Democratic Power Rankings: May Edition — The Top Eight

Yesterday’s Part I can be found here. Reminder, this is not a ranking of current success. Rather, it’s a ranking of likelihood to win the nomination.

In my mind, the gap between Tier 3 and Tier 2 is the biggest gap of this Power Ranking. Many candidates ranked 9 and lower could easily swap places with each other with a good or bad week, but I don’t see any of them leaping into the top eight without a big debate performance. Likewise, many candidates in the top eight could exchange rankings from week to week, but I don’t see any of them dropping out of the top two tiers barring a terrible development.

Let’s get to those eight candidates. (March’s ranking in parentheses.)

Tier 2: Rocky Planets (Realistic nominees, but not the favorites)

8. Cory Booker, Senator from New Jersey (2013-) (6): I once considered Booker as strong as any Tier 2 candidate. Barring a massive national polling surge, however, I now think the size of this field, in tandem with the order of the first four states, will work against him. The order of the February primary states for the Democratic Primary is Iowa (Feb. 3), New Hampshire (Feb. 11), Nevada (Feb. 22), then South Carolina (Feb. 29). Booker’s strength is unquestionably South Carolina, the African-American-heavy state and the only one of the four where he even sniffs the top three in polling. Unfortunately for him, by the time South Carolina rolls around, it’s easy to see how disappointing finishes in the first three states make him an unviable candidate in the eyes of South Carolinian voters, and they’ll instead back more viable candidates, chiefly Kamala Harris and Joe Biden (the former as the leading black candidate in the race and the latter being Barack Obama’s loyal and supportive Vice President/BFF).

7. Amy Klobuchar, Senator from Minnesota (2007-) (7): Klobuchar, meanwhile, despite polling worse than Booker nationally and in early states, has her strongest state first — Iowa. Though this strength isn’t apparent in current polls, we know Iowa waits to be wooed and then breaks late. I can see the tough Midwesterner clicking with Iowans. If she does, a strong Iowa finish can launch her into a competitive national campaign. If the primary turns out to be factional — a realistic possibility considering the size of the field –we could see the Midwest and Great Plains states uniting behind her while the coasts split between several candidates. That’s far from a majority of the party, but in a divided field it can make her a contender if the primary goes to an open convention, particularly if the party at that point looks for which candidate stands the best chance at winning crossover voters. There’s also the possibility that she inherits a lot of support from Biden voters if his campaign collapses. (And if it doesn’t collapse, he’s the nominee anyway. More on this later.) Don’t sleep on the Klob.

6. Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana (2012-) (11/9): Yang’s Power Ranking jump is the biggest, but Mayor Pete’s is the most significant. PPFA’s originalbuy low” candidate of this race has become a sensation in the primary, and he now find himself polling fifth nationally and comfortably third in Iowa. Like Klobuchar, the Midwestern Buttigieg hopes a strong Iowa result can become a huge boon for the rest of February and the later primaries.

Why just sixth then? I expect this primary to have its fair share of “surges” before we get to the actual voting. Buttigieg just had his, and other candidates will have theirs. The Mayor caught much of the field off guard, so his rise went relatively unchecked; now a front-runner, he can expect the attack dogs. Predictably, some Bernie Sanders supporters were the first to unleashed the hounds. Their testy response to an obvious comparison made by Buttigieg — that Trump and Sanders supporters are both frustrated by establishment politics — looked like a group itching to pick a fight.

I’m actually thinking it would have been better if Buttigieg’s polling didn’t pop until after a debate or two. I bet he’ll debate tremendously, but I’m not sure his numbers are in position to climb much further after a debate performance, which would then look like he actually underperformed. If I were advising him, I’d urge him to lay low for a while, conserve his campaign’s resources, stay patient as his numbers dip, then re-catapult after debates.

5. Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts (2013-) (5): Warren holds steady at #5. Many had poured dirt over the grave of Warren’s candidacy, but PPFA has consistently reminded you I expect her to be fine. I’ve been impressed with her big policy tour. Though the viability of these policies is another story, I will say the energy of a nearly written-off candidate barnstorming the country with detailed proposals to help average Americans is downright inspiring. (The Des Moines Register, which carries weight with Iowans, wrote a piece referring to her as the “Queen of Policy.”) My instinct says that a party frustrated by the current President’s ignorance of detailed policy will gravitate toward her over time, so her surge is ahead. I can see top-three finishes in Iowa and next-door New Hampshire, which would be enough to make her one of the last few candidates remaining at a time when the party will look for a bridge between the Biden Center and Sanders Left.

In other words, just like our fifth largest planet — Earth! — she might be in the perfect in the orbit, not too hot and not too cold.

Tier 1: Gas Giants (the favorites)

4. Kamala Harris, Attorney General of California (2011-2017); Senator from California (2017-) (4): Though Harris drops a spot, she remains a gas giant. Her continued top-tier status doesn’t stem from her polling, as it continues to drop across the board, but instead from the very real possibility that she becomes the least unacceptable candidate to all core groups of the Democratic Party: progressives, establishmentarians, women, and African Americans. It’s the reason the oddsmakers once saw her as the favorite and still see her in the top three.

Her path is similar to Warren’s hope — that she becomes a compromise candidate — but the likelihood of that hope’s manifestation is higher. Whereas Warren’s compromise path would require an open convention, Harris is more likely to win the delegates outright in the primary process. She’s much more competitive in fundraising (Harris raised twice as much as Warren in Quarter 1 of 2019 if one doesn’t count “transfers” from earlier campaigns), and the mighty California Primary looms on Super Tuesday. She’ll need to be competitive in the early states, and she’ll have a ton of pressure to win South Carolina in order to set up winning her home state — where she’s placed only third in the two 2020 polls that include Biden — but it’s such a realistic path that she still deserves to be a Gas Giant.

All that being said, I recently shared my concern that as much as all the metrics favor her, the voters might not follow. So far, national polling trends have seen her fall steadily from a competitive third to a distant third to now usually fourth or fifth. Meanwhile, she’s out of the top three in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Things could be worse, but they could certainly be better, too.

3. Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont (2007-) (4): He moves up a spot more due to Harris’s fade than strong developments for Sanders. On the bright side, he’s still top-two in every national poll and nearly every state poll, and his fundraising leads the field. He continues to have a clear, consistent, and often admirable populist platform that targets large swaths of American voters and even dips into some Trump support. His head-to-head polling against Trump is among the best of the Democrats, too. His path to a primary victory is still a realistic one: a divided field turns the race into the 2016 Republican Primary, and the candidate with the largest and most loyal base appears strong and can only get stronger until the nomination looks inevitable and he drags on board a reluctant party.

However, we can’t ignore that, unlike Trump four years ago, Sanders’s base appears weaker over time, not stronger. Below, in light blue, is his rolling RCP average over the last seven weeks:


One’s instinct might be to say that Biden’s announcement resulted in a polling bump that took Sanders supporters, and that as the polling bump fades Sanders will re-strengthen. However, I think the more glaring inference to make is that Sanders voters going to Biden makes no sense. Talk to any hardcore Sanders supporters, and they’re all too happy to tell you everything wrong with Joe Biden. These two candidates are about as far apart as you can get in this field. Why, then, would so much Sanders support quickly jump ship?

It’s because, unlike 2016, Sanders’s support appears to be pretty soft. Don’t forget that Sanders won 43 percent of the vote in the 2016 Democratic Primary. It now looks he lost, and continues to lose, most of that support. Perhaps what remains is doubly loyal, but it also feels like most of his supporters have moved on. (It’s fair to mention some Sanders supporters declared shenanigans in the most recent CNN poll, saying it over-represented older, moderate Bidenesque voters, but the trend across several national polls from the week after Biden’s announcement — to say nothing of a troubling-for-Sanders New Hampshire poll that found him down at 12% — agree that he’s in a bit of a slide.)

Of course, losing part of the base could theoretically be mitigated if he were to make up the support elsewhere. However, the tactics of many Sanders supporters are infamously divisive, which makes it difficult to broaden a coalition, especially considering he and they are comprised of a bunch of non-Democrats seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party. They might want to play a bit nicer in the sandbox. If they don’t, perhaps it’s not the 2016 Republican Primary that this campaign will emulate, but the 2012. In the former, Trump’s rock solid base propelled him to success. In the latter, the more consistent polling leader and establishment choice, Mitt Romney, withstood all opponents.

2. Beto O’Rourke, Congressman from Texas (2013-2019); Texas Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate (2018) (2): O’Rourke’s high ranking still resides squarely in Hunch City. Spoiler alert: I’ve long considered Joe Biden the favorite for the 2020 nomination. His political survival despite misconduct allegations, coupled with his polling rise since he declared, has now brought others on board with that prediction. (It only took the oddsmakers, who usually had Biden as the third most likely nominee after Harris and Sanders, six months to catch up to PPFA. Not bad.) Biden has frankly never looked stronger for the nomination. If his support doesn’t collapse, he’s clearly the most likely nominee.

Where it becomes interesting is if Biden’s support does collapse. If he ultimately reminds us why he’s 0 for 2 in presidential campaigns, about a third of Democratic voters will be up for grabs. The question is: where would they go?

Certainly many candidacies would experience at least a small climb, but I think it’s O’Rourke who stands to benefit most. Opinion polls agree that Democrats’ top priority is defeating President Trump, and these polls also agree that Biden has the best chance to do it. If Biden’s candidacy falls apart, many of his current supporters will look to the next most capable candidate. Though there will certainly be disagreements on who that is — Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Hickenlooper are the first names that come to mind, and I think Sherrod Brown and Michael Bloomberg might even reconsider their decisions to not run at that point, too — I think that O’Rourke will attract the most Biden defectors. The fact that he almost won a statewide Texas race as a Democrat is a huge plus, as is how many former Obama people, who of course worked closely with Biden, see O’Rourke as the next Obamaesque candidate. (So does a former Obama big bundler.)

And then there’s these, the latest series of head-to-head general election polls from CNN:


No one performed better than O’Rourke. Emerson also conducted head-to-head polling in Texas, and found that the Texan O’Rourke tied Trump. Imagine the heavily Republican Texas — the second weightiest state of the Electoral College — becoming a swing state. (Biden performed just as well in that poll, but the rest of today’s tops six all trailed the President by between two and eight points.)

Still, that’s banking on the Biden Campaign falling apart. But until it does…

1. Joe Biden, 47th Vice President of the United States (2009-2017) (1): Joe Biden is still the least unlikely nominee. Since I’ve been very consistent with that prediction, I don’t need to reiterate all the reasons here. Now that he’s in the race — an announcement that was a boon to his polling, including the last two where he’s reached the mid-40s and dwarfed the field by 30 points — we’ll see if he can withstand the attacks from WarrenSanders, and the rest of the Left about his long political career.

It won’t be easy. There is a lot of fodder out there. Though I think the potential attack most salient for voters — that he’s too old and it’s time for a new generation of leadership — is mitigated by the advanced age of Sanders and Warren (you just know the Left would be making that point if their preferred candidate were in his or her 40s), there is still so much record here, much of it from the last century, that it might be a campaign of drip-drip-drip until he drowns. I’d wager Biden’s support is even softer than Sanders’s, so this is still anyone’s race. My odds for him are at 5/1, about half as strong as most bookies now have it.


3 thoughts on “Democratic Power Rankings: May Edition — The Top Eight”

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