June 28, 2019 494 days to Nov 03, 2020
The Surge

Slate’s guide to the presidential candidates everyone’s talking about this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, which ranks your presidential candidates—both Democrats and Republicans—according to a top-secret proprietary formula incorporating good news, bad news, polls, joke potential, a dash of quantum physics, and a sprig of harnessed love.


We apologize that this week’s edition is arriving later than our “traditional” (this is only the second week) Friday morning delivery. The many Democratic presidential candidates, however, were debating for the whole 72 hours during which we typically write this newsletter. In those debates, we saw Elizabeth Warren coast, Kamala Harris kill, and Joe Biden wilt. We saw candidates who have deserved harder looks, like Julián Castro and Cory Booker, get them, and we saw Marianne Williamson demonstrate that indeed, there is a self-help spiritual leader in America who sounds like the late William F. Buckley Jr. Lastly, we saw Republicans feeling quite satisfied about the toll this primary season is going to take on the eventual Democratic nominee.

Kamala Harris.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Kamala Harris

My God.

More specifically, the reason the Surge is coming later to your inbox this Friday is because we were at the police station all night describing what we saw Kamala Harris do to Joe Biden. It was such a jaw-dropping undressing of Biden’s past, delivered with a dagger-twist of personal touch. Harris will now land firmly in the top tier of contenders, where campaign handicappers have been awaiting her arrival patiently, and when you think of all the debates still to come that Harris can dominate … well, it’s hard to see her leaving that top tier. But for a reality check, let’s not forget that part of the reason Harris had struggled to break away prior to Thursday night was the lack of a clear campaign identity: Is she trying to compete for the left or not? Is she a tribune of the ascendant progressive wing or an ambitious, mainstream former prosecutor? We were reminded of this insecurity when, immediately after the debate, she yet again offered a mystifying walk back of her support for banning private health insurance. She can’t be every faction’s best friend. But for now, she’s tops. 

Rank 2

Last Week Down from last week #1

2. Elizabeth Warren

A strong showing in her first exhibition game.

As you’re reading this, you may have already forgotten entirely about Elizabeth Warren’s Wednesday night debate performance, since the debate she participated in served as the amuse-bouche before Thursday night’s main event. So allow us to recap: She got the job done, which was to dominate the first hour of the debate while appearing above the fray of long shots interrupting each other. She laid out crisp positions on health care, breaking up monopolies, and codifying the right to abortion into law, delivered a strong closing statement, and neither baited nor allowed herself to be baited by her competitors. Warren may not Surge™ after this debate, but she did well enough to maintain her upward trajectory in the race. Hopefully, she will be able to mix it up with her main competitors in the next debates.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Julián Castro

Picking on a half-asleep Beto O’Rourke can do wonders for a presidential candidacy.

Why yes, it appears that a still-young former mayor of a major city, Cabinet secretary, and keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention is indeed politically talented, thanks for noticing. On Wednesday, Castro sounded the most intelligent, informed, and humane on his central policy plank, immigration reform, saying that seeing the photos of drowned father and daughter Óscar and Valeria Martínez was “heartbreaking” and “should also piss us all off.” And maybe there was some weird Texas grudge situation, or maybe Castro simply noticed that Beto O’Rourke wasn’t at his best, but Castro wisely chose O’Rourke as the guy to pick on for not being as read up on immigration policy as he is. “I think that you should do your homework on this issue,” Castro chastised O’Rourke, who was cooler to repealing the section of immigration law that the Trump administration has used to enforce its family-separation policy. Castro was one of the first candidates in the race and has barely been noticed. That’s now changed.

Rank 4

Last Week Down from last week #3

4. Joe Biden

Consider the problem of his leaky staff.

My colleagues and I have several pieces of content for you to enjoy regarding Joe Biden’s rickety debate performance Thursday night. But one thing that caught my eye in the debate’s immediate aftermath, because it’s becoming a recurring problem, was a “source close to the Biden campaign” telling reporter Olivia Nuzzi that Biden wasn’t listening to debate prep and was too “set in his ways.” This is now the third time I’ve noticed Biden staffers trash-talking their boss when the going gets rough. After Biden changed his position on the Hyde Amendment, staffers bragged to the Atlantic that they had to sit the old man down to get him to change his ways. During last week’s controversy over Biden’s relationships with segregationist senators, certain Biden staffers told CNN that they had warned him not to use that anecdote, but he was too stubborn to listen. What all this tells me is that there are staffers on the Biden campaign who only signed up because of his early polling strength, and if that polling strength dissipates, their first move will be to cover their own asses. But more to the point, at least some of Biden’s mercenaries don’t believe in him. It speaks, much like Thursday’s debate performance, to the wobbly foundation on which his front-runner status rests.

Rank 5

Last Week Up from last week #7

5. Marianne Williamson

Like I said: Summer of Marianne.

In last week’s edition, the Surge predicted that the first presidential debates would inaugurate the Summer of Marianne. And now, that summer is officially underway! We don’t know how Williamson, who is from Texas, developed a disappearing and reappearing Boston Brahmin accent, but now it’s the only voice we ever want to hear again. I have never seen a candidate argue that we need to stop focusing on the “superficial” aspects of politics, like policy, and focus more on sloganeering and good feelings, but she did it. Bask in the heat of positive energy! Williamson challenged the prime minister of New Zealand and told Donald Trump that she would defeat him with love. Yes, she is a dangerous loon. But Republicans get to have one for their president. Shouldn’t Democrats get to have one for their debates? 

Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #2

6. Cory Booker

He’s coming. Just you wait!

There was no single grand moment for the New Jersey senator Wednesday night, but there were plenty of strong moments. And if we’re going to judge the “winner” of the first debate by bloodless statistical metrics, it would have been Booker, who spoke for the most time during the debate and earned the most frequent spikes in Google searches. If it seems, over the lengthy two-week history of this family newsletter, that we’ve been training a lot of attention on a guy who’s polling at 2 or 3 percent, that’s because we really do expect him to move upward into a quasi-competitive position at some point this summer. He has been too talented for too many years, and he’s too broadly acceptable to primarygoers, not to compete. But do not allow this newsletter’s brief appreciation of his skills lead you to believe, reader, that we will stop making fun of him when he tries too hard to create a moment.

Rank 7

Last Week Down from last week #4

7. Donald Trump

Here’s one reason that incumbents tend to get reelected.

As we watched Democrats race to the left over the course of two nights, or watched Kamala Harris try to take out Joe Biden, or generally saw a lot of oddballs try to make a name for themselves, consider what Trump must have been thinking: This field is going to tear itself apart. OK, what Trump was really thinking was probably something more like Hamburger time?? or, simply, “BORING!” But his team, and Republican officials, must have been pleased to see all Democrats raise their hands saying they would not deport undocumented immigrants. They must have loved that Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris both said they’d eliminate private insurance. They must have really enjoyed watching the left candidates take out the more moderate ones. For once, the news isn’t focused on Trump, it’s focused on divisions within the Democratic Party, and that’s going to last another year. Democratic strategists will say that we’re due for a one-term president after three straight two-term presidents, and Trump is the ideal incumbent on which to break the streak. But the opposition-party debates, of which there will be many more, show why we’re on such a streak to begin with.