Feb 07, 2020 270 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 [SLATE’S MUCH VAUNTED CONTENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM CRASHES]—



OK, we think we’re good now. The Surge spent 10 days covering the final Iowa Democratic caucuses ever. No word can accurately convey how disastrous that went, but it’s something beyond “disastrous.” Enough of the wreckage, however, has been sorted through to get a decent picture of who outperformed expectations, who underperformed them, and what it means for the state of the nomination. But before we get to the Democratic mess, this is what the bigger picture looks like. 

Donald Trump smirks from behind a podium.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week Up from last week #2

1. Donald Trump

Must be nice, all that intra-party consensus.

Trump is tops this week not just because he was acquitted, though that certainly helps—if he’d been convicted, he probably wouldn’t have even made top five. But beyond whatever’s happening in the Capitol, many signs point favorably in the direction of Trump’s reelection. He’s not “popular,” but he’s more popular than he usually is, and he received a personal best approval rating from Gallup this week. Gallup also found that Americans’ views of their personal financial situations “are now at or near record highs,” reaching levels that haven’t been seen since the late ’90s. Meanwhile, look at the opposition, if you can bear it. It’s not just that the Iowa Democratic Party made a laughingstock of the national party. The bigger problem is that there’s no sign Democratic voters can reach consensus anytime soon, as Iowa has failed entirely to winnow the field and at least four delegate-earning contenders have no reason to drop out at least until Super Tuesday in March—when a rising Michael Bloomberg joins the party and begins collecting delegates—so long as they don’t go broke. 

Rank 2

Last Week Down from last week #1

2. Bernie Sanders

There’s no favorite for the Democratic nomination. But someone’s closer than the others.

Look, it’s been a **BAD** week for fancy political technology, and for all we know this FiveThirtyEight gizmo we’ll link you to now could also be horribly broken. But it shows Bernie Sanders comfortably having the best chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates. You can see why: Though the reliability of Iowa results is looking worse by the hour, Sanders almost certainly won the first two metrics—first and final alignments—and is in an essential tie with Pete Buttigieg for the third, traditional measurement of Iowa winner, state delegate equivalents. He is leading in polls of New Hampshire, and he should do well in the Nevada caucuses, too. A poor run from Joe Biden in the first three states could put South Carolina in play for the field, and Sanders is already advertising across Super Tuesday states that include California, where he’s put a lot of money into organizing. Sanders did not get the big, televised blowout victory lap on Monday night that he was hoping for, but he’s still in the best shape of any of the Democratic contenders—in fundraising, too. 

Rank 3

Last Week Up from last week #5

3. Pete Buttigieg

The chaos candidate.

Buttigieg did take a victory lap Monday night, before any results had been released. And though the first batch of results that came out showed him likely to pull off a narrow delegate win over Sanders, Sanders closed the gap by late week as results from satellite caucus locations—where the Vermonter out-organized the rest of the field by a mile—rolled in. What’s undeniable, however, is that Buttigieg significantly outperformed expectations in Iowa, and that momentum is materializing in surveys of New Hampshire. You’ll notice, though, that the computer simulations still don’t give Buttigieg much of a chance to win the nomination and won’t until he shows an ability to win nonwhite voters. A Buttigieg victory, or near-victory, in Iowa was always the best chaos option, and that’s without even factoring in the state party’s decision to switch off its collective brain on caucus night: His niche appeal down the road gave each candidate a reason to stay in.

Rank 4

Last Week Up from last week #7

4. Michael Bloomberg

Now buying ad space on your retinas.

The Surge’s brain is too broken to quantitatively assess how the hellscape of this week “helped” a candidate who is running an unprecedented primary strategy of throwing as much money as possible at Super Tuesday states. But it’s probably good if the first of four early contests you’re sitting out collapsed into muddled anarchy? The disaster prompted Bloomberg to double the $300 million in advertising he’s already spent. What this means, in practice, is that the next time you are sitting in public—a bus stop, a Starbucks, church, wherever—you are likely to be kidnapped and tied down by a Bloomberg staffer who will tattoo “MIKE BLOOMBERG 2020” inside your eye lenses. You will then return home to find that your spouse has been replaced with a chilling hologram of Mike Bloomberg doing a focus-grouped meme. He will buy the specific cells in your brain responsible for decision-making. He will do this all with money he made in one hour of a decent day on the stock market. (PSST: Listen to this week’s episode of What Next for more on Bloomberg’s rise.) 

Rank 5

Last Week Up from last week #6

5. Elizabeth Warren

Not quite dead yet.

No candidate has been more lost in the shuffle of Monday night’s comprehensive institutional collapse than Elizabeth Warren. This is something you’ve heard her supporters complaining about, but … it’s probably for the best. Third is not a great finish for Warren in a state with plenty of white progressives to capture, and where she was leading during her peak in the later summer and early fall. It’s not a killer just yet, though. So long as she has the money, there’s ample reason for her to keep collecting delegates and hope that her position as well-suited to unite the moderate and leftist factions of the party together takes hold. The problem, however, is that she might not have the money for much longer.

Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #4

6. Joe Biden


At long last, we get to the evening’s big loser candidate! Shortly after the new year, we wrote that Joe Biden needed to not come in fourth place in Iowa. He must have forgotten to read the Surge that week, because he went ahead and finished fourth anyway. He’s lucky on two counts, though: First, that the Iowa mess itself was the bigger story than the results, and second, that the moderate who lapped him doesn’t have any traction in the heavily black states coming down the pike. Still, Biden’s hanging by a thread. He needs to find some way to maintain his South Carolina lead over the next three weeks while absorbing likely losses still to come in New Hampshire and Nevada. And he needs to find a way to do that without any money. What he needs to find, in other words, is a miracle. 

Rank 7

Last Week Down from last week #3

7. Amy Klobuchar

Your mission, should you choose to accept it.

The Surge likes Amy Klobuchar so much that it would like to offer her first dibs at a very special mission. The mission is: Since you finished fifth in Iowa, your best early state, and aren’t likely to finish much better in New Hampshire, if better at all, you should DROP OUT on Tuesday night. Offer the party some sign that this carefully designed early-state process is doing its job of getting people to QUIT when they LOSE and are projected to LOSE indefinitely. Same goes for Andrew Yang, Michael Bennet, Tulsi Gabbard, Deval Patrick, and Tom Stey… well, Tom Steyer could still do well in Nevada or South Carolina. What a week! Congrats again to Donald Trump.