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Trail Mix: Our Post-Debate Democratic Caucus Power Rankings

It’s October now. The temperatures are finally coming down, and the Halloween decorations have already been going up. Just since our debut set of power rankings, we’ve had two more debates, multiple candidate forums (including one here in Nevada), and many more candidate visits.

The weather may be cooler, but the campaign trail is quickly heating up. Here’s the latest how Nevada Democrats are warming up (or not) to all these candidates who keep coming back to visit us.

🔼 #1: Elizabeth Warren (up from #2 last month)
Photo by Andrew Davey

When she first entered the presidential race on New Year’s Eve, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) faced a whole lot of challenges in cleaning up the mess of “DNA-gate” and her strained relationship with Native American communities. Warren has since gone into overdrive to prove her doubters wrong, and she may actually be succeeding in broadening her appeal to more swaths of Democratic voters (which is critical in a state as diverse as ours!) while holding fast to her policy-heavy progressive platform that’s unique in its focus on “big, structural” economic change and its recognition for better social justice.

At the Las Vegas Pride Parade last Friday, the overwhelming energy and enthusiasm in her nearly 400 strong crowd were undeniable. While that’s just one event, it’s another concrete sign that her rise is real. Between this, her ever expanding presence in the field, her gaining traction amongst diverse communities (as I’ve noticed last Friday and at her campaign events), and her debate performance last night, I finally feel comfortable placing Warren on top and considering her a slight favorite to win the caucus on February 22. There’s still time for this dynamic to change, but we’re long past the time for anyone to write off Elizabeth Warren here or nationally.

🔻 #2: Joe Biden (down from #1)
Photo by Andrew Davey

We may finally be witnessing exactly what I warned could happen last month: Joe Biden is starting to lose his leads in early state polls, and even the national polling landscape is looking increasingly shaky for the former Vice President. To make matters even worse, his fundraising is lagging behind both co-frontrunners and the emerging “dark horse” who lands at #5 in our rankings (see below). And on top of all that, I’ve been seeing more and more signs in the field that Biden’s ground game is anything but the “well-oiled machine” he’ll need to win the caucus in February.

However, I’m not counting Biden out just yet. He still has more than enough money to play long and hard here, and he still has plenty of allies in the labor movement and the Democratic Party’s  “old-guard establishment” who may decide to help boost his ground game. But at this point, he’ll need more of his labor and “establishment” allies to step up in his time of need. For the first time since Biden announced his run in April, he’s at real risk of falling behind.

↔️ #3: Bernie Sanders (unchanged)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Thankfully, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) seems to be making a full recovery after he suffered a heart attack during his last visit to Nevada earlier this month. Thus far, Sanders has been doing more in recent weeks to drive the Democratic Party’s policy conversation with bold proposals on health care, housing, climate, immigration reform, workers’ rights, and more. And last night, he silenced his critics who sought to concern troll over his health with a solid debate performance

But as I noted last month, Sanders has struggled to expand his base beyond his usual set of “ride-or-die’s”. Since then, I’ve seen no evidence of this dynamic changing. While his base is certainly enough to keep Sanders in the running and high above the rest of the field, we’re still waiting to see whether he can find a way to pull progressive voters away from Warren and/or pull blue-collar voters away from Biden and/or win over voters who are currently backing the lower-tier candidates (see below). Here’s a helpful hint: It’s not through esoteric arguments over philosophy and semantics.

🔻 #4: Kamala Harris (down slightly from last month’s tie with Sanders for #3)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Of all the contenders, Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) confounds me the most. On one end, her campaign team nationally and here in Nevada are top-notch. She seems to be developing a real field operation here (at least in the Vegas and Reno regions), and she continues to hold a key advantage in endorsements.

And yet, not only is Harris failing to gain traction, but she may even be falling behind. Thus far, her apparent strength on the ground and her appeal within the higher reaches of the Democratic Party aren’t materializing in polling data and other anecdotal measures we use to gauge enthusiasm and momentum (such as crowd sizes and fundraising). There’s still time for Harris to reverse this trend, and she finally showed signs of new life in Ohio last night, but she’ll be well-advised not to wait until 3:00 AM to figure out how to keep this good thing going for a change. 

🔼 #5: Pete Buttigieg (up from #6)
Photo by Andrew Davey

So far, it looks like Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’ losses may result in South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s gain. Not only does he continue to excel at fundraising, but we’re finally seeing signs that he’s putting all that money to good use by turning his once bare-bones Nevada operation into a more robust machine. And even better for Buttigieg, after suffering a “summer slump”, some recent national and early state polls show him pulling ahead of Harris and moving closer to Sanders.

But if Warren’s been dealing with a problem with her (formerly?) narrow base of support, Buttigieg has a crisis on his hands with the lack of diversity in his base. If he can’t improve his standing among voters of color, he may not have much of a path past (the overwhelmingly white states of) Iowa and New Hampshire.

🔻 #6: Cory Booker (down from #5)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) continues to impress some voters on the campaign trail with his policy breadth and personal depth, yet most other voters just aren’t paying attention to him and most of the other lower-tier candidates any more. In the case of Booker, it’s a real shame, as he’s been offering plenty of style and substance on the campaign trail. And yet, here he is… And here we are, wondering when his campaign will issue another threat to drop out so they can keep the money flowing in.

🔼 #7: Beto O’Rourke (up from #8)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) is finally in “zero f–ks mode”. After seeing his hometown attacked by a white nationalist terrorist while campaigning here in Nevada two months ago, O’Rourke has not only dropped much of his centrist-friendly “consensus building” rhetoric from his campaign playlist, but he’s also been going harder on policy and taking the lead on issues like gun violence. I still wonder whether it’s too late for O’Rourke to vault back into the top tier after a spring and summer full of missteps, but it’s never too late for people (especially political leaders) to do the right thing and let the consequences follow.

🔼 #8: Andrew Yang (up from everyone else)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Don’t get me wrong: I have an incredibly hard time seeing tech investor Andrew Yang coming anywhere close to the Democratic nomination next year. Yet at the same time, it’s increasingly undeniable that the “Yang Gang” is larger than most of us could have imagined. And yes, it’s also become clearer that Yang has some real depth behind the (many, many, many) gimmicks. And yet, unless Yang can grow his “Gang” beyond their social media strongholds, his large warchest probably won’t get him much higher on this chart.

😰 And finally, some notes on everyone else
Photo by Andrew Davey

Here lie the hopes and dreams of over a dozen candidates who want us to take them seriously, even as we can clearly see they’ve mostly struggled to even qualify for a debate, let alone open a campaign office anywhere in this state.

There are at least a couple exceptions here: Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro has made real efforts to lead on policy and compete here in Nevada and on the debate stage, and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) has some real substance beneath her awkward attempts at folksy charm. But at this point, Castro’s presence in the field just can’t keep up with the higher-tier contenders while Klobuchar isn’t even trying (apparently since there’s no “Mid-” to our “West”).

As for everyone else, they’re going nowhere fast. I doubt they’ll even make it past Iowa, let alone compete (for real!) here in Nevada. The field really is beginning to winnow, and it looks like we’re already starting to play a big role in determining who makes it to “Super Tuesday” and beyond. If you don’t believe me on this, just wait a few days and pay attention to who comes back to ask for our votes.

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