The Corner


The Limits of the Invisible Primary

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to reporters after announcing she formed an exploratory committee to run for president in 2020, in Cambridge, Mass., December 31, 2018. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Elizabeth Warren launched the 2020 cycle on New Year’s Eve when she announced the formation of her presidential exploratory committee. She’ll be traveling to Iowa this coming weekend. Meanwhile, Kamala Harris is about to embark on a national book tour. Julian Castro is set to announce his candidacy January 12. The Atlantic says Washington governor Jay Inslee will run on climate change. (He’s against it.) John Delaney, Richard Ojeda, and Andrew Yang are already in the mix. Bernie, Biden, Bloomberg, Beto, Booker, Bennett, Bullock, Gillibrand, Hickenlooper, Schultz, and Klobuchar may soon join them.

We’ve entered the invisible primary, when candidates scramble for money, supporters, policy experts, and poll numbers in the run up to Iowa and New Hampshire. The invisible primary is fun for reporters to cover. The field is wide, the opportunities for gaffes and infighting are ample, and there are no actual results to interfere with our wildest speculations. Invisible primaries have losers — Scott Walker is an example from 2016. But there are no real winners.

Some candidates who excel on paper, who amass war chests, who carry the aura of inevitability during the invisible primary don’t last long once the voters arrive. Think of Howard Dean in the 2004 cycle, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani in 2008, and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in 2016. They raised huge sums, garnered support, and generated extensive media attention in the off year. None made it to the finish.

As I write, Kamala Harris is the smart set’s pick for Democratic frontrunner. She’s a progressive, she’ll have resources, and polls show that she appeals to minority voters. Keep an eye on her. But also recognize that she’s new to the senate, isn’t identified with any particular policy agenda, and hasn’t undergone the scrutiny of national media. Nor has she withstood attacks and serious challenges from peers. She defeated her opponent in 2016, Democrat Loretta Sanchez, by more than 20 points. What happens when she not only has Warren making contrasts, but Biden, Sanders, Bloomberg, and the rest of the gang?

You can persuade donors, charm editorial boards, fill up conference rooms at the Council on Foreign Relations, and meet every criteria of the pundit class, and still not convince voters to make you the nominee. Gaffes, bad interviews, and personal demeanor — a wild scream in one case, a perceived timidity in another — spoil the most intricate theories that purport to explain why you are the candidate who best matches the moment. To mangle Pascal, the voters have reasons of which pundits know nothing.

This year’s invisible primary will tell us quite a bit about 2020. But it won’t tell us everything.

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