Monday, August 19, 2019

BTRTN 2020 Vision: Are We Headed Toward a Biden-Warren Showdown?

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

THE LEAD

The main headlines from the 2020 presidential campaign in the last month, since mid-July, are as follows:
Image result for 2020 vision
·        Joe Biden remains at the head of the field, nationally and in each of the four “early” states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina), and his support levels have stabilized.  Elizabeth Warren continued her upward progress and pulled even with Bernie Sanders, while the momentum of Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg stalled.  None of the remaining candidates surged into the “top tier” and one, John Hickenlooper, exited.

·        The second round of Democratic debates largely involved sharp attacks on frontrunner Biden.  The former VP was hardly a dynamo in his responses, but he did punch back aggressively, and the polls were utterly unchanged pre- to post-debate.

·        The Dayton and El Paso shootings thrust gun control to the top of the national agenda, and provided an opportunity for Beto O’Rourke, who is from El Paso, to re-boot his flagging campaign.

·       The economic slowdown in a number of global markets, the inverted yield curve, and the China trade talk stalemate all signaled difficult economic times ahead, a huge threat to the primary rationale for a Trump reelection.


THE FIELD

This past month marked the first time the Democratic field has actually contracted.  John Hickenlooper dropped out, narrowing the field, if one may use that term with a straight face, from 24 to 23 candidates.  Hickenlooper’s candidacy never took off, despite his excellent record as Mayor of Denver and Governor of Colorado.  There are 18 other candidates in the field whose candidacies have also not “taken off” and their polling numbers remain in the 2% or less range.  But they persist, trudging on through Iowa’s 99 counties, one after another.  One wonders when the trickle of departures (Eric Swalwell and Hickenlooper so far) will become a flood.  There is simply no rationale at this point for most of these candidacies; the pretenders have been on the stump for months now and have ample evidence that they are simply not connecting.

At the end of this article we have reprised our chart of the entire field, which still looks like an eye chart, with the candidates ranked by the standing in the national polls for the last month, from mid-July to mid-August. If you want to amuse yourself, take a second to write down the names of as many candidates as you can think of and see how close you come to naming the entire field.


THE MONTH

The last month was dominated by the July 30/31 debates, the second round that featured 20 of the candidates.  Steve Bullock replacing the departed Eric Swalwell on the stage, joining the 19 holdovers.  This was the “Joe Versus the Volcano” debate, as Joe Biden took incoming from, it seemed, almost every other candidate, each hoping to replicate the “Kamala Bump” from the first debate, to drive their own fortunes and knock Uncle Joe down closer to the pack.   

But Biden, while hardly compelling, was at least combative, and seemingly satisfied his supporters.  And his contenders clearly overreached by attacking Biden for his Vice Presidential record, which was tantamount to attacking the revered Barack Obama.  This is truly an insane approach for any Democrat, and the also-rans were heavily criticized for it.  Biden has enough baggage from his Senate years to pick apart, and it makes no sense to trash the popular former president, whose landmark presidency was generally successful in terms of economic recovery, diplomatic initiatives, and social progress.

When all was said and done, the second round of debates had absolutely no impact on the race, which was a sure win for Biden.

On the GOP side, former Governor Mark Sanford of North Carolina made some noise about joining former Massachusetts Governor William Weld in officially challenging Trump for the nomination, but neither candidacy has been or will be taken seriously by the RNC and result in a face-to-face debate.  That type of challenge can only be mounted by a Mitt Romney or a John Kasich, and neither has uttered a peep, though both have been occasionally critical of Trump.

The national and international news continued to shape the campaign dynamics.  The El Paso and Dayton shootings in back-to-back days resulted in enough carnage to propel gun violence to the front page.  This is a weak issue for Trump and the GOP, and with each shooting their go-to messaging on mental health sounds even more off key.  With Congress out of session, Mitch McConnell was able to defer discussion on potential legislation until September, time enough to see if the issue loses steam.  McConnell and Trump both paid lip service to consideration of universal background checks, which has almost universal appeal among Americans of any party.  Whether this goes any further remains to be seen; you can be sure Trump will want something in return.

Beto O’Rourke seized the spotlight in the aftermath of the El Paso tragedy, in his hometown, and he skewered Trump and the GOP in no uncertain terms (and those terms included some choice expletives).  Whether O’Rourke can translate this platform into renewed momentum for his flagging campaign remains to be seen, but his rage provided the best moments of what has so far been a desultory run.

Trump’s campaign communications strategy may rest on his race-baiting and fear-mongering, and his efforts to make "The Squad" the face of the “socialist” Dems, but the backbone rationale for his reelection is his stewardship of the economy.  The U.S. economy's olid economic performance may owe little to Trump (or be in spite of his volatility-inducing policies), but the record is undeniable.  

Having said that, the drumbeat of a potential recession has never rung louder thus far in his presidency, with that pesky inverted yield curve that has foreshadowed a recession each of the last five times the nasty shape has occurred.

Nothing short of a Trump-triggered war would damage his campaign more than an ill-timed economic downturn, and the next year will be crucial.  Just check the history of George H.W. Bush, who carried an 89% approval rating in 1991 in the wake of the successful first Gulf War (per Gallup) only to see a flagging economy drive that number to 43% by November, 1992, and to defeat in his reelection campaign, to Bill Clinton.


THE NUMBERS

Nationally, Biden has fallen back to his pre-launch levels, but he has stabilized at the 30% preference level for the last two months.  Elizabeth Warren continues her steady rise and is now even with Bernie Sanders in second place.  Kamala Harris failed to build on her first debate triumph, and Pete Buttigieg is holding at best.  No one else is making a dent.

Average of National Polls
Candidates
Jan 16 - Feb 15
Feb 16 - Mar 15
Mar 16 - Apr 15
Apr 16 - May 15
May 15 - Jun 15
Jun 16-  Jul 15
Jul 16-  Aug 15
Biden
29
29
31
37
34
30
30
Sanders
17
23
23
18
17
16
16
Warren
7
7
6
8
10
13
15
Harris
11
11
9
8
7
11
10
Buttigieg
0
0
3
7
7
6
5
O'Rourke
7
6
8
5
4
3
3
Booker
4
5
4
3
2
2
2
Yang
1
0
1
1
1
1
2
Klobuchar
2
4
2
2
1
1
1
Gabbard
1
1
1
1
0
1
1
Castro
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
Delaney
0
0
1
0
0
0
1
Bullock
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
1
1
Williamson
0
0
0
0
0
0
1
Steyer
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
1
DeBlasio
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
0
1
Bennet
n/a
n/a
n/a
1
1
0
0
Gillibrand
1
1
1
1
1
1
0
Inslee
0
0
1
1
0
0
0
Ryan
n/a
n/a
n/a
1
0
0
0
Messam
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
0
0
0
Moulton
n/a
n/a
n/a
0
0
0
0
Other/NA
20
13
10
9
16
14
9

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’s support is lower in Iowa than nationally, which is almost certainly due to the tiny African-American population in the state; that segment of the Democratic Party is extremely loyal to Biden; while he is 30% nationally, he is ~50% among blacks. 

But Biden still leads in Iowa, and he has the support of roughly a quarter of the electorate, and that figure has been stable.  Warren appears to be climbing in Iowa as well, while Bernie Sanders is all over the map, and generally trending down.  Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg are well off their high polling marks here and, again, no one else is making any kind of impact.

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

After Iowa’s caucus next February will come New Hampshire’s primary, Nevada’s caucus and the South Carolina primary – and then Super Tuesday, now with California.  Biden leads in all of these states, ahead of both Sanders and Warren in their backyards in New Hampshire, leading Sanders in Nevada, and crushing all comers in South Carolina.

Average of NH Polls
Nevada Polls
Average of S. Carolina Polls
Candidates
Apr/  May/ Jun
Jul/  Aug
Candidates
Candidates
May/  Jun
Jul/  Aug
Biden
26
22
Biden
36
29
Biden
43
37
Sanders
19
17
Sanders
13
23
Sanders
14
14
Warren
9
16
Warren
19
12
Harris
9
12
Harris
6
11
Harris
6
11
Warren
11
11
Buttigieg
11
9
Buttigieg
7
6
Buttigieg
8
4
Gabbard
1
2
O'Rourke
2
3
Booker
4
3
Yang
1
2
Yang
2
3
Steyer
n/a
1
Steyer
n/a
2
Booker
2
3
O'Rourke
3
1
Klobuchar
2
2
Castro
1
2
Delaney
0
1
O'Rourke
4
1
Klobuchar
1
1
Klobuchar
1
1
Booker
3
1
Steyer
n/a
1
Yang
2
1
Castro
0
1
Gabbard
0
1
Gillibrand
1
1
Ryan
0
1


WHERE MIGHT THIS RACE GO?

The last two times a large group of candidates faced off for a major party nomination followed startlingly different results.  In 2012, a field of eight vied for the GOP nomination, in a topsy-turvy process that saw many contenders lead the field (Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum) before Mitt Romney finally secured the nomination.  In 2016, on the other hand, Donald Trump led almost wire-to-wire in taming a field of 16 GOP contenders.

Which kind of race will the Democrats emulate? 

Thus far, this race is similar to both in that the early frontrunner, Joe Biden, is the establishment darling, much like Romney in 2012 and Jeb Bush in 2016.  Both of them faltered, but Romney recovered after the various flavors of the month were tasted and discarded, while Bush was gone for good after Trump took control.   

But from there?  It is way too early to forecast an outcome.  But we will offer some sense of the future purely based on intuition, which could, of course, be completely wrong.  This race seems poised to follow a different pattern than either 2012 with its flavors or 2016 with Trump dominating.  We could instead be very well be headed – ultimately -- for a one-on-one showdown between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, a classic confrontation between the centrist and progressive wings of the party, more like Hillary versus Bernie in 2016. The key assumptions that inform that intuition are:

·        Biden seems to have solid support in the centrist wing of the party and there is no clear centrist alternative.  While hardly an ideal candidate, Biden has a core 30% support level that has survived his slow-footedness during the debates and gaffes on the campaign trial.  There is much to like about Biden:  his centrist positioning; his deep experience; his authenticity and likeability; and his standing versus Trump, whom he routinely trounces in head-to-head polls.  And Biden faces no strong rival in the centrist lane; the only ones who truly embrace this “lane” are a rather boring group of white men from the West, who show no sign of rising.  Biden has the look of a survivor.  And even if he falters a bit in lily white Iowa and/or New Hampshire, his firewall is South Carolina, with its heavy African-American presence, the core group supporting Biden.

·        Warren seeming to be cruising by Sanders in the battle for the progressive wing in the party.  Warren has displayed the full trifecta: she has been a superb debater, has inspired on the campaign trail, and is a policy wonk’s wonk with her “I have a plan for that” positioning.  She has caught up to Bernie in the polls and shows no sign of slowing up, while every day Bernie looks more like yesterday’s news.  Bernie may have brought the progressive agenda to the fore in 2016, but Warren has the beef that gives it substance.

·        No one else will emerge.  Both Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, the other two top tier contenders, are showing signs of being a bit past their peak.  While each earned an early pop – Pete in getting on the map at all, the only unknown to break through, and Kamala with her first debate TKO of Biden – neither has continued their ascent and each has even fallen back just a bit.  None of the rest of the field have popped even once.  Only three of the other candidates appear to be capable of a jump:  O’Rourke given the visibility he received from the El Paso shootings; Tom Steyer as a new candidate with his unlimited resources; and Andrew Yang, who generates interest with his non-political background and “$1,000 a month minimum guaranteed income” platform.

IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE?

Many Dems are disappointed with this field, or even view it with alarm.  These Democrats believe that each top tier candidate has an obvious flaw (or two):  Biden is viewed by some as too old, past his prime, and/or too out of touch to inspire massive turnout; Warren and Sanders are seen as too progressive; Harris, a black woman, and Buttigieg, a gay man who is only 37, are feared to be too different.   If Biden cannot survive the marathon, then none of the others are viewed as acceptable to swing voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and other electoral paths that they might navigate (through Florida, North Carolina and Arizona, for example) are unproven and risky.

Are the Democrats willing to play out this hand and go with the winner, or is there a pining for another candidate to emerge and truly electrify the field?  If this same dynamic is still in place in December – or if Biden fades – will some old Dem hands begin to make some frantic calls?

There are four, and only four, potential candidates would could enter the race as late as December and immediately become a factor.  Four candidates with the visibility and stature to offer a different, credible option.
Can you name them?  Think about it, and then read on.

Here they are:

·        Hillary Clinton.  You think it could never happen?  Guess again.  Can’t you just see Hillary and Bill hopscotching through the Midwest, yes, even Wisconsin this time, to rescue the Dems from certain defeat?  I’m sure there is a detailed strategy sitting in John Podesta’s top drawer right now, and a copy has been hand-delivered (not emailed, though) to Chappaqua.

·        Michelle Obama.  Ah, the ultimate silver bullet!   Michelle Obama is, hands down, the most popular American alive, the epitome of dignity, graciousness, warmth – the best of us personified.  If Michelle ever decided to run, the Dems would hand over the nomination in a heartbeat.  Might she ride in at the eleventh hour?  All signals point to “no way: and she would personally rip up any memo outlining such a plan – but might appeals to her based on the fate of her country change her mind?

·        Oprah Winfrey.  What more needs to be said?  Oprah has more charisma than the entire Democratic field, and if business moxie is a qualifier, who has more?  And she has the big bucks to fund a run.

·        Michael Bloomberg.  It’s always been hard to envision Mike chowing down corn dogs in Iowa, or slogging from Keeme to Dixville Notch and back in January, just like any other candidate.  But if he strode on the stage alone in December, as a white knight, that we could see.  And who better to straighten out the Democrats than the ultimate fixer, a man who exudes competence and post-partisan gravitas?  Plus he too can bankroll his whole run.

These scenarios seem wildly unlikely, but these are desperate times, and Democrats are a notoriously skittish bunch.  If the Democrats never fall in love with anyone, and remain unconvinced that the top tier candidates can win, who knows what could happen.

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.


And Joe Biden remains a clear winner here, and Bernie Sanders as well.  Warren and Harris afre reasonably well, and differ in the order of magnitude in comparing the two polls.  Pete Buttigieg was included in only one of the two polls and trailed Trump.


Survey USA
FOX News
Trump Versus:
Aug 1-5
Aug 13-15
Biden
Biden + 8
Biden + 12
Sanders
Sanders + 8
Sanders + 9
Warren
Warren + 2
Warren + 7
Harris
Harris + 1
Harris + 6
Buttigieg
Trump + 2
n/a



****************************

As promised, here is the entire Democratic field as of today.

Candidates
Age
Announcement  Date
Credentials
Latest national polls (Jul 16 to Aug 15)
Joe Biden
76
4/25/2019
Ex-VP and Ex-Senator, Delaware
30%
Bernie Sanders
77
2/19/2019
Senator, Vermont
16%
Elizabeth Warren
69
12/31/2018
Senator, Massachusetts
15%
Kamala Harris
54
1/18/2019
Senator, California
10%
Pete Buttigieg
36
1/22/2019
Mayor, South Bend, Indiana
5%
Beto O'Rourke
46
3/14/2019
Ex-Representative, Texas
3%
Cory Booker
49
2/1/2019
Senator, New Jersey
2%
Andrew Yang
43
11/6/2017
Entrepreneur
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%
John Delaney
55
7/28/2017
Representative, Maryland
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%
Kirsten Gillibrand
51
1/15/2019
Senator, New York
0%
Michael Bennet
54
5/2/2019
Senator, Colorado
0%
Jay Inslee
67
3/1/2019
Governor, Washington
0%
Tim Ryan
45
4/4/2019
Representative, Ohio
0%
Wayne Messam
44
3/28/2019
Mayor, Miramar, Florida
0%
Seth Moulton
40
4/22/2019
Representative, Massachusetts
0%
Joe Sestak
67
6/23/2019
Ex-Representative, Pennsylvania
0%

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