As the Democratic field narrows

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On September 12, ten Democratic presidential candidates will face off in Houston, Texas, in the first debate to be held in one night. The previous two debates split the field of 20 candidates over two nights each. For this round, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) imposed stricter standards. Ten candidates failed to meet the DNC’s 2% approval rating in four DNC-approved polls and at least 130,000 unique donors. Three candidates – Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson – had enough donors but did not succeed in polling high enough. None had the other problem.

Five others have dropped out of the final debate. John Hickenlooper brings his moderate pragmatism to the Colorado Senate race, where he hopes to see off Cory Gardner, perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Republican. Jay Inslee will run for, and possibly win, a third term as governor of Washington. Kirsten Gillibrand ran as an enthusiastic woman, but in a field with at least two progressive women, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, her message was not inspiring. Seth Moulton and Mike Gravel also quit. How could the Democratic field change yet?

First, a warning: polls this early are far from foolproof. On September 1, the Washington Post He reminded readers that, 428 days away from Election Day in 2008, polls were predicting a Hillary Clinton-Rudy Giuliani race, rather than Barack Obama versus John McCain. Meanwhile in 2012, Rick Perry led the Republican field. But opinion polls at this point are not always wrong: before the 2016 election Mrs. Clinton and Donald Trump had a strong lead.

Our poll aggregator shows Joe Biden at the top of the field, as he has been all year. Elizabeth Warren passed Bernie Sanders for second place in July; since then she has expanded her lead. These three sit well above the rest. Kamala Harris moved shortly after a strong showing in the first round of debates; she has since returned to around 8%, just ahead of Pete Buttigieg’s 5%, and Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker, both at 3%.

About a dozen or so other candidates are polling at 2% or less. They are free to stay in the race as long as their pride and money allow. For wealthy independent candidates like John Delaney, that may be until February’s Iowa caucuses. Tim Ryan and Amy Klobuchar, both strong but uninspired Midwestern candidates, may face a faster count. For the entire field, there are three big questions.

First, how solid is Joe Biden’s lead? Your correspondent caught him at the Iowa State Fair last month; he looked healthy but he was old: tired, curvy, a little bored and prone to tangents. But Mr Biden has always been a poor campaigner – undisciplined, gaffe-prone, at times volatile and controversial – and his supporters seem unmoved by the provision or He has a steady stream of gaffes. In that sense, his support seems strong enough: he retained the support of a plurality of voters. Last week Monmouth University released a poll that showed it tied with Ms. Warren; soon after Monmouth’s poll director noted that it was an “outlier” and gave no reason why anyone should take it as anomalous.

But much of Mr. Biden’s appeal rests on the idea that he is the most “choice” candidate — the one best positioned to win back Obama-Trump upper-Midwest voters. That kind of argument has thrown up candidates on both sides who went on to lose: John Kerry and Mrs. Clinton to the Democrats; Mitt Romney and Bob Dole for Republicans. Ms. Warren’s supporters want her to be president; Mr. Sanders’ supporters are equally committed to their candidate. If a significant number of Mr. Biden is attached not to him, but to the aura of his competence, then the sooner that aura is punctured – by, say, a loss in one or more of the four early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada), or perhaps another debate performance – he risks losing support.

Second, why is Ms. Harris struggling, and what can she do about it? Ms. Harris made a strategic gamble that has yet to pay off. She tried to appeal to progressives, by raising some positive policy intentions; mediators, by touting her founding credentials as a California senator and former attorney general; and both immediately, through sharp, electrifying debate presentations. But there is a fine line that separates being something for everyone and nothing for no one (or, to put it in voting terms, between being everyone’s third choice and no one’s beginning).

A good ground game could still give Ms. Harris strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, followed by a win in South Carolina. And there is no doubt that she will shine in the debates. But it’s hard to see her suddenly rise to the top. In terms of policy she is more aligned with Mr. Biden than the progressives, but our poll aggregator shows that she is the second choice for most of Warren’s supporters, and third, behind Ms. Warren, for Mr. Biden’s followers. Banking on Ms. Warren’s failure appears to be a risky strategy.

Finally, who among the 15 or so candidates polling under 5% is most likely to go up? Mr O’Rourke seems to have peaked; he has been passionate and ritualistic after two mass shootings in his home state of Texas, but he has also appeared thin and unprepared. Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson have their die-hard supporters, but both are too weird and green to have mass appeal. Julian Castro was impressive in Iowa, but Ms. Warren’s vice-presidential pick, if she wins, appears to be the top ticket contender.

It looks like Cory Booker will break out of the pack. He has legislative and executive experience from Newark, where he was mayor, as well as just over a full term in the Senate. He is thoughtful, charismatic and idealistic (if a little too idealistic at times). He shined in the second debate when Mr. Biden bothered him, and got the knives out, but he seems to be largely against the cut and thrust. Too bad: he does it well.

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