When the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates descended on New Hampshire last weekend, Beto O’Rourke returned to the campus where just months earlier he’d packed hundreds onto multiple floors of Keene State College’s red-bricked student center.
This time, the students and locals who came to hear the former Texas congressman Friday barely filled half the room. Yet when asked whether the deflated turnout was disappointing, O’Rourke was undeterred.
“I’m really grateful for everyone who would forego a perfectly fine meal or a dinner date to spend some time on a Friday night with a candidate for the presidency,” O’Rourke said.
Halfway across the country, Pete Buttigieg was hitting the Iowa airwaves with the first TV ads of his campaign, deploying some of the eye-popping $25 million he raised in a mere three-month span. But he, too, was fending off growing concerns that his campaign — once an unlikely juggernaut — was losing steam.
“You kind of got lost, Mayor Pete,” said radio host Charlamagne tha God as he interviewed the South Bend, Indiana, mayor on his show, “The Breakfast Club.” Putting a finer point on Buttigieg’s performance in the first debates, he added: “Do you think you sucked?”
Two boyish Democrats from conservative states with their eyes on the Oval Office, Buttigieg and O’Rourke both once took the political scene by storm, offering a fresh face and innovative tactics in a field dominated by septuagenarians and longtime Washington denizens.
Now as they prepare to participate in Thursday night’s presidential debate, both find themselves struggling to maintain relevance in a primary field led by three front-runners: Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
As they seek to reinvigorate their campaigns, Buttigieg’s and O’Rourke’s contrasting approaches offer a window into the broader tension pulsing through the primary: whether to nominate a “safe choice” to defeat President Donald Trump at any cost or hold out for a more inspiring, unconventional candidate who can carry the Democratic Party into the future.
Ben LaBolt, who worked on both of former President Barack Obama’s campaigns, said both Buttigieg, 37, and O’Rourke, 46, are campaigning as outsiders and generational change agents, skewering the traditional rules of campaigning and thrusting themselves in front of audiences that other candidates are not.
“Can there only be one candidate in that lane over time?” LaBolt said. “Yes, but there can only be one nominee, too.”
For O’Rourke, the challenge is to re-insert himself into a conversation where he once dominated. After surging into double digits in multiple polls in March, he’s seen his numbers dwindle to the low single digits, notching just 3 percent in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
His new strategy includes abandoning the typical laser-like focus on Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of a guerilla-style campaign aimed at non-traditional voters in unlikely places. In the wake of a devastating mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, O’Rourke has sought to reorient his campaign squarely around the issue of gun control, hoping that if he can’t stand above his competitors, at least he can stand apart.
Buttigieg’s challenge is more difficult to diagnose. Flush with campaign cash — he raised more between April and June than any other candidate — Buttigieg is attracting impressive crowds that rival those of the front-runners. But that tangible enthusiasm on the campaign trail is not showing up when pollsters ask who voters plan to pick next year.
Unlike O’Rourke, Buttigieg has doubled down on his early-state playbook: Investing as much as possible in Iowa and New Hampshire in hopes that a strong showing in the first two states will catapult him forward next year.
“As the race thins out, as our message continues to land, I think that we’ve got the right game plan to consolidate our position toward the top and make our way to the nomination,” Buttigieg told NBC News in a recent interview while campaigning in Tipton, Iowa. “But it’s not going to happen overnight, and we can’t get too caught up with changes from week to week in poll numbers.”
If Buttigieg’s path to victory relies on patience, it’s one borne out by primary voters who say the large remaining field of candidates is clouding their decision.
Kara Ewinger, an Iowa resident who worked for former President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, said she wasn’t sure why Buttigieg’s poll numbers lag so far behind his fundraising and crowd sizes, but surmised it was because when it comes to candidates, “there’s just so many to choose from.”
“Maybe something to do with age, experience, not knowing enough about him,” Ewinger said of the millenial mayor after hearing his stump speech for the first time in Burlington, Iowa. Although undecided, she added: “All they have to do is come listen to him live and they can see that he can take on Trump.”
O’Rourke, who had burst onto the national stage in 2018 by nearly ousting GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, crested almost immediately after entering the race in March.
Just a month later, Buttigieg jumped into the race and quickly surged past of nearly 20 other competitors into third place in New Hampshire and Iowa, stealing O’Rourke’s thunder and perhaps some of his supporters as well.
But that was April. Soon a fatal shooting of a black man by a South Bend police officer and an ensuing community uproar helped crystalize Buttigieg’s challenge in appealing to black voters who play a critical role in the Democratic primary — a obstacle Buttigieg has yet to prove he can overcome.
Months later, the forces of political gravity have pulled Buttigieg into fifth place and single digits, even as he builds out a massive campaign infrastructure of more than 300 people.
Eager to dispel the notion that he’s peaked, Buttigieg’s aides have cast his current interlude away from the limelight as part of the plan all along.
His campaign has said the next phase of his effort entails ramping up a campaign capable of carrying him to victory by converting enthusiasm into actual votes. This month he opened dozens of offices in the early states, and now has more in New Hampshire than anyone else.
Although the unflappable small-town mayor and the frenetic, profanity-prone Texan are stylistic opposites, it’s not lost on some voters that Buttigieg and O’Rourke cross into similar territory when it comes to offering a break from the status quo.
“I’ve been really looking hard at Beto O’Rourke and Buttigieg because they are younger,” Michael Overacker, an independent, said after hearing O’Rourke speak recently in Bland, Virginia. “I really think they need some young blood in politics now.”
The stop in Bland County — in the most pro-Trump stretch of Virginia in 2016 — mirrored others O’Rouke has made in reliably conservative states in recent weeks.
He’s also visited Arkansas, where he touted the need for background checks while at a gun show, and Mississippi, where immigration was his focus as he spoke at a Latino grocery store blocks from a food processing plant recently raided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Along the way, O’Rourke and his campaign have emphasized his unwillingness to write anyone off.
“It’s the old Beto, really,” former Obama strategist David Axelrod noted on his podcast, ‘Hacks on Tap.’ “He’s behaving now like he was in the senate race. He’s filled with a moral outrage.”
His campaign insists it’s paying off. O’Rourke press secretary Aleigha Cavalier told NBC News that his online fundraising and social media engagements are both on the rise.
The post-El Paso O’Rourke has also appeared unburdened by typical candidate rhetorical expectations. His description of the recent mass shooting in Odessa as “f—-ed up,” caused some pearl clutching among Washington political observers, but the campaign doubled down.
“It’s just honest, and I think it describes the situation,” O’Rourke told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “We have to shake ourselves out of this complacency. We have to shock the conscience of this country. We have to force us to act decisively.”
Elizabeth Warren edges out Joe Biden in Des Moines Register Iowa poll
The poll out Saturday night found Warren was the top choice for the Democratic nomination with 22 percent support among likely caucus-goers, while Biden had the support of 20 percent of respondents. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders fell to third with 11 percent.
The poll was conducted of 602 likely Democratic caucus-goers from Sept. 14-18. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The last Register/CNN poll, in June, had Biden leading with 24 percent and Warren in the third spot at 15 percent, slightly behind Bernie Sanders, who came in second with 16 percent support.
While there have been several other recent polls of the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state, the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, conducted by Des Moines-based pollster Ann Selzer, is widely considered to be the most accurate, so its Saturday night releases have become must-watch events for Iowa politicos.
The poll was released after the entire 2020 Democratic presidential field gathered in Des Moines Saturday for the annual Steak Fry, a fundraising event hosted by the local Democratic Party club.
Warren surged 7 points in the poll since the June survey, while Biden lost a bit of ground, putting them neck-and-neck inside the poll’s margin of error.
Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, both slipped significantly, down 5 and 6 percentage points, respectively, leaving Buttigieg at 9 percent, down from 15.
The rest of the field, meanwhile, is mired in the single digits.
California Sen. Kamala Harris held steady at 6 percent, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker gained a couple of points to land at 3 percent, while coming at 2 percent were Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, billionaire Tom Steyer, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Everyone else was at 1 percent or below.
Still, just one-in-five likely Democratic caucus-goers said they had already made up their minds so the race remains fluid. Almost two-thirds said they were open to being convinced to support someone else.
“The data in this poll seem to suggest the field is narrowing, but my sense is there’s still opportunity aplenty,” Selzer told the Register. “The leaders aren’t all that strong. The universe is not locked in.”
But the data is unquestionably good news for Warren, who is now both the best-liked candidate in the field (75 percent view her favorably) and the candidate being considered by the most likely caucus-goers (71 percent).
Voters go ‘center-left’ on issues, but not on candidates
WASHINGTON – When it comes to issues and issue agendas, there is good news and bad news for Democrats in 2020 in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
On the good news side of the ledger, there some key issues where voters seem supportive of left-leaning ideas and approaches. The bad news, a leftward-lean does not mean a leftward rush. If Democratic candidates push too hard in the primaries they may find themselves with problems in the general election.
The issue agreements and differences with registered voters and Democratic primary voters are eye-opening and, in some cases, surprising.
One number that jumps out of the data, 58 percent of registered voters in the survey say they support “providing free tuition at state colleges and universities.” That’s lower than the 81 percent of Democratic primary voters who support the idea and there’s a lot of wiggle room in how respondents may have interpreted the question (would it be means-tested?), but it’s still a majority.
And there are a series of issues like that one, where Democrats seem to have registered voters in their corner on topics ranging from immigration and student debt to health care and the environment.
For instance, 67 percent of registered voters and 89 percent of Democratic primary voters say they favor allowing young adults who were brought illegally to this country to stay here to attend college. On student debt, 64 percent of registered voters and 82 percent of Democratic primary voters favor forgiving student loans after someone has paid 12.5 percent of their income every year for 15 years.
The two groups are also in agreement on offering a health insurance “public option” for people younger than 65 who want to buy into it, 67 percent and 78 percent favor that idea respectively. And both registered voters and Democratic primary voters favor “shifting the country to 100 percent renewable energy and stopping the use of coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power by the year 2030” – 52 percent and 81 percent support that idea.
Those are numbers that should bring smiles to the faces of Democrats. They show a lot of broad support on some major issues that Democrats say they favor and seem to suggest Democrats are in a good spot to win voters in 2020.
For the record, the data also show that both registered voters and Democratic primary voters oppose building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and oppose eliminating the Affordable Care Act.
But there is another set of numbers in the poll that show the challenges Democrats could face on these same issues if their nominee heads down a path that goes a little further to the left.
On immigration, 64 percent of Democratic primary voters want to give undocumented immigrants government health care, only 36 percent of registered voters want that. When it comes to student debt, 60 percent of Democratic primary voters say they favor immediately canceling and forgiving all current student loan debt, but only 41 percent of registered voters support that idea.
A solid 63 percent of Democratic primary voters back a “Medicare for all” single-payer health care system “in which private health insurance would be eliminated” – only 41 percent of registered voters agree. And while 58 percent of Democratic primary voters support an end to the practice of “fracking” for oil and gas production, only 41 percent of registered voters feel the same way.
Those are some wide gaps and the splits show that winning general election support is not just about talking about the right issues (clean energy, fixing student debt), it’s about talking about them in the right way.
The registered voter answers on these questions suggest that the U.S. electorate become a center-left entity in the last few elections, one that is embracing more liberal action on issues such as climate change, health care and college costs.
But these numbers also suggest that the “center-left” is not the “left” and that’s where many Democratic primary voters reside.
The next six to eight months will determine where the Democratic nominee eventually ends up on these issues. And if the party’s nominee moves too far too fast to placate primary voters, he or she may end up standing on uncomfortable ground next November.
A record share of voters dislike Trump personally, but Democrats face challenges of their own
WASHINGTON — As Democratic candidates compete for the opportunity to take on President Donald Trump, the incumbent they hope to oust is more personally disliked than any of his recent predecessors, and half of voters say they’re very uncomfortable with the idea of his re-election.
But the electorate at large also expresses doubts about some of the progressive policies being backed by candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the party’s more moderate frontrunner — Joe Biden — also faces questions about his fitness for the job.
Those are the major findings in the latest release from the September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which also shows that 46 percent of Americans give Trump credit for what they call an improving economy, the highest share of his presidency.
“The Democrats want a referendum on Trump. The GOP wants a comparative choice. And therein lies the rub,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff and his firm Public Opinion Strategies.
Trump approval stable, but a record share dislike him personally
The poll found Trump’s approval rating at 45 percent among registered voters, virtually unchanged from last month and consistent with where former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton stood in public approval at this point in their presidencies.
But it also showed that Trump faces historically poor personal favorability ratings, even among those who approve of the plans he has pursued in office.
A combined 69 percent of registered voters say they don’t like Trump personally, regardless of their feelings about his policy agenda. A record 50 percent say they dislike him personally and dislike his policies, while another 19 percent say that they dislike him but approve of his policies.
Just 29 percent say they like Trump personally, with 25 percent saying they also approve of his policy agenda and 4 percent saying they disapprove.
On this measure, the high degree of personal dislike for Trump differentiates him from his five most recent predecessors. Majorities of voters said they personally liked Obama, Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, even though they might disagree vigorously with their political agenda.
In fact, prior to Trump’s presidency, the highest share of voters saying they disliked the president personally — regardless of their views on his policies — was 42 percent for George W. Bush in March 2006, after Hurricane Katrina.
Voters also have higher levels of discomfort about Trump’s re-election than about his main Democratic rivals.
Half of voters — 49 percent — say they’re very uncomfortable with his 2020 candidacy. That’s compared to 41 percent who say the same for Sanders and 33 percent apiece who say the same for Biden or Warren.
But Trump also continues to benefit from the upside of the polarization of the electorate around him, commanding more enthusiasm than his Democratic competitors as well. A quarter of voters (26 percent) say they’re enthusiastic about him, while fewer say they’re enthusiastic about Warren (17 percent), Sanders (13 percent) and Biden (12 percent.)
Some progressive proposals divide Democrats and the electorate at large
Voters overall are supportive of many of the policy goals being discussed by 2020 Democratic candidates, but there are notable exceptions surrounding “Medicare-for-All,” government health care for undocumented immigrants, and complete student loan forgiveness.
Among Democratic primary voters, 64 percent say they support providing government health care to undocumented immigrants, while just 36 percent of all registered voters agree.
A similar share of Democratic voters — 63 percent — support a single payer “Medicare-for-All” style plan, also backed by Warren and Sanders, that would replace the existing private insurance system. Among voters overall, just 41 percent support that idea.
And six-in-10 Democratic voters also back immediate cancellation and forgiveness of all student debt, a position shared by just 41 percent of all voters. Sanders has unveiled a plan to eliminate all $1.6 trillion in student debt, while Warren has proposed the cancellation of up to $50,000 in student debt per person, based on household income.
More moderate Democratic positions on the issues of health care and student loan forgiveness, however, have the backing of wide majorities of both Democratic voters and the general electorate.
Two-thirds of all voters — 67 percent — and 78 percent of Democrats back an optional program that would allow those under 65 to buy into Medicare just like one can currently buy in to private insurance.
A similar share of all voters — 64 percent — support a plan to forgive student debt for those who have paid 12.5% of their income every year for 15 years.
And 58 percent of all voters support a measure to provide free tuition at state colleges and universities.
While some of the most progressive Democratic proposals lack majority support, the poll also found that two of Trump’s signature plans are similarly unpopular with the voting public.
Just 43 percent of all voters support the construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. And exactly the same share back the elimination of the Affordable Care Act.
Voters raise concerns about Trump and Biden’s fitness for the presidency
While Biden may be the Democratic Party’s current standard-bearer for more moderate — and popular — policy proposals, a significant share of Americans in the poll say they’re losing confidence in his ability to lead the country.
A third of voters overall — 36 percent — say they’ve lost confidence in Biden in recent weeks, a time period that included a debate performance described as shaky by his critics. Just eight percent say they’ve grown more confident in him.
The same share — 36 percent — say they have become less confident in recent weeks in Trump’s ability to lead, with 17 percent saying they’ve become more confident.
Those who have lost confidence in the former vice president cited his debate performance, his age and what they say is an over-reliance on Obama’s legacy in making his own case for the job.
“Overall, I like Joe Biden a lot, but I think his performance at the debate gave me the feeling that he might be a little bit past his prime for the position,” said one male Democratic respondent from New York.
A white female Democrat from Illinois put it more bluntly.
“Basically he’s an old white man who I don’t think is going to help our country advance,” she said. “Because our country is not just a bunch of white people anymore.”
The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Sept. 13-16. The margin of error for all adults is +/- 3.27 percentage points.
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