Tuesday, January 7, 2020


American elections often seem to go on for years.  Political types have been watching for over a year now, getting to know the foibles and qualities of the many Democrats seeking to take on and replace Donald Trump.

The reality is that many voters are only starting to make their decisions now, as Iowa and New Hampshire enter the last month before their nominating votes.  That’s because many voters, having lives that don’t focus on the travails of Kamala Harris, only start tuning in now and really focusing on who they think has the makings of a President.

Don’t believe me?  Look at the history of late shifts that alter the race.  In 2004, John Kerry was loaning his campaign money to stay afloat while the media went ga-ga over insurgent frontrunner Howard Dean.  In 2008, John McCain had fallen to sixth in some polls and was left for dead.  In 2012, Rick Santorum wasn’t on pace to win Iowa – he was a polling asterisk who’d lost his Senate seat by 18 points.  And, of course, in 2008 and 2016, Hillary Clinton had 30-point national leads that quickly evaporated into dogfights with Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, respectively.  Meanwhile, her husband Bill enjoyed nothing like that in 1992 – he was running fourth and assumed to be buried under an avalanche of negative stories about his personal life.

Guys who didn't have a hope, one month out.

So, we really don’t know what will happen as these candidates meet the voters’ full, critical gaze for the first time.  What we do have is some winnowing done by the media, the money, and the insiders, as some candidates have found there just is not enough water in the pool to dive in head first.  Some of those – hi, Bill DeBlasio – were never credible.  Some, like Julian Castro and Steve Bullock – were serious candidates who just couldn’t meet the moment.  Some, like Kamala Harris, decided early to spare themselves the effort to keep campaigning if they were unlikely to win.  Some, like Cory Booker, keep plugging ahead in the hopes that there’s a lottery ticket still to be scratched.

At this point, there are four candidates with the money and polling to have a plausible shot at winning.  Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg all have led at least some state polls and have the resources to hang around.  There are three more names you may yet want to file away because they have at least some of the virtues of past late bloomers – Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and (for slightly different reasons) Michael Bloomberg.  The rest is just noise.

Here’s how the path to victory would look for the big four, and what conditions might open the door to a dark horse joining that club.

Joe Biden

Resume: Joined the Senate at 30 and stayed there until tapped as Vice President in 2008 by Obama

Strengths: Widely-known and liked, tends to perform best against Trump in polling

Weaknesses: His age, doubts about whether he has lost his fastball, unrepentantly not woke

Uncle Joe, looking avuncular.

For all the sneering at Biden from the media, woke Twitter and comedy shows, he’s still roughly where he was when he entered – numbers good enough to win, not good enough to win easily.  Yet for all the odd stories and daffy uncle moments, Joe is holding on.  And, if anything, he’s more likely to win now than he was three months ago.

Biden’s bid can be likened to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign for the GOP nomination.  Romney then, like Biden now, entered as a presumptive frontrunner based upon his past efforts and name recognition.  Like Biden, he was seen as an electable moderate who would have to convince a party that had become increasingly ideological.  Like Biden, he had some personal qualities that could strike voters as a little odd but was widely seen as decent.  Like Biden, he was seen as the most electable option against an incumbent president who his party’s base despised, and who they had underestimated four years ago as too outside the mainstream to beat them.

The Republican Party that ultimately nominated Romney acted like it didn’t really want to.  Romney held roughly 25-30% of voters throughout who were just fine with him. But he was surpassed by several more “conservative” options and had to wait patiently while voters kicked the tires on a bunch of other models before coming back to the steady, electable choice.  Before getting to Iowa, Michele Bachmann held a national lead before crashing under the weight of her extreme social views and general weirdness.  Some guy named Trump briefly took the lead based on his quest for Obama’s birth certificate, but he backed out.  Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both returned from the dead to win early states before Romney buried them under negative ads.  Even after that, a bunch of folks like Rick Perry, Chris Christie and even Herman Cain (!) took polling leads before backing out or being exposed as lightweights on policy.  (More ominously for where the party was going, Perry’s crash was blamed on his “oops” moment of failing to recall the three government departments which he would eliminate, but at the same team Romney had attacked him for allowing some social services in Texas to illegal immigrants, which may have actually been the cause of the collapse).

Ultimately, Romney prevailed by convincing a sceptical party that he could be trusted to beat Obama, and the others posed an electability risk no matter how much their ideology and ideas were attractive to the party base.  Joe Biden seems to be winning that argument as well.

Biden’s message is simple.  He does not seek to launch a counterrevolution to Trump, or to use the chaos to bring about structural change.  He believes that the country and its institutions are fundamentally good and that what is needed is to beat Trump as soundly as possible so that the nation may return to “normal”.  “Normal”, in Biden’s world, means incrementally more generous social programs and a foreign policy that aligns with traditional western democratic allies.

In fact, unlike Romney in 2012, Biden has stuck largely to his guns even under ideological attack.  Romney was forced to lurch right to convince Republicans he was a “severely conservative” candidate, and took stands on immigration, health care, gay rights and taxes that were far to the right of his moderate time as Governor of Massachusetts.  The man who once ran to Ted Kennedy’s left on gay rights now embraced the Christian right’s positions.  It may have saved his nomination, but he got savaged in the general by the Obama team, who used gay marriage and the DREAM Act to wedge Romney on social issues and pounded him with ads depicting him as a heartless, job-exporting capitalist.

Biden has resisted the radical makeover.  Upbraided for past votes that don’t hold up well in today’s more liberal Democratic Party, he has often chosen explanation over apology, and has refused to join the bidding war of social spending to appear more liberal than Sanders and Warren.  And while he’s had odd moments of mangling syntax and metaphors, he’s still the nominal front runner.

Like Romney, he’s watched two rivals have surges.  Kamala Harris roughed him up in the debates on his past busing votes, but then struggled on that and other issues to explain what exactly she believed.  Elizabeth Warren took the lead by promising a plan for everything, but seems to have been pinned back by the inevitable questions about the plan to pay for everything.  Pete Buttigieg is having a moment but seems to have subsided a bit with new attacks on his fundraising and experience.

As the national debate turns to impeachment and foreign policy, that likely helps Biden, whose campaign and experience give him an edge in defending institutions, the rule of law, and traditional foreign policy.

Biden’s advantage is that he has two paths to victory.  The first is that he could win Iowa and New Hampshire and the momentum kicks in – other moderate options leave the race and Biden begins to get the deference stronger frontrunners have gotten.  The second is that he limps through respectable but not first place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, but those wins either go to different candidates or to Sanders.  In both cases, Biden still likely wins South Carolina and establishes himself as the candidate you have to rally around to block chaos (or Sanders, which to many Democrats is chaos with a single-payer health care plan.

How would it look if Biden were in trouble?  If Iowa’s winner also gets the momentum to win New Hampshire and then gives him a serious run in South Carolina, AND if that person is Buttigieg or a dark horse, Biden is in serious trouble.  (Warren may also be acceptable enough to put this thing away with an Iowa-New Hampshire twofer, as she invites less resistance than Sanders among establishment moderates).  He may also falter if the first four primaries produce a mishmash of results and his gaffes and fumbles continue as more voters tune in – that could open the door to a rally around Buttigieg or Bloomberg to replace Biden as the “safe” choice to take on Trump.

In short, Biden has durable support among moderates and African-Americans (who, other than Obama in 2008 and Jackson in 1984, have tended to support the centrist establishment candidate in primaries), and he remains popular enough to win.  His weakness at times in debates may be offset by the comfort that in past high-stakes debates as a vice-presidential candidate, he has been highly effective.  He defused Sarah Palin in a way that avoided looking mean or condescending, and he demolished Paul Ryan after Obama lost the first debate and re-energized the campaign. 

Bernie Sanders

Resume: Started as Mayor of Burlington and built an independent political machine that got him elected to Congress and the Senate as an Independent Socialist from Vermont, caucuses with Democrats.

Strengths: Has a devoted following that gives him volunteers and money to compete as long as he wants, has authenticity that comes from having pushed his message for years when it wasn’t as popular

Weaknesses: Seen by some as strident and risky, promises of economic restructuring may make Trump seem safer in a good economy, has some odd and extreme past statements that can and will be used

We need your vacuum pennies!!

Sanders has managed an incredible feat – in his seventies, he’s become the party’s best source of energy and youthful volunteers.  After 2016, when his propensity to analyze all issues through an economic lens limited his appeal to African-Americans, he has listened and improved his ability to appeal to Democrats across the spectrum.

The fervency of Sanders’ supporters mean that he will have the resources to fight to the end.  With that floor comes a ceiling, though.  Many Democrats see him as building his movement at the expense of the Party, and some even blame his supporters and his tepid endorsement for Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss.  Paired with any one opponent, he may struggle to get to 50% support unless he can raise serious doubts about that opponent. (It’s worth noting that Warren voters do not universally go to Bernie when asked for second choices).  He is still seen as a risky general election bet, although it must be noted that he generally leads Trump in hypothetical matchups by only a bit less than Biden does.

The most likely outcome at this point is that Sanders stays in the mix but gradually falls back to where he was in 2016 – a strong minority voice in the party but losing as the party chooses one alternative.  What does a Bernie win look like?  He wins Iowa and New Hampshire on vote splits while Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar all remain viable.  They then make the same mistake centrist Republicans made against Trump – they attack each other assuming that Bernie will self-destruct and lose to the last moderate standing.  They keep shooting each other while Bernie wins more states with 35-40% of the vote until his lead becomes such that the pressure to rally around him becomes too much.

Elizabeth Warren

Resume: Second term senator for Massachusetts

Strengths: Policy breadth and detail, a strong campaigner and smart debater

Weaknesses: Policy details often get her in trouble; like Sanders, may allow Trump to run against risk of radical change in a strong economy

I've got a plan for that!

 Warren is a gifted campaigner and she can draw blood in debate with the best of them.  Her relentless energy, boundless optimism and endless selfies draw admirers.  Yet she wins election in liberal Massachusetts with less of a margin than the state’s presidential lean, and that raises concerns.

Trump has not done much to create a strong economy; after all, the indicators were moving up when he inherited the economy from Obama.  Trump polls well behind where an incumbent should be in a strong economy, even as voters give him good marks for the economy and jobs.  That suggests that voters are either (a) sharing credit for the economy between Trump and Biden (as an Obama stand-in) and/or some swing voters believe that a good economy doesn’t excuse Trump’s erratic, cruel and authoritarian behaviour as president.  When a candidate's platform suggests minimal disruption to the economy, as Biden's does, voters may take the good economy as a given and focus on Trump’s scandals. 

If so, t
he risk with Warren and Sanders is not necessarily that they are too “left”, but that they explicitly promise to disrupt an economy that most voters think is going well.  This allows Trump to run on the economy, arguing (as he often has) that to keep the economic results you have to put up with the chaos and scandal around him.

Warren’s performance endears her to the party’s base.  If you think the Hillary Clinton campaign erred by pushing values over policy specifics, Warren is a great antidote to that particular failing.  She sometimes campaigns in a way that alienates swing voters, as with her recent comments that voters who oppose same sex marriage probably can't find people willing to date them.  The base loved the pluck, but some saw it as a needless provocation.  When she’s been pushed, on her taxation plans and her past claim of First Nations heritage to get into Harvard, she hasn't shown a great instinctual feel for a response.  She’s at risk of being seen as an alluring risk, but too big a risk given the stakes of the election.

Can she turn it around?  If she wins Iowa, she can get a boost in New Hampshire.  If she wins both, she’s in business – Sanders’ soft support may come to her and she may start to pull away.  But that window looks narrower than it did two months ago, and if she doesn’t do well in Iowa she may be fighting Buttigieg for the bronze very quickly.  Which brings us to....

Pete Buttigieg

Resume: Mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  Rhodes Scholar and veteran.  Lost races for state Comptroller and for DNC National Chair.

Strengths: Articulate, likable, new.  Probably smarter than you are.  His husband Chasten is a social media delight.

Weaknesses: Same amount of governing experience as Sarah Palin in 2008, not attracting diverse support.

Warning: if you're over 40, this may cause you to ask what you've done with YOUR life.

Mayor Pete is an interesting option.  You can dismiss him, arguing that the stakes are too high to turn to a thirtysomething who’s mayor of a town about the size of Saint John.  Yet, here he is, raising more money than the senators and vice president in the race, outpolling more experienced politicians, and charming folks wherever he goes.  And inexperienced or not, he has been one of the best at hitting high points with his answers – grace notes on civil rights, substance on foreign policy.  Like Obama in 2008, he is a high-risk, high-reward proposition.  And with leads in some Iowa and New Hampshire polls and a $25million quarter in fundraising, clearly some folks see the reward.

His numbers are backsliding just a bit from their peak, and so scrutiny will continue.  I think he’s the easiest to handicap.  If he can win Iowa and New Hampshire, and Biden comes third or worse in both – it’s his to lose.  He then has to survive scrutiny enough to hold off the Warren/Sanders challenge from his left and to keep Bloomberg on the sidelines.  I suspect this will end as an audacious audition for 2024.  But there is a winning scenario on the board.

Everyone else

As I said earlier, there are only three names worth mentioning.  In order of plausibility, it’s Klobuchar, Bloomberg and Booker.

The basic question is this – is there enough oxygen for someone who is more moderate than Warren or Sanders, but doesn’t have Biden’s baggage or adventures in syntax?  Right now, that oxygen appears to be dominated by Mayor Pete.  However, there are three others making a bid for that space.

Amy Klobuchar has won big majorities in a swing state, and has a midwestern common sense and centrist politics that some see as just the ticket against Trump.  She is a bit negative in her debate persona, which plays into the early cautionary tales of her temper dealing with staff.  But she’s smart, experienced and on the move in Iowa.  If there’s a late-breaking candidate, right now, it’s her.

Cory Booker is a mystery to me.  Democrats keep asking for a candidate who’s economically centrist, socially progressive, younger and more vibrant than Biden, better able to reach minority voters than Klobuchar or Sanders, and has a deeper resume than Mayor Pete.  And this must be driving Booker a bit crazy, because it sounds like him and he’s right here!  His PAC even launched an ad pointing out that he's ALSO a Rhodes Scholar and mayor.  Maybe his tendency to overdo it a bit on the drama, or his early efforts to scramble to the left, have hurt him.  But he actually has more congressional endorsements than anyone but Biden, and he’s a plausible nominee, so I’m going to leave him in play for the same model as Klobuchar – like Jimmy Carter and John Kerry, they’ll have to get a big boost from Iowa, win New Hampshire or come close, and then somehow monetize that in time to not get buried on Super Tuesday.

Speaking of monetizing, there’s one guy left who doesn’t have that worry.

Michael Bloomberg is up above 5% in some national polls, and he’s hired staff and bought ads at a frenetic pace because, well, he can drop $50million the way you or I can book a vacation – it’s real money, but not enough to make a dent.  Bloomberg isn’t even on the ballot in Iowa and New Hampshire, so what’s his play?  Bloomberg surely knows that if someone comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire with momentum, he won’t matter.  I suspect he entered because he’s genuinely concerned that no one will come out of the early states looking like a winner. 

If Sanders is winning on vote splits, Biden is looking frail, Buttigieg callow, and no one else does well enough to carry on, some Democrats will panic.  And Bloomberg’s pitch is likely simple.  “You may not love the idea of a billionaire technocrat buying this thing.  But here’s the deal – I’ve succeeded at everything I’ve tried.  I’m sane, competent, and reasonable.  I’m rich enough to run a campaign that can respond to Trump’s attacks and Putin’s propaganda.  I hire smart people and win.  Basically, I’m a real business success, and Trump is a huckster.  But he's a good huckster, and right now, his B.S. will take down every option you've got but me.  You want me to get rid of this clown, or not?”

That doesn’t excite anyone.  But you can see a scenario where it might start looking good.  The downside for Bloomberg is that it depends on others trying and failing.  But it’s not bad to have a $50million insurance policy, paid for by Mike.  He can afford it.

My prediction: I think the Biden scenario – he does enough in Iowa and New Hampshire, wins South Carolina and Nevada, and after Super Tuesday it’s a binary choice between him and Bernie and he wins – things are breaking the right way for that scenario.  But that prediction is worth what they all are a month out, and the only thing I know for sure is I don’t trust anyone who’s too sure.  But today, if I had to bet the mortgage, I’d bet the chalk and bet on Joe to do enough when the stakes are high.

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