The Memo: What the leading 2020 Dems need to do

The Democrats seeking the presidency are entering the most critical phase yet of their campaigns with fewer than 100 days left before the first contest, the Iowa caucuses.

There are 18 candidates left in the field, after Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanMinnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen Congress must fill the leadership void Pelosi pushes to unite party on coronavirus bill despite grumbling from left MORE (D-Ohio) became the latest to drop out last week. There are likely five candidates, at most, who have a realistic chance of becoming the nominee. 

What do they need to do?

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE

Biden was the undisputed front-runner in the early stages and retains a slender lead in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national polling average.

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But Biden has come under pressure from Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) in particular. She has surpassed him in several national polls and is also leading the polling averages in the two vital early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Biden needs to improve across the board if his early strength is not to melt away.

The former vice president’s debate performances have been generally poor. At times he has meandered to such an extent that questions about his age and vigor become unavoidable. Biden is 76, which would make him the oldest person ever elected president if he won in 2020.

Biden has also struggled in terms of fundraising, trailing in fourth in money raised in the third quarter. His campaign last week dropped its prior objections to super PACs — a move presumably made out of necessity, but which drew criticism from Warren and her fellow progressive, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.).

There is a broader problem, too. There is little evidence, by any metric, that Biden is sparking any great excitement among the Democratic base. 

Biden’s support has proven more durable than his critics expected, but he is nearing a moment of truth.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass)

Warren has shown far greater momentum than any other candidate in the race.

She can credibly claim to be a co-front-runner, at least, alongside Biden, thanks to her polling standing in the early states, her fundraising prowess and the large crowds she draws to her rallies.

But her prominence brings challenges too. At the most recent debate, in Ohio, Warren came under far more sustained attack from her rivals than ever before. She held up adequately but unspectacularly. And there will likely be more jabs to come, starting with the next debate in Georgia on Nov. 20.

Warren has often faced the critique that she is less electable against President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE than more centrist figures such as Biden. She and her supporters vigorously push back against the charge, but how persuasive she is on that point will be crucial, given the Democratic ardor for defeating Trump above all else.

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Warren’s lead in Iowa is not a wide one — she is up by fewer than 4 points in the RCP average — and a loss there could put her whole strategy in peril.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders has bounced back since he had a heart attack earlier this month, delivering a vigorous “comeback” performance at the Ohio debate and holding a huge New York City rally at which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezAttorney says 75-year-old man shoved by Buffalo police suffered brain injury How language is bringing down Donald Trump Highest-circulation Kentucky newspaper endorses Charles Booker in Senate race MORE (D-N.Y.) delivered an emphatic endorsement of him.

For Sanders, the question is whether he can expand his support. While Warren’s standing in the polls has risen consistently over time, Sanders has plateaued at best. He has not risen above 20 percent support in the RCP national average since May. He stood at 17.3 percent on Friday afternoon.

Skeptics note that Sanders performed so strongly in 2016 in part because he was the only credible alternative to eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE. A multicandidate field has posed bigger challenges.

Still, Sanders retains a fervent base of support, which in turn has given him a lot of money. He raised more than any other candidate in the third quarter

Can Sanders use his money to somehow catapult himself past Warren in Iowa or New Hampshire? His viability as a potential nominee likely depends on it.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (D)

Buttigieg’s appeal is plain: He is a very youthful, media-savvy messenger for the same kind of centrism espoused by Biden, who is almost 40 years his senior.

Is that enough? Probably not, unless Biden’s bid truly implodes.

Still, Buttigieg has been making progress in opinion polls, particularly in Iowa. A recent survey from Iowa State University put him in second place, behind Warren, with 20 percent support in the Hawkeye State.

A strong performance in the first state could propel Buttigieg into real contention. But he has struggled mightily to elicit any significant support from black voters. Unless that changes, it will likely be fatal to any hopes he has of becoming the nominee.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.)

Harris has had a disappointing stretch of late. 

She briefly soared in the polls after mounting a vigorous assault on Biden on race-related issues in the first debates in Miami in late June. 

But she has slid since then and now appears to have been eclipsed by Buttigieg. She is running at around 5 percent in national polling averages, and is polling even lower than that in Iowa.

Getting voters to take a second look in such a crowded field is a challenge — and even more so for Harris, who has been dogged about questions as to her core beliefs and consistency throughout her campaign.

She can shine in debates, however, and will likely need to score big in the two remaining clashes this year if she hopes to vault back into real contention.

Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.)

Booker and Klobuchar are significant names on the national stage, but both have struggled to get traction in this race.

Hypothetically, they could have some massive debate moment, or Biden’s bid could fall apart, creating more room in the center-left lane in which they both run.

Short of that, though, they seem doomed to also-ran status.

Other candidates: Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSome realistic solutions for income inequality Democratic senators kneel during moment of silence for George Floyd 21 senators urge Pentagon against military use to curb nationwide protests MORE (D-Colo.), Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Overnight Energy: US Park Police say ‘tear gas’ statements were ‘mistake’ | Trump to reopen area off New England coast for fishing | Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues in battle to save seats MORE (D), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D), former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyThe Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what ‘policing’ means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight Minnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen The Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan says there will be consequences from fraying US-China relations; WHO walks back claims on asymptomatic spread of virus MORE (D-Md.), Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE (D-Hawaii), Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamKey moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Wayne Messam suspends Democratic presidential campaign 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum MORE (D), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), businessman Tom SteyerTom SteyerBloomberg wages war on COVID-19, but will he abandon his war on coal? Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil Ocasio-Cortez, Schiff team up to boost youth voter turnout MORE, author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson touts endorsements for progressive congressional candidates The Hill’s 12:30 Report: Warren becomes latest 2020 rival to back Biden The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden looks to stretch lead in Tuesday contests MORE, businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangGeorge Floyd protests show corporations must support racial and economic equality Andrew Yang discusses his universal basic income pilot program Andrew Yang on the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis MORE.

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