I should state upfront: I have a tremendous record for accurate predictions.
The majority of Democratic voters (76 percent) believe electability is most important when considering their presidential candidate for 2020 and that belief hangs over the field when voters consider any candidate not named Joe Biden. Americans are right to recognize this next election as paramount to the future of our country, and they’re hesitant to embrace a more “exciting” candidate when so much is at stake. At the same time, the public’s collective trauma felt by Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign still affects Democrats today (even in the face of arguments suggesting Comey’s letter, the Electoral College and television media markets did more to swing the election than her candidacy). Democrats don’t need to be told twice the safest pick isn’t always the best. This has created a first-mover problem for 2020 — voters don’t want to break from the candidate they believe is most electable because it could weaken the Democratic argument against President Donald Trump. Even with that concern, the data does not suggest Democratic voters are totally sold on the candidacy of Vice President Joe Biden. He clearly has a base that remains at a solid 30 percent regardless of new candidates in the field, or criticisms leveled at Biden, but his lack of growth suggests the majority want another option and they’re waiting to see what alternative gets presented.
The question shifts from who do Democrats support most, to who will drop out first? The strongest argument for Biden is his electability, but any candidate that survives the onslaught of a field with 20+ candidates inherently proves their electability. As the field winnows to a handful of candidates, voters may be more willing to embrace the policy differences between them. Viewing the Democratic race in this context can be an illuminating exercise for predicting the final candidate. I think there’s ample data available to predict the order of candidates dropping out and I’ve outlined my thoughts below. While the predictions themselves may prove to be inaccurate, I believe the reasons motivating these predictions will prove to be true to some extent. I want to end this article with a Top 10 list, but first we should weed out two groups of candidates who generically will not make it to the end.
Group 1: “Biden will drop out and I will become the moderate front runner”
Senator Michael Bennet, Governor Steve Bullock, Congressman John Delany, Governor John Hickenlooper, Congressman Seth Moulton, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, and Congressman Tim Ryan.
We should give Hillary Clinton credit for her total domination over the Democratic Party in 2016. Ok, that statement may draw the ire of many people who believe Clinton gained that support through undemocratic means and tactics similar to corrupt backroom deals, but the point remains the same. Joe Biden does not have the same command over the Democratic Party as Clinton did in 2016. He’s a front runner, but a weaker front runner. Other politicians have smelled blood in the water and believe they can run a campaign that replaces Biden as the moderate alternative for Democrats not convinced by the progressive wing of the party.
Unfortunately for all of these ambitious politicians, Biden’s support has shown resilience in the face of criticism. After a full media cycle about Biden’s history of invading women’s personal space, Biden released a non-apology stating he would recognize the world has changed and adapt his habits appropriately. He was criticized for the response, but his support did not falter.
After Senator Kamala Harris confronted Biden on his history of supporting policies out of vogue in modern America, many media outlets considered it a watershed moment for Biden’s inevitable downfall. This was an exciting narrative, but polling of each candidate before and after the first debates, revealed Biden’s support remained mostly the same. Although Harris — and virtually all candidates who are lesser known — received bump ups in their favorability numbers, Biden’s support did not falter.
Many politicians are running with the theory that Biden’s appeal has more to do with his moderate views rather than his personal candidacy. This theory is based on the belief that moderate voters would just as likely vote for another moderate candidate should Biden drop out of the race. So far, that theory hasn’t been proven. Moderate voters have now seen a plethora of moderate candidates, including Former Congressman John Delaney, Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke — all of whom had decent debate performances or relatively high media coverage. Despite the exposure to moderate alternatives, Biden’s support has not faltered.
The “Biden will drop out” theory does not seem to be based in reality. Biden voters have been undeterred by the criticism leveled against him so far — as indicated by his consistent polling numbers even after two large-scale attacks against his candidacy. More importantly, when Biden voters are polled about their second-choice candidate, a plurality choose progressive candidates — not moderates. The latest numbers on Morning Consult show among Biden voters, 27 percent would support Senator Bernie Sanders, 19 percent would support Harris and 16 percent would support Senator Elizabeth Warren. Collectively, that makes 62 percent of Biden’s base willing to back a progressive candidate. Only a minority of Biden voters would support more moderate candidates as their second-choice such as O’Rourke or Senator Amy Klobuchar.
It is worth mentioning voters for Sanders, Harris and Warren have symmetrical second-choice polling. For example, Warren voters’ second-choice preferences are Harris, Sanders and Biden; Harris voters’ second-choice preferences are Biden, Warren, Sanders; and Sanders voters’ second-choice preferences are Biden, Warren and Harris. These voters are defining “electability” by a candidate’s current position in the polls — not by their more moderate policies.
All of this is to say every candidate in this group has launched a campaign based on a false premise. None of them will be preferred by Biden voters if he drops out. Biden voters prefer another front runner since they’re viewed as more electable. That will be proven in time. Along the way we’ll see the candidates in this group fail to gain any traction and eventually run out of money. With that in mind, a candidate’s burn rate of their accrued funding may be the best indicator of who drops out first (which would indicate Hickenlooper, Delany, Congressman Seth Moulton and Congressman Tim Ryan will be the first ones to drop out) but this is assuming a level of reasoning and logic that seems to be absent from their campaigns. They may pull a Kasich and stick around far past their viability simply because they’re kind of dumb — which also makes it difficult to predict who drops out when. Either way, my guess is all of these candidates will bow out before anyone in our next group.
Group 2: “I’m not actually running for president.”
It’s very difficult to predict when someone is going to drop out of a race they have no intention of winning. Consider Sanders’ candidacy in 2016, when the primaries concluded but he refused to concede. He stayed in the race because 1) he was playing the long-game and 2) he wanted to use his position to affect the Democratic Party and change the system. Both of these goals were accomplished by Sanders, eventually. In 2019, the Democratic Party’s signature issues mirror Sanders’ 2016 platform: Medicare for all, ending forever wars, and breaking up major corporations. He also accomplished diluting the importance of superdelegates for the Democratic primary process. It was only after the party agreed to his demands that he “officially” dropped out of the race, even though every primary had concluded and Clinton was the clear winner. Sanders achieved his goals, but it’d be a fool’s errand to grade him based on the rules of a game he was never playing. Sanders may be in it to win this time around, but many other candidates are not. They all have their own reasons and I want to break those down:
Bill de Blasio
Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio is partaking in the timeless tradition of “running to raise your national profile.” As it stands, de Blasio is not very popular in New York City. He holds a 42 percent job approval rating, but the racial demographic breakdown reveals why he isn’t dead on arrival. De Blasio’s approval rating among black voters is 66 percent, Hispanic voters 40 percent, and it’s only when you get to white voters do you have a majority disapproval (58 percent). It’s also worth noting that de Blasio’s main opposition are voters who believe he has been too harsh on New York’s Police Department — a faction that skews white — but is unlikely to cause a hitch for the national Democratic platform.
The takeaway from these numbers suggest that de Blasio may not be overwhelmingly popular in New York City, but he may be more popular on a national stage — or even a regional one. If more voters become aware of his policies, he could set himself up nicely for a run at Governor of New York or attract enough attention for a Vice President pick (which would open New York City to a mayoral election, but wouldn’t harm Democrats’ resources for keeping the house and retaking the senate). It seems like de Blasio may find more success outside of his claim to fame. This gambit may prove to be beneficial for his political career, and maybe for New Yorkers as well. Although part of me can’t shake the feeling that de Blasio is delusional enough to think he can win.
Hawaii Congressman Tulsi Gabbard is running for Secretary of State to directly implement her views on foreign policy. Her signature issues are all about foreign policy. It’s the only thing she talks about when granted interviews or given speaking time in debates. She focuses on her background as a military veteran, and her multiethnic background — as well as her transformation from social conservative to progressive — suggests she could build relationships with countries that lack the United States’ modern values. Gabbard was actually rumored as one of the top candidates for Secretary of State in the Trump administration. Of course, the most notable news story from that rumor was when she was endorsed by none other than David Duke — the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke allegedly endorsed Gabbard’s presidential candidacy, although he denies that reporting and Gabbard has denounced his endorsement.
The Duke endorsement is emblematic of the main controversy of Gabbard’s candidacy. She is not a crazy person — although feature pieces from the New Yorker relying on religious bigotry will attempt to portray her as such — but she has a knack for drawing support from crazy people. In February, just before her announcement, NBC reported Gabbard’s campaign had attracted the attention of pro-Russia propaganda sites (which Gabbard claimed is inaccurate). In May, The Daily Beast uncovered the names of high-profile Putin supporters who had donated to her campaign.
There are pundits who have suggested Gabbard is “Russia’s candidate,” and some extremists have suggested she may be literally conspiring with Russia. I don’t think either of these assessments are fair. A candidate who gains the support of specific faction does not mean that candidate is working for that faction. Consider President Barack Obama was enthusiastically endorsed by Louis Farrakhan, a noted Black Separatist and general crazy person, who shares nothing in common with Obama’s political views. Gabbard is a politician who believes in non-interventionism, which unsurprisingly gains the support of people who believe some of the United States interventions in the past have been inappropriate. That may be motivated by generic hippies singing Kumbaya, or it may be motivated by bad actors who want to parade around the world without fear of retribution. Distinguishing between the two may be an argument for a later day. For now, it’s what defines Gabbard’s candidacy, pigeonholing her as a single-issue candidate. Given her overall goal, it might be a good thing if her name becomes synonymous with foreign policy when cabinet positions are considered by the eventual nominee.
When you hand your political campaign over to a duo of teenagers making sick memes, it’s pretty clear you’re not a serious candidate. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel’s candidacy (or perhaps, these teenagers’ candidacy) is focused on beating up moderate candidates in service of the Democratic Party’s future. They’ve said as much quite explicitly when Gravel’s account tweeted: “we don’t expect Mike to win the presidency in 2020, but we do expect his ideas to win the future.” Like Sanders in 2016, the Gravel campaign is playing the long-game and could very well stick around until November 2020 just to keep trolling the candidates.
Gravel should be commended for using his platform to boost younger voices who will likely sway the future of our politics more than many of the other candidates mentioned so far. His campaign twitter has repeatedly expressed admiration for so-called “joke” candidates for bringing new ideas to the party. If nothing else, he’s introduced a new type of rhetoric to these debates which may end up devastating our public discourse but for now it is incredibly funny.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced his presidential campaign in March with a video entirely focused on combating climate change. As Inslee states in the video, “we’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and the last one that can do something about it.” He feels very strongly about the issue, enough to waste a bunch of time and money to spotlight it on the national stage.
While Democrats generally agree climate change is an important issue, none of them (outside of Inslee) have made it their signature issue. This is for good reason. Americans polled in January 2019 ranked climate change 17th in their top priorities. Only 44 percent of Americans believe climate change should be a top priority — compared to the economy (70 percent), health care costs (69 percent), education (68 percent) and 14 other issues. Climate change isn’t a topic that wins elections — or primaries — but Inslee probably knows that.
Inslee may feel strongly about climate change, but he also floated the idea of running for a third term as Governor. Washington’s gubernatorial election coincides with the 2020 presidential election, so he has a high incentive to get out of the race for president, and focus on the campaign in his home state.
Pour one out for Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s campaign for president — one of the fallen Democratic stars lost in the gravity of Clinton’s black hole presidential campaign. Klobuchar has been a popular senator since she won her first election in 2006. She continued to win by a comfortable margin in 2012 (and later 2018), which made her a bit of a rising star in the party. Prior to Clinton’s ascension, Klobuchar was frequently listed as an attractive candidate who could pull progressive city dwellers and rural voters. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Klobuchar took the diplomatic road and got in line for 2016 by endorsing Clinton.
Now her moment has passed, and the novelty factor has moved onto other candidates. Klobuchar is in a position where she has to fight to stay relevant in the field, but that’s difficult to do when 1) she is a woman, who statistically do poorly in public favorability when they adopt an aggressive tone and 2) she suffered through an entire news cycle suggesting she is an abusive boss. It’s difficult to fight from behind when fighting at all reinforces the biggest criticism against you.
The stars could have aligned differently for Klobuchar, and in an alternate universe she may be an exciting moderate front runner behind Joe Biden, but we don’t live in that world. Instead, Klobuchar has shown awareness of her position and refused to attack other candidates even when asked directly. This is because she doesn’t want to burn bridges with the eventual nominee, who would see Klobuchar is easily one of the most attractive Vice Presidential candidates in the field. She has over a decade in legislative experience, serves as senator in a blue state (where her position would be appointed by a Democratic governor if she were to leave for the executive branch), she attracts moderates and progressives, and is one of the few women qualified for the position.
If Klobuchar was in it to win the nomination, she’d take a gamble on making more aggressive moves, but it looks like she’s on stage to make friends and raise her national profile.
Believe it or not, this is not the first time author and self-help guru Marianne Williamson has run for public office. In 2014, she took a chance at California’s 33rd congressional district to unseat Ted Lieu, citing her concerns for the country’s shrinking civil liberties and expanding corporate influence. She may have been disappointed by her fourth place finish, but I’m sure she’s relieved to see Ted Lieu has become one of Trump’s most vocal critics. Maybe she’ll score a similar victory with her national presence.
Williamson has proven she speaks differently from ordinary politicians. She’s not concerned with policy, or even messaging, but rather “healing the soul of America.” Her website even says in large letters “the issues aren’t always the issue.” Her candidacy is more about a vague feeling of what politics could be, rather than any concrete policies for what it should be.
As much as I appreciate Williamson’s honesty in debates, and her spirited public speaking that rivals the shōnen anime, she is the definition of a joke candidate. Good on her for milking it, but she likely won’t make the third debates and her performance in the most recent debate will prove to be her season finale.
With those two groups out of the way, we have ten remaining candidates in the race. I believe these final candidates will drop out primarily because of three factors: size of their base, money available, and concern for other elections. Here’s who I think would drop out first, ending with the Democrats eventual nominee:
10. Kirsten Gillibrand
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign is based on the false premise that women vote as a “bloc.” If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, there is convincing evidence that some demographics vote together reliably. An easy example is political party demographics. Believe it or not, people who self-identify as Democrats tend to vote for Democrats. This can also be true for racial demographics. Most famously, the “black vote” was dominated by Barack Obama for both of his elections and is often cited as the bedrock of his base. With the rise of identity politics, and the fervor to elect a woman to President of the United States, Gillibrand made the calculation that she could use her identity to create a voter base of women. Except, women have never voted as a bloc. No matter how many times Gillibrand mentions her mother, grandmother, or wears pink, she is not specifically gaining traction from women voters, because she is not generally gaining traction from any voters.
Gillibrand’s execution of how to appeal to women voters is likely the cause of her under-performance in the Democratic race. She believed the election of 2016 fundamentally altered the nature of modern day politics, and signaled the beginning of a new era with new leaders. With this theory in mind, Gillibrand saw her connection to the Clinton family as a liability and not only denounced their endorsement but went on the offensive against President Bill Clinton. She was no longer “the Clinton’s candidate,” she was now her own woman, and sought to redefine herself as the champion of #MeToo. Gillibrand quickly became the main voice of the movement on Capitol Hill and sought the resignation of Minnesota Senator Al Franken following allegations of sexual misconduct. She executed the strategy of her rebranding successfully and has been paying the price ever since.
It turns out both voters and financial backers don’t like it when a potential presidential candidate cannibalizes their own party. The public was quick to support the spirit of #MeToo, but it has become increasingly more skeptical of politicians championing the cause. People are capable of discerning genuine activism from calculated ulterior motives and Gillibrand is ending up on the wrong side of that analysis. This point was made by Joe Biden in CNN’s debate, when he said Gillibrand has been a lifelong supporter of his policies but she’s criticizing him because “you’re now running for President.”
If all of that wasn’t bad enough, the New Yorker released a lengthy dive into Franken’s resignation which ultimately exonerates the former senator. Voters should read the entire article, but a key data point is every politician who called for Franken’s resignation said they now regret their action. All of them… except for Gillibrand.
Unfortunately for her presidential ambitions, women do not vote as a bloc, and regular voters aren’t so stupid they can’t see the Machiavellian plot she’s architecting. She has no base, no funding, plenty of criticisms available against her candidacy, and she’s unlikely to make it to the September / October debates. I would not be surprised if she drops out within a month’s time.
9. Cory Booker
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is a black politician who polls in the single digits among black voters. He’s losing those voters to Biden (roughly 50 percent) followed only by “undecided” (26 percent). Among establishment support, the Congressional Black Caucus has thrown their weight behind Harris — not Booker. Booker has no hold over the “black vote,” and given his rhetoric on uniting Americans with working across the aisle it is unlikely he will create any in-roads with that demographic.
Outside of the week he announced his campaign, Booker has never polled higher than 5 percent. This suggests he has as much public support as “longshot” candidates like Marianne Williamson or Andrew Yang — which isn’t a good position to be in when you’re a Senator with above average name recognition and four million followers on Twitter.
Why hasn’t Booker caught voters’ attention? It could be bad timing. Booker won his New Jersey senate election in 2014, two years before Sanders scorched the earth for politicians taking PAC money. Like many politicians before him, Booker’s campaign was funded by private interest groups, including pharmaceutical companies. Given that New Jersey is home to many American pharmaceutical companies, it made sense for Booker to seek the endorsement of his home state’s largest business community. Unfortunately, that reality has aged very poorly in our new world where individual donors reign king in Democratic politics.
Booker has presented himself as a progressive, but progressive voters are very skeptical of his ties to Big Pharma. It has a nasty habit of coming back around whenever Booker presents a nuanced view on health care issues. That issue may be compounded by Booker’s public speaking, which has been described as “inauthentic,” adding to concerns he’s just another politician bought by private interests.
(irrelevant personal anecdote: I saw Booker speak at Drew University when I was reporting in New Jersey. He was asked one question and spoke for 45 minutes straight — he did not answer the question)
Booker has swung hard into progressivism with his policies, so he can’t rebrand as a centrist — unlike someone like Beto O’Rourke — and has quickly found himself with no real support.
All of this looks pretty bad, but the main motivator behind an early Booker drop-out is he needs to run to keep his job. Booker is up for senate re-election in 2020 and he is already facing a Republican challenger whose entire campaign is centered on Booker’s missed obligations while running for President. An identical criticism was leveled against Governor Chris Christie when he ran for president in 2016 and floated to the lowest approval ratings in modern history. Unless Booker wants a similar spot in history, he’ll cut his losses sooner rather than later.
8. Julián Castro
Pour another one out for the political career of Former Secretary of Housing and Development Julián Castro, another fallen Democratic star lost in the gravity of Clinton’s black hole presidential campaign. Some of you reading this article may be thinking: “didn’t you already make that joke about Amy Klobuchar?” Well, this article is already over 4,000 words and I’m worried most of you haven’t read the whole thing. If you are one of those people skipping around: consider all the great jokes you’ve missed in previous sections that I couldn’t find a way to recycle throughout this final ten.
Castro had a high-profile in 2016 as a potential Vice President pick and shares a similar story to Klobuchar. He missed his moment. What made him exciting in the past — a young person with the credentials of an experienced politician — has not transitioned to what excites young Democrats today (big progressive ideas).
Castro doesn’t seem to be framing himself as “the candidate for Hispanic/Latino voters” but that doesn’t stop non-Hispanic/Latino voters from viewing him that way. It’s true that Hispanic/Latino voters do not vote as a bloc — and he undoubtedly knows that — but his focus on immigration may be limiting his appeal to other voters. His two moments of success in the debates — sparring with O’Rourke and hitting Biden with an effective one-liner — both relate to immigration. Castro’s focus on immigration may play to his experience as Mayor in San Antonio, his identity as a Mexican American, and emphasize one of the Trump administration’s biggest scandals — but it’s more likely to pigeonhole him as a one-issue candidate. It’s an issue that just barely the majority of Americans think should be a top concern (51 percent of Americans cited Immigration as a top concern, 9th overall).
It doesn’t look like Castro will be able to gain a foothold and launch into other policy points. The silver lining in all of this for Castro is he still looks like a good Vice President pick. He also has no other office to run for, but he runs the risk of not qualifying for the September/October debates and may call it quits.
7. Beto O’Rourke
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke shined in the national spotlight for being a relatively progressive candidate challenging Ted Cruz. For a moment it looked like he might enter Democratic hall of fame for unseating one of the most unpopular senators in history. Specifically, it was his ability to raise $80 million for his campaign in a state Democrats have long given-up on. Of course, O’Rourke lost that election, but that didn’t stop some people from citing Abraham Lincoln’s unsuccessful bid for senate prior to his successful bid for president.
As they say, “money talks,” and that was the headline of O’Rourke’s decision to run for president. He managed to raise $9.4 million for Q1 2019 — not quite as much as Sanders’ $18 million or Harris’ $12 million — but O’Rourke’s campaign had only been announced for 14 days by the end of the quarter which showed he raised half as much in a fourth of the amount of time. He benefited from tremendous press attention before announcing, including a documentary about his time on the road and some rosy features depicting him as a lost soul who finally found purpose in life.
What he hasn’t found is any success in his national campaign. Nate Silver put it best: O’Rourke doesn’t have a base. O’Rourke looked progressive next to Ted Cruz, but he looks like a deer in headlights next to real progressives. He has floundered in debates, relying on vague optimism that spoke a lot to dejected Texan Democrats, but says very little to skeptical national voters. O’Rourke has stumbled into the position of a centrist, which is slightly better than his internet reputation as a man with no strong position on anything. It seems like national Democrats are doing a double-take on O’Rourke and wondering what they saw in him in the first place. Was his senate campaign more about a hatred for Cruz? Or maybe big donors were looking for a rising star in the party that could make the case for centrism — the way Howard Schultz and others have hoped? It doesn’t look like either has panned out.
O’Rourke’s fundraising will allow him to limp far beyond his appeal, but even that revenue source is drying up quickly. Unfortunately for him, the extent of his campaign’s failure may scorch other opportunities that would have been open to him otherwise. He may be reluctant to admit he made a mistake in running for president and stick around while praying for a miracle.
6. Pete Buttigieg
At this point in the predictions, we need some chaos theory analysis of multiple “what if” situations playing out. If my predictions are accurate, then the campaigns of Gillibrand, Booker, Castro, O’Rourke and various novelty candidates (Inslee, Gabbard, Williamson, etc.) have all come to an end. The voters who supported those campaigns have to choose where to go next (or remain undecided). My analysis on what happens to those voters is the motivation for why I think Mayor of Sound Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg will drop out at this point in the race.
Buttigieg has mainly drawn tremendous support from white college-educated voters. His campaign raised more money than any other candidate in Q2 2019 . That sounds impressive on paper, but it hasn’t helped his polling (it’s almost as if white college educated voters disproportionately have the most expendable income to dump into presidential campaigns). Buttigieg peaked in April after a flurry of media coverage and has hovered around 5 percent since the first debate in June.
He’ll need to gain support from other demographics if he wants to be considered a true front runner, but that challenge will prove significantly more difficult for Buttigieg who is not only polling at literally 0 percent among black voters, but has multiple racially charged scandals from his time as Mayor of Sound Bend. What little support he had from the black community in South Bend has leaked away over his tenure as the city’s mayor. Buttigieg understands this weakness in his candidacy, and seems eager to address it, but it’s looking like an uphill battle.
Racial issues may provide a fitting answer to why Buttigieg is doing so poorly among minorities, but there may be another elephant in the room: his sexuality. The liberal world may have moved passed gay marriage and homophobia in an unprecedented amount of time, but the rest of the world has not. There are a litany of personal accounts echoing the high levels of homophobia in black communities. In fact, Black voter turnout was literally part of the Republican strategy to suppress gay marriage ballot measures. Even in blue states, as recently as 2018, roughly 39 percent of black voters opposed gay marriage. Democrats may be willing to vote for a black man, a woman, or a non-Christian, but they aren’t quite there yet for other minority identities. It is unlikely Buttigieg will be the candidate to win hearts and minds in this community, when he’s already juggling legitimate racial concerns from his past.
Beyond these concerns, I have to consider what voters are available to Buttigieg at this point in the race. Gillibrand, Booker and Castro are all minority candidates with voters who are focused on minority issues (women’s rights, racial inequality, and immigration). Who are they going to flock to when their first-choice candidate drops out? I’m guessing it won’t be the Ivy League, Rhodes Scholar, with a troubling past involving police brutality and racial tension.
Buttigieg may have the fundraising to support an extended run once he’s no longer Mayor of South Bend in November 2019, but more so than the other remaining candidates, he is at risk of feeling his support stagnate while others grow their base. He also has an incentive not to stick around. At 37 years old, this certainly is not the last we’ll see of Buttigieg on the national stage. He may be wary not to tarnish the status he has earned as an underdog candidate who vastly exceeded expectations. Better to leave them wanting more than wishing you were gone.
5. Kamala Harris
California voters (including myself, circa 2016) were pissed that their influence on the election was diminished by Democratic Party rules. Not only did Californians have to wait until June for their primary — despite being the most populous state in the country — but they were burned again when the state’s voter turnout handed Clinton the popular vote only for her to lose anyway. Action was taken, and California was moved up in the queue for 2020’s primaries. This creates an advantage for California Senator Kamala Harris, who seems content to play the long game for this election cycle; not that she’s given any indication that the long game needs to played patiently.
Harris was the story of the first debate. She seemed to take the mantle of Biden’s executioner — dispensing of an old man who couldn’t hang with modern day progressivism. The media was eager for that narrative before Harris stepped into the spotlight. Her name seemed to fit all the ad lib blank spots pundits needed to craft a compelling story. She’s a freshman senator from a progressive state, an accomplished prosecutor for multiple decades, an attorney general for the second largest judicial system in the country, and comes from an immigrant family. She’s one of the most accomplished female politicians in the country with some amount of legislative, judicial and executive experience across her multi-decade career. Not to mention, she’s an effective debater who’s media savvy and politically pragmatic. She looked like the perfect foil to Biden during the first debate where she usurped Booker’s criticism of Biden and used her own identity to suggest Biden’s candidacy is inappropriate in the modern era.
But her time in the limelight revealed all the ugly criticisms hiding behind the curtain. Harris presented herself as an identity conscious progressive, but her history as a prosecutor is incompatible with that pitch. Tulsi Gabbard focused on some of Harris’ most dubious accomplishments, including jailing thousands of low-level drug offenders. I’m actually working on another article that goes through all of horrible things Harris has done, but a briefer version would include her smattering of copycat bills, her inauthenticity, her authoritarian policy suggestions, and that absurd student debt bill that’s earned widespread ridicule.
Even with those criticisms at hand, Harris has proven she can garner some support from voters and establishment Democrats, as well as maintain media attention throughout the debate phase of the election. With California so early in the primaries, it may be worth it for her to stick it out until her home state’s vote. Unlike other candidates, Harris doesn’t have another election to worry about, but she may want to take a moment to reflect on why she isn’t doing better in California-specific polling. It could be an indication that her controversial career as a prosecutor has created a “low ceiling” for her support, although it may take time to discern if that is truly the case.
4. Bernie Sanders
One of the reasons this race is difficult to predict is because Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders doesn’t look like he has a clear path to the nomination or any intention of resigning to that reality. Analysis from FiveThirtyEight shows that roughly 25 percent of Sanders voters in 2016 never voted for Hillary Clinton (choosing to vote for Trump or third party candidates in the general election). This suggests a quarter of his base was motivated by opposing Clinton, rather than supporting Sanders. Off of this analysis, you can assume Sanders’ support — which again, wasn’t enough to win the nomination in 2016 — is already significantly diminished. On top of that, Sanders is in a field with more progressive candidates. No longer is he the sole option for ideas like Medicare for All or raising the minimum wage. Warren, Harris and even Buttigieg (to some extent) serve as conduits for those ideas as well.
Not that any of that matters, because Sanders has shown himself to be incredibly stubborn when it comes to folding to other people’s demands (need I recycle the fact he refused to concede the democratic nomination even after all the primaries concluded and he clearly lost?). His stubbornness in 2016 wasn’t just because he opposed Clinton’s campaign so adamantly, it’s been part of his personality for a long time. In May, the New York Times published a story about Sanders’ tenure as Mayor of Burlington. Local mayors tend to be tied up in mundane operational issues like road maintenance, property taxes or managing city recreational spaces. Mayor Sanders spent much of his time discussing foreign policy — specifically voicing his support for socialist regimes in Central and South America — he did this while Burlington residents came to public meetings to request street lights or right-hand turn lanes. He spoke about foreign policy so frequently, his own city council passed a resolution restricting council meetings to only discuss issues that directly related to city business. Sanders vetoed the resolution (one of the few times he used that power) and sent a lengthy message to the council repeating his talking points about foreign policy. This is not a man who responds well to being told what to do.
To his credit, Sanders had reason to believe he had a shot in 2016. His momentum was kept alive by a new surprise development every few weeks. He lost Iowa by only .2 percentage points, galvanizing his base into believing he could win the nomination and followed that up with a crushing victory in New Hampshire. Of course, Clinton swept him in several states for the following months, but then something would happen like his upset victory in Wisconsin that’d reset expectations and renew speculation on his chances.
Will the arithmetic of Sanders’ campaign change if he repeatedly loses primaries? For 2020, Iowa voters show a strong preference for Biden, followed by split support for Sanders and Warren. New Hampshire polls are more favorable to Sanders, but they’re just as favorable to Biden and Warren (and Harris). Sanders’ successfully capitalized on the identity of an oppositional candidate in 2016, but that doesn’t work as well when he’s in a three-way tie with two other oppositional candidates. It also doesn’t help that the establishment candidate (Biden) is tremendously more popular than his 2016 counterpart.
Sanders has the funding, voter base, and security to keep running as a factional presidential candidate for the rest of his life (whenever that may be). If he wants to parade around, fueled entirely by his own ego, he has no real reason to concede… unless he’s convinced his candidacy does a disservice to his own movement. To me, it appears that Warren has overtaken Sanders as the progressive darling of the party. She’s gained the reputation of a policy wonk (in a good way), she has establishment support, and her identity makes her a natural foil to Trump. Sanders maintains a multi-decade friendship with Warren, so it seems like if he’d be willing to concede to anyone — it would be her.
The fundamentals indicate Sanders’ support is diminished in this election cycle. Mostly because he is no longer running against Hillary Clinton, and because Warren and Harris provide options for progressive voters. Whether that’ll be enough to convince him to step aside is another question that can’t truly be answered until we arrive at that moment.
3. Joe Biden
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph to this piece (6,000 words ago), the majority of voters are concerned with “electability” when it comes to selecting the Democratic nominee. As the Former Vice President and heir-apparent to the most popular Democratic president in the past 60 years, Joe Biden seems like a natural fit for the majority of voters. Yet, even though 76 percent voters are concerned about electability, under 40 percent support Biden’s candidacy. What are those other 30 percent of voters thinking?
It may be worth considering that the Democratic Party has not had a referendum on its values since the rise of political engagement among millennials. Obama remains popular in his post-presidency across all generations, but was he truly representative of millennial voter preferences? Here’s an interesting data point: Obama is the only two-term President in the past 200 years of American history to receive fewer votes in his re-election (the other President was George Washington, who miraculously received more votes in the country’s first election ever then in his re-election). Was Obama’s re-election less successful because of tea party mobilization and continued economic woes, or was it the beginning of a tide shift in the Democratic base?
Biden — like Obama — is a classic Democrat, who supports liberal policies but can square his idealism with practicality. That approach was essential for Hillary Clinton, but Clinton turned out fewer millennial voters than Obama. Many veteran Democrats argue more left-leaning candidates have always lost their elections (Gore, Dukakis and Mondale), but that wisdom ignores the fact that millennials are significantly more liberal than prior generations. These are voters who not only support further left policies, but their entire community and network support further left policies. These are the same voters who turned out for Clinton and watched the country get handed over to Trump’s far-right campaign. To this generation, the centrists seem more impractical than the idealists.
So yes, over 70 percent of voters care about selecting a candidate who is “electable,” but the party is divided on what that means. In fact, some pundits have argued “electability” is historically a loaded term for “straight white male,” but that may be changing for younger generations who view it more as a candidate with bold ideas that can mobilize disenfranchised voters. An “electable” candidate for younger voters could look like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over former Congressman Joe Crowley, which was primarily achieved by targeting citizens who had not voted in previous elections. Of course, that race was two democrats facing each other.
As the saying goes, “Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love,” and younger voters have little reason to fall in love with a centrist candidate even if the generic voter agrees with Biden’s policies. The party maintains skepticism of the progressive wing’s appeal, but who will the voters of Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg flock to after their first candidate drops out? We already know the answer to that question: their second-choice is Elizabeth Warren. If the Ocasio-Cortez’s strategy of appealing to progressives is valid, then we don’t truly know the “ceiling” of Warren’s support. Especially since she has framed herself as being a continuation of Obama’s idealism, which could attract moderate voters who remain content with Obama’s legacy, without sacrificing younger voters who want a more exciting candidate than a man who’s been in office for half a century.
If Biden’s two biggest strengths are a vague sense of “electability” and his proximity to Obama, do those strengths still hold if he’s facing another candidate with competitive polling, comparable policies to Obama’s most popular ideas, and the potential of creating a historic moment by becoming the first woman elected as President of the United States? I doubt it.
2. Elizabeth Warren
You can keep scrolling to read my insane theory for an alternative top pick, but if you don’t want to subscribe to my propaganda then Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is effectively my prediction for the Democratic nominee.
Simply put, Warren has the most staying power of all the candidates. Her strong progressive base (she’s already competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire), support from establishment Democrats (third most diverse collection of endorsements behind Harris and Biden), and access to fundraising (third most, behind Sanders and Trump) will ensure she can stay in the race for a long time. As other progressive candidates drop out of the race, Warren is the most popular second-choice pick and she shares many of their donors. She’ll be in an excellent position to consolidate the field around her campaign.
On top of favorable fundamentals, Warren is an ideal candidate for today’s Democratic Party. She’s defeated a Republican incumbent (granted in a blue state), her time in the senate has been focused on the economy and health care reform (Americans’ two top issues), she’s one of the more popular senators in the country, and she was even a popular choice for president in 2016 before Clinton announced.
Warren has framed her campaign as a continuation of Obama’s idealism while other front runners (including Harris and Sanders) seem eager to criticize the most popular Democratic president in 60 years. This framing will satisfy Obama loyalists, while also appealing to the idealists of the party who may have some reservations about Obama’s moderate legacy. Even with that approach, she’s a strong contrast to the lofty idealism of Sanders that rarely affected policy. Her proposals are immensely detailed and she shows an understanding of newer problems that young voters are concerned about. Not to mention, she could recreate Obama’s 2008 historic election as the first woman to become President of the United States — but we said that about Clinton too.
There are a few criticisms of Warren waiting to be addressed. Her multi-decade identification with the Republican Party, her unproven views on foreign policy, and of course her Native American ancestry episode that Trump is keen to exploit. Fortunately for Warren, only one of these criticisms would ever be brought up in the Democratic primary: her prior identification as a Republican. However, considering Democrats want to appeal to Republicans, I can’t imagine this criticism will hold. In a general election, she may have to dedicate her time to expanding her foreign policy position or formulate a good line to deflect “Pocahontas” jokes, but luckily this article is only about the Democratic primary and not the general election :^).
I see her candidacy as the most solid of all the contenders, but I also personally hold Warren as my number two pick (just like many other Americans) so I could be biased. Of course, there is another candidate who could become the nominee…
1. Andrew Yang
What chance does Entrepreneur Andrew Yang have for the Democratic nomination? Let’s start by reiterating the three main reasons a candidate would drop out of the race: size of their base, fundraising available, and concern for other elections.
In virtually every poll that includes his name, Yang has polled at a minimum of 1 percent. That number has shown a very minor trend upwards where he is now averaging at 2 to 3 percent in the past two months. In #YangGang circles, the most common testimonial is either 1) I’ve never voted before but I support Andrew Yang or 2) I voted for Donald Trump but now I’m for Andrew Yang. This indicates Yang’s base is made up of disenfranchised voters and Republican voters, who are not at risk of being leeched by other candidates. Yang’s voters are turning out for him specifically. If he rises in the polls, he’s staying at that altitude (or rather, he has a “rising floor”).
Yang doesn’t have the impressive fundraising numbers of other front runner candidates, but he does have similar fundamentals to the most successful fundraising candidates. According to data pulled by the New York Times, Yang is just one of seven candidates who pulled donations from every state in the country. While some candidates have raised more money overall, they benefit from deep pockets in specific regions with very little support elsewhere (Booker, Klobuchar, Inslee, and Gillibrand). Yang also rivals Sanders in percentage of funds raised through small donors with both candidates sitting at 69.6 percent — beaten only by Castro and Williamson. These numbers suggest Yang has the interest of Americans across the country, even if they haven’t bought into his campaign’s viability just yet.
As for other elections? Take it from the man himself. He has no other position to run for and wants to see his campaign to the end.
The fundamentals look strong, but perhaps a more nebulous metric is Yang’s synthesis with the cultural consciousness. His focus on automation and artificial intelligence has captured the attention of Onion punchlines and memes alike. He maintains a policy to accept all media interviews possible, gaining the admiration of right-wing commentators, disengaged voters and progressive media. In interviews with traditional media, reporters seem genuinely fascinated by his platform and Yang has inspired hesitant excitement for his potential. So what’s holding everyone back?
At the beginning of this article (8,000 words ago), I said the 2020 Democratic Primary has a “first-mover” problem. Everyone is aware of the problem, but no one wants to take action first. Progressive Democrats are concerned Biden’s candidacy is too milquetoast to mobilize younger voters, but moderate Democrats are concerned progressivism will continue the party’s long history of throwing their weight behind candidates who campaign on unpopular policy positions.
The Atlantic noted after the second debate that the Democratic primary doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. With the exception of Warren’s consistent surge in the polls (which began before the debates), and O’Rourke’s decline into irrelevancy (also pre-dating the debates), there has been sparse movement with no progress. The front runners and longshots have stayed in exactly the same place. Progressivism can’t gain majority support and centrism doesn’t have a leader. What could resolve the deadlock?
Politico asked a similar question in May: Is Andrew Yang for Real?
Of Yang’s three main policies (Universal Basic Income, Medicare for All and the American Scorecard), all three of them correspond to Americans’ top priorities for 2019. It’s worth noting that the economy was still the number one concern in 2016 and voters believed Trump would address economic concerns more so than Clinton. Yang’s proposal for a universal basic income sounds like science fiction to the average American, but to the average science fiction reader it’s a relatively uncontroversial proposal. In fact, it’s already been trialed in countries like Canada and Finland (both trials were shut down by conservative opposition). Even before Yang’s candidacy emerged, nearly half of Americans supported the idea of universal basic income and after the second debate he received accolades from mainstream media and more widespread internet communities tired of the political process.
If Andrew Yang is for real, he’d have an unprecedented potential electorate for a Democratic candidate. His economic proposals would capture the attention of moderate rural democrats displaced by automation, and mobilize progressives who want to rebalance the economy to assist the middle class. You could argue Yang’s proposals are more left-leaning than the average Democratic nominee, but again young millennials are more liberal than ever before. If Yang captured the Democratic nomination he would be entering the general election with a Republican party that has actively disenfranchised its most loyal supporters. Yang has already proven his appeal among conservatives, which means he’s likely more “electable” than “safer” choices like Biden or Warren. A political platform that addresses the electorate’s top concerns with bipartisan support sounds pretty “real” to me.
The effectiveness of Yang’s platform is the only question left unanswered. It’s true that Yang’s candidacy and his policies are both untested political entities. He has never run for office before and universal basic income hasn’t been exposed to months of debate and oppositional propaganda. Some mainstream media and other candidates have dipped their toes in dismissing Yang’s flagship proposal, but there’s no clear data about the policy’s popularity in a post-Yang world. There’s also no clear indication of how universal basic income would affect the country’s economy (outside of a hypothetical study from the Roosevelt Institute with mixed conclusions). Yang certainly gives a great pitch and his website extensively answers some of the most obvious questions, but no one will truly know until it’s tried. If America were to adopt Yang’s Freedom Dividend, it’d be the largest implementation of the policy in history by several magnitudes and one of the greatest leaps of faith in human history.
I won’t dismiss the gravity of the situation. Yang’s platform could very well bankrupt the country. It could throw our society into a state that has more in common with depression-era Germany than modern day America, and serve as the gateway to the dystopian future we all fear. Then again, if Yang’s predictions about automation turn out true, the country could already be on the road to devastation. We’re ten years away from the elimination of 43 percent of jobs and no plan to structure society when half the population can’t work. If Yang is right, we’ll start to see that dark future beginning with the next recession, which is due any day now. The clearer that vision becomes, the more likely voters may consider his candidacy as the real deal.
Supporting Yang’s solutions for the incoming robot apocalypse might seem insane now, but that may be a good thing. Because if we get to the point where our country needs a savior, it may already be too late.