In this edition: Why "calm" and "change" are the ways to look at the 2020 primary, how the polls actually changed in the past 365 days, and what we learned from the first round of campaign finance numbers.
I am extremely excited to say "next month" when talking about the Iowa caucuses, and this is The Trailer.
CLAREMONT, N.H. — On the last day of 2019, Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked voters to imagine doing what once came naturally: leaving the TV on.
"When there was a president on TV giving an address, you still felt a sort of citizenship obligation to watch what the president said," the senator from Minnesota said. "So many parents actually have to mute the TV, because they don't want their kids to hear, because they don't know what this president is going to say at a rally."
A few hours later, in Portsmouth, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii told a diner crowd that her mother had baked macadamia nut brittle for every member of Congress — a little act of nonpartisan kindness, something the country would need after President Trump.
"It's a nation that's being torn apart," Gabbard said. "We see a hyperpartisan Washington where the divides are so deep, and growing deeper and deeper, that it's virtually impossible to actually pass meaningful legislation."
Just weeks away from the first primary votes, with a presidential impeachment trial looming over the Senate, the Democrats' 14-way contest is sounding less like the policy fight that consumed much of last year. At New Hampshire events over the New Year's holiday, candidates found some of their warmest receptions when they asked the crowd to imagine a calmer, quieter, Trump-free Washington. Their crowds often gave them the cues, asking not what they would change but whether they could work with Republicans to change it.
"There’s some really decent Republicans that are out there still," said former vice president Joe Biden at a town hall in Exeter, after being asked whether he might pick a Republican as his running mate. "But here’s the problem right now with the well-known ones. They’ve got to step up."
Biden did not explicitly rule out a running mate from the other party, which drew fire on social media from liberals who worry that being less "divisive" means Democrats handing Republicans their lunch money. But the question itself came from a popular mood in the early states: A Democratic president's first job would be calming things down.
"I don’t think people want more lighter fluid on the fire here," Klobuchar said in Claremont. "I really don’t."
Candidates promising calm and normalcy easily outnumber the candidates running on radical change. On Tuesday, with former housing secretary Julián Castro's exit from the race, the difference grew even more lopsided. Just three Democrats in the race now favor single-payer health care, which looked at the start of 2019 as a defining issue for the party: Gabbard, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). And Gabbard, the only member of the House to vote "present" on impeaching the president, framed her candidacy as a way to get people working together again, with big change to come after.
"Let's think about how we can begin this process to bridge those divides in our own lives, in our own communities," said Gabbard, who has polled in the high single digits in the state, in part because of support from Republicans. "How many of you over Thanksgiving or Christmas had somebody around the dinner table, or in the living room, who has different politics than you?"
In New Hampshire, where Sanders won the 2016 primary by a 21-point landslide, the exhaustion with political combat is palpable. While high-quality polling has been sparse, Warren and Sanders, combined, have not come close to the 60 percent of the vote Sanders won four years ago. Just 16 years ago, when John F. Kerry and Howard Dean sought the party's nomination, they dominated New Hampshire polls. This year, another senator from Massachusetts and another long-serving Vermont politician could have the "home field" advantage. But neither has broken from the pack, as many voters wonder which candidate could win over their Republican neighbors.
"I just think that a lot of people are just exhausted with Trump," said Jay Phinizy, a former state legislator who came to see Klobuchar in Claremont. "He's a spoiled brat. Probably a lot of Republicans aren't willing to express this, but they're exhausted with it, too."
Warren and Sanders have wrestled with that sentiment for the past year, both making similar arguments about how radical change ("big structural" change, in Warren's words) could put together a winning coalition while tailoring a campaign to moderates or anti-Trump Republicans could not. Warren's big speech on New Year's Eve reiterated those arguments, pointing to poll numbers that showed that ideas labeled "divisive," like single-payer health care, were already commanding popular majorities.
"Americans overwhelmingly believe that health care is a basic human right, but the private health insurance industry is dumping millions of dollars in false TV ads to scare people away from any change," she said. "A huge majority of Americans support a wealth tax, but billionaires are on TV claiming that it’s impossible to get it done anyway, so we shouldn’t bother trying."
Yet fundamental change, the promise that energized voters in 2008 and 2016, is not lighting the same fires in 2020. The voters shopping around for a centrist-sounding candidate have worries that would largely be resolved if only Trump were replaced by a Democrat.
"I don't feel like a radical change in one direction or another is what the country needs right now," said Beth Mokas, 50, as she waited to hear Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado speak on New Year's Eve in Manchester.
Biden, who has made that argument since his candidacy began, has even incorporated it into his response to impeachment. At his final New Hampshire stops of the year, he argued that his willingness to work with Republicans who hated him was a key political strength.
"If anybody has reason to dislike this new Republican Party, it's me," Biden said. "They spent millions of dollars trying to ruin my surviving son, millions of dollars telling lies about me. Even the major networks have not run their ads. I know this party. If anybody has reason to be angry with it, I do. But guess what? That's not a president's job. It's not about me. We have to fight. We often have to reconcile."
Exhaustion has helped Biden in other ways. Some of his opponents have criticized the job his son Hunter Biden took with a Ukrainian company, with former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg saying this week that he would not have let his son (if he had one) take that job. But Biden has not faced the same nervousness about scandal that doomed Hillary Clinton.
"I think the public may have learned a lesson from the whole emails thing," said Peter Sullivan, 52, as he waited to hear Biden speak in Derry on Tuesday, referring to a State Department security controversy that dogged Clinton's campaign. "You can't get sucked in by these side issues. I mean, that e-mails thing was a totally inconsequential, inside baseball issue that sort of metastasized. And I think the public mood this time around is, come on, we have to be more serious. We can't get sidetracked."
By this point in 2016, Bernie Sanders, running on a top-to-bottom revolution in American politics, had taken command of the New Hampshire race. Trump, slashing and mocking his own party's more "electable"-looking establishment candidates, had built a lead that carried him to an easy New Hampshire win. Moderate Democrats do not, right now, see the same breakaway energy for insurgents. And that's convinced every moderate candidate to stick around.
"I sent out a tweet during the campaign where I said, if you make me president, you're not going to have to think about me for two weeks at a time," said Bennet, shortly before talking to voters at, technically, the first town hall meeting of the year. "It was most popular tweet that I've sent out. I think that it demonstrates to me that people really don't like Trump. They want the opposite of Trump."
"Democrats sharpen their differences as Iowa caucuses loom," by Robert Costa, Sean Sullivan and Amy B Wang
Another look at how Democrats entered the election year.
"The designated mourner," by Fintan O'Toole
Why Joe Biden is the most "gothic" politician in America.
The financial controversies looming over the billionaire's campaign.
"In small town Iowa, Buttigieg’s cross-over appeal hits home," by Julie Fleming
Why the candidate who started 2019 as an Iowa unknown is drawing the state's biggest crowds.
"Julián Castro drops out of presidential race," by Amy B Wang
And then there were 14.
The latest on the impeachment of President Trump:
- Standoff continues over scope and timing of trial in Senate
- New coverup questions in Trump’s Ukraine scandal
- 4 ways the McConnell-Pelosi impasse over a Senate trial could end
Bernie Sanders, "Patients Before Profits." The senator from Vermont's ad campaign has actually said little to nothing about Medicare-for-all, specifically, focusing instead on the immediate problems that voters have with their health-care costs. The latest ad is a good example, with Sanders talking about presidential power as a weapon against drug companies. "There are people who are dying in America because they cannot afford the outrageous cost of prescription drugs in this country," he says. "And we have a government that does nothing about it because this government is owned by the pharmaceutical industry."
Andrew Yang, "Caregivers." The candidate's wife, Evelyn, narrates a spot that continues Yang's emphasis of universal basic income as a way to build families. Here, it's in the promise of money that would go to the people, currently unpaid, who take care of their elderly or ailing relatives. "He'll fight for Medicare-for-all with mental health coverage," Evelyn Yang says, which continues another campaign theme: adopting the brand of Medicare-for-all while rejecting the congressional legislation under that name.
Mike Bloomberg, "Fixing Health Care for All." The former New York mayor's national ad campaign has mentioned health care before, to distinguish himself from Medicare-for-all supporters, but this new ad makes more of a positive argument: While Republicans work to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Bloomberg would "lower costs" and get more people insured.
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — One year, hundreds of millions of dollars, and countless town halls into this Democratic primary, it's tempting to ask whether any of it has mattered. On Jan. 1, 2019, an average of national polls put Joe Biden at 27 percent and Bernie Sanders at 17 percent, before either had entered the race. On Jan. 1, 2020, the same average put Biden at 28 percent and Sanders at 19 percent. So what has all of this campaigning accomplished?
The answer's not in national polls, which are interesting markers of momentum but don't reflect how parties pick nominees. At this point in 2008, Rudolph W. Giuliani narrowly led in national polls of the Republican primary, while Hillary Clinton led by a landslide in polls of Democrats. The results in Iowa shifted the battlefield, and this year's polling in Iowa has reflected a truly unpredictable campaign, with three candidates — Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg — trading the lead.
But in a multi-candidate race, in Iowa, the horse race gets complicated fast. Remember, on caucus night, Iowans will gather into groups to support their preferred candidates. Candidates with more than 15 percent support in the room advance; those with less are dropped, with their supporters free to pick someone else. Here's what's really changed over the past year in Iowa, viewed through the Des Moines Register/CNN/MediaCom poll.
Joe Biden lost ground. The former vice president started last year in a dominant Iowa position, with the Des Moines Register's first poll putting him at 32 percent to 19 percent for Sanders. Biden has not reached that level since. On March 10, when the RealClearPolitics poll average for Iowa started, Biden held at 28 percent and led Sanders by eight points; he ended the year at 19 percent, bunched up with Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren.
Over the year, Biden grew marginally less popular as his rivals became better known and better liked. Biden began the campaign with a best-of-class favorable rating, 82 percent, with just 15 percent of Iowa Democrats viewing him unfavorably. Eleven months later, 64 percent of Iowa Democrats viewed Biden favorably, while 33 percent viewed him unfavorably.
The age issue was a drag on Biden and Sanders. Until July, the two oldest candidates competing in Iowa were far ahead of the field. They fell back over the summer, as their rivals became better known. That shouldn't have been a surprise; in March, the Des Moines Register's polling found that 31 percent of caucusgoers thought that Biden's "time had passed," while 43 percent of them said the same of Sanders.
Like Biden, Sanders's favorable rating dipped as the Iowa campaign went on, from 74/22 favorable/unfavorable to 61/33. What made that especially ominous, even as he continued to sign up volunteers and draw crowds, is that he'd come out of the 2016 campaign in a far stronger place; in that year's final pre-caucus poll, 82 percent of Iowa Democrats viewed Sanders favorably, to just 12 percent who felt otherwise.
Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Yang grew more popular. Of the other candidates still competing strongly for Iowa, only Warren started the year with high name ID. Eighty-four percent of voters knew who she was, compared with 46 percent for Klobuchar and 17 percent for Yang. Buttigieg, who had spent years building a strong image with national political reporters, wasn't even included in the cycle's first poll.
By year's end, a supermajority of Iowa Democrats had opinions of every one of those candidates, and each had become well-liked. Buttigieg led the field, with 72 percent viewing him favorably and 16 percent unfavorably; Warren had moved from 65/20 to to 70/25 (after a surge had taken her even higher); Klobuchar moved from 38/8 to 53/24; Yang advanced from a piddling 5/12 favorable/unfavorable rating to 44/33.
So, yes, plenty has changed since the start of the year. Iowa and New Hampshire are up for grabs, and the campaigns are behaving as such.
Federal campaigns don't need to release their October-through-December fundraising until Jan. 15, but six presidential candidates have already put out their numbers. In short, with the numbers from the previous quarter in parentheses:
Donald Trump: $46.0 million ($14.3 million)
Bernie Sanders $34.5 million ($25.3 million)
Pete Buttigieg: $24.7 million ($19.1 million)
Joe Biden: $22.7 million ($15.7 million)
Andrew Yang: $16.5 million ($9.9 million)
Tulsi Gabbard: $3.4 million ($3.0 million)
Given what we know about the rest of the field, with nine Democrats left to report, Sanders probably led for the quarter; Warren, his nearest competitor three months ago, warned supporters before the deadline that she had not hit $20 million. But already, the Democratic field has blown past the $90.1 million that Republicans raised, combined, in the final quarter of 2015 and the $73.2 million that Democrats raised in that quarter. Democrats are also on track to triple the president's fundraising numbers, minus the RNC; by comparison, in the final quarter of 2011, every Republican's haul, combined, was only about $15 million more than President Barack Obama's.
Year-to-year comparisons can be tricky and hard to make until all of the quarter's financial data comes out. In 2015, nearly every Republican campaign was backed up by a super PAC; by the end of 2019, just two Democrats, Biden and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, had super PAC support. And in the same period of 2015, Sanders raised $33.2 million, an eye-popping number that left him only marginally behind Hillary Clinton. That he edged past that last year, with more competition for left-wing dollars, is significant.
The Democratic field shrunk again Thursday, as former housing secretary Julián Castro, one of the first candidates to enter the race, ended his campaign.
Castro entered the race after years of “rising star” status. He was the keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, he was pulled into Barack Obama’s second-term Cabinet, and he made Hillary Clinton’s long list of potential running mates. But the vetting period was rough. Castro took heat from the party’s left for his HUD record, getting a reputation as an ambitious lightweight.
That changed when he became a candidate for president. Castro pointedly made his first campaign trip to Puerto Rico, not an early-voting state, and closed the campaign by criticizing the primacy of two states with largely white populations, Iowa and New Hampshire. His small policy shop churned out plan after plan, from immigration reform to disability rights to housing. He was the first candidate to support Trump’s impeachment and the first to tour homeless camps. He broke out in the first debates, too, memorably telling Beto O’Rourke that he hadn’t done his “homework” on immigration policy — a attack that undermined the former congressman's fading campaign.
Ironically, a candidate once pegged as an amiable climber became too good at taking on his rivals. In September, Castro correctly pointed out that Joe Biden had described the implementation of his health-care plan in two ways. “You just said two minutes ago they would have to buy in,” Castro said. “Are you forgetting what you said just two minutes ago?”
That backfired immediately. Castro’s rivals accused him of taking a cheap shot, and many voters felt the same way. His crowds shrank, and his unfavorable numbers spiked, dynamics he was never was able to reverse. Other candidates would thrive after making policy contrasts with their rivals; the sense that Castro made it personal with Biden was, in the end, fatal to a campaign that needed every lucky break.
As for the rest of the field:
Joe Biden. He and his wife, Jill Biden, returned to Iowa on Thursday for more town halls, with the new support of Rep. Abby Finkenauer, a freshman with one of the state's most powerful endorsements.
Bernie Sanders. He started his first Iowa bus tour Thursday, with the "Not Me, Us" express starting in central Iowa, moving east to the Mississippi River towns, then circling back to central Iowa.
Elizabeth Warren. She picked up her campaign Thursday with town halls in New Hampshire, while releasing her first plan of the year, focused on access for people with disabilities.
Mike Bloomberg. Before the new year, he'd canvassed with Eliz Markowitz, a Democratic candidate in a special suburban Texas legislative race; on Friday, he'll open more field offices in North Carolina.
Pete Buttigieg. He's returning to New Hampshire tonight and staying for a weekend of town hall meetings.
Amy Klobuchar. She touched down in northwest Iowa on Thursday to start another run through the state, to be followed by a busy Saturday of campaigning in Nevada.
Michael F. Bennet. He picked up the support of New Hampshire state legislator David Luneau, as he continued to focus on placing in the state's top three next month.
Marianne Williamson. She's dramatically downsized her campaign staff, including shutting down operations in New Hampshire, a state she's focused less on while she concentrates her campaign in Iowa. She's set to be back in the state this weekend.
WHAT I'M WATCHING
The vast majority of Republicans in Congress co-signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to do what the anti-abortion movement has sought for generations: revisit and reverse the laws keeping abortion mostly legal. The vehicle for that will be the upcoming June Medical Services LLC v. Gee case, which, if the defendants succeed, would allow states to make requirements on abortion providers designed to shut down their practices, something narrow, pre-Kavanaugh majorities tended to reverse.
The next court term, with arguments in the spring and decisions coming in June, is going to affect the 2020 election in ways neither party is focused on right now. And neither party is talking about the health of the oldest Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer. Were either to leave the court, Republicans, who spent most of 2016 arguing that vacancies in presidential election years should remain open, have signaled that they would move to replace those justices with conservatives, cementing a 6-3 majority. None of this will bubble up from day to day, all of it could change the presidential campaign in an instant. And tellingly, the Republicans seen as most endangered in 2020 — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona — declined to sign the brief.
... nine days until the cutoff for the seventh Democratic debate
... 13 days until the seventh Democratic debate
... 32 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 40 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 51 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 59 days until the South Carolina primary