Trips to Iowa and New Hampshire over the last month provided me plenty of insights into the 2020 Democratic field, but not too many answers. Similarly, Thursday’s ABC News/Univision debate in Houston will give us some more clarity, but very little certainty.
Right now, this appears likely to be a two-person race between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, and it will be until someone else elbows their way in. Sure, current polling has Biden with a lead of a dozen points over Warren and Bernie Sanders, but Warren is ascending while Biden suffered a drop in the spring, and he has coasted since, showing little momentum. Sanders’s candidacy is basically what it was four years ago, just without Hillary Clinton as a foil. The talk in the two early states is mostly about Warren. Some Democrats are enthusiastic about her and her message; others are resistant, if not alarmed. Yet she is the focal point of discussions, more than Biden or even President Trump. Her organization in both states is impressive, to say the least.
The new ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Sept. 2-5 shows Biden ahead of Sanders by 10 points among registered voters who are Democrats or independents who lean Democratic, 29 to 19 percent. The Vermonter is effectively tied with Warren, who pulls 17 percent. Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg trail at 7 and 4 percent, respectively. Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Yang are essentially tied for sixth place at 3 percent, while everyone else claims no more than 2 percent support.
The RealClearPolitics polling average shows a 12-point margin, with Biden at 30 percent, followed by Warren and Sanders at 18 percent each, Harris at 7 percent, Buttigieg with 4 percent, and Yang and Cory Booker at 3 percent.
Watching Sanders and Warren on back-to-back days over Labor Day weekend in New Hampshire really drove the impression that their candidacies are very different from those of their peers in the Democratic field. As this column has noted before, their messaging is more Huey Long populism than Michael Dukakis liberalism. They are preaching revolution, the others evolution. There is nothing moderate or incremental here.
Having grown up in Louisiana, a state known for great food and fun but not necessarily good government, to me corruption always meant a politician or government official with their fingers or hands in the taxpayer’s cookie jar. Sanders and Warren are talking about rooting out systemic corruption and transforming a system rigged for the benefit of the rich and powerful. Generally speaking, the others represent rolling the political odometer back to where it was before Donald Trump took office, then fine-tuning or modifying what President Obama did in his eight years.
Sanders has changed little since 2016. Warren, meanwhile, has elevated and smoothed out his message, incorporating a powerful personal narrative that reinforces that message.
Anyone who expects Warren to come across as a hectoring schoolmarm should have witnessed her event in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. She started off running down the center aisle of the 800 people packed into a backyard, high-fiving them as she went, proceeding to deliver a speech that connected on a very personal level.
My guess is that she will consolidate the progressive vote, adding Sanders’s base of support to her own, and perhaps a little more from lower-tier candidates.
So what about Biden? As a network embed assigned to Biden told me: “There are two Joe Bidens. There is Teleprompter Joe and Non-Teleprompter Joe.” The former does just fine; the latter is extremely problematic. Those who bird-hunt are familiar with electronic dog collars which, at the push of a button, give dogs just a tiny little jolt to get their attention when they are not responding correctly. Biden’s staff ought to get one for his ankle.
Biden could (1) hang on; (2) collapse all at once; or (3) fade away gradually. If he collapses or fades, will it be in time for the party to tap an alternative center-left, establishment-friendly candidate, or will the only remaining alternative be from the progressive wing?
If he hangs on, it may be on the strength of his experience. It is a mistake when Biden backers use electability as the first-, second-, and third-most important arguments for their candidate. But one could plausibly argue that, after four years of Trump, having someone who has 36 years of Senate experience, much of it as chair or ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, capped off by eight years as vice president, is enough of a rationale to support him.
While this sure looks like it will be a Biden-Warren contest now, the possibility still exists for a third candidate to catch on in the next month or so—someone who gets hot at just the right time. Booker, Harris, and O’Rourke have intriguing styles but have yet to find the right message. It might happen, but time is beginning to run short.