Littwin: The pre-impeachment presidential rankings are in. And the leader is, who the hell knows?

Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail in Las Vegas. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Once upon a time, there was a Democratic presidential primary season that often dominated the news cycle, particularly on debate days. And sometimes even on days when a one-time phenom would drop out of the race (say, Beto O’Rourke).

That time is coming to an extended, and almost certainly dramatic, pause while impeachment season heads into the anything-can-happen-including-seven-consecutive-road-victories postseason. Now that the House has voted to approve the impeachment rules, basically on a party-line vote, we will move soon to public hearings, at which point everything else will likely come to a full stop. 

I mean, the impeachment news is huge even now, and that’s before we open our pool for who will be this season’s John Dean. There’s Bill Taylor, the chief envoy to Ukraine who will testify that portfolio-free Rudy Giuliani was running a likely illegal misinformation campaign there. There’s Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, leading the White House National Security Council team on Ukraine, who will testify that the Trump-Zelensky July 25th call was so scary that it sent him running to the lawyers. And not only because the rough transcript somehow was altered from Zelensky saying “Burisma” — the company associated with Hunter Biden — to “the company that you mentioned in this issue.” And guess what the lawyers told Vindman? Not to mention the “perfect” call to anyone. Then there’s Fiona Hill, also of the NSC, who gave us this now-iconic quote from former NSC chief, John Bolton: “I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy [Giuliani] and [Mick] Mulvaney are cooking up.” I’m considering betting on Bolton, who says he won’t testify without a subpoena and maybe not even then. But can he really resist the chance to be the star witness for truth and justice and never Trump?

So now as we await Donald Trump’s threat to do a live dramatic reading of the very rough transcript of his otherwise perfect call with Ukraine President Zelensky — this is such a bad idea that even the king of bad ideas would never attempt it — we have a slight window in which to update where the primary season stands. Because, to this point, no one has any idea whatsoever.

Our big news for the day, besides Beto’s announcement, is the New York Times/Siena College poll out of Iowa, which, the headlines say, show Elizabeth Warren leading, Pete Buttigieg gaining and Joe Biden fading. But the numbers are not so stark. This is the margin-of-error polling season. Warren is at 22 percent, Bernie Sanders at 19, Buttigieg at 18, and Biden at 17 with three months to go before the caucuses. And in Iowa, where those who don’t get 15 percent in the first caucus vote are removed, after which there’s another vote, second place counts, a lot. And if you count first and second choices, Warren is at 47 percent, Bernie 34, Buttigieg 31 and Biden 28.

But maybe the key number — and one that keeps popping up in nearly ever poll — is that 67 percent of caucus goers say they may change their minds. Wide open? Here’s the most recent CNN poll out of New Hampshire: Bernie 21, Warren 18, Biden 15, Buttigieg 10. And — for the expected kicker — only 23 percent of likely voters say they have definitely decided.

So, here’s my top 10, of which I have little to no confidence.

1. Warren. After a few months of steady rise, Warren seems to have stabilized, which would be bad, except that she has stabilized — in our ranking— in the No. 1 position. She just came out with her Medicare for All plan, which she says won’t raise taxes on the middle class. As expected, it is getting mixed reviews from the maybe 10 or 15 people in America who have any idea whether it would work the way she says it would. On the other hand, there’s absolutely no chance that Congress would do away with private insurance in any case. I think the main takeaway is that now that Warren has produced a legitimate plan, with imput from real economists, her debate critics will have to come up with something else to say.

2. Biden. I do not think that Joe Biden is No. 2, but I put him here because someone has to be No. 2, and Mayor Pete’s not there yet, and I don’t see how the left can have the top two candidates at this point. Presumably, Biden gets a small boost from Dems by the Trump/Rudy attacks on him and then from the impeachment proceedings which will show how phony those attacks are. 

3. Bernie. I think he got a significant bump with the AOC endorsement. If she had endorsed Warren, that would have been a real danger point for Bernie. I still think that at every debate, Warren looks like a more reasoned candidate of the left than Bernie does. But Bernie did himself a lot of good with the post-heart-attack debate in which he showed he’s still all-the-decibels-you-can-stand Bernie.

4. Mayor Pete. This is big. Assuming Biden continues to fade — and I do assume that — somebody has to get those votes. If Warren gets most of them, it could be game time early. If Buttigieg gets them, that not only makes him a real contender, it almost certainly will lead to more scrutiny from the press and more pressure in the debates. I think he can handle both. But can he handle the charge that he’s a 37-year-old mayor of a smallish town? Maybe he can by noting that he raised $19.1 million in the third quarter despite what had been mediocre poll numbers.

5. Kamala Harris. I don’t understand why she’s not doing better. I don’t understand why so many Dems on my Twitter feed don’t seem to like her. But it’s there. She’s cutting staff. She’s having trouble staying up with the leaders in fundraising. She’s sitting at 4-to-5 percent in the polls. Here’s her play. Let’s say Warren wins Iowa and Bernie wins New Hampshire and Biden doesn’t finish second in either, that leaves Biden’s African-American support in real jeopardy. That could be Harris’s opening in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday. It’s a longish shot, but in a wide-open race, it’s wide open for a longish shot.

6. Cory Booker. See above. OK, he’s likeable enough. But his campaign, which doesn’t seem to have a narrative, is also completely stalled. He needs to win over the African-American vote, too. But he has to get past Iowa and New Hampshire first, and I’d bet against.

7. Amy Klobuchar. She’s yet another in the Biden-must-fade category. Like Mayor Pete, she did really well in the last debate. As you might have heard — because she says it’s constantly — she’s from Minnesota, which is a lot like Wisconsin, which is near Michigan, which is kind of like Pennsylvania. Which supposedly gives her working-class, heartland, Midwest cred, which Democrats need. Or maybe don’t.

8. Andrew Yang. He’s no Mayor Pete, but, like Buttigieg, he has come from nowhere to somewhere. No one really believes he has any chance to win the nomination, although, like most of you, I could use the extra thousand bucks a month he’s offering. Certainly he has his supporters, and no one seems to mind having him at the debates, so his negatives are very low. He’ll stick around for a while.

9-10. I’m not putting Tom Steyer here because there’s no chance in hell that Democrats would nominate a billionaire to oppose Trump. I’m not putting Tulsi Gabbard here because where she seems to be headed is to a third-party run, which scares a lot of Democrats, but I think would probably hurt Trump more than anyone else. She’s certainly on Fox a lot. So, I’ll go with Michael Bennet, even though most people seem to have forgotten he’s still in the race. Speaking of which, why is he still in the race? He’s another of the Biden-must-fade gang. And the Buttigieg-must-fade gang. And maybe, after the next debate, in the Klobuchar-must-fade gang, too. But he says he’s in it until at least New Hampshire, and, at this point in the race, in which he’s gotten a lot of good national press, why not? Besides, someday he’ll be able to tell his grandkids that he outlasted a guy named Beto.

P.S. Sometime in January, at least a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses, I’ll break out a new panel of Littwin All-Stars, as I did during the 2018 governor’s race, to comment on the Dem presidential primary and the Dem U.S. Senate primary. Meanwhile, it’s back to impeachment. And if you’re getting into the John Dean pool, you have to like Col. Vindman’s dress blues.


  1. Nice that SOMEONE mentions Bennet.

    Two wild cards perhaps worth a mention. The first would be the health factor. Sanders, Biden & Trump are all at an age when they can be healthy and then suddenly not healthy. A four or five day bout of the flu, a bit of AFib, or any of the F.A.S.T. symptoms while on stage and the race will change dramatically.

    The second would be the onset and duration of an impeachment trial. An “open and shut” case could STILL take 5 weeks of trial in the Senate (see Clinton, B). Senators really can’t skip out of the 6 days a week trial process for a bowl of oatmeal in a New Hampshire town’s cafe or back-to-back days of rallies across Iowa. Yes, Senators will be seen, but in the early states, face time seems important. Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker, Klobuchar and Bennet could be at a significant disadvantage if those weeks start in mid-January or early February. And there’s an outside chance Trump may be impacted, too.

  2. I do not share Mike’s optimism that a third party run would be a net benefit for Dems, unfortunately.

    It’s time for Bernie’s base and Warren’s base to come together and represent the common majority that they represent in this primary. The only thing standing in the way is The Bern’s ego.


  3. Jay, I don’t think a third-party run is necessarily good for Dems. I think Gabbard, though, would likely find voters among rust belt Dems who voted for Trump.

  4. You’re right there. I wonder if it’s time to write off that bloc as too unpredictable for the funds thrown at them.

  5. How did we get here with 1) Socialist Bernie who cannot win the swing states (and if he was a woman there is no way he could survive a heart attack and still be taken seriously) 2) Warren whose academic certitude about Medicare For All being able to contain trillions in costs has blinded her to the political folly of it all, and 3) Biden, who cannot raise the money and cannot seem to get through a debate without a ton of sympathy. I really wish all three would drop out so we could have a debate and race among Pete, Amy, Cory, Kamala (and oh okay Yang for the fun of it). Dems win with fresh blood.

    Pete has the best crafted message plus veteran status and a ton of money. I admit Cory lacks a reason for running, and Kamala seems to inspire when prosecuting someone but struggles with everything else. Amy’s card is she can win big and that’s a good card.

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