Feb 28, 2020 249 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 would rank presidential candidates according to their likelihood of surviving the coronavirus apocalypse, except the “big guns” at Slate expect us to provide more than a blank newsletter.

Speaking of uncontrollable pandemics, the Democratic presidential nominating process is about to go national, invading more than a dozen states on Tuesday. Before that, though, comes Saturday’s South Carolina primary, where a single thing might go right for Joe Biden for the first time in decades of presidential politicking. The billionaire Democratic candidates, bless them, are still doing their best to help a socialist take over the party, while the billionaire(?) president is still learning to spell c-o-r-o-n-a-v-i-r-u-s. And then there’s the guy who’s winning.

Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Rank 1

Last Week Up from last week #2

1. Bernie Sanders

How big a delegate lead can he post?

Sanders didn’t get the sort of blowout wins in either Iowa or New Hampshire that would send Democrats in D.C. panic-vomiting out their townhouse windows. But after Sanders’ dominating performance in the Nevada caucuses last week, the sidewalks of our nation’s capital are becoming entirely unwalkable. There’s no denying that Sanders is not just the front-runner but the front-runner nearing escape velocity, and his bruising treatment in this week’s South Carolina debate was reflective of that. The good news for those hoping to contain Sanders’ trajectory is that he’s not seeing a post-Nevada bounce in South Carolina polling this week—if anything, he’s ticked down a notch. That’s helpful to the cause of Bernie Sanders not effectively sewing up the nomination on Super Tuesday, three days later. But is it enough? The number to watch on Tuesday night—or whenever the California ballots roll in—is what Sanders’ delegate margin looks like. If it’s 100 or 200, the nomination will remain competitive. If it’s, say, 400, it’s going to be awfully difficult for any candidate to make up the ground later. Also: Anti-Bernie Democrats still need a … what’s the thing called … a “candidate”? Yes, that’s the word. They need a “candidate” around whom to unite and invest their anti-Bernie energies, rather than six or seven loser chuckleheads hanging around and splitting the vote.

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #4

2. Joe Biden

Maybe he’s the candidate?

Phase One of the official Biden Comeback Narrative is complete. He came in (distant) second in Nevada, which was not only his best finish of the cycle but his best finish in any presidential primary or caucus in 33 years of running for president. Literally! Not a joke, folks! Polling in South Carolina this week shows him growing the lead in his firewall state, which he said he would win in this week’s debate. If Biden pulls off a big victory in the Palmetto State, it would seem to reposition him—given the diversity of his coalition—as the prime Bernie alternative. But you try to convince the mega-billionaire who’s invested hundreds of millions of dollars into Super Tuesday states, or the half-winner of the Iowa caucuses, to drop out and unite around him.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Tom Steyer

It’s Tommy’s time to shine!

Yes, Tom Steyer’s got the bronze! As many debate watchers learned this week upon resorting to Google to find out why Joe Biden was repeatedly going out of his way to attack Steyer, there are a lot of Steyer buyers in South Carolina. His heavy advertising has bought the lesser billionaire a comfortable third-place standing in the state’s polling average, and it’s come at the direct expense of Biden. Can it last, though? Given how tight the inverse correlation is between Biden and Steyer, a rising Biden this week could lead to an underperformance from Steyer on Saturday. We hope he can hold onto that bronze, though, to take home and show off to his friends when he leaves Billionaire Presidential Candidate Fantasy Camp.

Rank 4

Last Week Down from last week #3

4. Donald Trump

It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s just a little viral death pandemic.

The Surge has been busy schmoozing in South Carolina and hasn’t really caught up on this refreshing-sounding beer sickness. Let’s do that now. Uh-huhuh-huhoh?... We see. Well! At least our captain is at the helm. In a press conference this week, Trump offered such sage advice for avoiding the global pandemic as “stay clean” and “wash your hands.” Speaking of washing your hands, Trump has put the coronavirus response on Mike Pence’s shoulders, requiring all of the experts who understand what’s going on to clear statements through the vice president, who most certainly does not. Trump, meanwhile, defended his proposed budget cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by saying that he doesn’t “like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.” The situation’s not getting any better. It’s been nice writing newsletters to you all.

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Pete Buttigieg

Democrats’ real Iowa problem.

Pete Buttigieg isn’t going to do well in South Carolina, and he isn’t going to do well on Super Tuesday. He’ll pick up some delegates here and there, but it’s hard to see where he wins a state. At that point, Buttigieg essentially just becomes a big wrench in the process, whose base of support is too small to build a majority coalition around but too large to convince him to get out of the race. We already know that Iowa Democrats are at risk of losing their first-in-the-nation status after the results-reporting nightmare earlier this year. But there’s a bigger risk: The state produced a winner who, as things look now, can’t grow into a nominee. It’s a liability for Iowa’s prime standing if it starts to elevate factional candidates instead of presidents.

Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #1

6. Elizabeth Warren

So what’s the plan, again?

It’s hard to know where Elizabeth Warren is going. She tore up Michael Bloomberg in the Nevada debate, but because so many Nevadans had already voted early by then, she wasn’t able to get the rocket fuel she needed out of it. She went even harder after Bloomberg in this week’s South Carolina debate, but it didn’t seem to play as well in the room. If the returns on her attack-Bloomberg strategy start diminishing, what else has she got? She’s not expected to do well in South Carolina, and her Super Tuesday delegate projections aren’t impressive, either. It would be a potential knockout blow if she loses her home state on Tuesday, and Bernie Sanders is going for it.

Rank 7

Last Week Down from last week #6

7. Michael Bloomberg

Way to think this out.

There’s a thin line between being a Bernie alternative and a Bernie enabler. A couple of weeks ago, with Biden lagging and Bloomberg rising in national polls, his long-shot plan to swoop in on Super Tuesday and pick up the abandoned mantle of the anti-Bernie coalition seemed like it was working disgustingly well. And then the Nevada debate, an unmitigated disaster for Bloomberg, happened. Though Bloomberg’s debate performance in South Carolina was a little better—like, a little better—his polling in Super Tuesday states is starting to rot. That would bring him back to where he started when he entered the race late last year: as a Bernie enabler, taking away support that Biden sorely needs to stay competitive with Sanders’ delegate lead. It’s a thing of beauty, really, how strategically the two business genius billionaires in this race have worked to improve the democratic socialist’s bid for the nomination. All Bloomheads upset with this entry should direct their correspondence to my colleague Ashley Feinberg.