Magazine | May 20, 2019, Issue

The Primaries of Pain

Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

As long as nobody else gets in the race during the time it takes me to write this, I figured I might as well do an early handicap of the Democratic presidential field. If it proves portentous and trenchant, I’ll dine out on it for years. And if I get it badly wrong, that’s okay, too, as I’ve seen to it that the printer laced the ink with an exotic — and, frankly, highly toxic — substance that will cause the issue to spontaneously combust the very moment the balloons and confetti drop at the DNC. You might want to take a gander at your homeowner policy to make sure you’re covered.

Now then, as I write, we have from Quinnipiac the first robust poll done after former vice president Joe Biden officially declared his candidacy. Uncle Joe is leading the pack by far, with 38 percent support among respondents. That’s up nine percentage points since the last Quinnipiac poll in March, an especially remarkable feat considering that the partisan press has spent the interval reminding primary voters about Biden’s every anachronistic apostasy and he himself has spent it apologizing for sundry scalp-sniffs and deep-tissue massages.

There are of course reasons to be skeptical about his chances. Name recognition and nostalgia are doing at least some of the work in propping up his numbers, and every other candidate is going to come into the debates with a set piece designed to make Joe look hopelessly out of touch. But the big question is whether Biden’s numbers are due to Biden or to a primary-electorate plurality that desperately wants a “normal” Democrat. Not necessarily old, white, and male, but not woke-socialist either. If it’s the latter, if the Biden boom is a cri de coeur from the untwittered masses, there is ample room for one of the younger umpteen United States senators running to tack back to the center and box him out. Say “Klobberin’ Amy Klobuchar,” for instance.

So I’m still inclined to take the field and put Biden’s chances at four to one.

Bernie is at a measly 11 percent in the latest poll, an eight-point drop-off since March, which is perhaps evidence that Biden and he are in the previously unknown White-Ethnic Septuagenarian lane and there probably isn’t room for both of them. I never bought the idea, pushed by some of my colleagues at NR, that Bernie was a favorite or near-favorite. He was always better-off being Not Hillary Clinton than just one of many menu options for primary voters. I find the fact that he is a millionaire as hilarious as you do and got a big kick out of Phil Kerpen flipping him off while he was being photographed at a New England grocery chain blackballed by labor unions for running an open shop. But in the end I think what will do him in is that he’ll sound too much like the president on things such as trade and, especially, immigration. To his credit, he hasn’t backed off on that stuff, but it will hurt him more now that policy positions are driven almost entirely by negative partisanship. Set the odds at seven to one.

And back from the dead, like a zombie from one of the various zombie shows that you are statistically likely to be familiar with, is Elizabeth Warren. She actually pulled ahead of Sanders to 12 percent, second only to Biden. I rate Warren’s chances higher than most of my NR colleagues do. She’s quite good at retail politics and also occupies a kind of jack-of-all-trades position across the various preoccupations of the Democratic electorate. To many she’s the second-best socialist, the second-best anti-corporate populist, the second-best woman, the second-most electable, and so forth in the field. That will start to matter a lot when this thing goes full Thunderdome heading into Super Tuesday. I’m unusually bullish and set her at four to one.

Okay, lightning round:

Kamala Harris (polling at 8 percent): She should be a nullity but will unleash sheer chaos when she takes a glut of delegates in California. Eight-to-one odds; but odds of placing, that is, of showing up on a ticket, are nearly 50–50.

Buttigieg (polling at 10 percent): Mayor Pete is the real deal. And dangerous! A likeable white boy with the decisive advantage of not being straight. Comes off as reasonable but wants to rewrite vast swathes of the Constitution. That’s a Democrat exacto. I’m bullish here, too. Five to one.

O’Rourke (polling at 5 percent): This guy is like Santa Claus. If the children stop believing in him, he disappears! He’s already verging on translucent. Ten to one.

Booker (polling at 2 percent): T-Bone stands a better chance. Twelve to one.

Everybody else (polling below 2 percent): At least one of these nonentities is going to have a big second life when the first top-tier candidate flames out wildly. It’s a matter of conserving resources and keeping the lights on until then. Don’t-count-out-the-field at seven to one.

They call these things “races” for a reason. Where you start matters. Who’s ahead of you and behind you and who’s trying to cut into your lane matters. Acceleration matters as much as velocity and, most of all, timing. This thing is going to get wilder and woolier and, oh yes, far stupider than any of us can imagine. So my most confident prediction? To quote Mr. T: “pain.”

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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