With 141 days until the Iowa caucuses and a record number of Democratic candidates, the 2020 election is in full swing. Every Sunday, I will outline the 5 BIG storylines you need to know to understand the upcoming week on the campaign trail. And they’re ranked – so the No. 1 story is the most important of the coming week.
5. Who’s going to win South Carolina?: On Monday, several Democratic candidates will be in the Palmetto State for the Galivants Ferry Stump meeting, where the candidates speak from literal stumps.
Which got me thinking about South Carolina and its role in this nomination fight. The vote is set for Saturday, February 29 (yes, 2020 is a leap year!) which puts it 26 days after the Iowa caucuses, 18 days after the New Hampshire primary and a week after the Nevada caucuses.
The state is seen, at least at the moment, primarily as former Vice President Joe Biden’s firewall in the event he can’t win Iowa or New Hampshire in the earliest days of the race. Biden’s strength in the state is heavily fueled by his popularity in the African-American community, which, if history is any guide, will comprise well more than half of all primary voters.
But the state’s large voting black population also makes it a very attractive potential target for California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is also black and has dedicated significant time and organizing efforts in the state.
The question I have – and the Biden people must have, too – is whether or not black voters in South Carolina stick with the former VP all the way until February 29 if he doesn’t win either of the first two major votes. What if Elizabeth Warren wins Iowa and New Hampshire and roars into South Carolina with all the momentum? Or if Harris wins Iowa or places a close second? Does that change the calculus of black voters in South Carolina?
The state has yet to receive the full attention of the national media horde due to the fact that it votes almost a month after Iowa. But if past is prologue, South Carolina could be – again – the state that makes or breaks the presidential frontrunner.
4. Warren’s big speech: The rise of Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 campaign – after a very rough start – has been built less on major speeches than on her relentless energy in town halls and her policy shop’s unending series of proposals to address everything from Electoral College reform to criminal justice reform. Heck, her campaign even sells “Warren has a plan for that” T-shirts!
Which is what makes Warren’s planned speech on Monday in Washington Square Park in New York City all the more noteworthy. The address is touted as a speech on “how corruption in Washington has allowed the rich and powerful to grow richer and more powerful,” according to the Facebook event page.
Her campaign clearly sees this speech as a Major Moment in her campaign – a chance to deliver a forceful condemnation of Wall Street and Washington in a way that reaches both her adoring base but also the wider Democratic Party. Inherent in Warren’s bashing of the influence of corporate interests will be the fact that she has refused any corporate or political action committee money in this campaign, while her main rival for the nomination, Joe Biden, has been far less stringent in inspecting where donations come from.
3. Battleground New Mexico?: President Donald Trump jets to New Mexico on Monday for a campaign rally, the latest sign that his campaign thinks he can make the Land of Enchantment competitive in 2020.
Trump visited New Mexico during the 2016 campaign but lost the state by 8 points to Hillary Clinton. But George W. Bush won New Mexico – albeit very narrowly – in 2004, and the state has shown the occasional willingness to elect other Republicans like Susana Martinez, who spent eight years as governor.
Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale has repeatedly suggested that Trump can win in New Mexico – and in June, said Trump would win in the state if the election were held that day. The pro-Trump argument is that Trump’s push to de-regulate the oil and gas industries has led to an economic boom in major energy producing states like New Mexico. (The state’s unemployment rate was 4.9% in July.)
All that said, the state seems like a heavy lift for Trump. New Mexico is almost half (49%) Hispanic, and those voters have trended toward Democrats in recent years – handing Democrats control over both Senate seats, all three House seats and the governor’s mansion.
But remember that Trump needs to find ways to expand the 2020 map – particularly if Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania (all of which he won in 2016) revert back to their traditional Democratic voting patterns.
2. Biden will be the frontrunner for another month…: Biden had his best first hour of a debate last week in Houston. While he faded down the stretch – big time – the storyline coming out of the debate was Biden’s strong first hour and the very controversial move by Julián Castro to inject Biden’s age and competency into the race.
All of which means that Biden will likely keep the lead he has held in polling since he entered the race in the spring through, at least, the mid-October debates – sponsored by CNN and in Ohio. (To date, debate performance has been the one thing that has moved candidates’ numbers in any meaningful way.)
And the longer Biden stays on top, the more the idea seeps into the Democratic consciousness that he will wind up as the nominee – even if has to endure a few ups and downs along the way. And all of that works in Biden’s favor because his case to Democratic voters is built on two things: Inevitability and electability. And one feeds off the other. The longer Biden stays ahead in Democratic primary polling, the more people in and out of the party see him as the nominee. The more he is seen as the nominee, the more meaningful general election polling that shows Biden beating Trump is – up 15 points in a WaPo-ABC poll this week – and the easier it is for Biden to make the electability argument.
1. …But the slings and arrows are going to start really flying: Sure, Biden wound up benefiting from Castro’s attack in this debate. But what Castro did is likely to create a sort of open season on the former vice president – especially given, per No 2 above, he continues to be the clear frontrunner and the Iowa caucuses keep getting closer and closer.
Notice, amid all of the generally negative post-debate coverage about Castro’s attack on Biden, there was this from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D): “I think that we are at a tough point right now because there are a lot of people who are concerned about Joe Biden’s ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling.”
While Booker’s line got overlooked amid the crush of attention on Biden-Castro, it might have been the most consequential thing that happened as it relates to where Biden’s opponents are going. Remember that the is-Biden-ready-for-primetime questions began with Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. Then they moved to Castro. Then to Booker. What’s the pattern? The is-he-up-to-this conversation is moving closer and closer to center stage, being picked up by candidates who are more serious threats to Biden’s nomination.
Which begs the question: When do Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders go there on Biden?