Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Benjamin Hart, and Ed Kilgore discuss who’s up, who’s down, and who should drop out among the vast field of 2020 Democratic contenders.
Ben: We’re now two weeks out from the first Democratic debates. Since then, Joe Biden’s once-commanding lead in national polls has slipped, though he is still indisputably ahead. The next tier consists of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders fighting it out for second place, Pete Buttigieg a level below them, and then everyone else. What jumps out at you right now about where this race stands?
Ed: How quickly Bernie seems to be fading.
Jon: High levels of uncertainty — we don’t have a lot of experience with races containing so many candidates, and it’s so hard to project forward. A candidate outside the top tier could still win.
Ed: I agree.
Ben: Expand on the Bernie thing, Ed.
Jon: Bernie Sanders is a senator from Vermont and a presidential candidate … oh sorry, that was for Ed.
Ben: Haha. Merriam-Webster defines “Bernie Sanders” as …
Ed: He began as the aggrieved favorite of very nearly half the 2016 primary electorate, and with the entire hep world saying (1) the party was moving rapidly in his direction and (2) he might well have beaten Trump. He had tons of money, an army of fanatical supporters, 100 percent name ID …
Ben: [Behind the Music narrator voice] “ … And then it all came crashing down.”
Ed: I’m not writing him off just yet, though I never really thought he was going to win the nomination. But the speed with which his balloon is losing altitude surprises me.
Jon: Me neither. You capture nominations by eliding faction fights, not by winning them, and his campaign has grown increasingly factional.
Ed: I’d say Bill Clinton more or less won a factional fight in 1992, just to set the record straight.
Ben: Is there anyone outside the top group you think is due for a real surge in the polls? Julián Castro has drawn quite a bit of notice from his strong debate performance, and seems almost certain to be included in the fall contests, which requires much higher poll and fundraising thresholds.
Jon: Castro and Booker have potential. Maaaaaaybe Klobuchar?
Ed: I’d agree, though all three have a very, very narrow path and a long way to go.
Jon: The Swalwell lane is wide open now.
Ed: Booker and Klobuchar have invested heavily in Iowa and aren’t so far attracting what you’d call mass support there. It’s hard to identify any Castro country before March of next year, and that’s pretty late.
Ben: Is Tom Steyer about to sweep everyone off their feet?
Jon: I’m already working on pun headlines for Steyer-quitting-the-race stories.
Ed: If “ugh” wasn’t clear enough, let me add “Hell no!”
Jon: “Should I Steyer Should I Go?,” etc.
Ben: “So Long, Marianne” for when Williamson calls it quits.
Ed: You guys let me know when you’re done.
Ben: Harris had tremendous success with her well-timed strike against Biden at the debates. Do you expect to see other candidates attempt this sort of thing the next time around against Biden, or Harris herself, or another front-runner?
Ed: It depends, of course, on the evening each candidate draws. It’s fascinating to speculate whether Harris would be doing so well if she had appeared on night one. Probably not.
Jon: If Harris is smart, she’ll shift toward positivity. She’s on the edge of alienating voters she needs by going after Biden, and now he’s bracing for hostility, so she can keep him off balance.
Ed: Booker really needs to go after Harris if he can manage it without abandoning his “Kumbaya” persona.
Jon: Kill him with kindness is the strategy I’d urge. Treat him like a beloved grandfather.
Ed: “There, there, Joe, drink your Ovaltine and go to bed.”
Jon: “It’s great that you’re still so active, Joe.”
Ed: Bernie needs a spark, too, but what he really needs to do is to learn not to shout. Probably too late for that, though …
Jon: Only 50 years too late, though.
Ed: Hey, if the ghost of Henry Wallace has needed that long for vindication, so be it.
Ben: As Jon hinted, California congressman Eric Swalwell has dropped out of the race, to the great dismay of all of us (though with Steyer jumping in, we’re still at 23 goddamned candidates). Any theories as to who will — or should — bite the dust next?
Jon: Hickenlooper? De Blasio? De Blasio has net negative approval ratings among Democrats. That’s insane!
Ed: Yeah, though he’s been doing a lot of what I’ve compared to Odysseus lashing himself to the mast. [A reference to Hickenlooper.]
Jon: Every Democrat is popular with Democratic voters! Except BDB.
Ben: He did have a pretty good debate, though.
Ed: Well, when you start out as a national laughingstock, upward momentum is easy.
Jon: I actually came away liking him less.
Ben: You were the only Democrat who had a positive opinion.
Ed: Nobody has any reason to drop out before the next debate, actually. Swalwell did because he was dealing with a primary challenge for his House seat. The participation thresholds for the third debate in September could kill off half the field.
Ben: Yeah, I was wondering about that. When will the mass winnowing happen? Between debates two and three, right?
Ed: More than likely. Some candidates could also soon run out of money, and the inherent implausibility of some candidacies will catch up with them.
Jon: Buttigieg is interesting — I have a hard time seeing him winning the nomination, but he has gobs of cash.
Ben: Yeah — what does it say that he of all people raised the most in the second quarter? Though I thought he had a solid debate performance, he’s lost ground in almost every poll since — and consistently polls at zero percent of black voters.
Ed: It says he is the first openly gay candidate for president. “Identity” pioneers always generate some especially passionate support. And he is a very cool exemplar. But as I’ve written a couple of times, the whole police-shooting issue could be a bridge too far for Buttigieg.
Ben: If you had a gun to your head, who is your pick to come in first, second, and third right now in cumulative primary votes? We can look back at this and laugh when John Delaney stages the comeback of the century.
Jon: I would try to guess the preferences of the person holding the gun. If it was like some antifa guy, I’d say “Bernie, Bernie, and Bernie.”
Ben: I’m holding the gun.
Ed: I figure Bernie will be second at the convention, because he is the least likely major candidate to drop out.
Jon: Harris, Warren, Sanders. I’m going to boldly predict Biden just deflates, but I’d actually make him my second or third most likely candidate to win the nomination. Also with the caveat that I have no idea what’s going to happen.
Ed: I’d say Warren, Harris, Biden. But I have no real confidence in that projection.
Ben: I’m going with Harris, Warren, Buttigieg.
Jon: Yeah, I like that call. I’m changing to that, not just because I don’t want you to shoot me. [Cries] I just don’t want to die. Harris, Warren, Buttigieg — tell my wife I love her.
Ben: All right, I’m putting an end to this shambolic chat.
Jon: Oh God, no, Ben.
Ed: It is interesting none of us think Biden’s going to win.
Ben: Yeah, we have that pundit cockiness about him.
Jon: It’s our job to underrate him. You literally can’t work in this field if you think he can win.
Ben: It does seem that way sometimes.
Ed: I’m gonna have a lot of words to eat if he does win. Now, let me go back to the post I was working on trashing Biden’s “electability.”