NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hom will the Democrats pick to face Donald Trump in 2020? Polls this early don’t matter much: They just tell you who is well-known. Early money doesn’t ensure anything either, although the 2016 Republican race showed how quickly candidates without a huge fundraising base can go broke and drop out months before the voting starts. Endorsements hardly matter at all when there are still this many candidates, and they matter a lot less now that the Democrats have stripped most of the power from elected superdelegates. Instead, the ability to pull ahead in five lanes will decide who leads the field: race and gender; age and familiarity; anger; ideology; and the Midwest question.
Who’s In, Who’s Out
It’s early yet. Nobody in March 2015 expected Donald Trump to crash a similarly overpopulated Republican field. But the crowd on the fence is dwindling quickly, as pressure mounts to be in or out. At this writing, there are 13 “major” candidates in the race, and I count six others who are at least semi-seriously mulling a run, which could leave the Democrats with a field as large as or larger than the ridiculous 17-candidate Republican field in 2016:
With Beto O’Rourke’s announcement this morning, Joe Biden is the last major contender on the fence. Eric Swalwell, Steve Bullock, and Michael Bennet have all been scouting out Iowa (Swalwell’s home state) or New Hampshire (Bennet has been running digital ads in early states). Bennet seems the least likely of these to run, given John Hickenlooper’s entry in the race (Bennet was running the Denver schools back when Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver, so their fundraising bases overlap closely). Given the palpable desire to finally put the Clinton era in the rearview mirror, it is hard to see the rationale for a Terry McAuliffe campaign. Stacey Abrams, who lost the Georgia governor’s race in 2018, has lately begun musing about a run and reversed herself Monday after appearing to shut the door. With a late start organizing and never having won election above the state-house level, Abrams seems much likelier to stick to a 2020 Senate run or plan for a rematch for governor.
Four possible candidates passed on a run last week: Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, Oregon senator Jeff Merkley, former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. The biggest of all to stay out thus far is Michelle Obama. The Democratic party today, while united against Donald Trump, is riven by many internal divides, but a recent poll found that “Obama Democrat” remains a more popular self-identifier than any ideological label (Republicans, by contrast, still prefer “conservative Republican” to “Trump Republican”). Mrs. Obama, with universal name recognition and beloved by virtually every segment of the party, is the one candidate who could have cleared the field, uniting the disparate factions that never went into open rebellion under her husband and tapping into his fundraising network. She has, however, never run for office or shown much enthusiasm for suggestions that she do so. Moreover, the failure of Hillary Clinton’s two campaigns stand as a reminder that presidential coalitions can’t just be inherited.
Lane 1: Race and Gender
In a better world, race-and-gender identity politics would not be a major factor in choosing a commander-in-chief, and a reductive analysis of voters along racial lines would not explain much of our politics. Sadly, we do not live in that world, and the internal politics of the modern Democratic party in particular are impossible to understand without starting with race and gender.
The race and gender identities of the candidates have been front and center in many state and national Democratic primaries since 2008’s Obama–Hillary race. The 2018 election cycle saw female Democrats win primaries in disproportionate numbers, a fact much touted by Democrats and their partisans. Many of the 2020 contenders and their supporters are not subtle about trumpeting the benefits of running a woman (or, in Pete Buttigieg’s case, the first openly gay candidate). We can best illustrate the role of race in particular by looking at the 2020 primary calendar and the 2008 and 2016 primary fights.
Consider first what the Democratic electorate will look like. Exit polls are not available for every contest (especially caucuses), nor are they without their own inaccuracies, but we have a primary exit poll from 2016, 2008, or both in 39 of the 57 Democratic contests, and they show an electorate that ranges from slightly to heavily majority-female, and that varies widely from state to state in its racial composition. In 26 of those 39 primary contests, the Democratic electorate was at least 57 percent female, in some cases as high as 64 percent (electorates with more nonwhite voters tend to be more heavily female, for a variety of depressing reasons):
Adding a rough estimate based on the general-election demographics for the remaining states and territories, 1,621 delegates (36 percent of the 4,532 total, or 72 percent of the majority needed to win) will be selected by primary contests where white voters are likely to be a minority. I include California and New Mexico in that tally, despite 2008 exit polls showing majority-white electorates; those polls were taken over a decade ago, and the demographics have continued to shift.
Those shifts are evident in states where exit polls are available for both 2008 and 2016. While you might have expected a larger turnout of African-American voters in the 2008 primary due to the presence of Barack Obama on the ballot, the 2016 Democratic electorate regularly featured more black voters and fewer white voters than 2008. In South Carolina, for example, the Democratic-primary electorate was 43 percent white and 55 percent black in 2008, 35 percent white and 61 percent black in 2016. By 2016, black women alone (37 percent of the primary voters) outnumbered all white voters in the South Carolina primary. In Texas, white voters declined from 49 percent to 43 percent. That reflects overall trends within the party, especially in the South and Midwest: Older, white ancestral Democrats died off or left the party in the Obama years, while younger generations of Democrats included more nonwhite voters. Obama’s general-election campaigns also increased the registration and participation rates among African-American voters in particular. African-American women remain the most reliably Democratic of all voter demographics, and turnout among black women is now at least competitive with that of any other voter group, quite unlike pre-Obama turnout patterns. That has major implications for Democratic primaries.
Adding in the next set of primary contests, in which white voters are likely to be less than 70 percent of all Democrats, pushes the total to 2,969 delegates, 66 percent of the total. That’s a large enough nonwhite vote to be decisive if nonwhite voters are unified while white voters are divided.
Nonwhite voters are hardly a monolith, of course. Mexican immigrants living in California cities, African Americans living in rural Mississippi, and native Hawaiians are quite different groups of people. The point here is simply that an awful lot of delegate selection will be done in states where nonwhite voters are a very large factor. Of the 15 states that choose at least 100 delegates, it is likely that five will have majority-nonwhite primary electorates and six will have electorates that are below 70 percent white, while only two (Massachusetts and Washington) will be above 80 percent white.
The combination of voter demographics and voter mood is one reason that the white male candidates have been disproportionately hesitant to jump into this field. In the states where we have more specific breakdowns, white men were a quarter or less of Democratic voters in South Carolina, Texas, Florida, New York, Alabama, and Georgia in 2016, and California and New Jersey in 2008, with Illinois, Virginia, and North Carolina not far behind.
How much does that matter to how the voters vote? The dividing lines can be graphically illustrated by grouping the Democratic contests by their winners in 2008 and 2016. Contests won by both Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton tended to be overwhelmingly white states, mainly smaller states with caucuses dominated by progressive activists or primaries with less overwhelmingly female electorates:
(“DA” is the Democrats Abroad primary). Notice Wisconsin is on that list; there were nine states that Hillary Clinton lost in all three of her presidential races (against Obama, Bernie, and Trump). Eight of those were red states west of the Kansas–Missouri border; the other was Wisconsin, whose unique combination of green activists and Feingold/LaFollette good-government voters never warmed to Mrs. Clinton.
Turning to the states that flipped from Obama in 2008 to Hillary in 2016 — thus, the states that decided both races — a stark contrast appears to the Obama-Bernie states: Every one of them except Iowa had a significant black population. The Clintons were always popular with African-American voters, and given the choice between Hillary and Bernie, they chose Mrs. Clinton in large numbers; given the choice between Hillary and Obama, those voters went overwhelmingly for Obama. South Carolina set the tone: Hillary beat Bernie 86–14 among African-American voters after losing them 78–19 to Obama. This was a recurring trend; as Andrew Prokop at Vox put it:
Obama won every primary in the eight states where more than 20 percent of the population is black, and sometimes racked up huge margins in them. This dominance was because he won the votes of between 78 and 91 percent of black voters in each of these states, according to exit polls. He’d net over 100 delegates from these eight states — close to the margin of his pledged delegate lead when the primary season ended.
Bernie Sanders, despite re-creating the ideological element of Obama’s coalition, failed to re-create the racial element, and that, by itself, cost him the nomination.
The contests that Hillary Clinton won twice present a different picture. These states on average had nearly as many Hispanic voters as black voters (many have large immigrant populations) and a lot more female voters compared with the Bernie states. They also tended to be states with closed primaries rather than caucuses (and thus more Democratic partisans than ideological progressives). Pew estimated that Hillary beat Obama 68–32 among Hispanic voters, and she continued that trend against Bernie. The list includes many of the nation’s largest states as well as the last remnants of Bill Clinton’s Arkansas-centric white-working-class coalition:
Completing the picture is the handful of states that backed the loser both times, going from Hillary to Bernie. These were mostly-white states, all with primaries, none of them closed to non-Democrats, and all with a substantial number of the prototypically Trumpy white working-class voters (West Virginia being the state where 41 percent of the Democratic-primary voters in 2012 preferred an incarcerated felon to renominating President Obama):
What does this all mean for the current field? The controversies of the Trump and #MeToo era and the increasingly vocal nature of “woke” activism have made it common to hear prominent voices say openly that Democrats need to run a candidate against Trump who is not male, not white, or both. That could be particularly bad news for the two best-known candidates, Sanders and Biden, both very old white men who cut their political teeth in the very different world of the 1970s. Bernie has often struggled to connect to nonwhite voters and activists and has openly argued for a shift in emphasis from cultural to economic issues, in line with the Daily Worker ethos of his youth. Biden, for his part, has a decades-long trail of “problematic” statements and positions (especially on crime and drugs, as he was long the most ardent drug warrior in Congress), though he also has the residual glow of association with Obama.
The challenge for Sanders in particular comes into view when you look at the primary calendar sequentially, according to when each state votes:
The first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, are both potentially strong territory for Sanders. Iowa is a caucus, New Hampshire is an open primary in a state next door to his home state, and both are overwhelmingly white (a fact that has led to a lot of grumbling from progressive activists about their primacy on the calendar). Bernie won New Hampshire in 2016, and with a crowded field, he could win both without needing to get past 25 to 30 percent of the vote. It’s possible to win the nomination without winning either of those two states (Bill Clinton did it in 1992), but nobody in either party since Maine’s Edmund Muskie in 1972 has won both without winning the nomination.
But look ahead to March 17, five weeks after New Hampshire. By that point, 64 percent of the delegates will have been chosen. Some 93 percent of those delegates will be selected by primaries, not caucuses; 46 percent of the delegates through March 17 will be chosen by states likely to have majority-nonwhite electorates, and another 22.6 percent by states where white voters are likely to be below 70 percent. This is not Bernie Country. If he hasn’t shown overwhelming strength in the first two primaries, he’s going to find himself swimming against the tide.
“Lanes” matter in any crowded primary, and the most obvious beneficiary, if Democratic voters line up along race and gender lanes, is Kamala Harris. The current field includes three white women (Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren), one African-American man (Cory Booker), one Hispanic man (Julian Castro, who seems unlikely to be a top-tier candidate), and one woman of part-Samoan heritage (Tulsi Gabbard, who is something of a boutique anti-war candidate). Abrams is the only potential entrant who isn’t a white male, and she probably won’t run.
That leaves Harris as the only African-American woman in the race. If she can marginalize Gabbard and drive Booker off the field before South Carolina, she could end up as both the only black candidate and the only woman of color. She and Swalwell are also the only Californians. The largest state votes on Super Tuesday, March 3, a big change from its end-of-the-race June position in the last two cycles. While some observers question where Harris fits in ideological “lanes,” her ability to claim a distinctive race-and-gender lane while also claiming the most valuable geographic base seems likely to be much more consequential. That also drives her strategic choices: Nothing can be more important to Harris than getting Booker out of the race as early as possible.
Recent history shows that race and gender identity matters to the lanes in a Democratic primary in ways it would not in a Republican race. For all the wedge issues his campaign raised, in 2016 it would have been ridiculous for Donald Trump to argue that voters should support him just because he was white and male; there were eleven other white-male candidates in the race. Despite the overwhelmingly white Republican electorate, Trump’s chief competition came from the two Hispanic candidates (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio got more votes between them in contested primaries and caucuses than Trump did), and the lone African American in the race, Ben Carson, was the only candidate to ever lead Trump in the national poll averages. If there’s a candidate-identity issue that plays out more openly among Republicans, it’s not race or gender but religion, as the divisive 2008 spats between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney illustrated.
Lane 2: Age and Familiarity
There’s a second way in which Democratic presidential-primary voters behave differently from Republican presidential-primary voters: They are much more enamored with youth and fresh faces. Since 1952, Republicans have nominated a non-incumbent candidate age 60 or older (on Election Day) eight times in eleven races, including four of the six non-incumbent Republican presidents elected in that period. By contrast, Democrats have not elected a non-incumbent president aged 60 or older since James Buchanan in 1856, and have nominated only two non-incumbent candidates over 60 since 1876: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The average age of newly elected Democratic presidents is 53, and it drops to 49 if you count only the seven elected since the Civil War:
Democrats also deviate from Republicans’ pronounced tendency to pick the “next in line” candidate. Every non-incumbent Republican nominee since 1968 had run for the job before except for George W. Bush, whose father had been president just eight years earlier. Granted, Trump had not been a serious candidate before, but he had been nationally famous for over three decades, ran in the Reform-party primary in 2000, and had been publicly musing about running for years.
Democrats are different. Before Hillary, the only non-incumbent nominees since William Jennings Bryan who had run before were Al Gore (who had run in 1988), George McGovern (who ran briefly in 1968), Adlai Stevenson (who was nominated in both 1952 and 1956), and Al Smith (who had run at the convention in 1924). All of them lost, as Bryan did. The last successful Democratic presidential aspirant who wasn’t a first-timer was James Buchanan. Let’s stack up the current field by age and prior campaigns against past winning Democrats:
This is the second strike against Biden and Sanders: They may have experience, name recognition, and a road-tested background and message, but Democratic-primary voters traditionally do not want those things. In fact, nominating men even older than Trump would throw away the Democrats’ ability to enthuse young voters, who instinctively prefer youthfulness and a fresh face. Since 1992, the Democrats have lost elections in 2000 (when they ran a candidate who had run for president before), 2004 (when they ran a 60-plus candidate), and 2016 (when they ran a candidate who was 60-plus and had run before). Age is also a strike against Warren, Inslee, Hickenlooper, and even Klobuchar. The candidates closer to the historical sweet spot are Harris, Gillibrand, and Booker; the ones right in the heartland are Abrams and Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke best fits the Obama–Bill Clinton–JFK vigor-and-glamour mold: tall, lean, Kennedy-handsome, at turns soulful and reckless, a guy who was in a band and has been known to skateboard on stage. He’s the one who inspires all the swoony press profiles.
History also suggests that Democrats will look past their early leaders. Some primary campaigns have a dominating front-runner and some do not. Dominating front-runners win almost all the time in both parties, although the two most prominent counterexamples come from youth rebellions on the Democratic side: Obama’s 2008 victory over Hillary and Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 withdrawal after a challenge by Eugene McCarthy.
Looking at the five modern Democratic primaries without a dominating front-runner, only one (Kerry in 2004) was won easily by a well-known figure who started at the front of the pack. McGovern in 1972 was, while not a first-time candidate, a fresher face than warmed-over 1968 candidates Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace, and he successfully cast himself as the anti-establishment alternative to the early front-runner, Muskie. Muskie was eight years older than McGovern and had been in public office for 26 years.
The 2020 primary so far looks more like the other three wide-open races with Democrats out of power, in 1992, 1988, and 1976. All were won by dark-horse candidates. Nate Silver looked at the Democratic-primary poll averages from 1972 to 2008 for this point in the race (January to July of the year before the primary) and found that the winners were often far off the voters’ radar, polling in single digits in the middle or rear of the pack and unknown to half or more of the voters:
For now, national polls and polls in Iowa and New Hampshire show half or more of the voters preferring Biden or Sanders, but that is unsurprising given their high name recognition. Even candidates like Gillibrand, who is barely registering in polls, can take hope from the trajectory of Bill Clinton in 1992. That said, polls showing that Harris has pulled ahead of Warren in New Hampshire — where Warren is already a well-known senator from a neighboring state — have to be worrying to Warren.
The complicating factor for a dark-horse candidate is the compressed time frame of the primary calendar. It may be harder now to build from a slow start than it was when McGovern got his first win in the fourth contest, or Bill Clinton in the fifth. But because Democrats — again, unlike Republicans — distribute delegates proportionally and have no winner-take-all states, it is not as easy for competitive candidates to be mathematically all but eliminated by the first week of March.
Lane 3: Anger
The next lane that we should expect to matter a lot in the 2020 primaries is less easily quantified: anger. The voters of the party out of power are always driven to some extent by anger, and doubly so when running against an incumbent.
Anger can play out in unpredictable ways, however. Republicans in 2016 passed on the candidates who were the most caustically critical of Barack Obama (such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Bobby Jindal), in part because Donald Trump’s belligerent demeanor and willingness to “go there” with personal attacks (such as Obama’s birth certificate or, later, Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct) made him feel like the candidate most viscerally embodying anger. By contrast, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2000 both channeled anger at scandal-ridden predecessors not by direct criticisms (which both of them downplayed, unlike some of their opponents) but by aspirational appeals to honesty and dignity in the office, which doubled as veiled shots. John Kerry wasn’t as visibly worked up as Howard Dean, but he gave Democrats the chance to attack George W. Bush’s lack of war service by building his campaign around Kerry’s own Vietnam service.
Democrats today are as angry as any out-of-power party in memory. One example: the latest national Economist/YouGov poll finds that:
* 79 percent of Democrats say yes when asked if “Donald Trump has EVER committed anything that might be considered a serious crime.”
* 70 percent of Democrats say yes when asked if “Donald Trump himself did anything illegal in his dealings with Russian officials before the Inauguration.”
* 65 percent of Democrats believe that “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President.”
* 83 percent of Democrats believe that “Russia hacked the email of Democrats in order to increase the chance that Donald Trump would win the Presidential election.”
* 41 percent of Democrats believe that “Millions of illegal votes were cast in the  election.”
* 66 percent of Democrats believe that “Donald Trump will get us into a war.”
Not only is this an electorate that thinks the president is a criminal who stole the election, it’s an electorate that is willing to believe conspiracy theories with no evidence (Russians tampering with vote tallies) in order to justify that anger.
A July 2018 Quinnipiac poll found that 86 percent of Democrats think “President Trump is racist,” and Democratic voters’ low opinion extends to members of the other party in general: A November 2018 Axios/Survey Monkey online poll found that 61 percent of Democrats described Republicans as “racist,” “bigoted,” and/or “sexist,” 54 percent said “ignorant,” 44 percent said “spiteful,” and 21 percent said “evil.” David French wrote more about polls of this nature yesterday.
Old-fashioned appeals to bipartisan bonhomie and unifying, upbeat rhetoric will play very badly in this atmosphere. Joe Biden recently referred to Mike Pence as “a decent guy, our vice president,” which in normal conditions would not be considered heresy. After the inevitable storm of criticism on Twitter, Biden backtracked, telling actress Cynthia Nixon:
You’re right, Cynthia. I was making a point in a foreign policy context, that under normal circumstances a Vice President wouldn’t be given a silent reaction on the world stage.
But there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) February 28, 2019
Warren pounced on the comment, saying “No” to a reporter who asked, “You don’t think the Vice President is a decent man?” When asked “if she saw anyone in the Trump Admin as decent[, ]Warren didn’t offer any names–said it was a ‘tough question,’ rattled off the indictments from Mueller rpt & cabinet scandals, added ‘this is the most corrupt administration in living history.’”
The need to out-Trump Trump in performative displays of uncompromising anger and glib, tweet-sized soundbites plays best to the strengths of Harris and Warren. While Booker and Gillibrand have worked assiduously to play on that turf, both give off a powerful vibe of trying too hard when they do so. Booker in particular is plainly more at home being sunny and upbeat. For Democratic partisans looking for a no-quarter-ever approach, Gillibrand is still struggling to live down ill will from her role in pushing Al Franken out of the Senate. There may even be uncomfortable questions about the fact that Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Biden, and McAuliffe all raised money from the Trump family, some of them in the not-too-distant past.
On the other hand, if Democratic voters are looking to counter-program Trump with an un-Trump in the way that Carter and George W. Bush cast themselves as the un-Nixon and un-Clinton, that could play to the strengths of O’Rourke, Biden (who can invoke the still-popular Obama years), Booker (if he drops the Spartacus act), or the publicly low-key Klobuchar.
Lane 4: Ideology
Political observers tend to see the “lanes” in a primary mainly in terms of issues and ideology. Sometimes, that’s true: Bernie ran hard against Hillary as too corporate-friendly, and Obama ran against her on the Iraq War, just as McGovern had run an uncompromising anti-Vietnam race. Yet, as we have seen, other factors better explain the dynamics of many past Democratic contests.
Opinion polls paint a divergent picture of the Democratic electorate. On the one hand, many Democrats tell pollsters that they are moderates who want the party to run a moderate candidate. Just because they are angry at Donald Trump doesn’t mean they are suddenly eager to self-identify as socialists. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of the electorate as a whole found that 87 percent of voters are enthusiastic about or comfortable with an African-American candidate, 86 percent with a white man, and 84 percent with a woman, but only 37 percent with a candidate over age 75, and 25 percent with a socialist. This is not good news for Bernie Sanders. Candidates such as Biden, Klobuchar, and Hickenlooper, who frame themselves as the mainstream Main Street alternatives, can benefit from this.
On the other hand, when individual issues are polled, Democratic voters are increasingly willing to embrace left-wing positions, suggesting that their enthusiasm for centrism is more about their self-image than about the message they want to hear from the candidates. An increasing number of younger voters genuinely believe the apocalyptic rhetoric of man-made climate change ending life on earth in the near future, and at least one candidate (Jay Inslee) has promised to make this his central message. Moreover, bold positions on the issues can grab the attention of party activists, who are more engaged early in the process, as well as young voters who value a transformative message. As a result, the competition to show woke, green, or socialist bona fides will be ferocious. We’ve already seen multiple major contenders floating stances that would have been viewed as marginal in years past: banning private health insurance, legalizing marijuana and prostitution, banning all semi-automatic weapons, free college, reparations for slavery, packing the Supreme Court by expanding it to as many as 15 justices, guaranteed income for people unwilling to work, abolishing border barriers and border enforcement, and the Green New Deal, with its utopian aspirations to eliminate cars, air travel, and meat-eating.
None of the candidates yet seem immune to this headlong rush, but inevitably, as the field narrows, some of them will likely take up the challenge of criticizing each other’s proposals as unworkable and impossible to enact. Meanwhile, the candidates with longer records in office could find themselves facing a backlash for past stances that are now seen by younger Democrats not only as wrong but as positively immoral or bigoted. Biden has the biggest problem with this, but Booker is still viewed with suspicion for his once-prominent advocacy of school choice, Gillibrand for a whole host of issues on which she has “evolved” from her Blue Dog days as an upstate New York congresswoman, Sanders on guns and immigration, and even Harris and Klobuchar for their track records as hard-charging prosecutors. Klobuchar’s now-notorious record as an abusive boss is also out of step with the way many Democrats see their values in general and their contrast with Trump in particular. The advantage may end up lying with the candidates with the vaguest records, who will be most able to adjust to where they think the voters will be.
Lane 5: The Midwest Question
The final “lane” question is as much one of strategy as of popular mood, but it could make a difference in how voters and opinion leaders see their final choice: Are Democratic voters worried about white working-class voters in the Midwest? The biggest surprise of 2016 was not Trump winning Obama states that had been won twice by George W. Bush (Florida and Ohio) or states that had returned to the Republican fold for Mitt Romney (North Carolina and Indiana), but his victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Maine’s second congressional district. Those victories, in states without significant Hispanic populations and with only modest African-American populations, were driven by Trump’s strength among white working-class voters, who offset the college-educated white suburban voters that Trump drove away. Or were they? In Wisconsin, for example, Trump got fewer votes than Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan did, and won the state entirely on the strength of depressed Democratic turnout for Hillary Clinton.
Right now, especially after relatively strong Republican midterm showings in Florida and Ohio, the remaining Midwestern states look like the weakest link of Trump’s coalition. Should Democrats try to win those white working-class voters back? Should they be worried about holding onto the more moderate suburbanites who flocked to their banner in 2016 and 2018?
There are three schools of thought. One, of course, is that Republican routs across the Midwest in the 2018 midterms, combined with Trump’s low approval rating in many of those states, means they are already in the bag. If that is true, Trump is as good as dead, and Democrats can look past the election in choosing their nominee. This is probably a poor way to think strategically, but there is something to be said for the idea that primary voters are terrible judges of “electability” and should just vote their hearts.
The second school of thought is that white working-class voters are a lost cause, especially in the Midwest and South, and the future lies in turning out more nonwhite voters and targeting five “blue-future” states: Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. There is some basis in recent history, and not just in Obama’s two elections, for thinking that nonwhite voter turnout for Democrats is likely to be helped significantly when nonwhite candidates are on the ballot. In 2014, 93 percent of all Democratic candidates for senator or governor were white, and the results for the party were not pretty.
Here as well, there are cautions. For all the scorn heaped by liberal commentators on the white working class since the rise of Trump, and all the hype around demographic change, white working-class voters in 2016 were still the largest demographic component of the Democratic coalition. Progressive Democrats did show in 2018 that they could turn out a lot more voters in the blue-future states — but other than Kyrsten Sinema’s narrow victory in the Arizona Senate race, Democrats still lost most of the statewide contests in the blue-future states even in 2018. Proponents of this school of thought are likely to lean most heavily toward Harris, O’Rourke, Booker, or Abrams.
The third school of thought is that Millennial, Generation Z, and nonwhite voters may be the future of the Democratic coalition, but the electoral map in 2020 still requires Democrats to win back more white working-class voters without compromising their gains among moderate suburbanites (that’s clearly the thinking behind the announcement that the 2020 Democratic convention will be in Milwaukee). But how? With the economic populism of Sanders, Warren, or Harris? With the methodical “Minnesota Nice” of Klobuchar? With the old-time backslapping of Biden? With a red-state governor such as Bullock? Sherrod Brown was seen as a major player in this space, as a Democrat who won easily in Ohio in 2018, but a Midwest-focused approach would seem to favor Biden or Klobuchar.
Other than caucuses in Iowa and Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota, however, the Midwest does not start voting until March 10, when Ohio and Michigan hold primaries. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are in April, Indiana in May. Voters in the rest of the country are likely to have decided a lot about the shape of the field by then.
The Five-Lane Highway
If you have read this far, you can probably guess that I think the five-lane dynamics of 2020 point toward Kamala Harris as the most likely Democratic nominee, with Cory Booker as her major obstacle but Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar as the rivals she should most fear. Harris has the demographic advantage of her race and gender, she’s not old or stale, she speaks to Democratic voters’ desire for someone who can take on Donald Trump on his own blunt, emotional terms, and she’s willing to stake out dramatic left-wing positions. Harris is the candidate most likely to fill multiple lanes at once, and only Biden rivals her odds of putting the nomination away relatively early.
O’Rourke combines youth and freshness with the unquantifiable “It Factor” of charismatic men who have taken the Democratic nomination in the past. Because his path forward relies so much on glamour and excitement, Beto needs to worry less about any individual competitor (other than possibly Booker or Sanders) than about doing well enough early to project an image that sizzles. This makes his campaign strategically similar to that of Marco Rubio, who specialized in winning late-deciding voters in the early 2016 primaries but fizzled out badly once he fell far enough behind that he no longer looked like a winner. Rubio, however, had to absorb heavy negative ad targeting from a home-state candidate with the biggest war chest in the field (Jeb Bush), competition from a candidate with a strikingly similar ideological and demographic profile (Cruz), and a kamikaze attack on the debate stage (Chris Christie). The first two of those, at least, will not be problems for Beto. But running on being the New Thing means there is always a threat that one of the unknowns could become the Even Newer Thing, and indeed, there is already a boomlet among some commentators for Pete Buttigieg.
Booker relies on some of the same calculus as Beto, with the added possibility of competing directly with Harris for African-American voters, but he’s also perhaps the hardest candidate in the field to peg. Other than the obvious early front-runners Biden and Sanders, Booker is the candidate who is an obstacle to the most other paths.
Klobuchar, in contrast to Harris and O’Rourke, can position herself as the Midwestern alternative to a Democratic party that has become overly reliant on the coasts and needs to reassure suburbanites and win back working-class heartland voters. Her path forward improves substantially if Biden chooses not to run, and if she can squeeze Gillibrand out early. The last three candidates remaining in the race will most likely include 1) either Harris, Booker, or Warren, 2) one of O’Rourke, Sanders or Booker, and 3) either Biden or Klobuchar.
The two high-profile candidates who seem least likely to catch fire are Warren and Gillibrand, both of whom would have ranked a lot higher two or three years ago. Warren now looks very much like a candidate who missed her shot and should have run in 2016, when she fit the populist mood. Whether the problem is her age, her personality, her stumbles in the controversy over her claim to Native American heritage, or Sanders’ continuing hold on the voters she needs and the message she preaches, she will have to make a strong showing in New Hampshire to avoid being run off early. Gillibrand may look strong on paper and, like Warren, she could benefit from the same gender politics that help Harris and Klobuchar, but her ideological shape-shifting is emblematic of her general air of inauthenticity, and it’s a very long wait in the primary calendar for her New York base to come into play.
For all that, Democrats might still pick a white male in his late 70s. Biden is too well-known and well-liked to write him off just yet, and Sanders still has an army in the field from 2016.
My own ranking, for now, of the likeliest nominee:
- Kamala Harris
- Beto O’Rourke
- Joe Biden
- Amy Klobuchar
- Cory Booker
- Bernie Sanders
- Elizabeth Warren
- Kirsten Gillibrand