I don’t know if you’ve heard, but this Democratic field is pretty big. It looks like it’ll settle in at 22 to 24 major candidates, depending on one’s definition of “major.” Though we’ll almost certainly lose some between now and the new year, it’s not unreasonable to think close to 20 candidates will be on this February’s Iowa ballot.
With such a large field, most candidates’ average polling number is within one percent of one percent. Only eight candidates can say they poll at two percent or higher with any kind of regularity. The other 16 or so have polling numbers almost exclusively written in binary code. Even of those polling higher, I’d say all but Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg were hoping to be doing a bit better heading into the first debate.
Though frustrating for these candidates, the divided field can also be an opportunity. For every candidate outside the top handful of spots, a polling surge of just a couple points can have candidates leapfrog many others. With that rise would come extra media coverage that use words like “momentum” and “Here comes X!” Donors would surely follow.
That being so, I’ve been wondering what each candidate’s strategy should be to get that mini-surge. I think too many of them are running multi-state campaigns and/or carving broadly planked platforms, neither of which makes sense for candidates outside the top two tiers in a field this size. Between a lack of funding — another side-effect of two dozen candidates divvying Democratic donors — and a couple of big national front-runners (Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders), all the other candidates need to spend more time on a smaller operation. It’s time to put away their hammers and take out their scalpels.
With that in mind, with this month’s Power Rankings, here’s my advice to each of the 24 major candidates, now with 100% more Mike Gravel! (Wikipedia lists him as a major candidate.)
Quick reminder of the early primary schedule:
- 2/3: Iowa Caucuses
- 2/11: New Hampshire Primary
- 2/22: Nevada Caucuses
- 2/29: South Carolina Primary
- 3/3: Super Tuesday – at least 13 states will vote, including enormous Texas and enormouser California.
Tier 5: Small Solar System Bodies
24. Mike Gravel, former Senator from Alaska (previously unranked): Did you know that when the 89-year-old Gravel was first elected to office, JFK was still alive? My advice to Gravel, therefore, is a daily walk and a high fiber diet.
23. Wayne Messam (21): If there’s any advice to give Mayor Messam, it’s that the moral thing to do is stop accepting people’s campaign donations. I think he decided to run after Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, young African American candidates with high upside, didn’t enter the race, and he hoped he could fill their shoes. However, they had been high-profile candidates for statewide office in races that garnered national attention. Messam is just a small-city mayor who isn’t nearly as gifted as the other one in the race.
Tier 4: Unknown Dwarf Planets
22. John Delaney (19): This is coming from a guy who writes thousands of words per week for a stubbornly small audience: know when to give it up. Delaney has been running for nearly two years and doesn’t look likely to reach 65,000 donors, despite offering to donate to charity for each new donation. As a result, despite a considerable head start against all other candidates, he might miss this month’s 20-person debate. It’s just not happening, Congressman.
21. Marianne Williamson (20): She’s in the first debate! Good for her. It’s a positive, heart-warming, and even decent campaign, considering. (The only reason she fell a spot was because a couple more major candidates joined the race in the last month, but she did pass Delaney.) Though she impressively secured 65,000 donors, it still took her a long time to reach just one percent in three different polls to clinch her podium. My advice to the Californian would be to spend all her time between her home state, which votes on Super Tuesday, and next-door Nevada, which is the third primary contest. That will keep campaign expenditures to a minimum. If she can get a better-than-expected Nevada finish then pivot to some California delegates, that might get her a slot at the convention and give her a chance to speak to the party — her best case scenario.
20. Seth Moulton (18): Moulton, due to a late start, is even less likely to qualify for the debate than Delaney. He didn’t give himself enough time to secure 65,000 donors, and, even more embarrassing, he has yet to each one percent in any poll, a distinction among “major” candidates shared only by octogenarian-for-11-more-months Mike Gravel. Advice: Moulton should transition to a one-state campaign between now and February. As a Massachusetts Congressman, New Hampshire is his only chance to get a political heartbeat in this race. He should visit every last Granite State town and village, and pray for a sneaky late surge into a top five finish. If he finishes top five, that means at least one former top-five campaign is in big trouble and likely folds just as Moulton is poised to gain new support.
18. Steve Bullock (unranked) and 19. Michael Bennet (15): These Mountain West moderates should buy a second house in Iowa and spend their next seven months aiming for a top five finish there. Then, as others duke it out in New Hampshire, they should spend the next 18 days in Nevada and hope to finish in the top three. It’s not impossible. Still, their low rank here is due to the near impossibility that the current Democratic Party elects a white, male, Mountain West moderate.
17. Eric Swalwell (17): He does plenty of media — mainstream and social — but Swalwell’s gun control advocacy doesn’t fit Iowa or New Hampshire very well. He should probably follow the path of Williamson, a fellow Californian: Nevada, California, repeat.
16. Tim Ryan (16): Of the handful of confusable candidates from the House, I’ve respected Ryan’s campaign the most. Resembling fellow Ohioan Sherrod Brown (probably by design, considering Senator Brown’s notable absence from this race), he’s making his entire campaign about a working class that continues to suffer despite Wall Street gains and low unemployment. He also has some anti-establishment bona fides after seeking to replace party leader Nancy Pelosi. Advice: Iowa is the place to be for this Midwesterner.
Tier 3: Known Dwarf Planets
15. Tulsi Gabbard (14): Advice: Poison Bernie Sanders’s food.
14. Bill de Blasio (unranked): Poison Andrew Cuomo’s.
13. Julian Castro (13): A Texan and the only Latino in the race, he should be spending everyday in Nevada, where a fifth of the 2016 Democratic electorate was Latino, or Texas. As most of the field sets up camps in Iowa and New Hampshire, he could get a nice head start in these two pivotal contests. A top-five finish is realistic in Nevada — and maybe even top-three if he spends most of his time there. That would then set up a nice delegate haul in Texas on Super Tuesday — particularly if Beto O’Rourke doesn’t deliver in February and suspends his campaign. Castro’s success in Nevada, moreover, would help deny O’Rourke that success, making it more likely he inherits Texans’ support. Castro likely has his eye on a vice-presidential nomination. Showing success in the southwest and the Hispanic vote could go a long way toward that hope.
12. John Hickenlooper (9): He should call up his old buddy John Kasich, who finished second in New Hampshire in 2016, and ask for an endorsement. I’m serious. Crossover New Hampshire voters (remember, New Hampshire hosts a semi-closed primary, so unaffiliated voters can vote in its Democratic Primary) would eat that up, and keep in mind that Kasich is actually one of the more popular Republicans among Democrats, including in his own home state.
11. Kirsten Gillibrand (10): (Cause I’m freeeeeee, free-fallin’.) Let the Harris/Warren/Klobuchar trio try to appeal to everyone. Gillibrand should lean into woman’s issues like they’re hurricane force winds. There’s still time to straighten out this adrift campaign.
10. Andrew Yang (11): Yang and fellow New Yorker Gillibrand keep going in different directions. Now, Yang has finally passed her. Yang is running exactly the kind of campaign he should be, and it’s working. He has one dominant issue (Universal Basic Income), a cheap campaign strategy (a fun, big online presence and lots of media), and many people who hear what he has to say like him. I’m fascinated to see if the debate sets up a Yang surge.
9. Jay Inslee (12): You know what? Inslee should keep doing what he’s doing, too. His single-issue, climate change campaign is precisely what candidates should be doing to stand out. Many voters have far and away a top issue; for some it’s abortion, others it’s gun control, others it’s climate change. If Inslee can just land a few percent of people who think climate change is an existential threat on which every candidate should focus, he’d be solidly into polling’s top nine and perhaps the top six. (Booker and Klobuchar are really sluggish with polling.) A second tier candidate, he can then broaden his campaign to other issues. Now that he’s made the debate, I expect this to happen.
Tier 2: Major Planets (Rocky)
8. Cory Booker (8): It’s hard to know when a major candidate should pivot to a single-state focus, but if Booker doesn’t join the top five after a couple debates, it’d be time to focus on the mostly African American Democratic electorate of South Carolina. He surely expected to run a high-profile national campaign, but it’s simply not working in this field. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are wading too deeply into his voter pool. To be competitive in urban areas on Super Tuesday and beyond, he’ll need a top three finish in South Carolina. Without that, his campaign is over. So, while other candidates compete in the first three states, he should be the only one in the fourth.
7. Amy Klobuchar (7): We’re now getting to the candidates that are still well-served sprinkling their campaign schedule across multiple states. Klobuchar, a Minnesotan, should feel right at home in next-door Iowa. At the same time, as the candidate with the best track record with crossover voters, New Hampshire’s semi-closed primary can work for her as well. Though she should probably focus exclusively on Iowa for most of January, a balance between the two until then can still set up a couple of strong finishes to start the primaries.
6. Pete Buttigieg (6): See Amy Klobuchar. Another Midwesterner with crossover appeal and damned fine retail political skills, he can be equally competitive in the first two states. He’ll need to be, as he’s having difficulty making in-roads with minority voters. which will make Nevada and South Carolina rough terrain for him — to say nothing of later primaries in a heavily minority party. He’ll want to have particularly strong momentum coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire so he can ride that to Super Tuesday. Otherwise, he risks being forgotten by March. He’s cooled off a bit lately, but I do think he has a second surge coming after the debates, and good national numbers should bring up his numbers with minorities.
Tier 1: Major Planets (Gas Giants)
There has been a shake-up in the top tier, including a new name! Read all about it tomorrow.