With only 127 days until the Iowa caucuses, the 2020 election will be here before you know it. Every Sunday, I 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 out next?: With the qualifying deadline for the CNN-sponsored debate October 15 in Ohio coming up on Tuesday, this week may be another moment in which candidates who don’t make the stage take a hard look at themselves (and their candidacies) in the mirror.
Barring some sort of last-minute polling, there will be 12 candidates onstage in Ohio: former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, businessman Tom Steyer, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and businessman Andrew Yang.
Which means – because, math – that there will be seven active candidates not on that stage. That includes Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, all of whom have day jobs they can go back to. None of them – it’s worth noting – have given any indication that they are even considering bowing out. But at some point, reality hits you in the face – hard. Is this week that moment?
As for the other also-rans, there seems to be less incentive to end their candidacies. Marianne Williamson is likely increasing her book sales with every day she stays in the race. Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney has plenty of personal money and an inclination to spend it. Former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak got into the race five minutes ago. Mayor Wayne Messam has been barely running since the start of his campaign.
Keep an eye on Bullock, Bennet and Ryan. If the field is going to thin this week, I think it will come from one of those three.
4. Making the NEXT next debate: Even as the contenders prepare for the October debate, they are also keeping their eyes on the November debate – and its new qualification criteria – looming on the horizon.
To make it into the November debate, a candidate must have at least 165,000 unique donors and at least 3% in four qualifying national or early state polls. While the major contenders – Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Harris – should have no trouble clearing that hurdle, it gets dicier beyond those top five.
Booker, whose campaign manager acknowledged recently that unless he can raise $1.7 million before the end of the month he might have to drop from the race (more on that below), announced Sunday that he met the 165,000 donor threshold. (It remains unclear whether he can get four polls with 3%.) Yang tweeted out the CNN-SSRS poll in Nevada Sunday morning noting that he now needs only one more poll to qualify for the November debate.
Who of the current top 10 might not make it? Klobuchar, Castro and O’Rourke are the likeliest suspects. O’Rourke seems the safest to make the stage and Castro the least likely.
3. South Carolina as the Biden firewall: The former vice president got some very good news Sunday morning when new CNN-SSRS polling in South Carolina showed him with a massive 21-point lead over Warren.
According to Real Clear Politics polling average, Biden’s lead in South Carolina is 23 points. That’s a very different landscape than Iowa (Warren has an average lead of almost 3 points), New Hampshire (Biden +3) and Nevada (Biden +2). The difference, of course, is that South Carolina, unlike that trio of first-voting states, has a considerable black population; in past Democratic presidential primaries, black voters have comprised well more than half of all participants.
And in the CNN-SSRS poll, Biden took 45% of the vote among African-Americans – 30 points clear of his nearest rival. That support seems directly correlated to Biden’s perceived closeness to Barack Obama, who remains almost unanimously supported in the black community.
The question for Biden – and his entire candidacy hinges on this – is whether black voters in South Carolina will stick with him if he falters in one (or several) of the states that precede South Carolina’s February 29, 2020 primary. If they stick by him, Biden has a very good chance of being the nominee since, as recent nomination fights make clear (Obama in 2008, Clinton in 2016), the candidate with the bulk of the black vote behind him or her typically wins in the end.
But if Biden’s margin starts shrinking in South Carolina as the votes near, look out. That will be the only sign you need that he may be done for.
2. $$$$: On Monday at midnight, the third fundraising quarter of the year ends. While these detailed reports of money raised, spent and left on hand aren’t technically due to be filed with the Federal Election Commission until October 15, numbers should start leaking out as soon as Tuesday morning.
Make no mistake: This is a CRITICAL moment in the campaign. While money isn’t always determinative in deciding the nominee, it is a telling indicator of support and momentum. And you need money to pay increasingly large field staffs in the early-voting states and to run TV ads.
Pete Buttigieg’s $25 million second quarter made him the breakout star of the campaign, confirming his top-tier(ish) status. So, who will be the Buttigieg of this quarter? My money – ahem – is on Warren, who spent the summer and early fall surging in polls and drawing the sorts of crowds that suggest there is considerable momentum building behind her.
With Warren likely to lead the field in the cash dash, there will be considerable attention paid to Biden, who will be expected to stay within shouting distance of the top of the pack. If Biden falls well short of Warren, it will only add to the chatter that he is losing altitude while she gains it.
Perhaps the most fraught third quarter report is that of Harris. Harris’ campaign has struggled in recent months and her polling numbers have plummeted accordingly. A poor showing in the third fundraising quarter could take what is already an uphill climb for her to the nomination and turn it impossible.
1. The “I” word, presidential edition: Impeachment is now a go. The decision by House Democrats to launch a formal impeachment inquiry will fundamentally reshape the ways in which Washington works (and doesn’t) over the coming months and put a free radical of massive proportions into the 2020 presidential race.
What’s fascinating about the politics here is how much is unknown and unpredictable. Yes, we know that that House Democrats will focus on the allegations that Trump abused his office for personal gain in his interactions with the Ukrainian president. And yes, we know that Trump will call the whole thing a hoax and a witch hunt and a thousand other things designed to lessen its impact.
What we don’t know is, how will the public react to all of this? Before the Ukraine story broke, clear majorities of the country opposed congressional attempts to impeach Trump. Early polling in the wake of the Ukraine story suggest that number is moving somewhat, with more people now saying they believe an impeachment inquiry is justified.
But does that impeachment bump stay as the long work of further investigation by Congress into Trump’s activity in Ukraine continues? Or does the six-headed Congressional investigation turn up information that makes this all look even worse for Trump? Do any Republicans of consequence – long-serving members or influential behind the scenes players – come out and say “Yes, I think this President has done wrong”?
All of these questions are impossible to answer from where we sit today. But with impeachment activities – and votes – likely to extend well into the fall and maybe even bleed into the election year, what happens in these next few months will have a profound impact on the political landscape on which the 2020 election will be fought and decided.