Tonight in Las Vegas, five Democrats, for the ninth time, will be strapping on some armor and putting themselves on display for all to see: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. And then there’s one Democrat who will be mounting the stage for the first time: the ninth-richest person in the world.
Their goal is to strengthen their positions heading into this Saturday’s Nevada caucuses. Although I’ll give you each candidate’s Nevada, South Carolina, and national Real Clear Politics polling averages, today I’ll be ordering them from least to most suspenseful debate appearance. I think you know who will top that list: the ninth-richest person in the world.
With apologies to Dr. Ben Carson, I couldn’t possibly be more bored by a candidacy than I am Tom Steyer’s. I suppose he should be thankful that people are talking about Bloomber’s billions instead of his, but we shouldn’t forget that Steyer has outspent everyone besides Bloomberg combined and it’s gotten him nothing so far. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent in 2019, he got seventh place in Iowa and sixth in New Hampshire.
However, spending tens of millions in Nevada and South Carolina while all other candidates were focused in Iowa and New Hampshire has garnered competitive polling in the upcoming states. Fortunately, the gods of presidential politics had the last laugh. Many of his best polls were not conducted by DNC-approved pollsters, and therefore he did not qualify for tonight’s debate. With any luck, his lack of inclusion will lead to cratering numbers as his supporters move to more viable candidates, and he’ll finish out of the top five for the third straight contest.
Nevada polling (rank): 1.0 (last place)
South Carolina polling (rank): 2.0 (last place)
National polling (rank): 1.47(last place)
Nevada polling (rank): 30.0 (1)
South Carolina polling (rank): 20.0 (2)
National polling (rank): 27.3 (1)
The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination is also the most predictable candidate heading into tonight’s debate. We know all his beats, rests, and measures. We know he’ll allude to Buttigieg’s billionaire donors and Bloomberg’s billionaire buy-in. Previewing or predicting his debate tactics would be akin to me suggesting that you keep an eye on the horizon tomorrow morning because I have a sneaking suspicion the sun will come up.
Instead, let me use this time to address two other things. I’d first like to complain about the dearth of Nevada and South Carolina polling! In the week after Iowa, we had about 20 New Hampshire polls conducted. In the week since? We’ve had just two Nevada polls and one South Carolina poll. Therefore don’t read too much into them.
Second, a lot more scrutiny now befalls the online behavior of some Sanders supporters, which readers of this site know has been troubling me for some time. Though Sanders currently has the support of about 25% of Democrats, his supporters online punch well above that weight. They’ve long unleashed on social media some combination of fury, moral preeminence, and intellectual superiority — tendencies that have likely hurt Sanders’s ability to broaden his coalition — but more recently some lewd and threatening attacks against Nevada’s culinary union, which had come out against Sanders’s health care plan and candidacy, has been met with backlash from the press, other Democratic candidates, and the union itself.
Sanders himself has denounced these attacks and has consistently encouraged party unity, the latter of which I’ve recognized several times. However, he might be trying to have it both ways. It’s easy to encourage party unity when one is on top of the polls, expects to get the nomination, and therefore wants moderate Democrats’ support in November. At the same time, however, yesterday’s rally in Tacoma, Washington — one that packed nearly 20,000 people into the Tacoma Dome — reached a crescendo not when he attacked Republican policy, but when he warned the Democratic establishment.
While that message unquestionably galvanizes his base, it’s inherently divisive. Such harangues are an implicit attack toward the party loyalists that make up a majority of the party. It does not sound like a group ready to unite to defeat Trump in November if their candidate doesn’t win. A recent poll suggests as much:
When so much acrimony is sowed by a candidate or his supporters during a primary, it’s hard to mend relationships for the general. Soon we might see moderates threaten to sit out the general were Sanders the candidate, a development that would be, if not a perfect example of comeuppance, at least comeuppance-adjacent.
Nevada polling (rank): 12.5 (5)
South Carolina polling (rank): 7.5 (5)
National polling (rank): 10.8 (5)
Not unlike Sanders, we basically know what we’re getting from Mayor Pete tonight — a cool, calm, and collected response to any question that can be hurled at him. He’s endured charges of robotocism to still finish top two in the first contest, and I suspect RoboPete has calculated that this Obamaesque placidity is what voters ultimately want in today’s cacophonous political discourse.
Though nationally he continues to flounder well back, his one-state-at-a-time approach seems to be working. Nevada is warming to him. His last four polls there, from early January to this past Monday, read as follows: 6, 8, 10, and then 15. In that most recent poll, he’s pulled into a statistical tie for second place with a lingering Warren (16) and fading Biden (14). Buttigieg has been a strong closer in both of the first two states, so if he sticks to his formula and has another well-executed debate, I think he can nab second place, another batch of delegates, and continue to make a case that he’s the top moderate option against Sanders.
Nevada polling (rank): 16.0 (2)
South Carolina polling (rank): 26.5 (1)
National polling (rank): 16.5 (2)
I still think it’s too early to rule him out. I admit that my initial prediction of him as the most likely Democratic nominee might obfuscate the kind of PPFA objectivity for which you pay such good money, but I still think it’s worth noting that A) Statistically, the combination of his Nevada, South Carolina, and national polling is still second best in the field, and B) importantly, the south is holding. The “Comeback Joe” theory I suspected would work in his favor after a disappointing early showing can still happen. In the week since New Hampshire, we’ve seen a poll in the following southern states:
- South Carolina: Biden’s in first at 28 points. He has an 8-point lead on Sanders and is in fact three points stronger than the last time this pollster, East Carolina University, conducted the survey in late January.
- Georgia: Biden’s leading at 32, 18 points ahead of Sanders and Bloomberg.
- Virginia: though it doesn’t really vote like a southern state anymore, a Monmouth poll released yesterday does reveal that although Biden trails Sanders and Bloomberg by four points (22 for them, 18 for Biden), Biden still polls at 37% among African American voters, which is double the number any other candidate pulls down.
Again, all of those polls were conducted after Iowa and New Hampshire. With a southern-heavy Super Tuesday looming, Biden’s still alive… for now. Whether he can withstand another bad debate and/or a third straight disappointing result remains to be seen. Tonight, I suspect a desperate Biden delivers another ANGRY YELLING DEBATE PERFORMANCE like his New Hampshire debate. We can also expect he’ll continue to lean into electability; despite badly losing two state elections so far, yesterdays national general election polls still had him as the best opponent against President Trump — and the only one that gets to 50%:
Nevada polling (rank): 9.5 (6)
South Carolina polling (rank): 4.5 (6)
National polling (rank): 6.8 (6)
Of the last four debates or so, there’s a general consensus that Klobuchar was the best or among the best in all but one. (That Iowa debate was shaky, which prompts the question “What if she had a good one?”) Her New Hampshire debate is largely credited with surging her into third place in the first-in-the-nation primary, and the debate/primary combo has helped her raise over 12 million badly needed dollars. She had competed with the other candidates despite being dramatically out-fundraised in the long buildup to the voting contests. Her politics of pragmatism and consensus-building were never natural fertilizers in a political field largely seeded by big promises or fiery rhetoric.
If she wants to maintain her momentum heading into Super Tuesday, she cannot finish in sixth place on Saturday, which is where Nevada polling suggests she is. That would essentially be last place among the six contenders. (Bloomberg is not on the Nevada ballot, and the only other active major candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, stubbornly refused to share the New Hampshire grave site occupied by the political corpses of Andrew Yang, Michael Bennet, and Deval Patrick.) There is considerable pressure on her to again shine tonight and move past a candidate or two. Though her national polling average of 6.8 is still a piddling number compared to the top tier, it’s also never been higher. Yesterday’s NPR/PBS/Marist poll found her at 9 points, a personal best, and it had a bonus: she pulled a point ahead of Buttigieg, probably her most relevant rival right now as they try to triumph in the “college-educated moderate” lane.
We should monitor whether Klobuchar can continue to debate well while perhaps also being a target for the first time.
Nevada polling (rank): 14.5 (3)
South Carolina polling (rank): 9.0 (4)
National polling (rank): 12.8 (4)
The penultimately most suspenseful performance heading into tonight’s debate belongs to Elizabeth Warren. Since that inexcusably bad New Hampshire result, she’s turned into an afterthought. Bloomberg has passed her into third place nationally. Indeed, her national polling suggests there’s no pulling out of this nose dive:
Nevertheless, she persists. If one were to take her campaign at its word, it still thinks it can legitimately win the nomination as voters learn all other campaigns are more deeply flawed. There’s even a hint of admitting what her most likely path to the nomination is — as a compromise candidate at a contested convention. If she wants to accrue as many case-strengthening delegates as possible between now and then, she might indeed be here for the long haul, including winning many of the 91 delegates awarded by Super Tuesday’s Massachusetts Primary.
Or, perhaps there’s a shrewder role her campaign intends to play. As I noted earlier, we know Bernie Sanders will take issue with Bloomberg’s presence on the debate stage. If, however, it’s just Sanders attacking him for it, it can be waved off as a sole voice undermined by its predictability as much as its loneliness. With Warren there, however, a 2 versus 1 gang-up is possible, which can be a much more convincing display of resentment.
The two hadn’t really worked as a team since slapping around minor moderates back in the second debate. Once Warren began her charge up the polls, she made the mistake of pivoting from her progressivism in the hopes of becoming a more attractive general election candidate, ditching Sanders along the way, and it badly backfired. Now, either as a candidate who recognizes she won’t win or as one who sees that a comeback begins with going back to what got her to the top, she might pivot back. I don’t think I’d be the only one who would enjoy watching Bloomberg squirm as Sanders and Warren unleash some double-barreled rounds into his New York-sized ego.
Nevada polling (rank): N/A — not on the ballot
South Carolina polling (rank): N/A — not on the ballot
National polling (rank): 15.8 (3)
Although it would only be known by the candidate, his closest associates, and a fly on a wall of his campaign headquarters, I suspect Bloomberg did not want to qualify for tonight’s debate. (He only qualified yesterday — the last day to qualify — with that NPR national poll, his fourth DNC-approved poll of 10 points or more since January 15.) He of course has to attend or else face a certain reversal of political fortune whereas debating only risks such a reversal.
To this point, his campaign war chest — the largest in political history — has allowed him to not only own the airwaves, but assemble a huge campaign infrastructure of thousands of experienced staffers and paid interns. The effect is clear. Look back to the graph of national polling averages and we see his orange line steadily rise past other candidates, and he looks to be a poll or two from passing Biden into second. He’s done this without ever once debating.
And yet, all the money in the world can’t buy the kind of experience his fellow candidate have going into tonight’s debate. The other five have eight debates under their belts, but Bloomberg is not in game shape. It’s easy to hire talented producers to cut glossy commercials, but now we actually get to see Bloomberg on his own, with nothing but a podium and microphone between us and him. He can’t throw a wad of money at the camera if he doesn’t like a question. Some people like to compliment his Skip February strategy as some great mathematical theorem, but I think he may have just wanted to avoid months of debates, retail politics, and scrutiny.
I’m dubious about how he’ll perform. A small guy with a sometimes effete manner, he won’t look the part of the tough guy his ads so convincingly sell the American people. It might also become clearer that he’s yet another aging candidate. Somehow, Joe Biden will only be the third oldest guy on stage tonight. Sanders turned 78 in September, Bloomberg turned 78 on Friday, and Biden turns 78 this November. (Buttigieg, who turned 38 last month, is less than half their age, while Klobuchar, 59, just keeps waiting for everyone to realize she’s the Goldilocks candidate of this primary.)
I’m most eager to see how Bloomberg’s fellow candidates receive him. It seems to me Sanders is still getting off relatively easy as the front-runner, much like Trump four years ago. Candidates should be going after him, but Bloomberg makes for the much more succulent meal. The other five candidates will be a pack of vultures at the feast, knives out and beaks bloody.