Jan 31, 2020 277 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, in which we rank 2020 presidential candidates according to what we’re feeling on the ground in Iowa. What we feel is nothing, because the ground in Iowa is snowy and our hands are now numb. (But speaking of on the ground in Iowa, listen to the Surge on the road in Thursday’s episode of What Next.)


The Iowa caucuses, reader, finally arrive Monday, and the Surge has been trying to catch all of the (good) candidates in person. What have we learned? That it’s pretty much what it looks like from your screen back home. The moderates want a moderate and the libs want a lib. Joe Biden is polling well in Iowa, but his foundation looks rickety; Elizabeth Warren isn’t dead just yet; and KLOBMENTUM is finally real (she’s up a couple of points). Michael Bloomberg is enjoying his first-round bye, and Donald Trump’s impeachment acquittal could happen any minute now. We have written an entry about Pete Buttigieg and basketball. The candidate of the week, however, is indisputable.

Bernie Sanders holds a microphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week
#1

1. Bernie Sanders

Looking good! Don’t blow it.

Congratulations to Sen. Bernard Sanders on winning the final Surge before the Iowa caucuses, a placement that ensures he will finish, like, seventh and be shamed out of Iowa, forever. Over the past week, the caucuses—and, for that matter, the New Hampshire primary, up next—have become Sanders’ to lose. He has been leading in most polls of the race, as former Sanders supporters who’ve been shopping around this cycle come home to Ol’ Steadypants. Every Sanders supporter the Surge has approached in Iowa says two things: first, “I’m calling the police,” and second, “consistency” is why they’re with Sanders. The intensity of his support in a split field, and in a caucus state where intensity and organization matter, should lead Sanders to beat expectations on caucus day. But “should” isn’t the same as “will,” and the expectation is now set that Sanders should win. He’d better.

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #3

2. Donald Trump

He’s going to get away with it.

Back in the actual Hell that is the United States Senate, President Donald Trump’s impeachment scandal is wrapping up. As of this writing on Thursday, senators are finishing asking their questions of the House managers and the president’s defense team. By Friday, there should be a vote on whether to move to witnesses, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will likely have the numbers to block that and move to a final vote. That’s not a pure loss for Democrats: A vote against witnesses will bring some political pain for the Republican majority, and, well, it will save the entire Biden family from being physically dragged into the proceedings. But overall, Trump will get away with his impeachable offenses, and he’ll have a timely opportunity to tout it in next week’s State of the Union. His approval rating, meanwhile, has inched up—not to the point where it’s objectively good, but good by Trump standards.

Rank 3

Last Week
Unranked

3. Amy Klobuchar

Eh? EH?

Amy’s in third! Not just on the Surge, but in an Emerson poll of Iowa released this week. Is Emerson a good pollster? Who’s to say? But there is some indication Klobuchar’s rise in Iowa polling is creeping up from a snail’s pace to a respectable trot. She posted several double-digit showings this week on the back of a few notable local and national endorsements, and her midweek event in Council Bluffs drew a sizable crowd. Do not be shocked, then, if Klobuchar, who’s been Iowa’s official Fifth Favorite Democrat for months now, manages to sneak into the top four on caucus night (and after that, not really go anywhere nationally).

Rank 4

Last Week Down from last week #2

4. Joe Biden

Can the polls be trusted?

The former vice president has led a couple of Iowa polls this week, too, and if you were just judging by the polling average, you would say he’s in a comfortable second place. But something about Biden’s Iowa presence feels soft, and his rival campaigns certainly feel it. His crowds can’t match those of his top rivals; he’s having trouble filling his precinct captain slots; he’s had to rely on paid canvassers rather than volunteers to knock on doors. His team is pitching schemes with other, less-viable candidates. Some of these shortcomings are attributable to the age of his base, which is not comprised of starving 19-year-olds who can pull off 12-hour door-knocking shifts between brief naps in their student dungeons. And perhaps this is another episode of the cyclelong pundit error of anticipating doom for Biden. But his campaign is giving off scrambling vibes.

Rank 5

Last Week
Unranked

5. Pete Buttigieg

Just say you don’t care about sports!

How’s ex-Mayor Pete doing in Iowa? Fine, we guess. Could win, could lose. Whatever. But let’s use this final Buttigieg-in-Iowa entry just days before the most critical, do-or-die moment of his political career to ask: Why can’t Pete just say he doesn’t care about sports? Or at least doesn’t like basketball? Following the news of Kobe Bryant’s death last weekend, Buttigieg said in a Fox News town hall that he admired what Bryant did “on the field” and “off the field.” And when asked in a Wednesday town hall in Iowa if he’s ever been to an NBA game, he said he’s “never had the pleasure.” There’s probably some muscle memory here from Hoosier State politics, where it would be politically toxic to admit that he doesn’t give a shit about some game where you throw some ball in the air. But … just say it, Pete. Be real. That’s all. Good luck in the caucuses.

Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #4

6. Elizabeth Warren

Her second-choice conundrum.

There are a few reasons not to count out the Massachusetts senator, even as she’s slipped into near-forgotten status in the national horse race. Her organization in the state, which she developed early last year, is considered the best. If any newspaper endorsement still matters in the year 2020, it is probably that of the Des Moines Register, which endorsed Warren over the weekend. And while Warren may not have the best first-choice polling, she still does very well when second preferences are incorporated—something that’s important in Iowa, as supporters of candidates deemed not viable in the first round of caucusing will have the opportunity to caucus for their second choices. One problem, though: Part of the reason that Warren does so well with second choices is that she’s the second choice of so many Sanders supporters, and Sanders will be viable at most caucus precincts.

Rank 7

Last Week Down from last week #6

7. Michael Bloomberg

Awaiting his conference championship playoff opponent.

Say Bernie Sanders dusts Joe Biden in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada—a realistic scenario—and puts Biden in too deep a hole to return. That could amount to Sanders defeating only the first of two minibosses, before getting to the final boss in Donald Trump. Michael Bloomberg has spent well over $200 million in advertising focused on Super Tuesday states and beyond, and it turns out that blanketing airwaves with your unlimited money, unopposed, can buy some traction. Polls this week showed Bloomberg running second in Missouri and Florida, for example. If Biden proves weak in early contests, more of that moderate vote could switch to Bloomberg as the best candidate to stop Sanders. This would be unprecedented, and it’s still a long shot. But consider, as you watch Iowa results on Monday night, that the nominating contest could be a long affair that ends a far way from where it begins. Makes u think. Here is a video of Michael Bloomberg shaking a dog’s mouth.