Our Split-Screen Politics

Charlie Cook New
December 17, 2019

Watching politics these days is like watching a split-screen television. On one side of your screen is the impeachment process; on the other; a remarkably wide-open contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. It’s akin to watching two football games simultaneously—one game very close, the outcome of the other pretty obvious.

With the evidentiary part mostly over, public attitudes toward impeachment remain largely unchanged from two months ago. Only the most delusional critics still have any expectation that the Senate will vote to convict and remove President Trump from office. It isn’t clear that there will be a single Republican member of the Senate, certainly not more than a couple, who vote to convict and remove. At the same time, there are no more than a Democrat or two who might vote against. (All 47 Democrats and 20 GOP members would have to vote for conviction to reach the two-thirds requirement.)

With no realistic chance of success, it seems to be a largely cathartic exercise for many Democrats, fulfilling some moral or ethical obligation to attempt to remove Trump from office before the election, no matter how futile it clearly is.

It is the other side of the screen where the action really is; presidential-nomination contests can hardly be more wide-open than the one Democrats have today. Though this is probably an insane exercise to attempt to affix percentage chances for each candidate to win the Democratic nomination, I would start off giving Joe Biden about a 30 percent chance, followed by (in alphabetical order) Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren, each with a 20 percent chance.

The remaining 1- percent is reserved for a wild card, perhaps Amy Klobuchar or Bernie Sanders, but it could be that a contested, deadlocked convention turns to someone else. This is very unlikely, but if no candidate had anywhere near the majority needed for victory once the primaries are over, and strong opposition remained to each of the top contenders, it could happen, especially given the number of candidates still in the race and the nature of the Democratic delegate-selection process, with its prohibition on winner-take-all primaries and caucuses.

For all the reasons to explain why Biden will not be the nominee, there are what seems to be equally reasonable arguments against each of the others. Thinking about the last 50 years, there were at least equally cogent arguments made at the time why Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama could not win their respective Democratic nomination fights. Someone might even throw in Walter Mondale and John Kerry as well. Nearly everyone is unlikely, until they clinch it, then some will say it was obvious from the beginning. Four years ago, people in both parties, the media, and the public (myself included) thought it extremely unlikely that Donald Trump would win the GOP nomination. In each of those cases, the arguments seemed pretty persuasive at the time.

In any case, this campaign is now shifting from one phase to another. First was an establishment phase. It was about building name recognition—first among party activists and donors, then among the broader electorate—developing a brand that matches with what the party is looking for at the time, building a campaign organization, and raising funds to finance all of the above.

The establishment phase is now over. The contest phase is beginning in earnest, the competition with other candidates for support. That can mean trying, overtly or covertly, to knee-cap rivals. The covert method is usually the most advisable when there are three or more competitive contenders. When candidate A attacks candidate B, they may succeed in knocking out some support from Candidate B, but the support is more likely to shift to Candidate C or D rather than to the attacking A.

Sometimes the heft of a candidate is needed to punch the message through, to get enough attention for the attack to reach enough voters, but that is always a calculated risk. At this level, when you see the Buttigieg and Warren campaigns dishing dirt on each other, you know that they are competing for the same voters. Buttigieg is not attacking Sanders or Klobuchar, Warren is not attacking Biden or Klobuchar. Though Buttigieg is far more moderate and Warren much more of a progressive, they do share one constituency: the college- or graduate-school-educated pool of voters that look for a more intellectually oriented candidate and message. Some candidates target the hearts of a segment of voters, others go after the glands of a group, and still others try to reach the brains.

These candidates have a little over a week to get their messaging through before most voters close their ears and start focusing on shopping for holiday presents for family and friends. Once voters shift into serious Christmas mode, attacks are less effective and less welcome, at least for a week or two. Then it is game on, back to the split screen with a trial on one side and the sprint toward Iowa and New Hampshire on the other.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on December 13, 2019