I was hesitant to write a piece attempting to handicap the 2020 Democratic Primary because it is so early and there are far too numerous possible scenarios. Then Joe Biden got in, making no less than 20 candidates vying for the nomination. There is so much early controversy that I feel compelled to try and break it down. Here are some of the key issues and challenges with this unprecedented primary. It will be extremely more difficult to raise the necessary campaign funds with so many candidates, especially with the emphasis on small donations and against larger, corporate donors. The debates will likely be a circus that do not result in clarity about the candidates. Special interests are imposing incredible moral pressure on candidates and voters to dedicate themselves to nominating a woman for President. To mount an effective national strategy, the ultimately successful candidates will have to distinguish themselves from the gravitational pull of the radical liberal and Democratic Socialist elements of the party. This is not a year for ideological purity or hard feelings following the primary for those who supported other candidates. This is year to compete across the country to defeat Trump at all costs and hopefully take the Senate.
Until and unless Congress successfully overturns the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case, elections will be unfortunately fueled and dominated by unconscionable amounts of money, especially dark money, unfettered large scale corporate donations, and allegedly unaffiliated organizations running huge ad campaigns to buy elections. This greatly favors Republicans, making any solution far more difficult. Democratic candidates feel compelled to accept only smaller donations from individuals, which could be effective or an issue in Democratic primaries. However, until this becomes the standard, Democratic candidates will be at a huge disadvantage running against their Republican opponents in general elections. The immediate problem in the 2020 primary is the number of candidates trying to raise money. Voters receive a daily deluge of emails and phone calls from multiple campaigns desperate to receive money. To survive on small, individual donations, they must continually ask donors for help.
How can so many candidates, currently over 20, participate in meaningful, informative debates in order to present themselves to the voters? The larger the field, the less each candidate will get to speak. To be fair, every candidate must be able to answer each question. They will not be able to respond to each other’s answers or offer follow-ups because of the time this would take. Even a “small” field of perhaps five candidates makes a debate more challenging, but the closer the Democrats get to 20, the more daunting the task and less effective the debate. Debates are an excellent opportunity for voters to assess the candidates in one setting. As such they need to be meaningful fora to hear the candidates’ views. The Democratic National Committee has scheduled debates to be two-night affairs with half of the candidates appearing each night. To qualify, candidates must raise money from 65,000 individual donors and reach minimum polling numbers. To avoid labeling candidates as top or bottom tier, they will randomly determine who appears which night. While this may be preferable to a rating system that does in fact establish tiers, candidates will be randomly divided, preventing some potentially logical, helpful match-ups. Will voters watch both nights?
There is a moral push to ensure a woman at the top of the ticket, to have all male candidates commit outright to selecting a female VP candidate, and to ensure a person of color is on the ticket. Diversity is important, never more so in the face of the fear, hate, and white nationalism spewed by President Trump and his extremist base. There is no moral equivalency whatsoever between vile white supremacists and those standing up for freedom and equality. We had a Black President win two terms and were on the verge of electing a woman when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million but lost the electoral college vote by a combined total of less than 80,000. It will happen. And we will elect a Hispanic President as well as other firsts. These will be great milestones, but they must be earned, not anointed. Voters must be free to vote for the candidates, male or female, of any race, based on being inspired by their leadership, policy priorities, and other important substance.
Thus enters Joe Biden, twice unsuccessful as a Presidential candidate, but twice elected as Barrack Obama’s Vice President. With 50 years of public service including 36 years in the Senate, Biden has a record of experience and leadership. Many believe he is too old (age 76), prone to gaffs, too centrist, and out of touch with today’s Party. Others believe he is a proven leader, connects with working families (where the Clinton campaign failed), and has the best chance to beat Trump. It is hard to believe voters would hold Biden’s folksy misspeaks against him while ignoring Trump’s abysmal record of hate and deceit. Biden has been more of an institutional fund raiser, much the opposite of contemporary pressure to forego those donors in favor of small, online donations from individuals. Hopefully voters would not punish Biden or any other candidate who recognizes that it takes an exorbitant amount of money to run a campaign and does what is necessary to compete with Trump and the unlimited amount of special interest money on his side that will run smear campaigns against Democrats.
Biden will have to define himself and contrast his views with the morass of campaign rivals. He refers to himself as an Obama-Biden Democrat, a somewhat vague definition. Will Biden rescue the Democratic field from drifting too far to the left and threatening the necessary national strategy? Biden seems to want to occupy this center space, along with Senator Klobuchar, Governor Hickenlooper, Rep. O’Rourke, Mayor Buttigieg, et al. These candidates need to pull the field back towards the realistic center while remaining true to the progressive ideals important to many. They can best appeal to Trump voters and further erode his support, especially in some key battleground states Democrats must win. Democrats must also keep these voters beyond 2020 or risk continued losses in the Senate and struggles to win the White House.
With Trump’s record of wide ranging abhorrent personal conduct, this could be a good year for Democrats to make a sincere effort to reconcile with religious and values voters, many of whom share interests with Democrats on certain economic issues, environmental issues, etc. They are likely to welcome an overture from a reasonable Democratic candidate and reject the overt, outrageous hypocrisy of evangelical leaders who continually blindly excuse and ignore Trump’s incredible transgressions while criticizing Democrats for far less. The big challenge with these and a wider swath of voters is the issue of late term abortions and Democrats must do better on this issue, even with existing and pro-choice voters.
Another unfortunate consequence of such a large primary field is that many candidates will lose the seats they currently hold because they are running for President. It is worth the risk for the most competitive candidates; however, there are more than enough candidates and we need many of these individuals to stay where they are and continue to provide crucial leadership or perhaps run for other higher office. Consider the two Texans in the race, Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Former HUD Secretary and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. It is still early, but for better or worse neither appears poised to make it far into the race. One of them should commit to mounting a serious challenge to John Cornyn and rid the Senate of one of its more shameless ideologues and Mitch McConnell’s right hand.
Rep. Seth Moulton just entered a race wherein Senator Elizabeth Warren, also from Massachusetts, was expected to play a dominant role. Moulton, who led an unsuccessful challenge to Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, could have an excellent career in House leadership as he is clearly a rising star. He could also position himself to eventually succeed Warren or Markey, both aging, in the Senate. Moulton would serve Massachusetts and the nation extremely well as part of House leadership or in the Senate, neither of which precludes a future Presidential run. He is extremely impressive and has been building a national network. As a young leader, he does not need to rush into this year’s campaign and can wait for more fertile territory in a future Presidential bid.
As for Warren, she has proven to be less of a force than expected, currently in 4th place in early New Hampshire polls. New Hampshire is her backyard and shares a media market with Massachusetts. Voters there should be familiar with Warren, suggesting she is a weaker candidate than many predicted. It was always my view that Warren was not among the better, stronger 2020 primary candidates. She loses supporters to Bernie Sanders. Warren did well as a Clinton surrogate in 2016 delivering stump speeches attacking Trump. That has not translated into success as a Presidential candidate, especially in such a crowded field. It is too early to count her out, but already having high name recognition and failing behind is ominous for her campaign.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has likewise failed to gain much support. She is not exactly unknown to Democratic voters herself. Gillibrand scored a great upset victory when she flipped an upstate New York Congressional seat long held by Republicans. Although still relatively unproven, because of the excitement surrounding her win and her upstate New York credentials, Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed her to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat when Clinton became Secretary of State. Gillibrand almost immediately transformed herself into one of the Senate’s more liberal members, becoming less popular across her own state. She also led a vicious attack on then Senator Al Franken that many believed was premature and overly harsh forcing him to resign without any due process. She has very little chance of gaining traction in this race and I predict she would not win the New York presidential primary unless she was the clear national front runner at the time.
Rep. Eric Swalwell entered a race where his fellow Californian, Senator Kamala Harris, is already considered a top tier candidate. Nothing precludes multiple candidates from the same state from running, but Swalwell has little chance of breaking through and will accomplish nothing other than vacating his seat. He could be a force in the House, position himself to succeed Senator Feinstein, who is likely in her last term, or position himself to run for Governor, each of which becomes harder by forfeiting his Congressional seat. He is young with a strong message and there is no need for him to give everything up to run for President in 2020.
Similarly, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan entered the race as a longshot to win. Like Moulton, he recently challenged Nancy Pelosi’s leadership and made a very strong case for himself. He speaks clearly to many Democratic constituents, especially those workers who felt abandoned and opted for Trump in 2016. Ohio has become increasingly a “red state” so it is unclear what other opportunities Ryan, another strong young leader, would have in his home state. He seems up for the challenge of running for Senate or Governor because he resonates with voters. However, it is also easy to see him in future House leadership roles.
Governors Hickenlooper and Inslee have proven records including job growth and legislative accomplishments. Inslee has demonstrated that not only is Climate Change critical, but sustainability and clean energy are bona fide job creators. Whoever wins the nomination must build upon these successes as part of the national campaign message. It is interesting, perhaps a bit disturbing, that neither governor has garnered much early support, both lagging in the polls. Traditionally governors have been competitive primary candidates. Reliably blue Massachusetts has elected a strong of Republican governors as opposed to electing Democratic candidates deemed too liberal or progressive by voters. The same trend will likely befall presidential candidates, especially in states far less reliably blue.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar offers Democrats the closest thing to an all-in-one candidate they have. From the Midwest/Heartland of the country, she represents something lacking in other candidates. Holding traditional Democratic views and priorities, she is a pragmatic leader who can work effectively with colleagues to get things done. Although she is not the most dynamic speaker, she presents well and sincerely. The key is whether her more centrist approach will work in the leftward moving party.
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard brings little to the race and will continue failing to gain support. The same can be said of former Maryland Rep John Delaney and tech exec Andrew Yang. Surprisingly New Jersey Senator Corey Booker struggles to find support as well. Booker had taken Wall Street money to fund his campaigns. Few politicians in the highly expensive and competitive New York and New Jersey media markets can afford to run without raising substantial funds. Voters should look more at a candidate’s record and policy proposals as the better measure of their qualifications. There are a few additional candidates not even worth mentioning at this time. They are all casualties of an overly crowded field, especially Booker.
That brings us to Bernie Sanders, who excites part of the Democratic Party while alienating the other. Sanders has never been part of the Democratic party, self-identifying throughout his career as Socialist and Independent. When he entered the 2016 race, he made an agreement with the Democratic Party that for him to run in their primary, he committed to remain in the party. He reneged, returning to his independent status. Now Sanders again wants to utilize the Democratic party apparatus for his own purposes and the party will acquiesce. Sanders, as old and long-serving as Biden, does not represent the future or youth of the Democratic party, which appears to be a major theme in the 2020 race. While deserving credit for unabashedly adhering to his policy beliefs and making his case, he continues to be disingenuous on how we could realistically pay, how he would reduce the National debt, or how he would get much of his platform through Congress. If the American people make him President, they will undoubtedly also give us divided government to keep him in check. No doubt a powerful force of supporters, we will have to see how he does while being tested in debates and other fora. Does he beat Trump or help him win another 4 years?
It is highly likely the field will significantly narrow before the first four primaries. Most candidates will lose funding and support, forcing them to drop out before any votes are cast. Although nobody wants a coronation, the chaos from such a huge primary will likely cause a lot of damage and may hurt the eventual nominee. If even just five competitive candidates make it to Iowa and New Hampshire, the “winner” of those contests could receive as low as 21% of the vote or a similarly low total. That means the overwhelming majority of voters supported a different candidate. Nevertheless, this “winner” could seize control of the race at that moment. For example, perhaps ironically, Bernie Sanders is outraising his primary rivals, could win Iowa and New Hampshire with far below 50%, even below 30%, and could effectively buy the primary by California (now an early state), all with a majority of voters preferring someone else. To be fair, this could happen with other candidates as well.
There is legitimate concern that the Democratic Party is moving too far to the left, at least as concerns a national strategy, winning the White House, and flipping enough Senate seats to take control. Recent Democratic electoral strategy is focused on what they call the “blue wall” of states that are often reliable. Several went for Trump in 2016 and without any margin for error in the calculus, Democrats lost the election and lost any chance of winning back the Senate. Senate control would have been critical to control Trump’s extremism, especially his judicial and cabinet nominations. It would be foolish for Democrats to continue conceding so many states to the Republicans, both for the White House and the Senate. At a minimum, they need to force Republicans to fight for every victory if not become more competitive, potentially winning themselves. Even if Democrats win Senate control, they will not be able to hold it due to the number of states where they do not realistically compete.
In 2020, there is a big risk that a Sanders candidacy leads to more Democrats staying home or voting for an alternative. Other far left leaning candidates could cause the same, but Sanders is not even a Democrat so there is less loyalty. Many purist progressives stayed home, voted for Jill Stein, or even voted for Donald Trump in 2016 because they did not like Hillary Clinton. Obama proved to be a decent President overall, but some Clinton voters supported McCain, believing at the time that Obama lacked the experience to be President, some believing he would be too radically liberal. Thankfully for Obama, Sarah Palin cost McCain the election. Democratic voters need to decide whether they want to win or concede to Republicans. Like it or not, voters have a binary choice, at least for now. Either the Democrats win the White House or the Republicans. Whichever candidate they like, no matter how passionate, Democrats must unfailingly support their nominee regardless of policy differences. Obviously, no party should ever nominate or support a candidate with serious criminal or character challenges.
Here is the key – it does not matter what you stand for if you do not win elections. Democrats must win elections and control Congress in order to pass any of the priorities. When the party strays too far to the left, they threaten their ability to mount a sufficiently strong national or 50-state campaign necessary to control Congress and the White House. They could have a more ideologically stringent Congressional presence pushing a pure progressive agenda or even Democratic Socialist agenda. If so, that would further limit Democrats to a more coastal elite party as they have recently been labeled. Democrats took control of the House in 2018 because more centrist minded candidates flipped Republican seats. It will take a similar effort to win the Senate. If they win, they can at least accomplish some things but if they lose, they will accomplish nothing.
The Democratic National Committee, while ensuring a fair primary process, must take measures to ensure voters get to hear from the candidates and the candidates have fair opportunities to compete. President Trump wins a second term if Democrats do not select the right nominee, one who can connect with voters across the country, win back disaffected voters, and stand up to Trump’s inevitable bullying behavior. Democratic donors and voters must ensure they support the strongest candidates. The DNC must find a way to control the chaos while not favoring or opposing any legitimate candidates. The sooner the field shrinks to a more reasonable number of viable candidates, the better opportunity voters will have to assess and select the best nominee. The nation’s future is truly at stake this year.