The Big Two (and a Debate Preview)

Welcome back! Yesterday, I ranked the remaining major Democratic candidates down through number 3, and it looked like this:

Tier 6: Small Solar System Bodies

19. Wayne Messam

Tier 5: Unknown Dwarf Planets

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

Tier 4: Known Dwarf Planets

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

Tier 3: Rocky Major Planets

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

Tier 2: The Ice Giants

5. Kamala Harris
4. Pete Buttigieg
3. Bernie Sanders

The top two, in some order, will of course be “Gas Giants” Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Before we get to that, however, I thought I’d do a quick preview for the fourth Democratic debate, scheduled for one week from tonight. It’ll pack a record twelve candidates onto one stage. That’ll likely make for either disjointed discourse, a fatiguing three-hour event, or both.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll be unimportant. After the fourth debate, the fifth debate’s qualifying criteria gets more stringent; in addition to needing 165,000 donors, which all 12 candidates have already met, candidates need (between September 13 and a week before the fifth debate) three percent in four DNC-approved national and/or early state polls OR five percent in two early state polls. So far, ten polls have counted for the four-poll route. Though five candidates have already qualified, after them there’s a precipitous drop:

Candidates below Bennet have fewer than 20,000 reported donors.

The top five are ten-for-ten in DNC-approved qualifying polls released since September 13 (and they’re also the only ones hitting five percent in “early state” polls since that date), but then there’s a cliff. Yang, Steyer, and Booker are just three-for-ten in qualifying polls, then everyone else has either 0 or 1. Fortunately for that threesome, that means only one more DNC-recognized poll of three percent is needed

Everyone else, however, is in big trouble. A third of next week’s debate field — O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Gabbard, and Castro — will be desperate to make a push to stay relevant. Ominously for them, we see that the candidates who didn’t qualify for the fourth debate are now getting next to no attention — minimal TV requests, donors, and polling. Once the DNC raised qualifying thresholds from the second to third debate, candidates outside the top twelve were relegated to obscurity and several were forced to drop out of the race. For some reason a handful march forward, but their campaigns are over.

That might be the fate of any candidate who can’t turn the fourth debate into an invitation to the fifth. The four candidates behind the outside podiums are officially endangered, which could make for interesting television on Tuesday.

Of that next polling tier up:

  • Yang will have no problem qualifying for the fifth debate, thanks to the loyal Yang Gang. I’m still waiting for him to go full UBI and tie every answer to his platform’s central plank. It got him this far.
  • Booker will keep being his charismatic, handsome self, but since that hasn’t been enough, I’ll be interested to see how he tries to use his likability to do something aggressive. Biden is his likeliest target; Booker’s biography and message should have him doing better with black voters, but Biden maintains strong support in the African American community.
  • Steyer, the only one who will be at his first debate, is the wild card. I’m eager to see his approach.

Of the five candidates who have already qualified for the fifth debate:

  • Kamala Harris has the worst trajectory. Her first debate performance was brilliant, her second was flustered, and her third was annoying. What’s left in the gamut of volatility? Sad? Angry? Hilarious?
  • I expect Pete Buttigieg will have his best debate yet. By aesthetics alone, he’ll look good standing in a 12-person debate’s middle four candidates; three septuagenarian titans of the Democratic Party — Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren — will be joined at center stage by 37-year-old, openly gay, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Still, substantively speaking, we already know he’s as sharp as they come, and I expect a solid performance in a big moment.
  • Bernie Sanders will be Bernie Sanders. I feel very good about this prediction.

And that just leaves the Big Two, who I have yet to rank — or say what they’re scared of — in October’s “Spooky” Power Rankings. At this point, it’s never been clearer that Biden and Warren, combined, are huge favorites against all other candidates. It would be a surprise if one of them is not the Democratic nominee. But in what order should we rank them?

Dating back to November 2018, I had considered Joe Biden as the “least unlikely” nominee. Warren, however, has steadily gained ground on him. Was this the month, as the general punditry has suggested, she passed the former Vice President as the new favorite?

Let’s break it down. Below I’ve listed their current polling Real Clear Politics polling averages nationally; in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, which together comprise the “early states” of the Democratic Primary calendar; and California and Texas, by far the two biggest states on Super Tuesday, which is the first primary day after the early states. In parentheses is where they rank in each polling average.

Sanders ranks second in Nevada, O’Rourke ranks second in Texas.

By the looks of it, Biden is in a stronger position than the national conversation has implied. He clings onto the national lead and maintains the edge in five of the primary’s six most important states. Moreover, Warren’s solitary lead is rather narrow, whereas Biden holds a couple sizable leads in the southern states and a not-too-shabby lead in Nevada. I do think pundits have been too quick to crown Warren a sizable front-runner.

And yet…

2. Joe Biden

Biden has lost his front-runner status, if only for this month. Warren has a clear advantage in The Momentum Game. Though Biden still has a lead nationally (and in most states), look at their rolling RCP averages over the last two months:


Notably, it’s not so much that Biden is crashing — it’s more like he’s traipsing over rolling hills — it’s that Warren’s ascent had been consistent for some time. Their two trendlines will likely cross each other some time soon.

The Momentum Game will also be relevant come February, when voters finally get a chance to cast a ballot, starting in Iowa. Warren has had the best ground game in the Hawkeye State for most of 2019, which has not only helped her take the lead there, but it’ll also be helpful come turnout time on the February 3 caucus date. Of all the places one wants to be leading, it’s the one place where Warren is leading — Iowa. Iowa is the first state to affect the rest. If she’s still narrowly trailing Biden in New Hampshire, an Iowa win would absolutely put her into the lead there, particularly with her home-field advantage as a Massachusetts Senator. If she pairs Iowa and New Hampshire wins, Joe Biden will have never looked older and more like yesterday’s news. His Nevada lead would not be safe.

I expect Biden will eventually withdraw his resources from Iowa in order to lower expectations (which will allow the rise of one or two surprising candidates into the top three), but a disappointing New Hampshire result would shatter his support in later states. No one goes 0-for-2 in those states and becomes the nominee. (Well, no one except Bill Clinton in 1992, but Iowa wasn’t even contested that year due to its Senator, Tom Harkin, being the obvious winner.) If he totally retreats south and banks on South Carolina setting him up for a strong Super Tuesday, he’s got another thing coming. Biden, in the fourth debate and beyond, must more forcefully make the case that the progressive takeover of the party is not a good general election strategy.

What’s he scared of? Having come out of retirement for this.

1. Elizabeth Warren

So here she is — the new “least unlikely” nominee of the Democratic Party. More than that, oddsmakers now have her as a favorite against the entire field, an honor they never bestowed on Biden:

That’s right — Hillary Clinton is anywhere between the fourth and seventh favorite, between 12/1 and 16/1! I can see how that happens. But you wouldn’t want to hear about that, would you?

While I agree Warren is now the favorite, I don’t see her as such a dramatic one.

See, as the new favorite, the list of what she’s scared of is longer than one might think. With my next post, I hope to outline reasons to be skeptical of a Warren nomination. See you then.


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