In this edition: Bernie Sanders's electability quest, Pete Buttigieg's straight talk strategy, and the many kinds of Democrats wrestling with impeachment.
I am recommending the creation of a select committee to explore an inquiry that will determine once and for all that this is The Trailer.
DECORAH, Iowa — The crowd that came to see Bernie Sanders was too big for Luther College's gym. It spilled over into a yard, where the senator delivered a short version of his stump speech — “the fate of the planet is at stake, democracy is at stake” — before he walked into a room full of “Bernie Beats Trump” signs.
But not everyone who showed up was sold on that message.
“I'm not necessarily a Bernie fan,” said Justin Knautz, 20, who said he was leaning toward South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigeg. “Even if he could beat Trump, which I'm not sure about, our country's so divided already.”
“I'm super confident that he'd win,” Avery Pazour, 20, said of Sanders. “Young people are tired of the system the way that it is.”
“I'm exactly the opposite,” said Marin Gabor, 21. “I like Pete Buttigieg's public-health option. I guess that's a weird thing for a young person to say?"
Five months after Sanders began arguing that he was the most electable Democratic candidate, a pitch he made with a tour of Rust Belt states, he has made little progress with voters terrified of a second Trump term. National and state polling has found Sanders persistently behind former vice president Joe Biden when voters are asked who has the best chance of defeating the president. In the past month, polling has found Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) roughly tied with Sanders on “electability.”
The “Bernie beats Trump” tour was the latest attempt to push back. That meant showing what a general election would look like, with the candidate leading raw, emotional town hall meetings where voters explained how the economic system failed them. It meant emphasizing that polling had shown him ahead of Trump in 2016 — an argument he briefly made to “superdelegates.” It meant reminding people that he had won the primaries in Wisconsin and Michigan, where some Democrats slept on the 2016 general election.
In Iowa, Sanders occasionally referred to the national and state polls that have shown him ahead of Trump, but in an interview, he waved off the polling that had shown Democratic voters still nervous about how a democratic socialist could take the presidency.
“I'm not much into all these speculations and all these polls,” Sanders said. “One day a poll has me doing great, the next day a poll has me doing terrible. It has a lot to do with who you're polling and what questions you're asking. But at the end of the day, I think we're going to win, because we have an extraordinary grass-roots movement.”
Apart from some turnover in its early state staff, the Sanders campaign has shown some broad support. It celebrated its 1 millionth individual donor last week; shortly after that, it drew an estimated 4,000 voters to a rally in Norman, Okla. (A 2016 rally in Tulsa, three times the size of Norman, had attracted a crowd of 11,000.)
But it has struggled to convince early-state voters that Sanders could win a general election, and the senator's support in early states has slipped since the start of his campaign. In interviews around the state, some at the senator from Vermont's rallies, voters sometimes praised Sanders or explained why they used to support him before laying out the reasons that they were supporting someone else.
“I love him. We caucused for him in 2016,” said Scott German, 50, who spent Monday evening at a rally for Buttigieg in Dubuque. “If he could win and put forward everything he's talking about, it'd be utopia. But I don't think America's ready for it. We need somebody more realistic.”
Sanders's campaign is combating the skepticism with a busy schedule and with sharp contrasts, some of them brighter than others. When Sanders announced his 1 millionth donor, campaign manager Faiz Shakir described him as “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” — a knock at Warren, who has said her no-fundraisers pledge applies to only the primary and who is headlining some fundraisers for the DNC.
Speech by speech, Sanders has structured an electability pitch around his brand — that of an Old Testament prophet who has been saying the same things about health care and economic fairness for 30 years. At four rallies on Monday, he emphasized that taxes would go up to pay for Medicare-for-all, encouraging the crowd to think about how the media would frame that.
“Bernie Sanders wants to raise your taxes! How terrible is this guy?” Sanders said sarcastically in Decorah, waving his arms and imitating a negative ad. The upshot: He was ready to handle the criticism, some candidates were not, and therefore, he could win.
That theory is getting a real-time test in Iowa, one that has not gone well for Sanders. His campaign believes that the Partnership for America's Health Care Future, a front group for insurance companies, has done damage to his support among Democrats by running digital and TV ads attacking Medicare-for-all. (Sanders has not yet purchased TV time in early states.) The senator's favorable numbers have decreased since the spring, robbing supporters of something that was true for years: that he was the most popular politician in America.
“There's a lot of lies going on about this,” Sanders said in Dubuque. “There's the health-care industry that's already advertising in here in Iowa. Every time you see that ad, know who paid for that ad! It was paid for by the drug companies and the insurance companies who made a hundred billion in profits last year. They love the current system! They're scared to death that we have the momentum to move to Medicare-for-all.”
The insurance industry ads make good foils, but Sanders is just as happy to criticize Biden. After learning that a pollster at Anzalone Liszt Grove Research had been testing messages against Medicare-for-all — John Anzalone is an adviser to Biden — Sanders emphasized that he was collecting story after story of medical debt, denied coverage and personal pain. Even after his events ended, he was being buttonholed by people with insurance horror stories. At every event, Sanders sees a story that is not being told in the corporate media. As the nominee, with that media bound to cover him, he could cut through the fog, he believes.
“If Joe Biden or anybody else wants to use the Republican Party and the health-care industry talking points, I guess they can. But we're going to win this fight because we're going to refute that disingenuous attack,” Sanders said. “You know, I think when I raised the issue during the last debate, that we spend twice as much, Biden's response was, 'This is America.' Well, I don't know that Americans have to be chumps and to give the health-care industry $100 billion a year.”
Polling has found Democrats to be nervous about that argument, even if they agree with Sanders on the merits. In the Des Moines Register's weekend poll, a quarter of Democrats said they supported the concept of Medicare-for-all but were worried it was a general election loser — a threat to the entire Sanders premise.
At a Democratic meeting in Story County on Sunday, Linda Trudeau, 72, said that had never been convinced that Sanders could win. Warren had piqued her interest, she said, because she seemed liberal, but less stubborn.
“She's got to give up Medicare-for-all or she won't get elected,” said Trudeau. “She's not quite nailed down on that, unlike Bernie. That's a good thing.”
“Bernie Sanders has a problem. Her name is Elizabeth Warren,” by Sean Sullivan, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Chelsea Janes
The senator's ongoing struggle to hold his 2016 coalition together.
How the specter of a Democratic “final four” composed of white candidates is playing into Booker's reintroduction strategy.
A debate over new election laws that seem to affect one group in particular.
“Trump campaign pessimistic about winning Michigan again,” by Alex Isenstadt
The cold reality about a swing state where the president's popularity has fallen.
“Democrats are stuck in a doom loop of premature polling,” by Matthew Yglesias
How the various non-Biden candidates have fallen out of the conversation.
DUBUQUE, Iowa — First, there are the introductions from local Democrats. Then there’s the theme song — “High Hopes” by Panic! at the Disco, with a brass hook that tests the integrity of speakers and eardrums. Then the bus — a bus previously hired by everyone from Barack Obama to the producers of “Madam Secretary” — rolls into view. Only then does Pete Buttigieg race onto stage.
“Thanks for making me feel right at home!” Buttigieg told the crowd, 800 voters at an amphitheater on the banks of the Mississippi River. “You know, Dubuque has a great reputation among mayors — an example of a city leading the way, when Washington can’t get its act together.”
Buttigieg, one of the few Democrats whose favorability has increased over the primary campaign, is busy reintroducing himself as the candidate who can talk about anything — no gaffes, no dodges. On the bus, Buttigieg took questions on everything from college football (“problematic”) to how many white button-down shirts he owned (“a baker’s dozen”) to the violent abolitionist John Brown (“kind of a brutal guy”). When his Dubuque speech was over, Buttigieg worked the rope line for a half-hour, then walked over to the few reporters not on the bus to take more questions.
It wasn't an entirely new strategy. Buttigieg's early jump in the polls came after he did interview after interview, saying yes to TV shows and small outlets that were used to getting turned down. Most voters would not hear everything he said, but they could see that he was taking any questions.
The bus tour, and the entire media strategy, was also designed to show a contrast. The voters seen as most gettable for Buttigieg are moderates who have been disappointed by Joe Biden; the former vice president holds frequent media availabilities but has made a series of confusing statements, all of them amplified by social media.
Buttigieg's accessibility also contrasts with the candidates who've commanded the most attention so far, and for different reasons. Elizabeth Warren's short press gaggles are designed to make minimal news, and in the past week, she swerved back to a stock answer when asked whether her Medicare plans would raise “middle-class taxes” — something Buttigieg pounced on.
“Sen. Warren is known for being straightforward and was extremely evasive when asked that question,” Buttigieg had told CNN before the start of the tour. “And we've seen that repeatedly.”
Buttigieg's approach also clashed with Kamala Harris, whose uneasy answers to some policy questions sapped her momentum, and with Bernie Sanders, who often urges reporters to steer back to his preferred topic instead of badgering him about the horse race or the latest Trump news. With that group of competitors, and with a support base that gushes about his ability to communicate, Buttigieg's advantage was clear: He could go on the record about anything. The comparison with other candidates would become obvious.
“I will explain how we will pay for every promise that I make,” Buttigieg said in Dubuque. “It's why I'm a little careful about the promises I do make.”
On the stump, Buttigieg did not mention rival candidates by name. “I think I've named my disagreements with their plans at various times,” he explained afterward. Other candidates, such as Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, have also described their plans as realistic, or truth-telling — candidates who promise more than could probably pass, or plans that aren't fully paid for, get described as less straightforward. Asked whether he would rule out any middle-class tax increases, Buttigieg emphasized that nothing he was for had required them.
“Everything that we've rolled out to date can be achieved without a middle-class tax increase, and we're going to make sure that it's clear how the revenue side will work,” he said. “It does mean tax increases for the top 2 percent. It will mean a wealth tax or something like it. It can certainly mean closing corporate tax loopholes.”
How far would the transparency go? Several campaigns lagging behind Buttigieg have criticized him for holding so many fundraisers. Unlike Biden, who has faced the same criticism, Buttigieg has not let the media in to cover those fundraisers.
“We're open to thinking about it,” he said. “I think right now we're focused on what we can achieve on the bus tour, because it's just a different conversation than any other format that we have. But the team will always evaluate strategy and other ideas.”
New Hampshire Democratic primary (Monmouth, 401 likely Democratic voters)
Elizabeth Warren — 27% ( 19)
Joe Biden — 25% (-9)
Bernie Sanders — 12% (-6)
Pete Buttigieg — 10% ( 1)
Kamala Harris — 3% (-3)
Cory Booker — 2% (-)
Tulsi Gabbard — 2% ( 2)
Amy Klobuchar — 2% (-)
Tom Steyer — 2% ( 2)
Andrew Yang — 2% ( 1)
Beto O’Rourke — 1% (-1)
Marianne Williamson — 1% ( 1)
Polling in the first primary state has found (with different methodology) everything from a sizable lead for Bernie Sanders to resilient support for Joe Biden. This is the first major poll to find Elizabeth Warren positioned in the lead, albeit within the margin of error; more important is her favorable rating, which has risen since May from a net 39 points to a net 55 points, higher than any other candidate. Warren's strength extends even to voters who disagree with her on health care; she wins 40 percent of Democrats who, like she, support single-payer, but wins 25 percent among Democrats who support a "public option" instead. Warren's positioning might be helping her; she has endorsed a bevy of liberal health-care bills and is not as strongly associated as Sanders with Medicare-for-all.
Nevada Democratic caucus (Suffolk, 500 likely voters)
Joe Biden — 23%
Elizabeth Warren — 19%
Bernie Sanders — 14%
Kamala Harris — 4%
Pete Buttigieg — 3%
Cory Booker — 3%
Tom Steyer — 3%
Andrew Yang — 3%
Tulsi Gabbard — 1%
Michael Bennet — 1%
Beto O’Rourke — 1%
Julián Castro — 1%
The least-visited early state — even Democrats sometimes forget that it caucuses before South Carolina votes — has no obvious favorite. A tiny plurality of voters said that Elizabeth Warren did worse than they expected in the September debate; a tiny plurality said that Joe Biden did worse than they expected.
The fifth DNC debates, which will be held sometime in November, will introduce new, strict thresholds for entry in the latest effort to limit the party's biggest nights to candidates with widespread support. The short version: Candidates will need 165,000 individual donations (up from 130,000) to get space onstage, and polling at 2 percent won't cut it anymore.
In the new rules, candidates can reach the polling threshold in two ways: by hitting 3 percent in four polls (or more) recognized by the DNC or by hitting 5 percent in two (or more) polls taken in the first four primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The count started Sept. 13; it'll stop seven days before the date of the fifth debate, which has not yet been announced.
The DNC is transparent about which polls it counts. They are: the Associated Press; ABC News-Washington Post; CBS News-YouGov; CNN; Des Moines Register; Fox News; Monmouth University; NPR; NBC News-Wall Street Journal; NBC News-Marist; New York Times; Quinnipiac University; University of New Hampshire; USA Today-Suffolk University; and Winthrop University, which polls in South Carolina.
At the moment, using these standards, just five candidates have qualified for the November debate: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. Just four other candidates have claimed to reach that new donor threshold: Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard, Beto O'Rourke and Andrew Yang.
Joe Biden. He gave a prepared statement in Wilmington, Del., addressing the Ukraine saga more fully by saying no allegation about his son Hunter had merit and that the president was setting himself on a course to impeachment: “a tragedy of his own making.”
Tulsi Gabbard. She qualified for the fourth Democratic debate, after notching her fourth poll at 2 percent support — the Monmouth poll from New Hampshire. That significantly ups the chances of CNN, the debate's TV host, splitting the debate into two nights, each with six candidates.
Bernie Sanders. He introduced a new version of a “wealth tax,” a concept that he had introduced five years ago but that Elizabeth Warren had formulated for this presidential campaign. Unlike Warren's 2 percent tax (which has been strong when polled), Sanders's would tackle wealth in tiers: a 1 percent tax on net worth above $32 million, a 2 percent tax on net worth between $50 million and $250 million, a 3 percent tax on net worth between $250 million and $500 million, a 4 percent tax on net worth between $500 million and $1 billion, a 5 percent tax on net worth between $1 billion and $2.5 billion, a 6 percent tax on net worth between $2.5 billion $5 billion, a 7 percent tax on net worth between $5 billion and $10 billion, and an 8 percent tax on net worth above $10 billion.
Elizabeth Warren. She'll return to New Hampshire on Wednesday and Friday, her first visits to the state since shifts in polling found her in contention to win the primary. In a Q&A with the Council on Foreign Relations, she laid out her policies on issues not much discussed at campaign events, such as the fate of Venezuela's embattled president.
Pick your metaphor — the dam is breaking, or maybe the floodgates, or maybe the Rubicon is being crossed — but House Democrats have begun moving faster toward some form of impeachment, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry. The president's apparent effort to obtain damaging information on Joe Biden's son in a call with Ukraine's president has pushed dozens of “front-line” Democrats into the fray; in the past 48 hours, more Democrats who represent districts won by President Trump have endorsed impeachment than had endorsed it in the past nine months.
Republicans claim to be overjoyed. “They’re obsessed with impeaching President Trump and they don’t care if they have to throw away the House Majority to do it,” wrote Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the House GOP's super PAC, after a group of Trump-seat Democrats came out for impeachment proceedings.
Thirty-one House Democrats represent districts won by the president in 2016, but they're not all created equal.
Blue-trending districts. Ten House Democrats won 2018 races in areas where Donald Trump ran behind Mitt Romney, from the Detroit suburbs won by Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan to the Chicago exurbs won by Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois. And some of these districts voted for the statewide Democratic tickets last year, suggesting that the Trump brand has continued to hurt local Republicans.
Trump-trending districts. Twenty-one Democrats represent districts that either edged a toward the president in 2016, some by a little (Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia's district went from a 2.3-point Mitt Romney win to 3.4-point Trump win), some by a lot (Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota's massive district backed Mitt Romney by 9.8 points, then Trump by 30.8 points). Twelve of them come from places that flipped from backing Barack Obama in 2012 to backing Trump four years later.
Democrats with/without real opponents. The filing deadline for 2020 races is months away; only Illinois and Texas require House candidates to file by the end of this year. But not every Democrat who flipped a House seat last year is facing a real challenge yet. Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania is facing a first-time challenger who has raised less than $20,000; Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan hasn't drawn a Republican opponent. On the other side of the equation are Democrats such as Rep. Lizzie Fletcher of Texas, whose chief opponent, Wesley Hunt, raised more than $500,000 in just a few months as a candidate; after Fletcher joined the impeachment call, Hunt accused her of endorsing a "blatantly partisan impeachment investigation.”
... seven days until the cutoff for the fourth Democratic debate