The most popular parlor game in town these days is, “Who will win the Democratic presidential nomination next year?” I had the pleasure of playing this game at a recent lunch with four of the most experienced Democratic strategists in Washington—a group with almost 150 years of national political experience.
Currently, all four think Elizabeth Warren will win the Democratic nomination. They’ve been incredibly impressed by both her skills as a candidate and the effectiveness of her campaign operation. More interesting, however, was the fact that none of them supported her. Thus, this was neither cheerleading nor wishful thinking on their parts; this was their cold assessment of the race. All were very worried about her ability to beat President Trump.
Their view echoes that of the overwhelming share of national political operatives in both parties: that President Trump is incredibly vulnerable, but less vulnerable against Warren, the Democrat who they feel has the best chance of winning the nomination. Legendary Democratic strategist James Carville (who was not among the four) has said that Donald Trump cannot win this election but Democrats could lose it.
Having watched Warren on the campaign trail in both Iowa and New Hampshire, I can attest to her ability to immediately connect with audiences and weave together her personal narrative and her ambitious policy agenda into a seamless tapestry. Simply put, both Warren and her campaign are operating at an altitude at least 10,000 feet higher than any of her rivals.
But my view reaches a different conclusion, one that breaks from the conventional wisdom. There is little doubt that Warren is consolidating the most progressive, populist wing of the Democratic Party and will leave Bernie Sanders in her wake. Yet if this ultimately comes down to a two-way race between Biden and Warren, I’d put my money on Biden—not by a lot, but by some measure.
If Warren is the most talented candidate with the best organization, how can I suggest that she is not the true favorite in the race?
First, it has to do with the unique mood of the Democratic electorate. It is true that electability has not typically been the biggest driver in voters’ decisions for their party’s nomination. But historically, we haven’t had an opposing-party candidate who galvanizes Democratic voters like Trump does. It only follows that, consciously or not, Democrats will think about their risk tolerance. That is, how much are they willing to risk losing the general election to back someone whom they really like or whose agenda they support?
Another factor may be at play next year as well: experience. Over the last quarter century, political experience has not been a major factor in voters’ decision for president. So many voters disdain or even hate government, politics, and politicians that experience can even be a liability. Did Barack Obama win the Democratic nomination in 2008, or beat John McCain, on the basis of experience? Not at all. Did Donald Trump beat back 16 rivals for the GOP nomination in 2016, quite a few of them very able, on experience? Again, no.
But normally a party’s voters don’t see an existential threat in the opposing party’s president. From rescuing Western alliances to extricating ourselves from trade wars, many Democrats may decide that putting the pieces back together again in January 2021 might require a lot of experience. A thick political résumé could once again be an asset.
Then there is Medicare-for-all, which would eliminate employer-provided health insurance. A Kaiser Family Foundation aggregation of its 2018 and 2019 polling shows that 39 percent of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 64 years of age who identify as Democrats have employer-provided health insurance. As we saw in 1994 with Hillarycare and in 2010 with Obamacare, voters react badly to changes in their health insurance packages. Eliminating employer-based health care may well be a deal-breaker for a lot of voters, particularly union members who bargained hard to get the coverage they have. In Democratic primaries and caucuses, as this race further develops, this could be very problematic for Warren.
Then there is the suspicion that she would have to raise taxes to finance her very ambitious domestic policy agenda. In his 1984 Democratic-nomination acceptance speech, Walter Mondale said, “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.” If you are curious how a candidate can lose 49 states, that’s how.
If all of this is true, why haven’t the less progressive elements of the Democratic Party not rushed to Biden? It is easy to argue that Biden is not the optimal Democratic nominee, starting with his age and propensity to get off script.
But what about other center-left/establishment choices? In their 1970 book, Future Shock, Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote about “overchoice”—the idea that an abundance of options paralyzes decision-making. Among a certain type of centrist Democratic voter, that may be what is happening. Look for votes ultimately drifting toward Biden, or another centrist candidate.