Sunday, February 2, 2020

Why it Will Be Biden Vs. Trump

Yes, the Sovern Nation blog is back, mainly because I have a 44-year record to maintain of boldly (sometimes foolishly) predicting the eventual Democratic and Republican presidential nominees before the first caucus and primary ballots are cast.

Although I've been scoffed at by Republican operatives who insist I'm too much of a Left Coast Snowflake to even find the pulse of GOP primary voters, let alone take it, I've actually never been wrong on the Republican side: I'm 11-for-11 picking the GOP standard-bearer, dating back to 1976. The Democrats have proven a bit trickier; I'm only 9-for-11 there. But that's not a bad track record, given the volatile, unpredictable nature of modern American politics, especially in the Trump era.

Which brings us to 2020. Here we sit, on the eve of the Iowa Caucus, and the Democratic race remains too close to call. There are still eleven (as of this writing; don't be surprised if the field is winnowed by the time the New Hampshire primary results come in on February 11) candidates in the running. There are four or five especially viable contenders who could conceivably lead the party into the general election against President Trump.

So let's dispose of the easy call first: barring completely unforeseen circumstances like sudden death or alien invasion, Donald Trump will again be the nominee of the Republican Party. He will be acquitted of the impeachment charges against him this Wednesday, he will roll through the formalities of the GOP nomination process, and he will be a formidable, historically well-funded adversary in November.

And whom will the Democrats nominate to oppose him?

Let's go through the field and eliminate candidates, one by one:

It won't be: Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, or businessman Andrew Yang (despite the fervent zeal of the #YangGang).

Despite her common sense appeal in the Midwest, her s-l-o-w climb in the polls and her improving debate performances, it won't be Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar either. She may well place high enough in Iowa to survive, but it's hard to see where she breaks through after that.

Despite his relentless, self-funded ad campaign, it won't be San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer. His surprising rise in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere won't last once the top tier contenders focus their energy on those states.

That leaves five possible nominees: former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

The Iowa caucus is a bit of a toss-up, but Sanders seems poised to win both it and New Hampshire eight days later. It doesn't actually matter much who "wins" Iowa, because it's likely that Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg and Warren will all come away with delegates, and the spread among them is likely to be negligible. It'll be more about perceived momentum and exceeding or disappointing expectations, and what that means in terms of campaign contributions, media coverage and buzz in the days after Iowa. If Bernie's more motivated and passionate supporters turn out in greater numbers, he will take Iowa. If the pragmatists can sway the undecided with their caucus night arguments, Biden will probably eke out a narrow victory. If Klobuchar, Yang and other more moderate candidates fail to meet the requisite 15% support threshold to be viable at individual caucus sites, their voters may trot over to the Biden camp and push him over the top. Warren has a strong ground game and could still surprise. But no matter what, the top four contenders—and maybe Klobuchar, too—should emerge from Iowa with their hopes intact.

Then comes New Hampshire, in Bernie's backyard, and it will be a shocker if he doesn't win there. Then Nevada, where there's been much less polling, but it appears to be a Biden-Sanders dogfight, though Sanders may be pulling away. Then South Carolina, where Biden's deep support among African American voters gives him a significant advantage, although if Sanders sweeps Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, his momentum may help him close the gap. Warren has built a deeper field operation in more states than most of the others, so even if she fails to win any of these early contests, she's likely to hang on through Super Tuesday and try to accrue delegates.

Add this all up, and 2020 looks a lot like 2016: it's a battle (again) for the soul of the Democratic Party, between the progressive wing, eventually led once again by Bernie Sanders, and the moderate, centrist, Clinton-Obama wing, led this time by Joe Biden instead of Hillary Clinton. Sanders has an edge in that the progressive vote is split mostly between him and Warren, while the moderates are splintered among Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Yang, Bloomberg and Steyer. So as long as that's true, Sanders may become the perceived frontrunner, with all the momentum that brings.

But once the field starts to narrow, the moderates are likely to coalesce around Biden. Even though Bloomberg is bankrolling a massive push in the Super Tuesday states, and racking up endorsements from big city mayors in places like California, it's hard to see him overtaking Biden, and even he admits that if his campaign falters, he will get in line behind Biden and spend whatever it takes to help him beat Trump. Sanders has a more fervent following, but as we've seen over and over again since 2016, it has its ceiling. Even combining the Sanders and Warren voters into one bloc probably isn't enough to beat Biden, if and when he's the last moderate standing.

Biden's Achilles heel is that fewer of his supporters are rabidly pro-Joe. They just want to beat Trump, they feel comfortable enough with him, and they're desperately afraid that Sanders or Warren (or Buttigieg) will lose in November. So there's this perceived electability advantage for Biden, which may or may not be based on anything more real than polls, which is a pretty slim reed on which to hang hope. They're not that crazy about Uncle Joe, many think he's too old, too male and too white, and too given to missteps and malaprops, but they think he's their best, if not only, hope. He's the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the 2020 Democratic field.

Sanders, meanwhile, has a zealous base of younger voters who believe he will upend the establishment like no one before him, but there don't seem to be as many Bernie true believers as there are we-must-stop-Trump-no-matter-what-and-Biden-is-our-best-bet voters. This primary electorate seems motivated by fear and anxiety, more than anything else. They are afraid the Democrats will blow it, and they are terrified of four more years of Trump.

That's why I think, in the end, more Democrats will come home to Biden and play what they think is the safe hand, than will take a chance on an admitted "Democratic Socialist" who wants to do away with their private health insurance (anathema and a dealbreaker to many mainstream Democrats, which has cost Warren some support). The corporate core of the Democratic Party will go all out to keep Sanders from being their nominee, and the vanquished moderates will quickly fall in line behind Biden. It will be another long, protracted fight. It may well go all the way to the convention in Milwaukee in July. Sanders could well enter the DNC with more delegates than Biden, but I think Biden will end up at the top of the ticket (I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a Biden-Klobuchar ticket, even though a Biden-Kamala Harris pairing is trendier at the moment). Bernie could still pull this out. He could win decisively in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and carry that momentum into the ensuing states. He could win California, the biggest Super Tuesday prize, in a landslide. He could make his nomination seem inevitable—which I think would just drive the party's mainstream leadership into more of a panic, fueling an Oh-My-God-It's-George-McGovern-All-Over-Again angst. But the powers that be in the Democratic Party will stop at nothing to keep Bernie from topping their ticket, and those are powerful forces—a force that I think is with Joe Biden. By default, then, Biden, not Sanders, not Warren, not Buttigieg, not Bloomberg, will be the Democratic nominee and face President Trump in November.

There you have it: Biden vs. Trump. Not exactly out on a limb. Possibly completely wrong. Feel free to check back in November and bombard me with ridicule when it's Warren vs. Pence.


sue granzella said...

I'm new to Sovern Nation! I appreciate the break-down that is so clear for people like me who can get lost in political minutia.

Unknown said...

Great analysis, Doug. I, too, am floundering in terms of understanding of how this could all go down. Not thrilled about another aging white guy president, but as the bumper sticker says: ANY SENTIENT ADULT IN 2020.

Rebecca Grove said...

Amazing. Thank you for sharing your superb insight, Doug. It helps a lot.