Editor’s note (January 13th): This piece was updated after Cory Booker ended his campaign to be the Democratic nominee.
ANYONE LOOKING for a horse race in the Democratic primary contest could find one. Last spring, Beto O’Rourke surged in popularity soon after he joined the field. Kamala Harris had a long moment in midsummer, followed by Elizabeth Warren’s autumnal rise and a more modest bump for Pete Buttigieg. As Ms Warren’s star has waned, Bernie Sanders’s has waxed, and may be doing so at the perfect time. Iowans caucus on February 3rd, and the latest Des Moines Register poll shows him leading the pack in their state. He has the backing of 20% of likely caucus-goers, followed by Ms Warren (17%), Mr Buttigieg (16%), Joe Biden (15%), “not sure” (11%) and several others in single digits.
But the most striking aspect of the Democratic contest, aside from the record number of candidates, has been its stability. Mr Biden began 2019 at 29%, according to our national poll average, around eight points ahead of Mr Sanders. He begins 2020 at 27%, nine points ahead of Mr Sanders. Although many believe his support is soft, nobody—except Ms Warren, briefly, in October—has seriously threatened his national lead. But his victory is far from a foregone conclusion. Once voting starts, the race becomes dynamic; each victory or loss affects the next contest. With the last debate before Iowa’s caucuses scheduled for January 14th, and contests every week until mid-April, here is where the race stands.
Start with Mr Biden, who is somehow at once everyone’s and no one’s favourite. His downsides are clear: as in his previous two abortive presidential runs, he is an unspectacular candidate, garrulous, rambling and uninspired. He does not inspire the passion that Mr Sanders and Ms Warren do. But he is also familiar, warm and great on a rope-line—better at connecting with individual voters than anyone except perhaps Ms Warren, whose retail-politics skills remain deeply underrated.
Unlike Ms Warren and Mr Sanders, who rail against a rigged system and offer voters something like a Trumpism of the left—in which all of their problems stem from greedy corporations and a wholly corrupt system, rather than immigrants and feckless elites—Mr Biden is optimistic. He believes that Republicans will moderate and grow eager for bipartisanship once Mr Trump is defeated; that seems far-fetched, but voters like to believe it is true. After four years of a presidency centred around partisan warfare and the demonisation of domestic opponents rather than governing, Mr Biden offers a kind and steady hand on the tiller. That may not satisfy lefty Twitter, but the Democratic primary electorate seems to like it.
The Des Moines Register poll may, paradoxically, be good for Mr Biden. He leads handily in the other two early-voting states—Nevada (February 22nd) and South Carolina (February 29th)—and in the two biggest Super Tuesday states, California (slightly) and Texas. The poll dampens expectations, and will let him absorb a lacklustre showing in Iowa, should that happen.
Although Mr Sanders must be pleased with the Register’s poll, its 4% margin of error means his lead is not statistically significant. Fortunately for him, the first survey taken this year in New Hampshire, which votes on February 11th, shows the big four closely clustered: Mr Buttigieg has a slight lead on 20%, followed by Mr Biden (19%), Mr Sanders (18%) and Ms Warren on 15%—though again, a 4.9% margin of error means that the four candidates are roughly tied. Mr Sanders is running close to Mr Biden in Nevada, the third state to vote. His dogged pursuit of Hillary Clinton in 2016 makes him a known quantity in a way that the other candidates are not.
He can draw huge, enthusiastic crowds and an impressive stream of online donations: in the last quarter of 2019, he raised more than $34.5m from 1.8m supporters who gave an average of $18 each. Over the whole year an astounding 5m people gave money to his campaign. He has attracted almost $43m from donors giving less than $200, compared with just $13.2m for Mr Biden. Except for the period of Ms Warren’s ascent, he has run steadily second to Mr Biden.
But the difference between first and second is the difference between winning and losing. Mr Biden enjoys a formidable lead among black voters, whether because of his long association with Barack Obama or the belief that it will take an old white man (and not one who honeymooned in the Soviet Union) to beat an old white man. In any event, for Mr Sanders to edge out the former vice-president, he will need to hope for a repeat of 2008, when black voters broke from Mrs Clinton to overwhelmingly support Mr Obama after he won Iowa. But even if Mr Sanders wins Iowa and ekes out a victory in New Hampshire, African-American voters are unlikely to flock to him to the same degree they did to Mr Obama.
But that may not be necessary. Should he outperform expectations and win Iowa and New Hampshire by surprisingly large margins, he could cut into Mr Biden’s support elsewhere and raise his delegate totals even without victory (Democratic rules award delegates to any candidate who wins more than 15% of a state’s vote). Of all the candidates, he seems to have the most ardent supporters—as anyone who has ever dared say anything slightly negative about him online knows—and the steady uptick of support in recent weeks suggests that his ceiling may not be as low as many suspected.
Ms Warren is the only candidate who has knocked Mr Biden off the lead nationally, but that was months ago and her fortunes have since declined. Though many believe she and Mr Sanders draw from the same pool of voters that is not quite right. Ms Warren does much better than Mr Sanders among college-educated white and Hispanic voters. She has a thoughtful, technocratic appeal that the shouty Mr Sanders lacks. As her support has fallen since last autumn, Mr Sanders’s numbers have risen, but so have Mr Buttigieg’s. This hints at both her strength and her weakness.
The strength is that her victory does not depend on another candidate completely cratering, as Mr Sanders’s does. At least theoretically, she can expand her base by picking off progressive voters wary of Mr Sanders’s tendency to shout at, complex problems, technocratically inclined voters backing Mr Buttigieg, and perhaps some soft supporters of Mr Biden as well. But that will depend on her outperforming expectations in the early states.
The trouble is that this is very hard to do. Candidates who have tried to straddle multiple lanes have not done well; Ms Harris, Mr O’Rourke and Kirsten Gillibrand are all out of the race. Ms Warren won no fans on the left by supporting the updated North American trade deal negotiated by Donald Trump and congressional Democrats. She won no fans among moderates with her support of Medicare for All. Her decision to run on wonky intelligence, and Having A Plan For That distinguishes her from the field, and especially from Mr Trump, who nearly started a war last week without any apparent planning.
But the last three Democrats to win the White House (Mr Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter) were all appealing but intentionally vague about policy, thus allowing the broadest possible swathe of voters to see what they wanted to see. Depressing as it is for policy junkies, optimistic vagueness may just be a better political strategy than releasing plan after plan, which ties a candidate to a position and gives opponents something substantive to attack.
As for Mr Buttigieg, he has already won a victory of sorts: the former mayor of South Bend has a future in national politics, and perhaps a cabinet position in the next Democratic administration, without having to win a state-wide race in Indiana (no easy feat for a gay Democrat). But a candidate stuck in the low single digits among black Democrats probably cannot win the party’s primary.
There are, of course, other candidates still in the race—12 in total. But for better or worse, it would take an extremely unlikely turn of events to make Amy Klobuchar or Michael Bloomberg the Democratic nominee. Cory Booker, the senator from New Jersey, withdrew from the race on January 13th. Looking past the individual candidates, Democrats are roughly evenly divided between supporting progressives (Mr Sanders and Ms Warren together are backed by 35%) and centrists (Messrs Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg combine for 38%).
The party endured a similar split in 2016, engendering ill will that lasted into the general election. For some, it has not dissipated; your correspondent has spoken with supporters of Ms Warren who still resent how Mr Sanders’s fans treated Mrs Clinton four years ago. If Democrats want to recapture the White House, they will have to figure out how to avoid such lingering rancour this year.