In this edition: Sanders's beef with the media and the pollsters, an ad designed especially for the president, and the success of Tom Steyer's buy-a-donor strategy.
People get very sensitive, I've learned, when you talk about crowd size, and this is The Trailer.
DES MOINES — The Bernie Sanders campaign invited reporters to a Monday morning conference call, its message polite but firm: You all are blowing this one. The “Bernie blackout” of 2016 had turned into a “Bernie write-off,” something they saw as a refusal by the media blob to cover Sanders fairly.
“There seems to be a direct correlation between the media's coverage of polls and Bernie Sanders's specific standing in those polls,” said Jeff Weaver, a Sanders adviser who managed his 2016 campaign. “The better the number is in the poll, the less coverage he's received, and the worse he does, the more it receives.”
Weaver had the receipts. A national Quinnipac poll (Sanders at 14 percent) appeared in 47 major media stories, while a national Democracy Corps poll (Sanders at 22 percent) appeared in just two. A Monmouth poll was “splashed across TV screens” to show Sanders slipping into fourth place in Iowa; the Sanders campaign had serious problems with that poll's methodology.
Six months into his second presidential bid, Sanders (I-Vt.) has the broadest donor base and volunteer network of any candidate seeking the Democratic nomination. He's also lagging behind his position from four years ago, when by midsummer he'd established himself as the clear challenger to an “establishment” candidate. But in that campaign and this one, Sanders has consistently attacked “corporate media,” an animus growing out of his belief that the profit motive has turned political coverage into something both glib and harmful — harmful in particular to his brand of left-wing, grass-roots politics.
Monday was a big moment for that argument, starting with that media call and continuing with the senator's latest trip to New Hampshire. After emphasizing that he wanted Amazon and other big corporations to pay higher taxes, he added that “The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn't write particularly good articles about me.” Martin Baron, The Post's executive editor, quickly called Sanders's statement a “conspiracy theory.” (Bezos is chief executive of Amazon, a publicly traded company.)
Sanders's particular accusation was new, but his logic has been consistent for years: It's the job of the media to generate clicks and profits, and it's the job of a candidate to sell a message. He rarely “gaggles” with reporters on the campaign trail, preferring formats where he can speak for minutes at a time. He is one of just three Democrats to sit with Joe Rogan, the MMA announcer and podcaster, doing so because Rogan gives his guests an hour to explain themselves. (The other two are Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard, lower-polling candidates who do not draw as much major media attention as Sanders.)
“My God, 7.9 million views already!” Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner said of the Rogan podcast, on Monday, referring to the YouTube version.
The candidate's own rhetoric about the media varies between disappointment, contempt and — when it gets something right — grudging respect. “If I were standing here tonight making some vicious attack against Hillary Clinton or anybody else, it would be a front-page story,” Sanders said in several versions of his 2016 primary stump speech. “But if you talk about why the middle class is disappearing as almost all the income and wealth go to the top 1%, not a big story. So what the political revolution is forcing a debate, not about trivia, but about real issues.”
Since then, Sanders has set up a parallel network of friendly media, from the largest Facebook and Twitter networks of any Democratic presidential candidate, to an official campaign podcast (“Hear the Bern”), to the field's only channel on Twitch, usually used for streaming video games and owned by Amazon. But in the crowded field, Sanders has lost much of the support that went his way in 2016's effectively binary primary. On August 13, 2015, according to the polling aggregates at RealClearPolitics, Sanders was polling at an average of 37.8 percent in New Hampshire, 26.3 percent in Iowa and 20 percent nationally. Today, according to the same site's averages, Sanders is clocking in at 19.3 percent in New Hampshire, 12.3 percent in Iowa and 16.8 percent nationally.
The campaign's response has been to accuse the media of being not just slanted, but foolish. More than many other campaigns, it has emphasized good poll numbers, even when they come from pollsters not viewed as valid for inclusion in DNC-sponsored debates. (The DNC and many media outlets prioritize polls with live callers over online panels.) Three months ago, when polls showed Joe Biden building a lead over Sanders, the senator's campaign pollster, Ben Tulchin, called it “a classic case of the establishment media setting it up for the establishment front-runner to look good, and hurting an outsider candidate,” i.e. Sanders.
“What polls giveth, they also taketh away, and vice versa,” Tulchin said on the May 13 episode of the Sanders campaign podcast. “We have to, as a campaign, weather the storm of polls that might not be the best, for whatever reason, but then if there's a good poll, we try the narrative, because that's what the press likes talking about.”
Monday's effort to change the story about Sanders's polls fit into that overall strategy. Citing FiveThirtyEight's analysis of all polling since the Detroit debate, Tulchin noted that Sanders had risen more than any other candidate, “about two points,” but that “no one was reporting that.” This was true; in the site's weighted average, Sanders had gained 1.8 points, while Elizabeth Warren had gained 1.6 points. Sanders averaged at 17.1 percent, to 14.6 percent for Warren and 28.4 percent for Biden, an arrangement Tulchin described as a “strong second place” for Sanders.
Pressed by reporters, Tulchin spent more time explaining precisely why the campaign did not believe Monmouth's poll: It surveyed voters who had voted in previous primaries. (Only the presidential contest is decided by a caucus.)
“The vast majority of people who voted in a presidential caucus have never voted in a Democratic primary,” Tulchin said. “It's a very different type of voter who shows up for a presidential caucus than votes in that regularly scheduled statewide Democratic primary. Bernie's voters are even less likely to have voted in a Democratic primary than that kind of more establishment-type party insiders who participate in regular scheduled statewide primaries.”
Patrick Murray, the director for Monmouth's poll, pointed out that the sampling of voters was consistent. “We include non-primary voters in our sample as well,” he said. “In fact, we increased their share of the total weighted sample in this poll versus our April poll. Even with widening our pool that way, Sanders still lost support from April to August.”
Tulchin also argued with the Monmouth poll's newsiest result: that Democrats preferred a Medicare buy-in to Medicare-for-all by 35 points. Other pollsters, he said, had given a binary choice — yes or no on Medicare-for-all — and it won. An ABC News panel had seen clips of Biden's health-care message and Sanders's message, and Sanders had won out. The media, once again, was focused on the result where Sanders suffered.
“If you cherry-pick one poll and say, hey, look, they asked a question about Medicare-for-all in a certain way, that question, quite frankly, gave people four options,” Tulchin said. “That’s one way to ask the question. But there's a lot of polling data in this memo, which is ‘do you support or oppose Medicare-for-all,’ because that’s what in front of them, the vast majority of all voters do.”
Murray said that the question was written to ask about several Medicare plans because the primary had multiple plans on offer. “The problem is that Dem voters are faced with choosing among candidates who propose variants of these two proposals — and that is what our question was designed to measure,” Murray said. “It’s telling that the Sanders campaign says their plan gets widespread support after message testing. But public polls are about what people think right now.”
The Sanders campaign, while irritated by its coverage, does not care what some people think. It skipped the sign-waving “visibility” at June's Democratic fundraiser in Cedar Rapids so that the candidate could lead a march of fast-food workers trying to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour; it skipped the same sort of “visibility” at last week's Iowa Wing Ding so that supporters could knock on doors in Clear Lake, the small host city. His was the only campaign to advertise its Iowa State Fair speech with volunteers passing out leaflets, but Sanders was far less talkative with individual voters than other candidates. Other candidates, such as Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren, use big public events to dive into crowds; the Sanders campaign uses the interest in its candidate to fan out and collect names or contact info. But every now and then, the campaign would like the narrative to go its way.
The candidate most closely associated with single-payer health care believes he can take hold of the race if he emphasizes that.
A look at former felons who are still wary of the franchise.
The most popular Democratic Party figure who did not win her most recent election is pivoting back to voting rights.
The fight for a demographic that Sanders lost last time; so far, he has continued to do better with younger black voters than older ones.
“ 'Everything that we hold dear’: From race to plastic straws, Trump dials up culture wars in divisive play for 2020 votes,” by Toluse Olorunnipa and Ashley Parker
The Trump campaign capitalizes on the outrages of the day.
Julián Castro, “Ya basta.” Shot in an Iowa warehouse, this ad is designed for one market (New Jersey) and one audience member (Donald Trump). It will air during “Fox and Friends” on Wednesday morning, where the president is expected to start his day.
Oklahoma Democratic primary (Sooner poll, 151 Democrats)
Undecided — 34%
Joe Biden — 26%
Elizabeth Warren — 12%
Kamala Harris — 8%
Pete Buttigieg — 6%
Bernie Sanders — 5%
Jay Inslee — 2%
Cory Booker — 2%
Michael Bennet — 2%
Beto O'Rourke — 2%
Steve Bullock — 1%
Marianne Williamson — 1%
John Hickenlooper — 1%
Amy Klobuchar — 1%
Kirsten Gillibrand — 1%
Steve Bullock — 1%
Lost in the Super Tuesday shuffle, Oklahoma will hold its open primary (Democrats and independents can vote in it) on March 3, 2020. This is the first time anybody has bothered to poll it, and the Sooner poll, the only major survey based in the state, has a small sample size. Four years ago, it did not enter the field until November, when it gave Hillary Clinton a 35-point lead. Its final survey put Clinton up by nine; she lost by 10, with Sanders winning both independents and anti-Clinton Democrats. (While the fight over whether Oklahoma counts as “the South” is a worthy one, like many Southern states it has hundreds of thousands of registered Democrats who don't vote with the party.) Sanders's showing here is paltry; Warren, a native Oklahoma, does not do much better. But no Democrat has stumped in the state yet.
In the first month of his campaign for president, billionaire investor and philanthropist Tom Steyer spent more than $7 million on advertising — $3 million alone on Facebook. Any Democrat using the world's most popular social media platform was probably seeing Steyer's image as he asked them to “pitch in just one dollar” and get him into the September debates in Houston.
It worked. On Tuesday morning, Steyer announced that he'd taken in 130,000 unique donations, hitting one of the two debate qualifying marks after just 35 days as a candidate.
Steyer was the 12th candidate to reach that point. Nine of them are now guaranteed to be in the September debates because they've also hit 2 percent in at least four polls recognized by the DNC: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Andrew Yang. Two other candidates are in the same club as Steyer, having hit the donor target but in need of at least one more poll showing them at 2 percent: Julián Castro and Tulsi Gabbard.
Not on that list, or even very close, is Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who has tried to make campaign finance reform the focus of his campaign and who was fast out of the gate to attack Steyer.
“I think the DNC rules were well intentioned, but what it really has done is allowed a billionaire to buy a spot on the debate stage,” Bullock said in a Tuesday MSNBC appearance. “Tom Steyer just spent $10 million to get 130,000 donors — we're getting to the point whereas we're spending money online as opposed to actually talking to voters.”
A sextet of energy industry unions is urging more Democrats to embrace carbon capture and storage (CCS) as part of their 2020 agenda, urging them to back a CCS bill from coal-friendly Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
“We need a dramatic increase in DOE funding for CCS second generation capture technology, to reduce its cost and increase its prospects for use in a large-scale carbon reduction program,” United Mine Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and others wrote in a memo to candidates. “Senator Manchin's proposal is a step in the right direction.”
The most dramatic demonstration of the energy unions' outreach: They are inviting every candidate to tour coal mines and get schooled on the industry. The climate-centric Jay Inslee has expressed interest; so have Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, John Delaney and Steve Bullock.
Kamala Harris. She won the endorsement of Iowa's Asian-Latino Coalition, which had remarkable success getting candidates to come and bid for the support of a fairly unknown group. It was at an ALC event that Joe Biden spent more than 90 minutes on Thursday and where he made his widely reported gaffe about “poor kids.” In the end, Biden was not in the ALC's top four candidates: They were Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Julián Castro and Harris.
Tulsi Gabbard. She's leaving the campaign trail Wednesday and returning two weeks later as she fulfills National Guard duty; former candidate Mike Gravel, who endorsed both Gabbard and Bernie Sanders, has offered to be a campaign surrogate in that period.
Pete Buttigieg. He joined the candidates who've rolled out rural investment plans, with $80 million for universal broadband access.
Tim Ryan. He's urged the president to do something unlikely: redirect money from border security funding to “battle gun violence.”
Steve Bullock. He's returning to New Hampshire on Friday and Saturday; he's spent far less time there than in Iowa, so far.
Seth Moulton. He's spending Sunday and Monday in New Hampshire, which he's visited about as frequently as Iowa.
Joe Sestak. He was impressed by the reaction to a retweet from Chapo Trap House fans at the Iowa State Fair, so he headed to the left-wing podcasters’ Air B&B to record an interview.
John Delaney. He’ll have Iowa largely to himself after Sunday, with eight planned visits across the state, mostly meet-and-greets with local Democrats.
Elizabeth Warren. She’s making an inaugural visit to Minnesota, a Super Tuesday state that has seen little candidate action, on Monday.
Harry Reid, who in retirement has become a sort of political shaman for Democrats, has given interview after interview about what he thinks the party needs to do. In a new column for the New York Times, Reid had some very specific advice: The next time his party takes power, it needs to scrap the filibuster on legislation.
“I didn’t come to this decision lightly,” Reid wrote. “In bygone eras, the filibuster was a symbol of the Senate’s famed role as the cooling saucer for legislation and ideas from the more hot-tempered House of Representatives. The Senate was known as 'the world’s greatest deliberative body,' a place where collegiality and compromise held sway and issues could be discussed rationally and agreements could be reached. The 60-vote threshold reflected those sentiments. Sadly, we are not living in the same legislative world anymore.”
Reid's column puts him at odds with many of the Democratic candidates for president and in full agreement with just a few: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former HUD secretary Julián Castro and Rep. Seth Moulton. Just one of those candidates, Warren, has staffers who once worked for Reid; Warren is also the only Democrat whom Reid reportedly urged to run. A cynical view of Reid's column would be that it is the latest message in a bottle written to emphasize how strong he thinks the senator from Massachusetts is in this field.
More directly, it's one of the icons of Democratic politics telling candidates that they should not be scared off future filibuster overhaul simply because Republicans keep taunting them over how rules changes made it easier for them to confirm judges. (Democrats blew up the filibuster on lower-court nominees when they had control of the Senate, but Republicans refused to allow a number of Obama nominees.) That's a shot across Joe Biden's bow — this weekend, the former vice president reiterated that he supports the filibuster — and a dismissal of other “institutionalist” candidates such as Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. It's also a contradiction of Sanders, who has said he is uncomfortable with scrapping the filibuster but would favor changing it and, more consequentially, changing the rules of budget reconciliation to allow major legislation to pass that way. (There is one reconciliation bill every fiscal year.)
… 15 days until the cutoff for the next Democratic debates
… 30 days until the next Democratic debates
… 48 days until the end of the fundraising quarter