Aug 16, 2019 445 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 the presidential candidates according to the level of heretical fealty they displayed to the Iowa State Fair’s false idol, the Butter Cow.

In this week’s edition, we look at how Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both had strong showings in Iowa last week, and how Sanders is mad anyway. We congratulate the rich candidate for his latest vanity purchase, wave goodbye to another dropout, bittersweetly observe that the global economy is about to crash, and consider the front-runner’s latest string of saying things that he didn’t mean to say. We are also defending Beto O’Rourke for the second week in a row. What is happening? Has the Surge gone soft? Blame the corn dogs.

Elizabeth Warren, surrounded by the red, white, and blue.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week Up from last week #2

1. Elizabeth Warren

The nerd-chant queen of Iowa.

We don’t want to extrapolate too much about macro trends from anecdotal observations—just kidding, of course we do, it’s called “science”—but a presidential candidate is typically doing well when a crowd of thousands issues a deafening roar when you say the words big structural change, or chants “2 cents! 2 cents!” upon mention of your wealth tax proposal. So it was for Elizabeth Warren at the Iowa State Fair this past weekend, as she took her turn atop the presidential “soapbox.” And the night before, at a packed fundraiser called the “Wing Ding” in Clear Lake, the crowd began to lose its mind only a few notes into her walk-on song, “9 to 5.” Warren garnered the best press and the most enthusiasm during last weekend’s fieldwide Iowa swing. She still trails Joe Biden in state polling, but their trajectories seem bound for a collision.

Rank 2

Last Week

2. Bernie Sanders

At war with the “corporate media.”

Sanders also had a strong reception at the state fair! To celebrate, he and his campaign picked nits all week with the “corporate media” for not fully appreciating how great his time there truly was. His campaign, and his followers, didn’t care for on-the-ground reporters who said that Warren’s appearance at the fair drew a slightly larger crowd—there is no precise way to adjudicate this, but the Surge’s eyes also suggested Warren’s crowd was a tad larger—and went ballistic after a New York Times story reported that Sanders didn’t speak one on one with potential caucusgoers in his brief walkabout of the fairgrounds. In a press call following his fair visit, the Sanders campaign complained that the media was unfairly writing him off, while Sanders himself suggested that he doesn’t get good coverage in the Washington Post because it’s owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, a charge he would later walk back. There is something real to the idea that the press never treats Sanders with the seriousness deserved by a politician of his stature. Then again! Perhaps the reason Sanders is sometimes written off is that his campaign has been stuck in neutral, and he’s shown little ability to expand his following this cycle beyond core supporters. When that changes, maybe the coverage will too.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Tom Steyer

No, he did not purchase this bronze placement on the Surge.

As a dozen or so Democrats enter a desperate sprint to meet the qualifications for participating in September’s third presidential debates, late entrant Tom Steyer has discovered an ingenious method for cracking the debate-qualification code: having a lot of money, and using that money to effectively purchase qualification. Steyer, the retired billionaire investor and activist, is willing to put $100 million of his own money into the campaign. He’s already put $7 million into television ads and a field-leading $2.5 million into digital advertising. Further, his campaign bought 8 million voter files from Need to Impeach—a group he founded in 2017 to collect voter information for a presidential run advocate for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. All of those investments have allowed Steyer to quickly meet the 130,000-unique-donor threshold to qualify for the next debates. Now he only needs one more sanctioned poll of 2 percent or better to make the stage. Other candidates likely to be cut from the debate stage have complained about Steyer gaming the system. What they should do instead of complaining, though, is follow his path: Spend the next week making billions of dollars in finance and the week after that converting it into political support. It’s not hard.

Rank 4

Last Week Down from last week #1

4. Beto O’Rourke

Returning to the presidential campaign whether you like it or not.

Last week’s Top Surger returned to the presidential trail this week after taking a two-week hiatus following the El Paso, Texas, shooting. He delivered what his campaign billed as a “major address” that refocused his campaign on challenging, as the Associated Press writes, “a president who has fomented fear of immigrants and white supremacist attitudes that helped spark violence.” Despite the goodwill he’s received for his reaction to the El Paso shooting, O’Rourke still will be returning to a campaign that many Democrats don’t feel he should be running. During his campaign suspension, the Houston Chronicle editorial board advised O’Rourke to “drop out of the race for president and come back to Texas to run for senator. The chances of winning the race you’re in now are vanishingly small. And Texas needs you.” This angered the O’Rourke campaign to no end. We get it! He finally found his spark, his first sense of purpose, in the campaign, and the calls to switch to the Senate race continue unabated? Give the guy at least a couple more months—he’s qualified for the next debates—before lowering his sights to Sen. John Cornyn.

Rank 5

Last Week Down from last week #4

5. Joe Biden

It’s not about the gaffes.

The front-runner, in one of his busiest campaign swings of the cycle in Iowa last week, was a bit of a mess, and the dang media had the nerve to point this out. This has led to two predictable responses from the Biden campaign: that the superficial media is too focused on “gaffes,” and that Biden’s brain at least functions better than Donald Trump’s. That’s fine! Voters are more than welcome to make those determinations and decide, for themselves, that Biden’s less-than-crisp verbiage doesn’t eclipse the things they like about him. But evil media actors, including the Surge, will continue questioning Biden’s sharpness, since he is the front-runner who, if he won the presidency, would be 81 years old at the end of his first term. Vetting to ensure that he’s still all there is a reasonable and necessary duty of covering him. The candidate himself understands that this is a “legitimate” line of inquiry, even if it gets on his nerves.

Rank 6

Last Week

6. John Hickenlooper


Of the many distantly losing candidates the Surge spoke with at the Iowa State Fair, the former Colorado governor had the most difficult time pretending that he was Actually in Good Shape. He lamented that the media didn’t find his record as governor worth writing about, and asked reporters for advice about how to break out from the pack. This turned out to have been the routine of a guy with one foot out of the race already: Hickenlooper ended his campaign Thursday and said that he would give serious consideration to a Senate campaign against Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. Though the Democratic field to challenge Gardner, Republicans’ most vulnerable incumbent this cycle, is already quite large, a poll released this week showed Hickenlooper earning 61 percent of the vote if he entered the primary. That’s got to feel like a welcome pick-me-up after a brief and pointless dip into national waters.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Donald Trump

A recession would not be helpful at this juncture.

Global economic growth is weakening, the trade war still rages, and this week, the bond market blinked bright-red, indicating that a recession may be in the offing. The only thing that Donald Trump really has going for him heading into the next election—well, aside from Democratic candidates bickering among themselves for the next eight to 10 months—is a strong economy, and now that’s in peril. The only bright spot for Trump here is that recessions historically hit 22 months after the specific yield-curve inversion we saw in bond markets this week. The Surge, which has an overwhelmingly negative outlook on life, can easily envision a scenario where Trump wins a second term and a recession hits almost immediately after, treating this godforsaken world to a nearly four-year period of both Donald Trump being president of the United States and no one anywhere having any money. That’s just sort of where this has to go, right? To the worst possible place?