Tuesday, September 17, 2019

BTRTN 2020 Vision: Will Biden’s Campaign Die a Death of a Thousand Gaffes?

Tom with our BTRTN monthly feature on the 2020 elections, with all the latest numbers and commentary.

THE LEAD

These are the main headlines for the past month of the 2020 presidential campaign, from mid-August to mid-September:

Image result for 2020 vision·        Joe Biden remains at the head of the field nationally, with slightly lower support levels than last month, while Elizabeth Warren continues to climb, and is now tied for second with Bernie Sanders. 

·        But the race has tightened in three of the four “early” states, with Biden in a virtual tie with Sanders in Iowa and Nevada, and with Sanders and Warren in New Hampshire. 

·        The remaining candidates continue to trail the “big three” by considerable margins nationally and state-by-state.  Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg remain a cut above the rest, and they are the only other candidates with material support.

·        The third Democratic debate featured only ten candidates, the rest failing to meet polling and/or donation thresholds.  Joe Biden came out strong in the debate but faded into gaffe mode, raising questions once again about the long term sustainability of his campaign.  But he scored early on both Warren and Sanders over their “Medicare For All” plan, and came out on the sympathetic end of a clumsy Julian Castro attack on his age.  But Beto O'Rourke's passionate plea to ban assault weapons was the most powerful moment of the night.

·        Three more candidates dropped out of the race, leaving the Democratic field at a still unwieldy 20

·        Relative newcomer Tom Steyer, who failed to qualify for the September debate, has now qualified for the October debates, meaning that once again the field will likely be split across two nights.

·        There are now three Republicans challenging Donald Trump for the presidency.  While each of the three has credible credentials, none represent meaningful threats to Trump.

·        Howard Schultz officially dropped his consideration of a run as a third party independent


THE FIELD

The Democratic field contracted, while the GOP field expanded.

Three more Democrats dropped out of the race:  Kirsten Gillibrand, Seth Moulton and Jay Inslee.  Gillibrand had the highest profile of the three, but her candidacy, focused on women’s rights, never took, despite some decent moments in the first debate.  Neither Moulton, a Massachusetts representative who was a relatively late entrant, nor Inslee, the Governor of Washington, who focused his campaign on climate change, ever rose above the 1% mark.  The Democrats now number 20 entrants, including a dozen who have fared no better in the polls than those who have departed.

Three Republicans have emerged to challenge Donald Trump in the GOP primary:  former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, a libertarian who announced months ago; former Representative Joe Walsh, who achieved a modicum of fame by yelling “You lie!” in the midst of one of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses; and former Governor and Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who is best known for his attempted cover-up of a marital affair (in which he claimed his six-day disappearance was explained by hiking in the Appalachians).  This is not a distinguished field and will not likely disturb Trump too much; the RNC will almost certainly not sanction a debate amongst the four candidates or any subset thereof.

At the end of this article you will find a chart summarizing the entire field, both parties, with each grouping ranked by the candidates standing in the national polls for the last month, from mid-August to mid-September.


THE MONTH

Joe Biden continued to face the music as the frontrunner, the target of most of the slings and arrows and the relentless focus of the media.  This is unfortunate for Biden because he has a very long record to pick on, with many controversial moments, and he is far from a gifted campaigner.  Every day seems to bring a new gaffe, from conflating three different veteran’s stories into one messy and almost completely inaccurate one, to a strange and meandering response to a question in the debates about the legacy of slavery, an answer that, besides questioning minority parenting skills, also included a beyond-dated reference to a “record player.”

But the third debate featured a feisty Biden out of the gate, for a change, attacking Warren for supporting Sanders’ “Medicare For All” plan and getting off a strong line versus Sanders as well (“For a socialist you got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do.”). The first half-hour or so of the night was a pure policy debate on the leading issue of our time, health care, and Biden seemed to win it rather handily, as Warren danced around the issue of whether Medicare For All would require the tax increases for the middle class (it would, but Warren refused to say that out loud, instead couching her response in the rather nebulous construct of “total cost” -- accurate, perhaps, but not particularly clear or direct).

If the debate had ended after an hour, Biden would have won it hands down.  When Julian Castro staged an inartful attack on Biden’s age (“are you forgetting what you just said two minutes ago?”), Biden survived it easily (the audience gasped), but the contretemps allowed other candidates an entry point on the delicate issue of Biden’s competence, which took up a fair amount of post-debate oxygen.  And, Biden’s “record player” reference was certainly one of the most replayed moments of the night.

Neither Warren nor Sanders brought their “A” game to the proceedings, either, and thus the evening, strangely, ended up being more of a showcase for the rest of the candidates.  Some fared well in this unexpected spotlight, notably Cory Booker, showing his trademark flashes of humor and passion, and Amy Klobuchar, who finally articulated a coherent centrist message.  Some swung for the fences – notably Castro, with his attack dog strategy (maybe trying to show-off his VP potential?) and Andrew Yang, who offered a pint-sized, game show version of his trademark minimum income pitch (“10 viewers will received $1,000 a month!”).  Neither of the “next tier” rivals, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, did any harm but Harris remains an inconsistent performer and Buttigieg, the 37-year old, continues to sound like the adult in the room – mature and thoughtful amidst the fray, but not particularly dynamic.

And then there was Beto O’Rourke.  O’Rourke’s indifferent and disappointing campaign received the kind of boost that no one wants with the mass killings in his hometown of El Paso.  O’Rourke performed powerfully on the campaign trail in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, finding his voice in the pain with his empathy on the one hand and his strident calls for gun control measures on the other.  In the debate, he took it one step further with his clarion call for reclaiming assault weapons (“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47!”), the applause line of the night.  And yet, O’Rourke drew a blunt attack from Senator Chris Coons for the giving the pro-gun forces a video clip for the ages, and potentially upsetting any chance that more modest and universally appealing measures, such as universal background checks, now being debated, might actually find their way to Trump’s desk and be signed into law.

It seems unlikely that this debate will shake up the polls in any meaningful way.  That sets up the next debate (or debates) in October, which will feature a new face, billionaire Tom Steyer, who qualified for them with a 2% showing in a fourth major poll, enough to vault him to the stage.  Steyer is not a riveting performer but he has achieved a level of support already (through the power of the wallet) that many others have failed to reach.

But there was a signal shift in the debate, and that was Biden on the offensive, and attacking Warren directly, a first thus far.  Warren to date has achieved more or less a free pass, and to the extent she keeps rising in the polls (see below), this honeymoon will end.  And we will see how she fares in the glare of those attacks.

And the overarching question remains….is Biden built to last, or will his campaign die a death of a thousand gaffes?  He has a huge reservoir of goodwill, for sure.  But that might not be enough.

But the Democrats got a break when Howard Schultz formally dropped his exploration of a third party run.  No matter who wins the Democratic nomination, a Schultz candidacy would have helped Trump, of that there can be little doubt.


THE NUMBERS

Biden continues to command a little less than one-third of Democratic voter preference nationally, now at 28% on average for the 21 national polls that were conducted over the last 30 days.  This is a modest decline from the 30% level he has enjoyed in the two prior months, and too early to call a trend.  His support levels remains where they have been since before he announced.

Meanwhile, Warren continues her steady climb, up another two points to 17%, her fifth straight month of improvement from her low of 6% back in March/April.  Bernie Sanders is also at 17%, roughly the same level he has been at for the last five months.  Kamala Harris was the big loser for the month, dropping three more percentage points from 10% to 7%, while Pete Buttigieg held at 5%. 

The only perceptible movement from the lesser candidates was another point up for Andrew Yang; he has now risen to 3%, tied with Beto O’Rourke.  Cory Booker held at 2%, which leaves a remarkable dozen candidates at either 1% or 0%.  Why they have not faced the music and realized that they are serving no useful purpose in carrying on is beyond me (with the exception of Steyer, who will get his chance on the stage now that he has bought earned it).

Average of National Polls
Candidates
Jan 16 - Feb 15
Feb 16 - Mar 15
Mar 16 - Apr 15
Apr 16 - May 15
May 16 - Jun 15
Jun 16-  Jul 15
Jul 16-  Aug 15
Aug 16 - Sep 15
Change last month
Biden
29
29
31
37
34
30
30
28
-2
Sanders
17
23
23
18
17
16
16
17
1
Warren
7
7
6
8
10
13
15
17
2
Harris
11
11
9
8
7
11
10
7
-3
Buttigieg
0
0
3
7
7
6
5
5
0
O'Rourke
7
6
8
5
4
3
3
3
0
Yang
1
0
1
1
1
1
2
3
1
Booker
4
5
4
3
2
2
2
2
0
Klobuch.
2
4
2
2
1
1
1
1
0
Gabbard
1
1
1
1
0
1
1
1
0
Castro
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
0
Bullock
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
1
1
1
0
Williams.
0
0
0
0
0
0
1
1
0
Steyer
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
1
1
0
DeBlasio
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
0
1
1
0
Bennet
n/a
n/a
n/a
1
1
0
0
1
1
Delaney
0
0
1
0
0
0
1
0
-1
Ryan
n/a
n/a
n/a
1
0
0
0
0
0
Sestak
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
0
0
0
Messam
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
0
0
0
0
0

At this stage, however, the most important polls (and there are far fewer of them) are in Iowa and, to a lesser extent, the other early states.  In Iowa, there has been roughly one major poll each month, which makes trends and conclusions harder to draw.

Biden leads in Iowa, and his 29% support level is impressive given the absolute absence of his strongest constituency, African-Americans, in the state.  Biden has the support of roughly 40% of Democratic African-Americans nationally, but that group comprises less than 5% of Iowa caucus voters (and an even lower percentage of primary voters in New Hampshire). 

But Biden is being challenged in Iowa now by Sanders.  The polling has been very bumpy for Sanders, showing absolutely no consistency, but we tend to favor the CBS/YouGov poll over the Monmouth one (below), which has Sanders nipping at Biden’s heels at 26%.  Warren remains in the mix in the third slot, and Buttigieg and Harris trail with the same levels as in the national polls and, again, no one else is making a dent.

Iowa Polls
Candidates
3/16 - 4/15 (2 polls)
DMR /CNN 6/2-5
CBS/YG   5/31-
6-12
USA/Suff   6/28 - 7/1
CBS/YG
7/9-18
Mon
8/1-4
CBS/YG
8/28-
9/4
Biden
26
24
30
24
24
28
29
Sanders
20
16
22
9
19
9
26
Warren
9
15
12
13
17
19
17
Buttigieg
11
14
11
6
7
8
7
Harris
10
7
5
16
16
11
6
Klobuchar
2
2
4
2
4
3
2
Steyer
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
2
3
2
Booker
6
1
3
2
3
1
2
O'Rourke
5
2
4
1
0
0
2
Yang
0
1
0
1
0
2
1
Gabbard
0
1
1
1
0
1
1
Delaney
0
1
2
1
1
1
1
Castro
1
1
0
1
2
0
1
Bennet
n/a
1
0
1
0
0
0
Bullock
n/a
0
0
0
0
0
0
Williamson
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
Ryan
n/a
0
0
0
0
0
0
Messam
n/a
0
0
0
0
0
0
DeBlasio
n/a
0
0
0
0
0
0

In the campaign schedule, after Iowa’s caucus next February will come New Hampshire’s primary, Nevada’s caucus and the South Carolina primary (in that order) – and then Super Tuesday, which will include California for the first time.  Biden is facing a stiff challenge from both Warren and Sanders in New Hampshire, not surprising given both the demographic makeup of the state (few African-Americans) and the fact that both Warren and Sanders are neighbor state Senators.  Keep in mind that Sanders won New Hampshire by a whopping 22 points in 2016 over Hillary Clinton (60% to 38%).

Biden’s campaign is, not surprisingly, lowering expectations in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, pinning its “must win” play on his South Carolina firewall.  African-Americans comprise more than half of the Democrats in South Carolina, and Biden’s lead there is solid. 

But the fact is, it will be extremely troubling if Biden does not win any of the first two (or three) states, and I suspect that ultimately his campaign will pull out all the stops in Iowa.  Iowa’s arcane caucus procedure is incredibly difficult to predict, so no doubt this is a risky approach.  But batting Warren and Sanders in their backyard is perhaps even more difficult.

Average of NH Polls
Nevada Polls
Average of South Carolina Polls
Candidate
Apr/May
/Jun
Jul/  Aug
Sep
Candidate
MC 7/1-21
Grav
8/16
CBS/YG 
 8/28-
9/4
Candidate
May/Jun
Jul/ Aug
Sep CBS
/YG
Biden
26
22
24
Sanders
23
10
29
Biden
43
37
43
Sanders
19
17
22
Biden
29
25
27
Sanders
14
14
18
Warren
9
16
22
Warren
12
15
18
Warren
11
11
14
Buttigieg
11
9
8
Harris
11
9
6
Harris
9
12
7
Harris
6
11
7
Buttigieg
6
5
4
Buttigieg
8
4
4
Gabbard
1
2
3
O'Rourke
3
0
3
Booker
4
3
2
Yang
1
2
3
Castro
2
1
2
Booker
3
1
2
Steyer
1
6
2
Delaney
0
0
2


WHO IS THE NUMBER TWO CHOICE?

With such a large field, and about 30% of the voters backing lesser candidates, it is interesting, and perhaps even instructive, to look at what might happen once the field winnows out.  Morning Consult, which conducts an excellent weekly poll, asks the question directly:  who is your second choice?

Last month we speculated that barring some unforeseen change in the trajectory of the race, as of now we are moving toward a Biden-Warren showdown, two candidates who represent the two wings of the party, two different styles, levels of experience, genders, you name it.  So, based in the Morning Consult work, how might the race shake out if it came down to the two of them?

The chart below does the math.  Surprisingly, if Sanders were to drop out, his supporters split evenly between Biden and Warren as a second choice, and the same goes for Buttigieg supporters.  Only Harris supporters clearly favor Warren as a second choice.  When all the math is complete, Biden is ahead of Warren by a 56/44 margin.

Per Morning Consult 9/15
Own Polling Level
From Sanders
From Harris
From Buttigieg
Estimate from all others
Total
Biden
32
6
1
1
16
56
Warren
18
6
2
1
17
44

Do not put too much stock in this analysis.  It is a hypothetical built on a hypothetical.  Having said that, you should pay attention to the main takeaway:  simply because Warren and Sanders come from the same wing of the Democratic Party does not mean, necessarily, that if one drops out, the other will zoom ahead of Biden.


WHO CAN BEAT TRUMP?

Democrats have indicated in polling that they are more likely to back the candidate they think is most likely to beat Trump, rather than the one that best matches their own views, by roughly a two-to-one margin.  And thus the head-to-head polls of leading Democrats versus Trump bear a close watch.

There were four head-to-head polls pitting Trump against the leading Dem contenders in the last month, and, in each instance, on average, the Democrat beat Trump.  Joe Biden commanded the largest margin, a stunning +13, while Pete Buttigieg edges by Trump by +2.   


Average of four polls
Trump Versus:
8/16 - 9/15
Biden
Biden +13
Sanders
Sanders +8
Warren
Warren +6
Harris
Harris +5
Buttigieg
Buttigieg +2


THE GOP RACE

Is there a GOP race?  Not really.   There were two national polls in the last month featuring Trump versus Bill Weld, and in one Trump led 90% to 5%, and the other 84% to 16%.  There has not been any polling featuring Walsh or Sanford, but it is unlikely to show anything dissimilar.

And, for those of you wondering whether Weld might fare better in New Hampshire, a neighboring state from his Massachusetts days, there was such a poll just last week, and Trump commanded 88% of the New Hampshire GOP, versus 3% for Weld and 1% for Walsh (Sanford was not included).


THE FULL FIELD

Here are the entire Democratic and Republican fields as of today.

Democratic Candidates
Age
Announce  Date
Credentials
Latest national polls     (8/16 - 9/15)
Joe Biden
76
4/25/2019
Ex-VP and Ex-Senator, Delaware
28%
Bernie Sanders
77
2/19/2019
Senator, Vermont
17%
Elizabeth Warren
69
12/31/2018
Senator, Massachusetts
17%
Kamala Harris
54
1/18/2019
Senator, California
7%
Pete Buttigieg
36
1/22/2019
Mayor, South Bend, Indiana
5%
Beto O'Rourke
46
3/14/2019
Ex-Representative, Texas
3%
Andrew Yang
43
11/6/2017
Entrepreneur
3%
Cory Booker
49
2/1/2019
Senator, New Jersey
2%
Amy Klobuchar
58
2/10/2019
Senator, Minnesota
1%
Julian Castro
44
1/10/2019
Ex-Secretary, HUD
1%
Tulsi Gabbard
37
1/11/2019
Representative, Hawaii
1%
Steve Bullock
52
5/14/2019
Governor, Montana
1%
Marianne Williamson
66
1/28/2019
Self-help author
1%
Bill de Blasio
58
5/14/2019
Mayor, New York City
1%
Tom Steyer
62
7/9/2019
Billionaire hedge fund manager
1%
Michael Bennet
54
5/2/2019
Senator, Colorado
1%
John Delaney
55
7/28/2017
Representative, Maryland
0%
Tim Ryan
45
4/4/2019
Representative, Ohio
0%
Wayne Messam
44
3/28/2019
Mayor, Miramar, Florida
0%
Joe Sestak
67
6/23/2019
Ex-Representative, Pennsylvania
0%





Republican
Candidates
Age
Announce Date
Credentials
Latest national polls     (8/16 - 9/15)
Donald Trump
73
6/18/2019
President
87%
William Weld
74
4/15/2019
Ex-Governor, Massachusetts
11%
Joe Walsh
57
8/25/2019
Ex-Representative, Illinois
n/a
Mark Sanford
59
9/8/2019
Ex-Governor, Rep, South Carolina
n/a

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