PARADISE, Nev. — Michelle Gack, 65, sat in the front row of Elizabeth Warren’s Saturday night town hall, wearing a shirt she’d just ordered from the campaign. “Warren’s got a plan for that,” it read. After the senator’s past few TV interviews, Gack was sold; she told the senator’s campaign that she would knock on 10,000 doors ahead of the caucuses in Nevada, the third state to vote in the 2020 primaries.
“She really does have a plan for everything, and she’s outlined how to pay for all of it,” Gack said. “The rest of them talk about big ideas, but I haven’t heard specifics, and I haven’t heard the price tags. When she talks about taxing 75,000 families who have $50 million or more, how can you rebut that?”
In the past week, as former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) settled in as the Democratic primary’s highest-polling candidates, Warren dominated three forums designed for informed voters — a Monday night CNN special, a Wednesday afternoon conference for women of color, and a Saturday forum on wages and workers organized by the Service Employees International Union.
None of it had jostled the polls, which since February have seen the senator from Massachusetts hover in the single digits among early-state voters. In the new national Washington Post-ABC News poll, which asks Democrats whom they support and does not suggest candidates by name, just 4 percent support Warren, and the majority of voters have no preference. All of it fit into the Warren campaign plan to establish her as the Democrat with the clearest idea of what she’d do in the presidency and then hang around until primary voters decide that they care about that — and, just as importantly, that it can win.
“I don’t want to die without seeing a woman president,” said Holly Reno, 38, wiping away tears as she waited for Warren to arrive at a high school in Paradise, after the SEIU event. “For me, there was almost a knee-jerk reaction to go with Biden, because I’m scared to hope again. Maybe Warren’s not putting up the numbers, but she’s got these ideas and she’s sticking to them, and I want to see where that goes.”
Every presidential campaign that is not topping the polls — i.e., every one but Biden’s or Sanders's — has the same theory of how it will break out. For every primary won by the early front-runner (Republicans in 2012, Democrats in 2016), there is one where a candidate who’s been counted out grinds away and watches front-runners or flavor-of-the-month candidates fizzle (Democrats in 2004, Republicans in 2008).
Warrenworld sees a race that has not changed much since January, except for the surprise popularity of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and two setbacks that they pulled past quickly. In February, after The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey and Amy Gardner reported on an 1986 Texas bar form on which Warren listed her race as “Native American,” and in March, Warren's longtime fundraising director left over her decision to eschew traditional fundraising events.
But the Warren plan was always to launch early and then roll out policies to focus each leg of the campaign. “I have a plan” has become one of her handiest applause lines. Supporters of Warren and other female candidates have increasingly asked why young, male candidates with less clear agendas have gotten so much coverage, something Buttigieg confronted at his own CNN town hall, when a voter questioned his lack of a campaign “issues” website.
“I . . . think it's important that we not drown people in minutiae before we've vindicated the values that animate our policies, because as Democrats, this is a habit that we have,” Buttigieg said. “We go right to the policy proposals and we expect people to be able to figure out what our values must be from that.”
At each of the past week's cattle calls, Warren got one big political moment — a riff on why women should not be worried about her losing the general election, because everyone counted her out in her 2012 Senate bid — and spent the rest of her time talking through her policies.
After Wednesday's “She the People” forum, several attendees said that Warren began winning them over when she talked in detail about why infant mortality was three times more common among black mothers then white mothers, “even after we do the adjustments for income, for education.” At the SEIU/Center for American Progress forum in Las Vegas, Warren concisely endorsed the union's biggest priorities.
“How about we stop doing bad things?” she asked. “How about not having a Department of Labor that is classifying more and more employees as independent contractors, because once they're independent contractors, they can't organize? How about we hold McDonald's responsible for what are in fact McDonald's employees? And how about we make it easy for the states to withhold, from Medicaid funds, the union dues for our home health workers?”
Warren was not alone in endorsing the SEIU's campaign to bring McDonald's to the bargaining table; Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) had said she would contact the company's chief executive. But at the moment, Warren is getting some credit from plugged-in Democratic voters for pitching ideas big enough that other campaigns feel the need to respond.
That has not been true for Harris, who has proposed a progressive tax credit; for Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has proposed “baby bonds” that would allow poorer Americans to build wealth; and for lower-profile candidates such as John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor, and Julián Castro, the former HUD secretary whose anti-monopoly and immigration policies have gotten positive elite attention but not sunk in with voters.
At the same time, Warren's status as the “plans” candidate has not cut into support for Sanders, whose campaign organized more than 5,000 house parties for volunteers Saturday and launched an app to advance its “distributed organizing” model. Biden's entry into the race, backed by donors and elected officials who argue that no other candidate is so electable, has created a horse race between two men in their 70s and a half-dozen younger candidates one leg behind them. (Warren will turn 70 this year.)
Warren, who told the Associated Press this week that Biden was “on the side of the credit companies” in the fight over bankruptcy reform, is otherwise ignoring the former vice president and the senator from Vermont. When she's on the stump, each of her plans rolls together in an argument about “structural change” that could actually be achieved by an ambitious president.
Plenty of candidates have put out white papers, waited for the praise to come and walked away defeated. The difference with Warren is best visible on the trail, where she jokes about and personalizes the threats and solutions.
“The good news is that I have the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate,” she said in Paradise, running down her plan to ban much of modern lobbying and force political candidates to release more financial information about themselves. “The bad news is that we need the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate.”
In Paradise, where about 500 voters came to see Warren, the candidate pitched her wealth tax (1 percent on wealth over $50 million, 2 percent on wealth over $100 million) by comparing it to the property tax that many middle-class voters already paid. Asked about homelessness, she touted a plan for more government-funded affordable housing by asking the crowd to look around their communities: “If you can afford to buy a McMansion, you’ve got plenty of supply, because that's where the money is for developers. If you can’t afford that, you’re looking at a deteriorating stock.”
Everything came back to the wealth tax, which has become a tool for Warren that other campaigns haven't built yet: an answer to the “how do you pay for it?” question that sounds simple, especially because Republicans don't believe it.
“What could we do with that two cents [on the dollar]?" Warren asked. “The answer is, we can do universal child care for every one of our babies. And universal pre-K and free pre-K for everyone. And pay those child-care workers and pre-K teachers with professional salaries. And in addition we can do universal college for all of our kids. And just one more: We can do student loan debt cancellation for 95 percent of kids in this country!”
The crowd had cheered every one of those items. Warren closed with a joke, and they cheered that, too.
“Plus, if you sign up right now, 12 steak knives!” she said.
"Nevada Is The 2020 Race’s Biggest Wildcard,” by Kevin Robillard
It's the third Democratic contest, it's 10 months away, and Nevada is up for grabs. Warren has the staff, Sanders has the blueprint (from 2016), Harris has the proximity, and Harry Reid is meeting whoever asks him for time.
“Beto O’Rourke switches his style and tone as the spotlight dims,” by Jenna Johnson
The Vanity Fair cover is still on your supermarket shelf, but the Texas phenom's campaign has taken on a much lower key.
“How Pete Buttigieg's mindless erudition made him the 'smart' candidate,” by Jay Caspian Kang
A fair point here: The mayor's deft Norwegian remarks last month translated as him saying that he had mostly forgotten his Norwegian.
Strange, but true: The antiabortion movement is making more headway in Ohio than it is in Kansas.
LAS VEGAS — On Friday night, Julián Castro arrived at a house party with a crowd of 30 people out front and an industrial-sized pot of chicken mole in the back. His audience, almost entirely Latino, listened raptly as Castro reminisced about being 17 and walking sadly home from a mayoral election party with his mother, who was wearing the T-shirt of a defeated Latina candidate.
“A woman looked at us, and she asked, ‘Did you win?’ ” Castro said. “I knew she really wasn't saying, ‘Did your candidate win?’ I could tell that what she was asking was: You and your family, did you win? Did we all win? I remember that, because I always thought that that's how politics and public service should be.”
Castro, one of the first Democrats to enter the 2020 primary, got some attention for his launch in San Antonio and his maiden campaign trip to Puerto Rico. Since then, he’s generally been gasping for airtime; he gently teased CNN about taking so long to give him a town hall, then sat for one of the least-watched events of its kind in cable news history.
After this week, nearly every Democrat is being asked to explain why he or she is a better and more electable candidate than Joe Biden. Castro may be the most direct of the not-Bidens, arguing that the idea that the party must pick a white, male standard-bearer completely misses the widest path to the White House.
“We lost Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by less than 80,000 votes,” Castro said Friday in a short interview. “I'm confident that I can get more votes out of Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia and the suburbs that surround those communities and win back those electoral votes. And then, in addition to that, I can go and get the 11 electoral votes of Arizona, the 29 electoral votes of Florida, and the 38 electoral votes of Texas. My candidacy represents both the present and the future of the Democratic Party.”
In speeches, Castro sketches out a political strategy that sounds more like the late-2016 ambitions of his party than the scramble for Trump voters that has defined the past week. His refrain is “everybody counts” — if a policy would cover more people, relieve more debt, and build more homes, then it's worth discussing. Castro spent part of Friday touring tunnels near casinos where homeless people had camped, then told audiences about the surrealism of poverty so close to wealth. He talked up his immigration policy, which would “decriminalize” undocumented immigration, then told the house party he would favor blowing up the filibuster to pass it.
“If it comes down to 60 votes or making sure that we have a good immigration system, then I'm going to choose the good immigration system,” Castro said. The “good” system, he explained, would recognize that there didn't need to be a crisis on the border.
“There’s 654 miles of fencing,” he said. “There are thousands of personnel on the border. There are guns. There are boats. There are helicopters. There are airplanes. There are security cameras. We have a border that is more secure than it's ever been, and we can maintain that security. But we don't need to choose between border security and compassion.”
Neither the house party nor a visit to a high school club early in the day had filled their spaces. But they connected Castro to dozens of Latino voters, divided between people who'd simply heard that there was someone like him running for president, and people with “Julian Presidente” shirts they'd ordered from his store. No Latino presidential candidate had ever contested the Nevada caucuses, where close to 20 percent of voters are Latino. As Castro left the party, he was stopped again and again by people suggesting which street parties he could go to, where anyone who heard him would be intrigued.
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Should the Democrats nominate a candidate who can win over independent voters, or who can energize
the Democratic base? (Washington Post/ABC News, 427 Democratic voters)
Energize the base — 48%
Win over independents — 43%
This is really one of the defining questions of the Democratic primary, and, like most of those questions, voters are not sure who can answer it. By a 10-point margin, independents who plan to vote in the Democratic primary say that the party should pick a candidate who excites, well, them, which might seem low. By an identical 10-point margin, more partisan Democrats say that the party must pick a nominee who can win over independents.
If you’re familiar with the political science on this, that result isn’t surprising. Voters of every ideological bent tend to think that the electorate is more conservative than it really is. The candidate who benefits from that knee-wobbling is Joe Biden, who voters see as more centrist; the candidate who suffers less than you might expect is Bernie Sanders, whose refusal to join the Democratic Party has given him some resilient independent support.
California. The Sunrise Movement, the direct-action-focused climate organization that led the charge for Green New Deal, made its first electoral endorsement this weekend. At a rally in Chico, the group got behind Audrey Denny, a long-shot challenger to Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), whose district covers some areas devastated by forest fires; and who, coincidentally, has joined the Republican effort to mock the Green New Deal.
South Carolina. The Democrats' close-but-no-cigar run in special elections continued here this week, when Republican Stewart Jones held on to the 14th House District. The race did not get the same national Democratic attention as recent specials in Iowa and South Carolina, but the margin closed slightly; Democrats got 37.3 percent of its vote in 2012, didn't contest it for years, and pulled 43.5 percent Tuesday.
Tennessee. Republicans retained control of the 22nd State Senate District here, denying Democrats a chance to take back a seat they'd usually held until 2012. Mark Green, now a Republican member of Congress, flipped the district in 2012 with a 6.2-point victory; he took a second term, in 2016, in a 34-point landside. Democrats put up a fight for the open seat, but lost Tuesday to Republican Bill Powers by 9.2 points.
Joe Biden. His first real campaign swing begins tomorrow, with a speech in Pittsburgh; from there, he hits major cities in Iowa (Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Iowa City, Des Moines).
Bernie Sanders. His campaign held more than 4,700 house parties Saturday and announced the new tool, “Bern,” to help organizers better turn their peers into potential supporters and voters.
Beto O'Rourke. He's zipping through California until Tuesday, with rallies in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Kamala Harris. She's the Sunday night speaker for Ohio Democrats in Cleveland, after threatening to cancel her speech until a labor dispute with workers at the venue was resolved.
John Delaney. He's delivering a foreign policy address in Washington on Tuesday, then returning to Iowa.
Larry Hogan/Bill Weld. The two Trump-phobic Republicans, one who may challenge him and one who already is, both attended the White House correspondents' dinner while the president was away.
The long fight for labor. When Joe Biden takes a stage in Pittsburgh tomorrow, he will be joined by members of the United Steelworkers; their president, Leo Gerard, told reporters last week that the union will be “out in force.” Biden's campaigning alongside the USW is legendary, and in 2015, when he was considering a run for president, he got one Pittsburgh crowd rolling with this line: "My name is Joe Biden and I work for Leo Gerard.”
But anyone expecting labor to coalesce quickly around one candidate is going to be disappointed. In 2008 and 2016, the Steelworkers did not endorse a Democratic candidate until late in the primary season; they backed Barack Obama in May 2008, and they backed Hillary Clinton in April 2016. Gerard is retiring, and there are plenty of other Democrats bidding for the USW's support.
Biden may start to gain support from locals he has built long ties with, and the International Association of Fire Fighters is expected to endorse him. But don't look for a labor stampede toward any one candidate, and beware reports that the union movement is starting to coalesce. It was seen as a good sign for Biden when Nevada state Sen. Yvanna Cancela endorsed him last week, as Cancela had been the political director of the dominating Culinary Workers union in Las Vegas. But on Saturday, before speaking at the SEIU's forum, multiple Democrats met with Culinary representatives, making their pitch to a union that declined to endorse before the last Nevada caucuses.
On Sunday's episode of CBS's “Face the Nation,” Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale repeated a pitch he's been making for months: that the president can expand the Republican map next year.
“Obviously we have to go back and win Michigan again, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. We also plan on being in Minnesota very soon,” Parscale said. “I think New Mexico is in play in 2020. I think New Hampshire; I think we continue to grow the map. I think Nevada, you know, even Colorado. Those are states we did not win in 2016 that I think are open for 2020.”
You can't get a better snapshot of the confidence gap between the parties than you get when they start discussing swing states. Of the states Parscale mentioned, only one — New Hampshire — elected a Republican governor in 2018, while four of them replaced Republican governors with Democrats (Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Wisconsin). In the month before the midterm elections, the president personally campaigned in just three of these states: Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin. Only one of the candidates who appeared with him, Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.), pulled off a win, and he did so running slightly behind the president's 2016 margin in a mostly rural district.
Midterms, of course, are midterms; the Democrats' Midwest implosion in 2010 was followed by Barack Obama again winning Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, though by smaller margins than his first term. But it's hard to compare that cycle to this cycle, as the Republicans' 2018 losses occurred in a good economic climate. In November 2010, when Republicans swept through Michigan, unemployment had surged to 12.4 percent; last November, when Democrats swept every statewide office in Michigan, unemployment had tumbled to 4 percent.
The punchline: Democrats' big gains in swing states have barely materialized in the party's conversation about 2020. The party has been swept up in nervousness about taking back the Midwest; the president's Saturday night rally in Green Bay was the latest in a series of events meant to demonstrate that he wants to dominate there. But in the waning days of 2018, Democrats were more welcome in Wisconsin than Trump was. And the day before his rally, allies of Bernie Sanders bought an ad in the Green Bay Gazette, attacking the president over the Foxconn deal that ended up backfiring for state Republicans.
. . . one day until Joe Biden gives his first campaign speech
. . . two days until the primaries in North Carolina's 3rd District
. . . 16 days until the primaries in North Carolina's 9th District
. . . 23 days until Kentucky's primaries