the very woman he was speaking to, a friend of his, could not win based on her gender. The substance of what he said, it seems, was that President Donald Trump (FL) could weaponize anything against Warren, including her gender.
It’s truly a bizarre accusation, especially considering no one is willing to furnish an exact quote. Bernie said that a woman can’t win? Which woman? Did he say that no woman could ever win? That a woman can’t win this year? None of the sources are willing to do anything but generalize the content of what Sanders said. All this indicates is that the sources (and Warren) feel that Sanders believes a woman can’t win; their words, not his.
This flap comes as Sanders staffers were criticized earlier this week for their attacks on Warren, and as Sanders has been collecting progressive endorsements while he surges in the polls. Still, Warren has started a war that neither candidate should want. It’s so blatantly destructive to her established tactics that I initially wasn’t sure the accusations even came from her campaign.
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Senator Liz Warren (MA): Warren must have absolutely lost her mind to have confirmed that she was behind the accusations against Sanders. I’ve seen almost no attacks on Sanders from the left based on these accusations, whereas I’ve seen a huge backlash against Warren. I may, like everyone, live in a social media bubble, but my bubble happens to be representative of Warren and Sanders voters.
This is the same tactic as when Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright hit the airwaves in 2016 to tell progressive young women that they’re vapid for not supporting a woman for president. In the view of this dinosaur-age brand of non-intersectional feminism, men are what actually drives young women to support Sanders, not policy. It’s wildly patronizing and belittling, and most importantly, it didn’t work in 2016 against a world-class bigot. I cannot imagine a universe in which attacks like this would land on Sanders. Warren should proceed with caution if she intends to make a fight of this. Either way, the damage may already be done. If what I’m seeing continues, this will be the end of Warren 2020.
She has essentially amputated the progressive side of her base in favor of a gender-baiting “girl power” campaign. Every single newsworthy attack between Democrats this election has resulted in a dramatic polling collapse for the attacking candidate: Harris, Former HUD Secretary Castro, and mostly recently Buttigieg. This may take the same course.
Conversely, Representative Tulsi Gabbard (HI) only rose in the polls when she was falsely attacked by Former Secretary of State Clinton for splitting the vote and cooperating with Russia, and those were far more credible accusations. And that’s saying something, since Clinton’s accusations were straightforwardly absurd. Sanders is likely to continue rising in spite of this attack.
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South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (IN): Buttigieg continues to fade, overshadowed by other candidates and national news. He’s not making big moves in the race, isn’t drawing attention, and doesn’t seem to have a plan for changing that.
Still, impeachment may occupy Buttigieg’s rivals and allow him to make headlines more often. And he is likely to exceed expectations in Iowa. Both of those factors mean that Buttigieg’s polling could go in either direction, and quite far. The race will reorient itself after Iowa, and Buttigieg may find his campaign springing back to life.
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Former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg (NY): Bloomberg just keeps revving up his machine, and people are starting to pay attention, even though he won’t even appear on the ballot in every state. His campaign is truly grim, and he is essentially the rightmost candidate in a right-leaning election. For that reason, it’s no wonder that this week, Bloomberg picked up an endorsement from a kindred spirit, another incredibly punitive New Yorker: Judge Judy. It’s the match-made-in-heaven that I never would have thought of, but which now makes perfect sense.
I’d just like to repeat that Bloomberg was the stop-and-frisk guy, that he served as a Republican mayor, and that he stood to Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani‘s right on issues of crime and punishment. That Bloomberg is creeping up on Buttigieg in the polls is a travesty. But it makes me think: what the hell are the Democrats doing? How are they split between Buttigieg and Bloomberg in their search for a Biden replacement?
In a race centered around unity, I actually see a badly divided establishment. I also see an establishment that would consider supporting a former Republican (Bloomberg) over a more pleasant and viable candidate (Buttigieg, or anyone, really). What I don’t see, Warren’s smears aside, is disarray on the left. Bernie and Warren’s bases are still aligned, holding 35% of the vote between the two of them.
After years of centrists saying that it’s the left who split the vote, it’s very satisfying that about 5 different centrists are splitting their own vote, to the benefit of the left.
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Andrew Yang (NY): Yang is still polling relatively well, but not well enough. He has been excluded from the January debate, a turn of events that could effectively handcuff his campaign, if not end it.
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Senator Amy Klobuchar (MN): Klobuchar is at a relative polling high right now, but there is still absolutely no traction. Her donor support and name recognition are keeping her in the race for now. Klobuchar’s plan seems to be to place unusually high in Iowa and to reap the benefits of mixed up polling in the aftermath. With a two-way tie in Iowa, plus two other candidates between there and Klobuchar, it would be miraculous if Klobuchar sniped fourth place. But with her polling at 7% and her nearest rival, Warren, polling at 15% (remember that state primary polling is a lot more accurate than national primary polling), Klobuchar stands little chance of upsetting a candidate above her. She will almost certainly remain in the race as long as they keep letting her into the debates, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Klobuchar turned back into an onion at midnight after the Iowa caucus.
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Senator Cory Booker (NJ): On Monday, January 13th, without a spot in the January debate, Cory Booker suspended his campaign for president. He was cash-strapped for months, and the breathing room afforded to him by Castro’s withdrawal from the race was short-lived. Booker has stepped out of a race that clearly didn’t have room for him. This will allow Booker to take part in the impeachment trial without distractions, and he will be able to go home and focus on his Senate re-election, which may feature a competitive primary.
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Representative Tulsi Gabbard (HI): Gabbard is still polling at an all-time high, but she isn’t gaining any ground in a crowded race. She continues to support Sanders from off the debate stage, as he hones in on his top competitors. Today, Gabbard vouched for Bernie, saying that he was supportive of her run for president, never expressing that he believed she couldn’t win.
Gabbard also emitted a classic death rattle today, telling a local news network, “I’m not paying attention to polls or pundits or anything like that” in the lead-in to Iowa. This is what people usually say when they know that the polls and pundits indicate that they are going to lose. Which is a realistic assessment of Gabbard’s situation. I said it once, and I will say it again: Gabbard needs to get out of the race and endorse someone while it still has value for her.
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Tom Steyer (CA): Steyer bought his way onto another debate stage, which I really, really don’t understand, because he is polling well below Bloomberg, who has yet to qualify for a debate. Buying donor support is possible; so is buying polls. But buying polling margins that Yang, a viral candidate, can’t manage? Outraising Bloomberg, who is collecting all the centrist momentum? How? Steyer is not a viable candidate; he basically represents a side of the Democratic Party that has been trying to impeach Trump without cause for three years. He’s a billionaire, and his attempts to come off as working-class have been comical thus far. Will higher polling and donor thresholds and bad Iowa results push Steyer out? One would expect so. But like Bloomberg above and Former Representative John Delaney (MD) below, Steyer can self-fund endlessly, and may have personal reasons for sticking it out.
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Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (TX): Castro ended his campaign on January 2nd. It’s a shame, but it was to be expected. I still maintain that Castro was a far better candidate than Booker while sitting at a similar spot on the left-right spectrum. Differences in fundraising ability and media reach put Castro out of the race before Booker. The lower half of the herd is thinning out.
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Former Representative John Delaney (MD): Having failed to secure 50-state ballot access, it’s unclear why (besides having too much money) Delaney is still running. He can afford to keep going forever, sure. But since Delaney is polling within a margin of error of zero, I don’t know why he would want to keep running. Nevertheless, here he is.
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Senator Michael Bennet (CO): Besides the upcoming impeachment, Bennet is set to stay in the race for a few more weeks. Like several lower tier candidates, Bennet is focused on a good showing in New Hampshire, which could boost his polling position when polling respondents “correct” their expectations of the candidates.
Tangentially, Bennet also secured this week the endorsement of political strategist and craven centrist James Carville, a big Hillary 2016 supporter and the coiner of the phrase “[it’s] the economy, stupid,” which criticized Former President George H. W. Bush (TX). Apparently Carville is also known as “the Ragin’ Cajun,” which strikes me as incredibly racially inappropriate, but ok. Good for Bennet, I guess. As a centrist candidate, it’s important to compile endorsements from absolute cretins.
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Marianne Williamson (TX): Williamson fired her entire campaign staff on January 2nd before fully suspending her campaign on January 10th. It was a long time coming. Even the positivity of a fabulously wealthy self-help writer has its limits. Williamson ended up providing an interesting presence in the early debates, but she came up short on impact after being excluded from the stage. She may remain a minor Anthony Scaramucci-level political celebrity for some time after this, but it’s clear no-one will be knocking down her door trying to interview her.
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Former Governor Deval Patrick (MA): I have to assume that Patrick is just embarrassed. He jumped the gun by entering the election when Bloomberg had already sucked all the air out of the race. He missed the boat, so perhaps now he’s making a vacation out of the port. That Patrick raised more than $2 million dollars in the past few weeks is only a sign of the increasing number of centrist donors who are looking for a new candidate since their candidate dropped out.
Or, conspiratorially, one could guess that Patrick is remaining in the race to crowd the field in Massachusetts and harm Warren’s chances of winning her home state. That would empower the establishment candidates in their fight for the nomination. But it also might push Warren out of the race and spur an endorsement of Sanders, which would likely put Sanders over the top and into first place. Patrick should be careful what he wishes for.
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Incumbent President Donald Trump (FL): From an electoral standpoint, absolutely nothing has changed for Trump. Nothing will change until at least Iowa, and even then, maybe not. The Iran strike was popular with some corners of Trump’s base, but by and large, the outcry has been loud from independents, Democrats, and other sane people. It may help him keep control of his party, but it does him no favors in the general election.
For any other president, this would have been their Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, it was just another day in the life: Trump personally controlling missile deployments and antagonizing a totalitarian regime. When we laughed and did nothing in the face of “Little Rocket Man” and Trump’s threats to destroy North Korea, we set this up. We allowed him to use that same tactic against an actual belligerent, one who actually poses a threat to us. Not so funny now.
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Former Governor Bill Weld (MA): The former Libertarian struck deep at Trump’s commitment to free speech this week, applauding Trump’s call for reporters to “roam free” [like, what?] in Iran, but at the same time, tossing a backhanded criticism of Trump’s domestic policy, questioning why Trump does not encourage American reporters to “roam free” at home.
A positive piece in the Des Moines Register ahead of the caucus there is promising for Weld. If he can outperform expectations in the first few primary contests, he may be able to force an adjustment of the polling pattern that could completely change the trajectory of the election.
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Former Representative Joe Walsh (IL): I’m officially counting Walsh out of this race. He’s published a new book, which explains a lot of this speaking tour he’s been on. There’s no way he expected to get votes. Sealing the deal is the fact that Walsh is not going to be taking part in his home state primary in Illinois. As I mentioned when discussing Weld last month, no candidate has ever lost their state to an outsider and still won the primary. Walsh is done.
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Roque “Rocky” de la Fuente (CA): It’s been radio silence from de la Fuente. He’s focused on his ground game and qualifying for ballots, but there’s no media portion to his campaign. He’s just aiming to sit on the ballot and see what happens. His polling reflects this: I can’t recall him breaking the 1% threshold in a single poll.
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The Curious Case of Former Ambassador Nikki Haley (SC): Since the last State of the Race, Haley has fully jumped on board the Deplorable bandwagon. In the wake of Democratic criticism of Trump’s Iran strike, Haley accused Democrats of sympathizing with terrorists, a ridiculous accusation that was rebuked by many members of her own party. Haley’s comments echoed Representative Doug Collins (GA), who said the same thing of Democrats, in much worse words: “They’re in love with terrorists.” Collins unconditionally retracted his comment and apologized; Haley did not. She is absolutely gunning for the top. She wants a piece of the 2020 Republican presidential ticket. I’m sure of it.