Politics

Secret Wars: The April Democratic Power Rankings

Bernie, Biden, Beto, oh my!
April 4, 2019
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(Photos: GettyImages / public domain / Shutterstock)

In March, the top three Democrats were Bernie, Beto, and Kamala. A lot has changed since then. Let’s get down to it.

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What Madness Is This?

(1) Bernie Sanders. He’s getting stronger.

For the last two months I’ve said that Bernie was close to being an even-money favorite. I’d downgrade his chances slightly, but only because Biden’s candidacy looks more likely.

So let’s call Bernie a 5:2 favorite at this point. If you were deciding to take Bernie or the field, you’d take the field. But just.

This downgrade has more to do with the environment than with Bernie himself. Because as I said: The old-guy socialist is getting stronger.

Look at the polling and you’ll see that he’s gone from the mid-teens a couple months ago to routinely hitting the mid-20s. The RealClear average has him at 22 percent. Since January, he’s cut the gap between himself and Biden by half.

There’s no real space between his national numbers and his Iowa/New Hampshire numbers. And even more impressive, his Iowa and New Hampshire numbers are more or less identical. His strength may wind up being regional (that’s code for: states without a high percentage of African-American voters) but he’s going to be tough early. Candidates who do well in both Iowa and New Hampshire have historically been very good down the stretch.

Then there’s the money. Since he declared on February 19, he’s raised $18 million from 525,000 individual donors.

Bernie has a core of supporters and they’re not going anywhere. We could wind up in a situation 12 months from now where you see Democrats going into an ABB (Anyone But Bernie) panic.

So why downgrade his chances? Because over the last month Biden’s entry has become more, rather than less, likely. And the minute Biden becomes a real, rather than theoretical, challenge, Bernie has to make some hard decisions.


(2) Joe Biden. He jumps from No. 4 to No. 2 this month because his poll numbers are still great and the odds of him jumping in have increased.

Kind of makes you want to give him a great big hug and kiss, amirite?

The only problem for Biden is the discovery of disturbing footage from his stint as host of a popular 1980s game show.

Is this scandal an existential threat to Biden? I’m with Katherine Miller: Everyone already knows what they think about this stuff:

Everybody already knows what they think about Joe Biden putting his hands on people, because we’ve all seen this happen in public. We’ve seen Biden kiss people at public events! We’ve all had years to think about it! Does anyone need a photograph of Lucy Flores and Joe Biden to know that, at some point, somewhere, over the last 40 years, someone might have been uncomfortable because the situation wasn’t quite right?

I would go a little further, even, and argue that this weird, attempted #MeToo’ing is further evidence of Biden’s strength.

Follow me:

  • If you wanted to hurt Biden in the race, you’d wait to push this story until he was officially in.
  • You’d use it to cripple his launch week. Get the big NYT op-ed in the paper the day after he announces.
  • This would overshadow his message and mess up his 24-hour fundraising numbers. It would be the single biggest question about his campaign as he started talking to voters.
  • So why is the story out now?
  • Because some other campaign thinks they’re better off trying to brush Biden back and keep him from getting in.
  • Because they don’t want to go toe-to-toe with him.

Ultimately, litigating the Huggy Uncle Joe story now, before he gets in, probably helps him.

He won’t join the race until this is put to bed. And everyone knew he’d had to deal with it at some point. The absolute best time to hash this story out in public was now.

And the fact that some other campaign was willing to spend this ammunition on an attempt to keep Biden out of the race rather than during the race suggests that, like me, they agree with Joe Trippi.

Here’s the one caveat: I don’t think voters are going to care much about the substance of Dawsongate. But I think they will care very much how Biden handles it.

Does he look like a confident guy who still has total command of his fastball? Like a guy who’s going to be able to take a punch from Trump and come back swinging?

Or does he look a little bit old. Maybe like he’s lost a step.

That is the big question about Biden. And how he answers it will determine how this race plays out.

The video, fwiw, isn’t great.


(3) Beto O’Rourke. Don’t tell Cory Booker, but Beto is . . . rising!

Eight weeks ago Beto was polling in the low- to mid-single digits. Today, he’s at 9.2 in the RealClear average. People want what he’s selling: Post-partisan generational change with an exciting, rock star candidate.

Dismiss this at your peril.

If there’s a concern, it’s that he’s at half that strength in Iowa and New Hampshire. If Beto wants to win the nomination, he’s going to need to launch a children’s crusade in both of those states. Where’s that support going to come from? Sanders voters. He’ll need to eat into the under-25 foundation of Bernie’s base and do it without trying to get into a bidding war on socialist politics. Because (a) he can’t win that and (b) even if he did it would hurt him in the general.

Also, he won the logo competition. That’s not nothing.


(4) Kamala Harris. If you want to know how disappointing the campaign has been for Harris, consider this: She’s sitting about where Beto is, but heading in the opposite direction.

From late January to mid-March, Harris was in double-digits in 10 consecutive polls. Since then, she’s dipped.

Harris is a focused, ambitious pol. If you had told her a year ago that nine months before Iowa she’d be tracking side-by-side with the kid who lost to Ted Cruz, she would have been . . . less than thrilled.

Her fundraising has been not disastrous. But it’s not great, either: $12 million from 218,000 donors. (Compared with Bernie’s $18 million from 525,000 donors.)

The good news for Harris is that her Iowa and New Hampshire numbers are right around where her national numbers are. (She’s actually 3 points stronger in Iowa than she is nationally.)

And her game plan remains the same: Survive Iowa and New Hampshire, stockpile delegates from California’s earlier primary (in March this time around, rather than June), and ride a wave of African-American voters once the primaries move south.

The big question is: How well do you have to do in Iowa and New Hampshire to survive?

That answer differs from cycle to cycle. It’s a little more forgiving for Democrats because they award delegates proportionally, while the Republican process tends to magnify majorities.

Best guess: There will be four tickets coming out of New Hampshire. To grab one of them, a candidate will need at least one win or second place finish—or two top three finishes.

Maybe someone will sneak in by going fourth in Iowa and then third in New Hampshire, provided that expectations are low enough.

Harris’s problem isn’t just that she’s not moving up. It’s that she’s right along the danger line where if her campaign doesn’t figure out why she’s running for president, she might not get to South Carolina.


(5) Pete Buttigieg. Don’t @ me. Mayor Pete is a thing that’s happening right now.

He raised $7 million in the first quarter. The most recent poll in Iowa showed him at third. And he knows why he’s running. As David Brooks puts it,

The Trump era has been all about dissolving moral norms and waging vicious attacks. This has been an era of culture war, class warfare and identity politics. It’s been an era in which call-out culture, reality TV melodrama and tribal grandstanding have overshadowed policymaking and the challenges of actually governing. . . .

Buttigieg’s secret is that he transcends many of the tensions that run through our society in a way that makes people on all sides feel comfortable. . . .

He deftly detaches progressive policy positions from the culture war.

Read that last line again: Mayor Pete detaches progressive policy positions from the culture war.

That’s a reason to run for president.

If you wanted to be cynical about it, you’d say that in practice, Mayor Pete will be as progressive as everyone else. Maybe more so.

But if Trump has shown us anything, it’s that the mien of politics is as important as the substance.

I don’t know if there’s room for both Mayor Pete and Beto down the stretch. And if you’d have to bet on one of them, my money would be on Beto.

Yet I remain convinced that Mayor Pete is going to be a top-tier candidate at some point. And I suspect he’s going to get one of the tickets to ride coming out of New Hampshire.

And I’m just going to put this here for you to remember: It would not shock me if he won Iowa.

One last thing: We should pause for a moment to consider the sheer audacity and political genius of Mayor Pete. Let’s say you’re an ambitious, progressive, gay guy from a deeply conservative state. You want to run for national office.

How do you do that? Maybe you can find a blue House district, but after that what? You’re not going to win a Senate race or become governor unless you radically change your political persona and then get lucky, too.

Buttigieg found a liberal city, got himself elected mayor, and then fast-passed the entire system by running for president. If he has a good showing, he’ll never have to go back to Indiana politics. He’ll come into the next Democratic administration. Or, if Trump wins re-election, can go become a university president or think tank head.

He’ll carry around with him a national profile and a giant donor list and be prepared to run again in 2024.

Guys like Biuttigieg often find a way. It doesn’t always work out (Martin O’Malley), but sometimes it does (Bill Clinton).

I’m impressed and you should be, too.


(6) Elizabeth Warren. Her campaign is over, she just doesn’t know it yet.

Last October she polled at 8 percent. Today she’s reaching to touch 6 percent. In Iowa she’s slipped to fifth place. Which means that in order to be able to move on she would have to win or take second in New Hampshire.

That was a pretty good plan six months ago. She’s a favorite daughter from the neighborhood. University of New Hampshire polls had her solidly in the mid-teens.

The most recent UNH poll had her at 7.

Warren has decided to go all in on policy, running as the grownup who’s thought everything through and has specific plans on how to govern.

This is going to work out as well for her as it did for Jeb!


(7) Amy Klobuchar. I know it’s early, but the top of the field seems reasonably rational to me. I doubt we’re going to see a ton of movement between the top five and everyone else.

How could someone from the bottom break out? Make a big run in Iowa.

So look around Nos. 6 through 16 and tell me who you think could suddenly catch fire and pull a Dick Gephardt?

The person at the top of my list is Klobuchar.

She Midwestern. She’s moderate. She is selling something different from everyone above her.

I don’t think she will catch fire, but she’s more likely to do so than anyone else in this half of the bracket.


(8) Cory Booker. I’m putting him in this slot based purely out of respect for the power of African-American voters and the fact that he’s not Kirsten Gillibrand.


(9) Kirsten Gillibrand. It’s nice that she’s keeping AOC’s Senate seat warm, but this campaign is going nowhere. The only question is how many enemies she makes before she folds.


(10) Andrew Yang. Yang’s big thing is universal basic income, and it’s destined to be the 9-9-9 of this cycle: A gimmick we hear from the debate stage over and over that people mock, and then try to take seriously, and then forget about as soon as the primaries are finished.

Which is kind of a shame, because we ought to have an actual conversation about UBI.

It may be a bad idea, but it’s not a crazy idea. And maybe we should sort that out before our overlords from Boston Dynamics take all of the jobs.

Because here is a thing I promise you: We are never going to have autonomous vehicles for individual consumers at any scale.

But we are absolutely going to have them for long-haul commercial trucking.

If you think the income dislocations we’ve experienced over the last 20 years are bad now, just wait until 7.4 million truck drivers lose their jobs.


The Rest: Funnily enough, we’re already going through an invisible winnowing. If you’re not in the top 10 and you don’t have a real reason for why you’re running for president, you’re already finished.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.