Friday, July 12, 2019

BTRTN 2020 Vision: Was Biden Really Hurt That Badly in the Debate?

Tom with our BTRTN monthly feature on the 2020 elections, with all the latest numbers and commentary.
Image result for 2020 vision
As Mark Twain might have said, the reports of Joe Biden’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  One might think Biden was practically a goner based on the spate of headlines following the second night of the Democratic debates, when Kamala Harris eviscerated Biden on busing.  Some typical headlines:  “Biden Fades, Harris Gains with Voters after Debates”; “Joe Biden Tumbles 10 Points After First Debate”; “Joe Biden’s Lead Plummets in Post-Debate Poll.”  We have our own interpretation of the polls – all the polls, not just a single poll here and there that might have been the impetus for those headlines.  But first, let’s set the Democratic field.

THE FIELD

Wait a minute, wasn’t the field already set, with the 23 candidates we identified last month?

Not so fast.  We’re now at 24 candidates, with three changes to report.  Eric Swalwell has officially dropped his bid, having rather logically concluded that his candidacy was not catching fire, and deciding to focus instead on getting reelected to his California House seat.

But that did not result in a narrowed field.  Indeed, despite that bit of common sense, the field actually expanded in the month.

Another Californian, billionaire Tom Steyer (he is referred to as “billionaire Tom Steyer” so often that “billionaire” seems to be his first name) has entered the race.  Steyer is the ex-hedge fund mogul who has spent millions on “impeach Trump” ads, after having made his initial mark in politics by devoting his post-hedge fund time and ample resources to environmental issues.  (In the interest of full disclosure, Steyer was a business school classmate of mine.)

And former Pennsylvania Representative Joe Sestak threw his hat in the ring as well.  Sestak has been a figure in swing district elections in the past (winning and losing Pennsylvania’s 7th district and losing a bid for the Senate in 2010), and although he has not held office for almost a decade, he is a credible candidate.

So we now have 24 Democrats in the field, as follows, ranked by the average of the national polls over the last month.

Candidates
Age
Announcement  Date
Credentials
Latest National Polls (May 16 to Jun 15, 2019)
Joe Biden
76
4/25/2019
Ex-VP and Ex-Senator, Delaware
29%
Bernie Sanders
77
2/19/2019
Senator, Vermont
15%
Kamala Harris
54
1/18/2019
Senator, California
15%
Elizabeth Warren
69
12/31/2018
Senator, Massachusetts
13%
Pete Buttigeig
36
1/22/2019
Mayor, South Bend, Indiana
4%
Beto O'Rourke
46
3/14/2019
Ex-Representative, Texas
3%
Cory Booker
49
2/1/2019
Senator, New Jersey
2%
Amy Klobuchar
58
2/10/2019
Senator, Minnesota
1%
Kirsten Gillibrand
51
1/15/2019
Senator, New York
1%
Julian Castro
44
1/10/2019
Ex-Secretary, HUD
1%
Andrew Yang
43
11/6/2017
Entrepreneur
1%
Michael Bennet
54
5/2/2019
Senator, Colorado
1%
Jay Inslee
67
3/1/2019
Governor, Washington
1%
Tulsi Gabbard
37
1/11/2019
Representative, Hawaii
1%
Steve Bullock
52
5/14/2019
Governor, Montana
1%
John Hickenlooper
66
3/4/2019
Ex-Governor, Colorado
0%
Tim Ryan
45
4/4/2019
Representative, Ohio
0%
John Delaney
55
7/28/2017
Representative, Maryland
0%
Marianne Williamson
66
1/28/2019
Self-help author
0%
Wayne Messam
44
3/28/2019
Mayor, Miramar, Florida
0%
Seth Moulton
40
4/22/2019
Representative, Massachusetts
0%
Bill de Blasio
58
5/14/2019
Mayor, New York City
0%
Joe Sestak
67
6/23/2019
Ex-Representative, Pennsylvania
n/a
Tom Steyer
62
7/9/2019
Billionaire hedge fund manager
n/a


THE MONTH

The campaign news of the past month – from June 15 to July 15 – was almost entirely dominated by the first round of debates – and their aftermath -- that were held in Miami on consecutive nights in late June.  The debates were limited to only 20 of the 23 candidates, apparently on the grounds that a maximum of 20 serious nominees could be accommodated.  This ignored two obvious alternatives:  having three debates over three night, or, going the other way, limiting the debates to only those who had made any sort of inroads in their campaigns.  Instead, three contenders were lopped off, leaving 13 others who were polling at 2% or less, most at 1% or 0%.

But regardless of the merits, the 20 went at it over the two nights, gamely battling for air time (faithfully recorded by media outlets, as if “time talking” was actually a valuable barometer of anything).  The main highlight (of course) was Kamala Harris taking on frontrunner Joe Biden midway through Night Two, with a far left jab with which Harris managed to both personalize the busing issue (“that little girl was me”) and demonize Biden, who was left blustering over context and the role of local government in busing decision-making.

This was universally viewed as a major event in the race, one that exposed the worst of Biden – his long track record full of compromises, his lack of agility and basic campaigning skill, his age – and elevated Harris, who has alternately shined and wobbled on the campaign trail.  Harris took full advantage of this first major testing ground, performing well in her other sound bites apart from the Biden blow, and she easily “won” Night Two.

The pundits generally gave Night One cleanly to Elizabeth Warren, with her tightly argued policy riffs neatly interwoven with her personal story.  She dominated the “undercard” (she was the only “tier one” contender present on Night One).  Other strong performers, according to most pundits, included Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker, while only a few of the also-rans were dissed, John Delaney, in particular, with Marianne Williamson, the self-proclaimed “love candidate,” making her own surreal mark.

In the aftermath, Joe Biden puffed out his chest and defended his civil rights record to mixed reviews, before he finally found his Uncle Joe persona again.  This came in the form of a direct apology for any inference that he was an admirer of long-ago segregationists (and Senate colleagues of the once-upon-a-time-we-worked-across-the-aisle young Joe Biden) James O. Eastland and Herman Talmadge.  Biden showed the nimbleness of a true, um, 76-year old in taking three weeks, rather than three minutes, hours or even days to realize this was the only logical course to take if he wanted to retain the African American support he has earned over the years, and desperately needs to maintain.

The only other truly consequential news outside of the debates for the month was the real-time drama of Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the not-quite-so-idyllic mid-America South Bend, Indiana turnaround story he has been touting.  For years Mayor Pete has been more or less persona non grata with the African American community in South Bend, ever since he fired the black police chief of the town just three months into his term.  In addition, there is a strong sense among that community that they have not equally shared in the boomlet the town has enjoyed under Pete’s reign.

But these resentments burst into public view with the death of an African-American man at the hands of a white police officer who happened to have turned off his body cam before the killing.  Buttigieg did a credible job handling the issue in both the debate and a town hall in South Bend, effectively walking the tightrope that Biden fell off, by both establishing his credible efforts to improve race relations in South Bend and conceding that those efforts have thus far fallen short of success.  Pete is half Biden’s age but a hundred times more deft.  Having said that, it is extraordinarily difficult – near impossible – to win the Democratic nomination without the support of the African American community, and Pete has a mountain to climb there. 


THE NUMBERS

What is the verdict on the debate, and all that Sturm und Drang among the leaders?   Below is a chart summarizing presidential preference polling in bellwether Iowa (on the left) and national numbers (on the right).  Look at the column headings carefully – in Iowa they are basically single poll results (except where noted), and must be interpreted with care, as comparisons are harder due to polling technique differences, and consequently trends are more difficult to establish.  The national polls are more robust, with anywhere from nine to fifteen polls represented in each column; note that the last two columns separate the past month into “pre-“ and “post-debate” periods.

These charts show a somewhat different story than that being splayed in the headlines.

·        Kamala Harris has indeed clearly made strides in both Iowa and nationally, and the debate performance is just as clearly what propelled her.  The Iowa jump feels real (again noting that it is based on only two polls, by two separate organizations).  The national jump, however, is far less of a spike than commonly perceived, from 7% to 11% on average, and it still leaves her in third place

·        But while Joe Biden’s support is dropping, it is at a much more modest rate than commonly reported.  The data indicate that Biden has been gradually slipping nationally since his excellent launch, and essentially is now back to his “pre-launch” level of 30%.  And the debate does not seem to have dramatically altered his standing nationally, with a loss of two points and still quite a large lead.  The single Iowa poll reveals a somewhat more significant drop, but again, back to the level he had throughout the spring.  So the bottom line is:  while still a poor performance, Biden did not suffer too much from the debate.

·        For all the praise for her Night One performance, Elizabeth Warren made no movement in either direction.  She is still in the 13% range in both Iowa and nationally.

·        Both Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg appear to have lost ground in Iowa (again, with due caution on the one poll), while holding serve in national polls.

Candidates*
Iowa Polls

Average of National Polls
DM Reg/CNN Mar 3-6
Mar 16 - Apr 15 (2 polls)
DM Reg/CNN Jun   2-5
CBS/ YG    May 31- Jun 12
USA/Su Jun 28 -  Jul 1 (post-deb.)

Mar 16 - Apr 15
Apr 16 - May 15
May 15 - Jun 15
Jun 16-25 (pre-deb.)
Jun 26-Jul 14 (post-deb.)
Biden
27
26
24
30
24

31
37
34
32
30
Harris
7
10
7
5
16

9
8
7
7
11
Warren
9
9
15
12
13

6
8
10
13
13
Sanders
25
20
16
22
9

23
18
17
16
16
Buttigieg
0
11
14
11
6

3
7
7
7
6
Booker
3
6
1
3
2

4
3
2
2
2
Klobuchar
3
2
2
4
2

2
2
1
1
1
O'Rourke
5
5
2
4
1

8
5
4
3
3
Gabbard
0
0
1
1
1

1
1
0
1
1
Yang
0
0
1
0
1

1
1
1
1
1
Castro
1
1
1
0
1

1
1
1
1
1
Delaney
0
0
1
2
1

1
0
0
0
0
Bennet
n/a
n/a
1
0
1

n/a
1
1
0
0
Bullock
n/a
n/a
0
0
0

n/a
n/a
0
1
1
Gillibrand
0
0
0
0
0

1
1
1
1
1
Inslee
1
1
1
1
0

1
1
0
0
1
Hickenlooper
0
0
0
0
0

1
1
0
0
0
Williamson
0
0
0
0
0

0
0
0
0
0
Ryan
n/a
n/a
0
0
0

n/a
1
0
1
0
Swalwell
n/a
n/a
0
0
0

n/a
0
0
0
0
Messam
n/a
n/a
0
0
0

n/a
0
0
0
0
Moulton
n/a
n/a
0
0
0

n/a
0
0
0
0
DeBlasio
n/a
n/a
0
0
0

n/a
n/a
0
0
0
Other/NA
19
9
13
5
22

8
6
14
14
12


As for the rest, no second tier candidate broke through in the debates and vaulted into the top tier, or made any sort of move whatsoever. 

·        For all the Night One talk of Julian Castro’s takedown of fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke (and his otherwise solid effort), neither moved an inch nationally.  Perhaps Beto was hurt a bit in Iowa, but Castro made no move, nor did any of the other pundit-rated strong performers.

·        Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, despite decent debates, appeared to go in the wrong direction in Iowa and made no move nationally.  Both have squandered the early advantage they had with at least some degree of name recognition (relative to most of the field), and Klobuchar, in particular, has also missed an opportunity to bite a chunk from Biden in the “centrist/moderate” lane of the party.

·        And, having been given a first opportunity to raise their profiles, none of the other 11 candidates on stage capitalized, remaining unknown and unloved in both Iowa and in national polls.

·        And the three who were left off the stage, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton and Steve Bullock, might have benefited more from the swirl around their exclusion than if they have been on the stage, though that is surely conjecture; they did not move either.

So, we remain with five and only five top tier candidates.  Each of the five merged with a major question they need to answer:

·        Biden:  Can he significantly sharpen his game and hold the line in the African American community?  Though Biden was not as severely damaged as commonly perceived, he is falling back to the pack and needs to stop the bleeding.  His post-debate performance has been more encouraging, but, still, he does not inspire any confidence that he can suddenly turn into a presidential campaigning dynamo. 

·        Harris:  Can she develop more consistency in both her policies and her performance?  In the aftermath of the debates, Harris waffled on her own positions on busing (essentially stating a position that seemed to sound strikingly similar to Biden’s, that it was a local matter), and also on Medicare For All – she was one of the “hand raisers” in the debate when the candidates were asked point blank if they supported it, but was equivocating, or at least dissembling, the next day.  And she needs to demonstrate that she can maintain the energy and clarity of her debating style in the months ahead.

·        Warren:  Does her upward momentum have a natural ceiling within the party? Perhaps she was dealt a poor hand by appearing at the Night One “kiddie table” and thus could not display her policy chops and overall articulation directly against her major competitors.  But it is surprising that her performance did not translate into a rise in the polls -- perhaps all those far left positions, so stridently articulated, are indeed scaring off mainstream Dems and marginalizing her appeal.

·        Sanders:  Is Bernie done?  The Iowa poll is scary.  Single digit support in Iowa cannot be helpful, and the rise of Warren and Harris appear to have done more harm to Bernie than to Biden.  Bernie needs some sort of catalyst to re-energize his appeal.

·        Buttigieg:  Can he make inroads to the African-American community and get some votes?  The forecast here is not favorable.  Biden can draw on a long track record, especially his eight years with Barack Obama; Harris can claim this segment as her own; and Warren and Sanders both espouse appealing far-left policies to this segment.   Buttigieg is starting in a hole and has no easy way up, apart from the strength of his natural empathy and poise. 

SHOW ME THE MONEY

One thing Pete has going for him: he is a fundraising superstar.  Despite his fifth-place standing, Pete raised $24 million in the quarter, leading the field.  Joe Biden could argue that by raising about $22 million in just two-plus months (after his launch, when the official reporting begins), he wins if you extrapolate.  Sanders and Warren both had solid quarters, though Bernie dropped versus Q1 while Warren gained, neatly mirroring their poll standing.  And while Harris slipped a bit, the debate, which occurred late in the quarter, should help that considerably.

Fundraising         ($ Millions)
1Q 2019
2Q 2019
Buttigieg
7.0
24.8
Biden
n/a
21.5
Warren
6.0
19.1
Sanders
18.2
18.0
Harris
12.0
12.0


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 2/1 margin.

There have been two head-to-head post-debate polls pitting Trump versus each of the top tier Dems, and the results continue to show Biden at the head of the class versus Trump and the others struggling.  This is an ominous sign for those Dems who want to see fresh faces and/or major progressive ideas at the top of the ticket. 


ABC/WaPo
Emerson
Trump Versus:
Jun 28 - Jul 1
Jul 6-8
Biden
Biden +10
Biden +6
Sanders
Sanders +1
Sanders +2
Harris
Harris +2
Trump +2
Warren
Tie
Trump +2
Buttigieg
Tie
Trump +2

To win the nomination, Biden has to reassure the left that he is squarely on their side on the great issues of our time.  But if he fails, and someone else is nominated, they will have to reassure America that the change they represent is not too extreme.

And here is one more poll of note, from Public Policy Polling (PPP), a highly reputable polling group with a sense of humor.  And if you don’t know who Megan Rapinoe is, wake up!

Pres. Preference
%
Rapinoe
42%
Trump
41%

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