Could 2020 be 2016 on steroids in the primaries?

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Nam-myoho-renge-kyo   Meditation enlightenment chant

Calm your mind grasshopper, there are many long miles to go until this journey is complete. Or maybe not. Seems to me that we’ve been down this road before, and it turned out to be more of a trip to the mall than a cross country trek.

Back in October of 2015, two and a half months before the Iowa caucuses, I posted an article online at Daily Kos, where I predicted that the GOP nomination was Trump’s for the taking. There was no crystal ball required (sorry Marianne Williamson), it was simple math. There were 17 candidates in the GOP field, and Trump was running in the high 20’s to low 30’s, and nobody else was even in double digits. Most, if not all of the early GOP primary states were “winner take all” primaries, which meant that Trump could bank all of the primary delegates from those states with only around 32% of the vote. This would allow him to amass such a huge delegate lead that by the time the field winnowed down, he would be almost impossible to catch. That’s what happened in real time.

The problem with a large, unwieldy field is that if a single candidate jumps out to a big lead in the polls, especially in early primary states, he’s halfway there. Because, when people start to drop out, it won’t be the ones closest to the front runner, it will be the ones farthest behind. And when they do drop out, their 1-2% isn’t going to help anybody above them appreciably cut into the front runners lead. And while that culling out process continues, the front runner keeps banking early primary state delegates.

I am seeing the same dynamic at play so far in the 2020 Democratic primaries, but with even ore exaggerated implications. There are 24 active candidates as we speak, and well more than half of them are polling at under 4%, most of them at 1-2%. Again, the dropping out of any of these candidates, even two or three at a time are not going to help a second tier candidate to make much of a push upwards. And while in this case, there are other candidates in double digits, namely Sanders, Warren, and in some polls Harris, Biden is near or over double digit leads against them, and 1-2% isn’t going to close the gap much.

There are a couple of other factors in play here that weren’t present in the GOP primaries of 2016, and they are going to work against anybody whose last name isn’t Biden. First of all is the trajectory of the primary itself. In most primaries, they are basically popularity contests to start with, between the personas of the individual candidates, as well as their positions on issues. That doesn’t seem to hold true as much this time. Persistent polling shows that the #1 issue for Democratic primary voters is finding the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump. As the front runner, Biden is already perceived as having the best shot at beating His Lowness, and any other candidate is going to have to prove that they’re a better option, which is going to be difficult to do unless Biden implodes on his own.

And that dynamic plays into another similar aspect. Americans love a winner. In a normal primary, a voter who supports Andrew Yang might find themselves gravitating to, say, a Kamala Harris rather than Biden, and then to Elizabeth Warren if Harris drops out. But this time, with the crushing imperative being to defeat Donald Trump, voters whose preferred candidate drops out may look at the polls, and decide to just back the front runner, abbreviate the whole process, and get on with the business at hand.

The next difference between 2020 and 2016 that could accelerate the process is the Democratic primaries themselves. In a normal primary season, there are several weekly primaries scheduled, leading up to “Super Tuesday,” normally in late March or early April, with several states all voting on the same day. But the Democrats shortened that leash this year, Super Tuesday is on March the freakin 3rd! And it isn’t just Super Tuesday, this is the Cujo of super Tuesdays, with delegate cows like California and Texas on it. If Biden remains the front runner, and he does well in the early primaries, winning say Ohio, New Hampshire, and either South Carolina or Nevada, and then rides that momentum into Super Tuesday and cleans up major, it may well no longer matter much who drops out and when, Biden’s delegate lead could be hard to overcome.

There is one more dynamic here that would play a starring role in the 2020 Democratic primaries, and those are super delegates. Following Bernie Sanders most proper shit fit over super delegates tilting the field against him in 2016 by largely coming out en masse for Clinton even before the primaries had begun, the DNC reformed the super delegate process. In 2020, they are prohibited from declaring support for any candidate while the primaries are gong on, and they will not vote in the first round at the convention. But they are still there, waiting in the wings. Super delegates are by their nature, mostly DNC establishment types, DNC members, state party chairs, that kind of thing. If the Democratic establishment decided Biden is their best hope, then it can be assumed that the majority of super delegates will back Biden if they get a chance to vote. Sanders legitimate 2016 gripes aside, this is nothing new. In 2008, the vast majority of super delegates were firm Clinton supporters, it was only after Barack Obama proved that he could wrest the nomination that those super delegates made it official and switched their allegiance. But it was hard work then, and it won’t be any easier now.

No, I am not predicting today that the Democratic nomination in 2020 is Joe Biden’s for the losing. Hell, it’s only August, not October, and Biden has proven repeatedly in the past that he can trip over his own shoelaces in a critical moment. But the 2020 primaries are eerily similar to the mechanics that were at play on the GOP side in 2016, and in 2020, the possibility is there that it could unfold even more quickly than it did in 2016.

The secret to longevity in the 2020 Democratic primaries is going to be the size of the field. In 2016, there were only Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton competing, and their primary went well past Trump sealing up the GOP nomination, not even counting Sanders insistence in completing the calendar. If the Democrats want these primaries to go into late April or May, then these second and third tier candidates are going to have to put their egos in the foot locker, take one for the team, and get out quickly. Endorse another candidate by all means, but bring the field down to no more than 3-4 candidates. But if whomever survives wants to pose a credible challenge to the front runner, then they’re going to have to be within 3-4 points in most polls, not languishing behind by 8-10 points. Because I have a strong feeling that the Democratic primary base is going to have a very short patience span. By no later than South Carolina, if there isn’t a strong two horse race, primary voters are going to want to get this over with and start working over The Orange Julius. And they may well switch allegiances to expedite that process. Don’t touch that dial.

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11 Comments on "Could 2020 be 2016 on steroids in the primaries?"

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Denis Elliott
Member
This is why I don’t like the debate schedule/qualifications the DNC came up with. I have little doubt that by the time the qualification period for Sept. is over we will still have at least ten candidates on the stage. Even with only eight or nine it’s not so much a debate that allows for some actual back & forth discussion but rather a “Charlie Fox” with a good five or six candidates that have NO chance of getting the nomination jumping up and down like toddlers interrupting the adults & shouting “look at me. LOOK AT ME!!!!!” Once upon… Read more »
Nick Sullivan
Member

Sounds good to me. Unless the Bern decides to go all I-wuz-robbed again and starts trashing Biden up one side and down the other until July. I’m hopeful the absolute necessity of defeating the current POS will unify 98 percent of our voters this time, though. There will always be the two percent that’s simply too pure, of course.

Joseph
Guest
I am so tired of the talk about how “Bernie was right” when it came to the issue of superdelegates. The REAL reason the supers supported Clinton so overwhelmingly in 2016? Bernie Sanders. The man was PLAYING a Democrat rather than BEING a Democrat. Clinton, on the other hand, was the wife of a Democratic Governor, then the wife of a Democratic President and, when she finally ran for public office on her own, she ran AS A DEMOCRAT–and served as a Democratic Senator from New York for 8 years before serving as the Secretary of State to a Democratic… Read more »
anastasjoy
Member
Exactly. And the DNC caving to Bernie on the super delegates gave him a talking point which he is STILL flogging (he mentioned this in Iowa just a few months ago) to keep driving his supporters’ insistence that the primary was “rigged.” (I got into an argument with someone about this at my friend’s garden center on Sunday). I know MANY Hillary supporters who pulled their recurring donations to the DNC based on its pandering to Bernie’s accusations, especially after the so-called “unity” tour in the spring of 2017 where Tom Perez went around the country holding events with Bernie… Read more »
Joseph
Guest
“In 2016, there were only Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton competing, and their primary went well past Trump sealing up the GOP nomination, not even counting Sanders insistence in completing the calendar.” And does anyone else remember how Sanders’ supporters were almost unanimous in demanding the calendar be completed, even as many of the same people were those most strongly denouncing Hillary’s “completing the calendar” in 2008? And, I would remind folks that Obama needed the “superdelegates” to win and secure his nomination. Without the supers, Obama just barely cracked the 50% mark, and for most of the season, Obama… Read more »
anastasjoy
Member

And Hillary conceded 12 weeks before the convention. Bernie conceded only TWO weeks before, and only told his supporters that their misapprehension that it was an “open” convention from which either candidate could emerge the winner was false the day before the convention started. That directly led to their appalling and hurtful behavior at the convention which is causing division here to this day.

rory darjiit
Member
Yes…yes I remember the calendar completion. Because California was almost last, which usually means a mellow primary, but in this case it was a poop show. First, the Sanders side launched at least five lawsuits. For example, an indie voter gets a voter guide asking which ballot they want months in advance, then they get that ballot with instruction on how to ask for a different ballot, then they can still go trade it in on Election Day for whatever ballot they want. But somehow this was “disenfranchisement” because if a voter asked for a specific ballot nobody steps in… Read more »
rory darjiit
Member
I really like freedom of speech. Call me silly. So I’m kinda hoping that some wily Super Delegate will tell the AP in confidentiality they’re for “anyone but Bernie,” then when the AP reports that others start doing it and we end up with an “anyone but Bernie” count. It’s not that I oppose Sanders that much, or think that’s an effective way to oppose him because it’d be a mess. But his desire to control others and the press feels a bit too authoritarian, and I think he could use a constitutional spanking, lol. In all seriousness, though, I’m… Read more »
anastasjoy
Member

Everything Bernie & his supporters demanded is only to benefit Bernie, not the fairness of the process. He lost all moral authority when, after endlessly demonizing the superdelegates, he demanded they overturn the will of the voters and endorse him because, ya know, he’s just so super-special.