The Sound of Bursting Illusions: the upcoming Democratic primaries

By J Brooks Spector 14 February 2020

Democratic candidate for United States President, former Vice President Joe Biden, (R) embraces a supporter during a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire, USA, 10 February 2020. The first in the Nation Primary is to be held in New Hampshire on 11 February 2020. EPA-EFE/CJ GUNTHER

If the New Hampshire primary election did nothing else, it began the slow, painful — and likely final — bursting of illusions for many of those who had hoped to become the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential candidate.

Some contenders, like national newcomer Pete Buttigieg, amazing voters and commentators alike, came from virtually nowhere to contesting strongly for the early lead. But others, like former vice president Joe Biden, the man who had been tipped as the presumed front runner just six months earlier (Donald Trump clearly thought so, giving rise to those presidential actions in the original Ukraine scandal), the end of the road, the vertiginous cliff edge now looms. That is, unless a veritable electoral miracle arrives very soon for him in the next two statewide contests. Without that miracle, campaign funding will dry up and Biden’s candidacy will grind to a halt.

So, what does this most recently contested primary actually mean? In the past, the New Hampshire primary marked the real beginning of presidential campaigns. There were the near-obligatory newspaper and news magazine word pictures (and television news reports) of candidates trudging through New England’s snow drifts to meet potential supporters, one at a time at the front doors of their homes, in town hall meetings, at the gates of local factories at shift changes, or over breakfasts or coffee in all the cafes of the small cities and little towns that dot the New Hampshire landscape. That journey for candidates became the necessary test of their mettle.

This was the storyline of a series of influential, exceedingly popular volumes by Theodore H White, in The Making of the President, chronicling the quadrennial elections from 1960 to 1972, and then in a summary volume in 1980. (White had first hit the journalistic big time with Thunder Out of China, the book that had profiled Mao Zhedong’s fighters, years before they had seized power.)

White’s perspective created the optic followed by almost every other reporter for years, until Richard Nixon’s second election and subsequent fall from grace, had shattered that narrative. Successive writers almost inevitably took a much harsher, anti-establishment, “a plague on all your houses” tone, usurping White’s near-celebration of the sprawling, sometimes chaotic democratic process he had so faithfully chronicled for decades. But it always began in the snow in New Hampshire.

Now, of course, New Hampshire has become just one more way-station on a via dolorosa for most would-be candidates, in 2020 coming right after that chaotic Iowa caucus, and right before the 22 February Nevada caucus and 29 February South Carolina primary. These come just before the big day of 3 March with 15 simultaneous primaries — including those in the delegate-rich votes in Texas and California. By 4 March, therefore, a sizeable chunk of the full swathe of delegates to be selected for the national nominating convention from 13-16 July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin will have been determined. And thus the likely future for the Democrats will be defined.

The Washington Post’s 202 newsletter argued, for example, “ ‘So far, the way candidates have gained traction has been to attract a narrow slice of the electorate. [Elizabeth] Warren spent the past several weeks attempting to cast herself as a unity candidate and saw herself overtaken by Sanders, who made a forthright appeal to liberals, a more defined niche,’ Matt Viser and Annie Linskey report. ‘Sanders on Wednesday didn’t appear to be attempting to expand his ideological reach. When asked if there are any lessons in the fact that he and Warren received fewer votes than moderates in the party, campaign co-chairwoman Nina Turner was blunt. ‘The lesson to be learned,’ she said on CNN, ‘is he won.’

“Sanders already is tussling with the Culinary Union, the largest union in Nevada and one whose members, mostly Latino and female, typically play a major role in the caucuses. The union on Tuesday distributed fliers criticizing his Medicare-for-all plan, saying it would dilute the health-care plans that it has bargained for in negotiations. The Sanders campaign countered with a statement noting he had joined unions on picket lines and saying his plan ‘is as comprehensive or more so than the health care benefits union workers currently receive.’ But later in the day, the union ― which has yet to make a coveted endorsement ― escalated the feud by releasing a statement criticizing his supporters, who it claimed had been critical of the union and its officials on Twitter and in phone calls.”

The ordinary understanding is that this race through the primaries is supposed to winnow down the numbers of claimants to just a few names, leading, hopefully to growing unanimity in the choice of a nominee by the time the nominating convention actually arrives. But, so far, while some candidates who were weak in terms of both popular support and campaign contribution terms have dropped out, one very important new candidate has now entered the race.

So far at least, the Iowa and New Hampshire outcomes have generated hints about the shape of the 2020 race, even if these hints have not yet been dispositive.

First of all, the myth of Joe Biden’s inevitability, based on his putative electability, has been deeply damaged. Perhaps fatally so. Weak finishes in the first two contests now means Biden absolutely needs a much stronger finish in Nevada and even an actual win in South Carolina, in order to be able to stake a claim as a still-viable candidate, going into Super Tuesday’s contests. This goal is not impossible, but the aura of inevitability has now melted away.

As noted above, Nevada’s Democrats are strongly unionized in the hospitality industry and Biden has long had good ties to such unions. Moreover, Biden’s opposition to Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for all” (and the end of private medical insurance) runs parallel to the views of many union members who already benefit from good medical plans negotiated over the years by their unions. And, of course, Biden’s team has highlighted his long-time connections to African American voters, in sync with the reality that about 60% of Democratic Party supporters in South Carolina are African Americans, and that countrywide, something like 40% of the party’s supporters are similarly ethnic minority voters.

By that calculation, South Carolina is Biden’s real test — and, hopefully, his redemption for the real electoral battles yet to come. But, such an outcome will only happen if he can deliver the presidential aura that was expected of him.

Meanwhile, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, coming off a modest popular vote win in Iowa and then in New Hampshire as well, has become the ostensible front runner. For Sanders, to gain the nomination through the dozens of remaining primaries, the challenge will be to prove to Democratic voters across the nation that the time for his broad social and economic revolution is now, and that such policies do not mean the arrival of the socialist boogeyman is nigh. His supporters preferentially draw from younger voters excited, among other things, by his support for free university education, the cancellation of student debt, new wealth taxes, and endorsement of the Green New Deal. But it remains a question how broadly those ideas appeal.

The former two-term mayor of a smallish city in Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, on the other hand, has seemingly come out of virtually nowhere to nudge slightly ahead of Sanders in the initial delegate count from the first two contests, although not in the total raw vote. Buttigieg has made his case that, yes, the country faces great challenges, but it needs a new burst of civility and rational, thoughtful approaches to these public policy issues.

And that obviously, he is best-placed to provide just such leadership, despite his youth. His uphill task, entering the grind of primaries now bearing down on the candidates, is to convince voters countrywide — and most especially supporters of Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren — that the tempered, moderate course is the right one for our time.

As for the others, the fate of Warren appears to be fading after months of being seen as a left-wing candidate with a well-thought-through plan for almost everything. However, the star of yet another senator, Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, has begun to rise. Klobuchar is also attempting to ride to the nomination from the centre lane, and her strong third place in New Hampshire is giving her hope that her solid midwestern sensibility will increasingly appeal to voters in the primaries yet to come.

And that, of course, leaves the looming presence of Michael Bloomberg. The former three-term mayor of New York City has taken a unique approach to securing the nomination. Bloomberg is also trying to occupy that middle lane now occupied by Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg. But instead of facing voters in the first four primaries and caucuses, Bloomberg is flooding the airwaves with self-financed commercials to the tune of around $300 million, and simultaneously building a deep staff “ground game” in all of the states where primaries follow, beginning with Super Tuesday.

The plan appears to be to bet the other moderates will, soon enough, fade and that those two leftwing candidates will be pushed to the margins in the actual game of securing delegates. It is a strategy with huge risks, not least since his self-funding opens him up to the charge he is simply an ultra-rich man trying to buy up the nomination on a kind of Daddy Warbucks lark, rather than his fighting it out in real campaigning like everybody else.

As Politico reported it, “IF A FEW CAMPAIGN CONSULTANTS were sitting at a bar and dreamed up how they’d run a nationwide presidential primary campaign with no constraints, no qualms and no care for tradition, it would look a lot like MIKE BLOOMBERG’S 2020 run.

“WHEN A 77-YEAR-OLD MAN WITH TENS OF BILLIONS OF DOLLARS, nothing to lose, an obsession with metrics and efficiency and a deep well of distaste for DONALD TRUMP runs for president, it goes a little something like this:

“THEY GIVE THE MIDDLE FINGER to Iowa and New Hampshire, because why waste time spending months ingratiating yourself with a population that represents 4% of the delegates you need to become the Democratic nominee? Tradition is cute, they say privately, but nostalgia is not a good way to spend money, or win an election.

“TEAM BLOOMBERG has their eyes fixed on the following states, which they believe represent their best chance to get the nomination: ARKANSAS, where Bloomberg is in first, and has 31 delegates; FLORIDA, where public polling has him second (219 delegates); MISSOURI, where he’s been in second (68 delegates); NORTH CAROLINA, where he’s been in third (110 delegates); TEXAS, where he has a staff of more than 90 (228 delegates); and CALIFORNIA, home to 415 pledged delegates. (He’s in N.C. and Texas today, and Virginia later this week.)

“HE SPENDS GOBS OF MONEY on everything. There’s the television advertising, the Facebook spending and lavish staff salaries guaranteed through December, with apartments in New York. The events — anchored by GREG HALE, a longtime Dem advance man who founded the Markham Group — are the envy of the field, and look much more like a late-stage general election than a primary rally.

“THE GOAL HERE is to create an air of professionalism and invincibility. That’s why they’re rolling out congressional endorsements almost daily. (A source told us that in calls to some leaders in Super Tuesday states, BLOOMBERG was the first candidate to reach out.)”

Some influential writers like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman are also moving towards arguing that Bloomberg is the candidate whom Democrats will need to embrace — if they have a hope of defeating Donald Trump, come November, rather than the hopeless champion of a social democratic revolution or one of those other moderate munchkins.

Meanwhile, over in the White House, every day, Donald Trump is showing his disdain for constitutional custom, law, and tradition. Most recently, he has pushed for the senior people in the justice department to overturn their own prosecutors’ pursuit of their sentencing recommendations for the now-convicted metaphorical Trump “second story man”, Roger Stone.

A phalanx of former federal prosecutors have said publicly they have never seen such a rank politicisation of the sentencing process. But Donald Trump seems determined to show that his acquittal by the Senate in his impeachment trial has meant there are effectively few lines he will not cross in an effort to keep his base locked in place, and to whittle away Democratic voters on the basis that economically, “you never had it so good”.

The Democrats will need to make the case that such assertions are simply not true. There are real issues and their candidate must be the one to fix them. But who will be the person to make that case? Several dozen remaining primaries will be how this name is determined, and thus what version of their argument will be the one they will make to the country’s voters, come November. DM


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or if you are already an Insider.


DA support in freefall, two new surveys show

By Ferial Haffajee