Gazing into a crystal ball for clues into the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest would likely reveal an exceedingly murky picture. To begin with, is it difficult to predict what will happen in the Feb. 3 Iowa caucus and the Feb. 11 New Hampshire primary. We know that every contested nomination since 1972 has gone to a candidate that finished first, second, or third place in Iowa, then either first or second in New Hampshire. We also know that the last four Democratic nominations have gone to the winner of the Iowa caucus. Theoretically at least, that means in the next three weeks, the race should be down to two viable candidates.
But considering that four Democrats have claimed first place in an Iowa poll in the last four weeks, and the same four have each been in first place in New Hampshire over the last four months, maybe it's time to throw out those traditional yardsticks. Using the RealClearPolitics poll average of recent Iowa polling, the gap between Joe Biden’s first-place showing of 21 percent and Pete Buttigieg’s fourth-place tally of 16.3 percent is just 4.7 percentage points. (Sens. Bernie Sanders, with 17.3 percent, and Elizabeth Warren at 16.7 percent, are in between.) Using the gold-standard Des Moines Register/CNN poll conducted by Ann Selzer, Sanders actually sits in first place with 20 percent, followed by Warren at 17 percent, Buttigieg at 16 percent, and Biden fourth with 15 percent—a 5-point spread between the four.
In New Hampshire, the RCP spread between first-place Sanders’s 21.6 percent and fourth-place Warren’s 14 percent is a somewhat wider 7.6 percentage points, with Biden in second with 17.6 percent and Buttigieg in third with 14.8 percent. There is no gold-standard poll in the Granite State, but Sanders has outpaced the field in three of the five polls conducted this year, with Biden and Buttigieg each coming out on top in another.
Compounding all of this uncertainty is that with the states using proportional representation on the Democratic side (Republicans allow winner-take-all contests), we may see very little difference in the delegate haul of top-four candidates coming out of these first two states. In other words, a muddle. The likelihood of a candidate coming out of these two with a lot of momentum is not high.
Now let’s factor in two intangibles. Polling very clearly shows that electability is a very big factor in a majority of Democratic voters’ decision-making process this year, a byproduct of the level of loathing that party regulars have for President Trump.
For now, Biden is the clear beneficiary of the electability argument. In fact, electability represents at least two if not three of the four legs holding up Biden’s candidacy. If he were to do or say something to jeopardize that perception of electability, his candidacy could well collapse like a house of cards.
Another trouble spot for Biden is fundraising. Political pros say the ante for the 14 Super Tuesday states alone is at least $100 million, a real challenge for any of these four candidates, but especially for Biden, who’s got less cash than any of his rivals.
Here is where I depart from the conventional wisdom the most: We are going to see two, three, or four candidates emerge from the first four states, none with a meaningful delegate lead or momentum heading into Super Tuesday. More importantly, none of the contenders (save perhaps Sanders) will have much money at all. As this column has suggested before, my gut tells me to watch Michael Bloomberg. That’s a whole column itself, watch for it next week. But take note of the new CNN poll released this week, which shows Biden and Bloomberg beating Trump by 9 points nationwide. Sanders would win by 7 points, Warren by 5, Buttigieg by 4 points, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar by 3 points.
Only a lunatic would try to predict a Democratic nominee under these circumstances and I certainly won’t. But put me down for Biden with a 50 percent chance and Bloomberg at 25 percent, with 25 percent split between Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and who the heck else.