Q&A: What does the 2020 campaign look like right now? Ask David Weigel.

May 02, 2019

The field of Democrats who want to challenge President Trump is largely set. Send in your questions about the election and campaign to Post national political correspondent David Weigel.

Weigel writes The Trailer, a political newsletter all about campaigns and elections and has seen lots of candidates in lots of states.

The Trailer publishes three days a week, with what's happening in politics around the country. Subscribe to The Trailer here.

Read the latest newsletters, on Elizabeth Warren's "plan" campaign and what we learned about Biden 2020.

What ideas are driving the campaign? How are voters reacting to the candidates? Write in your questions at the bottom of the page.

Happy Thursday, everyone! Now that the 800-pound gorilla has entered the Democratic primary – I'm speaking, of course, about Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet – this seemed like a good time to take stock of the race and answer any questions that might be motivating or confusing people. Fire away.

You've mentioned that Warren's "I have a plan" campaign hasn't moved polling much, even if it's been warmly received at in-person events. But this week has seen a small — but perceptible — uptick for her in the polls. Most pundits seem to be attributing all of that rise to her rhetoric surrounding the Mueller report and impeachment. Do you think that's the case, or is her policy smorgasbord finally starting to pay off some in the numbers?

Good eye – I wrote that on Sunday, right before some polls showed Warren moving back up!

The basis for that story was that I kept having conversations with voters after candidate forums, or even after events for other candidates, where voters said they were most impressed by Warren but worried that she could not win. 

I think you're right about impeachment. Warren's boldness on that question got media and voters looking at her again for the first time in a few weeks. When they did so, they saw a candidate who had really improved since January and was beating the field on policy proposals. 

I also keep an eye on what's usually called a "jailbreak" – a moment when voters suddenly become convinced that their favorite candidate can actually win, and break for him or her. We saw this in Iowa in 2008 for Obama and Huckabee, and we saw it in Iowa in 2012 for Santorum. I'm not saying Warren will be that breakout candidate; I am saying, it's good to watch whether voters begin to think other candidates besides Biden are electable.

Which candidates are relying most heavily on a good debate performance? Which candidates do you think are well suited to break out during the debates?

Every candidate except for Joe Biden believes that the debates will re-organize the race. The nice thing they'll say is that their candidates, who have been tenderized by voter questions and TV interviewers, will get to show off their skills. The not-nice thing, which they don't say, is that Biden's "electability" armor will be tested when the 76-year old veep is contrasted with younger candidates.

Having seen every candidate on the trail by now (I'm only going to say that once so nobody gets tired of it), I think that the candidates who've gotten the most nimble with questions are Buttigieg, Warren, Klobuchar, and Castro. Warren, Castro, and Harris, have shown some skills that could aid in a "break out" moment AND have been underrated either for lack of attention or for the inordinate attention paid to their worst moments. 

Another big question, un-answerable for now, is which candidate might use the debate to make a negative case against a frontrunner. You might say: Well, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth have been attacking Joe Biden's voting record. True, but we don't know if the debate lottery will put all three of them on the same stage; there will be, at first, two debates over two nights.

We are now up to 21 (!) candidates running. Based on polling, most are getting just 1%. Do you see all 21 making it to the caucus vote? Or, how many do you see dropping out, and what's your prediction for a final number before the first votes are taken.

I really don't. One reason that many Republicans dragged out their 2012 and 2016 campaigns long after they were viable was that they had super PACs; Donald Trump was the lone candidate who did not. But the 2020 Democratic field has sworn off super PACs, with the lone exception of Jay Inslee. There will be, as there have been in the past, Democrats who test the waters, get small crowds, run out of money, and go home.

I'm not comfortable making too many election predictions, but I'll say that only 16 candidates make it to the Iowa caucuses, especially if a worry starts to grow that the crowd will ease Bernie Sanders's path to the nomination.

In 2008 Biden did pretty poorly in Iowa, does it look like his campaign has learned from that and is organizing differently or are they organizing like it is 2008?

I'd recommend my colleague Matt Viser's story about that. Biden simply did not do the sort of organizing work in 2008 that winning candidates do; he was unready for the hard work of dragging people out to caucus.

The Biden campaign I saw this week was taking the caucuses much more seriously, signing people in, getting information to contact them again. And the candidate himself continues to build these long, friendly relationships with local leaders and activists. In Dubuque, for example, he worked a rope line for around 40 minutes, posing for photos and asking small talk questions, taking more time with that than any candidate I've seen save for Warren. Now, he ALWAYS did that, but in the past the people who left happy weren't locked in to supporting him.

You must be in the top 5 for miles travelled by a political reporter (or will when it is over) covering the 2020 election, no?

I'm sure some TV producers have done more. (I vent a lot about the silly cable news panels hat can overwhelm coverage of issues, but the reporters and producers on the ground all work very hard.) I haven't clocked miles, but I have taken 69 flights so far this year, when you include connections. (It would not be nice to exclude them.)

Campaigns release the number of donors and we all see the public polling numbers, but do they release the number of people signed up to volunteer for their campaign?

Not all of them, no, and to be honest that number is a lot less solid than something like a total donor number.

Why? Well, if you have ever had a party and sent out an Evite or Paperless Post or whatever's popular now (I'm old and lose track), you are familiar with people who RSVP then ghost on you. Same with volunteers who say, sure, they'll help volunteer. Only closer to the caucuses can you get a firmer number, and even then, it's not perfect. I'd add that some 2018 grassroots campaigns hyped a big volunteer number, to say that rival campaigns could not match it, but they ended up being disappointed; the rival campaigns don't have to number their own volunteers and usually have third party groups (labor, Planned Parenthood, etc) hitting doors for them. Something like "10,000 doors knocked" is a better metric than "10,000 volunteer sign-ups."

Is South Carolina being overlooked in its importance? The current assumption is that Harris, Booker, Bernie and even Biden have to perform well with the African American vote to validate their electability. Is that true?

It's partly that South Carolina is a do-or-die state for multiple campaigns (hard to see Harris or Booker continuing without it) and partly that the bloc of Southern primaries is now mostly a fight for black Democratic voters. That makes South Carolina a preview of what could happen when the race moves to Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, and so on. In both 2008 and 2016, the candidate who locked up big delegate margins in the deep South won the nomination.

For real, though, why are *so many people running*? They must know they cannot win, or else I’m too cynical. The Trump Won effect?

So, sidebar: One reason I like to joke "he's running" or "she's running" when a politician makes news is that I always found it amusing that any politician's decision to do stuff is seen as a move toward a possible presidential bid. That is usually ridiculous, and come on, there's so much more to politics than who the presidential candidate will be.

But, yes, this year, almost every Democrat who considered running is doing so. They don't think they're running for vice president. Trump really did break the seal on "experience," so candidates whose resumes might not have been taken seriously before, like Pete Buttigieg's, now see an electorate that is perfectly comfortable with taking a chance.

Add to that Biden and Sanders, who many rival candidates see as flawed front-runners (starting with their age), and see a path around.

How would you say the typical demographic of a candidate event compares to the demographic of the Democratic primary electorate? Are the people coming out to events representative of who will actually be caucusing and voting next year?

This is a great question because it gets at whether the main work of covering "the campaign trail" is flawed; the people you're meeting are far likelier to vote than anyone else in America.

On demographics, every candidate's audience in Iowa and New Hampshire looks like each state's electorate: Largely white, with some non-white voters in the cities and college towns. The only crowd-spotting that matters is who gets diverse audiences in Nevada and South Carolina; the answer is that Kamala Harris and Cory Booker do, but other campaigns have largely been pulling out white voters so far. Bernie Sanders has pulled out less-white audiences when he's spoken at HBCUs or when local organizers have gotten time to shape the crowd, but you are not seeing big black audiences for any candidate yet. And to be fair, in 2007, it took a while for Barack Obama to get those audiences.

Who do you think most needs a top 2 or 3 finish in Iowa or New Hampshire to keep going?

There is no path ahead for Amy Klobuchar if she doesn't place near the top in Iowa, and none for Elizabeth Warren if she doesn't do the same in New Hampshire. Warren probably needs to win New Hampshire outright; she could muddle along with, say, some bunched-up primary where she and one or two frontrunners all came in the mid-20s.

How worrying at this stage is the fact that high profile democrats keep turning down offer to (re)run for the senate in 2020 , some even contemplating entering a super busy primary field.

This a real problem for Democrats in one state, Montana, and a smaller problem in others. Stacey Abrams could have immediately raised millions to put Georgia on the board, but the state has a few other credible Democrats. In Montana, yes, Democrats are incredibly frustrated that popular two-term Gov. Steve Bullock is trading perhaps a one-in-three shot at becoming a senator and a one-in-10,000 shot at being president.

But the party shouldn't panic unless it stumbles on recruiting in North Carolina and Maine. (It will panic anyway, as that is the Democratic way.)

Some has compared Joe Biden’s frontrunner status to Jeb Bush’s 2016 run, while others believe that it undersells Biden’s strength at the top. I personally think Biden 2020 is closer to Mitt Romney’s 2012 primary campaign, where Romney was the clear frontrunner, but had to constantly fend off the ‘flavors of the month’. Is there any modern campaign that you think most resembles the Biden 2020 campaign and why?

As someone who never thought Jeb! was a credible front-runner, and who did think Trump was, I am glad that so many people are being cautious about 2020. But you're right, there's a habit of applying last year's rules to each year's race.

Biden is unlike other front-runners in that Democrats closely associate him with a president they love and miss. Sanders is a bit more like Romney, in that his supporters believed that he would have won had he been the party's nominee in a prior election; that is a strong "electability" theory but not as powerful as the one you inherit as a twice-elected VP.

I don't think Democrats, like the 2012 Republicans are looking for a flavor of the month so much as they remain unsettled about picking an old, white, male nominee, and will keep shopping for someone younger (and electable-looking) to fall in love with.

There seems to be a small part of the party begging the party to focus on rural voters, but from what I've heard all the candidates are failing to do so convincingly. The Iowa rural summit was largely a bust. The problem no one wants to say out loud is that the cultural differences are too glaring. Buttigieg may be Midwestern but his affect is very cosmopolitan and the only crossover he gets is cosmopolitan republicans. Is there any candidate successfully pitching to them right now?

That's a good observation about Buttigieg. People outside of Indiana here what state he's from and assume "rootsy" and "rural." People inside Indiana know he runs a college town. One of my favorite things about traveling the country is learning how most states have a part that conservatives consider fake and elite, i.e. "Boulder liberals" in Colorado and the "People's Republic of Madison" in Wisconsin.

The issue is pretty simple: Obama won the Midwest by the biggest margin of any Democrat in decades in part with plans to aggressively protect farmers. And then, in 2015/2016, farmers had a bad few cycles and it didn't look like the Obama admin was protecting their interests. So there are rural voters who might be interested again in a populist Democratic economic agenda.

There are more rural voters who feel culturally alienated from the party and Democrats don't know what to do there. Check out Heidi Heitkamp's 2018 campaign in North Dakota; she could have not said more about farmers, but Republicans ran ads warning that she would not stop criminal undocumented immigrants from coming to the state.

You mentioned how both Bernie and Biden have tried to limit their press availability. Will either or both see the backlash that Hillary did in 2016 when she was seen as inaccessible?

They might face more questions about this from voters, who in the early states really like to ask the candidates what they'll do. I think Clinton's early strategy of "listening sessions" that brought her down to earth with voters saved Iowa for her in 2016.

Right now, Bernie is seen as having a hardcore base that won't move, and Biden is seen as a safe choice by Democrats who actually worry that they demanded TOO much of Hillary last time. But hard to see how that lasts.

Which small cities would you recommend to a tourist?

Define "small," maybe, but there are tons of nice cities that you get to see more if you cover campaigns. Greenville, SC is very pleasant; Dubuque and Cedar Rapids have a ton of character and good local food; Reno is a much better outdoors city than people give it credit for. You also find a lot of gems in the exurbs; Taylor, Texas is a place I might not have gone if I was not covering a House race, and it's a fascinating study of a small town ignored for decades that's become attractive for people fleeing Austin.

During his events at various college campuses, Beto O'Rourke has been known to wear a hat from the respective college. How does he get these hats? Are they purchased by the campaign (if so why are these expenditures not documented in his FEC filing) or does he simply borrow a hat from a student? Or worse, is he in the pocket of the large hat companies (Big Hat)? Any and all intelligence on this matter would be appreciated.

I really need to ask him. These hats are pretty cheap so if it's a conspiracy it's not a very good one.

What are the differences between lobbies money, bundling, dark money, and pac money? What are the difference between what Warren and Bernie are doing and what candidates like Kamala Harris, Beto, Booker, Biden, etc. are doing fundraising wise?

Great question. Lobbying = a particular legal designation for people who do "influence" work. Bundling = the act of donors using their personal social networks to multiply donations for a campaign. Dark money = cash that is not reported to the FEC, like donations to "charitable" groups that go on to run negative TV ads. PAC money = donations from a political action committee.

Warren is the one candidate not holding any fundraisers whatsoever, which she has said frees her up to do more campaigning and small-dollar fundraising, even if it does not introduce her to powerful bundlers. Sanders has occasional fundraisers, as does Beto, but they're not a big part of their campaign schedules. Every candidate has ruled out "corporate PAC" money, which is never a huge part of a campaign's total.

What Impact do you think moving the super-delegates to the second round at the convention could have?

The nightmare scenario for Democrats is that two or three candidates arrive in Milwaukee without releasing their delegates, and superdelegates, on the second ballot, pick a nominee who ran behind in the total primary vote.

I think that is supremely unlikely to happen. Before they changed superdelegate rules, Democrats ran the numbers to determine that any pre-superdelegate contests would not have been affected had the new rules been in place.

Will James Comey run?

Only as the second candidate on a Howard Schultz unity ticket. (I think I'm joking.)

Okay, everyone – that was an extremely fun and informative way to spend an hour. We'll do it again sometime. In the meantime, please subscribe to The Trailer, where I will answer questions even before you have them! (I use an experimental machine developed by the Turkish OKK in the 1970s in order to read minds. Probably shouldn't admit that here.)

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David Weigel
David Weigel is a national political correspondent covering Congress and grass-roots political movements.
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