Sept 27, 2019 403 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, our newsletter ranking 2020 presidential candidates via a formula that is stored in an electronic system at the White House. All of the Surge’s communications with other 2020 newsletter writers at other sovereign publications, including alleged “quid pro quo” agreements to share each other’s newsletters on Twitter, are strictly governed by newsletter-writer executive privilege.

This week, we look at how Donald Trump is about to be impeached??? Joe Biden and his family are at the middle of the precipitating impeachment scandal, and being in the middle of a precipitating impeachment scandal, in any form, is not ideal. Bernie Sanders is trying whatever he can to save his campaign, as is Cory Booker—except for one particular fundraising stunt that he is definitely trying by saying he’s not trying it. One Democratic candidate is standing bravely athwart an impeachment inquiry, a sure Democratic primary winner. And lastly, and with deep regret, one candidate is doing so well that today, on this day, we’re compelled to make Surge History.

Elizabeth Warren
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Elizabeth Warren

~She’s taking the leeeeeead~

It sickens the Surge to recognize that one candidate’s campaign is going so undeniably well that we are forced, for the first time, to declare a back-to-back Surge champion, preventing us from using this space for an ironic celebration of, say, Bill Weld. While most of the news focus this week pertained to certain goings-on in the House of Representatives—goings-on that of course Elizabeth Warren was the first candidate to call for, in April—Warren has started to take Joe Biden’s lead. She led Biden narrowly, for the first time, in two national polls released this week, and she has taken the lead in the Iowa polling average as well. She took the lead in a New Hampshire poll. She is nearing the lead in Nevada. She is drawing healthy shares from supporters of both Clinton and Sanders in the 2016 primary contest. She is starting to see some movement among black voters. Democrats are the most enthusiastic about her candidacy. There is … nothing going wrong right now? Nothing! This newsletter likes to make jokes about how politicians are failing at politics, and she’s just not giving us anything.

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #3

2. Donald Trump

No one knows how the politics of impeachment will play out.

True story: A couple of hours after the Surge closed up shop on last week’s edition, in which we wrote that the president had a decent week, a scandal involving Ukraine and a whistleblower blew wide open, and now the House is almost certainly going to impeach Trump. What else is there to say, except that an actual cabal of clowns, from the circus, puppeteer the hell-world simulation in which we participate daily? One thing that has always been certain among pundits is the following: Supporters of impeachment are confident that it will redound to Democrats’ political benefit, whereas opponents believe that Democrats will suffer a horrible backlash, costing them the 2020 presidential election. Might we say that no one has any idea, since there is but one (1) semi-recent data point for how impeachment “plays”? We might. We would also observe, however, that President Donald Trump has not behaved this week like a guy who’s pleased to have suckered Democrats into impeaching him.

Rank 3

Last Week Down from last week #2

3. Joe Biden

The polls aren’t his biggest problem.

This entry is mostly superfluous: Read the above entry about Elizabeth Warren’s week, consider the opposite of it, and you have Joe Biden’s week. He is losing his lead, and Warren is taking it. It’s pretty straightforward. But there’s another, more important long-term problem for Biden that developed this week: In rising to defend Biden’s honor by starting impeachment proceedings over the president’s efforts to dig up dirt on him, Democrats have ensured that the Bidens’ relationships and business dealings in Ukraine will also be in the news, hourly, for the next however many months. Fairly or not, this would qualify as baggage heading into a general election contest, and it might give Democratic primary voters reason to reconsider his chief strength: perceived electability. Fairly or not, the Ukraine dispute may lead primary voters to coolly determine that Democrats should nominate an alternative candidate not involved in it one way or another. And, HMM, who might that alternative be?

Rank 4

Last Week

4. Bernie Sanders

This entry, too, revolves around Elizabeth Warren.

Bernie Sanders is losing the Democratic presidential nomination. He has centered his campaign on consolidating the left wing of the Democratic Party around his candidacy. But not only is he not consolidating that flank; he is losing it to you-know-who. Instead of shifting gears, though, and trying to offer something to a broader pool of Democratic voters—say, 2016 Clinton voters, whose votes he is receiving 0 percent of in Iowa—his team is trying to sharpen the contrast with Warren on the left. He released his own plan on Warren’s signature issue, a wealth tax, this week, while his staff has been pointing out the differences between the two on the prospects for national rent control legislation and noting that Warren’s campaign still hasn’t signed a union contract with its workers. These are messaging tweaks that sound like they have the potential to sway roughly four voters across the country.

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Cory Booker

Oh, it’s definitely a stunt. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

In what the campaign detailed as a historically transparent, no-bullshit expression of honesty with its supporters, Cory Booker’s campaign manager published a memo saying that it would need to raise $1.7 million by the end of the fundraising quarter to stay competitive in the race. The campaign swore that “this isn’t an end-of-quarter stunt.” (See? The campaign said this wasn’t a stunt, so that’s how you know for sure that it wasn’t.) That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with this stunt, though, or that the campaign doesn't really need the money. And it appears to be working decently well: As of Thursday morning, the campaign said it had raised $1.1 million, or about 65 percent of its goal, with five days remaining.

Rank 6

Last Week

6. Pete Buttigieg

Getting in position for the Biden collapse.

If Biden’s recent polling downturn accelerates into a collapse, it offers perhaps the only chance for candidates like Booker, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg to make their moves by presenting themselves as the new mainstream alternatives to Warren and/or Sanders. It’s been interesting to watch, especially as Buttigieg—who burst onto the scene earlier this year with radical plans for structural change, like packing the Supreme Court—has reconfigured himself into an Acceptable Sensible Moderate, or “Biden’s understudy.” This week, he released a TV ad in Iowa for his new health care plan, which offers a Medicare option to compete with private insurance plans. “Now, others say it's ‘Medicare for All’ or nothing," Buttigieg says at the end of the ad. "I approve this message to say, the choice should be yours." There was some left-wing suspicion earlier in the race that Buttigieg was a moderate in disguise. It’s no longer a disguise.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Tulsi Gabbard

The anti-impeachment lane in the Democratic primary is now taken.

This week, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard became the 12th Democrat to qualify for October’s presidential debate(s) in Ohio. And in her day job, there’s another group of roughly a dozen that she belongs to: House Democrats who don’t support moving forward with an impeachment inquiry against Trump. In an interview on Tuesday, Gabbard said that impeachment would be “terribly divisive” for an already divided country and that Donald Trump needs to be defeated at the ballot box. And after looking at the memorandum of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after its release on Wednesday, she was unimpressed: “I think most people reading through that transcript are not going to find that extremely compelling cause to throw out a president that won an election in 2016.” It will be as lonely a position to argue on the debate stage as it has been within the House Democratic caucus. But at least she’ll have a debate stage on which to argue it, and an issue on which to set herself apart from the crowd. (Update: Gabbard came out in support of an impeachment inquiry on Friday afternoon. Nevermind!)