October’s Spooooky Power Rankings

Hello, dear readers, and welcome to another edition of Presidential Politics for America’s Democratic Primary Power Rankings. September turned out to be a paradigm-shifting month in presidential politics — not just with President Trump suddenly facing what would only be the third presidential impeachment in American history, but also with Elizabeth Warren’s sustained pursuit of Joe Biden’s polling lead finally pulling him within reach.

October should therefore prove to be a tumultuous month, one that should bother not just the President, who once again is keen on obfuscating information related to his stormy conduct, but also each of the presidential candidates. With Halloween (and next week’s overcrowded, 12-person fourth debate) looming, I thought it’d be fun for this month’s Power Rankings to identify what everyone should be afraid of in the coming weeks.

Without further ado, October’s Spooooky Power Rankings.

(The candidates’ September ranking will be in parentheses, and here’s a reminder of this cycle’s planetary “tiers” theme.)

Tier 7: Ejected from Solar Orbit

Bill de Blasio (17): Not a good candidacy. Happy trails, enormous Mayor.

What’s he scared of? Returning to New York.

Tier 6: Small Solar System Bodies

19. Wayne Messam (20): With de Blasio out, Messam moves up a spot! Still, this is, like, the worst campaign ever. What’s more, despite leading such an insignificant bid, he finds his campaign in controversy. His former chief operations director called the campaign’s recent treatment of staffers “the most immoral, unethical thing I’ve ever seen in my 15 years of politics.”

What’s he scared of? Law enforcement.

Tier 5: Unknown Dwarf Planets

18. Marianne Williamson (19)
17. John Delaney (18)
16. Tim Ryan (16)
15. Joe Sestak (13)
14. Steve Bullock (14)
13. Michael Bennett (15)

I should spare you the escalated word count and lump these candidates together. They did not qualify for the fourth debate and have virtually no political pulse. Williamson has yet to win over any mainstream Democrats, Delaney continues to yell into microphones that might not be connected to anything, Ryan didn’t even register in the most recent poll out of his home state, Sestak has seen his late entry lead to no support whatsoever, and Bullock‘s general election case has no room to breath. Only Bennet makes a minor move thanks to a national poll last week that had him at a towering 2 percent, which every other candidate in this group has failed to hit for weeks.

What are their campaigns scared of? Insolvency

Tier 4: Known Dwarf Planets

12. Julian Castro (9)
11. Tulsi Gabbard (12)
10. Andrew Yang (11)
9. Tom Steyer (10)

These candidates continue to be in the top 12; as expected, they all qualified for next week’s debate. They also still occupy the same four spots on the list, though their order has been a bit re-arranged thanks to Castro‘s dip.

I had seen him as the highest ranking candidate out of this tier, but his third debate gamble — attacking Joe Biden’s memory — hasn’t paid off. Castro’s campaign announced that if it doesn’t qualify for the fifth debate (scheduled for November), he’s dropping out of the race. To qualify, in addition to a higher donor threshold (165,000 donors, up from 130,000), candidates need either three percent in four DNC-approved national or early state polls, OR they can net five percent in two early state polls. There is nothing about Castro’s recent numbers — he’s only hit three percent nationally once in the last four months — that suggests either will happen. He’s therefore the most likely candidate of the top 12 to drop out next, and I rank him at the bottom of this tier for that reason. What’s he scared of? That Joe Biden becomes the Democratic nominee and ends Castro’s chances for the vice-presidency.

Gabbard has earned her way into the fourth debate thanks to some traction in New Hampshire. (I can speak from experience; during a midsummer trip to New Hampshire, I saw more billboards for “TULSI” than for any other candidate.) She’s shown herself to be a polished debater, and we can expect that she acquits herself well again next week. If Bernie Sanders’s health scare ends his candidacy early, I can see many of his voters going to her and she’ll leap up a tier. What’s she scared of? The new debate qualifying rules from the big bad DNC — an easy foil for the excuse-seeking Sanders/Gabbard wing of the party — freezes her out of the fifth debate because she’s not popular enough outside of New Hampshire. Gabbard’s likeliest path to qualify would be with two great New Hampshire polls, but 5+ points is pushing it. Though she’s done it before, she now needs to do it in the right window, which started on September 13 — after her last Granite State poll of 5+.

I’ve seen nothing to back me off my Yang position as a likable candidate who’s extremely popular with a small segment of Democrats. That’s enough to get him into all debates and earn him sizable fundraising. However, he’s also the owner of a platform, the Universal Basic Income, that restricts his growth potential. What’s he scared of? Artificial Intelligence

Finally, Steyer will be in his first debate next week, so we’ll see what happens. I rank him above the other three in this tier precisely because he hasn’t debated yet, whereas the known quantities have debated multiple times and have yet to take off. He’ll also outspend the entire field to qualify through early state voting, and he’s already bought enough donors, so I suspect we’ll see him on stage again. What’s he scared of? The first candidate to refer to him as a “hedge fund manager.”

Tier 3: Rocky Major Planets

8. Cory Booker (5)
7. Amy Klobuchar (8)
6. Beto O’Rourke (7)

The major planets are candidates I think can actually win, though all the “rocky” campaigns are still pretty big long shots.

I think I made a mistake ranking Booker so high last month. Among my reasoning was, “Look how great of a debater he is!” But what I should have reasoned was, “Look how great of a debater he is and how no one cares!” Even after yet another great performance in debate #3, his polling saw no positive movement. Booker feels like the most likely top-eight candidate to drop out by year’s end. In fact, in a recent plea for donors, he said he couldn’t keep running much longer without a big influx of cash. Though he met that particular goal, one has to wonder how many times he can go back to that well before it runs dry. What’s he scared of? Meat?

Klobuchar has the worst polling of the top eight, and I’d say of the top ten she has the worst chance to qualify for November’s debate. Still, the pragmatic Minnesotan continues to be a threat to win in next-door Iowa, a state that loves to see a late rally, which would change the dynamic of the race. She recently popped up to 8 percent in an Iowa poll, and she looms as a top five or six candidate there despite only have just run her first TV ad a few days ago. She might even be satisfied with a top three finish, unlike the top tier of candidates who would be wounded with a third place finish and face a negative news cycle just as Klobuchar is rising as an alternative. What’s she scared of? That progressive Democrats continue to think Klobuchar, with her talk of debt responsibility, lack of hatred toward Israel, and appeal to moderate voters, is “too Republican” to win the nomination.

O’Rourke‘s debate promise to buy back AR-15s gave him his first “moment” of his struggling campaign, which stabilized his falling numbers. His retail political skills (for Iowa and New Hampshire) and geographic advantages in other crucial states (Nevada and Texas) still make him a dangerous candidate if he regains his momentum. What’s he scared of? Being asked a hard question.

Tier 2: The Ice Giants

(New tier alert! In the past I had one tier for “Major Rocky Planets” and one tier for “Gas Giants,” but it’s become increasingly clear that the Gas Giants need to be subdivided. Fortunately, astronomers also subdivide the solar system’s giant planets; in recent decades, Uranus and Neptune have become known as “ice giants.” These icy outer worlds are many times bigger than the rocky planets, but they’re not Jupiter and Saturn big. Similarly, our three ice giant candidates have viable campaigns, but they lack the mass of the front-runners.)

5. Kamala Harris (3): The further behind we leave her glorious first debate, the more she falls to the pack in polling numbers, favorability statistics, and oddmakers’ chances. Even with her home state’s gigantic primary looming on Super Tuesday, it’s not looking like she’ll be able to take advantage. She’s headed toward disappointing results in Iowa and New Hampshire, which likely means she’ll struggle in Nevada and South Carolina, which in turn means California, where she already runs a distant fourth, will not ride to her rescue. Though her upside potential remains, particularly if the Biden Campaign falls apart, she’ll need to find a top three ticket in Iowa or New Hampshire, both of which are looking too competitive for a candidate about whom no one is too passionate. What’s she scared of? What we’re all scared of — people discovering we’re a fraud.

4. Pete Buttigieg (6): “Mayor Pete” is back on the upswing. He continues to have impressive fundraising totals in the crowded field; he just announced a third quarter number of $19 million, trailing only Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. That outpaced Kamala Harris, a big name Senator from a mega-state, by eight million dollars. Polling wise, he’s running neck and neck with Sanders for third in Iowa, usually with double-digit numbers, and he’s in a clear fourth place in New Hampshire. The thing is, if any of the top three candidates finish third or fourth in the first two states, it’ll be seen as a disappointing result. If Buttigieg, however, finishes in third or fourth, it’s the mark of a plucky campaign building momentum. Similarly, if any of the top three candidates finish in the top two, it’s merely “as expected,” whereas if Buttigieg does it — look out. What’s he scared of? Absolutely nothing. He fought in Afghanistan, came out as gay despite wanting a career in Indiana politics, and has already demolished expectations in a presidential primary. Even if his campaign’s momentum dissipates and he’s an afterthought by March, he would still leave with an elevated career in the party. He’d have his choice as the presumptive Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate or Indiana’s governor seat.

3. Bernie Sanders (4): Twenty-five million dollars in Quarter 3! The man can raise funds. His campaign boasts an impressive 3.3 million individual donations with, they say, 99.9 percent of donors not having yet “maxed out,” a sign of small contributions from donors that will contribute again. His grass roots movement, though not nearly as robust as four years ago, is undeniable. Like Klobuchar, he’s only just now starting to run Iowa TV ads, so we’ll see if he can regain momentum in the Hawkeye State. Though he won nearly half the vote there in 2016, his numbers this time around have steadily faded with Elizabeth Warren’s ascension. Take a look at his Iowa polling average, shown in light blue below, over the last six months:


That’s not a good trajectory. Perhaps, now that he starts running ads, he can reverse that momentum. We know New Hampshire loves him, so an Iowa win would likely set up a New Hampshire win, and then he’s off to the races with a huge treasury and a proud movement at his back.

However, it does seem likelier that the known quantity has been largely dismissed by mainstream Democratic voters and elements of the party’s liberal wing who have fallen for Warren. How Sanders combats Warren’s success is one of the biggest questions for the Democratic Primary moving forward. He will either:

  • A) Play to win, which means he has to call off their nonaggression pact and try to knock her down; or
  • B) Decide that a Warren nomination is a better ambassador for his values than a Biden nomination — and therefore let her be.

What he chooses would have sizable repercussions on the co-frontrunners.

What’s he scared of? His own heart! Let’s hope he makes a speedy recovery.

Speaking of the co-frontrunners…

Tier 1: The Gas Giants

Elizabeth Warren’s rise continued in September… but was it enough to catch Biden as the party’s most likely nominee?

I’ll let you know tomorrow.


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