Arnon Mishkin: First Dem debates help solidify the leaders of the pack

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After a week of dust-settling following the first debates among the top 20 of the 24 announced Democratic presidential candidates, one can see how the race appears to be solidifying into two clear groups: A full house of five or six well-funded candidates with apparent traction among segments of the primary electorate, and about 15-19 hopefuls still looking for an opening.

The debates bruised former Vice President Joe Biden, both because he appeared somewhat listless in the face of attacks by California Senator Kamala Harris, but also by shaking loose some of the African American base that he appeared to have in early polling. While African Americans are a small share of the first two contests (Iowa and New Hampshire), they are a crucially large part of the third (South Carolina). But, as they say, “that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” and, Biden’s willingness to more forcefully stake out the “Moderate” position of the race, against issues such as “Medicare-for-all,” suggest he should be deemed “weakened not weak.”

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As the dust settled on Harris’ strong performance, there were mixed signals. On the one hand, she both moved up in the race, given post-debate polls, and she was able to make clear fund-raising strides. She raised $2 million in the days after the debate, and wound up the quarter with $12 million raised – respectable but smaller than South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s $24 million, Biden’s $22 million, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ $18 million. Moreover, with the eyes of the press more clearly on her, there were continued signs that she has trouble dealing with fallout from the inevitable miss-steps of a campaign. First, she needed to back-track from appearing to say that she would support eliminating private health insurance, and, possibly more important, some say she back-tracked from her position on school busing, and was taking a position closer to Biden’s than her debate attack would suggest.

The other 15 to 18 candidates continue to register at 2 percent or less. Each of them were likely hoping for a Biden knock-out – but to date, they’re disappointed and remain flummoxed about how to get the kind of attention they need to get to the next level.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren appears tied for third with Sanders, but showed signs of advantage over him for support among the progressive wing of the party. The Quinnipiac poll, which put her just a point ahead of Sanders, found that 31 percent of potential Democratic primary voters thought she had the best policy ideas, a clear plurality, while 18 percent thought Sanders had the best ideas. Warren’s strategy appears to be two-fold: Build a foundation of primary voters who agree with her, and only then, seek to convince them to give her their vote. If that’s the case, she is executing against that strategy fairly flawlessly.

Sanders benefited from the press’ post-debate focus on the Harris-Biden fight. The fact is that he did not do very well in the debate, and recent polling has suggested some decline in support. In 2016, he basically owned the “progressive” lane. This year, he faces an articulate liberal opponent (Warren) who appears to be both deepening his platform, and stealing much of his potential support.

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The fifth and sixth (maybe) part of the front pack are Buttigieg and New Jersey Senator Corey Booker. Buttigieg’s ability to raise the most money (among those reporting so far) but apparently stalling in the polls, suggest that the cynics may have been right a few months ago when they called him the ‘flavor of the month.’ He appears to have enough cash to survive past Iowa and New Hampshire, but has not yet been able to address the questions of weaknesses, or even hostility, among African American voters that will be essential to success in the later primaries. Booker made a clear effort to appeal to black voters in his debate performance, but currently appears eclipsed by Harris in appealing to that group.

The other 15 to 18 candidates continue to register at 2 percent or less. With the possible exception of Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and self-help guru Marianne Williamson, all of them appear focused on breaking through to the “Center Left” lane that currently appears dominated by the Harris-Biden fight. Each of them were likely hoping for a Biden knock-out – but to date, they’re disappointed and remain flummoxed about how to get the kind of attention they need to get to the next level.

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