james debate
james debate

Saturday, 20 July 2019

This month saw the first round of debates in the Democratic primary, a sign that the 2020 Presidential election is well and truly underway. A perfect opportunity, then, to present a way-too-early preview of how the race is shaping up and what to expect. With the election more than a year away, such discussion might seem premature, but this is no ordinary primary. The general perception is that whoever wins this contest has a very good shot at being the next President, making the next few months almost as crucial as the final vote in November 2020.

trump election 2020 democratic primary biden buttigieg pete beto bernie sanders kamala elizabeth warren tulsi gabbard

What is the state of play?
Let's get something out of the way up front. Donald Trump should win this election. The incumbent almost always wins a Presidential election, particularly when the economy is doing well, as is currently the case. In an ordinary year, I would expect the incumbent President to be about a 70/30 favourite, maybe higher with this economy. And yet, Trump goes into this election arguably only just about evens to win, and possibly even less.

There are a few reasons why this is the case. Foremost among them: Trump's approval rating is historically low, hovering around the high 30s and low 40s for most of his Presidency to date. No American President in the modern era has had such consistently low approval ratings, and none with an approval rating so low in the run up to election has ever won.

Of equal significance is the fact that Americans, by and large, do not credit Trump with the state of this healthy economy. The economy improved significantly under Barack Obama, and while it has generally remained strong for the first two years of Trump's Presidency, it has not noticeably improved for many, and by some measures appears more tenuous than at any point since 2008. This effectively disarms Trump's greatest talking point heading into election, and places him in a far more precarious position.

The final notable cause of worry for Republicans is the result of the off-year elections from 2017-2019, largely seen as a historic blue-wave for Democrats (to put it mildly). Certainly, it is not unusual for the President's party to suffer big losses in the midterm elections (just ask Bill Clinton and Obama, who lost big in midterms and both went on to secure second terms). Rather it is the state-by-state performance that will worry Trump, including historic swings in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, well above the national margin. These are all states that Trump won in 2016 and will be counting on again in 2020.

So as you can see, Trump heads into the 2020 election in a far more vulnerable position than just about any incumbent of the modern era. There really is a much greater than usual chance that the opposition candidate will win next year, making this a primary election of unusual significance.

So who is running against Trump?
One consequence of the perceived vulnerability of this incumbent is that there is an astonishing number of people running against him in 2020.

Trump has already drawn one major primary challenge in the form of former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, and there are rumours that more could follow, including Jeff Flake, Mark Sanford or John Kasich. An incumbent President drawing a primary challenge is ordinarily a sign of fatal weakness, but I won't spend too much time discussing the Republican primary for two reasons: 1) The Republican Party has made clear that it will not support or encourage any such challenges, and it is allegedly considering cancelling all votes so that they can just rubber stamp a Trump nomination, and 2) Trump, for all his vulnerabilities, is still very popular among Republicans, and it is difficult to see anyone who could successfully challenge him for the nomination.

But it is not just the Republican primary. The Democratic primary has also drawn a remarkable number of candidates - some 25 who could be considered major candidates at the time of writing, with the bizarre possibility that still more could jump in at any moment.

There are more people running for President in 2020 than in any prior primary cycle, and the reason is clear: they all smell blood in the water and fancy their chances in a 2020 match up against Trump. But ultimately, only one major candidate will face off against the incumbent in the general election, which means we somehow have to whittle down this massive field to just the main contenders.

The field is large, but the polling to date shows a clear "big six". This top six has basically remained constant since the start of the year, and every member of the big six has been in the top three at some point polling as high as the high teens or low 20s.

The exact numbers vary from poll to poll, but across the total aggregate we can get a pretty good idea of where things stand. Joe Biden leads, with polls currently in the low to mid 20s. Behind him, essentially a three-way tie between Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren each polling in the high teens. Finally Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke are essentially tied in the mid-single digits (having both previously polled in the high teens). No one else in the race is or has previously polled consistently >1%.

For this preview we will look at each of the big six in turn, and finish with a summary of "the best of the rest".

The Big Six

1. Joe Biden
The former Vice President and "next in line" candidate. Joe Biden entered this race with near universal name recognition and the admiration of most Democrats, who identify Biden with the success of the Obama era.

His appeal is clear: he is a trusted, established figure, a moderate Democrat with appeal to the nation's centre. Crucially, he is a working class rust-belt Democrat who can potentially help win back the blue-collar voters who gave Trump Pennsylvania and Michigan.

He has begun the race with a commanding lead, but as was the case in 2016 with Hillary a large part of this appears to be a result of his superior name recognition, and the lead has tightened as the race has progressed. Biden's age is also a problem, and at 78 in January 2021 would be the oldest person ever to enter office. Given the advantage that incumbents hold, Democrats are hesitant to put forward a nominee who may not run for a second term (and so miss out on this advantage). But Biden's biggest problem is simply that politics has changed a lot in recent years. Biden has been around for so long that he is on record as having taken positions that were acceptable at the time, but wouldn't fly today, particularly when it comes to gender issues and race.

By historical measures, Biden's current polling and relative strength of the field suggests that while he is the most likely person to win the nomination, he is still more likely to not win. The favourite, but not overwhelmingly so.

2. Bernie Sanders
The runner up of the 2016 Democratic primaries, and a firebrand champion of the left with a devoted fan-base. Bernie took the world of politics by surprise in 2016, but this time he enters this race with universal name-recognition. Many had expected he would be among the frontrunners, and that is exactly what we have seen.

For most of the race to date, Bernie has polled behind Biden, but clearly ahead of the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, as is the case with Biden, it is becoming apparent that much of this lead is down to his initially superior name recognition. Consequently, as the other candidates have become better known, his polling has suffered. Indeed most recent polls have shown him trailing one or both of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. For Bernie to be trailing his less well known colleagues at this stage is a very worrying sign for his supporters.

So why isn't Bernie doing better? As with Biden, age is a problem, and Bernie will be even older at 79 in January 2021. Bernie is also seen as a more polarizing figure than the other frontrunners. A lot of Democrats have a sour taste in their mouth from the damage his campaign dealt to Hillary Clinton in 2016, as well as the ostensible support he has received from Russian election interference. That is not to suggest that Bernie has any complicity in this, but the fact that the Russian trolls do seem to want him to be the nominee is, in the eyes of many, a good reason not to nominate him. But the most significant reason may simply be that this time he has more competition, including several credible candidates who occupy his niche on the left. 2016 Bernie benefited from being essentially the only option for Democrats who did not like Hillary, but in 2020 those Democrats have other options.

3. Kamala Harris
As a prominent Democratic Senator, Kamala Harris has been discussed as one of the more likely Presidential candidates basically since the start of the Trump Presidency, and yet her campaign has so far flown strangely under the radar. She has consistently polled among the frontrunners, but has generated fairly mediocre fundraising numbers, and received considerably less media coverage than other candidates. As a relatively fresh face, her low name recognition obviously posed difficulties, as well as the fact that many of the younger, higher information voters initially flocked to media-darling candidates such as Beto or Buttigieg.

That was until the first set of debates. For many, this was the first opportunity to see Kamala Harris on the big stage, and she made the most of it. Following the debate, Harris has shot up the polls and is now polling essentially in a three-way tie with Bernie and Warren, and just a few points shy of Biden.

Kamala Harris has a lot of things going for her. She is keen intellect and former prosecutor at a time when Democrats are looking for a candidate who is going to be able to grill Trump effectively on the debate stage. As an ethnic minority woman and lawyer, she is essentially the antithesis to a President who has been criticized for sexism, racism, and a casual disregard for the law. Her defeating Trump would be seen as the ultimate repudiation of those unseemly elements that he has embraced. But more importantly, she is cultivating an image as a strong and capable leader, one who embodies the progressive America that Democrats long to see. If I was a betting man, I would probably put my money on her right now.

4. Elizabeth Warren
Seen by many as heir apparent to Bernie as champion of the left, Warren has shown herself to be more than just an ideologue. Her's is a very compelling case: a firebrand liberal who espouses the same progressive policies as Bernie, but presented in a more establishment and moderate friendly package.

Warren had a bit of a slow start considering she was already reasonably well known, but she seems to be the type of candidate that people like the more they get to know her and her proposals. Over the course of the past year she has been quietly and gradually closing the gap on those ahead of her (mainly from Bernie supporters who perhaps see in her a similar candidate but with a greater chance of victory) to the point where she now consistently polls among the frontrunners.

Warren has become famed for her numerous highly detailed policy proposals, spawning the first genuine meme of the 2020 election in "Warren has a plan for that!". She is capably positioning herself as the wonkish, policy-driven candidate of the race, and that's very attractive for a certain type of voter. Unfortunately, the truth is that the vast majority of voters have no idea about policy proposals and won't care, hence why Presidents tend to be charismatic and slick rather than bookish and professorial. One has to wonder, therefore, if there is going to be a ceiling on her support.

Those arguments make sense on paper, but to her credit Warren has shown herself to be a likable candidate even among more casual voters, and her polling has been surprisingly robust, even in states where you would ordinarily not expect her to thrive. There may be questions over whether she is tough enough or charismatic enough to beat Trump in a televised one-on-one, but in terms of the primary contest she is undoubtedly among the top contenders.

5. Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete has been, without a doubt, the sensational story of the primary so far. A small-town mayor with absolute zero name recognition running for President, no one gave him a hope in hell. And yet, somehow he has managed to catch fire, propelling him right into the top tier of candidates. It is easy to see why he has caught the imagination. Pete is exceptionally articulate, and seemingly unflappable even when faced with tough questions. His policy proposals mainly place him in the moderate wing of the party, but his youth and energy endear him to the more liberal young voters. He frequently touts his military service, speaks eight languages fluently, and is a Rhodes Scholar.

On the other hand, there are so many reasons why Pete should not succeed as a candidate. He would be the youngest person ever elected President. His homosexuality is still, sadly, a liability in many parts of the country. His only political experience is as Mayor of a small town, arguably the lowest rung of political service in the United States.

And yet, such is the deftness with which he handles these apparent vulnerabilities that he manages to create strengths out of them. He stresses the executive experience of a Mayor in contrast to the lack of such experience among Congressmen and Senators. Pete and his husband Chasten have presented their marriage as such a posterchild of wholesome family values that it's hard to see them as anything other than the ideal first couple, especially when contrasted with the marital chaos of the current incumbent. And far from just reciting practiced lines, what has impressed about Pete is his repeated ability to think on his feet, to show humour and wit.

There have been signs that Pete's polling has been slipping in recent weeks, but there are still plenty of reasons for his supporters to be bullish. His fundraising numbers are phenomenal, the highest of any candidate for the most recent quarter, in spite of having considerably lower name recognition. In addition, while his national polling may have dropped, he still polls very strongly in the key early states. Pete is and has always been an extreme underdog of this race, but the signs so far make clear that he is not to be taken lightly. If he picks up a strong result in Iowa and New Hampshire then that could give him the momentum he needs. Regardless of what happens in this primary cycle, it is clear that Pete is a future star of the party, and will no doubt rank among many candidates' top picks for Vice President should he not win the nomination.

6. Beto O'Rourke
Rounding out the big six, and currently in a statistical tie nationally with Mayor Pete, is Beto O'Rourke. Beto was the star of the 2018 midterms, in which he narrowly lost to highly prominent Republican Ted Cruz in Texas, one of the reddest states in the country. A combination of soaring rhetoric and good old fashioned photogenicity saw Beto briefly labeled the next great political rockstar, and smashed the fundraising record books. But in truth it was his authenticity and idealism which won voters in droves. Facing off against one of the slimiest, nastiest politicians in the country, Beto refused to get dirty and resisted the urge to fight back. Beto's style is very much to focus on the issues, and the things that actually affect voters. That is an approach that stands him in good stead, even when the punchy, media friendly soundbytes may be lacking.

Beto's Presidential campaign got off to a similar start, smashing the week one fundraising records and shooting straight to the top tier of the polls. But somewhere in the weeks since, his campaign has hit a slump. While he has consistently maintained his polling position among the big six, he now finds himself at the tail end of that top tier, and his polling among the early states is even worse than his national polling, in spite of very extensive local campaigning.

There are many reasons why Beto has slipped. Mayor Pete has stolen his thunder as the youthful, exciting candidate, and Joe Biden has taken his place as the moderate of choice. But the biggest issue has been his media strategy. Beto made headlines in 2018 for visiting every county in Texas, and he has tried to replicate this state-level success by campaigning in the same way, as if this was a local election. That means a heavy emphasis on in-person and local events, and practically zero national coverage for the first several weeks. His staff have clearly woefully misunderstood the dynamics of a national election, and his campaign has struggled since.

Beto is certainly not finished at this point, but it is difficult to see a path back for him, especially as debating is not the medium of choice for a candidate who thrives most in pure oratory. His best bet at this point is to keep his favourables high, poll well enough to keep getting into the debates, and then as other candidates begin to drop out emerge as a consensus candidate. Still, one wonders if this may have been one election too soon for Beto.


The Best of the Rest
These six candidates are by far and away the leaders of the race so far, and the most likely to win the nomination. But this is a race with some 20+ candidates, many of whom are themselves fairly prominent and impressive figures. These candidates are "the best of the rest". It's a longshot for sure, but there is certainly a possibility that candidates from within this group could break out following a good debate, or later on as other candidates begin to drop out.

So who stands out among the other candidates? The obvious first choice is Cory Booker, another prominent Democratic Senator who has long been tipped for a Presidential run. During his time as Mayor of Newark, Booker was considered by many to be a future star of the party. Supremely charismatic and well-liked, Booker used to make headlines for doing things like rescuing people from burning buildings. In recent years he has been dogged by a perceived close relationship to Wall Street, but make no mistake he is a formidable and well-spoken presence in the party. At the moment he may not be many people's first choice, but I could easily see him being a lot of people's second or third choice, meaning there is the potential there to emerge as a consensus candidate once people start dropping out.

In a very similar mould is Julian Castro, former Mayor of San Antonio and Housing Secretary under the Obama administration. Castro first gained national prominence as a keynote speaker during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and was allegedly high on the shortlist of Hillary Clinton's potential Vice President picks. Much like Booker, Castro is a very charismatic and well-liked politician who arguably would be a contender in a less crowded field (specifically if a certain fellow Texan hadn't gotten into the race).

For voters more in the mood for an outsider, there's Andrew Yang, a successful tech billionaire and a man with absolutely no political experience. His hook is essentially that he is the candidate Donald Trump was pretending to be: a successful businessman free from the shackles and corruption of Washington. Unlike Trump, that's actually true. Also unlike Trump, Yang is actually an extremely sharp candidate with some genuinely clever ideas. After Warren, Yang is probably the most policy-driven candidate, with a fascinating mix of centrist libertarian policy and radical left wing (universal basic income). I suspect Yang will struggle against more seasoned debaters, and with primary voters who do not appear to be in as nihilistic a mood as Republicans were in 2016. But if the mood changes and Democrats decide they need to think outside of the box, they could do far worse than Yang.

And honestly, everyone else running might as well not be. I've seen some people make an electoral argument for Amy Klobuchar or John Hickenlooper, but I have seen little real-world evidence to lend those predictions much credence.

I would like to make a special shout out to Tulsi Gabbard, who ostensibly appears to be the Kremlin's attempt at doing a Donald Trump, but for Democrats. Between her shockingly Putinistic talking points, often matching word-for-word the lines being put out of the Kremlin, and her being probably the only person in America other than Donald Trump to still deny that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election, it's a wonder that anyone on the left still gives her the time of day. Fortunately, she seems to be garnering little support outside of the Russian bots on Twitter (which to their credit have been spamming Tulsi propaganda for months).

Summary
The huge Democratic field has become something of a punchline, and deservedly so. Many of the candidates really have no business running. But cut through the chaff and you find a core of some very capable leaders, any of whom would be a credible nominee. This Democratic field may be historically large, but it is also compellingly deep with quality candidates for all corners of the political spectrum. I for one can't wait to see how the race develops.








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