Evaluating the 2020 Democratic Primary Field

ANALYSIS
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Assessing the Democratic presidential primary at this point is a nearly impossible task.  With around 15 serious candidates who have declared or formed an exploratory committee, and with another handful seriously looking at joining the race, the slate is very much in flux.  Like the Republican primary in 2016, small changes in the polling position of candidates can translate to a large change in their position relative to one another, which in turn incentivizes rising candidates to stay in.  So rather than, say, power-ranking the candidates – how does one really decide how to rank John Hickenlooper versus Jay Inslee? – I will look at them through the lens of “buy” versus “sell,” based upon the RCP Poll Average.

Joe Biden (29.7 percent): Sell.  Up until a week or so ago, I was a heavy sell on Biden. It just seems difficult to believe that a Democratic Party increasingly identifying as young, female, and non-white is going to nominate a septuagenarian white man.  If it were to nominate such a man, he would almost certainly have to be beyond reproach on #MeToo issues and racial insensitivities, and that is not Biden. He has already run for president twice, winning zero primaries, and hasn’t faced a truly competitive race since his 1972 Senate bid.

But Biden has opted to apologize briefly for his “handsy” behavior before moving on, while seemingly positioning himself as the candidate of traditional moderate and moderately liberal Democrats.  Antagonizing the party’s progressive base is a risky strategy, but in a fractured field with multiple progressive candidates, it is probably the best strategy for him to win.  I still think he’s a little high in the polls, but this smart move by a wily pol has given me pause.

Bernie Sanders (21.1 percent): Buy. Forced to pick a frontrunner, I would probably go with Sanders. This may seem like an odd move, having just pooh-poohed Biden’s candidacy on the grounds that he is white, too old, and male, but I don’t think his winning strategy rests upon winning over a majority of the Democrats. Instead, the strategy for Sanders revolves around him holding on to his base of around 20 percent of the party in a divided field, something that seems more attainable for Sanders than for Biden. 

There are two interrelated ways this could play out.  The first scenario involves him winning Iowa and New Hampshire, at which point his momentum becomes very difficult to stop.  Currently, he is less than two percentage points out of first place in both states.  The second involves him holding onto that 20 percent in a splintered field.  Because delegates are awarded proportionally, but only after a candidate clears a threshold of 15 percent in a state, Sanders could scoop up delegates in every primary, while his opponents miss in various states.  That can translate to a delegate lead pretty quickly, especially if the field stays divided. 

As a final thought: If Sanders goes into a contested convention as the plurality delegate leader, the party will have a very difficult time denying him the nomination.  It cannot withstand a progressive revolt in the general election, and many of his supporters are already convinced the 2016 nomination was stolen from him.

Kamala Harris (9.9 percent): Hold. Harris had a solid rollout, but a part of me wonders if she isn’t the Marco Rubio of 2020.  Despite a somewhat thin resume, she’s strong enough on paper, has a plausible path forward (win California and sweep the heavily African American Southern states), is popular with different wings of the party, and has raised enough money to go the distance. But let’s not forget, she did almost lose an attorney general race in California, albeit in a very good Republican year.  Combine this with the possibility of multiple African American candidates splitting the vote in the South and her current positioning seems about correct.  She has significant upside, but the downside risk is very real.

Beto O’Rourke (8.9 percent): Buy.  Three terms in Congress and a failed Senate bid aren’t the usual qualifications for a presidential candidate, but these are not usual times, and “real estate mogul/reality TV host” and “first-term senator” weren’t typical resume lines in 2016 and 2008 either.  More importantly, as a friend of mine put it, O’Rourke has “it.”  I’m not entirely sure what “it” is, but it’s the thing that allows you to stand on the countertop in diners and give speeches without seeming hokey.  This Democratic field has some heavy hitters, at least on paper, but most of the candidates running lack “it.”  O’Rourke will have a ton of money, and he is exactly the type of candidate who can catch fire in Iowa.

Elizabeth Warren (5.7 percent): Sell. Like Biden, I think much of her positioning has to do with name recognition right now.  Her problem is that there’s nothing she does that someone else doesn’t do better.  Do you want someone outsider-y? O’Rourke is a better candidate.  Do you want competence?  You would probably look to Amy Klobuchar or perhaps Biden.  Do you want a female candidate?  Harris seems better positioned.  Do you want a progressive? Why choose Warren when Sanders is willing to scream that the gears of the capitalist machine are oiled with the blood of the working class?

Her strategy is probably to wait it out, hoping the better-known candidates beat each other up, knock someone out, and open a lane for her. At that point, she could be formidable. It is also easy to see her catching fire in the debates. But the same could be said of many candidates at 1 percent.  She’s got upside, but for now I don’t see her as more than a penny stock.

Cory Booker (3.6 percent): Sell.  Booker has an interesting track record as an outside-the-box thinker who challenged party orthodoxy.  But that is not how he is running, at least for now; instead he seems to believe that “progressive war horse” is his ticket to the nomination.  Like Warren, there just isn’t much he does that someone else doesn’t do better. Unlike Warren, I’m not sure he’s the type to catch fire in a debate or fill a gap if one of the frontrunners stumbles. 

Pete Buttigieg (2.9 percent): Hold.  This 37-year-old mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city also does not have the traditional resume for a presidential run, but again, we live in unconventional times.  Buttigieg is smart, media-savvy, and has a pitch-perfect appeal to upscale, college-educated Democrats.  At the same time, we have to see how he holds up once the glare of a competitive candidacy really begins to shine on him, and need to see whether he can expand his support. For now, he seems placed about right – somewhere above the middle of the pack but not in the top tier.

Amy Klobuchar (1.7 percent): Buy. If Biden’s bid fails, establishment support has to go somewhere, and Klobuchar seems to be a likely beneficiary. On paper she is an almost-perfect candidate: liberal but not extraordinarily so, female, from the Midwest, and possessing a sober disposition.  The claims that she was tough on her staff probably work to her benefit, so long as the more outrageous claims about her aren’t confirmed. Her major problem is that she is fairly boring in a year where Democratic voters would probably like to fall in love, but again, her path pretty clearly runs through the establishment lane. If you buy that Biden’s first day as a declared candidate will likely be his best day, then Klobuchar has a ton of upside.

Andrew Yang (1 percent): Buy. Yang also has a non-traditional resume, but he’s smart and has an issue (universal basic income) that people can understand easily and presents well.  He’s in the debates now, and should play well there.   While he’s clearly not in a top tier position, he has more upside than the other 1 percent candidates.

Stacey Abrams (undeclared): Buy.  Like O’Rourke, Abrams has “it,” and a large portion of the Democratic base views her as a martyr for an issue that is fast gaining salience in the party: vote suppression. She hasn’t declared yet, and perhaps is more likely than not to stay out. But if she gets in, the Democratic base could easily fall in love with her.  There’s pure upside potential here.

Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Michael Bennet, and some other members of Congress and candidates you may have never heard of (hovering at, less than, 1 percent): Buy.  You can make cases for each of these candidates, especially if others in their respective lanes stumble. Receiving less than 1 percent of the vote in the polling is not particularly encouraging, but it would not take a big shift in opinion to vault one of them into third place. These candidates are penny stocks, but in a volatile field such as this one, the opportunity for strong growth is there.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.



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