For months, the Democratic presidential primary has been dictated by Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. That primary is now over.
After an eventful month and the conclusion of the first round of Democratic debates, there is a new top tier — and a sense among many campaigns and Democratic operatives that Biden and Sanders are suddenly within reach in a race that has broken wide open.
“Bernie and Biden were largely living off of inertia,” said Colin Strother, a veteran Democratic strategist.
Now, he said, voters are becoming aware that “other [candidates], they have a lot of other things to offer.”
The campaign’s evolution came gradually at first — then violently amid the debates. Biden, already damaged by his shifting views on abortion and his one-time work with segregationists, withered under Sen. Kamala Harris’ filleting of his record on busing for school desegregation.
Sanders committed no such error. Yet he was weakened by contrast — his forgettable debate performance versus the proficiency of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a fellow leftist previously untested in a presidential campaign. She is slowly rising in the polls, just as Sanders — a rival for the progressive vote — is seeing his numbers tick downward.
By the weekend, Warren was rallying thousands of supporters in Chicago, while Harris was raising record sums of money for her campaign.
Together, the two women’s success began to challenge a fixture of the early campaign — a calculation about electability in which some voters still suffering from Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 had been hesitant to nominate another woman.
“There’d been this whole not-so-subtle electability argument,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant who advised Cynthia Nixon in her primary campaign against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year. “That one-two punch [from Warren and Harris] showed not only that women can hold their own, but they can smoke ‘em.”
Following the debates, Warren drew one of her largest crowds yet, with about 3,600 people in Chicago. Harris announced Saturday that she had raised $2 million from more than 63,000 people in the 24 hours following her debate, her best single fundraising day of the campaign.
She shot up 6 percentage points in the latest Morning Consult poll of Democratic voters, released Saturday, tying Warren at 12 percent.
Biden, despite shedding 5 percentage points in Morning Consult’s first post-debate survey, still leads the field at 33 percent. And Sanders remains 7 percentage points ahead of Harris and Warren.
Biden’s debate blundering appears to have pierced any remaining notions that the former vice president was on a glide path to the nomination. Advisers to at least six other presidential campaigns told POLITICO that Harris’ successful ambush of Biden, in particular, suggested an opening for other candidates, as well.
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“I just feel like the inevitability of Joe Biden is over,” an adviser to one mid-tier candidate said.
Ben LaBolt, a former White House aide and press secretary for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, said that “the effectiveness of [Harris’] attack made it a permission slip to attack Biden.”
There are signs of uneasiness in the Biden and Sanders camps, as both seek to reinforce their bases of support. In an effort to regain separation from a field that — unlike in his 2016 campaign — includes Democrats who agree with him on many issues, Sanders on Friday challenged Democrats supportive of Medicare for All to also support eliminating most private insurance, a more progressive position.
That same day, Biden defended his civil rights record before a mostly African American audience in Chicago and, later, at fundraisers in California.
Steve Westly, a former California state controller who supports Biden, said that “if you’re Joe Biden, you’re in first place … everybody’s going to take shots at you.”
Westly, who was a major bundler of campaign contributions for former President Barack Obama, predicted Biden’s record of public service would continue to set him apart from the field, while acknowledging several other candidates had improved their positions in recent weeks.
“You’ve got 20 people who are technically running for president,” Westly said. “But realistically, I think five or six of them are. And the rest of them are hopefully running for vice president or a cabinet seat.”
Following the debates, he said, “I think there was a separation in the field.”
But other Biden donors have become alarmed. Tom McInerney, a top bundler for Obama, told CNBC on Friday that he informed Biden’s campaign on June 20 that he was no longer supporting his campaign.
A former Obama bundler said that while he expected Biden to initially lose only three to four percentage points in public opinion polls, the effect could quickly compound.
“It’s more of a major cut that they need to make sure doesn’t worsen,” the bundler said. “They need to stop the narrative of age and race, which will be tough now.”
Several rival campaigns viewed Harris’ challenge of Biden on busing and segregationists as a narrow critique that any number of candidates could expand in future debates, potentially reviving controversies surrounding Biden’s record on bankruptcy reform, the 1994 crime bill and his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony during then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings.
“I think everyone can acknowledge that some time in their career they have made decisions that they look back and regret,” an adviser to one lower-tier candidate said. “He just doesn’t do that.”
On Sunday, Sen. Cory Booker kept up the criticism of Biden on issues of race, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the Democratic nominee must be able to “talk openly and honestly” about the subject.
"I’m not sure if Vice President Biden is up to that task," Booker said.
If Biden falters, possible beneficiaries include not only Harris and Warren, but also Booker and Pete Buttigieg.
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., limped into last week’s debates amid controversy surrounding his handling of a police shooting in his home town. But in his contrition, an advisor to one rival candidate said, “Pete maybe arrested his downward trajectory.”
Several once high-profile candidates saw their stocks fall. Few candidates worried any more about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York or former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who was pushed around by a fellow Texan, Julián Castro, in an exchange about immigration. O’Rourke, who walked across the border from his hometown of El Paso, Texas, to meet with asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez on Sunday, fell to 2 percent in the latest Morning Consult poll.
Sanders, meanwhile, appeared more vulnerable than ever from the party’s left flank — as multiple candidates embraced positions on issues such as universal health care that he popularized.
“Bernie Sanders is the father of the modern revolt,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist based in New York. “All things flow from him.”
But in 2020, he asked, “Who’s the likely candidate the progressives get behind? They get behind a woman, they get behind somebody who’s black.”
Increasingly, Sheinkopf said, it appears Sanders is “not going to get to the other side.”
Following the debates, an adviser to one candidate lamented that the reordering of the primary landscape had largely been a function of “spectacle.” But he welcomed the vacuum that appeared to open behind the two front-runners.
The events of last week, Strother said, demonstrated that Democrats “aren’t afraid to bloody up somebody they theoretically like and respect.”
He said, “We definitely saw that there are some people feeling like, ‘I’ve got to make a move to improve my standing in this thing.’”