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.