Happy Labor Day, everyone, and welcome to PPFA’s first political post in nine-and-a-half weeks. I hope you enjoyed your respite from the ravings of a madman with a hobby he can’t seem to quit.
There’s no better way to dip my toes into the late summer presidential politics pool than with a Power Ranking overview of the field. Though I’ve had two Top 30 historical posts since my last political rambling, that rambling occurred a lifetime ago — after the first night of the first debate, before Kamala Harris made Joe Biden look like a 76-year-old man running for president. So a lot has changed since then.
Or has it? More on that soon. Below are September’s Power Rankings. (The candidates’ June ranking will be in parentheses, and here’s a reminder of this cycle’s planetary “tiers” theme.)
Tier 6: Ejected from Solar Orbit
- Mike Gravel (24): Yes, the 89-year-old former Alaska Senator was still running up until a few weeks ago.
- Seth Moulton (18): What do Moulton and I have in common? Neither of us hit two percent in a presidential poll.
- Eric Swalwell (17): Farewell, Congressman Swalwell. Good luck getting that torch passed.
- John Hickenlooper (12): Boooooo. Boooooooo. BOOOOOOO!!!
- Kirsten Gillibrand (11): As I suspected, alienating few but having no base is not a way to win a crowded primary.
- Jay Inslee (9): Between losing the progressive Inslee and moderate Hickenlooper, we should all mourn the death of what was once the most successful type of presidential candidate: a governor. Only Montana governor Steve Bullock remains — but barely.
Tier 5: Small Solar System Bodies
20. Wayne Messam (23): Thanks to the above drop-outs, Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam is flying up the Power Rankings! That’s about the only thing going right in his disastrous campaign.
Tier 4: Unknown Dwarf Planets
(Now comprised of candidates who did not qualify for the third debate on September 12 — which required four national or early state polls at two percent from select pollsters plus 130,000 donors — and are doubtful to qualify for the fourth debate in October, which have the same requirements.)
19. Marianne Williamson (21): Despite Williamson being ranked last in this tier, I think she actually has the tier’s best chance to qualify for the fourth debate, as she strongly appeals to a percent or two percent of the Democratic electorate, many of whom are willing to donate to her campaign. Still, no one really wants her outside that two percent or so. Even after her debate performances drew a lot of attention, she was actually seen more negatively by Democratic voters. The reason, I suspect, is that if one were to make a Venn diagram of her and Donald Trump, the intersection would be surprisingly large. Though their ethos is pretty different, they both came late to the political table, have fringe views on a lot of stuff, dabble too closely to conspiracy theories, rely on supporters who love to ask “What have we got to lose?” without considering the answer, and draw attention complaining about stuff without being well-versed in possible solutions.
18. John Delaney (22): Voters’ post-debate perception of Delaney was even worse than that of Williamson, but at least he’s shown to be a more serious candidate with a better handle on the issues. He can also self-fund to survive. Still, he should have dropped out by now.
17. Bill de Blasio (14): Isn’t he the third or fourth most consistent progressive still in this race? For that reason, he hangs on to relevance. Maybe the Sanders and Warren campaign buses will crash into each other.
16. Tim Ryan (16): He’s done a nice job, and the Democratic field benefits from an Ohio Congressman taking part in the conversation, but he didn’t come close to qualifying for the third debate, and he has no semblance of momentum moving forward.
15. Michael Bennett (19): I’ve liked Bennet’s debate performances more than anyone else in this tier, but the polls don’t reflect the Democratic electorate feels the same. Just like Delaney, de Blasio, and Ryan, he has yet to have a single qualifying poll — that is, a DNC-approved poll at two percent or higher — so I don’t see how he makes the fourth debate either. The same can be said of…
14. Steve Bullock (18): If there had been fewer candidates in the race, and if Joe Biden’s numbers hadn’t proven so resilient, we could have seen the Montana Governor turn into a formidable candidate. Bullock is the only candidate to have won a state-wide race in a state won by Donald Trump. Perhaps only Amy Klobuchar has a comparably strong electability case. I mean, a red state governor? That used to be the ideal Democratic candidate! With an earnest debate performance last time out, I can see him being a nice running mate for Elizabeth Warren or especially Kamala Harris.
13. Joe Sestak, former Congressman from Pennsylvania (unranked): Our newest candidate only tops this tier because, as the only unknown quantity, we don’t know his campaign isn’t working yet. Give it some time, because there’s actually a lot to like about this former three-star vice admiral and Pennsylvania Congressman.
Tier 3: Known Dwarf Planets
(Now comprised of candidates who either did not qualify for the third debate but have a decent shot at the fourth debate OR candidates who have qualified for the third debate but have limited upside.)
12. Tulsi Gabbard (15): As I suspected, she’s been a strong debater. No one had as much success against Kamala Harris. As I’ve also suspected, Bernie Sanders’s overlapping supporters block her from rising too much in the polls. Still, with two qualifying polls down and two to go, she can definitely make the fourth debate, especially with a winnowed field.
11. Andrew Yang (10): Though he’s flat-lined around two or three percent, that’s actually good enough for sixth nationally in this crowded field. The devout #YangGang got him into the third debate, but polls show his Universal Basic Income proposal is unpopular among Democrats, even with the party lurching left. Plus, in the wake of Trump, Democrats have also shown a desire for someone with political experience. Therefore, while he’s incredibly popular with a few percent of Democrats, which likely carries him into every future debate, a nomination seems too unlikely. Perhaps Yang might one day be seen as a trailblazer, but right now his ceiling is limited.
10. Tom Steyer (unranked): What a leap! In his first Power Rankings, Steyer is a top ten candidate. The billionaire, vehemently anti-Trump liberal can outspend the entire field combined, and his ad blitz quickly gained him polling traction in the early states. Since just two percent in four early state polls would have qualified him, it seemed like a good bang-for-his-buck strategy. Unfortunately for Steyer, very few DNC-approved, early state polls came out in the last few weeks. Instead, national polls were the norm, and his concentrated support couldn’t carry him at the national level. He fell one poll short of qualifying for the third debate, but you can count on him being in the fourth. Perhaps enough Democrats will ultimately want to fight one billionaire with another, but I doubt the current Democratic Party would be comfortable nominating the elite’s elite elite.
9. Julian Castro (13): Castro has made quite the climb of his own. If I were ranking candidates on their combined first and second debate performances, Castro would be third. Though voters agree he did well, that hasn’t translated to much first-choice support. Of the ten candidates to qualify for the third debate, his was by the thinnest margin (five qualifying polls, one over the minimum). I still don’t see how his current numbers could possibly turn viable nationally, particularly with neither Iowa nor New Hampshire being good states for him, which will make him irrelevant by Nevada and South Carolina. Still, he’s looking like a great VP pick.
Tier 2: The Rocky Major Planets
8. Amy Klobuchar (7): Starting with Klobuchar, the rest of these candidates either have a decent shot at Iowa or are running viable national campaigns. With Klobuchar, it’s decidedly the former. Despite her enormous potential as a candidate and president, she’s basically one or two percent nationally. She does, however, have a pulse in Iowa. (A 3.5 RCP average puts her in sixth place.) As Minnesota’s senior Senator, she knows the language of the Midwest, and she can easily pop over the border into the Hawkeye State to do her retail campaigning. Iowa is known for late-surging candidates, and that can certainly be her. Though I still don’t like her chances in delegate math (her geographical base is light on delegates), an Iowa winner is always in that last group of survivors.
7. Beto O’Rourke (2): Okay, I was wrong. Are you happy? Though part of me wants to stick it out and look like a genius in the unlikely event of a late surge, I can’t deny that he’s looked over-matched. I certainly knew he only served fat helpings of nothing, but what I underestimated was just how little appetite the Democratic electorate had for it. I thought a young, high-energy candidate could still be competitive without a ton of policy knowledge, but Democrats are going on their fourth year of listening to high energy vapidness coming out of the White House, and they’re over it. O’Rourke’s first debate was an embarrassment, and his second debate was a huge improvement, clocking in at “meh.” Nonetheless, he’s putting in the effort. No candidate has a more grueling schedule. He wants to shake every voter’s hand. That could lead to something.
6. Pete Buttigieg (6): If he’s following my advice, which was to tamp down his premature surge so that he can surge again at the right time, he’s doing it really well — maybe too well. I’m starting to worry he’s shown all his cards. His debates are good and sober, but not galvanizing. His media appearances and retail politicking shows a mind at work, but that’s not translating to polling support. Most glaringly, his huge difficulties among minorities in a party that’s about 40 percent non-white makes it seem like his ceiling isn’t as high as his spring surge (and impressive fundraising haul) suggested.
5. Cory Booker (8): Remember how I evaluated Castro’s two combined debates as third best in the field? I rank Booker’s first. Though it’s hard to say anyone performed better than Elizabeth Warren, Booker had a greater degree of difficulty. In the first debate, Warren towered above the first night’s minor opponents, none of whom attacked her, and she was able to stay on message all night; in the second, she had little trouble dispensing with peons like the Johns Delaney and Hickenlooper, and she even had Bernie Sanders on her flank helping her defend progressivism from the pragmatist assault. Booker, on the other hand, somehow remained positive and charming while also critiquing Joe Biden’s Kool-Aid consumption. In both debates, Booker displayed a charming personality and showed policy chops. I see him having the ability to amass strong national support if Biden’s numbers drop, particularly if Kamala Harris continues to struggle finding her way. And remember: we don’t have to think back too far to remember the last time a positive, charismatic African American man won over Iowa with a late charge.
Tier 1: The Gas Giants
4. Bernie Sanders (3): My first draft of this piece had him as the top-ranked Tier 2 candidate. However, though I still see him with a lower realistic ceiling than the three candidates ranked above him, I’m starting to believe in a path. Strangely, what has me convinced is a random Nevada poll, which had him at an impressive 23 points, just 6 points behind Biden. Why is this important enough to move Sanders up? Consider that A) After Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s the third state on the primary calendar, and B) It’s a caucus state, which Sanders excelled at four years ago because his campaign knows what it’s doing.
We already know that Sanders will be competitive in Iowa, a caucus state where he lost by a nose to Hillary Clinton four years ago, and New Hampshire, which is next door to his home state and holds the primary that he won going away in 2016. He could very well win both of those, and he’s likely going to finish in the top three. Assuming he gets those strong results, that will only help his Nevada numbers. It is not that unrealistic that he starts the primary with the three best results in the field. At that point, depending on variables from the rest of the field, he could be considered the favorite. If his February sets up the largest delegate haul on Super Tuesday, the party would be forced to reluctantly consolidate around him in the same way the GOP did with Trump after his successful February four years ago.
Of course, I’d argue Warren is more likely to win Iowa, which not only makes her more likely to win New Hampshire and Nevada, but it also should force un-stubborn progressives into her corner on Super Tuesday. Still, if Warren’s momentum fades between now and Iowa — which is more possible than people who live in the Now realize — that’d be great for Sanders.
3. Kamala Harris (5): I have to admit — I was carried away by Kamalamania after her first debate. To this point, that was Peak Harris: she looked knowledgeable, strong, commanding, charismatic, and sassy in all the good ways. With Joe Biden as the perfect stand-in for Donald Trump, Harris dismantled him. With Democrats’ ranking electability as their top quality in a nominee, the Swalwell Torch should have been passed that night — Biden was over the hill, and Harris proved she could sprint up it. The subsequent days sustained this interpretation; Biden’s polling dipped and Harris surged.
But as the days turned into weeks, Harris’s surge could not be maintained. Her most prominent attack on Biden — that decades ago he did not support busing — ended up being her position too. Her health care position debuted to confusion. By the time of the second debate, she had lost her swagger, and it showed. She kept trying to resume a feud with Biden, but that well was dry. Meanwhile, Tulsi Gabbard outclassed her, and Harris only countered by picking on the party’s elder statesman some more. It wasn’t pretty. A Huffington Post poll found her debate performance second only to Delaney in turning people off. Her slipping polling numbers have now fallen to where they were before the first debate, and Biden is again way out in front. It was as if the summer never happened.
Though she still looks, sounds, and votes like the perfect nominee of the modern Democratic Party and could gain a majority coalition once more candidates drop out (for examples, if there’s a shakeup at the top, she can win former Warren voters who rule out Biden or former Biden voters who rule out Sanders), I continue to think she’s just as likely to be the Marco Rubio of this primary — a high upside talent that is few people’s first choice.
2. Elizabeth Warren (4): Her comeback is now complete. Though this website warned you not to buy into it, there was a time early in 2019 that people thought she was toast. I told you her passionate, policy-first approach would win back Democrats, and it has. She’s now where she was coming out of the Democrats’ 2016 loss — a top tier candidate. Her superb debate performances have Democrats finally thinking she can stand up to Trump and make him look like a fool no matter how many times he calls her Pocahontas.
Of course, if we’re grading purely on conveying knowledge, Hillary Clinton won her debates with Trump as well, yet she lost the election. A 2016 hangover still partially explains why Warren trails Biden and Sanders in electability polling, including head-to-head hypotheticals with President Trump. It’s fair to say that Trump has dominated the rivalry with Warren, which contributed to her earlier struggles, and it’s fair to speculate whether she’s rising in part because he’s gone easy on her lately.
1. Joe Biden (1): I’ve never been more worried about him as a general election candidate. He looks super shaky on the debate stage, he’s not nearly as eager as other candidates to do media appearances, town halls, and other voter engagement. He’s had a hard time making his platform not look anachronistic. It just doesn’t seem possible that he is the best ambassador for this Democratic Party, neither as a representative of a party that’s increasingly liberal, mostly female, disproportionately young, and heavily minority, nor as a candidate who can topple Donald Trump. This is a total reversal of how I felt coming into 2019.
And yet, I can’t get over the fact that how I feel about something doesn’t matter in the least. Donald Trump felt like an impossible Republican nominee, even when he led polls by the summer of 2015. We just kept waiting for something to bring him down. It never happened. In retrospect, we should have stopped assuming our projection of the future was inevitable and instead trusted what the voters were telling us.
Joe Biden, despite his age, his gaffes, his past with handsiness, his out-of-step positions, and his worrisome debates, is extremely well-liked by the party’s moderate and conservative voters (who, combined, still make up most of the party, despite what social media implies), including the powerful African American voting bloc. Importantly, any flagging of his support always rebounds. That’s translated to support from a strong plurality of the voters; though his opponents will highlight outlier polls, Biden’s national polling average gives him a double digit lead.
You don’t have to agree with it, but it’s clearly his nomination to lose. Meanwhile, his head-to-heads against the President always best the field, including in a state like Ohio, where Democrats have all but conceded its 18 electoral votes. If winning back white, working class males in industrial Midwest swing states is truly the most likely way back to a Democratic White House — and it probably is, if you ask me — Biden still looks to be the candidate to do it. As long as Democratic voters perceive him as such, they’ll stick with him.
He’s an underdog against the field, but he continues to be more likely than any other candidate to be the 2020 Democratic nominee.
At least until the next debate. See you next week for a PPFA preview.