As of today, we are exactly 31 days from the Iowa caucuses. So what do we know about the Democratic primary field?
As I’ve been arguing for months, the most notable aspect of the race has been its stability. In May I told you that the top three Dems were Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg. And, well, here we are.
Biden has led from the moment he declared. Bernie Sanders has held steady with a significant base of support. There have been a handful of moderate surges—from Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—and only two small-scale “collapses,” both of which should be viewed more as market corrections than implosions.
Back in June I argued that the field had already congealed around a Big Four. I was both wrong and right: I thought Kamala Harris would be the fourth horseman; it turned out to be Elizabeth Warren. But even this overstates Warren’s position: Of the Big Four, she is clearly in the weakest position to win the nomination.
So if you believe that the defining aspect of this race has been its high signal-to-noise ratio, then the picture of where we are 31 days out is clearer than these things usually are.
Let’s go to the ranking. And as a bonus, we’ll assign each candidate his or her pro-wrestling spirit animal.
(1) Joe Biden. I’m like a broken record at this point: Why is everyone still sleeping on Joe Biden?
During the summer I noted that there were three primary pathways for Biden losing the nomination: a general collapse, the late entry of a Super Candidate, and a consolidated progressive challenge.
The general collapse never happened. The late entry was Mike Bloomberg, not Michelle Obama. And neither Warren nor Bernie are going anywhere.
So, good for Joe.
There are still ways Biden could lose, but they’re lower-probability and most of them involve long-march delegate fights or a brokered convention.
Consider that back in July, Biden held an 11-point lead over his nearest rival; today it’s a 9-point lead. He’s 3 points out of first place in Iowa and 5 points out of first in New Hampshire, two states which are bad fits for him and perfect fits for his chief rivals. In Nevada his lead is 9 points and in South Carolina it’s 20.
And, as I wrote a few weeks ago, Biden has taken a lot of punches:
Remember when everyone was goofing on him for “Corn Pop”? Or how weird it was that he’s a toucher? Or the time Kamala Harris tried to cripple his campaign by attacking him for being maybe-kinda racist? Or all the times Biden “stumbled” in the debates? Or the time the president of the United States tried to extort a foreign government into investigating Biden and his son? Or the time his son’s dirty laundry got hung out? Or the time his son was involved in an ongoing paternity suit? Or the time the incumbent president spent millions of dollars attacking Biden in early-state ads in an attempt to knock him out of the race?
And don’t forget his eye exploding.
Basically, Biden is the Ric Flair of the field. He’s all tan and leathery and he says “the simple fact of the matter” the way the Nature Boy was always yelling “Whoo!” None of it really makes sense if you think too hard about it, but people love it.
Flair might have been a one-percenter, but he was a working-class hero and—improbably—a favorite among African-American fans, too. As Snoop Dogg once said:
We wanted to be Ric Flair; we wanted to be flamboyant and the ‘kiss-stealin, wheelin-and-dealin,’ we wanted to be all of that.
He was a part of our culture and our life. That’s why we love him and we cherish him. We’ve always held him high in the black community, because Ric is one of us.
And also, there’s this: Natch always used to say, “If you want to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”
The road to the nomination goes through Biden. Whoo.
(2) Bernie Sanders. We’ve finally reached the moment where people are starting to ask themselves, “Maybe Bernie could win?”
It’s weird, because Sanders has been the solid second-place guy for almost the entirety of the race. His support has never really wavered. And he keeps hoovering up money, which means he’s well positioned for a campaign that goes on for months.
Also there’s this: He could easily win both Iowa and New Hampshire. How easily? Of all the possible outcomes for the first two contests, Bernie sweeping both is probably a 1-in-4 proposition.
But then what?
The DNC rules allow any candidate getting over 15 percent of the vote to get a proportional allocation of delegates in the state primary. Bernie will be over 15 percent more or less everywhere.
The problem is that he has a ceiling, even, as we saw last time around, against a candidate as flawed as Hillary Clinton. In a multi-candidate field, where Biden and Buttigieg will be around for the long haul and Warren is likely to stay in at least through Super Tuesday, the chances of Bernie jumping out to a lead big enough to win the nomination outright are small.
And it is difficult to see how the guy who isn’t actually a Democrat—and whose campaign is largely an attack on the Democratic establishment—could wind up being a consensus choice at a convention. Even if he does a good job rigging the delegates.
I like Bernie as the Randy Savage of the field. A mid-card guy who talks in electric, dada-esque monologues and winds up in the main event on the force of his weird, but undeniable charisma.
And it happened so fast you can’t even talk about it.
(3) Pete Buttigieg. How is this supposed to work? If we’re just going on strategy and candidate skills, Mayor Pete is obviously the class of the field. If he’d been the mayor of Milwaukee (or county executive, or whatever they have up there in Packer Land) he’d be the odds-on favorite to win it all.
But sometimes geography is destiny.
In order for Buttigieg to win the nomination, he has to win Iowa. We can all agree on that. So let’s pretend that he wins Iowa and this catapults him to a win in New Hampshire. That’s not a stretch.
Where does he go then? He has to hope that he eats into Biden’s support, fast. Because he has to force Biden out of the race and soak up all of his voters quickly enough to stay on pace with Bernie as the march to the convention begins.
The bad news is that Buttigieg’s victory scenario requires him to suddenly start doing something he hasn’t been able to do yet—find support from African-Americans.
The good news is that, unlike Bernie, you really could see a bandwagon for Mayor Pete.
And because he’s broadly acceptable to large swaths of the party, you could see him becoming a consensus candidate as the race goes on and his skills come to bear.
It’s pretty obvious who Mayor Pete is: Mr. Perfect.
The guy is so perfect that people hate him. But then, he’s so good at being perfect that people actually kind of love hating him. And eventually they wind up just loving him.
(4) Elizabeth Warren. There was a moment, before she got any scrutiny whatsoever and while everyone was studiously ignoring her problems, that Elizabeth Warren looked like the Democratic nominee. Or at least, like the candidate Very Online Democrats wanted to nominate.
That’s all gone now.
Warren is still in the hunt in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but she’s moving in the wrong direction. How does she both stop the decline and then surge to victory in just 31 days? That would be tough but doable in a two-person race. In a multi-candidate field, it would require extraordinary luck.
It’s more interesting to think about Warren’s end game.
If she doesn’t win both Iowa and New Hampshire, she’s dead in the water. There is no path for her to win the nomination. She’ll get delegates from both contests and she’s well-funded enough to stay in the race and accumulate more delegates as she goes. But the real action is going to be with Bernie, Biden, and/or Buttigieg.
What will Warren do?
As a matter of policy, the current incarnation of Elizabeth Warren is closer to Bernie than the other two. But Warren is an actual Democrat with an institutional stake in the success of the Democratic party. Bernie is not and has given every indication that he’s happy to fight as long as he’s mathematically able, even if it means burning the party down.
So would a hobbled Warren throw her support to Biden or Buttigieg? Or join forces with Bernie? Or stay quiet and keep her options open?
Your guess is as good as mine.
In most of the particulars, Warren reminds me of one of my favorite wrestlers, the great Triple H.
As Max Landis once put it, Triple H was a compelling character because when he looked in the mirror, he saw himself as a conqueror, a warrior, the Game, the King of Kings. But the truth is that he was never quite as good as the other guys at the top of the card.
As Landis said, “I think it’s fair to describe him as a B+ player.”
I mean, if the shoe fits.
(5) Everyone else. Look, there’s no reason to handicap the rest of the field because the nominee is either going to be one of those four candidates or someone totally new who rides into a brokered convention and heals the party and whose name rhymes with Rochelle O’Llama.
But this survivor series wouldn’t be complete without assigning analogues to the other characters.
Andrew Yang: Obviously he’s Daniel Bryan. He’s unlike any candidate this party has seen in a long time, not just because he’s not from politics but because he’s normal. And that normality has created its own weird and wonderful Yes movement.
Only Triple H could root against this guy.
Michael Bloomberg: Is Ted DiBiase. I’m sorry. It’s on the nose. I know. But clearly.
I mean, clearly.
Cory Booker: This is going to be controversial, but for me he’s Shawn Michaels. Booker has main event talent. He’s a crowd favorite—very much a heartbreak kid. But his best work was always done as part of a team, starting with the Rockers and culminating with his epic, madcap end-of-career run with Triple H as the reformed Degeneration X.
What I’m really trying to say here is that I can easily picture Booker riding out on a tank at the Fiserv Forum in July and positively bringing the house down.
Tom Steyer: Unless you’re a super wrestling nerd, you probably don’t remember Vince Russo. He was head of creative during much of the Eric Bischoff era at WCW. He was a great writer. Helped the company a lot.
And then someone got the idea that Russo should get in front of the camera and be a character who came into the ring and cut promos and whatnot. He was not great.
Maybe Steyer should stick to cutting checks for the causes he cares about and leave the in-ring work to the professional sports entertainers. As a wise man once said, “Know your role . . .”
Tulsi Gabbard: In 2008, Ron Paul got 8 percent of the vote in the Republican primary in New Hampshire. In 2012, he got 23 percent there. My working theory is that some very large percentage of those Paul voters are now Tulsi voters. I will not be surprised—at all—if she finishes with more than 8 percent in New Hampshire.
And then, before long, we’ll start with the questions about whether or not she’ll endorse the eventual Democratic nominee. (Paul refused to endorse the GOP nominee in both 2008 and 2012.)
As a result of all of this, Tulsi has gone from a Dem face to the purest kind of heel in the party: She’s X-Pac.
Heels are characters who draw heat, which is to say that their job is to get the audience to hate them. But X-Pac is famous for having the audience hate not the character “X-Pac,” but the performer’s actual presence in the ring. The audience didn’t love to hate him. They just wanted him to go away.
I’m pretty sure that’s where Tulsi is right now.
Amy Klobuchar: She has been trying so hard to make this happen. And it’s not going to happen. It’s never going to happen. There’s something poetic and tragic about Klobuchar’s candidacy, because on paper it should work. She’s been a good senator. She wins big in a purple state. She’s a good fit for the general public and would be tough in the Electoral College.
It all reminds me of Dustin Patrick Runnels, the son of legendary wrestler Dusty Rhodes. Dustin had all the tools to be a great. He was a legacy. And yet, when he was ready to make a run in the WWF he got saddled with the “Goldust” gimmick, in which he walked around painted gold and wearing a wig and maybe being kind of androgynous or maybe just freaky-deaky.
It was painful to watch.
But not as painful as the fact that his debut match as Goldust was against . . . Marty Jannetty. Who lost. To the big, gold-painted guy in the wig. Lord, have mercy.
As we begin our final descent into the snows of Iowa, remember that however bad you have it, someone, somewhere, has it worse.