One Year Until Iowa!: Five Impossibly Specific Predictions for the Democratic Primary

Sunday will mark one year until the Iowa Caucuses, currently scheduled for February 3, 2020.

I know what you’re thinking: “HOW ARE YOU ALREADY TALKING ABOUT THIS?!” For an answer, I coolly refer you to this website’s name. If you want to be mad at someone, just look in the mirror. You love this.

Below, I offer five “One Year Out” predictions that will all surely be mangled by the New Hampshire Primary. Before we get to that, here’s the tentative early part of 2020’s Democratic Primary calendar:

  • Mon, Feb 3: Iowa Caucuses
  • Tue, Feb 11: New Hampshire Primary
  • Sat, Feb 22: Nevada Caucus
  • Sat, Feb 29: South Carolina Primary
  • Tue, March 3: “Super Tuesday” — Nine states (and counting?), including California and Texas

On to the predictions!

1. Democrats will be no more successful than the 2016 Republicans in solving the problem of a massive field formally debating itself. Republicans, remember, decided on a two-tier system, usually based on subjective polling thresholds nationally and in Iowa and New Hampshire. A certain level of support was needed to make the “main” debates of about 10 candidates, and a much lower threshold was needed to make an “under card” debate that aired a couple hours earlier before the prime time audience was ready to watch. Candidates in the lower tier lamented that relegation to the lower tier debate cemented the perception of having no chance, which then suppressed their support, which in turn ensured they couldn’t get into the top tier debate. True enough, of the handful of candidates to appear in the second tier, only one, Carly Fiorina, ended up participating in the main debate. Another second tier debater, Rand Paul, refused to debate in the under card.

The Democrats are likely going to have more than the 17 “major” candidates the Republicans had four years earlier.[1] Between the early declarations, unpopular Republican candidate, and tracking the moves of high-profile Democrats, we can infer that the number could eclipse 20 — or even be closer to 30. At that point, there would either be a 20-person debate — which seems like a nonstarter — or a relatively full top debate of 9 or 10 candidates and a relatively full second tier debate of 9 or 10 candidates and potentially the need for a third tier debate. Moreover, with two dozen candidates or so, polling will be so divided that the threshold to make debates would presumably have to be pretty low. Consider this outside-of-the-envelope estimation of national polling that basically mirrors the Republican summer of 2015.

  1. The leader: 15 percent
  2. A couple close contenders at 8 to 12 points
  3. A handful at 4 to 6 points
  4. Another handful at 2 to 4
  5. The other dozen or so candidates split 20 points from 0 to 2 a piece
  6. Undecided: 10 percent

If you hypothetically give more points to the top few candidates, that means that’s fewer points for the rest of the field to split. If you reduce points from these top few candidates, that makes for an even more level field. How does one divvy a debate field when everyone is so close? We don’t know.

All we do know is that the Democrats will screw it up.

2. We’ll experience a recurring narrative of “The Democrats made a mistake getting rid of most of their superdelegates.” Man, remember superdelegates? They were the over 700 party insiders who made up about 15 percent of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention. This approach to the nomination, which dated back to the 1970s, was criticized by many, including me, as an undemocratic approach to the convention. Bernie Sanders supporters were particularly critical, since Hillary Clinton dominated the category.

Last summer the Democrats finally constrained superdelegates’ power. Though they will still exist and attend the Democratic National Convention, they will not be allowed to vote on the first ballot. Only if there’s a deadlocked first ballot (the PPFA dream!) will they get to weigh in on successive ballots. This process ensures a nominee can win on the merits of “pledged delegates” — earned in the actual primaries — alone. It was a long overdue change, and perhaps now the Democratic Party can more befit its name.

Of course, leave it to the Democrats to finally make a past due overhaul to their nomination system in the one year where they might need the old system to give them a clear nominee. If enough of these twenty-odd candidates win delegates, it will be rather difficult for any one candidate to get a majority of pledged delegates by the end of the primaries. That would then lead to a deadlocked ballot, a delayed nominee, a fractured late summer party, and a delayed superdelegate vote that could have otherwise started the healing process a couple months earlier.

While I still think the change was for the best, I can certainly see the media playing up this counter-narrative.

3. Despite, and perhaps because of, perceived ideological overlaps, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — and their respective supporters — will develop a rivalry and block the other from the nomination. I hinted at this two weeks ago when strangely comparing candidates to planetary bodies. The loudest constituency in the Democratic Party is the rising progressive movement, and its two highest profile ambassadors among the likely 2020 candidates are Senators Sanders and Warren. I predict they’ll split the left and limit each other’s upside with the progressive wing of the party and in the important New Hampshire Primary, where each would otherwise do very well (and probably win). Supporters on either side will insist their candidate is better suited to defeat Trump — Sanders because he’s the true leftist, Warren because she’s not an unelectable democratic-socialist — and I imagine the animosity will eventually resemble the Sanders-Clinton feud of 2016, complete with a gender disparity and its concomitant controversy. Both will have strong organizations that compete well in the early states, but neither can break out as long as the other one remains.

Then, when one finally does drop out, it’ll be too late for the other. At that point, at least two other candidates will already have started to separate from the field…

2. California Senator Kamala Harris will not win… but she will come in second. I know — weird prediction, right? She’ll do really well for several reasons:

  • Aesthetics: the party is 60 percent female and more than 20 percent black. Some people like to pretend identity politics doesn’t exist in the Democratic Party. It does. President Obama won record amounts of black voters and did significantly better with blacks than Clinton did four years later. Meanwhile, Clinton did better with white women than Obama did. And we know that President Trump’s best demographic by far is white men, whose proportion in the Democratic Party has steeply dropped. Identity politics is real.
  • Competence: she’s a Senator from our country’s most populous state, she’s a former prosecutor (admittedly a potential liability among progressives, though it still evidences her experience), and she impressed many Democrats in the high profile confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. Many people will reason that she would be a strong contrast and debate opponent for President Trump.
  • California!: California has moved up its primary date by three months. Last cycle it was in June, making it one of the last states to vote in the primary, but now it’ll be in the first week of March — tied with ten or so Super Tuesday states as the fifth state to vote. The reasoning behind the push explains why it will help her so much: California wants to have more say over the nominee. Its June primary date had turned it into a rubber stamp of whomever was on his or her way to winning the nomination. Many Californians felt shortchanged, particularly since its enormous number of diverse Democrats should have more weight than tiny, lily white Iowa and New Hampshire. A March primary will give it a chance to throw its weight around. Relevantly, its delegation is considerably larger than all others, much in thanks to there being so many Democrats in the state.[2] In 2016, it sent 405 pledged delegates to the convention, while second place New York sat just 233. Texas (208) and Florida (207) were the only other states to have a delegation even half the size of California’s. Therefore, Harris, popular among Democrats in her home state, can expect to have a huge delegate haul that day and vault into the delegate lead if she doesn’t have it already. Then, just as other candidates are dropping out, this momentum will make her look like a strong alternative when Democrats are looking for a new candidate to back.

Looks good, right? So why won’t she win?

I think Democrats’ most desired quality in their 2020 nominee will be the ability to defeat Donald Trump in an election. Harris’s strength in California might be her greatest asset in a primary, but we already know the state is blue in a general. Her ability to compete in the industrial “rust belt” of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin — the most obvious path to victory for the Democratic nominee — will be called into question. The party, either through polls or perception, will see two other candidates as most capable of winning a general election against President Trump.

1. The winner will be… either Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke.[3]

Congressman Beto O’Rourke may be coming off a narrow loss to Ted Cruz in his 2018 bid for the U.S. Senate, but the fact that a Democrat came that close to winning a state-wide Texas election shows his appeal. If he can almost win in a red state, he would presumably be the favorite across a purple country. He is colossally popular with millennials and other young voters, an often politically apathetic group that, if mobilized in a general election, can give Democrats an easy win.[4] O’Rourke is sometimes seen as an Obamaesque figure that can rally the party around a young, hopeful message. If he wins Iowa, I think he’s the nominee. He’d convert that win into a great February, then he’ll dominate the large Texas Primary on Super Tuesday. He might still trail Harris for the delegate lead, but he’ll have the better case for general election success and outstrip her later.

But if O’Rourke doesn’t win Iowa — and there’s certainly less than a 50 percent chance he will — then my sidebar odds have already made clear who I think the front-runner is. Thanks to the Obama-Biden relationship, I think enough Democrats from enough constituent groups will see him as acceptable and the best bet to win back Obama/Trump voters. Though there will be some foot-stomping from the progressive wing, I expect he’ll be popular with mainstream Democrats, African Americans, women, and millennials.

Is he old? Yes, but he’s a only a few years older than Trump. Is he imperfect with a penchant for gaffes? Incredibly so, but in a way that will seem refreshing and honest, which is what Trump had going for himself two years ago but no longer does.

Then consider his opponents. Biden is nationally well-known and well-liked in the party, but most candidates will be targeting certain states: O’Rourke and Klobuchar will live in Iowa, Sanders and Warren will push all their chips into New Hampshire, Harris will rely on South Carolina and California. Biden, however, will compete well in every state with a lot less effort. He’ll finish top three in Iowa, as he will in New Hampshire, Nevada, and then then South Carolina to round out February. On the first Tuesday in March, he’ll have the most balanced Super Tuesday, perhaps only defeated on the day by Harris’s Haul in California. As the field whittles, he ascends as the candidate who can win the general election, a sentiment suggested by polling.

Therefore, one year before Iowa, I still think Joe Biden is the 2020 Democratic nominee. He’ll promise just one term with a mission to turn over the party to new blood after vanquishing Trump. Then he’ll ride into the sunset in 2024 as his VP runs in his place.

I told you I’d be specific.


[1]Are we calling Jim Gilmore “major”? George Pataki? That’s debatable (pun), but they did participate in at least one under card debate, so sure.

[2]State delegation size is dependent on several factors, including the state’s population, the number of elected Democrats in the state, and party loyalty in presidential elections. From the Democratic perspective, in each of these categories California acquits itself very well. From the Republican perspective, California can fall into the ocean and it’d be an improvement.

[3]That’s also a possible Democratic ticket, depending on how close Harris finishes behind the winner to make her own case as VP to bring the party together. In fact, the three obvious tickets are Biden/Beto (what a ring to it!), Beto/Harris, and Harris/Beto. (Biden as VP is a non-starter.) Julian Castro is the third most likely VP possibility. I do think Democratic leadership will worry about having two white men on the ticket; though presumably it’s a way to appeal to the white man demographic that has gone heavily Republican lately, it might also fail to capitalize on where the energy of the party is: women and minorities.

[4]His popularity with them further hurts Bernie Sanders’s chances, as he did very well with the group four years ago when the alternative was Hillary Clinton, a candidate for whom millennials didn’t care. This fact partially explains why Bernie’s armada has tried to submarine O’Rourke before he even declares.


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