intelligencer chats

Is It Too Late for a Primary Dark Horse to Emerge?

Could Julián Castro — or someone in his polling position — leap into contention? Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Gabriel Debenedetti, Benjamin Hart, and Ed Kilgore discuss whether any low-polling Democratic candidates still have a chance to truly contend in the primary.

Ben: Ed, you wrote that Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have separated themselves from the rest of the Democratic primary field, citing the latest polling averages as evidence. Pete Buttigieg, with his prodigious fundraising totals, is generally considered to be in the top tier of candidates as well — but everyone else is pretty much struggling. You write that “some other current bottom-feeder could rocket into contention with a big-time performance in the July 30 and 31 debates in Detroit.” But with opinions hardening at least a little, is too late for a dark horse to emerge from this massive field, the way Mayor Pete did a few months ago?

Ed: This is not a business for absolute judgments, though it would help get me on TV if I thought otherwise … so it’s not “too late,” though I don’t really expect it to happen.

Gabriel: I think we’ve reached a point where it’s very unlikely that someone will come from nowhere, partly because all the candidates have now had a chance to introduce themselves, and voters don’t seem to be in an experimenting-with-a-bunch-of-different-candidates kind of mood, based on how relatively stagnant polling has been, with some obvious, Pete-sized, exceptions.

But that’s not to say it’s all over for everyone outside of these top five. There are a handful of candidates with less buzz/poll support who have pretty significant organizations on the ground, which could help propel the candidate forward if he/she soon has a moment of some sort. I’m thinking Booker, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, etc.

But take the example of Julián Castro to consider how hard this would be. He had, by all accounts, a breakout in the first debate. Yet he’s still not really being treated as a serious contender.

Ed: I suspect Pete’s money surge was mostly the product of being the first openly gay presidential candidate. Every LGBTQ-friendly well-off person in America wrote him one check, but it’s unclear they’ll write that second one. And he’s still not out of the woods on the police shooting that reinforced his lack of appeal to African-American voters.

Ben: Kamala Harris, who by no means came out of nowhere, well and truly broke out with what was certainly a moment — and a very scripted one — in the first round of debates. Do you expect to see more of this sort of thing when the candidates gather again in two weeks? Will someone else go the “chastise Biden” route, for instance?

Ed: The debate lineup sure did Biden no favors. He drew Harris again, and a bunch of lefties. I wrote last night that he could become a piñata.

Gabriel: Yes. But that’s not just because of the Harris experience — she raised some more money, and got a polling bump, but was already top tier — so much as this is the last chance for a lot of folks to make any waves. The majority of them have no real shot at making the next debate, which essentially puts a countdown clock on their campaigns. A lot of the campaigns will view Detroit as make-or-break to an extent we rarely see.

Ed: Yep. I mean, in theory, Cory Booker could ride that fine Iowa organization to a series of upsets, and I guess Castro has some potential. If Biden totally collapses (very unlikely) there will be a search for a New Moderate, unless voters just stampede to Harris. And speaking of Harris, I’m with Gabe on her: She was the smart-money favorite from the get-go.

Gabriel: But the central question — can someone else break out? — really has to be considered within the context of the shape of the primary and its calendar this time. The answer is almost certainly “not if they’re not on the September debate stage.”

Ben: Yeah, the DNC has strict rules about making the third debate — you need to hit 130,000 donors and 2 percent in four different qualifying polls. There’s been grumbling about this, naturally, from the lower-tier candidates. But it seems like most people think the strictures are not a bad thing. Nobody wants to continue to see 20 candidates paraded up there for months and months.

Gabriel: It looks like only ten or fewer candidates could make that mark. You’ll see campaigns carrying on even if they don’t, but it’d be hard to justify, and even harder to raise money to sustain a campaign. So let’s say there are ten candidates left by September. That’s presumably the five we’re talking about plus five others who can clear the thresholds. Booker, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Yang, Castro seem likely to do so, and the rest will likely be very eager to make the July debate count, in a huge way. (Ten is not a hard limit, rather my educated guess about how many can make it.)

Ben: “I promise one thousand dollars to every person who votes for me” —Andrew Yang

Ed: This process was initially overshadowed by all the caterwauling left over from 2016 about the DNC “rigging” things. Last night I watched that ridiculous drawing for debate assignments, with the CNN folks saying over and over again that this was to promote “transparency,” and probably 90 percent of viewers thought, “Jesus, give it a rest!”

Gabriel: That was also possibly a dig at NBC, after campaigns complained during the last draw after NBC decided which debate would be which night in an out-of-sight back room, based on projected viewership. But anyway, I’d say the number of people who care about that is, like, 200.

Ed: They are all attacking me on Twitter pretty often, but yeah.

Gabriel: Point being, it looks like the DNC has actually created what could be a pretty effective winnowing mechanism, even if they insist that’s not what they’re trying to do.

A sub-question to our central one has to be: Is it possible to break out if you’re not on the debate stage in September?

Ed: I don’t think so, particularly if there are still eight or nine or ten candidates available.

Gabriel: It’s also important to remember that the candidates that are in good position right now are building infrastructure nationally, with their name ID and financial resources, while others are trying to get attention that could get them only part of the way there. So their advantages are growing, if anything.

Ben: Okay, so we know it’s going to be a steep climb for any of the also-rans to get in with the top four or five. If you had to pick one or two that could plausibly make that leap right now, who would it be?

Ed: Booker, Castro, and if Biden really collapses, one moderate-to-be-named-later.

Gabriel: Booker, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke are the ones who have the most organization on the ground, and therefore capacity to build up. Castro is getting there. And I think we can’t rule out a guy who says he’s going to spend $100 million on this campaign, though it’s obviously hard to see his path right now. (That’s Tom Steyer, who rudely entered the race when I was on vacation.)

Ed: Oh God, I keep forgetting about Steyer, or trying to. The problem with Klobuchar is that (like her Republican Minnesota predecessor Tim Pawlenty), she just has to do very, very well in Iowa. Not sure it’s going to happen, and if it doesn’t, she’ll get written off.

But again, if Biden flips out and starts talking about his old buddy Jesse Helms, media folks and donors will be on the hunt for another non-lefty, and Klobuchar’s as likely as any to catch the buzz.

Gabriel: Watch Michael Bennet aggressively try to make the case it should be him at the next debate, while surrounded by progressives.

Ed: Yeah, he got a lucky draw.

Gabriel: The moral of the story, as always, is 🤷.

Ed: They won’t put you on TV either, Gabe. Gotta be CERTAIN. Gotta impose your NARRATIVE.

Is It Too Late for a Primary Dark Horse to Emerge?