The State of the Race
Biden leads, Warren moves, everyone else is looking for an opening.
My take: There are now three main possible scenarios for the Democratic presidential nomination fight.
1. Biden continues to rope-a-dope, his rivals continue to avoid effective confrontation with him, and he wins Iowa and New Hampshire in rolling to the nomination by March in relatively easy fashion.
2. Biden’s Hyde Amendment flip-flop-flip-flop performance is repeated on other issues, accompanied by opposition research drops, and all manner of Bidenesque gaffes, leading to a precipitous decline in his poll standing nationally and in the key states, allowing other candidates tbd to move up in the polls, and removing the frontrunner label from Biden’s back.
3. Biden goes into Iowa and New Hampshire as the clear frontrunner, but then loses one or both of them (or wins them only narrowly, losing the expectations game), leaving him wounded. Anyone who actually or symbolically bests Biden in one or both of those states would gain major momentum, setting up Biden’s chance at a comeback in Nevada and South Carolina – or setting up his elimination there.
Scenario (1) is pretty boring from an analysis point of view, so let’s focus on the other pair of possibilities.
Scenario (2) could actually be good for Biden. It would take some of the focus off of him in the balance of 2019, and allow him to play the Comeback Kid. If he can fall in the fall, but not fall down, some sequence of strong performances (with, say, a solid showing in Iowa and a clear win in New Hampshire) would likely make him an even stronger frontrunner than he is now, allowing him to leave the Granite State with momentum and give him a big leg up on the nomination. John Kerry and John McCain both won their nominations along these lines.
The question begged by that scenario and Scenario (3) is who will be the one, two, or three candidates who will be in a position to be in the narrative mix if Biden falters either in 2019 or in Iowa and New Hampshire?
Based on performance and “performance versus expectations,” only two candidates are having unambiguously strong runs at this point, besides Biden.
That would be Elizabeth Warren, who moved up in the new Des Moines Register poll (and a few other surveys), is getting under the skin of Team Sanders, continues to get positive reviews for the quality and quantity of her policy proposals and quick reactions to breaking news developments, and is said by sources to be having a solid fundraising quarter.
The other candidate still on a roll is Pete Buttigieg, who also moved up in the Iowa poll, continues to be a double threat fundraiser with both small donors and fat cats, and is generating crowd excitement with his message of generational change.
Most major polling suggests Sanders’ floor of support is lower than many thought it would be, and if Biden falters, most of his establishment support will end up somewhere else, with the former VP’s current backers looking for electability over socialism.
Kamala Harris could be the beneficiary of that, as she continues to hang on in the second tier. But she has yet to show polling growth or have the breakthrough moment required to be seen as the obvious establishment backup to Biden or a potential strong finisher in Iowa or New Hampshire.
It is an odd cycle, with so many candidates in the field and a shifted and shifting Democratic electorate, but the Iron Rule of nomination fights does not appear to be going anywhere: a win, place, or show in either Iowa or New Hampshire is almost certainly going to be required for someone to have a chance to win the right to face Donald Trump.
As for the other twenty candidates in the race, Sunday’s cattle call in Iowa proved what we already knew: it is humanly and practically next to impossible to break out in a field this big, with so much similarity between so many of the prospects. That will be true in the early formal debates as well.
Based on polling, organization, demographics, and the dynamics of this particular race, today, only Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg are positioned to win or place in the first two states. That, of course, could change between now and February.
But it is going to be super challenging for all the rest to get there, unless Scenario 1 occurs. So one big question is, if Biden falls, where does his vote go?
And, another: if Biden does not fall, can any of the current second-tier candidates turn the contest into a two-person race coming out of New Hampshire?
And, finally, can anyone besides Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, and Harris break into the second tier in time to build fundraising and voter momentum?
It is notable that in a field of two dozen candidates, the trajectory of the race for the foreseeable future depends on the performance and prospects of just one of the candidates – Joe Biden, whose primary objective is to make nice with the other Democrats, stay above the fray, and focus on Trump. But that is where we are right now.
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