Election 2020 Chapter 1: Primary Colors
As we turned the page on a new year for a new decade, I prefaced my analysis of Election 2020 by looking back at how we got to this political moment. So after an Obama age that lead to the seeds of re-alignments on voter patterns, after a stunning and unconventional election for president in 2016, and after the soap opera like presidency that allowed a Democratic revival in what would have otherwise been a Republican friendly economic environment, here we are about to start counting votes in the presidential nomination process. In this first chapter of my look at the election as it progresses in the coming months, I will say my final peace on the primary stage for both main parties; and speak to the possibilities of what we are about to witness in the coming months, as we learn which two candidates will end up our major choices for president when we go to the polls this November.
– Part 1: The Republican Party Rallies Around A Vulnerable President
The only election that was ignored worse than last year’s off-year gubernatorial elections has been (and understandably so) the 2020 Republican primary for their presidential nomination. I wrote about this nomination race back last September, and predictably not much has changed since. There had been fantastical speculation among some beltway types and hopeful anti-Trump Republican leaning voters that given the president’s behavior, his unpopularity, the party’s string of down-ballot losses, and his very real vulnerability even as a sitting incumbent president, that he could be challenged for the nomination by a major foe within the party – and perhaps take some major blows during that ensuing battle. However, the reality has given us a much more Trump-friendly result with mostly good news for him, but some bad historical precedent for him as well.
While Democrats loathe the President (10% approval in latest Gallup poll) and Independents haven’t been too happy with him themselves (37% approval in latest Gallup poll), the red team gives him high approval ratings (88% approval in latest Gallup poll) and have rallied around him in support through thick and thin after three years of plenty events to test their patience. Republican politicians, even those who have been the most critical of their de-facto party leader, have decided to stick with him just as their base has regardless of some of their noted fears that this won’t be another 2016. The most major of names didn’t drop their hat into the race and in 2019 the President slowly but surely climbed from averaging in the lower sixties in re-nomination support among the party to the high eighties. His polling in the primary has set him up to be a heavy favorite to win re-nomination at the same levels past sitting incumbents have, and this party unity has lead to the usual massive fundraising hauls a sitting president enjoys. State parties themselves are going out of their way to make sure zero roadblocks are in the way of him accepting the party’s re-nomination in Charlotte come August.
However, while the president is cruising past the nomination process with a united party and big money hauls, he is getting challenged by two (formerly three) candidates who have held office in the past. Neither barely registers past 3-5% in polls and obviously neither has a true path or made a dent in Trump’s massive support among his partisan base. But this is an unusual amount of “serious” self-party challenges against a sitting incumbent president, which historically tends to spell trouble in the general election as I provided proof of in my September piece on the race. However, the president’s strong showing otherwise in the primary makes him a lock to have his party united around him as Democrats quibble about their own future looking ahead to a general election that could wind up extra polarized. Overall, this stage of the election couldn’t have gone much better than it has for Trump.
– Part 2: A Wide Open Democratic Field Winnows Down To (Mostly) Predictable Finalists
Historically, incumbent presidents seeking re-election scare away more potential challengers compared to open seat races. However, with the President currently as of this writing sporting a less than desirable 53% disapproval rating and hypothetical general election polls showing him vulnerable, its no wonder many Democrats decided to give it a shot at their party’s presidential nomination. However, thanks to the establishment’s backing of Clinton and down-ballot losses under Obama stunting their field for a bit, plus the narrative that Trump came out of nowhere as an underdog to win the 2016 GOP nomination (Though he actually lead early and throughout the campaign), the blue team ended up with nearly thirty candidates running to be the candidate who could accept the nomination in Milwaukee come July. From private businesspersons, to state legislators, to members of either house of congress, to governors, to small and big city mayors, to even a former Vice President. The Democratic field smelled blood in the general and wanted their chance to “dethrone” Trump.
The media and the punditry quickly wanted to make this a re-do of 2008, wondering who would emerge as the dark horse that ended up taking out Joe Biden from his position atop the polls. For a time, Beto O’Rourke looked like he could become a major player for the nomination. He got a nice bump in polls upon announcing and gathered up early big fundraising hauls – only for woeful debate moments and desperate hail-mary policy ideas to get him nowhere as he faded down the stretch and dropped out before Iowa. Then there was Kamala Harris, who looked as potentially a female Obama of sorts as she attracted an impressive large crowd to her campaign launch, became a betting markets’ darling, and had a great first debate – but never recovered from a bad second debate outing and like O’Rourke faded down the stretch and found herself leaving the race before Iowa. There’s also the curious case of Cory Booker who was seen by most as a very likable candidate who could potentially recapture the Obama magic, but found himself struggling to get anywhere in polls or fundraising no matter how well he did in the debates. One by one the minor candidates fell and some major ones dropped out. By the time Iowa was on the cusp of voting twelve remained, of those twelve, the finalists look like the same finalists many would have predicted a year ago, well most of them were.
There’s Joe Biden, the man who has lead the national polls and refuses to go down in Iowa/New Hampshire while keeping a small lead in Nevada and a big one in South Carolina. His strong support among African Americans and older voters has helped him outperform the twitter bubble’s expectations of him, and he heads into Iowa with a real chance to set the stage to put this race away early or at least perform strong there. Biden’s historically good positioning, his endorsements lead, his polling strength against Trump, and his southern firewall have been great help to him. His fundraising has seen its ups and downs, but he’s remained in the race as the safe establishment choice in a large field of many unknowns. I wrote not once, but twice about Biden’s very real strengths in this race and I have yet to have my answer on “Who can stop Biden?” in this primary. He is by no means a lock for the nomination, but he has been every bit as hard to take down as I figured he’d be when I first wrote about this race almost a year ago.
Then there’s also Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. Two candidates that had moments late into 2019 that lead me to have to write about each. Warren could provide a more reactionary campaign against Trump. Buttigieg could provide a more moderate but fresh-faced youthful approach. Both would be historic presidencies in different ways and both have fought and clawed as candidates have come and gone to within striking distance of winning Iowa/New Hampshire. However a lack of minority support, little establishment backing, and less than great polling against Trump, could prove to keep them from getting the nomination.
But of the top contenders, there is a reactive revolutionary, sorta populist, less establishment backed, campaign that could wind up getting the victory – and I never got around to writing about it before. Bernie Sanders, the 2016 Democratic primary runner-up who lost to Clinton but build up his own fanbase and has raised eye-popping amounts of money, could end up being the one who takes Biden down. I say “could” and not “will” because it won’t be easy. First Sanders has to come away with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire to get himself within range of a Nevada win before a likely South Carolina loss. He’d then have to survive an all-out campaign against him by more establishment friendly Democratic forces, and after all that if he becomes the nominee he’ll have to answer his problems with African-Americans and expand on his good numbers with Latinos. He has an uphill climb like Warren and Buttigieg, but he is arguably the best positioned among the non-Bidens as of today to overcome the frontrunner.
Yes there’s the Tom Steyers and Mike Bloombergs of the race, the first paying his way into debates and the latter saturating the airwaves with ads. There’s also the dark horse Amy Klobuchar campaign which has somehow found a way to stick this thing out and will likely go all in on an upset win or strong second place finish in Iowa. But all three of those are such long-shots I’d honestly pile them together with the extras polling just 0-3%.
This primary has seemingly come down to Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttiegieg and if you ask me as of today I think it’s Biden’s to lose and Sanders’ opportunity to win, with Warren and Buttigieg the dark horses I’d bet money against.
– Part 3: Historical Trends For The Democratic Primary To Keep An Eye On
To win the Democratic nomination, contenders will need to get at least 15% in each contest to qualify for delegates. 1,990 delegates gives you an automatic first ballot victory at the convention. If no one can get that many, we go to an old school contested convention fought over multiple ballots with superdelegates getting involved in the process then where as they were involved in the process pre-convention before. To gauge what the likely outcome will be I always remind folks that history repeats itself via trends. While these trends aren’t the be all, end all they are worth keeping an eye on. When it comes to primaries I’ve identified the following three as important….
Who wins Iowa and New Hampshire? Historically, winning at least one of these puts you in contention to be the nominee come convention time. The only big outlier being Bill Clinton in 1992 who lost both before big wins in the South allowed him to come from behind and win the nomination – but Iowa was basically seceded in that race which made New Hampshire the only truly fought over early state. There is some slight evidence that Biden can lose both but bounce back with wins in Nevada and South Carolina, but the former is looking close and a Bernie sweep of the first two states could easily lead to him getting momentum there (Especially given Bernie’s nice numbers with Latinos). If Biden can win either, he’s probably hitting the targets he needs to end up the nominee, if he can sweep both he’s probably going to put this away much earlier than many expected.
Does the party truly “decide”? The answer is an argument of yes from me. Endorsements have historically mattered in terms of who ends up the nominee, but after 2016 many have questioned if that’s an outdated theory now. However I would argue that when the party stays in the sidelines, as the GOP did in 2016, that’s when you get a better chance for that theory to look outdated. Biden isn’t dominating in the endorsement game like Clinton was at this point in 2016, but he’s currently on track with would be past nominees. In time perhaps a few Biden losses leads the party elsewhere, or maybe a Bernie win proves that it has become outdated to rack up endorsements, but if history is a guide you wanna keep an eye on who’s winning the endorsement race and right now that’s Biden. PS – Biden is also currently ahead by a small margin in the current and mostly undecided superdelegate count for a would be contested convention.
Who comes off the most “electable”? This question annoys some but historically when choosing a nominee to go up against a sitting incumbent president, the out-party’s voters are focusing on this question. Biden understandably leads easily on this in poll after poll, but lately both Sanders and Warren have been growing as “electable” in the eyes of primary voters as well. If Biden maintains a clear edge on this, then he’s probably going to be the nominee. However, if after some losses you see polling showing Democrats opening up to the argument someone else might be more electable, that could spell trouble for Biden.
After a year plus of speculation, media hype over new candidates, obituaries about failed campaigns, and countless debates we are about to begin the nomination process with actual votes to be tabulated. Trump has his party’s nomination all locked up, the Democratic field is much more wide open with Biden and Sanders looking like the likelier nominess and Warren and Buttigieg attempting come from behind wins. Whoever Democrats nominate could potentially be the face of the party as it finishes its trek out of the wilderness and returns to the White House – or the next scapegoat for yet another upset loss to Donald Trump.
After the primaries have played out I’ll be looking at the next chapter in the race – looking at how Trump could still win re-election or how he could very well lose.