PPFA’s Fifth Debate Preview–and thoughts on Bloomberg(!), Patrick(??), and… Hillary Clinton(?!)

We’re two days from another Democratic debate. Two weeks ago, when I started writing this post in my head, I expected to tell you that this would be the last debate with a double-digit number of candidates. I don’t think Cory Booker qualifies for December’s debate (more on that below), so, at most, we’d have had nine.

But then this happened.

Then this.

And now Hillary Clinton is talking about “pressure” to enter the race from “many people.”

Will we therefore have three more debaters in the future, potentially replacing others as they’re pushed off the stage? I’ll consider that question at the end of today’s post. For now, let’s talk about the actual participants on this Wednesday’s debate stage, and we’ll save the Ghosts of Debates Future for afterwards.

I’ll order the debaters by their Real Clear Politics national polling averages.

Tom Steyer — 1.0

On the one hand, Steyer’s strategy has worked perfectly. He’s used his personal fortune to carpet bomb the airwaves in the four early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina — using the early-state debate qualification method to make each of the last two debates. He’s also on the precipice of making the next one, scheduled for December 19. Thanks only to early states, Steyer is one poll and probably a few thousand $1 donations away from qualifying. (In addition to 200,000 donors, to make the December debate a candidate needs at least four percent support in four different national and/or early state polls, OR two polls of 6+ in early states.)


On the other hand, his approach hasn’t made him viable nationally in the least, even with his participation in the last debate. It’s likely the billionaire is counting on just outspending the field to continue qualifying for debates until it’s down to the last handful of candidates. Still, you have to think if Steyer has any chance to grow a national following, he’ll first need to be effective in these debates.

Tulsi Gabbard — 1.0

Similar to Steyer, Congresswoman Gabbard is not playing well among national Democrats, yet her early state success is getting her into debates. Unlike Steyer, who regularly nabs a few points in all four early states, Gabbard is almost exclusively clicking in one state: New Hampshire. She’s ranked fifth in the Granite State’s RCP average, much in thanks to decent results of 6 and 5 in two recent polls. Her success there, as discussed here before, is due to Independents, including former Republicans, being eligible to vote — and therefore be polled — in New Hampshire’s “open primary.” They love Gabbard’s recent spat with Hillary Clinton and the rest of the party establishment. It’s weird when Breitbart and other far-right outlets gush about a Democrat, but they’re keeping her in these debates.

So I’m pretty interested to see Gabbard on Wednesday. Does she continue attacking the Democratic Party? Or does she try to win the Democratic Primary? She can only do one. If it’s the former, momentum will continue to build toward setting up a Trump-assisting third-party spoiler. One way to see which approach she’s taking is if she trots back out her weird response pattern from the fourth debate: talking point talking point talking point, then, as time is about to expire, she asks a question to a fellow debater only to be cut off by the moderator, then she acts frustrated by the rules.

Cory Booker — 2.3

Take another look at the above chart showing candidates’ progress toward qualifying for the sixth debate. See Booker? Where it stands, Booker has neither the donor requirement nor a single qualifying debate. Though he has until December 12 to meet these requirements, he’s looking at the same barren highway Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke stared down shortly before they became irrelevant. It’s too hard to go from 0 to 60 in a short period of time.

If he’s going to do it, he’ll need an epic debate performance on Wednesday. I happen to think he’s been a solid debater each time. That hasn’t been enough, however, so he’ll need to try something new. I’m interested to see what that is.

Amy Klobuchar — 2.3

Booker and Klobuchar might have identical national RCP averages, but their two campaigns head in opposite directions.

  • A few months ago, Booker was polling around 3 nationally and Klobuchar around 1. They’ve met close to the middle.
  • Unlike Booker’s goose egg in December debate qualifying polls, Klobuchar has already comfortably qualified — only the sixth candidate to do so.
  • In Iowa and Hew Hampshire, Booker is averaging 1.8 and 1.3, respectively, which ranks tenth in both states. Klobuchar is 5.0 and 3.3, good enough for fifth in both.

With this semblance of momentum and coming off her best debate performance yet, one would think she’s gaining confidence and will perform well. I do wonder, however, if she’ll take a moment to challenge the Bloomberg/Patrick(/Clinton) late entrance possibilities. She seemed to take it personally when so much attention went to Bloomberg, resenting the implication that the candidates who had been at this all year weren’t good enough. Indeed, anyone who once thought Biden was the center-left candidate with a great shot in the general but now thinks otherwise should have first taken a look at Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Andrew Yang — 2.8

It appears Yang’s steady but extremely slow rise has finally petered. His national average is actually down a point in the last month or so. I therefore see no reason to believe he’s more than a low-to-mid single-digit candidate the rest of the way. Booker and Klobuchar continue to have higher ceilings, though their floor isn’t quite as firm. Yang’s improved his debating, but Democrats aren’t ready for him, and I don’t think he’s ready for Democrats either. I think a New York gubernatorial bid is in his future. With a win there, he could experiment with Universal Basic Income in one of our 50 laboratories of democracy. With success, he could try again at the presidential level.

Kamala Harris — 5.3

Speaking of floors and ceilings, no candidate has more distance between the two than Kamala Harris. Still, she’s in this debate and was the fifth candidate to qualify for the next one. As long as she’s making debates, she has a chance to regain the mojo she had so long ago. But I wouldn’t bet on it. That campaign has been rouuuuugh.

Pete Buttigieg — 8.0

Look out for Mayor Pete! At this month’s Power Rankings, I noted his steady, Trump-like climb. I had him up to third, and that was a week before his two best polls yet. An Iowa Monmouth poll last week gave him his first poll-topping result, three points clear of Warren and Biden. The bigger deal was over this weekend, when the industry-standard Selzer poll put him at 25 points, ten points ahead of a Warren-Biden-Sanders logjam, and with a scorching hot 72/16 favorable/unfavorable split, topping Warren’s 70/25.

Check out Buttigieg’s rolling RCP average in Iowa over the last two months:


He’s moved from 7.5 to 21, into first place, and he’s still heating up as Warren cools. It’s a jarringly compact four-way race at the top, but it’s the South Bend boss with the momentum. I told you Iowa breaks late, though I expected it would be even later. (Hmmm… Klobuchar lurking?)

Meanwhile, he’s nearing the leaders in New Hampshire, which is particularly remarkable against a former Vice President and two titans of the U.S. Senate that are from states bordering New Hampshire. And if that weren’t all, he’s up to eight points in South Carolina‘s only November poll, showing he might be finally getting some traction with African Americans. (The pollster, CBS/YouGov, has not yet released a demographic breakdown.) And he’s doing that as a 37-year-old Mayor from Indiana who started his campaign with four people. It’s something that should impress people of all political stripes, though it likely rankles supporters of the two Lefty lions with which he’s sparring.

This Wednesday, it’s his debate performance in which I’m most interested — his defense more than his offense. He raised his profile at Debate #4 through a more aggressive approach, but now, as the candidate with the most momentum, we can expect it’s others who will be more aggressive toward him. His chief antagonist, I suspect, is Elizabeth Warren, who is now in a surprising battle with him atop Iowa polls, a place many expected she’d win easily as recently as a month ago. They’ve engaged in a budding rivalry there over the last month, including offering competing messages at the big Liberty and Justice event. (Warren wants to “fight” those that disagree, Buttigieg wants to “include” them in the future.)

How will Warren combat him? And how will Buttigieg, a famously brilliant guy but one with limited experience in high pressure moments, respond? It’s a fascinating situation.

Bernie Sanders — 17.8

You know what we’re getting. I know what we’re getting. We all know what we’re getting. And a month from now, he’ll still be between between 15 and 20 points. It’s kind of like President Trump’s remarkably stable approval rating. It’s just… stuck.

Elizabeth Warren — 20.8

I tried to warn you — her momentum was unsustainable. Since my warning, she has moved from being the oddsmakers’ favorite against the entire field to just 2/1 or worse, merely one of several candidates with a decent shot to win. I had her at 2/1 that whole time, so it’s nice to see the oddsmakers catch up to PPFA. She’s still the least unlikely nominee, but not by much.

Regarding the debate, I’ve already highlighted what I’m most looking forward to — Warren vs. Buttigieg is the main event. Everything else, even the curious Gabbard and nationally-leading Biden, are under cards.

Joe Biden — 26.0

But as under cards go, Biden’s performance is intriguing. Earlier I noted Klobuchar’s indignation at the Bloomberg/Patrick(/Clinton) development, but no one should take their candidacies more personally than Joe Biden. Once seen as the safe choice of the establishment, Wall Street, and Democrats who prioritized beating President Trump, all three of those groups now sweat bullets watching Biden lumber onto debate stages and stumble down campaign trails. Fearing that Warren is a general election loser — or, worse for Wall Street, that Warren could even become president — they’re hoping a knight can ride in, lance the Left, and slay the fire-breather in the White House.

Joe Biden, once the chivalrous savior that was uniquely situated to defeat Trump, should take that very, very personally. At Wednesday’s debate, we’ll see if he has. In other words, can he give big donors a reason to hold off on drafting Bloomberg and Clinton?

Though only ten candidates will stand behind podiums this Wednesday, three ghosts will haunt the stage. Will their corporeal forms show up on later debate stages? I’m not so sure. In addition to raised polling thresholds, the DNC has upped donor requirements at each debate as well. It will be difficult for any new entries to secure 200,000 unique donors by December’s debate, and we can presume January’s debate(s) will up that threshold again. It’s more likely these big names will try to compete through sheer name ID, personal funding, and big checks from big donors.

Some more specific thoughts on these haunting spirits below:

We’ve now had time to see some polls with Michael Bloomberg included, and we’ve also learned what his campaign’s strategy would be were he to enter. The polls show him at about four percent nationally (as expected), but with little traction in early states and high unfavorables in the party. (He was in that Iowa Selzer poll that Buttigieg led. Bloomberg polled at just 2 percent, and his favorable/unfavorable was a hilarious 19/58.) The strategy, apparently, is to not even bother competing in the four early states, where few delegates are awarded. Instead, he’ll let the established candidates do battle in those states and empty their warchests in the process. Meanwhile, he could throw one percent of his fortune — which would be about $500 million, or more than what all other candidates have raised combined — at Super Tuesday states and those that come after. On paper, it makes some sense.

However, I have my doubts:

  1. Every four years we note that the early states don’t have many delegates. That has never lessened their importance. The momentum, polling, and fundraising that head toward candidates who beat expectations in the early states leave big, permanent impacts on every primary.
  2. The Bloomberg strategy presupposes a war of attrition that he can outlast, but it’s much more likely we’ll have one or two candidates emerge from February in a strong position. Their strong performances that month will be a boon to their polling and fundraising, and it is to them that Super Tuesday voters will look — not the guy who hasn’t performed well in any earlier state.
  3. Super Tuesday is loaded with southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia — where the minority vote in the Democratic Party is strong. Bloomberg, though once a mayor of a diverse, metropolitan city, has an approval rating among black New Yorkers that trails his broader approval, much in thanks to a racially-targeted stop-and-frisk policy. Bloomberg’s Super Tuesday strategy, therefore, is fundamentally flawed unless he can somehow reverse his popularity with the minority community. This would be a particular problem for him if Biden, who’s tremendously popular with African Americans, emerges from February with a South Carolina Primary win and momentum. Biden would then probably run the table in all those southern states on Super Tuesday, and Bloomberg wouldn’t come away with enough delegates to be competitive. It’s unlikely he’d be a viable candidate by the time the northeast votes on April 28.

As for former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Friday’s post pretty much summed up how much I want to talk about his late entry. I’m with Klobuchar — the Democrats have enough candidates! Patrick brings nothing unique. He’s essentially Booker Lite — and we see how Booker’s done — only he hails from a New Hampshire border state, which he’s hoping can make him a competitor in the second contest. It can’t.

Still, of the candidates to officially declare, he’s probably the seventh most likely nominee. (I’d put him between Klobuchar and Booker in the last Power Rankings.) That’s mostly due to late entrance drama + sheer process of elimination from all the candidates ranked below him who have been at this all year and have gone nowhere. I just don’t see how there’s enough oxygen left in the room for Patrick, particularly if we see late entries from Bloomberg and…

I can’t believe I’m saying this…

I really don’t want to…

Hillary Clinton?

I never took seriously that she would jump into the race. There’s only so much disappointment, so much failure, so much rejection someone can take, right? Right??

Perhaps not. For the first time, we saw Hillary Clinton — not a random Fox pundit or a “former aide” — soften the ground for her candidacy. During a BBC interview during her book tour, she was asked the question, and she answered, “I, as I say, never, never, never say never. . . . I will certainly tell you, I’m under enormous pressure from many, many, many people to think about it.”

First, leave it to Hillary Clinton to say “I never say never” while using the word four times in one sentence, but that’s neither here nor there. Second, we know from Donald Trump that “many people are saying” is actually a self-interested way to get “many people” to talk about something, retroactively making the comment correct. And guess what happened — after her interview, many people were talking about Hillary Clinton joining the race.

Is it more likely than not that she does? I still say no. But whereas I once saw it as a long shot, it’s now nearing the probability of a coin flip. If she runs, she’d immediately be considered a top five contender. However, I don’t want to get too deeply into the analysis until she makes a clearer move. There would be a lot of moving parts — who benefits, who’s hurt, how the conversation changes, whose support gets divided, how new polls would affect who appears to have momentum, how delegates would be determined in a crowded field, et cetera — but I will say there are two people who should be screaming “Run, Hillary, Run!”:

Senator Bernard Sanders and President Donald J. Trump.

But first things first. Enjoy the debate!


7 thoughts on “PPFA’s Fifth Debate Preview–and thoughts on Bloomberg(!), Patrick(??), and… Hillary Clinton(?!)”

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