In this edition: The aftermath of Iowa Democrats' big night, Andrew Yang 2.0, and tomorrow's Medicare-for-all fight today.
Remind me never, ever to go on the cover of Vanity Fair. This is The Trailer.
DES MOINES — The expectation was that the Liberty and Justice Celebration would show the strength or weakness of the leading Democrats fighting for the party's presidential nomination and kick off the three-month sprint to caucus night. The expectation was correct. After this weekend, we have a lot more clarity about the state of the first Democratic contest. We've even seen how slowly the race is changing, with no single moment reshaping or resetting it.
After a four-hour party dinner, three more cattle calls Saturday and events across the state, here's how things look.
Buttigieg is out-Obama-ing Joe Biden. By the luck of the draw, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former vice president Joe Biden spoke back-to-back at the LJ, turning their different pitches into a sort of impromptu debate between candidates who largely agreed with each other.
Buttigieg began by talking about his 2007 trip to Iowa to volunteer for “a young man with a funny name.” He said he was “running to be the president who will stand amid the rubble and pick up the pieces of our divided nation.” Biden didn't mention President Barack Obama at all, instead talking about America's “soul” and respectability being restored “as soon as we get Donald Trump out of office.” Buttigieg seemed to be trying to instill the same good feelings, heightened by nostalgia, that Iowa Democrats had about picking the first black president. Biden is running on a record, while Buttigieg is running on possibility. And Iowa Democrats still get more excited about possibility.
As performance, the speeches showed why Buttigieg has caught on. His supporters filled nearly a quarter of the Wells Fargo Arena, armed with light-up bracelets that flashed whenever the candidate hit an applause line. Their numbers were swelled by Barnstormers for Pete, an independent group of around 1,000 Buttigieg superfans who, they said, paid their own way to help the candidate in Iowa. Biden's section of the arena was noticeably less full. An attempt to chant “beat him like a drum,” a line Biden has adopted about his perceived electability, started and faltered several times, though applause for the well-liked former vice president was loud enough.
Democrats agree that Biden has been out-organized in Iowa by both Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg. The LJ was just the latest and most glaring study in how Buttigieg has used his organization to pull moderate and college-educated voters from Biden — and from Warren, whose Iowa campaign is more concerned about the Indiana mayor than anyone else. On Saturday night, as she spoke to more than 600 voters in Dubuque (pop. 58,276), Buttigieg drew out more than 1,000 voters on his first visit to Decorah (pop. 7,701), just an hour away.
The negative phase of the campaign is still in demo mode. For the first time, the highest-polling candidates are all on the attack. It is not truly ugly, not yet — nothing like the 2004 mudfight between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, nothing like the average afternoon of the 2016 Republican primary. It's not a total free-for-all; Biden (and Warren) are uninterested in attacking Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Buttigieg is uninterested in attacking Biden.
But Warren, for the first time outside a debate, has begun to work an attack on her opponents into her speech. It began at the LJ, where the Massachusetts Democrat warned that some Democrats, whom she did not name, were running on a promise of “business as usual after Donald Trump” and would set up their own defeats.
“I’m not running some consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone,” she said. “I’m running a campaign based on a lifetime of fighting for working families. I’m running a campaign from the heart.”
It was read as a hit on both Buttigieg and Biden, and it actually resembled a tactic that worked for Obama 12 years ago. “The same old Washington textbook campaigns just won’t do in this election,” he said at what was then called the Jefferson-Jackson (or JJ) dinner. “That’s why not answering questions because we are afraid our answers won’t be popular just won’t do. That’s why telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won’t do.”
Warren has incorporated that line into her stump speech; other LJ zingers seemed to stay in the room. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who mobilized one of the night's biggest crowds and delivered her sharpest speech from any of these Democratic events, appeared to swing at Warren by saying “unlike others, I've never represented a corporation.” Ears perked up, because Warren's legal advice to corporations, an issue in her 2012 Senate race, has not yet been exploited by one of her opponents. But the next morning, after speaking to an NAACP forum, Harris declined to say she that was talking about Warren.
“There are half a dozen or more people in the race who’ve worked for corporations,” Harris said. “I haven’t examined her work.”
The most crossfire over the weekend flew between Biden and Warren, with Warren suggesting that anyone arguing against Medicare-for-all was “running in the wrong primary,” and the former vice president hitting two themes: that he has been a loyal Democrat when she hasn't (earlier in her life, she was registered as a Republican) and that he can pay for his plans while she probably can't. Sanders, who has been reluctant to attack Warren, did so only when pressured by ABC News — that is, offstage.
Asked to compare his Medicare-for-all design to hers, Sanders focused on what his supporters have focused on: She was looking at replacing current employer contributions to private insurance with a tax on those employers, while he wanted to create a 7.5 percent progressive tax on income. Warren's plan, said Sanders, “would probably have a very negative impact on creating those jobs, or providing wages, increased wages and benefits for those workers.” It was a genuine twist, with the socialist from Vermont worrying about private-sector job creation, and it's unclear how much he'll return to the theme.
The Medicare-for-all wars have just begun. Warren's campaign did not truly expect her lengthy single-payer white paper to end questions about her health-care plans. All it could do was smother one problem — a perception that she could not give a straight answer on Medicare-for-all's cost — while creating new problems. Maybe they'd be smaller and more manageable.
Did it work? That's unclear. A few of Warren's rivals, such as Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), have treated her plan like an answer to the cost question. Biden has not. On Friday his campaign accused Warren of “mathematical gymnastics,” insisting that her promises and assumptions simply can't work, starting with her lowballed $20.5 trillion cost estimate. Just as he did before the white paper's release, Biden insists that Sanders gives straight answers about Medicare-for-all, and Warren doesn't. (Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado does the same, telling reporters Saturday that he “appreciates the honesty” of Sanders.)
“Look, nobody thinks it's $20 trillion,” Biden told PBS's Judy Woodruff. “It's between $30 trillion and $40 trillion. Every major independent study that's gone out there, that's taken a look at this, there's no way. Even Bernie, who talks about the need to raise middle-class taxes — he can't even meet the cost of it.”
In 24 hours, “how will she pay for it?” transmogrified into “can you trust what she says about the cost?” As Warren campaigned around the state Friday and Saturday, she no longer got questions about where her plan was paid for, but about Biden's accusation that she was dissembling on taxes. On Saturday night, after Warren said that her plan would raise taxes on only “billionaires” — she meant, her campaign said, to be referring to only who was hit by direct wealth taxes — the Biden campaign pointed out that she'd “create a new tax on employers of almost $9 trillion that would come out of workers' pockets, a new financial transaction tax that would impact investments held by middle-class Americans, and a new capital gains tax that would affect far more people than she stated tonight.”
Warren's campaign looked ready for that particular argument. Biden, after all, was also proposing a (smaller) capital gains tax to pay for his health-care plan; Biden had mulled, but not yet introduced, a financial transaction tax of his own. And Biden has been less adept at explaining his plans or attacking Warren's in debates, where lower-polling candidates have delivered the only memorable hits on Warren.
But even as she explains her plans, Warren is vulnerable on the “honesty” charge. In the new Washington Post-ABC poll, more than half of Democrats said that either Biden or Sanders was the most “honest” candidate, while just 16 percent said that of Warren. Sanders refuses to criticize Warren's truthfulness, but Biden and the rest of the field — Democrats who think that Sanders can't win the nomination — can continue to portray him as the straight-talk left-winger. In the 2016 “entrance poll” of caucusgoers, voters who said they were most interested in an “honest and trustworthy” candidate backed Sanders over Hillary Clinton by 73 points.
The stragglers could drop at any moment. Every campaign is in it to win it until it suddenly collapses, as Beto O'Rourke proved on Friday. To the anger of some supporters, he had put out the call not just for volunteers to come to Iowa, but for some to bring their families. At the waterfront park where O'Rourke announced his exit from the race, the anger was palpable — a candidate who'd broken their hearts, a media that had mocked the candidate and arrived to film supporters weeping and removing signs.
O'Rourke's decision shrank the field to 16 candidates, still the largest in modern political history. But the dinner and its aftermath demonstrated just how dire things are for the stragglers. The LJ itself was split between higher- and lower-polling candidates, with a break in between, which pushed Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and former HUD secretary Julián Castro into a sort of undercard event.
Their loud receptions accentuated just how little interest there is in the bottom rung of candidates. At times, the sounds of moving feet and cleaned-up tables threatened to drown out former Maryland congressman John Delaney and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. (Bullock compensated with the loudest speech of the night.) The three candidates who did not qualify for the dinner — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, former congressman Joe Sestak, and author Marianne Williamson — spared themselves the kind of polite, quiet reception that greeted billionaire Tom Steyer.
Just 10 days before the cutoff to qualify for the next Democratic debate, this field is set to shrink again, though the candidates who have not caught on do not want to talk about that.
“So, life is about how you do relative to expectations,” Delaney said Saturday. “The expectations for my campaign are not particularly high.”
“As the Democratic presidential field shrinks, candidates in Iowa work to stay in the race,” by Jenna Johnson and Holly Bailey
The latest movement, forward and reverse, in the first voting state.
How the biggest plan yet forced Warren's critics to reorient themselves.
“Beto O’Rourke quits presidential race amid financial strains and lagging popularity,” by Matt Viser and Jenna Johnson
The end of 2020's most-hyped candidacy.
“Andrew Yang adds experience to his pirate-ship campaign,” by Eugene Daniels and Zach Montellaro
How the “MATH” guy is becoming a real candidate.
The only national political poll that matters.
ON THE TRAIL
DES MOINES — Wet, muddy weather is the curse of outdoor festivals. Yangapalooza was not immune to the curse. The rain started as Andrew Yang's supporters arrived at Brenton Skating Plaza, and it let up three hours later, when it was over, after water had sloshed through their sneakers. That limited Yang's crowd to the truly faithful, 250 or so voters with MATH hats and homemade signs who earned the candidate's highest compliment.
“You don't look like the f---ing Internet to me!” said Yang.
The candidate, who had never run for office before deciding to seek the presidency, was working out how a non-politician can get taken seriously. Yang, who has raised more money and qualified for more debates than nine Democrats with electoral experience, has found a beachhead in Iowa, polling in the low single digits. But he would, like every other candidate, actually like to win the election.
The weekend of the LJ was all about proving that he could. For the first time, Yang campaigned with his wife, Evelyn, who was introduced as a “special guest” for Yangapalooza. After a few more unprintable slogans, Yang told his audience to spread the word that he was the most electable Democrat in the race, even if the media didn't treat him that way.
“I'm one of only two candidates in the field who 10 percent or more of Trump voters would go for the general election,” Yang said, citing polls that have asked likely voters who they supported in 2016. “We all know that this campaign is attracting disaffected Trump voters, and the Trump voters count double!”
A few of those Trump voters cheered from the soggy skate rink; Yang turned that into a call-and-response. “How about libertarians? How about independents?”
Flush with cash, Yang has nearly quadrupled the size of his campaign staff and tapped strategists who helped Sanders run his insurgent 2016 campaign. Mark Longabaugh, a member of that team, said Yang was indeed pulling the sort of voters who had sought out “outsiders” in 2016 (“non-college voters who have been economically stressed”) but rejected the idea that he was running a Sanders successor campaign.
“We've got a completely different frame to the election,” said Longabaugh. “I mean, the last time it really was a binary election between two candidates. What's striking to me, and one of the reasons I believe there's tremendous potential here, is that nobody has seized control of this race.”
In the run-up to Friday, Yang's campaign suggested that he was entering a new phase, and focusing more on the human impact of his policies — especially his signature, the $1,000 monthly universal basic income. Yang had already been giving the income to a group of Iowans; one of them, Kyle Christensen, got to play his guitar for the crowd at Yangapalooza. The candidate has begun saying “our kids aren't all right” to capture what he's worried about, and what he's doing.
Offstage, Yang hasn't started talking any differently. In a short interview, he explained that he was simply trying to talk less abstractly about UBI and automation and bring audiences in to real-world stories.
“When you define the problem as automation and then propose a universal basic income, people have a hard time translating what that would actually mean in their lives, and what it means in families and communities,” he said. “The goal is to bring it down to a very relatable level, so that people can imagine what their lives would look like and what their neighborhoods would look like.”
He is not the only Democrat doing this. If the candidates can still be divided into tiers, Yang is really closest to Sanders and Warren in his basic pitch: Something that sounds politically impossible is worth doing, while something that seems ready to pass quickly through Congress probably wouldn't change things.
“If someone shows up and says, 'Hey, we have to think small about solutions,' then that's kind of a hard sell, because people can feel that we're slipping further and further behind,” he said.
Yang's supporters at the rally said that they'd come around to his ideas because they had already had them and were wondering when a politician would have them, too. Jurine Elkins, 36, had discovered Yang because he was the first presidential candidate who talked about the reduction of packaging waste, then was compelled by the UBI.
“I'm a stay-at-home mom,” she said, behind a gigantic canvas of Yang that she'd painted herself. “I'd like to have a little monetary compensation, because I work 24/7, all the time.”
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Elizabeth Warren, “Root Out Corruption.” The senator's campaign had reserved time on Iowa's local TV stations but not yet used it. This first ad appeared during the Iowa State-University of Iowa football game, on cable, for less than $30,000. But it previews what Warren is probably to going to do and say when her ad campaign rolls out, reintroducing her as an Oklahoma girl who made good and defining her campaign as anti-corruption.
2020 presidential election (Fox News, 1,040 registered voters)
Joe Biden — 51%
Donald Trump — 39%
Bernie Sanders — 49%
Donald Trump — 41%
Elizabeth Warren — 46%
Donald Trump — 41%
Hillary Clinton — 43%
Donald Trump — 41%
Pete Buttigieg — 41%
Donald Trump — 41%
National horse race polls are distracting, and often irrelevant, which makes Fox's decision to pose this question especially fun. So long as friends of Hillary Clinton refuse to rule out her third presidential bid, it's a topic on Fox, and a way to tell stories about Democrats panicking about their choices. The bad news for the president: The question suggests he's weaker now than he was in 2015, when most of the Republican Party was still set against him. The October and November 2015 editions of the Fox poll had Trump leading Clinton by five points. He leads no Democrat, not even Clinton, now; the arguments of Biden and Sanders, that they are ready to obliterate the president's minority-vote coalition, hold up every month. Just as tellingly, the president has gotten no bounce from the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Is this Democrat in good enough health to serve as president? (Washington Post, 1,003 registered voters)
Elizabeth Warren — 80%
Joe Biden — 74%
Bernie Sanders — 48%
What's the long-term impact of Sanders's heart attack? After questions about whether the campaign had shared the news quickly enough, it handled the aftermath masterfully, taking the candidate briefly off the trail and relaunching the campaign with new endorsements and the biggest rally of the year. There has been no noticeable decline for Sanders in horse race polls; indeed, he has gained a little ground since the incident. But there has been damage to the perceptions of his age and electability, as seen here, where Sanders is the only one of the 70-something candidate troika whom less than 50 percent of Democrats consider to be in White House-ready health.
Are you confident that this Democrat could defeat Donald Trump? (New York Times Upshot-Siena Poll, 1,435 Iowa Democrats)
Elizabeth Warren — 81%
Joe Biden — 80%
Bernie Sanders — 76%
Pete Buttigieg — 70%
Warren's overall lead in this poll was narrow, making the strongest result for her: For the first time in any early state poll, voters see her and Biden as equally electable. It also clashes with national polling, which has never found any Democrat getting close to Biden on the electability question, even as he has lost steam in other metrics. The national conversation affects Iowa, obviously, and Siena will release general election polling in swing states that can trickle down. But Biden's problems start in Iowa, where voters who have seen the candidates the most believe that several of them can win.
A rush of new primary polls on Sunday made only one change to the debate lineups: Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) qualified for December's event in California, thanks to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll that put her at 4 percent nationally. That actually represented a one-point slip from the organization's last poll, in September, but it was the fourth poll she needed to make the stage.
The polls didn't move anyone onto the stage for November's debate in Georgia, which will be co-hosted by The Washington Post and MSNBC and which nine candidates, including Harris, have already qualified for.
Bernie Sanders. He'll campaign in Virginia's legislative elections for the first time Monday, helping freshman Del. Lee Carter, one of the few dozen legislators allied with the Democratic Socialists of America.
Elizabeth Warren. She was parodied in this week's “SNL” cold open, albeit in a way that made many of her supporters' arguments — especially how she is being quizzed on Medicare-for-all could be implemented. “When Bernie was talking Medicare-for-all, everybody was like, 'Oh, cool,' and then they turned to me and was like, 'Fix it, mom!' ” said Kate McKinnon, as Warren.
Kamala Harris. In the run-up to the LJ dinner, her campaign acknowledged that it was downsizing operations in New Hampshire, with any future attempt to win the state depending on a springboard from Iowa. “I am committed to New Hampshire, but we have to make difficult decisions,” she told reporters Saturday. “I'm all in on Iowa, because Iowa's the first state.”
Pete Buttigieg. He introduced an “accessibility for all” plan for Americans with disabilities ahead of a small Saturday forum on the topic.
Julián Castro. His campaign is scaling back efforts in some early-voting states, focusing on Iowa, Nevada and Texas. Castro leaned into criticism of Buttigieg while in Iowa, saying that he could not excite the multiracial coalition Democrats needed in 2020.
Tulsi Gabbard. She was singled out for a sort of praise by the president at his Tupelo rally. “I don't know who Tulsi Gabbard is,” he said, “but I know one thing: She's not an agent of Russia and Jill Stein; she's a greenie, that's fine! We love the environment, everybody in this room.” (Gabbard was invited to Trump Tower after the 2016 election, taking a meeting and reportedly turning down any role in the administration.)
DEMS IN DISARRAY
The Democrats' Medicare-for-all debate contains multitudes, and many ways to trip up the policy's defenders. The next one to watch: the “transition” question, or how a country that has built up a unique and expensive insurance industry would adjust if the federal government were to make that industry obsolete.
It's not a new challenge, but the current version of it began when Warren sat with New Hampshire Public Radio on Wednesday, the last day before she released her Medicare-for-all pay-fors.
“An economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst told Kaiser Health News that that could result in 2 million jobs lost,” the network asked. “He said those would be mostly administrative positions, and insurers, doctor's offices. And he said that politicians who want to move toward that system, Medicare-for-all, have to think about what a 'just transition,' a fair transition, would look like. What would that look like for you?”
“So, I agree,” said Warren. “I think this is part of the cost issue, and should be part of a cost plan. Though, do recognize, about this, what we're talking about: How many of our health care dollars have not gone to health care.”
Warren was agreeing with the idea of a “just transition,” but conservative media chopped up the clip. In coverage there, Warren said “I agree” to the question about “2 million jobs lost.” And on Friday, Warren was asked what specifically would happen to insurance workers under Medicare-for-all.
“Some of the people currently working in health insurance will work in other parts of insurance: in life insurance, in auto insurance, in car insurance,” Warren said. “Some will work for Medicaid. And there is five-year transition support for everyone.” As before, the short clip got chopped into a shorter one, which made Warren sound blasé about potential job loss. (“Warren says health insurance workers laid off under 'Medicare-for-all' can work in auto, life insurance,” read one Fox News headline.)
Like many political questions, this one is based on the bones of one that tripped up another candidate — an infamous question to Hillary Clinton about coal jobs, which she bluntly answered by saying she'd “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” That part of the answer got famous; the other part, where she explained transition funds for displaced miners, was lost. The gist is that disrupting the insurance industry would obviously put some people out of work, though both Warren and Sanders have laid out plans to replace their jobs.
The health insurance question is even bigger — it's a far bigger industry than coal — and Sanders got the question at a Saturday NAACP forum, where it was asked by a woman who worried that her daughter, employed by the insurance industry, could be pushed out of the workforce.
“What we will do in the transition of Medicare-for-all is do everything we can to provide the training and support that those people need to transition into the vision of health care,” Sanders said, “rather than somebody driving you crazy because you haven’t paid your bill or arguing with you because you thought you were covered in a policy they say you’re not. That’s not a productive thing to do. We will need under Medicare-for-all millions of more workers into health care.”
Sanders was talking more about retraining than Warren was: A job at an Aetna call center more closely resembles a job at a State Farm call center than it does a job as a dentist. Both of them accept the premise that some jobs that exist would, and should, cease to exist under single-payer health care.
If there's a surprise in this debate, it's that other Democrats aren't raring to join it. Asked Friday about the potential for insurance industry job loss, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a sponsor of the Sanders Medicare-for-all legislation, rejected the premise.
“Those fearmongers are going to say that it's going to make people vastly lose their jobs,” Booker said. “They don't see the pathway that I think many of us see, which is what we can do it by empowering our economy and creating more jobs.”
Asked the same question, on Saturday, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) also rejected the premise. “I'm not more worried about the health insurance industry,” he said. “That's not my project. My project is trying to get to universal health care as fast as we can.”
Even Andrew Yang, who has premised his campaign on the crisis of disappearing work, disagreed with the premise of protecting every health insurance job.
“Our goal as a country should not be to preserve jobs in every single case, because in that case, those health insurance jobs are a functional tax on both the economy and the American people,” he said. “The goal is not to preserve jobs. The goal is to preserve workers. The goal is to preserve Americans. The goal is to preserve our overall societal good. The fact is, we're going through the greatest transformation in our history, and so you'd expect there to be a lot of changes.”
But the “transition” question remains massive, and as with other Medicare-for-all questions, it's as much about seeing whether Warren can hold her own in a policy debate as it is about the policy itself. And Warren has said she'll issue more transition details soon.
... two days until state and legislative elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia
... 10 days until the cutoff for the fifth Democratic debate
... 13 days until Louisiana's runoff elections
... 17 days until the fifth Democratic debate
... 92 days until the Iowa caucuses