In this edition: The 2020 contenders with trouble at home, the Biden-Sanders poll paradox, and a big pre-debate week ahead of us.
There is no “national Democratic primary,” and this is The Trailer.
HAYWARD, Calif. — Aisha Wahab did not expect to be running for Congress so soon.
The 31-year-old city councilor had a compelling story: Raised with her sister by foster parents after their father was killed, she became an IT consultant, helping to provide for both of them. Just last year, tying her own story to the housing shortage crisis, Wahab became the first Afghan American elected to any office in the United States. She was instantly, and perhaps inevitably, compared to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.); she declared her candidacy in California's 15th Congressional District six months later.
“It's been an interesting ride,” Wahab said in an interview recently, after her long commute from work. “The Afghan American community is very proud and excited to show younger folks: Hey, this is the opportunity you can have in the United States. Even in Europe, I saw people change their Facebook photos to my black-and-white photo.”
The opportunity to run for Congress came about for another very American reason; Eric Swalwell, who'd represented the area since 2013, decided to run for president. He's one of four Democratic candidates who has walked away, perhaps for good, from a job that people spend millions of dollars to win and millions more to retain — a safe seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. All four are among the youngest candidates for the White House, and all four are facing a choice: pursue the nation's highest office and abandon potentially long careers in Congress or return to voters fully aware that their representative has more fun at Iowa's Polk County Steak Fry than at a local Elk's Club pancake breakfast.
Of the many risks and indignities that come with running for president — longtime friends staying neutral, crowds that don't react to the stump speech, continental breakfasts — the toughest is a career-ending defeat. For every Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who successfully sought a second term after losing his state's presidential primary, there is a Michele Bachmann or a Chris Dodd whose career was effectively ended by seeking the presidency. Four Democrats — Swalwell, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio — are running for president at the same time that many of their peers are stocking up reelection funds.
The four candidates have taken different approaches to their districts, from filing for reelection to punting on that question until they either win or lose the presidential nomination. Gabbard, who easily defeated a 2018 primary challenger, has not said whether she would seek another term in the House. Moulton and Ryan both intend to file for reelection; the filing deadline in Moulton's district is not until next May, after the Democratic presidential primary could be largely over. A spokesman for Ryan said he would file to seek both the presidency and his House seat, which is an option under Ohio law; the filing deadline for his seat is in December.
Swalwell, who defeated a 19-term incumbent Democrat to win his seat, seemed to end his campaign for reelection when he began to seek the presidency. “I would want people to know that I’m putting my all into this,” Swalwell told the San Francisco Chronicle in February. “I don’t have a life insurance policy.”
That kicked off a race for Swalwell's seat, which represents a stretch of suburbs that touch the San Francisco Bay, running between San Jose and Oakland. Hillary Clinton won the district with 70 percent of the vote, making any Democrat the favorite to hold it. Wahab was first into the race; state Sen. Bob Wieckowski soon followed, then switched to another race. Although Wahab does not have to release fundraising numbers until next month, Democrats saw her getting serious attention and tapping a national donor network that was excited by the chance to elect the first Afghan American member of Congress. A millennial with direct experience with America's foreign policy and its consequences would enter the House as a national figure.
“In my generation we've had almost 20 years of war,” Wahab said. “It is something that we can't take lightly. There is a time and place for war, but politicians can't keep using it as a tool to elevate our polling numbers.”
The biggest problem for Wahab now is that Swalwell might not be done with Congress. He has softened his reelection stance since February; in a short interview last weekend at the Iowa Hall of Fame Celebration in Cedar Rapids, Swalwell suggested that he would return to the East Bay if he does not make the DNC's higher debate threshold later this year. In September, candidates with fewer than 135,000 donors or less than 2 percent in polls will be kept offstage. Swalwell qualified for the June debates on the strength of several polls that showed him at 1 percent.
“The threshold's going to continue to go up,” Swalwell said. “I don't have to make a decision until December. If I'm still in this, on the debate stage in December, then yeah, I'm running for president.” September is when the debate standards go up; December is the cutoff to seek reelection.
Wahab said it was too early to decide what she'd do if Swalwell returned to run for his seat. “I'm definitely going to reassess it,” she said.
Moulton and Ryan have no serious primary competition, despite the ill will they earned from some Democrats for trying to replace Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader.
The situation in Hawaii is not so quiet. State Sen. Kai Kahele, an Air Force veteran, announced his bid for Hawaii's 1st Congressional District just 10 days after Gabbard told CNN that she would be running for president.
“I don't know what her long-term plans are,” Kahele said in an interview. “I know what I'm doing: I'm running to represent the 1st Congressional District of Hawaii. Right now I'm the only declared candidate in the district, and she's moved a substantial amount of money from her congressional account to her presidential campaign.”
Of all the Democrats risking House seats to seek the presidency, Gabbard has the most time to weigh her options; the filing deadline for the August 2020 primary is not until June 2, almost a year from now. But Kahele is taking every advantage from Gabbard's time outside the district, even more than the negative attention she's gotten in some national media. Gabbard has had a less visible grass-roots presence in Hawaii; she didn't attend the state's Memorial Day ceremony at Punchbowl cemetery, one of the year's most significant events, as she had in the past.
“At the convention in Oahu, she had people there, but they were 'Tulsi for president' people, not 'Tulsi for Congress,' " Kahele said. “Look, say that she wins the nomination, or say that she's picked as vice president. You can't mount a real campaign across eight islands in just a couple weeks before the primary. You need a real grass-roots campaign, which we're building.”
Gabbard's campaign did not respond to a question about the district challenge, though she told CNN this year that she wasn't ruling out a run for her seat and could “cross that bridge” later. And although the districts represented by Gabbard, Swalwell, Ryan and Moulton may be in limbo, they have not previously been targets for Republicans, who badly lost the 2016 and 2018 elections in all of them.
But some Republicans are smiling as they watch these Democrats cross the country for long-shot presidential bids. Ryan's eastern Ohio district, which was gerrymandered by Republicans to be safely Democratic, has grown redder in recent years. Barack Obama carried it in 2012 with 63 percent of the vote; four years later, Hillary Clinton carried it with just 51 percent. This week, as Republicans held a Flag Day party at their Mahoning County headquarters, party leaders were interviewing Republicans interested in either version of the 2020 race; an open seat where rural areas have been growing redder or a race against Ryan after a presidential bid has given them fresh lines of attack.
“We've got some good-looking candidates who want to make that race,” said Donald J. Skowron, a local Republican activist who became well known for switching from the Democratic Party. “You don't see a lot of support for Ryan.”
Give them a lie detector and Democrats will say that Steve Bullock would be more useful to have on the debate stage than someone such as Marianne Williamson. Give them some space to talk about it and they'll explain why.
“Never mind those tweets, Trump’s 2020 reelection team wants order and discipline,” by Michael C. Bender, Rebecca Ballhaus and Alex Leary
Of the many things to remember from this story; the Trump campaign hopes to have 50 million voter profiles by the 2020 election, allowing them to turn out most of their base without new advertising or rallies or gimmicks.
“Workers’ protest, candidate forum put spotlight on race and economic inequality,” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
Just a few Democrats spoke at a weekend forum on black economic issues, but Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker seemed to get the most from it.
“This isn’t going according to plan for Kirsten Gillibrand,” by Edward-Isaac Dovere
A look at how one of the most politically adroit Democrats, a woman who flipped a red district in 2006 then won three Senate landslides, has not yet clicked.
Grass-roots activism is shaping this Democratic primary like never before. At the heart of it: idealistic people, born mostly in the 1990s, getting to know each other before they fight.
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Here's a rule that hasn't failed yet in the long Democratic primary: Any day that people are discussing general election polls is a good day for Joe Biden. And the former vice president could not have dreamed up the past few days, when the president's reelection campaign responded to the leak of worst-case internal polling by first playing it down and then by cutting ties with part of the polling team.
The polls, first reported by ABC News on Friday, showed the president handily losing reelection to Biden. Some of the most eye-popping numbers mirrored what had appeared in public polls; one from Quinnipiac last month showed Biden up by 11 points in Pennsylvania, while the internal poll showed Biden up by 16. But the drama around the numbers started with a June 10 New York Times story, in which pollster Tony Fabrizio (who was not let go) showed the president “devastating” numbers and the president “told aides to deny that his internal polling showed him trailing.” That's nearly a whole week when attentive voters learned that Biden had rattled the president and was in a strong position to beat him.
For all that's happening in the Democratic primary, it is basically impossible for a rival candidate to get past Biden if voters believe that Biden is electable. Voters say it at Biden's so-far infrequent campaign stops, and they say it at the overwhelming schedule of events for other candidates: They want the president to be beaten. Traumatized by the 2016 election, they are not as adventurous as the Democrats of 2007 and 2008. Back then, polling showed that John Edwards ran stronger than any other Democrat against any Republican, but voters saw Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as winners, too; Edwards didn't get much for “electability.” The deep unpopularity of George W. Bush convinced Democrats that most of their candidates were electable, anyway.
Polling this far from a general election is not always useful; it is telling about a president's short-term political weakness, but it asks voters to judge his opponents before at least $1 billion of ads and free media shape their public images. With the exception of Bush, who by this point in his reelection was still riding high off the early military wins in Iraq, every two-term president of the past 50 years has trailed some opponent in the year before reelection. By this point four years ago, on the day he became a candidate for president, Donald Trump was polling so poorly that Hillary Clinton's campaign saw him as a “pied piper” whose success would weaken the eventual GOP nominee.
But even fairly plugged-in Democratic voters don't recall polls from four or eight years ago, and that has been a problem for other leading Democratic candidates. Ironically, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has had the most trouble breaking through news cycles about Biden's poll numbers, even though he also polls strongly against Trump.
“A lot of the polls that are out there — you know, take them for what they're worth, eight months before an election — a lot of the polls have me and Joe Biden defeating Donald Trump pretty handily,” Sanders told voters in Waterloo, Iowa, last week. “I think the polls in Michigan have us up by 12 points over Trump.”
True enough, a poll conducted in early June for the Detroit News showed both candidates defeating Trump easily in Michigan. A poll a few days later, with the same result, got a different headline: “Donald Trump trails Joe Biden by double digits in new statewide Michigan poll.”
Coverage like that would bother any campaign staff, but it's especially irksome to the Sanders team. In 2015 and 2016, even when some polls showed a better-liked Sanders performing stronger in swing states than Hillary Clinton, it didn't sink in; voters concerned with “who can win” tended to vote for Clinton. But so long as both Biden and Sanders poll relatively the same against Trump, there's no “electability” dividend for Sanders. On Friday, when Sanders campaign podcast host Briahna Joy Gray tweeted that “we've already tried the thing where we picked a candidate who barely got outside of the margin of error window of beating Trump,” it was read as a swipe at Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren; the poll it referred to showed Biden running marginally stronger than Sanders.
The Sanders argument, made in his “democratic socialism” speech last week, is that he has a coherent theory of politics that will survive a general election and let him govern more strongly than any other candidate. But this, too, is tied to the polls. While Biden is offering Democrats a chance to return to the norms they enjoyed before 2017, Sanders talks about a permanent grass-roots revolution, "where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy.” That idea also struggles in any news cycle about Biden's strength; if Sanders looks weaker in the Democratic primary than he did four years ago, it raises questions about how he'd put that revolution together.
Biden hasn't appeared in public since his last event in eastern Iowa four days ago. He'll emerge again Monday afternoon, kicking off a 10-candidate presidential forum in Washington organized by the Poor People's Campaign.
2020 general election (Fox News, 1,001 registered voters)
Joe Biden — 49%
Donald Trump — 39%
Bernie Sanders — 49%
Donald Trump — 40%
Elizabeth Warren — 43%
Donald Trump — 41%
Kamala Harris — 42%
Donald Trump — 41%
Pete Buttigieg — 41%
Donald Trump — 40%
This is a perfect example of what we discussed above; it's a choice whether to read a poll like this as “Biden beats Trump by double digits,” or “Trump struggles in matchups against leading Democrats.” Since the last poll in May, Biden has actually ticked down (from an 11-point) lead and Sanders has ticked up (from a five-point lead); Harris and Buttigieg have moved from ties with Trump to statistically insignificant advantages. Warren has remained steady. What it means: mostly that the president's overall reelect number has not moved out of the low 40s and that none of the leading Democrats can be written off as easy opponents.
Joe Biden. On Monday, he'll join his Democratic rivals onstage for the first time, at the Presidential Forum at the Poor People's Congress in Washington. He also was among the Democrats attacking the president for declining to swear off information about rival campaigns from foreign sources: “American elections should be decided by the American people and not by Russian or any other foreign power.”
Elizabeth Warren. She got strong reviews at the Black Economic Alliance Forum in Charleston, largely by emphasizing her policies to shrink the black-white gap in access to capital; she'll be joining Biden and eight other Democrats at the Monday forum.
Cory Booker. He used his appearance at the BEA Forum to again present his "baby bonds" and start-up incubator plans, arguing that he had the most thought-out plans to build black wealth.
Pete Buttigieg. He co-headlined Virginia's Democratic Party dinner Saturday, drawing less negative attention than might have seemed possible just a few months ago — embattled Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has not resigned but was not at the dinner.
Amy Klobuchar. She joined Buttigieg at the dinner, with a small advantage: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) singled her out, thanking her for working on an election security bill that remains stranded in the Senate.
Beto O'Rourke. He was the only Democrat on the trail over Father's Day weekend, telling NBC News that he was out there because he's “relentless.”
Andrew Yang. His spot in the first debates secured, Yang told CNN's Brian Stelter that his next mission was getting positions next to Biden on the debate stage, “because his name recognition is sky-high, and mine is the opposite of sky-high.” The positions will be determined by debate sponsor NBC.
Eric Swalwell. He's returning to New Hampshire for the fifth time Tuesday, speaking at a medical society forum and a meet-and-greet with local Democrats.
. . . one day until the Poor People's Campaign presidential forum
. . . five days until Rep. Jim Clyburn's fish fry in Columbia, S.C.
. . . 10 days until the first Democratic debates
. . . 44 days until the second Democratic debates
. . . 97 days until the Polk County Democratic Steak Fry in Iowa