July 12, 2019 480 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, your weekly ranking of 2020 presidential candidates according to science, jokes, polls, apologies, money, drugs, and the “optics” of dropping out of the race entirely. The Surge would like to thank its colleague, Ben Mathis-Lilley, for pinch-hitting last week as well as its subscribers for putting up with his lies.


It was a relatively slow week in presidential politics, something that’s become depressingly rare for the July before an election year even begins. But we did see one chucklehead quit the race, only to be replaced by a much richer one who’s campaigning on a platform of lighting his money on fire. The Democrats’ still-barely-front-runner, meanwhile, is changing his strategy to include hard-hitting tactics like apologizing and saying the word Barack. A major progressive conference this week will go eerily unattended, including by one candidate who should probably be there but hates a blogger; Elizabeth Warren used to have no money but now has some; and a guy made up that Kamala Harris was going to Utah. Meanwhile, our beloved incumbent is …

Donald Trump bathed in color
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week Up from last week #2

1. Donald Trump

Haha he’s getting more popular.

Our president this week was greeted with some of the finest polling numbers of his administration. In a Washington Post–ABC News poll, Trump’s approval rating among registered voters reached 47 percent, with 50 percent disapproving, a 5-percentage-point increase from the same poll in April. This came in spite of a significant majority saying he was not presidential and his approval rating “on most issues” being underwater. In head-to-head matchups with presidential candidates, only Joe Biden was maintaining a significant lead against him. What all of this says is: nothing, because it’s 16 months before the presidential election. But if the Surge were to allow itself the indulgence of drawing a sweeping conclusion, it might say that Democrats should indeed be worried that this guy could actually pull it off on the strength of the economy while the opposition tears itself to shreds or sprints leftward in a primary. The Surge might also note, though, that all of those happy feelings about the economy might dissipate if the administration-backed lawsuit to eliminate the Affordable Care Act entirely makes its way to the Supreme Court’s 2020 docket, as it appears to be doing.

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #4

2. Elizabeth Warren

The “raise money by not raising money” thing is starting to work.

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren opted earlier this year not to spend time soliciting big donations by dialing for dollars or hosting hoity-toity fundraisers, her finance director quit and her first-quarter fundraising numbers lagged. She announced this week, however, that she had raised a tidy $19.1 million dollars in the second quarter of 2019, concomitant with her rise in the polls. It was the third-largest haul within the field, and a larger one than the $18 million haul of the guy who mastered the no-fundraisers, grassroots funding model in 2016: Sen. Bernie Sanders. As my colleague Jordan Weissmann explained this week, it’s good news for the Democratic Party that Warren has shown that other candidates who aren’t Sanders can raise necessary funds this way—even if, as Buttigieg and Biden’s impressive numbers also attest, the big-checks model still works quite well too. Perhaps the finance director should have waited a few months.

Rank 3

Last Week Down from last week #1

3. Kamala Harris

Beware the Utah scheduler fraud.

Not a ton of Harris news this week, but of what use would a rankings newsletter be if we didn’t include the reigning “it” candidate? So let’s see how she’s doing. On Thursday, Harris proposed a billion-dollar plan to end the national backlog on rape kits. Good idea. And she only quasi-accepted Biden’s apology for being friends with segregationists. The quasi-acceptance of an apology is always a smooth idea, ’cause you get both sides. What else? Word was that Harris would visit Utah for an appearance and a fundraiser, but that announcement turned out to come from “a man posing as a campaign operative who was working under a false name with a criminal history.” Classic Utah scheduling deepfake from a criminal fraud. 

Rank 4

Last Week Down from last week #3

4. Joe Biden

Ready to crack some skulls by discussing foreign policy and apologizing.

Watch out, dweebs: The former vice president’s strategy of caution, staying above the fray, and playing “friendlylike” is now over. The Dragon of Scranton has been released. Per Politico, Biden’s team has been urging him to “get more aggressive,” because “if he doesn’t come out strong and swinging,” and soon, “you’re going to see a lot of people leaving him.” So what does this fierce, ruthless strategy of impaling human souls look like? First of all, he’s apologizing for having spoken nostalgically about working with segregationist senators. Sharp-elbowed! He’s also delivering a speech laying out his foreign policy. Is he unhinged? Lastly, he’s “more directly referencing his eight years with Barack Obama,” by calling him “Barack.” The New Joe Biden simply cannot be contained.

Rank 5

Last Week
Unranked

5. Eric Swalwell

We have a dropout!

The California congressman whose most notable campaign moment involved a failed attempt to “get” a very gettable Joe Biden during a presidential debate wised up in the weeks afterward, acknowledging that there was no chance in hell he would be elected president. “We have to be honest about our own candidacy’s viability,” Swalwell, who was polling at nothing, said in announcing he would end his presidential campaign and run for reelection to the House instead. The debate, which was his one chance to catch lightning in a bottle, didn’t move his numbers at all, and his final decision as a presidential candidate—to end it—doubled as his smartest (because it got him on this list). The only disappointment from Swalwell’s decision was that 10 or so other candidates, also polling at nothing and having no chance of rising higher than nothing, didn’t join him. In fact …

Rank 6

Last Week
Unranked

6. Tom Steyer

We have another entrant!

Swalwell’s place was immediately filled by another Bay Area Democrat, billionaire donor and activist Tom Steyer. Good Lord. If (/when) he doesn’t gain traction, though, Steyer can’t be expected to go the way of the Swalwell, because he plans to spend $100 million of his own money, which would be enough financing to keep him in the race all the way up to, let’s see here, forever. Consider, too, that it was only six months ago that Steyer went to Iowa to announce that he would not be running for president, saying instead that he “will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to remove a president.” That could have meant organizing and registering voters or just running air cover for the rest of the field via television ads against Donald Trump. It could have meant endorsing another candidate, or enfranchising voters in Florida. Instead, this billionaire will spend $100 million on himself, and, as the New York Times writes, will position “himself as a populist outsider, railing against corporate interests that he described as holding too much sway over the political system.” Such a unique perspective—running against the system as an outsider. It’s crazy how no one else in the field, save 23 or so other candidates, ran with that until Tom Steyer picked it up.

Rank 7

Last Week
Unranked

7. Bernie Sanders

Not even going to Netroots? Really?

Netroots Nation, the annual conference for progressive activists, is underway in Philadelphia, and on Saturday it will host a presidential candidate forum. As we write, though, candidate attendance is unusually sparse: Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julián Castro, Jay Inslee, and Tom Steyer are the only confirmed attendees. We can understand why, say, Joe Biden or other more moderate candidates might not want to participate. But what about Bernie Sanders? As the Daily Beast reports, the Sanders campaign had been concerned that one of the forum moderators would be Markos Moulitsas, the founder of classic weblog Daily Kos. To be fair to Sanders, it’s true that Kos has taken his fair share of shots at Sanders for not being a “team player.” And the campaign’s official excuse for not attending is “scheduling difficulties.” (That is also the Surge’s official excuse for not going to Netroots.) But if you’re Bernie Sanders, and you’re not willing to attend a progressive forum like Netroots because you’re concerned that some participants are against you, you might have a tough time in this primary competition.