Nine events that have defined the 2020 Democratic race

Image: Supporters wave signs for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, at a campaign e
Supporters wave signs for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Dec. 31, 2019. Copyright Stephen Maturen Getty Images file
By Chuck Todd and Mark Murray and Carrie Dann with NBC News Politics
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First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.


WASHINGTON — With five days until the first nominating contest, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is your slight favorite in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is the slight national favorite.

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has lost altitude, while former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has held his ground in Iowa and New Hampshire — but appears to be less of a player outside those two states.

So how did we get here? Here's a look at the nine events over the past year that have defined the Democratic presidential race:

  1. Biden and Sanders deciding to run for president — again: It wasn't necessarily predetermined that Biden and Sanders would run in 2020. But when the two men with the highest name ID (and arguably the clearest ideological positioning) jumped in, it effectively sucked up the oxygen for the other alternatives, especially for the candidates who announced earlier (like Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and even former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke).
  2. Sanders' heart attack and rebound in the polls: For any other candidate, a heart attack while on the campaign trail could have ended their candidacy. (Can you imagine had Biden had a heart attack? Or Hillary Clinton in 2016 — instead of her pneumonia?) But immediately after Sanders' heart attack in October, the campaigned rolled out endorsements by progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. And his national poll numbers have tilted upward ever since.
  3. Warren's "I'm with Bernie on Medicare for All": Heading into the first Dem debate, it wasn't 100 percent clear that Elizabeth Warren would side with Bernie Sanders on eliminating private insurance. But in that Miami debate, she raised her hand when asked if she would abolish private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan, allying herself with Bernie Sanders on the ultimate issue that has defined the 2020 Dem race. She later modified her health care plan, but it's worth asking if the contest would have been different had Warren not raised her hand.
  4. Harris' clash with Biden in the first debate: Also in the first round of Dem debates, Kamala Harris sparred with Biden over the issue of race. ("I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I … it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.") Harris' poll numbers took off after that debate performance, but started to decline weeks later. And Biden never lost his overwhelming lead with African-American voters.
  5. The Warren-versus-Sanders fight over gender: It started with an anonymously sourced claim that Sanders had told Warren a woman couldn't defeat Trump; it turned into a question in the last debate; and it eventually resulted in Warren refusing to shake Sanders' hand after the debate. And the entire episode sure looks like it moved the poll numbers: Sanders' standing is up while Warren's is down.
  6. Pete Buttigieg's CNN town hall in March 2019: Out of the 20-plus candidates in the Dem race, it was Buttigieg who emerged as the outsider/fresh face in the contest. And it was his televised town hall on CNN, and the viral moments from it, that catapulted his campaign and fueled his fundraising machine. "Frankly, when I first got into politics, elected politics at the beginning of this decade, in Indiana, in Mike Pence's Indiana, I thought you could either be out or you could be in office, but you couldn't be both," he said in the town hall.
  7. Beto's rise and fall: One of the candidates who could have been the fresh face in the 2020 — Beto O'Rourke — started strong on his first day, raising $6 million in his first 24 hours. But it went downhill after that. He wasn't "born to be in it," after all.
  8. Enter the billionaires: Both entrepreneur Tom Steyer (in July) and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (in November!) got into this race pretty late, but you can't deny they've had an impact — at least over the airwaves. The two men, combined, have shelled out nearly $400 million in TV ads. And Bloomberg could very well be a factor after Iowa and New Hampshire.
  9. The Ukraine scandal: It's hard to see how this story — "Rudy Giuliani Plans Ukraine Trip to Push for Inquiries That Could Help Trump" - isn't the biggest event of the 2020 Dem race. It led to the impeachment of the nation's 45th president; it kept Biden's name in the news (both hurting and helping his campaign); and the impeachment trial has forced Sanders, Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., away from the trail in the final days before Iowa.

Where things stand with impeachment witnesses

Our Capitol Hill team reports that, as of last night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged to GOP senators behind closed doors that he does not currently have the votes to avoid calling witnesses in the impeachment trial. But even though the votes aren't locked in yet, the situation remains fluid and Republicans seem confident that they'll ultimately succeed in blocking those witnesses, the team writes.

One reason we see for that? As we wrote yesterday, the fault lines in the party (and in the conservative media landscape) have become almost entirely about being with Trump or being against him.

Just look at how Trump's supporters are attacking people like Sen. Mitt Romney and John Bolton. It's as much about sending a message to other lawmakers who may be on the fence as it is about impugning the motives of those who have already criticized the president.

Data Download: The number of the day is … 75 percent

75 percent.

That's the share of registered voters who say witnesses should be allowed to testify in the impeachment trial, according to a new Quinnipiac national poll.

That includes 49 percent of Republicans, 95 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of independents.

Just 20 percent of voters say witnesses should not be allowed to testify.

Impeachment trial update: Question time

Today's the day that senators will start asking questions of the House managers and Trump's defense lawyers. The lawmakers will submit questions in writing to either Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Chief Justice John Roberts will read each question out loud along with the name of the questioners. Both sides have a total of 16 hours to answer questions over two days, starting when the Senate gavels in today at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Where are we?

Last Tuesday: procedural jousting over the organizing resolution; rules passed around 2:00 a.m. ET

Last Wednesday: prosecution opening arguments, 8 hours

Last Thursday: prosecution, 8 hours

Last Friday: prosecution, 8 hours

Last Saturday: White House defense


Sunday: off

Monday: White House defense

Yesterday: White House defense

Today: Senators' questions

Tomorrow: Senators' questions


Friday: Deliberations?

Saturday: Vote on witnesses?

Sunday: off

Monday: Iowa caucuses

Tuesday: State of the Union


Tweet of the day

2020 Vision: Total Eclipse of the Heart (Attack)?

NBC's Alex Seitz-Wald reports that a Democratic pro-Israel group will start running ads in Iowa today that take explicit aim at Bernie Sanders over his electability and his health.

"I like Bernie, I think he has great ideas, but Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa -- they're just not going vote for a socialist," says one man who appears in the ad from the group Democratic Majority for Israel.

"I do have some concerns about Bernie Sanders' health considering he just had a heart attack," another woman adds.

The spot is the second recent ad in Iowa that directly references Sanders' health. A new ad from conservative group Club for Growth states that "even [Sanders'] age is extreme."

In a video message tweeted last night, Sanders responded to the "political establishment and the big money interests, who are now running attack ads against us in Iowa."


"Our opponents, they have endless amounts of money. But we have the people and our grassroots movement will prevail," he said.

On the campaign trail today

With five days to go, here's the activity in Iowa: Joe Biden stumps in Sioux City and Council Bluffs… Pete Buttigieg holds town halls in Jefferson, Ames, Webster City Mason City and New Hampton… Elizabeth Warren husband Bruce Mann and Julian Castro campaign for Warren in the Hawkeye State… Tom Steyer is in Knoxville, Ottumwa and Fairfield… Andrew Yang hits Iowa City, Burlington and Davenport… Elsewhere, Mike Bloomberg campaigns in Houston and El Paso… And Tulsi Gabbard is in New Hampshire.

Dispatches from NBC's campaign embeds

While Joe Biden has been the perceived frontrunner in national polls, he's setting expectations a bit lower for the Iowa caucuses, as several polls show him lagging behind candidates like Bernie Sanders in the state, NBC's Marianna Sotomayor reports: "Biden has often mentioned the caucuses as the 'starting gun,' the state that determines not necessarily the nominee but that winnows the field of candidates. He acknowledged that the results would be very close, pointing to recent polls that show the race in 'basically a dead heat.' 'The last couple polls we're ahead at 25 and Bernie is at whatever and so on and so forth, but it's basically a dead heat,' Biden said. 'And it's going to be a really, it's going to be a close, close race. It's going to be a big deal how we come out of here.'"

And Pete Buttigieg, who has long discussed his faith on the campaign trail, leaned into a quick bible study while answering a question on immigration policy in Iowa, NBC's Priscilla Thompson reports: "I 'was a stranger and you welcomed me' that's supposed to be a core element of faith. At least of the Christian tradition that I belong to," Buttigieg said. "I mean the Good Samaritan, not to get into Bible study, but the Good Samaritan you know to people in that period, many of them that would be a contradiction in terms because they were trained not to like Samaritans. There's so many stories in Scripture that are about seeing past these boundaries to see the humanity in others."

Talking policy with Benjy

The deficit has fallen off the radar as a political issue in the Trump Era, but that doesn't make it go away, NBC's Benjy Sarlin writes. The Congressional Budget Office released its long-term forecast, and it's trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. The nonpartisan agency expects the deficit to rise to $1 trillion this year for the first time since 2012 — thanks to a mix of increased spending and tax cuts approved by Congress under President Trump.


Deficit will then average $1.3 trillion through 2030, which will bring the ratio of total public debt to GDP from 81 percent now to 98 percent in 2030 and a whopping 180 percent in 2050, which the CBO report notes, "is 75 percentage points higher than it was in 1946, when federal debt reached its peak."

Rising health-care costs and retiring boomers are the big factors driving the increase on the spending side, likely setting up decades of coming policy fights over whether the government should intervene to force down prices or scale back retiree benefits to cut costs.

But in the short term, there's some good news for the president's re-election campaign: Growth is projected to hit 2.2 percent this year, well below his stated goal of 3 percent, but still desirable territory for an incumbent. Without more rising adults and immigrants to replace aging workers, however, the CBO projects economic growth will stay below historic averages at 1.7 percent over the next decade.

The Lid: Thumbs up

Don't miss the pod from yesterday, when we asked how much endorsements matter for the 2020 Democratic primary.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn't miss

NBC's Josh Lederman and Anna Schecter have an exclusive look into the Dutch Trump supporter who claimed to have Marie Yovanovitch under surveillance.


Here's what to expect from the Senate Q&A sessions in the impeachment trial.

The Washington Post looks at how the pro-Trump internet is going after John Bolton.

POLITICO writes that Democrats are already worried about Trump not cooperating in a presidential transition if they do win the White House.

The Republican establishment isn't happy with Doug Collins for challenging a new sitting GOP senator.

Trump Agenda: Deal or no 'Deal of the Century'

Trump allies are doing cash giveaways at events targeting African American voters.


Trump's Mideast deal seems to be a lot more about elections rather than peace in the region.

Does Trump WANT to run against Bernie Sanders or not? His supporters are of two minds.

What is Rick Scott up to with his ads in Iowa?

2020: Super TV Tuesday

They're off to the races on Super Tuesday TV ad spending, writes Ben Kamisar.

Amy Klobuchar says that Michael Bloomberg should face his rivals on the debate stage.


And the Minnesota senator made a very quick trip to Iowa during a brief pause in the impeachment proceedings.

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