The Top Tier Versus Trump

Two weeks ago, this column took a stab at winnowing the 23-candidate Democratic field of presidential candidates down to a plausible Elite Eight and Final Four. The suggested Elite Eight was made up of former Vice President Joe Biden; South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar; and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. It then speculated that the Final Four might look like Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, and either Sanders or Warren in the left lane. Obviously with eight months to go before the first ballots are cast, much can and undoubtedly will change, but this lineup gives us a fairly good baseline from which to begin.

Subsequent polling seems to support this theory. In the June 9-12 Fox News poll of Democratic primary voters nationwide, Biden remained in first with 32 percent; Sanders placed second with 13 percent, down from 23 percent in March and 17 percent in May; and Warren was third with 9 percent, same as May and up from 4 percent in March. Buttigieg came in fourth just as he did in May, but his share increased from 6 to 8 percent. Harris also had 8 percent, up from 5 percent in May. O’Rourke placed sixth, Booker seventh, and Klobuchar tied with Andrew Yang for eighth.

It’s long been said that when you have had a very polarizing president, voters seek to find a replacement with the opposite traits. But President Trump has so many unique attributes, many people can present the opposite of him in different areas. Biden presents a sharp contrast with Trump in terms of his breadth of governing experience and policy depth, but both Trump and Biden share a generation and a more casual style than the others. Buttigieg and Warren take a more cerebral approach, while Harris seems to be positioning herself as the “face of the new America,” something like what President Obama did, though she has yet to develop his easy charisma.

Whether you look at the full array of 23 candidates or just the proposed final eight or four, it is a bit like going into a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor. There is something for everyone, with most finding at least one, two, or three alternatives that would be perfectly acceptable to their first choice.

All of this is happening up against a backdrop of general-election trial heats that looking quite challenging for Trump. Interest level is off the charts. The Fox poll asked voters, “How interested are you in the 2020 presidential election?” giving them choices of “extremely,” “very,” “somewhat,” or “not at all.” In the new survey, 53 percent said "extremely." During the 2016 presidential campaign, that number didn’t hit 53 percent until the third week of October, two weeks before the election. (In the 2012 campaign, "extremely" never got to 53 percent.) Another 25 percent chose "very," for a total of 78 percent showing very real interest.

Political analyst Ronald Brownstein speculates in The Atlantic that turnout could be the highest in a century, even after last year featured the highest midterm turnout since 1914. Remember that when turnout is extremely high, the electorate looks more like the overall pool of registered voters and polls are most reliable, as they were last year.

In hypothetical matchups, Biden held a 10-point lead over Trump in the Fox News poll, 49 to 39 percent, while Sanders was ahead by 9 points, 49 to 40 percent. Buttigieg, Harris, and Warren each ran 1 or 2 points ahead of Trump—statistically insignificant margins, but given that none of the three are that well-known, it says something.

Snippets of alarming internal polls for the Trump campaign have been dribbling out for a couple of weeks, from ABC News and The New York Times. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, NBC reported that Trump trailed Biden by between 10 and 13 points in all three of the states that effectively determined the election—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. He also trailed in four other states—Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and North Carolina—all of which he carried last time around. To be fair, this polling was from March, before the Mueller report came back. The campaign says its numbers are much improved since then, but his job-approval rating hasn’t moved much in the intervening weeks. Don’t count Trump out, but this sure looks tough.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on June 17, 2019