The Four Front-Runners

The Four Front-Runners

As 20 presidential contenders gear up for the first Democratic debates, the race’s outlook is starting to change.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Phillips is the founder of Dream United, a super PAC with the goal of electing Cory Booker as the next president of the United States.

The next president of the United States will likely be Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, or Joe Biden. Looking at the nomination contest through the lens of the fundamental factors that have historically determined who wins the Democratic nomination—namely, the results in Iowa and then the subsequent much more diverse states—the current state of the race is that these candidates stand the best chances of prevailing as the nominee (and as I’ve previously written, the Democratic standard-bearer in 2020 is more likely than not to win the general election).

This analysis is not based on who I want to be president (full disclosure: I’m supporting Booker), but rather what my read of the current data and dynamics suggest will most likely happen. Although it’s still early in the process, we are nearly halfway through the 13-month pre-Iowa-caucus period, and we can glean a lot from what has transpired these past six months.

The Twin Pillars of The Democratic Nomination Process: Iowa and Voters of Color

There are two dominant fundamental factors that will shape the 2020 contest, and both of them are being under-appreciated in most political analyses.

First is the enormous influence of the Iowa Caucus results on the rest of the contests that follow. Both in terms of propelling a candidate to front-runner status and simultaneously winnowing the field, Iowa has historically been critical, especially in multicandidate contests. In 2004, after dominating the primary race in terms of attention and fundraising for months, Howard Dean faltered at the end. John Kerry then surged from 4 percent in the polls to win the contest just one month later, effectively dealing a death blow to Dean and the other candidates. In 2008, Obama was trailing Hillary Clinton nationally, even among black voters, until he overtook her and John Edwards in the closing weeks of Iowa, catapulting him to a front-runner’s status he never relinquished. In 2016, Bernie Sanders came from nearly 30 points behind in Iowa to almost snatch the state from Clinton, but her formidable in-state organization enabled her to withstand Bernie (although barely). That victory, however narrow, allowed Hillary to blunt Bernie’s momentum and hold him off until she could get to the Southern states where she solidified an insurmountable lead.

Which brings us to the second fundamental factor—the centrality of voters of color in Democratic politics, African Americans in particular. Nearly half of all Democratic votes come from people of color (48 percent in the 2016 general election), and their role is accentuated in the Democratic primaries by the electoral calendar. After the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire have their say, the race largely turns to states where voters of color are the majority or near-majority of primary voters. This year, that role is further entrenched by the fact that California and Texas vote in early March, and the majority of Democratic voters in each of those states are people of color (actually the majority of people in each of those state are of color). Most significantly, there is a late-February to mid-March gauntlet of Democratic primaries in states such as South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi—states where the African American vote is a sizable, if not dominant, percentage of the Democratic base. It was in those states that Obama expanded his delegate lead over Clinton by 500 percent in 2008 and built a lead that was impossible to overcome. In 2016, a similar situation unfolded as Clinton ran the table in the largely black states and built an insurmountable delegate lead over Sanders.

Joe Biden

At the moment, Biden is in fact the front-runner. He starts with the considerable strengths that one would expect of a former vice president of a popular presidency—near universal name-recognition, favorable feelings about the Obama era, an extensive fundraising network (he’s suggested he has raised over $19 million already), and a national political team. Plus, he is the primary beneficiary of an intractable, but inaccurate, belief that a white male candidate would be the strongest nominee against Donald Trump.

That array of assets could well be enough to help him withstand the crucible that is coming as the race heats up and approaches Iowa. Like Hillary Clinton in 2008, Biden is viewed favorably by African Americans, and that strength could make him formidable in a place like South Carolina where he could conceivably run well among white and black voters alike.

However, Biden faces two significant hurdles that could derail his efforts. First, he is late to the game and under-organized in Iowa. The best organizers have largely already signed up with other campaigns, leaving him to build an operation from a pool of people with shorter résumés and smaller track records (and while he enjoys warm feelings among voters generally, it’s worth noting that the last time Biden ran without Obama, in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, he got less than 1 percent of the vote). I recently spoke with a veteran of Iowa politics who referred to Biden’s campaign in Iowa as a soufflé that may well collapse.

The other challenge facing Biden’s campaign is how out of touch he is with today’s politics and social norms. His tone-deafness in grasping the seriousness of the #MeToo allegations against him and how until recently he clung to his support for the Hyde Amendment betray rusty political skills at best and a combination of atrocious instincts and arrogance at worst. These poor instincts were on display again just last week when Biden extolled his close partnership with white supremacist senators as an example of his ability to get things done. His candidacy very much has the feel of Clinton in 2008, when significant advantages were eclipsed by superior organizing and a candidate more aligned with the moment.

Elizabeth Warren

At this point in the race, Elizabeth Warren stands the best chance of being the next president. She has three significant quantifiable strengths, and one enormous qualitative advantage. Warren’s first advantage is her strength among progressive whites. Many people forget that before Bernie Sanders ran in 2016, Warren was the person that progressives pined for. Only after she deferred to Clinton did Bernie emerge as the progressive alternative. Most analysts acknowledge that her recent surge in the polls has come at the expense of Sanders, whose poll numbers have declined. In the latest Monmouth University poll, Warren leads Sanders among self-identified liberal voters by 8 points.

Warren’s second advantage is her strength among voters of color. Polls show her consistently in the top tier, and those numbers were made manifest by the popular reception she received among audiences of color at the She the People Forum and Black Economic Alliance gathering this year. She has led the conversation on reparations and the racial wealth gap, and her rhetoric is reinforced by her actions. Five years ago, for example, Warren sought out a meeting with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to learn about reparations, showing not only principle, but prescience, in light of Coates’s recent congressional testimony on a proposed commission to consider reparations.

Equally important as her macro strengths among progressive whites and people of color is her third strength: a micro focus on the nitty-gritty of organizing in Iowa, where the contest may be decided by a few thousand votes. Warren reportedly has the largest paid staff on the ground in Iowa, with respected talent running the operation.

Lastly, the least quantitative measure is that Warren has harnessed her personal strengths into a campaign brand that is extremely authentic and, hence, powerful. Her identity as a wonkish professor and her campaign’s theme, “She Has a Plan For That,” resonate as real rather than gimmicky.

Kamala Harris

When the president of the United States is unapologetically misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic, in many ways the boldest and clearest repudiation of all he represents would be to elect a woman of color who is the child of immigrants. In the same way that Obama personified many of the hopes and dreams of Americans across the racial spectrum in 2008, Harris similarly represents the hopes of those across the racial, gender, and immigration spectrum of this moment. The power of that potential was proven by her highly successful campaign launch, pushing her up the polling ladder and attracting a broad fundraising base of tens of thousands of supporters.

Further cementing her strength, Harris has assembled a top-flight team of women of color to help guide her campaign, including her sister and campaign chair Maya Harris. One particular secret weapon in Harris’s arsenal: preeminent organizer Emmy Ruiz, architect of Clinton’s and Obama’s successes in Nevada. Ruiz’s talent and knowledge can help Harris in the Nevada caucus, which is historically underappreciated in the nomination contest, but which comes at the critical moment of just two weeks after the New Hampshire primary. Strength in Nevada could generate momentum for South Carolina, the state that kicks off the “black phase” of the primary process.

Harris’s fundraising prowess will place her in good standing in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, although there are conflicting reports about the size and strength of her operation in that state. If she is able to emerge from Iowa with meaningful momentum, her early organizing groundwork in Nevada, South Carolina, Georgia, and other states will serve her well, and she could also run the table in the heavily black states and emerge with the lead (truth be told, competing with Booker, as reporters Nick Corasaniti and Astead Herndon of The New York Times examined).

Cory Booker

For reasons that conflate misogyny, patriarchy and 400 years of racism and white supremacy in this country, the deep and palpable Democratic desire for someone who is “electable” has led many people to conclude that a white male nominee offers the best chances for victory in 2020. But what the actual historical data shows is that in the past 20 years, Democrats have only won the White House when the nominee was an inspirational Black man who’d served in the US Senate. Of all the candidates running, Booker is closest to the Obama mold. Despite his current low polling numbers and apparent fundraising challenges (factors that may pose his largest obstacles), Booker has three core strengths that give him a realistic shot to break out of the pack and capture the nomination.

Obama’s message of racial healing and unity (characterized by his refutation of the red state-blue state divide) resonated deeply among Iowans, and helped him perform remarkably well in that 90 percent white state. Booker’s message of love, unity, and inspiration in the continuation of the Civil Rights movement is very aligned with an electorate where 91 percent of voters named a priority to have “someone who can heal the racial, ethnic, and partisan divide in our country.” The power of that message in Iowa was on full display at his speech in October when he brought the crowd of 1,100 to its feet by connecting the post-Kavanaugh moment to Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and the Civil Rights struggle of 1965, even invoking and adapting King’s cry of “How long? Not long!”

Booker’s second significant strength: his campaign is matching his soaring rhetoric with a heavy investment in boots on the ground in Iowa where organizing is critical. Media reports indicate that he has the second-largest number of staffers in the caucus state, with key respected leaders in charge of his effort.

Also like Obama, Booker could ride success in Iowa throughout the heavily Black states that follow on the calendar. His comfort, history, communication gifts, and roots in the Black community (he lived in public housing for seven years while serving on Newark’s city council and is the only candidate to still live in a largely Black neighborhood) enable him to inspire and galvanize African American voters. With these skills, he can capture the lion’s share of those delegates, just as Obama did in 2008 and Clinton did in 2016.

The Wild Cards: Beto and Stacey

The dictionary defines a wildcard as “a person or thing whose influence is unpredictable,” and that definition perfectly fits two people on the national political landscape: Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams.

Beto O’Rourke. In his 2018 Senate campaign, O’Rourke captured the imagination of progressives across the country and became a fundraising juggernaut, bringing in more money than any Senate candidate in US history. His team also displayed an impressive and cutting edge organizational operation that could be critical to winning in a state such as Iowa. Furthermore, he came of political age in El Paso, an 80 percent Latino city, and his knowledge, comfort and ease with Latinos comes through. Plus, his forceful defense of pro football players protesting racism went viral and displayed a level of unapologetic courage in the face of white racial anxieties that is unusual among white politicians and did not go unnoticed by Black America. In the first half of this year, however, Beto’s magic has dissipated, and it is very hard to regain momentum once lost, especially in such a crowded and credentialed field. Running against multiple talented Democrats is a much different proposition than being the sole opponent to Ted Cruz, and that reality will make it hard for him to recapture his mojo.

Stacey Abrams is a rare political talent whose combination of brains, strategic savvy, and inspiration set her apart on the political landscape. In many ways, substantively and symbolically she is the diametric opposite of Trump and the America Trump is trying to build. Her authenticity deeply resonates with this political moment, and there is a scenario where a late entry by Abrams (don’t forget that Bill Clinton didn’t launch his first presidential campaign until October of 1991) captures the imagination of an electorate hungry for a fresh face and voice, and she swoops in and sweeps to victory.

About the B’s: Bernie and Buttigieg

Bernie Sanders. This will probably be the most controversial part of this piece, but, again, I’m not advocating here, just trying to call it like I see it, based on data and history. Given that Sanders is so well-known, it is hard to draw any other conclusion from the 2019 polling data than that he has a fairly low ceiling of potential support. Granted, he also has a fairly high floor of support (his national polling numbers have never dropped below 14 percent). Iowa is a perfect example. In that state where he secured 50 percent of the vote in the 2016 caucuses, Sanders is currently polling between 16 percent and 25 percent. That reduction in support is certainly not the result of unfamiliarity with the candidate; it’s a function of more options to choose from. While it’s theoretically possible that after Iowans survey the field, they’ll return to Sanders, given the size and quality of the field, that scenario is very unlikely.

It is not out of the question that Sanders’s high floor could be enough for him to prevail in a crowded caucus field in Iowa, but even if he does so, he will again run into the challenges he faced with voters of color in 2016, especially African America voters. Clinton’s strength in the South blocked Sanders’ ascent in 2016, and in 2020, he’s unlikely to do better among black people than the black candidates once the race narrows to a few choices.

Pete Buttigieg’s rise has definitely been impressive, with attention-getting fundraising numbers, multiple favorable media profiles, and measurable momentum among many Democratic donors. In some ways, his ascent is reminiscent of previous white reform candidates such as Gary Hart in 1984, Bill Bradley in 2000, and Howard Dean in 2004. None of those candidates ultimately prevailed, however, and Buttigieg will likely ultimately face a similar fate. The primary impediment for Buttigieg is his near-nonexistent support among people of color. In California, the state with the largest Latino population in the country, Buttigieg has so far secured just 2 percent support among Latinos. In South Carolina, a poll released last month showed him netting 0 percent support among African Americans. Buttigieg’s challenges with African Americans were on vivid display in recent days as he struggled to deal with community outrage in the wake of the police killing of Eric Logan, a South Bend, Indiana, African American man. It’s virtually unfathomable to see how someone unknown to black voters will, in a matter of months, significantly rise in that community when running against two African Americans and the vice president to the first black president. Theoretically, in a different field, Buttigieg could be the consensus choice of white Democrats and gain the lead as multiple candidates splinter the votes of people of color, but he has serious competition for white votes from Sanders, Warren, Biden, and O’Rourke. Absent all the other white candidates dropping out after Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s nearly impossible to identify Buttigieg’s path to the nomination.

The good news is that Democrats have an extraordinarily talented field. The candidate with the superior Iowa organization, resonant message to Iowa voters, and strong appeal to voters of color will most likely be the Democratic nominee and the next president.

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