It’s a political truism that campaigns don’t get started for real until Labor Day—people return from their idyllic summers to the harsh reality of the real world. Everything prior is just prep work, from fundraising to building staff, all prepared to execute on a campaign’s master plan.
The scheduling is different for presidential primaries—it’s not a two-month sprint to the first Tuesday in November. The first real votes are cast in February. But the idea that Iowa and New Hampshire are “first in the nation” is over. The first primary has been a national one, and it’s been waged mostly online, with dollars and social media follows substituting for votes. The process has already whittled the field down significantly. Not just two already-forgotten candidates, officially having withdrawn, but over a dozen who will be denied a debate stage in November, and another half-dozen included only because they scraped their way to 2% in a handful of polls.
This national first-in-the-nation primary has whittled the field down to four real contenders. Iowa no longer has a say in the matter, other than delivering the obvious news to the 18 non-contenders. Would Iowa really hand a victory to a non-contender like Steve Bullock? If it did, we would point and laugh. Nope, Iowa’s role will be mostly to confirm the obvious. Four real contenders.
As usual, I base these rankings on both objective data (poll numbers, fundraising numbers), and my own subjective assumptions. So without further ado, let’s look at the rankings!
The RCP poll aggregates:
Since that's hard to read, here’s the current state of play:
Joe Biden: 30.5%
Elizabeth Warren: 17.3%
Bernie Sanders: 16%
Kamala Harris: 8%
Pete Buttigieg: 5.2%
Beto O’Rourke: 2.8%
Cory Booker: 2%
1. Joe Biden ⬇️ (last cattle call: 1)
Biden has shown more resilience than I expected or hoped, recovering the ground he lost after the first debate. His candidacy has no natural constituency, and as much as the media likes to call him a “centrist,” his bay of support are black voters both nostalgic for the Obama years, and also fearful of taking a risk with a non-white male candidate. The stakes are high for everyone, but extra high for communities of color.
Of course, no white male has ever gotten 63 million votes in a presidential election, while the two candidates to exceed that amount were a black man and a white woman. So it seems clear enough that the way to maximize Democratic turnout is to have a nominee that looks like the party base. That said, the trope that white men are “more electable” unfortunately lives on, to Biden’s great success.
But really, there is no real passion for a Biden candidacy, as becomes clearly apparent when you look at his online fundraising:
Ouch. Now, there’s no doubt Biden is raising the big bucks offline. That's his world, hobnobbing with the ultra-rich. But in a modern Democratic campaign, appealing to bankers doesn’t help build the kind of actual on-the-ground support a candidate needs to win.
I’ll still argue that Biden’s numbers will inevitably fall, but even if they don't, they’re not going to rise. Biden has universal name ID, if people don’t support him already, there’s little reason they’ll start. The field has too many quality candidates to make him an only choice. Furthermore, even if he keeps the support he has now, any consolidation of the Warren-Bernie wing of the party leaves him in second place. And while there is no need or pressure to consolidate this early, at some point, if Biden remains a threat to actually win the nomination, that'll change in a hurry.
Throw in the continuing media narrative, well-deserved, that he is a gaffe machine, and not-helpful comments from friends like Barack Obama that he perhaps shouldn’t have run, and … he remains on top. But Labor Day is coming up, and he likely won’t weather the scrutiny of his current casual supporters actually tuning in.
2. Elizabeth Warren ⬆️ (Last cattle call: 3)
So I was in Germany for the last month, as I do most every summer, spending time in the same small Franconian town I lived in when serving in the U.S. Army (Bamberg). Thus, the last time I did one of these was early July, after the first debate. Warren had fallen to third place behind Kamala Harris, then-riding a post-debate high. The last month and a half have certainly upended that order.
Look at that RCP chart above again, focusing on Warren’s trends. They’ve been methodically inching higher, slow and steady, like the Aesop’s tortoise. Her gains haven’t come from gimmicky viral moments, but fueled by grind-it-out campaigning, bolstered by strong debate performances. She is Ms. Consistency.
Her gains haven’t come at the obvious expense of anyone else. Bernie’s numbers are flat, suggesting she isn’t taking from him (yet). Harris and Biden seems to be mirror images of each other, which makes sense since they're both fighting for the same black voters. She just seems to be pulling from the ranks of fading candidates and undecided voters. At some point, that’ll have to change, but again, no hurry for her. She’s building a solid and growing foundation, putting her in great position for the post-Labor Day sprint.
3. Bernie Sanders ⬆️ (Last cattle call: 4)
Bernie is Mr. Steady. He bled some support after Biden entered the race, but has since stabilized in the mid-teens, with his core supporters unwavering in their allegiance. Two solid debate appearances have burnished his policy chops, and his de facto alliance with Warren means they each amplify each others’ messages. It seems to be working, taking Bernie out of the fringes and into alignment with the greater threat for the nomination at this time (yeah, Warren).
Sanders’ big problem is the same big problem that has bedeviled him from the start. How does he grow past 15%? Repeating the same message that lost him the 2016 primary always seemed odd, and his refusal to change things up this year, despite the continued lack of growth, has been even more so. You know what they say about the definition of insanity, right? But that might be changing, as reports of a campaign “reboot” abound. Will a new focus on his Medicare for All bill help him stand out from the crowd and grow his support? Doubtful. He still seems like an odd man out, a white male in a party dominated by people of color and white women, with a message coopted by several candidates, and nearly mimicked by Warren.
If you are committed to Bernie the man, that’s a tough pill to swallow. But if you’re committed to his ideology and policy prescriptions, then current events are indeed exciting. The Warren-Bernie 1-2 punch are really mainstreaming their politics. And with no pressure to consolidate until, at the earliest, mid-March (after 1/3rd of the delegates are allocated during Super Tuesday), it really is okay to sit back and enjoy the ride. The party has evolved a great deal in the last few years, and even if he loses this primary battle, his impact and mark on our politics is guaranteed.
4. Kamala Harris ⬇️ (last cattle call: 2)
We’re moving from Ms. Consistency and Mr. Steady to the most erratic candidate in the field. She has moments of brilliance, exciting voters and marking dramatic movement in the polls, and then …. nothing. Her fast spikes are matched by her dramatic declines. At single-digits in the polls again, she’s surrendered almost all of the gains from her first debate, after she had surrendered all of the gains from her announcement rollout.
This is where we notice the advantage of being in the public eye for a long time, building a core base of supporters and support. You see that with Biden, Warren, and Bernie—a core base that sticks with them, allowing them to weather the inevitable highs, lows, and dead-space of a campaign. Harris doesn’t seem to have that loyal base, and so she fluctuates with the whims of a fickle electorate.
Harris also went from dominating her first debate, to essentially withering in the face of a challenge from Tulsi Gabbard (of all people) on her record as attorney general. Her work on that side of the criminal justice system was always her biggest liability in the current zeitgeist, so her lack of preparation on answering those charges was surprising. In a general election, being a prosecutor is a political plus. In a Democratic primary? She’s going to have to better address her record, or risk following Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg into also-ran status.
5. Pete Buttigieg ⬇️ (last cattle call: 5)
Sitting at 5% in the Democratic presidential primary as a small-town mayor is actually an amazing accomplishment, but it’s increasingly clear that any hopes of reclaiming former glory (near 10%) are fading away. It’s not just a lack of tangible accomplishments hurting him, but an actual inability to handle tough matters as mayor. And as everyone knows, the presidency is a little tougher to manage than a liberal college town.
His big breakout came from a viral moment at South by Southwest, proving that vitality can create political life, but it can’t sustain it. His early branding as an intellectual genius wasn’t backed up by his (mostly) solid, yet unremarkable debate performances. He’s good, and certainly talented. But he overshot.
Buttigieg’s biggest accomplishment this cycle is demolishing Iowa and New Hampshire’s rational for maintaining their first-in-the-nation status. You see, those states claim that their small size gives non-traditional and unknown candidates a chance to compete against the Big Names. They are like bargain hunters, sifting through the crap to unearth diamonds in the rough. Does it actually work out that way in practice? Not really. But that was always their argument: if we went to a national primary, or one featuring bigger states, candidates with no money and name ID would never stand a chance.
Well, Buttigieg is certainly non-traditional. A gay small-town mayor? And yet, he didn’t need Iowa or New Hampshire to break out of the pack. Our new national first-in-the-nation year-long primary, in fact, has been more efficient at elevating the small players than Iowa could ever dream of. And, as a bonus, it’s an environment in which all Democrats can participate, no matter where they live.
Only Beto and Booker are exceeding 2% in the aggregate, showing how diminished this field actually is. Seven candidates, only three of them in double digits, and none of them even remotely close to earning a majority. Heck, even the Sanders-Warren duo, combined, don’t hit 50%.
It will be interesting to see how how the also-rans react to being excluded from the debate stage in September. It is, in all practical terms, an electoral death sentence. If you aren’t on the stage, are you even a candidate? This shit can get very existential, very fast. No one is talking about Joe Sestak or … whatever other generic white guys are tromping through Iowa cornfields and pretending to like shit country fair foods they wouldn’t be caught dead eating back home.
Money is already tight for many of them, limiting their ability to spread their message (staff, direct mail, radio, TV). Their staffs will have to choose between sticking with a loser, or taking jobs with the real campaigns, as they sit at home watching other candidates on the debate stage. Staff attrition will compound the problems of the also-rans. Most won’t even make it to the Iowa caucuses. They may be on the ballot! But their campaigns will already be dead.
At this point, it’s no longer a question of “who will break out from the pack,” and more “who will be next to drop out.” Tragic, supposedly. But no so much, because the real players gives us great options to pick from. We didn’t need 25 candidates.