Jan 17, 2020 291 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, yeah, good, OK.

Today, we discuss the feud between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, won by Tom Steyer. Ex-Mayor Pete may have peaked too soon, each peak that Donald Trump has is met simultaneously with a nadir, and Cory Booker’s yearlong nadir is finally over. One candidate, though, might be peaking at just the right time.

Joe Biden.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Joe Biden

Everyone else go ahead and fight. Joe will take the nomination.

Has the Surge ever had it so easy determining a leader? As we write, Biden is leading polling averages in both Iowa and New Hampshire—narrow leads, sure, but they’re better than the narrow fourth-place positions he was in early last month. These are his bad early states, mind you, and if he wins both of them, it will free up a lot of time for campaign reporters in the spring. His opponents couldn’t lay a hand on him, either, in the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, because two of them—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—are in the middle of an ugly, personal feud that’s crowding out their ability to train fire on their shared ideological foe. And starting next Tuesday, those two rivals will have to sit quietly in the Senate six days a week, leaving Iowa to the unemployed candidates. This is all eerily settling into place.

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #3

2. Donald Trump

Another great, historically bad week.

It’s always difficult to rank the ol’ galoot, but the volatility was especially acute this week. On the day that the House handed off impeachment to the Senate, Trump signed off on “Phase 1” of a trade deal with China to boost exports by $200 billion in exchange for tariff relief. Later that same night, one of Rudy Giuliani’s indicted goons shared explosive new allegations about the Ukraine shakedown in a television interview, inserting himself into the list of possible impeachment trial witnesses. The next morning, the Senate passed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, clinching Trump his biggest policy achievement of this Congress. Minutes after that victory, the Senate began swearing in jurors for the impeachment trial. It was among the most good-bad weeks of his presidency.

Rank 3

Last Week Down from last week #2

3. Bernie Sanders

How gracious of the GOP to look out for him.

The Republican Party either wants Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic presidential nominee or, if he loses, to ensure that Sanders supporters believe the Democratic Party rigged the process against him. An organized trolling operation blossomed this week to achieve those ends. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Tuesday that Nancy Pelosi’s “dirty little secret” was that she sat on the articles for several weeks to help Biden and hurt Sanders. “The only rightful thing of Joe Biden,” McCarthy said, “is to make a pledge not to campaign while Bernie Sanders cannot.”

Republicans similarly cried foul on CNN for its effort during the debate “to destroy the Sanders for president campaign,” as Fox News host and Trump supporter Tucker Carlson said. CNN’s questioning of Sanders was often terrible, but it’s unlikely that Carlson is truly losing sleep over it. We’d call this strategy laughable if there were no chance it would work. So, uh, we’ll hold off on calling it laughable.

Rank 4

Last Week Up from last week #5

4. Elizabeth Warren

What’s your galaxy-brain take?

Armchair Operative Twitter was in rare form this week following the news that, according to Warren, Bernie Sanders told her a woman couldn’t beat Trump, a claim Sanders vigorously denies and which prompted each to accuse the other of calling them a liar, right in front of the still-rolling debate cameras (and Tom Steyer). Theories of how the news got out, or how it will work out, have been widespread. Maybe, for example, Warren’s “play” was to turn some former Clinton backers toward her by activating the worst impulses of the Bernie Bros? Maybe Warren, a secret neoliberal mole working undercover for the Establishment, was trying to execute a murder-suicide on her and Sanders’ candidacies to ensure Joe Biden’s nomination? WHAT IF … what if Sanders and Warren leaked the news jointly so Sanders could goose up his support among moderates who loathe “PC cancel culture” while Warren could demonstrate a knack for cutthroat tactics that would improve impressions of her electability against Trump? It’s all ludicrous. The simple truth is the year is 2033, and the 2020 primary we think we’re watching is a simulation orchestrated by half-cyborg third-term President Eric Trump, who himself is a malware hallucination of Skynet.

Rank 5

Last Week Down from last week #4

5. Pete Buttigieg

Slipping at the wrong time.

It was only a month ago that the 37-year-old former South Bend mayor seized the polling leads in Iowa and New Hampshire and became a top target for his competitors. We don’t know if that targeting worked, or if those leaning toward him allowed their interest to wander elsewhere, but Buttigieg has lost some ground in recent polling. He’s now down to third in the Iowa polling average and fourth in New Hampshire. He’s hardly out of the race in either of those states, but he will need to take full advantage of Warren and Sanders’ feud and impeachment-related absence from the trail to get back on top. And given the narrow makeup of his base and his limited appeal in more diverse states, he really does need to win Iowa to have a chance at the nomination.

Rank 6

Last Week

6. Tom Steyer

It’s fun to play presidential candidate!

It is so fun to go to presidential candidate camp. You get to go on TV with famous politicians and act like you’re arguing with them in a real debate. You make so many friends. You get to touch Bernie Sanders. Sometimes you go to Bernie Sanders to get his autograph, and he’s arguing with Elizabeth Warren (OMG OMG) and you overhear it. What a thrill! It is better than Space Mountain. And if you pay a bonus fee, you can purchase a couple of decent polls in states where no one else is advertising, frame them, and hang them next to your soccer trophies. How cool will that be to show your friends back home when you get picked up? They’re going to be so jealous.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Cory Booker

One final last-place entry for the latest casualty.

Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, Michael Bloomberg, and Deval Patrick are all still running for president, while Cory Booker is now out of the race, despite being exceptionally qualified and not hated by any significant bloc of human beings. As we wrote in his campaign obituary, it was surprising just how little interest Booker gained at any point in the campaign despite not doing anything wrong, really, at any point, and providing a sharp contrast to Donald Trump. In one way, it’s sad. In another way, tough shit, not everyone gets to be president.