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The Trailer: Why polls haven't scared off 2020 Democratic hopefuls

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In this edition: Why the other candidates still think they can beat Biden, Bill de Blasio's escape from New York, and Justin Amash's rebellion.

If you took a drink every time Joe Biden said “folks” in his Philadelphia speech, you downed 37 drinks and should go to a hospital immediately. This is the Trailer.

MAQUOKETA, Iowa — On Saturday, while Joe Biden was walking onstage at his Philadelphia rally, Donna Duvall was back in the library events room in this city of 5,920. The retired teacher was there to see Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who'd just entered the presidential race; she'd seen former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper there just weeks earlier. Duvall, 70, was still looking for an alternative to Biden, whom she'd seen in Dubuque three weeks earlier, and who left her a little cold.

“He had a nice presentation, but I didn't feel like it was very energetic and committed,” Duvall said. “I didn't think he had a lot of specific proposals; I like [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren a lot, and she's made a lot of specific proposals. I loved Joe as vice president, but I feel like he's maybe somebody whose time has passed.”

The hopes of 21 Democrats — everyone in the field except Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are No. 1 and 2 in most polls — lie with voters like Duvall. After a three-week launch that drew mostly positive coverage and large (if not overwhelming) crowds, Biden has moved to the top of polls nationally and in early-voting states. That, combined with the entry of Bullock and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio into the race, marked the end of the announcement stage of the primary. Barring a surprise, no more candidates are expected to enter; even if someone did, they wouldn't enjoy the name recognition or support of Biden.

That has left 21 candidates, from a senator from Massachusetts on the cover of TIME to a Florida mayor who's unlikely to make the Miami-based debate next month, with a version of the same strategy. Eight months from now, each wants to be the fresh-faced candidate running up the middle between Biden and Sanders — and ideally to do it without going negative. (Strategists remember the 2004 caucuses, when John F. Kerry benefited from an intramural fight between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt.) Led by Sanders (I-Vt.), who sees plenty of ways to vault over Biden, Democrats have begun responding to Biden when asked, but the vice president's launch has not much changed how they were approaching the campaign.

“I'm perfectly respectful of the vice president, but we don't know anything yet,” de Blasio said in an interview after his first Iowa stop. “I don't assume this field looks the same way in a month or three months or six months.”

Each of the 21 non-Bidens and non-Bernies views the race in a similar way. First, there's the particular narcotic of the Iowa voter, who can be encouraging to even the most long-shot candidate. Even Wayne Messam, the Florida mayor who lost campaign staffers within weeks of announcing, drew 20 curious Iowans in his only visit to the state.

“I understand that 'Iowa nice' means, 'you're on my list,' " Bullock joked to voters at his Maquoketa stop. 

Second, the rival campaigns are encouraged by how little the party establishment, or party regulars, have rallied around Biden. Just 54 congressional Democrats have made endorsements in this cycle, and while the plurality have come out for Biden, Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign had more than 200 congressional endorsements by the summer before the caucuses. When Bullock hit the ground Thursday, he was accompanied by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, one of the first elected Iowans to endorse Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.

“There's a big difference between running for president and vice president,” Miller said in an interview. “Joe Biden was a great teammate, but I don't think we'll see another candidate like Barack in my lifetime."

Some rival campaigns are better positioned than others. Sanders, who came within a handful of votes of winning the state's 2016 caucuses, has hired some of the same staffers and set about identifying voters who will commit to vote for the senator again. Warren has the largest Iowa campaign, with 50 paid staff on the ground, more than twice as many as Sanders or any other candidate. Candidates who sometimes disappear from the national conversation, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former congressman Beto O'Rourke (Tex.), have staffed up and found audiences.

Biden's Iowa staff, announced this week, is led by veterans of Obama's 2008 campaign. But there are Obama and Clinton campaign veterans embedded across rival campaigns, who share a skepticism about Biden's power as a candidate. In the last widely respected poll of Iowa, in March, Biden and Sanders handily led the field. Another part of the Des Moines Register-CNN poll jumped out to their rivals — 31 percent of likely caucusgoers said that Biden's “time had passed” and 43 percent said the same of Sanders.

With no real way to compete with Biden on familiarity or résumé and no space to Sanders's left, most of the other candidates have been talking up generational change. They don't go negative on Biden; they do drop unmissable reminders of what the Obama-Biden administration did not do. Bullock, who turned 53 last month, told audiences that he was the first Montana governor in decades who was still raising young children, then recalled watching Democrats fumble their response to the 2010 Citizens United decision.

“Remember in Washington, D.C., we actually controlled both houses of Congress and the White House,” Bullock said. “People gave speeches about it. They said how horrible this could be. They raised money off it, but they didn't do it. In Montana, I knew we had to do more.” That included an executive order forcing spending transparency from contractors and a law requiring disclosure by “dark money” groups.

At a Saturday appearance in Dubuque, Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old mayor running on generational change, echoed an argument Obama had once made about the Clintons. As 550 voters nodded in a sweltering microbrewery, Buttigieg warned that Democrats had not broken the right's grip on the American story.

“Just as the Reagan era, which I would argue we've been living in pretty much my whole life, set off the period of the last few decades, we have a chance to set the tone for something completely different,” Buttigieg said. “Part of how we do that is to elect a president who's completely different. I represent a different area, a different generation, a different background, for sure, and I'm out to talk about our values with a different vocabulary.”

Like de Blasio, both Bullock and Buttigieg made no mention of Biden. Asked about Biden's vote for the Iraq War, Buttigieg quickly said that he would not criticize another candidate and returned to a theme of the week: that John Bolton, “one of the people who was in the middle of that bad policy,” was serving as Trump's national security adviser and looking to be gunning for war.

The Democratic pileup, and Iowans' friendly interest in so many candidates, was a reflection of how many voters still wanted an alternative to Biden. But an unsettled field would help him. Iowa's caucus rules, which function as a sort of instant-runoff system, require candidates to meet 15 percent support in each caucus to get delegates. 

In 2016, polls put Martin O'Malley's support between 4 and 5 percent, but almost nowhere did his supporters meet the threshold. Eight years earlier, Joe Biden entered caucus night with support in the single digits, then watched his supporters fail to reach “viability” in caucus after caucus, giving him just 0.9 percent of the delegates.

In 2019, 21 candidates were trying to avoid Biden's initial fate. With no real fights underway between anyone but Biden and Sanders, they were waiting for a breakthrough from voters in no hurry to decide. Donna Duvall finished her Saturday by driving up to Dubuque, where, after finding a lot to like about Bullock, she found a lot to like about Buttigieg.

“I'm impressed by his intelligence, his brilliance, and his grasp of the subjects,” Duvall said of Buttigieg. Both candidates, plus Warren, did more for her than Biden. She could pick only one of them, and she had eight months to do it, whatever the polls happened to say.


"Democrats were said to be furious and hungry for change. Then Biden jumped in,” by Annie Linskey and Michael Scherer

Biden's rivals aren't just puzzling over how to dislodge him from the lead; they're wondering why Democrats aren't more interested in change.

“Democrats waiting for large presidential field to take shape before endorsing,” by Paul Kane

By this point in the 2016 cycle, a majority of Democrats in Congress had endorsed a candidate for president. Here's why they're taking their time.

“Mayor Pete and the Order of the Kong: How Buttigieg’s Harvard pals helped spur his rise in politics,” by Liz Goodwin

Buttigieg's elite academic credentials, which have impressed voters, built connections that helped him build an electoral career in a hurry.

“Which candidates have made the Democratic debate stage?” by Amber Phillips

It's become the No. 1 question people ask reporters, even more than “Who's going to win?”

“Kirsten Gillibrand is struggling. Will abortion rights be her rallying cry?” by Shane Goldmacher

Nothing so far has fixed the senator from New York's problems with fundraising, but for the moment, the debate has come onto her turf.

“Powered by the people,” by Aída Chávez

In 2016, Democrats elected a conservative West Virginia governor who quickly became a Republican. What happens if they nominate a liberal populist?

“Bernie's mystery Soviet tapes revealed,” by Holly Otterbein

In a big week for stories about the senator's socialist advocacy, this one has the most dancing.


GOWRIE, Iowa — There was no way for Bill de Blasio, the latest and perhaps the last Democrat to announce for the 2020 presidential nomination, to campaign for president without attracting derision from the New York City media. The winner of two landslide mayoral elections was welcomed to the race by tabloids mocking him — an “Escape from New York” joke, an image of people laughing — which is what the tabloids usually do.

De Blasio’s response, on Friday, was to invite that media to rural Iowa, first to an ethanol processing plant where the din made it hard to hear him, then to a farm where reporters were asked to wait outside. He was welcomed by former secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack, a self-styled “Walmart greeter for Democrats,” who stood by as the mayor ignored a question about his launch video (did he get clearance to film in city-owned Gracie Mansion?) and talked about corn.

“Time and again, when there was an opportunity to help the biofuels industry to grow and create jobs in places like rural Iowa, the Trump administration has favored big petroleum companies,” de Blasio told reporters. “I want to see a lot more farming communities have these biofuel facilities. That’s not going to happen if the federal government keeps favoring the big petroleum industry.’’  

De Blasio, who had been traveling to Iowa for years and hinting at a run, offered himself as a serious and experienced liberal who could take on the president. He has work to do. In his first days as a candidate, the mayor of America’s largest city was fighting to be taken as seriously as the mayor of South Bend, Ind. Like Pete Buttigieg, and like a host of other Democrats, he wanted to augur a new political era, not just defeating Trump but destroying what he stood for.

“It’s not enough just to take the thorn out your side and then think you're all going to heal,” de Blasio said in an interview. “We have to defeat Trump and Trumpism. We have to take this moment, which I think is unprecedented. I think you can only compare this moment to either the 1960s in one way, or in another way, the 1930s. We can't let it slip through our fingers. We can't aim too low.”

Step one was getting taken seriously, which was not easy on Day 1. The New York media had been all over de Blasio as he tried to build a campaign and as some longtime staff and allies declined to go along with it. He stopped by a salon at the home of George and Patti Naylor, in the small town of Churdan, because the Naylors had backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 and become well-known advocates for combating agribusiness. 

“I haven’t committed to anybody yet, but I’m impressed with how he’s willing to learn about the details,” said George Naylor, 71, after de Blasio left for his next stop.

That, still, was more respect than de Blasio was used to getting in New York. Polling has found him with support from black and Hispanic voters, even as most white voters disapprove of his performance, a dynamic he sees manifested in the coverage. He won his two mayoral elections with a landslide among nonwhite voters, running behind them with white voters. That, he told reporters in Des Moines, was why his ability to compete in a diverse Democratic field was underrated.

“I'm blessed to say that people heard my message, and in each of those demographics, more people voted for me than for people who happen to come from those communities,” de Blasio said.

At his first Iowa stops, de Blasio brightened at the chance to talk to local media, going on at length about how universal health care could transform mental-health treatment. He bristled when the New York media asked about the legality of his campaign launch ("everything has been done legally"), whether taxpayer money was used to send him to Iowa ("we're doing everything according to the law"), and how much money he had raised in his 24 hours as a candidate ("we'll talk about everything in the filing"). 

When de Blasio made news, it wasn't the kind he wanted. On previous Iowa visits, and in answers to reporters on this one, he'd taken shots at Trump while saying the party needed to be clear on what it stood for and not focus on the president. On this trip, though, he relished his nickname for the president, “Con Don,” or #ConDon. And he'd kicked off the week with an event at Trump Tower in support of New York's “green new deal,” a plan to get the city working on renewable energy.

“I guess I struck a nerve because, not only did tweet at me, he did his own personal video attacking me,” de Blasio said. “And that means my point is getting across.” Asked whether he was simply “getting into the gutter” with Trump, de Blasio said that he wasn't: “You have to know how to take him on. He's a bully. I understand him I watched him for decades. You confront a bully; you don't let him get away with what he's doing.”

The takeaway that got back to New York: de Blasio had focused on Trump, after saying that his party did too much of that.


2020 presidential election (Fox News, 1,008 registered voters)

Joe Biden — 49%
Donald Trump — 38%

Bernie Sanders — 46%
Donald Trump — 41%

Elizabeth Warren — 43%
Donald Trump — 41%

Kamala Harris — 41%
Donald Trump — 41%

Donald Trump — 41%
Pete Buttigieg — 40%

The only way Biden's rivals can cut into his support is by convincing voters that they have a better chance of defeating the president. This, like Quinnipiac's Pennsylvania-only poll last week, reveals how much work those rivals have to do; Biden continues to perform the best of any candidate and doubles the lead that Sanders holds over Trump, complicating the senator's efforts to sell his electability. Like the Pennsylvania poll, it also finds Warren running ahead of the president by the sort of margin that Hillary Clinton led by in the final days of 2016.

Changes to Medicare (Quinnipiac, 978 Pennsylvania voters)

Replace current system with single payer?
Bad idea — 47%
Good idea — 43%

Keep the system but allow a Medicare buy-in?
Good idea — 58%
Bad idea — 26%

As candidates get asked to explain their Medicare restructuring plans, only one, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has remained committed to fully replacing the private insurance market. Sanders argues that the plan remains popular, pointing to polls where the Medicare-for-all concept got close to 70 percent support. This is the latest poll that finds voters getting a little queasy over the details, favoring the idea of letting anyone buy into Medicare but just 43 percent favoring real single-payer. The wrinkle: Any Democrat who wins the nomination after co-sponsoring the Sanders bill can be credibly accused of backing the less popular version. And any Democrat who didn't co-sponsor it will probably be accused of favoring this anyway.


Joe Biden. He held the biggest rally of his campaign so far in Philadelphia on Saturday, coloring in some of the lines for voters worried about his talk of compromising with Republicans, saying, "I know there are times when only a bare-knuckle fight will do."

Bernie Sanders. During his trip through South Carolina, he released a “Thurgood Marshall plan” for education, which is easy to read in full and a little harder to summarize. The big points: an end to de facto segregation, a ban on for-profit charter schools, an end to taxpayer money diversion to charter schools, paying teachers no less than $60,000 per year, and billions of dollars in investments for after-school programs and free school lunches. 

Bill Weld. He got the endorsement of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a moderate Republican first elected in 2016; he shared a ballot with Trump that year but did not endorse him. This is the first support from a fellow Republican for Weld's campaign.

Pete Buttigieg. He was set to begin a swing through New Hampshire with a Fox News-sponsored town hall; in an email to supporters, he explained that refusing it, as Elizabeth Warren had done, would cut the party off from voters it could reach. “Just because many of these opinion hosts don’t operate in good faith, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t Fox viewers tuning in good faith,” Buttigieg wrote. “If we unilaterally decide that they shouldn’t hear my or other Democrats’ messages, then we shouldn’t act surprised if they have a distorted view of what we believe and who we are.”

Kirsten Gillibrand. She said on CBS's “Face the Nation” that she would not want the federal government to detain undocumented immigrants at all if they were not accused of crimes other than crossing the border.

Seth Moulton. He introduced a national service plan, the National Service Education Guarantee, offering education or job training to Americans who signed up with new nonmilitary service organizations, such as a green jobs corps.

Andrew Yang. He's campaigning in New Hampshire through Tuesday, with his position in the presidential debates secure.

Marianne Williamson. She's holding a Monday night town hall in Washington before another three-day New Hampshire swing.


The Democrats' abortion moves. The passage of a near-ban on abortion in Alabama, and of somewhat less-strict legislation in other red states, has quickly pushed the issue to the front of Democratic conversations. We're hearing more about abortion policy and regulation than we have in any election this century. The reason's clear: For the first time, there's a president who's explicitly said he'll appoint judges who want to unravel Roe v. Wade, a Supreme Court majority seen as skeptical of the precedent, and Republican governing “trifectas” in states that are ready to test the court.

The old Democratic consensus on abortion, that Roe should be upheld but antiabortion voters shouldn't have to worry about their tax money being spent on the practice, is coming apart. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) rolled out the most comprehensive response to the abortion laws. Her plan: enact new laws that enshrine Roe's protections, preempt regulations designed to shut down clinics, and repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being spent on abortion, through Medicaid or any other program.

The Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976 by a coalition of antiabortion Republicans and Democrats, was not seriously challenged by Democrats until 40 years later. In 2016, for the first time, the Democratic platform called for the amendment to be stripped from funding bills. In 2017 and 2019, Medicare-for-all legislation endorsed by many Democratic presidential candidates also included funding for abortion.

What has changed in the past weeks is that even Democrats seen as “moderate” have come around to the left's abortion position. Pressed by an ACLU-trained voter in South Carolina, Joe Biden said he wanted to kill the Hyde Amendment, which he had voted for. "It can't stay," he said, after being pressed twice. Asked at a house party this week about the amendment, Cory Booker said the same thing. And asked by The Washington Post whether he would oppose the amendment, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said he would, while pushing for Roe to be codified by Congress.

“I've taken a look at the Hyde Amendment, and I certainly support it going away,” Bullock said.

This is now the position of most Democrats running for president, and all of the leaders in polls; as recently as 2012, it was a step the party would not take.


Anybody who has watched Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) over the years knew he was unhappy with President Trump. That didn't soften the surprise when Amash became the first Republican in either chamber of Congress to say (via tweets) that the president had committed “impeachable offenses.” That drew a Sunday morning rebuke from the president and one from RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, who until recently had been content to let Amash go his own way.

The immediate political question is what Amash's breakaway does for Democrats, who have wrung their hands for weeks at the prospect of “partisan” impeachment talk; Amash made his statement just 24 hours after the Treasury Department denied a subpoena of the president's tax records.

The next question: What happens to Amash? Elected to the House in 2010 at just 30 years old, he endorsed Ron and Rand Paul's presidential campaigns and angered his party by breaking with its agenda on issues of war and spending. In 2014, he defeated a primary challenger who was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and argued that a safe red seat should go to a reliable conservative. (That was not how Amash saw the argument.) Amash has been able to easily hold his seat, which includes Grand Rapids and the increasingly blue Kent County, but it went for Barack Obama in 2008 and nearly voted for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2018. A bloody primary could get Democrats looking at the seat again.

The question after that: Does Amash seriously consider running for president as a libertarian? He has not ruled it out, telling hometown reporters that he has been approached and not said no. (With Bill Weld's move back to the Republican Party, the best-known candidate for the nomination is John McAfee, whose discussion of bestiality is not the most controversial thing he has done.)


. . . one day until the president campaigns for the GOP's candidate in a Pennsylvania special election
. . . two days until that election, and until primaries in Kentucky
. . . 24 days until the cutoff to qualify for the first Democratic debate