Feb 21, 2020 256 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 an assortment of jokes that, oh, apparently are all illegal now? So now it’s “sexual harassment” to want to beat Donald Trump?


Today we examine the wreckage from Wednesday’s debate in Las Vegas, just ahead of the Nevada caucuses this Saturday. Bernie Sanders remains the front-runner in just about everything, but without being front-runner-y enough to prevent the death of the Democratic Party this summer in Milwaukee. Joe Biden may have died in the first two nominating contests, but the party establishment might settle for a dead person as its nominee at this rate. Michael Bloomberg is also dead, at the hands of our No. 1, who has suddenly come back to life. 

Elizabeth Warren.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week Up from last week #5

1. Elizabeth Warren

That’s more like it.

Savvy tactical maneuvers abounded in Wednesday’s debate, but the one that stuck out the most was Elizabeth Warren ripping off Michael Bloomberg’s face, gluing it to a pumpkin, throwing the pumpkin in the air, and then firing a nuke at the face pumpkin. Warren’s liberal celebrity has risen over the years through her filleting of prickly corporate executives in congressional hearings, and the debate gods put one smack at the podium adjacent to hers at the exact moment when her campaign needed jet fuel. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll get the boost she needs, or if she does, it might be too modest to make up the ground she’s lost. But if her legacy is, at the very least, to have eliminated Bloomberg from his casual, expensive stroll to the nomination, she will have made a lasting contribution to the future of liberal politics. So here’s either a final, commemorative No. 1 ranking for Warren, or the first of many more to come. Let us know, Nevada.

Rank 2

Last Week Down from last week #1

2. Bernie Sanders

Milwaukee will Bern.

Sanders is the front-runner in the race, is expected to win the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, and has opened up a comfortable national polling lead that should serve him well on Super Tuesday. Given this position, then, he weathered Wednesday’s debate reasonably well, surviving the occasional pot shot from Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden while most of the fire went elsewhere. The most interesting moment of the debate for Sanders, though, came near the end. Moderator Chuck Todd asked the candidates whether the eventual pledged delegate leader in the race should be the nominee, even if he or she doesn’t have an outright majority of pledged delegates. Only Sanders said that should be the case, while the other candidates all said the process should play its way out with additional ballots and votes for superdelegates. This is an admission from the field that it expects Sanders to have a pledged delegate plurality when the nominating contests conclude. If Sanders’ rivals have arrived at that conclusion, then, it gives more of them reason to stay in the race, and collect however many delegates they can as leverage, rather than consolidate into a single non-Bernie candidate. The Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee is going to be so fun (for reporters and Donald Trump)!

Rank 3

Last Week
Unranked

3. Donald Trump

Just another week of getting away with everything and winning reelection.

The president’s post-acquittal middle-fingering of accountability continued apace this week as he mass pardoned a bunch of friends from television and New York City social circles, and named a partisan troll his acting director of national intelligence, replacing a guy he fired for telling lawmakers that Russia was interfering on his behalf in the election, again. It is impossible to imagine that he won’t pardon his buddy Roger Stone, who was sentenced to 40 months in prison this week, after Trump led a pressure campaign against the Department of Justice to go easier on Stone. And what’s the punishment for all this? He’s hit his record job approval in Gallup for the second straight poll while Americans’ satisfaction with “the way things are going” is at its highest since 2005. A Quinnipiac poll found him trouncing all competition in Wisconsin, the winner of which will probably win the Electoral College. The Democratic primary is … going the way it’s going. What is your worst nightmare, reader? Do you know it when you see it?

Rank 4

Last Week Up from last week #7

4. Joe Biden

OK, just hear us out.

Allow us to write a comeback narrative. The expectations for Biden, after calamitous underperformances in Iowa and New Hampshire, get so low that a second- or third-place finish in Nevada gives him some ability to spin resiliency. He translates that into a decent, if not dominating, victory a week later in South Carolina, where he’s still clinging to a modest lead. With Bloomberg wounded and neither Buttigieg nor Amy Klobuchar showing any traction among voters of color, Biden reemerges as the prime alternative to Sanders heading into Super Tuesday and the ensuing delegate race this spring, keeping within reach of Sanders’ pledged delegate plurality and becoming the favorite for a second- or third-ballot nomination. Would the Surge put money on this? No, because gambling is a sin. But we have typed more insane things. 

Rank 5

Last Week Down from last week #2

5. Pete Buttigieg

When the delegate leader is a sideshow.

Ex-Mayor Pete has the most pledged delegates after two nominating contests following an essential tie in Iowa and a narrow second-place finish in New Hampshire. And yet he’s drifted into something of an afterthought in the campaign, trailing distantly behind several of his competitors in the Nevada caucuses, South Carolina primary, and in national polling. He seemed less than a dominating figure in Wednesday’s debate, pitching himself desperately as a unity candidate from the wing of the stage and arguing with Amy Klobuchar about the president of Mexico’s name. Buttigieg’s Thursday morning call for Bloomberg to drop out may have just been a gimmick, but the guy can’t seriously call for other candidates to fold and clear the path for him if he cannot show an ability to diversify his coalition. He’s shown a lot this cycle, but he has a lot more to show before he’s able to successfully bark orders around.

Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #4

6. Michael Bloomberg

Nothing a few bucks can’t fix.

So yeah, that didn’t go so well. In fact, the Surge isn’t sure it’s seen someone get as leveled in a debate as Bloomberg did in the first hour of Wednesday’s. Candidates took turns dunking flawlessly on him, and Bloomberg either got sarcastic, prickly, or lost for words in response. The good news for Bloomberg is that he can just rub some money on the wound to make it go away. He can purchase NBC News and delete all recordings of the debate. He can then purchase CBS News, host of next week’s debate, and disqualify all the other candidates from participating. The host can be a clone of the candidate, wearing a funny mustache and glasses, asking Bloomberg 1 what it’s like to have such great respect for women. Plenty of options.

Rank 7

Last Week Down from last week #3

7. Amy Klobuchar

A sense of purpose.

We are all given a purpose in life, though it is not always clear what that purpose is until the moment it arrives. What is Amy Klobuchar’s purpose? It was a question many were asking when the pragmatic Minnesota senator announced her presidential campaign in early 2019. Did the senator herself wonder it? Months go by. She wanders; she looks for a sign. A young mayor from a college town surpasses her while her campaign nears its end. The purpose becomes known: It is her mission, and hers alone, to ask of the Democratic Party: What the hell are you doing, thinking about nominating a 38-year-old mayor to be president?? She kneecaps him in New Hampshire, and she kneecaps him again in the Las Vegas debate. She will kneecap him again the following week in South Carolina. The clarity overwhelms her, imbues her with an everlasting energy: This fucking fucker, I hate him.