State of the Race

Published February 14, 2020 in Warp & Woof


State of the Race

Is the Path to the Nomination Any Clearer?

William Sundwick

We’ve now had two real contests in the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary. There are still polls which we are told are scientifically designed and administered. But, finally, we’re getting down to actual voting. What have we learned so far?
After the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, it’s now safe to say that there are five top tier competitors awaiting Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to buy the presidency. It appears that the early states (IA, NH, NV, SC) will eliminate any other contenders – they’re already “suspending” their campaigns at an increasing rate. Super Tuesday on March 3 is the crucial date. My prediction is that we will, by then, have the top two contenders. But I cannot predict beyond that. Will it be a brokered convention in July?
As of now, these are the five top Democratic candidates for president by delegate count:
Bernie Sanders:  Seemingly the overall best bet to win the nomination – except for one glaring problem. He is opposed by the entire Democratic Party establishment! He has the most avid supporters, and they’re young – hence represent the future of the Party. He has the most money (except for the billionaires who are self-financing), and his “base” is probably the most diverse of any candidate’s. The only groups reluctant (or fearful) of getting behind him are the old folks and the affluent. One complication in his path to the nomination: those groups are over-represented among primary (and especially caucus) voters. Traditionally, they’re the ones who show up!
Pete Buttigieg:  After a substantial boost in both early contests – largely because of the arcane first and second alignment rules in Iowa, where he picked up the most support from “non-viable” candidates – Mayor Pete has recently benefited as the “unity candidate.”  He’s probably the establishment’s best hope now of countering Bernie. Old people like him as that “nice young man, and smart, too!” He hasn’t said anything that is too threatening to anybody. And, his supporters can claim to be “woke” because he’s gay with a fine husband. Some polling indicates that young, prosperous, college-educated white people are also included in Mayor Pete’s base.
Elizabeth Warren: Sadly, Liz came in a weak third in Iowa, worse in New Hampshire. News from her campaign was that she was pulling ads in Nevada and South Carolina. Those of us who count ourselves as her supporters felt we needed to step up, both financially and time commitment. She needed us. Her base is apparently white, well-educated members of what is known by Bernie supporters as the PMC (“Professional Managerial Class”). Of course, this group knows best what is good for the country – and must educate everybody else accordingly. My whole family (two generations) are Warren supporters. But, alas, we may need to “check our privilege” – perhaps we don’t represent the heart and soul of America?
Amy Klobuchar: Suddenly, after the New Hampshire primary, Amy has finally realized the “Klobmentum” that commentators have been predicting. Her third-place finish, very close to Pete, and ahead of both Liz and Joe, has caused us to re-evaluate her campaign. Not only does she rip the women’s candidate mantle from Warren but has now transcended her Iowa message of running for “President of the Midwest.” Her message seems to be a positive one: “You’re great people and I like you!” This contrasts with Bernie’s more negative: “Let’s fight the bad guys together!” Both appeal to unity, but positive phrasing often trumps negative.
Joe Biden: Only a few weeks ago, the RCP polling average had Biden on top. What happened? Well, in short, it was Iowa. The fact that he could only muster fourth place in that very selective contest seems to have knocked the wind out of his sails. When Joe gets knocked off his easy-going style he tends to stumble. So, New Hampshire became a make-or-break test for his campaign. It was not good. His base has been much like Bernie’s, except inverted in one critical metric – age! And, a large swath of the Democratic Party elite (the Hillary wing from 2016) have been all-in for Joe from the beginning.
None of the other candidates matter at this point. Andrew Yang, Deval Patrick, and Michael Bennet dropped out after New Hampshire, only Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard remain — who cares? They may be angling for book deals, cabinet posts, future Senate elections – but, surely, neither expect to be president, or even nominees. And, Mike Bloomberg waits in the wings as we consume his barrage of advertising, even generating polling support and endorsements.
While I believe that any of the top five candidates mentioned above can easily beat Trump, assuming they manage half-way intelligent campaigns in the general election, we did also expect that of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Much attention has been paid by the media to the different “lanes” that these candidates occupy. It seems the underlying assumption in such talk is that some collection of policy positions, an ideology, is a more probable path to victory in November than some other such collection. I respectfully disagree with that assumption. I think most voters don’t identify with specific policy positions nearly as much as they have emotional reactions to the public persona of each candidate. But, if there were different lanes of policy among the top tier candidates, the campaign thus far has made Bernie the sole inhabitant of the Left Lane – he expects to blunt the attacks from Republicans by openly identifying as a “Democratic Socialist,” much as Mayor Pete openly identifies as gay. Once somebody comes out, the attack can easily be turned against the attacker. Not as much an issue as many in the media fear.
Warren has lately sought to move away from that Left Lane, thinking that her main opponent is Pete rather than Bernie. If she is seeking to rise to a solid second choice, that may work. She can attain that status by splitting the difference between Bernie and Pete. Pete is very slippery, hard to pin down to a single lane. Biden clearly dominates the Right Laneamong top Democratic contenders. His long history in the Senate, as well as his role in the Obama administration, may allow him to call himself “progressive” by the standards of 20 years ago, but times have changed. Nowadays, the eight years of Obama look like years of moderation and compromise, even a betrayal to some Democratic constituencies. As we know, much of this is due to the astounding lurch to the right of the Republican opposition. And Joe still thinks his strength is that he can “work with” Republicans. Amy echoes much of Biden’s posturing in this regard but may have better control over her messaging. She could be the compromise between Pete and Liz if she works on that.
What about Bloomberg and Tom Steyer? The billionaires self-funding their campaigns may yet be the wild cards in this race. But, with Bloomberg entering the debates because of a rule change, we may see further scrutiny of his profoundly undemocratic quest for the presidency – if that is even his goal. While all candidates are trying to sell themselves to the American people, there seems to be something especially crass about doing it mainly through purchased TV (and online) ads. How many Bloomberg rallies have there been in primary states? How many Bloomberg canvassers will we see knocking on doors? One wonders if Bloomberg isn’t more interested in protecting his fortune from a new regime in Washington than anything else.
If Super Tuesday does not produce a wide delegate lead for one or two candidates, then the prospect grows for a brokered convention. This would mean that the final Democratic contest would be on the convention floor in Milwaukee. Delegates would be traded among candidates, and starting with the second ballot, superdelegates again rear their ugly heads, as in 2016. Today, with only two contests involving actual voting behind us, it’s too soon to speculate on such an event. Iowa was essentially too close to call for the top two, and New Hampshire has produced what will likely be equally short-lived headlines and bounce. Nevada caucuses and South Carolina represent two more peculiar, non-representative, states. March 3 awaits.

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