In this edition: The amazing disappearing Donald Trump, the results from Louisiana's race for governor, and the collapsing no-super-PAC truce.
Lucky for the White House, the whole "red state governors' races could be a referendum on impeachment" thing wasn't binding. This is The Trailer.
NASHUA, N.H. — On Friday, after another day of impeachment hearings, Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado gave a few dozen voters his recap. Diplomats were fighting against “the destruction and the carnage of our institutions.” Trump strategist Roger Stone had been convicted of lying about connections to WikiLeaks.
“It felt like the rule of law was pushing back again,” Bennet said. “I think today was a great day.”
Within seconds, Bennet had moved on to talk about public education. Impeachment didn’t come up again over nearly an hour and a half of voter conversations. Bennet talked more about South Bend., Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his thin electoral record (“Mayor Pete won 8,000 votes”) than he did about the president.
Bennet was demonstrating one of the true surprises of this Democratic primary so far: the inability of President Trump to affect it. The president’s 2016 upset looms over the contest, with Democratic voters asking their candidates how they could win the Midwest again, or how they’d face Trump in a debate. But as 10 Democrats prepare for their fifth televised debate, the president's behavior — his nicknames, his insults, the latest impeachment revelation — has blurred into background noise.
That wasn't the expectation when the race began. In his first campaign, through a mix of strategy and brash accidents, Trump was able to turn week after week of Republican primary news into a story about him. In the run-up to this campaign, pundits ranked his greatest insults and speculated about how any lower-wattage candidate (i.e., any candidate) would be able to command a news cycle.
“The president has an ability to use social media to define his opponents and influence the primary debate in a way no sitting president before him has,” former White House spokesman Raj Shah told the Associated Press in February.
Instead, the president has been largely irrelevant in the day-to-day Democratic contest. Candidates are rarely asked to respond to his quotes. His “Pocahontas” insult, directed at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), still gets made, but doesn't make news. His attempt to ridicule Buttigieg as “Alfred E. Neumann” is so dimly remembered that the Indiana mayor, on a recent bus tour, was asked what he would do when Trump gave him a nickname. Trump's tweet calling Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota a “snow woman,” because she announced her candidacy during a blizzard, is so beloved by the candidate herself that she still mentions it in speeches.
Even major events in which the president played a big role have left the Democratic primary undisturbed. Sixteen years ago, the capture of Saddam Hussein rocked the Democratic primary, as President George W. Bush’s approval rating surged and as Howard Dean’s opponents refocused the race on his perceived “electability” problems. This year, the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi hardly caused a ripple, with Democrats quickly giving the credit to the military and the president’s own numbers staying flat.
Impeachment overwhelms all of it, and impeachment has been a sideshow for primary voters; at campaign events, they rarely ask about it. The irony, which Joe Biden has pointed out at his own events, is that the impeachment grew out of Trump's interest in the Democratic primary — specifically, his hope that Ukraine could provide dirt on Hunter Biden's work in the country and hurt his father, the former vice president.
“The more pressure he's under, the more erratic he becomes,” Biden told donors in Portland, Ore. on Saturday. “I mean, it's becoming truly erratic.”
But the Biden campaign's angle, that Trump was accidentally telling voters which Democrat he most feared, has not gotten through to primary voters. In the two months since The Washington Post first reported on a whistleblower's complaint about the pressure Trump put on Ukraine, Biden has dropped from 24.5 percent to 17.6 percent in an average of Iowa polls from RealClearPolitics, but polling has found that almost no Democrats think there is substance to Trump's attacks. Every Democratic rival has come to Biden's defense.
“It is not just about impeachment proceedings,” Klobuchar told reporters during her weekend swing through southern California. “They look at him in the White House and they say, we are not putting our country first. He's not protecting the interests of America first.”
It was typical of how Democrats usually talk about Trump: a catchall attack on how he's running things, followed as quickly as possible by the issue they want to talk about.
Impeachment has not dramatically altered the Democratic contest, but it has begun to expose weaknesses that didn't exist for Trump in 2016. One of them is obvious: He was able to command more attention with frequent campaign rallies than he does with this campaign's more intermittent “MAGA” events. Nothing Trump said in the most recent events, which he used to campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidates in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi, lasted into the next day's news cycle. And Republicans in the first two of those three states lost, giving short-term confidence boosts to panicky Democrats.
One of those worries, when it came to impeachment, was that the president would rally his political base while no other topic broke through. The red-state gubernatorial losses cut against the first worry, while the second has come true in a way that largely hurts Trump. His feuds are more frequently with the impeachment witnesses and inquisitors than anyone running to take his job. That keeps him out of the Democrats' conversation and traps him in a more confusing one that primary voters aren't always following.
Some days, the president isn't targeted by Democrats at all. Only a handful of the ads Democrats have run in Iowa mention Trump at all; Buttigieg, who has risen quickly in Iowa, mentions him only by way of asking voters to picture America when he's gone. Over the past week, Warren ran just the second TV spot of her campaign, a targeted ad for CNBC to advertise her 2 percent tax on the super-rich.
“It is time for a wealth tax in America,” Warren says in the ad. “I’ve heard that there are some billionaires who don’t support this plan.”
Four billionaires, all critics of Warren, then appear on screen. Not among them: Trump, who says he is a billionaire but has stopped short of sharing tax records that could verify his net worth.
Chelsea Janes contributed reporting from Long Beach, Calif.
“Warren tries to sell her Medicare-for-all shift to Iowa voters,” by Annie Linskey
How the latest big policy swing is playing in the first voting state.
“Inside the Buttigieg moment,” by Clare Malone
On the bus and inside the theory of a primary upset.
“Obama tells Democratic candidates to ease off talk of revolution,” by Sean Sullivan
The former president tells donors that the next Democratic nominee shouldn't promise too much radicalism.
“How Elizabeth Warren got to 'yes' on Medicare-for-all,” by Shane Goldmacher, Sarah Kliff and Thomas Kaplan
The long story of the primary's biggest bet.
“Democrats fear a long primary slog could drag into summer,” by Michael Scherer
Today's intra-Democratic panic, not to be confused with yesterday's intraparty panic.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards made political history Saturday: He became the first Democrat to win a second term as governor in the state since 1975, and the first governor of either party to win after being forced into a runoff. And for the second time this month, the White House bet the president's political capital on a struggling Republican candidate for governor in a deep red state — and lost.
“You’ve got to give me a big win, okay?” Trump told voters at an 11th-hour rally for Eddie Rispone, the wealthy businessman who had forced the runoff election. Rispone fell 40,341 votes short, according to the state's initial count, out of more than 1.5 million votes cast. Outside of Mississippi, where Gov.-elect Tate Reeves was edging into the lead before Trump rallied for him, the president ended his year on a losing streak.
Republicans stuck by the president, as they'd done after this month's loss in Kentucky, and with identical messaging. “Eddie Rispone made up about a 22-point disadvantage over the last month because of President Trump's involvement,” said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who had been urged to run against Edwards and declined. “Rispone was at about 27 [percent] in the primary, ended up at 49 [percent]. So, clearly, President Trump's involvement made a big difference in helping close that massive gap. And look, the governor's polling showed he was about 50 before President Trump first started to get involved. That forced a runoff.”
There was truth in this: Edwards had been edging toward a clean primary win in October, before sluggish early voting and a last-minute Trump rally forced the runoff. (In Louisiana, all party candidates compete in one primary, with the top two finishers facing off again if no one clears 50 percent.) But Republicans had hoped that forcing a runoff would doom Edwards, as Democrats struggled to rally for another election. Instead, he won.
How'd he do it? By getting more Democratic voters to the polls and converting suburbanites who were uncomfortable with Rispone's largely negative, Trump-focused campaign. Turnout increased from October to November, from 1,343,478 votes to 1,508,597 votes. In October, Republicans, led by Rispone and Rep. Ralph Abraham, clearly won more votes than Edwards and a fringe Democratic candidate: 696,399 for the GOP to just 636,993 for the other guys.
On Saturday, Rispone won 734,128 votes, which would have been a rout in October. But Edwards surged, winning 148,469 more votes than he had in the first round. In Orleans Parish, the biggest single source of Democratic votes, he won 86,281 votes in October and 114,812 votes in November. In the West and East Baton Rouge parishes, his vote total grew from 89,898 to 110,523. The new votes from the New Orleans and Baton Rouge metro areas more than made up Edwards's statewide win margin.
Edwards built a sort of “blue wall” that Rispone could not overcome, especially because of the Republican's weakness in the northeast Louisiana parishes where Trump had campaigned. That part of the state, which Abraham represents in Congress, had decisively backed him in October. It never truly embraced Rispone. While Trump had carried the region by 29.4 points, Rispone carried it by just 9.2 points.
Rispone did best in the state's 3rd Congressional District, across the old Cajun region that had voted reliably Democratic for decades until Barack Obama's presidency. He lost, among other reasons, because as that pattern broke, the state voted a bit more like the rest of the country: rural white voters for the GOP, and suburbanites for the Democrats. In a final irony, forcing the runoff might have ended up hurting the president's party, as higher turnout helped Democrats flip the 105th state legislative district, which stretches from the New Orleans suburbs to the Gulf of Mexico. That will prevent Republicans from holding a legislative supermajority in 2020 or 2021, giving Edwards the Democrats' first chance since 2001 to shape the state's congressional map.
The latest on the impeachment inquiry:
- How a CIA analyst, alarmed by Trump’s shadow foreign policy, triggered an impeachment inquiry
- Trump’s core impeachment defense suffers a double blow — including a self-inflicted one
- More testimony raises the question: What did Ron Johnson know about Trump’s intentions with Ukraine?
- What's happening this week
Iowa caucuses (Selzer & Co, 500 likely caucusgoers)
Pete Buttigieg — 25% ( 16)
Elizabeth Warren — 16% (-6)
Joe Biden — 15% (-5)
Bernie Sanders — 15% ( 4)
Cory Booker — 3% ( 0)
Kamala D. Harris — 3% (-3)
Tom Steyer — 3% ( 1)
Andrew Yang — 3% ( 1)
Tulsi Gabbard — 3% ( 1)
Mike Bloomberg — 2% ( 2)
Michael F. Bennet — 1% ( 1)
The gold standard of Iowa polls has uncommon power to change the way people look at this race. Before this poll, it had looked as though Buttigieg was breaking through, with giant crowds, strong organizing and a rebuffed image as the young liberal who wants to unify the country. After this poll, that's all undeniable: Buttigieg has figured out exactly what exhausted Iowa Democrats are craving. They want freshness, they want center-left politics, and they are less worried about experience than whether a candidate can perform.
Buttigieg is now the best-liked Democrat in the field, with Warren right behind, but just as telling is the trend since December 2018. Joe Biden is viewed less favorably than he was then by 35 points; Sanders, by 26 points. Warren, who was generally known at that time but has increased to near-universal name recognition, has seen her favorables head up by a net of 3 points. Buttigieg, who was almost totally unknown, has seen his favorable rating spike by 49 points.
Nevada caucuses (Fox News, 1,506 voters)
Joe Biden — 24%
Bernie Sanders — 18%
Elizabeth Warren — 18%
Pete Buttigieg — 8%
Tom Steyer — 5%
Kamala D. Harris — 4%
Andrew Yang — 3%
Tulsi Gabbard — 2%
Amy Klobuchar — 2%
Cory Booker — 1%
Julián Castro — 1%
Buttigieg's rise, for now, is being welcomed by the Sanders campaign, and it's not being feared by the Biden campaign. This is why: The Indiana mayor has still not become competitive with nonwhite voters, whose input is decisive once the campaign leaves New Hampshire. Here, as in most polls of Nevada and South Carolina, there's a real battle for the white vote between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren; he gets 23 percent, she gets 21 percent.
Buttigieg is about tied with Sanders among white voters, but the senator from Vermont, as in many of the states where he campaigned extensively four years ago, is strong with Latinos: He gets 31 percent of those voters, to just 1 percent for Buttigieg. The backup dream scenario for the Sanders campaign (i.e., the dream that doesn't start with him winning Iowa) is one where Buttigieg beats the field in the first, heavily white states, then splits college-educated whites with Biden as Sanders consolidates young voters and competes strongly for nonwhite voters.
Is this candidate too liberal to defeat Trump? (CBS News, 8,866 Democratic voters)
Bernie Sanders — 45%
Elizabeth Warren — 43%
Pete Buttigieg — 13%
Joe Biden — 8%
Not liberal enough
Joe Biden — 30%
Pete Buttigieg — 25%
Elizabeth Warren — 16%
Bernie Sanders — 11%
Whatever happens with Elizabeth Warren and her newly detailed Medicare-for-all transition plan, we know what happened during its genesis: She fell out of the Democrats' sweet spot. Until October, Warren was generally viewed by primary voters as a markedly more pragmatic candidate than Sanders. Her rhetoric solidified that: He called for political revolution and an end to billionaires, while she had a 2-cent wealth tax and defined herself as a capitalist. The attack on Medicare-for-all, led by the insurance industry but echoed by some Democratic candidates, hurt Sanders more than Warren in early states.
After a month of plans that make Warren's design clear — a massive expansion of Medicare at the start of her presidency, followed by a phaseout of private insurance — she is viewed as more liberal than before.
Elizabeth Warren. She introduced her own transition plan for Medicare-for-all, which differs from the one offered by Bernie Sanders: It would use the budget reconciliation process to start expanding Medicare and automatically enrolling the uninsured in the system. “Unlike public option plans,' Warren wrote, “the benefits of the true Medicare for All option will match those in the Medicare for All Act. This includes truly comprehensive coverage for primary and preventive services, pediatric care, emergency services and transportation, vision, dental, audio, long-term care, mental health and substance use, and physical therapy.”
Mike Bloomberg. He hasn't launched his campaign yet, if he follows through on it at all. But he used a Sunday morning address to Brooklyn's Christian Cultural Center to apologize for the “stop and frisk” police policy that he defended as mayor. “I got something important wrong. I got something important really wrong,” he said. “Far too many innocent people were being stopped. And the overwhelming majority of them were black and Latino. That may have included, I’m sorry to say, some of you here today, or perhaps your children or grandchildren, or your neighbors or relatives.”
Bernie Sanders. He won the support of the 34,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles union, something that was possible in this cycle because the American Federation of Teachers gave some more wiggle room for locals to announce their own endorsements. Sanders also stood out for criticizing the United States' speedy recognition of Bolivia's new government, which took power after the country's military forced out President Evo Morales.
“At the end of the day, it was the military who intervened in that process and asked him to leave,” Sanders told Univision's Jorge Ramos at a Saturday forum in Los Angeles. “In my view, that’s a coup.”
Kamala Harris. She scored her first labor union endorsement: the United Farm Workers, whose co-founder Dolores Huerta had endorsed her campaign earlier this year.
Joe Biden. His campaign cited the newest polling, which finds him trailing in Iowa, in an all-hands-on-deck email to donors. “Yesterday, we got a new poll in Iowa and honestly it's not what we want to see,” it read. “Right now we are tied for 3rd in Iowa. Losing Iowa doesn't mean we can't win, but it makes winning the primary harder and more expensive.”
DEMS IN DISARRAY
Whatever else happens to their presidential dreams, Deval Patrick and Mike Bloomberg have already made history. They are declaring, or on the verge of declaring, later than any primary candidate has in this century. Not since December 1991, when Pat Buchanan launched his quixotic conservative challenge to George H.W. Bush, has any contender announced this close to the first primaries. Not since the 1980s has a Democrat entered the primaries without a plan to qualify in every state; Patrick has forfeited the Alabama and Arkansas primaries, while Bloomberg, if he runs, is going to skip the first four states.
What's the record of candidacies like this? Not good.
First, understand that the ultramodern Democratic primary, which assigns delegates to the winners of primaries and caucuses, dates back to only 1984. Before that, some states had conventions where nominees won endorsements and delegates; before that, the party combined a few primaries with more opaque contests for the support of party leaders. (Think of a “smoke-filled room.”)
Winning the modern Democratic nomination means organizing in each state, which makes buzzer-beating campaigns even harder. Patrick's campaign has been compared to the 2003 effort that drafted Wesley Clark into the Democratic primary; Clark announced a full month earlier, relative to the first contests, than Patrick. (In 2004, 2008 and 2012, the first states voted in January, not February.) Clark, like Fred Thompson four years later, announced in September of the year before voting began; Rick Perry, whose 2012 Republican bid was undone by his unpreparedness, announced in August 2011. The tail end of summer is usually the make-or-break point for serious candidacies, not November.
Perry, Thompson and Clark had something else in common: They lost. It's always risky to draw a historical trend from the small sample size of contested presidential primaries. Let's do it anyway: Since 1984, the winner of the Democratic primary has announced his or her candidacy at least four months before the first contests. Just two candidates who declared later than that won any primaries: Jesse Jackson, whose 1984 campaign was victorious in the District of Columbia, Louisiana and Mississippi, and Clark, whose 2004 campaign carried Oklahoma.
WHAT I'M WATCHING
The fraying “super PAC” truce. One month ago, the Democratic candidates for president agreed on one thing: They would not endorse “super PACs.” There would be no outside source of endless money running ads for or against them in key states.
Joe Biden was the first Democrat to break with that pledge, and other candidates are getting more PAC-curious, especially as Mike Bloomberg's candidacy looms. In his first news conference as a candidate, on Friday, Deval Patrick said that he would not rule out a super PAC, as he'd had such a late start already, and needed to compete with candidates who'd already introduced themselves.
“I wish it weren't so,” Patrick said. “I wish the campaigns weren't as expensive.” He repeated that rationale on Sunday's “Meet the Press,” telling host Chuck Todd that any super PAC should disclose its donors. “I think we need to do some catch-up,” he explained.
Separately, in a short interview with The Post, Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado said that he would not tell a super PAC to back down if it was created to help his candidacy.
“I'm all for it,” Bennet said. “I wouldn't dissuade them.”
Patrick, Bennet and Biden remain outnumbered: Most of the Democratic field has refused to give its blessing to a super PAC. On Friday, as he filed for the New Hampshire primary, Cory Booker reiterated that he did not want support from a super PAC; at the same time, Elizabeth Warren's campaign denounced an effort by a supportive donor to buy pro-Warren ads in Iowa.
... three days until the fifth Democratic debate
... 32 days until the sixth Democratic debate
... 78 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 86 days until the New Hampshire primary