Politics

All Joe-Mentum: The May Democratic Power Rankings

May 9, 2019
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(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In April we had Bernie, Biden, and Beto in the top three spots. But now the race is officially ON. And the face of all the world has changed.

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(1) Joe Biden. His announcement turned out to be a much bigger deal than I expected because it revealed that his early polling actually understated his strength: Once he officially joined the race, his lead over Sanders grew substantially.

Actually, that doesn’t quite capture how well things have gone for Biden: In the last five national polls his lead over Sanders has been: +26, +24, +30, +32, +21.

This is dominance.

So if you were looking for reasons to be skeptical of Biden, one of them is already scratched off the list: This isn’t going to be a Jeb 2016 campaign. There is broad enthusiasm for him from the start.

There’s more to the Joe-mentum: Biden’s new support seems to be coming in large part from Sanders people—his rise has been accompanied by a corresponding drop in Bernie’s polling. CNN’s Harry Enten looked at the numbers and found that this is Biden peeling off non-college educated whites from Bernie’s coalition. Exactly the sort of voters he’d need in a general election against Trump.

And wait—there’s even more. Biden has Bernie doubled up in Iowa, is +15 even in Bernie’s backyard (New Hampshire), and has a +28 point lead in South Carolina. So his national dominance is translating to the early states.

If I were to sketch out Biden’s path to the nomination for you, it would go something like this: He wins Iowa, putting Sanders in a great deal of jeopardy. He ekes out a close result in New Hampshire, where Sanders should be strong. And then he crushes Sanders in South Carolina. At which point Sanders is dead in the water and whatever Stop Biden movement exists will center around Kamala Harris because of her California delegate haul. But Harris—and Beto and Mayor Pete, and everyone else—will be cautious about criticizing Biden too harshly because the VP slot will be an even bigger prize than usual, owing to Biden’s age.

If I were to sketch out how Biden loses, it would go something like this: As the guy offering strength and restoration, he has to lead pole-to-pole. When the race tightens, Biden won’t be able to pull off a rebound win the way Kerry did in 2004 and McCain did in 2008. He’ll have to hold onto the lead, no matter what.

His position is very strong. But his margin for error is reasonably small.

My personal fantasy is that Biden wins the nomination and refuses to announce his veep until, on the third day of the convention, Lindsey Graham walks onto the stage and declares that he’s ready to saddle up and ride with his old friend. It would be the greatest heel turn since Hulk Hogan was revealed as the third man.


(2) Bernie Sanders. He’s at his lowest ebb in a long time. Last month he was averaging in the mid-20s. With Biden in the race he’s back to the mid-teens.

But I still like his chances.

Sanders is, as I wrote last month, one of the two monopolists in the race. And as Peter Thiel will tell you, being a monopolist is a great job. Everyone else running for president is a commodity of one sort or another. But Biden is the only one selling “restoration” and Bernies is the only one selling full-spectrum socialism.

If Democratic voters decide that they can’t take a chance on socialism, then Bernie was never going to win the nomination anyway. But if it turns out that they’ve got a fever and the only prescription is MOAR SOCIALISM, then Bernie will be in a very good position. No one is going to outbid him there.

Also, Bernie can afford to hang around. He’s got a small-donor army, so his money isn’t going to dry up. And if Biden hits a rough patch and Bernie can move ahead of him, then all of a sudden Biden’s rationale becomes shaky.

In April I had Bernie as a 5-to-2 favorite. I’d downgrade those odds now, but would still argue that if anyone in the field is going to take Biden down, it’ll be him.


(3) Pete Buttigieg. Beto is fading and Mayor Pete is closer to becoming the “generational choice” candidate. The other good news for him is that he’s regularly polling in the top three or four and sometimes breaking into double-digits.

All of that said, I have concerns. First, he’s peaking way too early. If I’m running Team Boot Edge Edge, I don’t want to really surge until the run-up to Iowa. Because he probably has to shock the world and either win Iowa or come in second in order to actually win the nomination

The other concern is more structural than situational. Mayor Pete’s brand is that he’s the guy who gets you to progressive policy outcomes while leaving the culture wars behind.

And yet, I’ve always had the lingering suspicion that deep down he yearns to go Full SJW.

Because only a Full SJW would say something as mindlessly stupid as, “I can’t imagine” God would be a Republican.

Now maybe this is just a slip-up. Most of the time Mayor Pete talks about religion in an attempt to disentangle it from party politics. This was a new formulation. We’ll see if he comes back to it.


(4) Kamala Harris. She’s not moving up, but at least she’s not falling any farther.

Harris For the People was never going to be a bundle of electricity. She’s a hungry, cautious politician who’s been eying this race for at least a decade. Her schtick is that she checks enough boxes to make her an easy consensus choice and she’s enough of a grownup that you don’t want to worry about her, say, forgetting to nominate a secretary of defense.

But while “she’s a cautious grownup” might be a good motto for a general election campaign against Trump, it was always going to be a tough sell in the primaries. Harris has to bring the demographic weight of suburban women and African-American voters to bear if she’s going to contend. And that’s a heavy lift in a field this crowded.


(5) Beto O’Rourke. A controversial choice, I know. Beto has stalled out and started slipping. People are starting to forget that he’s even in the race. Why would he be ranked above Elizabeth Warren when she’s surging and leading him in the polls?

The short answer is: Beto still has an upside.

Like Mayor Pete, Beto’s whole campaign right now is based on Iowa. He’s got to surge there and if he does, then he could slingshot off of that momentum. He’s got the right message and the chops to start burning rocket fuel.

The problem is, Mayor Pete is standing right there in front of him.


(6) Elizabeth Warren. She’s surging! She broke back into double-digits!

Granted, that was in one poll. But hey, let’s show some respect.

The only problem is that none of this matters: Warren has no place to go. It’ll be great watching Wall Street flip out when she becomes President Bernie’s SecTreas, but that’s pretty much all that’s going on here.

Warren is selling Bernie Lite. Or, if you want to be charitable, a more responsible reform of America’s economic compact. But who really wants that?

Revolutions are either won or lost. They are rarely captured by a third-party saying, “Let’s do that, but smaller.”


(7) Amy Klobuchar. As FiveThirtyEight points out, on average, 23 percent of a given cycle’s candidates typically drop out before the Iowa caucuses. Which means that the odds suggest that four or five of the folks in the field now won’t make it to February 2020.

This is the part of the ranking where we start looking for early dropouts. But I don’t think Klobuchar will be one of them. And that’s because she has the one thing candidates need to keep going, even when things are rough: a reasonable belief that she could do well in Iowa.

She knows the region. She’s more authentically Midwestern than Mayor Pete, who is from Indiana—by way of Harvard and Oxford. If you squint, you can see how she could catch fire late. And she doesn’t need a ton of money to campaign.


(8) Andrew Yang. He’s not going to drop out either, because he’s a stunt candidate trying to inject a new issue—the Universal Basic Income—into the race. (Also, the use of PowerPoint in the State of the Union.)

Candidates usually drop out when they realize that they can’t win. But Yang isn’t even trying to win. He has no incentive at all to leave the race before he gets to stand up on the main stage.


(9) Special Mystery Candidate. I have long thought it was possible that at some point Democrats would look up at the field, panic, and decide that they need a White Knight. Maybe Biden suddenly looks old and feeble and not up to the task. Maybe there’s an Anybody But Bernie panic.

At which point there could be a movement to draft an established presence. Maybe it’s Michelle Obama. Or Oprah. Or Mike Bloomberg. Or Mark Cuban.

If you have the ability to self-finance, then you can get in relatively late if the field is still fractured.


(10) Everyone else. Cory Booker is going nowhere. But at least he’s getting there faster than Kirsten Gillibrand.

At this point I pose a practical question: What if this giant, fractured field everyone has been counting on collapses very quickly? As I mentioned above, an average of 23 percent of primary candidates drop out before Iowa. But sometimes that number is zero. Why do we assume that this year it couldn’t be much larger?

There are, at most, six plausible nominees in the field. The real number is probably closer to three. I’m open to the possibility that the dynamics which have led to a hyperinflation of the field to this point could also lead to an early consolidation, too.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.