Slate’s guide to the presidential candidates everyone’s talking about this week.
Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, our weekly ranking of presidential candidates according to unsolicited DMs from Pierre Delecto. But only the safe-for-work ones.
This week, we continue to be impressed with refreshingly stented Bernie Sanders. The next Nobel Prize in economics will go to whoever can get Elizabeth Warren out of this “Medicare for All” funding quagmire. Tulsi Gabbard is fighting with Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden needs a bailout. And Donald Trump is screwed. In Iowa, meanwhile, one candidate has jumped into the first tier of contenders, threatening to scramble the entire nominating contest, not to mention the Surge.
1. Pete ButtigiegHe could win Iowa. Then what?
Perhaps because there was such a scarcity of polling in the first caucus state over the summer, it’s been underappreciated how tight Iowa is. While national polling in recent weeks has shown a two-person race between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, Iowa has essentially become a four-way race between those two as well as Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. In the past week, it’s been Buttigieg who, profiting from an aggressive debate performance, has risen to the thick of it. Given the absurd amount of cash he has, Buttigieg could easily win the caucuses. But after that? He still has zero traction among black voters, who will play a critical role in South Carolina and the following week’s Super Tuesday. For a candidate who’s positioned himself in the past month as a centrist “Biden understudy,” Buttigieg’s role in the campaign might, ironically, be to save Biden: He could block Elizabeth Warren from winning Iowa, depriving her of the momentum she would need to eat into Biden’s lead in South Carolina.
2. Bernie SandersA new message.
Post–heart attack Bernie Sanders is on a roll. His “Bernie’s Back” rally in Queens last weekend, during which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed him, attracted about 25,000 supporters, who then served as an excellent prop for a campaign-ad shoot. Beyond the crowd-size show of force, the rally gave Sanders an opportunity to introduce an eloquent new message that his campaign had been lacking. Too many Sanders speeches eschew personal feeling for a laundry list of statistics. In his Queens speech, though, Sanders offered a personal, empathetic way of understanding the solidarity on which his campaign is based. "Take a look around you and find someone you don't know—maybe somebody who doesn't look kind of like you,” he said. “Are you willing to fight for that person as much as you're willing to fight for yourself?” Yup, that’s in the campaign ad too.
3. Joe BidenTime to call in the super PAC?
The former vice president, despite maintaining his comfortable position atop national polls, has a problem: He’s burning through money. In its quarterly filing submitted quietly just before the Oct. 15 deadline, the Biden campaign showed that it had only a modest $9 million of cash on hand, well below that of his chief rivals. His fundraising trajectory isn’t good either, especially as he’s relied on maxing out wealthy contributors who can’t contribute any more. Or … can they? One way Biden could keep getting money from wealthy donors—and a lot more than the paltry $2,800 maximum that donors can give to campaigns—is to bless a super PAC that could raise unlimited funds. CNN reported this week that those discussions are well underway among Biden’s allies. One concern is that the use of a super PAC opens Biden up to criticism from Warren and Sanders. But are there any Biden supporters, or Biden-curious voters, who would really draw the line here, knowing that he’s already hosting many fundraisers with corporate executives? Also: Does he have any other choice?
4. Elizabeth WarrenA five-alarm wonk fire.
Elizabeth Warren, under relentless scrutiny for her refusal to answer a point-blank question about whether her “Medicare for All” plan would necessitate middle-class tax increases, has given in, announcing that she’ll release her plan to pay for it in the coming weeks. It is the most high-pressure moment of her candidacy thus far, and, as the Washington Post reported this week, pretty much the entire economics profession is calling in to give its 2 cents. But all of this brainpower, according to some of the floated plans, seems to be going into semantics. One economist, for example, “has urged Warren’s team to propose financing Medicare-for-all in part with a ‘public premium’ that would function similarly to a tax,” the Post reports. “Under this idea, Warren would propose raising revenue for a Medicare-for-all fund from a premium charge that would go to the government rather than a private insurance company.” This is the insanity of where the health care debate is now: trying to reassure the public, for political palatability’s sake, that it will be paying health care premiums.
5. Tulsi GabbardFinally, the fight that no one asked for.
Do you hate yourself? If so, then the Hillary Clinton–Tulsi Gabbard fight is for you! Last week, Clinton, the Democratic politician who once lost a presidential election to Donald Trump, referred on a podcast to long-shot presidential candidate Gabbard as “the favorite of the Russians.” Though it was initially reported that Clinton also said the Russians were “grooming” Gabbard to play third-party spoiler, she was actually saying that Republicans were the ones doing the grooming. Still! Sort of a strong and unnecessary accusation to put out there without backing it up. Also, if you want Gabbard to be ignored, you IGNORE her. Instead, Gabbard seized on the attention, tweeting that Clinton was “the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long,” and challenging her to join the race.
6. Amy KlobucharSurviving.
In last week’s Ohio debate, Klobuchar joined Buttigieg in repeatedly challenging Elizabeth Warren. And though she’s much further from the first tier than Buttigieg is, Klobuchar’s performance got the short-term job done: This week, she registered her first-ever 3-percent showings in two national polls, the second one clinching her a spot in the November presidential debate. A pulse is a pulse. And with Biden donors starting to sniff around for lucid moderates who could be their alternative to the former vice president, Klobuchar may still have a distant shot.
7. Donald TrumpThings seem bad?
The impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump took a wretched turn this week, as acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor laid out the most comprehensive, damning testimony over the Ukraine scandal given yet. It was so bad that Trump’s allies in Congress, needing any sort of stunt to distract from the news, stormed uninvited into a classified area of the Capitol with their cellphones to disrupt the proceedings later in the week. It was all that they could do, as they’re running out of substantive ways to defend the president’s actions. Here’s something outlandish to consider: What if House investigators collect overwhelming evidence against Trump, he’s impeached, Republicans look like fools contorting themselves to get him off the hook, and this turns out to be bad not just for Trump’s reelection prospects but for congressional Republicans as well? Unconventional thinking, we know, but maybe there’s something to it.