In this edition: Mike Bloomberg buys a grass-roots campaign, Democrats start to go negative on Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez finds another way to make moderates furious.
I am withdrawing my application to become king of Canada, and this is The Trailer.
SAN ANTONIO — For an hour on Saturday morning, 150 Texans were transported into the political future. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg arrived on his “Get It Done Express,” shook hands and spoke for 13 minutes. There was no talk of Iowa, or the primary, or the latest arguments between the shrinking-but-still-vast field of Democratic candidates.
“We're fighting to win all 38 of your electoral votes,” Bloomberg said. “Beto [O'Rourke] showed that a Democrat can win Texas, but only if you invest time and resources in each and every one of your 254 counties.”
Saturday, a national “day of action” for Bloomberg's campaign, demonstrated what an effectively unlimited budget could buy. At five stops across Texas, the 77-year-old candidate drew sizable crowds and talked to elected Democrats not swayed by their other options. He delivered short remarks on why the president needed to be replaced (“Donald Trump is a climate denier. … I'm running to unify this country”), while his team distributed tote bags, “I like Mike” signs, and information about how to volunteer.
By skipping the first four primary or caucus states, Bloomberg was both previewing what his general election campaign could look like and blitzing past rivals who had not yet built out their operations for Super Tuesday. While a dozen candidates looked for momentum in Iowa, he would open 17 offices across Texas, a state where he'd spent millions of dollars in advertising already, pulling himself into the Democratic conversation. Bloomberg was encouraged by the reception he was getting in Texas after just a few weeks on the air and a high-profile visit to campaign with a state legislative district.
“I've only been in this for seven weeks now, so, you know, cut me a little bit of slack!” Bloomberg said in an interview on his campaign bus. “Bernie [Sanders] has been doing this for how long: Five, six years? And he's not that far ahead of me, with my seven weeks.”
Bloomberg made news before and during the trip by promising to push his resources into an anti-Trump campaign even if he did not win the nomination. Asked whether he would keep spending on behalf of a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren campaign, Bloomberg — who four years ago contemplated a third-party challenge if Sanders won the Democratic nomination — said that he would. Asked whether he could spend $1 billion of his own money on a campaign to beat Trump, Bloomberg said he might, and between ad buys and staff hires, he was probably one-fifth of the way there.
Before any of that could happen, there was a primary to win, and Bloomberg did not truly have Texas to himself. Texas votes just days after South Carolina, along with 13 other states on March 3, and his best-funded rivals have been building out Super Tuesday campaigns. Special attention has been paid to Texas, with volunteer organizing underway until, eventually, the candidates can turn their focus away from the first four states.
The Sanders campaign has named 141 “Texas victory captains,” who each spend at least 10 hours per week volunteering for the campaign; on Saturday alone, in San Antonio, a Sanders supporter who wanted to help win Texas could have gone to one of several phone banks or trainings in the campaign's turnout software.
The Warren campaign has two dozen senior staffers and organizers and has opened an office in San Antonio, nestled between two nail salons in a suburban strip mall. Former vice president Joe Biden's campaign has hired a field director and piled up endorsements, while former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has struggled for traction in more racially diverse states, has just started introducing himself as a candidate who will help build their party.
“One thing you will never catch the Democratic Party doing, if I’m your nominee and president, is treating the presidency like it’s the only office that matters,” Buttigieg told Democrats last week during a swing through Dallas.
Bloomberg was making a similar pledge to Texas Democrats, with a difference: Buttigieg was the least-personally wealthy candidate for president, while the former mayor's estimated worth was comparable to the gross domestic product of Costa Rica. Bloomberg had hired Carlos Sanchez, a native Texan, as his national political director, and Cassandra Henry, a veteran of O'Rourke's brief presidential campaign, as his deputy director for states. Other campaigns would build from scratch, like always, while he could build a massive organizing campaign by paying for one, with 45 staffers already working in Texas.
“The approach in Texas mirrors the approach we have everywhere,” said Dan Kanninen, Bloomberg's national states director. “This is a national campaign, which means being in every state. What was successful for Beto, in the Senate race, was not to take any part of the state for granted. Mike is the best and strongest candidate, and the best and strongest argument we can make is to show that he's building a great team this quickly.”
At Bloomberg's first stops, in San Antonio and Austin, voters were willing to be convinced. Gregory Garcia, 38, showed up still wearing a button for Julián Castro, the city's former mayor, who rolled up his campaign last week. Bloomberg left him “a little cold at first,” he said, and he wasn't yet sold, but the idea of an endless organizing budget was intriguing.
“What really got me interested in Bloomberg was that he said he's willing to pay his staff continuously even if he's not the nominee,” said Garcia, “That's what we've needed because a lot of people will say that, but not deliver.”
Many voters said that it mattered to see Bloomberg in Texas, instead of one of those fawned-over early states that he is ignoring, restating the entire premise of the candidate's primary campaign. Ideologically, they were all over the map. What got them out was a campaign so eager to organize in Texas, and so theoretically unthreatening to moderate voters.
“I like the ideas of some of the people that have no chance to get elected, but those ideas will probably be incorporated when it becomes the platform,” said Ray Veazy, 74, who said he'd supported Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primaries. “The extremes are not all that extreme. If we have Medicare-for-all, if we have a guaranteed income, that could be good for us. But we need a nominee who'll appeal to moderates.”
Bloomberg's pitch was aimed straight at moderates and, by extension, Democrats who perpetually worried about picking a nominee who might offend them. In San Antonio, he took no questions and briefly attacked Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for announcing that Texas would no longer accept refugees, before telling the story of his New York years through data.
“We reduced the number of uninsured people by 40 percent and improved prenatal care,” he said. “We raised life expectancy by three or four years in New York City. Donald Trump is a climate denier, but we worked very hard in New York, and we reduced the city's carbon footprint by 14 percent, twice the national average.
The only notes of negativity came from protesters, who waved a modified “Come and Take It” flag (an AR-15 replacing a cannon) across the road, and from TV personality Judge Judy Sheindlin, who criticized (not by name) rival candidates who wanted too much change, too fast.
“Those that are touting revolution in this country are wrong,” Sheindlin said in San Antonio. “It’s the best county on Earth.”
That was Bloomberg's theme, too. The campaigns that had organized the most in Texas, before he arrived, had fired up volunteers with promises of “big, structural change” or “political revolution.” Bloomberg was fishing for different kinds of Democrats: the people who became newly engaged after the 2016 election and hit the doors and phones for Democrats, regardless of their ideology. Democrats needed air cover in the midterms, and Bloomberg spent millions of dollars on ads to provide it. Gun safety groups had one goal, defeating the National Rifle Association, and Bloomberg had given them the capital to do it.
“Instead of just complaining, I took on the NRA, and the NRA is now in disarray,” he said.
This was more blunt, more transactional, than anything else Democrats were saying in Texas. Bloomberg was asking Texas Democrats to devote their time to a candidate who had endorsed George W. Bush, the president so many of them had worked to defeat. When asked about that choice, and whether reelecting Bush had made the country better off, Bloomberg matter-of-factly explained that he supported the candidate who had done what he asked after 9/11.
“Kerry is a friend. Bush is a casual friend,” Bloomberg said. “I guess Bush came to the city's aid when I asked him to. He gave us a lot of money, which we wanted. We know what Bush did. We don't know what Kerry would have done. So I don't see how you can make a comparison.”
Some voters were fine with the transactional approach. Lena Stockhardt, 71, pulled Bloomberg close as he left the San Antonio rally, telling him how she'd immigrated to America from Germany and how she wanted to have “hope” again. Afterward, Stockhardt said that she'd voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary but was intrigued with the option of a nominee who'd been so successful in business that he could already start competing for Texas.
“He's already done it, and I don't think he got two million from his daddy to do it,” she said.
“Many Iowa Democrats are paralyzed by fear of choosing the wrong candidate to take on Trump,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker
A few weeks out, and no agreement on what “electability” is.
“Sanders and Biden look for dominance in early states,” by Jonathan Martin
Why even narrow wins in Iowa could save months of primary-state campaigning.
“John Kerry is back in Iowa, and he’s feeling nostalgic,” by Holly Bailey
The return of the Democrats' 2004 nominee to the state that made him.
Why voters will have only a few days to learn who funded a super PAC.
“How Bernie Sanders would upend America's global role,” by Sean Sullivan
The world as the Vermont socialist sees it: stronger alliances with anti-imperialists.
“Biden holds wide lead among black voters in Democratic presidential race, Post-Ipsos poll finds,” by Scott Clement, Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Dan Balz, and Emily Guskin
Two candidates are in double digits with black voters, and some are struggling to win any at all.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
A week ago, during a stop in Boone, Iowa, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) handled a topic that comes up frequently with undecided Democrats. How could the party avoid another nasty round of infighting, with some voters repulsed and turning away?
“You have not heard me disparage any of the candidates, have you? I don't,” Sanders said. “I have known many of the Democratic candidates, in some cases, for 25 years. I work with them.”
But up to now, Sanders and his surrogates have repeatedly drawn hard contrasts with his opponents and gotten little fire in return. When Sanders said that former vice president Joe Biden would struggle to “energize” a winning majority, Biden declined to respond. When Democrats have attacked Medicare-for-all, they've frequently singled out Sanders for praise, before pegging Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as evasive and dishonest; he talked about raising taxes to pay for the policy, and Warren would not.
“At least Bernie's being honest here and saying how he's going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said in the October Democratic debate in Ohio.
“At least that's a straightforward answer,” added then-South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
For much of the campaign, Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg considered Sanders a factional candidate who would struggle to build a coalition that could win a primary. In October, after Sanders had a heart attack and then returned to the trail, they considered him a spent force who might blunt Warren's momentum.
It's worth watching whether that changes, especially as candidates begin to show more frustration with Sanders and his surrogates — and as nervous swing-district Democrats get asked whether they want Sanders to lead the ticket. While Sanders has run no negative ads, his surrogates have sometimes curved around the advice he gave at the start of the campaign.
“Let us do our very best to engage respectfully with our Democratic opponents,” Sanders wrote in a February 2019 message to surrogates, “talking about the issues we are fighting for, not about personalities or past grievances.”
The senator's rivals have struggled to square that advice with Sanders's occasional debate barbs or how, in December, the campaign purchased PetesWineCave.com to draw attention to an infamous Buttigieg fundraiser. There was a hint of what pushback might come Sunday, after Politico's Alex Thompson and Holly Otterbein reported on talking points provided to some volunteers working on Sanders's behalf. If a voter leaned toward Warren, volunteers were urged to emphasize her “more affluent” support and fret that she was “bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”
Polling has indeed found that Sanders's supporters skew less affluent and less white than Warren's, and the Sanders campaign had made that attack in public, with Iowa adviser Pete D'Alessandro telling The Post this month that Warren appealed to “wine cave” and “limousine liberal” Democrats. But for the first time, the attack drew a response from Warren, who said in Iowa that Sanders had been “sending his volunteers out to trash me,” and urged him to avoid the “factionalism” that hurt the party in 2016.
“I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction,” Warren told reporters.
Democratic voters have been temperamental about negativity in this campaign. Lesser-known candidates who went on the attack tended to decline, and Sanders himself faded last summer, when he picked a fight with the business-friendly Democratic group Third Way. Yet Buttigieg surged in Iowa with attacks on Medicare-for-all, criticizing, by name, Sanders's signature policy in TV ads. Sanders is more popular with Democrats than his opponents sometimes admit, but until now, they have not pulled him — not him and Warren, just him — into a fight. And that could change fast.
Sanders himself has no interest in going negative on Warren, anyway. On Sunday, he told BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer that he had seen the talking points only in media reports, and that not only would he not say “a negative word” about the senator from Massachusetts, but that “no one is going to be attacking Elizabeth.”
The latest on the impeachment of President Trump:
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Joe Biden, “Classroom.” A break from Biden's series of trusted-statesman spots, this one focuses entirely on Jayne Lyons, a teacher who is worn out with live shooter drills at her school. “I trust Joe Biden with gun issues,” she says. The ad does not make Biden's usual point, that he alone passed legislation that restricted gun sales. But it captures a way that voters often talk about this: They are nervous about gun violence in a way they never were.
Iowa caucuses (Des Moines Register/CNN, 701 likely caucusgoers)
Bernie Sanders: 20% ( 5)
Elizabeth Warren: 17% ( 1)
Pete Buttigieg: 16% (-9)
Joe Biden: 15% (-)
Amy Klobuchar: 6% (-)
Andrew Yang: 5% ( 2)
Cory Booker: 3% (-)
Tom Steyer: 2% (-1)
Tulsi Gabbard: 2% (-1)
For a few long, cold, embittering months, people searching for momentum in Iowa had to assess crowd sizes and chatter among local Democrats. That unscientific method picked up the voters taking second looks at Sanders but found more enthusiasm for Klobuchar than measured here; she gets crowds in the hundreds but is still lagging as voters' top, locked-in choice. Sanders had never led in this poll, from his 2016 race until this weekend. But the lead here is within the margin of error, and his overall support has not reached the heights of March, shortly after he entered the race at 25 percent. Iowa is a jump ball, with a possible split decision with a divergence between overall vote totals and the delegate count.
What else has changed? There's been some movement inside the candidates' favorable ratings, with Warren reclaiming her title, lost to Buttigieg in November, as the best-liked Democratic candidate. Voters view her more favorably than unfavorably by 46 points, matching the numbers from the last poll; Buttigieg has inched behind her, from a net 56 points to a net 44 points. Sanders, who went into a popularity slump this summer, has recovered to a net 37-point favorable rating; Andrew Yang is one point behind, a surge from his net 10-point favorable rating in November. Biden is at a 29-point net favorable rating.
Nevada caucuses (Fox News, 635 likely caucusgoers)
Joe Biden: 23% (-1)
Bernie Sanders: 17% (-1)
Elizabeth Warren: 12% (-6)
Tom Steyer: 12% ( 7)
Pete Buttigieg: 6% (-2)
Andrew Yang: 4% ( 1)
Cory Booker: 3% ( 2)
Tulsi Gabbard: 2% (-)
Amy Klobuchar: 2% (-)
The only notable movement in Nevada since last year, when Fox was last in the field, was a shuffle of support for Warren (down) and Steyer (up). Slightly more interesting is what happens when Democrats are ask how they'd move in a race without Biden or Sanders. In the latter case, Sanders's supporters migrate equally to Biden and Warren, who each gain five points, as the rest of them migrate to every candidate except Gabbard. (That's a surprise when considering how many voters first met Gabbard: as a Sanders surrogate.) In the former, Sanders grabs the biggest share of Biden voters (6 percent), followed by Buttigieg (4 percent), followed by Steyer, Warren and Klobuchar. It's a great study in how the “lanes” theory of the race can run out. By dominating the airwaves in Nevada (and South Carolina), Steyer has leapfrogged candidates who spent up to six extra months organizing on the ground.
South Carolina primary (Fox News, 808 likely voters)
Joe Biden: 36% (-5)
Tom Steyer: 15% ( 11)
Bernie Sanders: 14% ( 4)
Elizabeth Warren: 10% (-2)
Pete Buttigieg: 4% ( 2)
Andrew Yang: 2% ( 1)
Cory Booker: 2% (-1)
Tulsi Gabbard: 1% (-)
Amy Klobuchar: 1% ( 1)
There's even less movement here than in Nevada, apart from the Steyer surge, if you take the longer view. Since the first Fox poll of the state last July, Sanders and Warren have bounced around to end up in the same place: the low teens. Biden has remained flat, with more than one-third of all voters' support, well short of Hillary Clinton's 2016 margin but more than enough for a rout. And South Carolina stands out as the rare state where more Biden's voters say they're locked into their choice (59 percent) than Sanders's voters (50 percent). When voters are asked to consider a race without Steyer or Sanders, Biden moves back above 40 percent; when they're asked about a Biden-less race, Sanders gains nine points while Steyer and Warren each gain six. Booker, the black candidate who has spent the most time in the state, moves from 2 to 5 percent, making it harder and harder to imagine the scenario where he breaks out.
Sidebar: Both Fox polls, in Nevada and South Carolina, asked voters about Mike Bloomberg. The former mayor is not a candidate in either state, and the decision to poll his name at all could mean the difference between a candidate hitting the debate stage or failing to. Pollsters, think about this.
As many Democrats feared, their seventh debate will be the first that lacks any candidates of color. Just six Democratic rivals qualified for the Tuesday night event at Iowa's Drake University: former vice president Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); and billionaire investor Tom Steyer. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who had dramatically made it into the sixth debate thanks to a last-minute poll, fell two polls short of this one, something his campaign quickly protested in an email to supporters.
“If the [Democratic National Committee] had only done their due diligence and commissioned polls in the early states, Andrew Yang would certainly be on the debate stage next week,” Yang's campaign chief, Nick Ryan, wrote Saturday. “We are not going to allow the DNC to dictate who they wish to see as the nominee and deny the will of the people.”
The DNC, which has still not healed all the wounds from the 2016 primary, has decisively ruled out conducting its own polls. That leaves the candidates and the committee with the problem that shrunk these debate stages in the first place: The polling requirement depends entirely on whether media outlets and universities conduct polls in the window the DNC determines for inclusion. Since November, there has been just one DNC-approved poll in each of the first four states. No more debates are scheduled until early February, after the Iowa caucuses, and the party has suggested that it will factor in vote results to set the next stage.
The Democratic field shrank to 13 candidates this week, as Marianne Williamson exited the race. It was the 67-year-old author's second bid for federal office, after a 2014 run for Congress in California, and it was both more and less successful: This time, she earned a national following, but last time, she stayed in long enough to win 14,335 votes.
Some long-shot candidates succeed in pushing their issues to the center of a primary debate. Williamson did so once, talking about reparations for the descendants of slaves at her early Iowa events and making sure that every Democrat was asked about a once-verboten topic.
Williamson, who had built a real network of supporters with her spiritual writing and advocacy, also demonstrated just how ready Democrats were to empty their wallets. The $6 million she raised outpaced even some candidates who'd won previous caucuses, such as former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. But after being nixed from debates when the party raised its polling threshold, Williamson vanished from the conversation.
Pete Buttigieg. He won the support of Rep. Dave Loebsack, who is retiring next year as the dean of Iowa's Democratic delegation — for a few years, he was literally the only member of his party who Iowans sent to Washington. Loebsack backed Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. When endorsing Obama, Loebsack said he was looking for “leadership that can bring all Americans together around a shared purpose.” In endorsing Buttigieg, he saw a “candidate that can heal our divides, restore decency to the presidency, and bring this country together.” It's a coup for Buttigieg in the most Democratic-leaning parts of the state, a district that includes the liberal core of Johnson County and reliably blue cities such as Davenport, Muscatine and Keokuk. Buttigieg is in Iowa now, finishing his pre-debate campaign stops Monday night.
Bernie Sanders. He picked up an endorsement from SEIU Local 1984, the service employees' union's New Hampshire branch. The local also endorsed Sanders in 2016, on his way to a landslide in the state, while the national union endorsed Hillary Clinton. This year, the union has shaken up its endorsement process and encouraged more personal interaction from candidates, with no plans to rush an official endorsement before the primaries. Sanders held his last pre-debate rally in Iowa on Sunday afternoon.
Joe Biden. He wrapped up his pre-debate campaigning with stops in Nevada; in Iowa, his surrogate John F. Kerry got snared by a debate about Biden's 2002 vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq.
Andrew Yang. He's campaigning in Iowa through debate night; Yang was the closest to making the stage of anyone who missed out and had always planned to be in the state.
Tulsi Gabbard. She's heading to South Carolina on Monday before returning for more campaign stops in New Hampshire.
Michael Bennet. He continued to campaign in New Hampshire over the weekend. “There's a real question in my mind about whether any of the leading candidates can take on Donald Trump, which is why I've stayed in this race,” he told CNN on Sunday.
MEET A PAC
Courage to Change
FOCUS: Electing more candidates in the mold of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), its founder. Many of those candidates will, by definition, lack immediate access to big donors, which is where the PAC comes in.
BUDGET: It's just started raising money, and successfully so: At least 4,600 donors helped it raise $69,000 on Saturday, after the launch.
PLAN: To help as many like-minded Democrats as possible and create another beachhead to compete with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which Ocasio-Cortez has refused to pay dues to; the DCCC backs incumbents and had opposed her during her first run for the House. “The DCCC has been an entrenched tool in a system that blocks working-class candidates from running for office, and protects out of touch incumbents,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a launch email.
EFFECTIVENESS: Overnight, it became one of the best-known candidate PACs in the country, though it has yet to spend. Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed challengers to two peers (Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar and Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski) who face voters in March.
... two days until the seventh Democratic debate
... eight days until the Iowa Brown & Black Forum
... 16 days until the special legislative election in Texas
... 22 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 30 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 41 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 49 days until the South Carolina primary