In this edition: A wild Iowa weekend, the Trump administration's Biden gambit, and the end of the de Blasio dream.
You’ve got to admire the candidates who traveled straight from the climate strike to a grilled meat festival, and this is The Trailer.
DES MOINES — In just 24 hours, the candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination gathered to endorse a bold LGBTQ rights agenda, spoke to the largest outdoor “steak fry” in the party's history and watched a new poll reshape the wisdom about the caucuses.
Not a whole lot really changed. Policy disagreements were minor at the GLAAD forum in Cedar Rapids: Every candidate agreed to pass the Equality Act and reinstate Obama-era protections. The weekend’s big arguments were mostly imported by TV, from Stephen Colbert’s questions to Elizabeth Warren about tax increases to the scandal over President Trump plying Ukraine for dirt on Joe Biden. (More about that below.) But with each week, the field settles a little more, and the straggling candidates see their problems a little more clearly.
The Elizabeth Warren backlash is coming. Even before the release of the Des Moines Register's Selzer & Co. poll, which put Warren at 22 percent support to Joe Biden's 20 percent, the senator from Massachusetts had reshaped the Democratic primary. Six months ago, some rival campaigns had written her off. Two months ago, no candidate saw an upside in attacking her. But that was then, and now, Warren is the only Democratic candidate who has successfully executed her initial plan: to build massive campaigns in the early states and compete for a win in Iowa.
Warren’s strength was visible all weekend, from the standing ovation she got at Friday’s LGBTQ forum to the friendliest audience at the steak fry. (Warren’s campaign bought half as many tickets as that of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but her speech got roughly the same response as his, and she edged him in a friendly corn kernel poll on-site.) She made two sharp moves that did not occur to other leading candidates: reading to the Cedar Rapids audience the names of trans women of color who had been killed in 2019 and starting her steak fry speech with a fresh call for Trump’s impeachment.
According to the Selzer poll, Warren is now the most well-liked Democrat in the field, with the most first-choice and second-choice support from voters. The other 16 candidates competing for Iowa can’t allow that. By the end of Saturday, Warren had taken some flack from the left, for telling the People’s Action forum in Des Moines (limited to a few left-wing candidates) that she did not support a national rent control policy; Sanders does. She’d gotten some blowback from the party’s centrists, though they had been harsher in interviews leading up to the weekend.
“We won the House back in 2018 with Democrats running on a public option, not Medicare-for-all,” Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said at the steak fry.
The temptation in looking at any caucus is to compare it to past years. In 2003, Howard Dean surged with liberal voters before panic set in that he couldn’t win the general election. In 2015, Republicans ignored Donald Trump’s rise or actively encouraged it — think of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas saying Trump was “terrific” — because they incorrectly believed he’d eventually collapse.
Warren, who has twice defended herself from attacks in debates, doesn’t resemble either candidate, but there’s a growing irritation at the how-she-does it media coverage she gets. Supporters of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) grumbled that she got a sterner question than Warren about their shared “evolution” on using Medicare money to pay for gender transition. No candidate has thrived from going after a rival, least of all by attacking Warren, but when the media's focus turns to a candidate, things can change fast.
Bernie Sanders is struggling. In June, when the “Selzer poll” found the senator from Vermont's support at just 16 percent, the Sanders campaign insisted that the pollster was not capturing the strength of its game plan. They claimed to have 26,000 “volunteers” in the state — a number based on initial sign-ups when he entered the race — and to be activating voters who had never caucused before and, as such, didn’t show up in public polls.
Since then, the Sanders campaign has parted with its Iowa political director and deputy director, admitting what it won’t say: The plan wasn’t working. Sanders is now less popular with Democrats than he was four years ago. Thirty-six percent of caucusgoers view him unfavorably, when just 8 percent held that view in the autumn before the 2016 caucus.
Sanders has declined without making any traditional mistakes. When asked in the Selzer poll how they defined “electability,” a supermajority of Iowa Democrats — 74 percent — said it was “exciting new voters to show up.” That's exactly what Sanders has been arguing for years that he can do. At the steak fry, like at every “cattle call,” Sanders eschewed big shows of enthusiasm to emphasize organizing. His campaign claimed to have made 26,000 phone calls and knocked 5,000 doors during the event.
But it hasn't solved Sanders's central problem: He has reactivated his donor base but hasn't reunited his electoral coalition. Refusing to attack Warren, Sanders has instead proposed policies that go further than hers, such as canceling all medical debt and imposing national rent control to stabilize housing. So far it hasn't stopped active Democrats from migrating to the candidates they like more.
Cory Booker is struggling and strangely happy to talk about it. Booker is one of several Democrats doing everything that Iowans ask — showing up, getting crowds, growing more popular — and seeing no benefit in polls or momentum. His campaign decided to do something about that Saturday, announcing that he would need to raise an oddly specific $1.7 million or quit the race. According to Booker’s campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, Iowans liked Booker but didn’t realize how precarious his situation was.
“They think he's fine, and they think they have more time to decide,” Demissie said on a conference call. “They think that this thing is going to narrow over the coming months … but the point that we're trying to make very clearly is that the [candidates] offered to the Democratic Party come February, March, and April are being determined right now, in September. And these resources ultimately are what determines who is going to stay in this race.”
Booker’s campaign claimed to have raised more than $300,000 since the do-or-die announcement, and the senator from New Jersey really is in a better position than other candidates in the single digits. In the Selzer poll, Booker’s net favorable rating (the percentage of voters who like him, minus the percentage who don’t) is 38 percent, compared with 36 in June. Outside the Warren-Biden-Sanders triad at the top of the polls, just Booker and three other Democrats have double-digit favorables: Harris’s net rating is 39 percent, Klobuchar’s is 30 percent, O’Rourke’s is 28 percent. The race has stratified between seven Democrats who most Iowa voters generally like and nine Democrats to whom they’re either negative or indifferent.
TV ads haven't done much. On Aug. 8, Harris's campaign went on the Iowa airwaves for the first time. On Aug. 20, Biden's campaign joined in. And on Sept. 6, after airing a pair of radio spots about the mayor's post-partisan American Dream, Buttigieg's campaign boiled them down into a TV ad.
All three of these Democrats were flat, or had lost support, in the latest Selzer poll. Harris and Biden had seen their unfavorable ratings double over the past six months, while Buttigieg grew more popular; his strength as a second-choice candidate has been growing, even as fewer voters say he's their first choice. But the only obvious effect of TV advertising so far has been putting Tom Steyer, who has spent millions on commercials, onto the board; he clocked in at 2 percent, though more Democrats viewed him unfavorably than favorably. Big TV buys used to do more.
The “virtual caucus” is dead. It didn't get much fanfare, and there was no grilled meat involved, but shortly before the weekend started, Iowa Democrats announced the solution to their years-long problem of trying to boost participation in the caucuses. The DNC rules committee “tentatively” approved a plan to add “satellite” caucus sites in 2020, where voters who have given a reason that they cannot physically attend the caucuses can be counted.
“Each satellite location will have a trained captain who is charged with overseeing the room, managing volunteers, and reporting the results on caucus night. The results will be reported using the same method as precinct caucus locations,” the state party announced Friday. “The satellite caucuses will create one additional county in each Congressional District.”
The new system will (unless it changes again) work quasi-absentee votes into the caucus count; it won’t create a separate, online pool of votes for a “virtual caucus.” The few polls conducted of that “virtual” contest found Joe Biden, who’s more popular with moderates than liberals, doing very well. Nixing it may help the campaigns with traditional grass-roots campaigns and activist energy.
Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed reporting.
“Seventeen Democratic hopefuls blitz Iowa Steak Fry as the competition for votes intensifies,” by Holly Bailey, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Amy B Wang
There was meat, there was rain, and there were selfies.
“Young black voters to their Biden-supporting parents: ‘Is this your king?’ “ by Astead W. Herndon
Inside one of the left's biggest 2020 challenges: persuading black voters not to stick with a vice president they loved.
“Trump’s Ukraine call reveals a president convinced of his own invincibility,” by Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Rachael Bade
Impunity minus Democratic-led consequences leads to the Ukraine story.
“A warm reception for liberal presidential candidates, lion's den for moderates at CCI forum in Iowa,” by Robin Opsahl and Nick Coltrain
The new issues and big stakes of the left's latest candidate grilling.
“Rep. Kennedy announces Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Markey,” by Karen Weintraub and Colby Itkowitz
Camelot, take three (or four, or maybe 12).
After the first reports that the president might have pressured Ukraine's president to get dirt on his son, Joe Biden told reporters that Trump should “start to be the president” and stop abusing his powers. The next day, at the steak fry, Biden took a question from a Fox News reporter — how many times had he talked to Hunter Biden about his “overseas business” dealings? Biden said he’d never talked to him about it, then let rip.
“I know Trump deserves to be investigated,” Biden. “He is violating every basic norm of a president. You should be asking him the question, why is he on the phone with a foreign leader, trying to intimidate him, if that’s what happened?” After accusing the president of “abuse of power” and saying he’d “beat him like a drum,” Biden was asked whether the president should be impeached: “Depending on what the House finds, he could be impeached, but I’m not making that judgment right now.”
Both the Friday and Saturday exchanges with reporters came from the same premise: Biden, campaigning to restore the pre-Trump norms of good government, was saying that Trump was breaking those norms to smear him. Other candidates might get into the mix with the president, but Biden has positioned himself as a back-to-normalcy candidate: “America is coming back like it used to be,” like he said when he launched. His approach to the president is a mix of disappointment, disbelief and shame.
None of that gives Trump pause. On Sunday, Trump said without evidence that “Biden and his son” were adding to “the corruption already in the Ukraine,” then taunted Biden for saying he had not spoken to his son: “Of course you spoke to your son!” Later, on talk shows, the president’s surrogates inside and outside the administration, who have brushed aside questions about actions of the president’s kin, advanced the completely unproved accusations of Biden family corruption.
“If it's the case that there was something going on with the president or his family that caused a conflict of interest and Vice President Biden behaved in a way that was inconsistent with the way leaders ought to operate, I think the American people deserve to know that,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“I think the bigger story here is really what went on with Biden and his son?” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “He came out over the weekend and said he never spoke to his son. Yet the facts are his son said they had spoken.” And Rudy Giuliani, the president's attorney, went even further, going on Fox News to call Hunter Biden a “recovering drug addict” and stoke speculation that his deals in Ukraine were subjects for the former vice president to answer.
Democrats don’t know how this will play. But they know how similar tactics played in 2016. At that time, the president exploited voter worries about Hillary Clinton by turning any accusation he could back onto her, most dramatically by inviting women who’d accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to the second presidential debate. Clinton was hamstrung by the impression that she could not be trusted, and both she and Trump lurched into Election Day with most voters saying that they found neither of them to be “honest and trustworthy.”
Biden, after a lifetime in politics, does not have a similar image. He famously did not get rich during his years in the Senate. Having watched anger boil over at Clinton for giving high-priced speeches, he approached his post-vice presidency career cautiously. The media reception to Trump’s Ukraine gambit has been incredibly skeptical, similar to the reaction when Trump made baseless charges against Republican opponents in 2015.
But Trump’s party was not united behind him then; now it is. Democrats were largely united around Hillary Clinton when Trump made his 2016 attacks; they are not united behind Biden. Only a few of his rivals have commented on the back-and-forth, with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) telling the president to “leave Joe Biden alone” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) kicking off her steak fry remarks by referring to Trump's actions.
“It is time for us to call out this illegal behavior and start impeachment proceedings right now,” Warren said.
Biden hadn't called for impeachment, only investigation. For nine months, the president really hasn't had much of a role in the Democratic primary; candidates have been more responsive to the left's demands than to anything Trump is saying. Attacking Biden could backfire and rally Democrats around him. In the short term, it's making him demonstrate how he'd handle the specious attacks that Trump embraced again and again in 2016. He's more able to punch back than Hillary Clinton, but his overall theory is the same: Ask voters to consider whether they really want Trump's ethics in the White House.
Eddie Rispone, “One Thing.” The wealthy businessman in Louisiana's three-way race for governor has gone up with negative spots about Gov. John Bel Edwards, asking whether the Democrat has made the state less safe. While the state's GOP legislature signed off on criminal justice restructuring, Rispone has spotlighted some of the violent criminals who benefited from it to warn about consequences: “Criminal justice is one thing; releasing dangerous criminals is another.”
Tate Reeves, “Tough Call.” The GOP nominee for governor has struggled to hold on to partisan support because of anger at his tight fiscal policies, which have made teachers mad and stoked worries about weak infrastructure. In his latest spot, Reeves continues to argue that this is an asset, marveling at how legislators went "crazy" about his spending cuts. "Mississippi's got less debt today than when I got elected; first time in history,” he says.
Iowa Democratic caucuses (Selzer & Company, 602 likely caucusgoers)
Elizabeth Warren — 22% ( 7)
Joe Biden — 20% (-4)
Bernie Sanders — 11% (-5)
Pete Buttigieg — 9% (-5)
Kamala Harris — 6% (-1)
Amy Klobuchar — 3% ( 1)
Cory Booker — 3% ( 2)
Beto O’Rourke — 2% ( 0)
Tulsi Gabbard — 2% ( 2)
Tom Steyer — 2% ( 2)
Andrew Yang — 2% ( 1)
John Delaney — 1% ( 0)
Julián Castro — 1% ( 0)
The crosstabs and sub-questions in this poll portray a very muddled Democratic Iowa primary electorate, with the top three candidates commanding less first-choice support than in any recent contest. At this point in 2007, in this poll, 74 percent of Democrats picked Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards as their first choice; the combined support for the top candidates now is 53 percent. And there are other reasons so many candidates in the doldrums see a potential comeback if the race keeps shuffling and if Joe Biden — the only top candidate not running from the left — loses more support.
For now, the poll positions Warren as the candidate with the most first-choice and second-choice support, stitching together a coalition of liberals who backed Sanders in 2016 and Hillary Clinton supporters; Sanders gets no support from Clinton 2016 voters. Looming over her is the Medicare-for-all question, and for reasons very familiar to nervous Democrats. Most caucusgoers support Medicare-for-all, with 41 percent saying they like it and just 24 percent coming out against it. The crucial swing vote: the 28 percent of Democrats who say they personally like the policy but fret that it would hurt the party in a general election. Warren leads Biden by four points with these voters, with big implications.
Would you be comfortable or very uncomfortable supporting this candidate? (NBC-WSJ, 900 registered voters)
Donald Trump — 41/49
Joe Biden — 37/33
Elizabeth Warren — 37/33
Bernie Sanders — 36/41
Kamala Harris — 25/32
Pete Buttigieg — 24/24
There are years when many candidates for president are popular. This is not one of those years. This poll, which also pushes voters for answers on every major Democratic proposal (replacing private insurance is unpopular, a large immigration amnesty is not), finds that no Democratic candidate would start the election with as much active opposition as the president but that none is particularly popular.
While Biden outperforms other Democrats in trial heats, and while his coalition does not entirely overlap with Warren's, he has about the same level of support and opposition; Sanders, who for a long time was the most broadly popular candidate, has the lowest ceiling of support. The Democratic “electability” conversation has not changed much recently, but the numbers have.
Massachusetts. Rep. Joe Kennedy III started his Senate campaign with a whirlwind tour of Massachusetts and nothing bad to say about Sen. Ed Markey, who he'd be replacing if he won. Markey challenged Kennedy and lesser-known opponents to a climate debate, possibly to highlight how Markey has been a left-wing leader on the issue and Kennedy has been an ally, but not a lead messenger.
Mississippi. Jennifer Riley Collins, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, would be the first woman to hold the office and the first black woman elected to any statewide job. But she has not been endorsed by Attorney General Jim Hood, the Democrats' nominee for governor; she has pressured Hood to endorse her, without success. Hood, the only statewide elected Democrat, has largely run on his own ticket.
Bill de Blasio’s presidential campaign ended Friday, but the indignities were not over. On Sunday, Selzer & Co. released the year’s third Iowa poll, with the remarkable fact that no one — no one in three polls over six months — had listed the mayor of New York City as their top choice for president. No one had listed him as their second choice, either. De Blasio’s campaign ended without much praise from rival candidates and with, unsurprisingly, a gleeful New York Post obituary on the tabloid’s front page.
“Like NYC mayors before me, I knew what I signed up for,” de Blasio texted BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith.
What did de Blasio’s campaign accomplish? Not much. He did not build out grass-roots campaigns in the early states, appearing instead at party events and meet-and-greets. (The worst of these, which even the mayor had to admit was funny, was a video chat appearance at the Iowa AFL-CIO meeting in which a glitch raised de Blasio’s voice to an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” pitch.)
He had a memorable premise, that there was plenty of wealth in America but in “the wrong hands.” But he didn’t shift the debate on his terms like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren had; his idea of a “robot tax” to fight automation went mostly unnoticed.
De Blasio’s biggest impact came in the televised debates; he qualified for two of them, before the standards tightened in September, and he ensured that former Alaska senator Mike Gravel would not make it. (Gravel’s campaign qualified for the first two debates thanks to hitting 65,000 individual donations.) In June and July, de Blasio emerged as a pugilist on Sanders’s and Warren’s behalf, raising his hand when asked whether he would eliminate private insurance, then aggressively defending the idea.
Bernie Sanders. He took another jab at Joe Biden during a Thursday event in Chapel Hill, N.C., chiding the former vice president for his fundraising schedule: “Joe, we are not going to make the changes we need in this country when you go to three fundraisers in Chicago sponsored by multimillionaires.” Sanders is campaigning in Oklahoma on Sunday before returning to Iowa on a “Bernie beats Trump” tour.
Pete Buttigieg. The steak fry was the start of a four-day swing through Iowa; Buttigieg is traveling through the northeastern part of the states on his first campaign bus tour, through Tuesday.
Joe Biden. He headed to Kansas City and St. Louis to raise money after the steak fry; Sunday he addressed striking GM workers in Kansas City. On Monday he'll attend the funeral of Emily Clyburn, the late wife of the House majority whip.
Elizabeth Warren. She joined striking autoworkers in Detroit on Sunday, in support of the UAW's demand for higher wages and permanent job offers for temporary employees. Earlier, Tim Ryan made a mini-road trip of strike locations, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) rallied with workers during her “blue wall” trip to Michigan.
... eight days until the end of the third fundraising quarter
... nine days until the deadline to qualify for the Democrats' October debates
... 24 days until the next DNC fundraiser with Elizabeth Warren