There is no way to “know” who will win the Democratic nomination next year. There are simply too many candidates, and hence variables, to accurately handicap the nomination battle. However, we can parse the strategic choices made by the candidates in order to understand the state of play heading into the first voting seven weeks from now.
Let’s start with some hard political arithmetic. There is not a “woke” majority reflecting a progressive ascendancy in Democratic primaries. The pure-progressive strain in Democratic contests has grown over a decade and a half from a 30 percent share to a 35 percent share of the total vote cast in most large state Democratic primaries and to a 45 percent to a 50 percent share in caucuses and smaller rural state primaries.
The majority of the Democrats’ primary electorate in the overwhelming majority of states still falls within an iron triangle comprised of: minority voters (especially minority women), white ethnic voters (mostly White Catholic and Jewish), and highly educated professional white women in the metropolitan clusters.
In terms of ideology, the voters within this iron triangle are overwhelmingly traditional liberals and moderates, with a 10 percent sliver who are self-described conservatives. The voters within this iron triangle are also more familiar with Geritol than Snapchat, reflecting the reality that the divide within the Democratic primary electorate is based more on culture than issues.
Consider that in the major statewide Democratic primaries since 2016, the most progressive candidate did not win in the gubernatorial races in Virginia or New Jersey (2017), nor in Michigan, Rhode Island, or New York (in 2018). The most progressive candidates typically lost by large margins. In addition, the most progressive candidate lost Democratic primaries by landslide margins in last year’s U.S. Senate primaries in California and Delaware.
This is not meant as an attack on progressive candidates, but rather a cautionary check on the current conventional wisdom: Progressives are ascending, but they are not yet the majority of Democratic primary voters.
With that in mind, let’s assess the strategic choices the the presidential candidates have made so far.
Elizabeth Warren opted for an early strike strategy. She has invested her time and resources trying to win in Iowa and New Hampshire, in the hopes of building momentum to pull off a surprise victory in Nevada, which would allow her to absorb and move beyond a presumed Biden victory in South Carolina.
Warren needs to establish early momentum heading into Super Tuesday—on March 3, which is only 11 weeks from now—when more than a third of all the Democrats’ pledged delegates will be selected.
Realistically, this was path Warren had to take.
Warren and Bernie Sanders dominate different ends of the progressive base: Warren does better with highly-educated, older, and often affluent progressives, especially women; Sanders’ strength is among younger and more blue collar progressives, especially men. A progressive candidate can’t win the nomination without first consolidating these two groups, which means that Warren had to figure out a way to deal with Sanders.
When it became clear that she could not shove him aside during the invisible primary—his base of voters is quite committed—she realized that she had to vault over him in the early states in the hope that momentum would enable her to crack into the majority of primary voters who fall within the iron triangle (first among traditional liberal and professional suburban women and ultimately minority voters) to defeat Biden.
Consequently, Warren has surely noted that while many Democratic candidates have won either Iowa or New Hampshire, before winning the nomination (e.g., Mondale, Dukakis, Obama, and Hillary Clinton), those winning both Iowa and New Hampshire have always become the nominee (Carter in 1976 and 1980, Gore in 2000, and Kerry in 2004).
This strategy was working for Warren, until it wasn’t.
Warren stumbled badly over Medicare for All and remains blocked by Sanders’ post-heart attack resurgence. And cascades can run in both directions. If Warren were to lose in Iowa, it makes it harder for her to win New Hampshire and much, much harder to win Nevada. She risks heading into Super Tuesday with negative momentum, which would leave her fighting at least a three-front—and perhaps a four-front—war against Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, and possibly even Bloomberg, as the field narrows heading into the major primary states in March (Michigan, Florida, Illinois, Arizona and Georgia) and April. Note that April 28 will be a second Super Tuesday, with New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Maryland holding primaries and allocating 663 delegates.
In sum: If Warren cannot win Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, she will not come out of Super Tuesday with the clear lead among pledged delegates and hence, she will not be likely to win the nomination.
Bernie Sanders seems prepared to slug it out, regardless of early losses, accumulating delegates and raising money all the way through to the convention, hoping to be the last candidate standing against Biden, Buttigieg, and/or Bloomberg.
Sanders, unlike Biden or Warren, remains a fundraising juggernaut, whether he is up or down in the polls. Sanders would be licking his chops if, late in the day, the contest settled into a de facto three way contest of him, Biden, and either Buttigieg or Bloomberg. He has a real chance to win with a field split along those lines.
That’s because Sanders sees potential victories in states such as Michigan, North Dakota, Washington state, and Wisconsin which could keep him buoyant until he can prevail decisively in the later primaries (April 28 and beyond).
Biden seems to believe that likeability, tied to electoral viability with primary voters, will enable his campaign to sustain early losses, so long as South Carolina remains his firewall. His great fear seems to be that Warren would win Iowa and New Hampshire and be ahead of him on delegates after Super Tuesday.
In a perfect world, Biden would like to beat expectations in Iowa, be part of the pack in New Hampshire, eke out a win in Nevada, and then break out with a big win in South Carolina heading into Super Tuesday. His strategy of electability necessitates that he leave Super Tuesday with a clear lead among pledged delegates.
In Biden’s roadmap, South Carolina paves the road toward uniting the minority vote with blue collar moderates and traditional liberal seniors—a coalition which could power him to victory in the key post Super Tuesday contests in March (Michigan, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Arizona, and Georgia). Which, in turn, would position him to use the April 28th states (centered round New York and Pennsylvania) to seal the deal.
Pete Buttigieg’s strategy is remarkably straight forward: Win in Iowa and then hope his momentum carries him to victory in New Hampshire (deflating Warren). From there, Buttigieg hopes that Bloomberg will drain Biden of delegates on Super Tuesday and beyond, so that, in March and April, Biden becomes stuck in a political ditch.
All along, Buttigieg has sculpted a candidacy in the hope that he could draw simultaneously from both Biden (older white voters) and Warren (highly-educated progressives), should either candidate lag or leave the race.
Mayor Pete is also drawing some hope from the Obama 2008 campaign. Remember that Obama was lagging among African-Americans until he won Iowa, after which black voters rallied to him and powered him to the nomination.
Buttigieg hopes to see something similar with young voters. Today, young voters are mostly with Sanders, but Buttigieg hopes that winning in Iowa would unlock them and, when the 37-year-old candidate becomes viable, they will flock to him.
The final piece of the puzzle for Buttigieg is probably one where the contest ultimately comes down to him versus Bloomberg, allowing the current mayor of South Bend to appear more acceptable to minority and progressive voters than the former mayor of New York.
Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy is like the classic soufflé in a French restaurant: It will either rise or collapse—it will not remain flat.
I understand all the presumed reasons to believe that Bloomberg cannot prevail in this race: He is unable to win Democratic hearts; he is weak with minority voters; he has a jagged tongue.
But I can also see a scenario where Bloomberg’s message—his governing record as mayor, his bold approach on guns and climate change, his record as a businessman and philanthropist—backed by huge resources, resonates with enough primary voters to derail Biden and then project Bloomberg as the Democrat best able to defeat Trump.
For Bloomberg, even more than Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Warren, it really matters who he matches up against down the stretch.
Bloomberg loses if it ends up being him versus Biden, because both minorities and Bernie’s blue-collar progressives would in that case probably side with Biden.
And Bloomberg might not match up well against Buttigieg, either.
But he could fare quite well against Sanders or Warren, if his polling against Trump shows him as the most electable option for the general.
For Bloomberg’s soufflé to rise, three things must occur:
- There are three separate winners from the first four contests.
- Bloomberg emerges as the leader among pledged delegates coming out of Super Tuesday.
- Bloomberg consistently polls as the strongest candidate in the general election against Trump once the primary race heads into the home stretch.
For all three of these political factors to align is the political equivalent of a perfect storm. That perfect storm is unlikely, but not impossible.
Finally, we discount the potential for candidates such as Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, or Julian Castro to play significant roles in how the race unfolds.
One of them could catch a burst which takes down a front runner in an early state. For example, Klobuchar could steal some thunder and votes denying Buttigieg a victory in Iowa. Castro could become a wild card in Nevada, altering who wins the Silver state. Booker could surprise Buttigieg in Iowa and/or Biden in South Carolina. If lightning strikes with a victory for any of these candidates in the first four contests, that will upend the topography of the race.
Sometimes these things happen.
Henry Cabot Lodge had a write-in miracle among Republicans in New Hampshire in 1964. Gary Hart won a tomahawk victory in the Granite State in 1984. John Kerry came out of nowhere to win Iowa in 2004. And Hillarly Clinton came back from the dead to win New Hampshire in 2008.
History teaches hard lessons about late momentum surprises in the early states.
Meanwhile, the strategies are set.
Warren and Buttigieg are seeking to play the early hares who morph into late stage stallions.
Bernie is content to play the early hedgehog who prevails in the end.
Biden seeks victory as the little engine that could.
And Bloomberg wants to be Lucy pulling away the football away from a field full of Charlie Browns before running for the touchdown himself.
You can see how any one of these candidates could win the nomination, but (with the exception of Sanders) you can also see how any of them could be out of the race before mid-April.
In the end, the nominee will be the woman or man who best handles the advantages attending the events which capture the voter’s imagination, amidst the swirling factors surrounding impeachment, climate events, the economy, health care, immigration and potential foreign controversies and crises.
From where we are today, we can’t know who that will be. But in retrospect it will be clear that the Democratic nominee’s strategic choices were those best tapered to the events that ultimately drove public opinion.
Looking back, some people might say that the winner got lucky. However, I always thought Branch Rickey said it best: “Luck is the residue of design.”