This post gives my end of the year thoughts on the Democratic field. I am writing it so we can all look back in a few months and see how wrong it was, and, indeed, many factors provide uncertainty about what the next few months will bring.
Certainly many of my early perceptions were misplaced: Joe Biden has had more staying power than I (and others) predicted. In the Trump Era electability has remained voters’ top criterion, much as it did in 2004. Further, while I believed Elizabeth Warren could get past Medicare for All, she has not yet done so and other candidates seem stalled in front of their own hurdles as well.
Smarter – or more cautious – people than I would have the good sense to stop making predictions. Throwing such good sense to the wind, here are some things that seem true or likely to me as we enter the election year:
1. The nominee will be chosen from the candidates who currently constitute the top five: Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren (in alphabetical order). I can come up with scenarios in which someone else breaks through – and a meteor could hit a debate stage. But the other scenarios are almost as unlikely as the meteor strike.
2. Joe Biden is the odds on favorite. I didn’t think this would be true at this point but it seems to be. His lead has had staying power and while he may not win Iowa or New Hampshire, he could still win one or both, and he remains the overwhelming favorite in South Carolina which protects his staying power.
3. New Hampshire seems to me unlikely to ratify Iowa, both because it generally doesn’t and because high participation of independents in New Hampshire (in the absence of a heated Republican primary), means a very different electorate in partisan and ideological terms than in Iowa. (If this prediction is wrong, #5 is wrong too.)
4. Michael Bloomberg will play a powerful and positive role in the election. He is building a national organization and is a strong and strategic voice against Trump. He will play a major role in the fall, but he will not be the nominee. He will, however, offer critical protection for the nominee against Russian and right-wing craziness.
5. The contest will continue past Super Tuesday and likely at least through April 11, when 87 percent of the delegates will have been chosen. The field will narrow by Super Tuesday, but with four candidates with the likely capacity to continue, it will be difficult for the eventual nominee to secure a first ballot delegate majority (unless other candidates choose to bring it to a close, which is unlikely).
6. If more than two candidates remain viable in the race, we are unlikely to have a first ballot nominee. Viable in this case means meeting the 15 percent threshold for delegate allocation in most congressional districts. The way delegate thresholds work, if only one candidate meets the threshold that candidate wins all the delegates. If the result is close among multiple candidates, each with more than 15 percent support, whole delegates are allocated roughly proportionately, which can often mean each candidate gets the same number of delegates. In the final rounds, if Biden is still in the mix, his breadth of support will help him but thresholds make it very hard to win a majority of delegates with three or four contenders strong enough to accrue delegates. (Oddly, five contenders make it easier for one to dominate as it becomes more likely that only one is above threshold – a scenario that could help Sanders with his smaller but stronger base.)
7. After the first four states, delegate math will be much more important, and national polling even less important than it is now. National polling has never been very meaningful as there is no national primary but rather a sequence of state primaries and caucuses. Given that polls do not accurately predict delegates, national polls become even less important.
8. Electability against Trump will remain the top criterion for a plurality of Democratic voters. Voters may be ready to put all their internal differences aside to defeat Trump, but they will not erase them entirely. Leaders across the ideological and geographic spectrum have roles to play in helping voters and activists retain focus on winning in November 2020. The nominee will need them as part of the process, and in becoming the nominee.
9. The Vice-Presidential pick will be both more important and more controversial than in years past. The general rule for picking a VP candidate is to do no harm as people generally vote for the top of the ticket. The divides within the party point to a need for ticket balancing, which cannot make everyone happy.
10. The November election will result in a Democratic president and Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress. That can and will happen even with a narrow Electoral College win given the combination of Republican incumbents in states the Democrats will likely win (like Maine and Colorado), those in competitive states (like Arizona and North Carolina), and those Republican Senators with individual problems (like Lindsey Graham and Kelly Loeffler).
So, I end the year with nervous and irresolute optimism that is not, I hope, misplaced. I recognize the need for caution as the impeachment trial, the candidates themselves, the failure to choose a nominee early, and intraparty schisms will create disruption. Those factors could bring about a circular firing squad among Democrats. There is some protection from that in shared seriousness of purpose about defeating Trump, which I trust continues.
May we all have a good New Year.