In this edition: Why no Democrat can afford to go negative, the conservative vaping panic, and the steak fry ticket primary.

I picked the wrong political weekend to stop eating red meat, and this is The Trailer.

PHILADELPHIA — When he took the stage at a labor policy summit here, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told workers what he had never done. He had never supported NAFTA. He had never supported the Iraq War. Unlike Joe Biden — who had spoken hours earlier to a much quieter reception — Sanders had gotten the big things right.

“When it comes to working people, I have a record that I don't need to apologize for,” Sanders told reporters after the speech.

At the same time, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was taping an interview with late-night host Stephen Colbert, who asked her why she kept warning audiences against a candidate they didn't “believe in.” Asked whether she was talking about Joe Biden, Warren quickly said “no,” then pivoted to talk about the “scary times” Trump had brought to America, until her friendly, misdirected audience began to cheer. 

The difference in how Warren and Sanders talk about former vice president Biden demonstrated one of the primary's biggest quandaries: Candidates need to make contrasts with their strongest rivals, but Democratic voters don't want to hear the candidates go negative. So far, no candidate has managed to build support after making a sharp attack on another candidate, even when that attack is true.

“I suspect folks would like to think any one or all of our candidates is better than the current occupant of the White House,” said former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, who is neutral in the primary so far. “I do think that elections are often responses to the previous election, and many may have felt we crippled our nominee in 2016 with attacks that led to the Trump win. There is no desire for a repeat of that.”

The 2016 election, which rattled countless theories about politics, did some damage to the popular thinking on negative campaigning. Democrats watched — first with delight, then terror — as a series of Republicans self-immolated by thinking they could break out with attacks on Donald Trump. And Democrats did not think their long primary between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, which only occasionally got personal, would cause long-term political nerve damage. When it did, it left the Democratic electorate more cautious than ever about candidates who went on the attack.

That attitude generally has benefited Biden, who has remained atop most polls despite a string of gaffes, from a flip-flop on the antiabortion Hyde Amendment, to a confusing debate moment that turned a question about the legacy of slavery into a riff on playing records to increase children's' vocabularies. No candidate has improved his or her position by attacking Biden or questioning his quickness as a candidate. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York tried to grind Biden down — but for both, that turned out to be their final appearances in televised debates. After Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio told a Bloomberg News reporter that Biden was “declining,” he moderated that tone in front of New Hampshire TV cameras a few days later.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), more dramatically, dominated a June debate exchange with Biden over his old collaboration with segregationist senators, earning a second look from Democratic voters. One month later, Harris gave an unsteady debate performance and was slow to respond to a surprise attack from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who unloaded on the Californian for her career as a prosecutor and state attorney general.

“When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people's lives, you did not,” Gabbard said.

Harris began falling in polls; Gabbard stayed in the low single digits. At the next debate, when former HUD secretary Julián Castro accused Joe Biden of forgetting his own health-care plan, rival candidates mostly criticized Castro for daring to go low.

“Go look back at some of the Democratic debates of the past,” said Castro's brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), who argued that previous Democratic debates had been far more brutal. “Go look at that 1992 debate between Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown. Democrats in this cycle have been aboveboard.” (The debate in question turned ugly when Brown attacked Hillary Clinton's ethics, and her husband said that Brown wasn't fit to mention his wife's name.)

Polling, which has only now started to absorb the effects of the candidates' attack lines, has found no benefit at all to going negative. A new poll from David Binder Research, conducted in Iowa after the debate, found that 60 percent of likely caucusgoers had “ruled out” Castro, while 46 percent had ruled out Sanders and 37 percent had ruled out Harris. Since the last poll, in July, both Castro and Harris had seen the number of Iowa Democrats holding a “positive” opinion of them fall by double digits. Gabbard and John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman who had used two debates to attack Medicare-for-all, stayed flat and far behind.

“I think I was able to walk the line, but it’s a very fine line,” Delaney said of his debate performances. “The Democratic Party correctly understands that we have to be unified to beat Trump. I’d describe our voters as having zero tolerance for negativity.”

The biggest beneficiary of every attack has been the candidate not making any of them: Warren. The same Iowa poll found 84 percent of voters viewing Warren positively and just 21 percent ruling her out — the lowest number for any Democrat.

Warren's absolute refusal to go negative (the closest she came was in characterizing Delaney's attacks as “Republican talking points”) was a choice, made easier by the reluctance of other candidates to believe she could become a strong competitor. In the past week, they've begun playing catch-up — albeit in a way that shows how nervous they are about alienating Democratic voters.

And so, at a Houston fundraiser, Biden took a few swipes that he didn't take on the debate stage, saying the country needed “more than plans” and that “half the people” on the debate stage were former Republicans, a line that applies to only Warren. In a strategy call with reporters, Harris campaign spokesman Lily Adams noted that the Californian “didn't come in with millions and millions of dollars raised in 2018" — an attempt to raise awareness that Warren held traditional high-dollar fundraisers for her layup 2018 Senate reelection bid, before making a pledge not to hold similar fundraisers in the presidential primary.

Other campaigns have tried, subtly, to advance a negative story line about Warren without attacking her directly. There's widespread frustration among them that stories about Warren's corporate law work, published in The Washington Post and elsewhere, have not commanded a news cycle; surrogates for other candidates have hinted that Warren's past claims of Native American ancestry could be a problem for her, but no candidate has ever said so directly.

Sanders, the only candidate positioned to criticize Warren from the left, has refused to do so, but he has been game about attacking Biden. In Philadelphia, he made a line-by-line case against the former vice president to warn that he would struggle on the same issues Donald Trump used to separate Democratic voters from Hillary Clinton.

“Not only did I vote against NAFTA and [permanent trade relations] with China, I helped lead the opposition to them,” Sanders said. “Joe voted for both of those agreements. I helped lead the opposition against a disastrous war in Iraq. Joe voted for that war. I did not vote to bail out the crooks on Wall Street. Joe did. So, not only is there a difference in terms of our vision for Americans, there is a very strong difference in terms of our records.” 

Other candidates have begun to lay off Biden. In June, Beto O'Rourke took an MSBNC interviewer's cue and said that Biden represented “the past” of division and defeat. “This country should be able to do far better,” O'Rourke said.

The Texan gained nothing from that attack and didn't repeat it onstage at the June debate. Three months later, pushed by NBC's Chuck Todd, O'Rourke brushed off a question about Biden's age and speaking ability: “Who the hell cares?” In the new Iowa poll, O'Rourke was one of just six Democrats whos favorable ratings increased outside the margin of error since the summer.

READING LIST

“In whiplash moment, Democrats are now backing away from Kavanaugh allegations,” by Paul Kane

Why Republicans are so much happier to talk about the last Supreme Court fight.

“Kamala Harris bets it all on Iowa to break freefall,” by Christopher Cadelago

The first of several reported looks at how the Californian is trying to reboot her campaign.

" ‘Alexa, I want to make a political contribution.’ Amazon to start voice-controlled donations to 2020 presidential campaigns,” by Michelle Ye Hee Lee

An idea with no chance of ever going wrong.

“Run, hide, don't fight,” by Jim Newell

The backward politics of the gun-safety fight, which get stranger when the president is involved.

“Why college students could draw new attention in 2020: Their turnout doubled for the midterms, study finds,” by Amy Gardner

Tom Steyer's long-term project seemed to pay off last year.

WHAT I'M WATCHING

The vape wars. The Trump administration's decision to ban flavored vape cartridges earned a quick round of derision from liberals, who scoffed at the different responses to public health crises — a handful of vape-related deaths, compared with tens of thousands of annual deaths connected to guns. 

But the opposition that might be more relevant to the president's support comes from the right, especially the libertarian right, which was all-in for vaping before Trump became a candidate. Trump's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, has personally been responding to some of the worries on Twitter, where fans of the president have been in disbelief that he would regulate and eliminate their hobby.

“He just tweeted about this,” Parscale responded to one Trump supporter begging the president to back down. “He stated he likes Vaping as an alternative to smoking. Just wants children to be safe! We all do!”

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, was leading the charge to persuade Republicans to not become a vape-skeptic party. In 2016, when Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin won a second term in an upset, he credited the “vaping vote,” marking the first time many people had heard the term. Norquist wasn't surprised; he was part of a “Vape the Vote” bus tour in swing states, urging the election or reelection of candidates who would refuse to regulate vaping as cigarettes are regulated.

“Every vape shop was organized for [Johnson]," Norquist recalled. “We did a nine-state bus tour in support of anti-prohibitionist senators, some even Democrats. The key is to remind the campaigns and candidates that this is a vote-moving issue; people who view themselves as saving their lives are seriously pissed at prohibitionists who would force them back to tobacco flavors, tobacco cigarettes.”

According to ATR's Paul Blair, who summed up his research in a column last week, the conservative group determined that “four in five” vapers could be moved to vote for a candidate if they took the right position on vaping. Norquist and ATR, which have operated for years as a sort of nerve center for conservative organizing and lobbying, have been contacting allies to explain why any new regulations would lose votes.

“Trump won Michigan by under 11,000 votes in 2016, where there are 422,000 adult vapers,” Blair wrote. “These staggering numbers play out in Florida where Trump won by 112,911 votes (with over 904,000 vapers), Wisconsin where Trump won by 22,748 votes (with at least 267,000 vapers), Minnesota where Clinton won by 44,765 votes (over 172,000 vapers), and Pennsylvania where Trump won by 44,292 votes (over 450,000 vapers). It’s not hard to see how this well-organized vaping constituency could swing the outcome of the Electoral College one way or the other.”

The electoral math was easy, Norquist said. “It is a fight between a 'vote-moving' issue — saving your life, or dad’s life — for 10 million plus voters, and a 'tongue-wagging' issue — kids vaping, bothering suburban, non-vaping moms who are never going to change their vote based on this issue.”

AD WATCH

Matt Bevin, “Life.” Kentucky's Republican governor is unpopular. So is the national Democratic Party in the state. Gov. Matt Bevin's response has been a series of ads positioning himself as a “Christian conservative” who will stop the onslaught that liberal and left-wing groups want to bring to the commonwealth. A prior ad warned that the state could have “sanctuary cities” if Bevin did not stay in office and stand against them; this ad warns that Democrat Andy Beshear is “endorsed by Planned Parenthood, funded by abortion clinic owners.” 

Andy Beshear, “Lights.” The Democratic nominee in Kentucky is ignoring any and all social issues to go after Bevin's weakness: anger at public education funding cuts, which burned some Republicans in the 2018 elections. In a spot that only occasionally features some stilted acting, Beshear and his running mate, a teacher, visit an unnamed at-risk school and are told that they seem like they won't cut the budget unfairly.

POLL WATCH

Iowa Democratic caucuses (David Binder Research, 500 likely caucusgoers)

Joe Biden — 25% ( 8)
Elizabeth Warren — 23% ( 3)
Pete Buttigieg — 12% ( 2)
Bernie Sanders — 9% (-3)
Amy Klobuchar — 8% ( 4)
Kamala Harris — 5% (-13)
Tom Steyer — 3% ( 3)
Cory Booker — 2% ( 0)
Andrew Yang — 2% ( 1)
Steve Bullock — 1% ( 0)
Julian Castro — 1% ( 0)
John Delaney — 1% ( 0)
Tulsi Gabbard — 1% ( 0)
Beto O’Rourke — 1% ( 0)

For the first time, a number of leading Democratic campaigns are on the airwaves in Iowa; Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The ad wars started later than in previous cycles, and every four years, fewer people watch TV. But they allow us to check in on what's clicking in the first voting state, and it's Biden, not Harris. While the former vice president had a mixed reception on his personal trips to the state, more swing Democrats have abandoned Harris, moving toward the three lifeboats offered by Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg. 

Do you favor this health insurance proposal? (Fox News, 1,008 registered voters)

Medicare buy-in — 68%
Minor changes to the ACA — 57%
Single-payer — 46%

The “electability” debate among Democrats has turned on many different things. In their televised debates, the most common point of contention (and accusations that one candidate would throw the election) is replacing all private health insurance with a government plan. Fox's poll is the latest to find that, while single-payer advocates are wrong to insist the plan is wildly popular, it's not toxic; only a slight plurality of voters oppose it, before any arguments are made about how the system would work. (A caveat is that there's nothing said about how premiums would be replaced with higher overall taxes.) A majority of Democrats support every health-care-expansion plan, but a supermajority back the “public option,” hence its role in the campaigns of everyone but Sanders and Warren.

IN THE STATES

Kentucky. A retiree is suing to take Daniel Cameron, the 33-year-old Republican nominee for attorney general, off the ballot, on the grounds that his two years as a clerk meant he has not practiced law long enough to hold the position. Cameron, a former aide to Mitch McConnell, narrowly won the primary to become one of the youngest candidates for AG; in a statement to the Lexington Herald-Leader he accused Democratic nominee Greg Stumbo of backing the lawsuit, an attempt by “an old white career politician [to] cheat a young qualified black attorney out of a fair election.”

2020

On Saturday morning, nearly every Democratic candidate for the presidency will head to Des Moines's Water Works Park for the Polk County Democratic Steak Fry, which has grown into a full-scale replacement for a gathering once hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin. Tickets cost $35, and more than 7,000 tickets have been snapped up by the presidential campaigns — strategic purchases that tell us a lot about how the campaigns view Iowa.

According to the county Democrats, the biggest block of tickets went to Joe Biden's campaign, which purchased 1,800 of them. Next was Pete Buttigieg, with 1,500, and Kamala Harris, with 1,000. No other Democrat broke into four digits: Elizabeth Warren's campaign grabbed 750 tickets, Cory Booker's and Beto O'Rourke's got 500 tickets, and Amy Klobuchar's campaign, which has bet heavily on Iowa, purchased 250 tickets.

Three very different campaigns bought 200 tickets each: Bernie Sanders, Steve Bullock and Julián Castro. While the latter two have been mired at 1 percent in Iowa, they look at a strong showing in the state as their best way to break the race open; Sanders, who has the largest volunteer network, prefers not to take part in “visibility”-type events that simply show off staff size. Tom Steyer purchased 100 tickets, Michael Bennet purchased 80, Andrew Yang purchased 30, and Tulsi Gabbard nabbed just 20 before the deadline passed last week.

Bernie Sanders. His campaign reached 1 million individual donors, the first 2020 operation to do so; other campaigns will release their donor info early next month. “Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who is able to say his campaign will rely only on grass-roots funding in both the primary and against Donald Trump,” said Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, which could be read as a subtle reference to Elizabeth Warren; she has sworn off high-dollar fundraisers through the primary, while remaining open to them if she becomes the nominee.

Kamala Harris. She announced plans to double her staff presence in Iowa and campaign intensively across a state she had not visited since an early August trip around the Iowa State Fair. 

Joe Biden. He picked up the endorsements of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, and Rep. Charlie Crist of Florida. Biden is still well behind Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign in congressional support, but he has an advantage that she didn't: scared Democrats who worry that a more liberal candidate would lose the general election. "Warren and Sanders cannot win North Carolina," Butterfield told the Associated Press. 

Beto O'Rourke. Long a supporter of legalizing and taxing marijuana, he added a plan to release nonviolent drug offenders from prison and give “drug war justice” grants to people who want to enter a new, legal industry after being punished for illegal selling. He also participated in a Reddit AMA, where he was occasionally deluged by requests to run for Senate again.

Steve Bullock. His visit to the Iowa Steak Fry will, per his campaign, show off grilling techniques “honed in Montana.”

Amy Klobuchar. She continued her “blue wall tour” on Thursday, telling a Michigan audience that some unnamed candidates had policies better left in “the faculty lounge.” (Warren is a former college professor.)

Pete Buttigieg. He has upped the emphasis on his hybrid Medicare plan that would let Americans buy into the program, buying Facebook ads that contrast it with “the Warren-Sanders vision” by saying he would prefer to “trust Americans” on their plans.

DEMS IN DISARRAY

The saga of the Working Families Party's 2020 endorsement is not over. The liberal group vote's vote for Elizabeth Warren over Bernie Sanders, and three other candidates who had made the cut, inspired waves of criticism in left-wing media, so much so that the WFP expanded on its decision in a Thursday morning Medium post.

“The biggest change to the process from four years ago is that this year, we substantially increased the voting power of online supporters and individual members — from just one-eighth to a full half of the total vote share — balancing it equally with the National Committee delegates,” wrote the WFP's Maurice Mitchell and Nelini Stamp. In 2015, when Sanders won the WFP's endorsement, it was with 87 percent of the party's voting members and over the objections of some powerful leaders of its national committee.

The post did not name any particular criticism of the endorsement, but there had been many, including studies purporting to prove that national leaders overruled grass-roots members and a tweet from 2016 Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein accusing the party of using “superdelegates” to cancel out votes.

“Over the last few days, the activists and leaders who make up WFP’s state committees or represent them on the national committee have been maligned as so-called 'superdelegates' or worse,” Mitchell and Stamp wrote. “But they’re actually more like regular delegates in any political party; they are the people selected to carry the votes of the bodies or constituencies they represent. They are a beautiful mix of working people of every experience and every race who come together to struggle to build and win a common political agenda.”

What happened, according to WFP insiders who spoke to reporter Daniel Marans, is probably that Sanders got outworked. While both he and Warren participated in a live-streamed interview with Mitchell, Warren participated in a follow-up conference call with WFP leaders; Sanders did not. Warren endorsed two WFP candidates, in Philadelphia and West Virginia; Sanders didn't. And some key leaders came to believe that Warren had the potential to build a stronger coalition in a Democratic primary than Sanders did.

“I really feel that Elizabeth Warren would have a better shot at unifying the left and the center. We can’t just think we’re going to go as far left as we can and bring the center along with us,” WFP organizer Sandra Cuellar Oxford told Marans. “I feel that Elizabeth has been somewhat more conciliatory and offered a larger tent to those who definitely won’t vote for Bernie.”

The arguments over the endorsement aren’t over, as supporters of the WFP’s decision and Sanders campaigners clash online over who is responsible for the most egregious attacks on the other camp.

COUNTDOWN

... one day until the One Iowa LGBTQ forum in Cedar Rapids
... two days until the Polk County Democratic Steak Fry in Des Moines
... three days until the Youth Voice Forum in Des Moines
... 11 days until the end of the third fundraising quarter