Where We Stand After the Third Democratic Debate


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Top row: the three leading candidates. Bernie Sanders (shown embossed), Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren. Bottom row: the two candidates next in line, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, and the one of the other five in the September debate ab0ut whom we can’t avoid commenting, Julian Castro.

We’re now halfway through the six months of 2019 Democratic debates, so this seems like a good time to take stock of where we are. (It’s well overdue, actually, but this is the first time in a while I’ve been able to take on this sort of undertaking.)

1. A Meandering Meditation on More-Minor Matters

(Long-time readers know that if you want to start with something less discursive, just skip down to section 2.)

As a Democrat, I’m happy that things are looking pretty good for my side in the Presidential race.  All six of the candidates above would have a decent shot against Don Trump, though none is a shoo-in against our Wrestler-in-Chief who will likely bring a knife and folding chair (them’s metaphors) to general election debates — if he agrees to participate in them, which he may well not.

My number one priority for 2020 is oddly specific and not even that partisan: if it looks like Trump is losing on election night, Mike Pence had better get the Cabinet secretaries’ names on the papers to invoke the 25th Amendment and “temporarily” remove Trump from office for the remainder of his term.  I don’t want to see how Trump would get his revenge on the country — pardoning all violent federal prisoners? ordering the contents of Fort Knox to be moved to Doral Country Club for safe-keeping? nuclear strikes on San Francisco and LA? — in the two-and-a-half months he’d have remaining to him.  I’d trust Acting President Pence solely to land us safely before he himself is sent away, despite that he too would probably try to appoint every last judge in the federal judiciary on his way out.  (I know that getting rid of Trump might be a better top priority, but I really want to make sure that we still have a functioning country left once he’s gone.)

The best news for Democrats is something that many of us probably haven’t even realized we should care about: that Trump will have at least three credible (albeit doomed) challengers on the Republican side.  Why is this important?  Because without them — and especially without Trump on the ballot, if Gavin Newsom’s pointless crackpot scheme to condition ballot access on showing income tax returns survives its lawsuits — Republicans would have good reason to declare themselves as independents, seek Democratic ballots, and therefore choose the weakest candidate to run against Trump.  (This, in my mind, has long been Marianne Williamson’s best pathway to the nomination.)

(No, I’m not giving Republicans a bright idea they haven’t already thought of; Republicans in the Trump-obsessed local Facebooklandia have attributed their losing the Orange County voter registration edge to Democrats to exactly this maneuver.)

But, with Trump likely to have libertarian Bill Weld (more or less New England’s Tom Tait) Tea Partier Joe Walsh (more or less the Midwest’s Lucille Kring), and Mark Sanford (more or less the Southeast’s Carlos Bustamante) on the ballot against him, (aka a flavor for every taste) — and with the wholesale cancellation of primaries and caucuses across the country on the grounds that the frightened and thin-skinned Trump “has no credible challengers”) — California Republicans will have to stay with their party to get a ballot to either defend their President or, if they choose, to stick a fork into him.  And that means that Democrats can choose their own best candidate without being, as the old OC saying goes, “rat-fucked.”  (Sorry, Ms. Williamson, you’ve lost your best shot at the nomination.)

While it may seem premature to discuss where we stand after the third debate without discussing the third debate itself, that piece actually takes longer to write and, if all goes according to plan, will appear by Friday.  Meanwhile, you can check out the transcript of the debate (Washington Post version) here.

The best of the rest! Top row: Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker (using some CGI), and Beto O’Rourke; bottom row, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and — due to his late arrival into the race being stuck with the to-that-point unused “fresco” filter — Tom Steyer (who can buy an ad here if he wants something the looks less Emperor Palpatine-y.)

2. This Vale of Tiers

Discussing the horse-race aspects of the primaries seems to employ concepts of both “lanes” and “tiers.”  While it has become fashionable to look down on the former, I don’t think one can avoid it — it just doesn’t necessarily mean what people imagine.  This year, for example, there is a left-progressive “lane” containing two candidates — Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — and it may well eventually lead to fratricide (or sororicide) between them.  Not yet, though! [Note: that last sentence was written last weekend….]  For now, these two Senators are propping up one another’s positions in debates.  Warren, especially, benefits from Sanders’s presence in the race: he’s the one that corporate and party interests truly can’t stand, and so he catches flak that would otherwise be headed for her.  The day that Sanders leaves the race, should it ever come, is the day that the mortar rockets turn definitively onto Warren, with the dial set to 11.  Her best hope is that that day doesn’t come until it’s too late.

The polls are still largely based on name recognition, which is why amiable goofball Joe Biden still sits along atop them, though Sanders and Warren (or Warren and Sanders, if you prefer) spit the leftward vote.  But the debates are having an impact, and they aren’t working to Biden’s benefit.  But qhile Biden remains in front of the moderate lane, candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, and Cory Booker can’t implement their strategy of rushing in to fill the vacuum his absence would leave.  Two other candidates from the third debate, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro, defy description as centrist or lefty — Harris seems sort of like a centrist pretending to be a lefty and Castro a leftist pretending to be a centrist, or maybe I have that backwards == while the final candidate, Andrew Yang, defies ideological pigeonholing at all, as befits someone whose candidacy is apparently successful largely due to denizens of 8chan pushing him mostly for fun.  (That doesn’t mean that he isn’t serious; it means that his standing in the polls isn’t serious.)  Finally, the two candidates who will be in the October debate — Tom Steyer (who has qualified, largely by carpet-bombing early states to get to the 2% level) and Tulsi Gabbard (who is one 2% showing in a designated poll away from qualifying) are also ideologically mixed.

Gabbard — who famously quit the DNC in 2016 in protest of its rigging the nomination process against Sanders (though she has now apparently gotten over that) — is a veteran, definitely anti-war, perceived as anti-Muslim, and unfortunately close to India’s Hindu right wing.  Steyer is vocally liberal on some signature issues — climate change and impeaching Trump — but has the credibility issues one would expect from someone who became a billionaire by hedge fund management.  (He touts his business experience as a qualification for office.  Heard that before….)  He’s also reportedly the largest individual donor to the Democratic Party — though it’s hard to verify due to dark money contributions — which is a good thing when he doesn’t want anything but effective activism in return and less good once he starts to want things like, oh, becoming the party’s nominee for President.

Of these, Biden, Sanders, and Warren are all in what I, showing little originality, will call Tier 1.  But I’m going to incorporate lanes here and put Biden in Tier 1A and the others in Tier 1B.  In the RealClearPolitics poll aggregator right now, Biden has 26.2% of the vote, while Warren has 17.0% and Sanders 16.8%.  But, Sanders also is far more likely to pick up support from Biden than is Warren, which turns out to be important in true caucus states such as Iowa.

Tier 2 would be Harris and Buttigieg, with 6.2% and 5% of the national vote respectively.  Harris has been declining since July, though, while Buttigieg has been flat since May.  These two are supposedly the picks of party leaders should Biden fail (though I’ve also been hearing that about Warren), but again Sanders is the one who right now would pick up most of Biden’s voters, ideology be damned.

O’Rourke (3.0%), Yang (3.0%), and Booker (2.6%) comprise Tier 3.  O’Rourke — who, you might remember, is “Beto the Anglo” — and Booker are both smooth-talking centrists waiting for the Biden collapse.  Yang is just out there to promote the Guaranteed Annual Income on the grounds that giving people $1000/month would take care of the problems of job loss due to automation.  [Narrator voice: It wouldn’t.]

In Tier 4, we find Klobuchar, Castro, Gabbard, and Steyer — the first three tied at 1.2% with Steyer at 0.8% (but likely to rise.)  Klobuchar was the centrist whom lots of people expected would benefit most from the impending Biden collapse (which may never come).  Castro has become known for having the sharpest tongue in the race, going after Biden and O’Rourke, which is odd given his prior reputation as pretty much of a sweetie-pie.  Gabbard made her one mark in the race by rapid firing fully half of the simmering attacks against Harris in the August debate — an attack for which, unbelievably,  Harris was not prepared, leading her to make a sheepish shit-eating-grin face heretofore mainly seen on TV in “I Love Lucy” re-runs.  Steyer — well, he hasn’t yet been in gear (There is a Tier 5, candidates at 0.6%  and under, but that material will not be on the final exam.)

To save you the addition (that you probably weren’t going to do), right now Tier 1 has 60% of the votes and Tiers 2-5 combined have 27.6%, leaving 12.4% apparently unaccounted for.  Standard polling models would expect the uncommitted to follow the committed, so we’re really probably looking at 68% for the top 3 and 32% for everyone else.  (Steyer, due entirely to his fortune, is a potential disruptor here.)  So when people say that it’s a three-way race, or maybe a five-way race (which makes the split 71.2% to 16.4%, or 81% to 19% with undecideds distributed), you can see why.  Still, based on present numbers, that’s only a 2-of-3 chance that the winner comes from Tier 1 and a 4 of 5 chance that it comes from Tiers 1 or 2 — so things that improbable do happen all of the time.  (One just doesn’t bet on them without odds.)

(Note: the above is a simplified statistical analysis.  I’m not going to get all Bayesian on you here.)

INTERLUDE: Here — because it might as well go here, as it doesn’t fit anywhere else is an Emerson College poll (rated B+ by 538.com) of California Democratic primary voters that came out the morning of 9/17, which shows Harris dropping way down (below Yang!) in her own state and the two progressives at 46% of the combined vote.  (Bernie and Liz should divide up Congressional district turf to maximize their joint delegate allocation!)

More proof that we are the best state!  (A little too Yang-happy, though…..)

3. Changing Lanes

We’ve already discussed the main “lane” in the race — the ideological one, into which no one but the top three candidates fits really cleanly — so now it’s time to consider the other ones.  These are mostly demographic ones: gender, race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, veteran’s status, religion, and region.  (And then we get to issues of intersectionality….)

(A) Gender is probably the most significant one, because Democrats have very good reason to want at least one woman on the ticket.  Hillary voters are still highly upset over the historic first gemale federal executive officer falling out of their grasp in 2016, and those of us who supported Sanders over Hillary partly because Hillary herself was so unpopular with voters would welcome the chance to show that it really was truly Hillary herself, not her gender, that was the problem.  VP consideration goes well beyond the four women among the twelve finalists (or two among the five, whatever), but the issue here is the extent to which female see other women as the obstacles to their personal advancement to the final round … and so try to scuttle them.

(Yes, “Sisterhood is Powerful” — but so is personal ambition!)

We saw the clearest example of this sort of takedown when Gabbard went after Harris in her bid to become front runner in the “women of color” lane — and in doing so derailed Harris’s campaign without much helping her own.  We’ve also seen it a bit in Klobuchar’s dealings with Sanders — and thus with Warren, who famously agrees with him — on health care.  Warren has stayed away from attacking other women (and mostly anyone else); Harris took a counter-swipe at Gabbard in August — depicting her as, in effect, jealous of her higher social status — that made her look worse than Gabbard’s original attack did.  (That reading of Harris’s post-debate interview may be unfair, but it did seem to have been the general reaction.)  Standing next to Harris also undercut Kirsten Gillibrand in one of the first two debates for reasons I can best explain, given my generation, as Mary Ann looking uncomfortably plain standing next to Ginger.

Marianne Williamson also made gender — femininity, at lest — an implicit part of her pitch, though her failure seems more related to a reaction to her New Age religion, which has largely female adherents but lacks the political standing within the U.S. of, say, Mormonism and charismatic Christianity, despite their being no less invested in the imprecatory and miraculous.  (Yes, there’s an essay to be written on that, but not by me, not now.)

Gabbard is the only one who has acted like there is a “woman’s lane” and she needs to edge other women out of it.  If there is one, Warren and Harris are the ones competing for it, but Warren has been able to treat her gender as something mostly incidental and unsurprising at this point.  (Is there one?  Consider the reaction if the final trio turned out to be Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg. People — mostly but not only women — would take notice of that in a highly perturbed way, but such a result seems unlikely.)

That Emerson poll shows is that there certainly does seem to be a gender lane — and that within it Elizabeth Warren is running roughshod over Kamala Harris.  She’s doing nonchalantly, without putting too much special emphasis on her being a woman, but also without downplaying it.  To my mind, she’s playing it perfectly.  I don’t know what if anything Harris should or could do to “recapture the lane,” though.  Warren’s “woman story” is as good as, and probably more relatable than, her own.

(B) Race and ethnicity seems like it should be more of a basis for internecine warfare this year, perhaps because immigration and racism (in policing and otherwise) have been so much more internally contentious issues than, say, abortion and pay equity.  But is it a “lane” in which candidates are competing?

Five of the twelve finalists — Booker, Castro, Gabbard, Harris, and Yang — are persons of color.  (Two others, O’Rourke and Warren, have gotten in trouble for cultural appropriation, and Sanders would of course be the first Jewish federal executive officer.)  And that, frankly, is great!  But are people jostling each other in the expectation that, say, there’s room for one and only one candidate in the “person of color lane” among the final three?  It doesn’t appear so.

Gabbard is a Hindu convert but not Indian (she is partly of Samoan ancestry, and was born on American Samoa).  She is the only one of the candidates of color who has not made her personal background a major part of her presentation to voters.

Harris is half-Indian (and half-Jamaican) but not Hindu (she visited India and had exposure to Hinduism as a child, but is now Baptist, while her husband is Jewish).  Harris has made her Black (though not African-American) ancestry a focus in the debates, most clearly in a well-premeditated attack on Joe Biden for his 1960-70s opposition to school desegregation through busing.

Booker is African-American, raised in the AME Church but now a Baptist, who has made his living in an underprivileged Back-majority neighborhood in Newark a focus on his campaign.  To the extent that there’s a land, he’s squarely within it.

Castro has made his Mexican identity, and his positions on immigration — about which he picked a fight with O’Rourke — a focus of his campaign, often addressing the audience at some length in Spanish.

Yang has made repeated reference to being Chinese (from Taiwan), including his deadpan (and somewhat bewildering) joke that due to this he knew a lot of doctors.  Ha-ha … huh?

Except for some friction between Booker and Harris, and again from Gabbard towards Harris, this does not seem to be a real “lane” that leads to candidates elbowing others out of the way.

(C) Age has unexpectedly turned out to be a dominant theme among many candidates this year.  There’s no “lane” for older candidates — the three oldest in the race are the three front-runners.  Of them, only Biden is having his faculties called into question due to his age — he’s 76, a year younger than Sanders and a six years older than Warren — and frankly his being a bit hazy and loose in his recollections is not new for him.  It does seem to be getting more pronounced, though, and both Castro and Booker (more subtly) have already gone after him over it.

If there is an age lane, it seems to belong to youth.  That category excludes Steyer (born 1957) and Klobuchar (1960) — and probably even Harris (1964) and Booker (1969) — but O’Rourke (1972), Castro (1974), Gabbard (1981), and Buttigieg (1982) do form a lane from which we might expect one and only one to survive.  Buttigieg is so brazen about his youth — and so obviously a young man a hurry, after already having run for DNC Chair — that many consider it unseemly, but it’s Castro who in this past debate put in the best pitch for a young nominee:

But first, we have to win. And that means exciting a young, diverse coalition of Americans who are ready for a bold future. That’s what Kennedy did, it’s what Carter did, it’s what Clinton did, it’s what Barack Obama did, and it’s what I can do in this race.

It’s a good point.  But while it weighs against Biden, I don’t think that it undercuts elderly but vigorous reformers like Sanders and Warren.  (If Castro drops out, my bet is that he endorses Warren — and perhaps becomes her Vice Presidential pick.  That would be one seriously energetic ticket.  Sanders’s pick should probably be Warren … or, conceivably, the still-young-at-55 Michelle Obama.)

(D) Sexual Orientation, Veteran’s Status, and Religion  are all selling points for various candidates — the first for Buttigieg, the second for Buttigieg and Gabbard, and the third for Buttigieg (again!) and maybe Booker and Biden (though Sanders and Gabbard are the only ones whose religious affiliation would break new ground, JFK-style), but I don’t see this as a “lane” per se.  If none of Buttigieg, Biden, or Booker made it into the final three, I don’t think that anyone would be shocked by the absence of any candidate relying heavily on faith as a selling point.

(E) Region usually becomes a consideration mostly for choosing the Vice-President, but it’s playing a role this year. Klobuchar has been pushing her Midwestern roots as an electoral rationale for her candidacy.  (So, to an extent, has Buttigieg, but what people really look forward to is how he as a VP candidate would take on Pence in a debate.)  O’Rourke and (to a lesser extent) Castro have been pushing their Texas ties as a prize that would make people forget about Ohio or Florida in the electoral college.  (If Democrats win Texas and other states where they are leading, including Nevada, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Virginia, then they literally can get to 270 without winning Arizona, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, or Florida.  How do you like them apples?)  Sanders is proud of Vermont, Biden is proud of Delaware, and Warren is proud of — well, not so much Massachusetts, but her Oklahoma roots, which along with her past Texas residency could make her competitive there.  But, except for the two Texans, this is less a land than a matter of whose selling points you want to buy.

4. Conclusion

Since I started drafting this piece, Biden has been fading a bit and the competition between Sanders and Warren — driven mostly by their own “more faithful than God” supporters — has heated up several degrees.  I’m personally sad to see the latter and am doing what I can to squelch at least the worst of it.  To me, a race between Sanders (an outsider with broad appeal to party-averse independents) and Warren (a relative insider who will have the party machinery behind her, as well as highly ironic corporate support from those who hate her but despise Sanders) is the best of all possible worlds. They’re both good; they’re both honest; they’re both decent.  We literally could not go wrong.

I favor Bernie (ideally with Warren as his VP — and, if not … maybe her understudy Katie Porter?) because no one has his proven track record over decades, few can match his knowledge of how to goose along the legislative machinery in DC, and his “theory of change” — which involves building a lasting political movement that can either replace GOP Senators or scare them into moderation — is stronger than Warren’s moral suasion alone.  (DC has a history of grinding up Democratic moral suasion — as Carter, Clinton, and Obama all found out.  But none of them had the sort of movement behind them that Sanders would: Obama came closest, but he quickly cut it off at the knees himself in the spirit of “statesmanship.”)

The problem with Bernie is that the powers that be don’t just hate him, they hate him with the power of a thousand suns.  The DNC (and state and local parties) have already tried to rig an election against him once, and only sunlight might prevent their doing it again.  (Be attentive to the dreaded “second ballot,” when superdelegates get to vote and would very likely scuttle Bernie, even if it meant possibly electing Trump.  They just would refuse to believe that such an action would have negative consequences.)  Official DC — the press, the cocktail party hosts, the lobbyists — would try to destroy him as soon as the results came in, if not before.  (Unlike with Warren, there is a serious question as to whether non-Fox News major media outlets would prefer Trump to the Democrat.  My guess is that they’d prefer Bernie on the grounds that they could neuter him once elected — but only barely.)  Warren will have her own problems with them, but they’ll be nicer to her if they know that she’s keeping a snarling Bernie and his followers on a loose leash.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I do: the notion that one should give in to the unelected elites and honor their veto of Bernie is absolutely disgusting and despicable, as well as anti-democratic — and that’s one reason I plan to dig in my heels.  However, I expect that less committed people — given the option of a pretty damned good Liz Warren (and I’m just not going to pretend that she isn’t just for political purposes) — probably will be willing to give into them.  That’s much of why Warren’s doing much better than Warren on the betting lines, even though in the absence of Bernie she’d be catching almost as much flak herself.

Biden — or Klobuchar, or Buttigieg, Booker, Harris, and O’Rourke — might be able to beat Trump even with the grudging-at-best support of the Bernie bloc (who I think would support Warren strongly once they got over their disappointment, as he’d make a strong case for her, at least if treated fairly), but they won’t turn the Senate and won’t scare the Senate into compliance.  And then Democrats will only reinforce the reputation of being unable to win a knife fight in DC.  Democrats seem to be realizing that we have to look past the 2020 Presidential race to the Senate and House races — and especially to the legislative fights of 2021.  If we’re really headed to a race between the two elderly but young-at-heart and energetic-in-spirit candidates in the leftward lanes, then things really are looking up.

[Ed. note: We’re still having problems with comments.  If you can’t comment here — and we’ll try to approve moderated ones as quickly as we can — then try the most recent open thread.  Thanks for waiting out our repair work!]


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 (in violation of Roberts Rules) when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Expelled from DPOC in October 2018 (in violation of Roberts Rules) for having endorsed Spitzer over Rackauckas -- which needed to be done. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. One of his daughters co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)