If we learned anything from 2016, it was to be careful with predictions. Like life in general, politics can take unexpected turns. But stopping short of predictions, we can look at the horizon and try to make out what we can in the distance, and perhaps map some of the topographical contours that lay ahead.
With that in mind, let’s look at the standings of the top 2020 candidates, both in the RealClearPolitics average of major national polls and the just-released Quinnipiac University poll of Democratic and Democrat-leaning independents (the first reliable live-telephone interview national poll to come out after the debates in Detroit last week). As of Thursday morning, Joe Biden led with 31 percent in the RCP average and 32 percent in the Quinnipiac poll. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders had 15.8 and 14 percent, respectively, in the two measurements, followed by Elizabeth Warren (15.5/21), Kamala Harris (8.3/7), Pete Buttigieg (5.5/5), Beto O’Rourke (2.5/2) and Cory Booker (2.3/2). Andrew Yang held the eighth position in the RCP averages, with 1.5 percent. Everyone else was at 1 percent or less.
There are many ways of looking at the Democratic field, the most common being ideological. There is a left (let’s call them the proud progressives), a right (or more accurately, a center-left), and a few that really don’t fit into either camp.
A second approach is to group the candidates into the insiders, those who identify with the establishment, working comfortably within the status quo; and the outsiders, who seek systemic changes to government and economics.
A third way is unique to 2020. My Cook Political Report colleague Amy Walter refers to those who seek “restoration” and those who want a “revolution.” The restorationists are primarily focused on getting things back to where they were before Donald Trump was elected, downplaying policy specifics. The revolutionaries certainly oppose Trump, but look to overhaul the government and the economy as their primary motivation. They are more driven by policy and change, less about evicting Trump.
Thinking about each of these three approaches—ideological, insider versus outsider, and Trump-focused versus system-focused—we tend to see the same candidates falling into certain categories. (To be clear, there are some very smart people who know the intricacies of the Democratic Party in great detail that object to this kind of sorting of candidates and voters into convenient boxes. But I think this approach works well enough for our purposes.)
So how do the support levels of these three groups compare? Biden is the obvious leader of the center-left, least liberal group. Sen. Amy Klobuchar fit in there as well, as does Gov. Steve Bullock, former Rep. John Delaney, and Rep. Tim Ryan. Together, these candidates add up to around 33 percent support, give or take. Many say that Biden is past his prime, but he still looks to be good enough to prevail here. Unless and until someone takes it away from him, hard to see anyone today who is doing that.
At the other end of the spectrum, the progressives, Sanders and Warren together add up to 31.3 percent support. Add in small numbers from the rest of the group and you get to about 33 percent. Sanders has dropped and Warren has risen to a point where they are basically tied. My sense is that Warren will gradually consolidate the left lane. The New Hampshire primary, in a state neighboring each of their home states, could well be the Gettysburg for the two progressives.
Then there are those that defy easy categorization; neither term fits them well. Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, and Booker top out that group, though there are others down the line with small numbers, bringing their number up to about 33 percent as well.
There would appear to be three essentially even groups. Yet nobody in that in-between/hybrid group seems to be making a lot of progress. Harris started to move, particularly after the first debate, but has gone into a bit of a momentum slump. Alex Burns of The New York Times has suggested that Harris was an effective messenger in search of a message. So will she stumble across a strong message? Booker is enormously talented but just hasn’t caught on yet. O’Rourke received a lot of attention after the tragic shootings in El Paso. Did enough Democrats like what they saw when they finally did see him, even under awful circumstances? If none of these are catching fire, the supporters of these candidates could end up being absorbed by the center-left and progressive camps, with those prevailing on either side picking off the support from those in the neither column.
So, without making a prediction, but probably coming dangerously close, the final Democratic matchup that seems most plausible today is Biden versus Warren.
But what happens then?
A Biden-Warren final could be pretty close, in that the broader groups they represent seem about even. Warren might well have an intensity edge but electability may come into play. Last year, this column borrowed a phrase from Democratic pollster Geoff Garin: If electability usually isn’t a major factor for voters in the past, could “unelectability” become relevant? That is, could a fear that their first choice may not have a great chance of beating Trump be relevant? Today, Biden is the only Democrat who consistently beats Trump by more than the margin of error in most national polls. He’s also ahead and most of the battleground states. The challenge for Warren, if she makes the finals, is to convince her party that she could win too.