Who Will Win the 2020 Democratic Primary?

Happy Iowa Caucuses Day! If you missed yesterday’s Iowa prediction, catch up with it first, because my expected result from Iowa impacts how I see the race evolving afterward.

Now, however, it’s time to predict who wins the whole thing. Which of these candidates will become the 2020 Democratic nominee?

Since today is the first Monday of the month, I think it only appropriate to unveil my answer in the style that’s guided the first Mondays of the last five months: a Power Rankings. Who knows? It might be my last Power Rankings of the cycle.

The candidates’ January ranking is in (parentheses), and they are separated into this cycle’s planetary tiers.

Tier 5: Ejected from Solar Orbit
  • Marianne Williamson (14)
  • John Delaney (13) (FINALLY!)
  • Cory Booker (8)
Tier 4: The Asteroid Belt

11. Tulsi Gabbard (11): It’s hilarious how much Democrats dislike her. It’s not really deserved, but it’s objectively hilarious. At least the party would be receptive to..

10. Michael Bennet (12): Bennet has put all his chips into New Hampshire, so after he finishes in like 8th there we can expect him to drop out by the following morning, as will Gabbard, who’s also New Hampshire-or-FoxBust.

9. Deval Patrick (10): If someone wrote a book called Worst. Campaigns. Ever., Patrick 2020 would show up in, like, Chapter 1. Expecting to be the savior of the Democratic establishment two months ago, he’s now polling 0.3% nationally. Great job. But hey, maybe he has a moment in the next week and this former Massachusetts governor has a surprise result in neighboring New Hampshire.

Nahhhhhhh. He really should drop out immediately.

Tier 3: Dwarf Planets

8. Tom Steyer (8): Though seemingly doing well in underpolled Nevada and South Carolina, two bad results in Iowa and New Hampshire will wipe away those numbers. He’ll drop out by March 1 and endorse Sanders.

7. Andrew Yang (7): Welp, that was a fun one-month run as a major planet. He’s done well to get to nearly 5% in an average of national polls, but he’s doing no better than that in early states, and time has run out. Without better early state polling (like Klobuchar) or a gazillion dollars (like Bloomberg), he just hasn’t gotten to this point in a strong enough position. After he comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire with zero delegates, the loyal #YangGang can no longer claim we’re all blind to this massive national movement. I suspect he’s out by Nevada.

Tier 2: The Rocky Planets

6. Amy Klobuchar (6): Klobuchar has a remote shot at capturing early state momentum and picking up support just as the field winnows. As discussed in my Iowa prediction, she’s competitive there and closing strong. If she nabs a top three, then a top three is on the table in New Hampshire, where she’s already polling top five. Finishing ahead of Buttigieg would be a particular success, as he likely drops out and they have a lot of crossover support that would move to her. She’s then the last non-Biden moderate contender on early state ballots. Her success also means Biden’s numbers aren’t that strong, so we should see some of his supporters switch over to her. As she strengthens, all of a sudden Democrats start to realize they have a tremendous candidate in Amy Klobuchar.

It’s a plausible scenario. I mean, 20/1 odds plausible, but plausible. It starts with a top-three Iowa result tonight (or a reeeally strong fourth place). If she doesn’t get it, it’s over.

5. Michael Bloomberg (5): His national polling inches closer to double-digits by the week, and he’s already hitting 15% in places like delegate-rich Florida, delegate-poor Missouri, and second-largest delegation New York. FiveThirtyEight even ventures to say his Super Tuesday strategy might be working. (He didn’t compete in the first four states and focused instead on weightier March and April states.)

Still, while he’s closer to the Big Four than he was a month ago — or, to be clearer, two of the Big Four have dropped back toward him — he’s stuck at #5 nonetheless. He needed to climb even more before voting started. It’s likely that two of the following four candidates are going to have early state successes, and voters will fall in line behind them. We’re not even sure Bloomberg will stay in the race and keep spending once that happens. He’s counting on a divided trio or quartet of contenders coming away from February with relatively even positions, which is an unrealistic hope. Even if he does stay in, I don’t see how his belated start, which relies on late momentum, leads to favorable delegate math. Two other candidates would already be sprinting just as he’s tying his shoes. To be the nominee, he’d ultimately need a contested convention, which hasn’t happened in modern presidential politics, and then he’d need to win that contested convention in a party that doesn’t take kindly to billionaires buying elections. Without bigger numbers heading into this month, his potential fizzles even as his polling average continues to climb.

As a final thought, however, there does seem to be an increasingly realistic scenario where Bernie Sanders dominates the first month as we learn moderate and establishment Democrats didn’t rally around a single moderate alternative. With Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar all seen as weak, defective candidates, perhaps only Bloomberg looks strong enough to stop the speeding Sanders train. All other candidates drop out, then it becomes Sanders v. Bloomberg down the stretch. In such a race, Bloomberg has a shot to rack up delegates very quickly.

And if he saw this scenario coming the whole time, kudos to him, his data-driven team, and the billions of dollars that makes it all possible.

4. Pete Buttigieg (4): Much to the relief of his campaign bus, Pete Buttigieg is no longer gassy. Welcome back to rocky planet status, Mayor.

His steady fall in national polling has been ongoing for some time. Here are candidates’ rolling national polling average over the last two months according to Real Clear Politics:


At nearly 12 percent at the turn of December, he’s down to 6.7 and fifth place overall. Bloomberg has passed him, and Yang and Klobuchar probably would, too, if given another month.

Still, he still looks good in the first two states, where he continues to poll in the top three. I don’t see how he beats Bernie Sanders in either one, though, whereas a month or two ago that looked on the table. Without a show-stopping win, he’d be relying on winning the expectations game at just second or third place, which is hard to pull off after he had been competitive in both states — and once leading their polls! — for so long. He’d get a moderate bounce, but it’s not like other voters are looking for an excuse to support him. If he beats Biden tonight, he’ll have a puncher’s chance moving forward.

3. Elizabeth Warren (3): Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, doesn’t need to score quite as high as Buttigieg to build a national coalition. As seen in the polling graph, she’s clearly above the pack. She’s top four in the first two states, top three in the next two, and top three in Super Tuesday’s mega California as well. A top-two from her in Iowa and/or New Hampshire would, at this point, thoroughly beat expectations, which, combined with decent national polling, a history of Democratic voters strongly considering her, and field-topping “second choice” support, could actually send her on the way to a competitive primary bid.

Still, like Buttigieg, Warren has also been reduced from a gas giant to just a rocky planet. Her biggest obstacle, Bernie Sanders, has almost ruined her presidential plans. The only way she’s one of the final two candidates is if one of the following scenarios plays out:

  1. Sanders busts in Iowa and/or New Hampshire and Warren finishes ahead of him. Progressives would then likely rally to her, and she becomes the finalist against the moderate leader. This scenario, unfortunately for her, relies on an extremely unlikely Sanders stumble in his two best states. This scenario feels exceedingly unrealistic.
  2. Sanders wins those two states, but Biden busts and Warren finishes ahead of him (and Buttigieg and Klobuchar). At that point, establishment Democrats might look to Warren as their best chance to stop a socialist non-Democrat from winning their party’s nomination. It is then Warren as the finalist against Bernie Sanders. Of course, little about the contours of this primary so far make it seem like both finalists will be progressives. One gets the impression it’ll be an ambassador from the progressive group versus one from the moderate group.

Neither seem particularly likely, but they’re conceivable. The only remaining Warren path to the nomination would be a competitive three- or four-way race (likely with Bloomberg heavily involved down the stretch) that leads to a convention, where I actually would make Warren the favorite as the natural choice to unify progressive and establishment voters. But again: we just don’t see contested conventions anymore.

If only PPFA, with the click of a button, hadn’t doomed her campaign.

Tier 1: The Gas Giants

For the first time in this entire primary, I have Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden with identical odds to win the primary — both 2/1. In other words, I think if we played out the primary in 999 scenarios starting from this point, Sanders would win a third of the time, Biden a third of the time, and Someone Else wins in the remaining third. It feels like a total toss-up. What a race!

The Case for Biden Winning: 

1) Dating back to the 2018 midterms, he’s led the national polls for all but a couple days:


After his announcement bump faded, his consistency has been pretty remarkable. He’s had to endure heaps of criticism, including from this writer, over his debate performances. Scandal-wise, he’s weathered allegations of handsiness and hair-sniffing, which is a sentence I never thought I’d write. His son’s relation to Burisma Holdings hasn’t put a dent into the elder’s numbers either. He’s just been grinding away, in the lead, between 25 and 30 percent nationally. That actually makes him a stronger frontrunner than Mitt Romney 2012, who lost the lead for stretches before snatching it back on his way to victory, and it parallels Donald Trump 2016, who briefly lost the national lead to Ben Carson in the fall of 2015 (near the same time Biden briefly lost the lead to Warren) before regaining the lead permanently. And Trump also lost Iowa, as Biden is likely to do tonight.

2) Voters still care about electability above all else, and they still see Biden as the most electable. When the time comes to caucus or pull the lever, will the pressure of making the responsible decision overwhelm any flirtation with a more “inspiring” (read: ideological) candidate?

3) South Carolina! Of all the first four states, the biggest lead any candidate has is Biden in South Carolina. That’s a well-placed and well-timed contest for him. Just three days before Super Tuesday, his bounce would affect all of the big day’s dozen states, including in the many southern contests where he already leads. If he wins Super Tuesday, he wins the nomination.

4) If he wins any state before South Carolina, I think he’s easily the nominee. That’s not the case for any other candidate.

The Case for Sanders

1) While Biden limps toward the finish line, Sanders sprints. While Biden plays prevent defense, Sanders throws Patrick Mahomes-esque darts down the field. While Biden tries to dribble out the clock, Sanders is firing three-pointers from way downtown. (I hope you watch sports, because those were some awesome metaphors.)

In other words, Sanders’s aggressive campaign has momentum. The Biden-Romney comparison works well when comparing 2019 to 2011, but once the primaries rolled around in 2012, Romney had been in a climb for weeks. Biden is not. He might be steadily leading the national polling average, but Sanders is a week or two from catching him (and in fact did in the last national poll). If Sanders win Iowa — and I think he will — he likely takes the national lead.

2) If Sanders wins Iowa, he’s going to win New Hampshire in a blowout. No candidate of either party has ever won the first two states and not won the party’s nomination. And since he’s already competitive with Biden in Nevada, it’s a good bet that if Sanders wins the first two, he’ll win the third. Nevada is a caucus state after all, which was Sanders’s specialty four years ago. At best, Biden would leave February in a 3-1 deficit.

3) If it weren’t considerably off-brand, the Sanders Campaign could change its theme song to The O’Jays’ greatest hit. Flush with cash, Sanders has used a spending spree to help drive up his numbers in Iowa and nationally. He could probably outspend Biden 2 to 1 down the stretch, as he’s been doing.

4) Of the major planets/campaigns, no candidate’s supporters are as fully committed. Though they shamelessly often use their devotion as a warning to support their candidate OR ELSE, it’s clearly an advantage to not worry about soft support fleeing if things get rough. One gets the impression that Biden’s support is soft. What happens when a candidate relying on electability starts losing elections? What’s left after that? Not much.

It feels like Bernie Sanders is going to win the Democratic Primary (oddsmakers and prediction markets agree), and it feels like the voters of a party that have so long screamed back at Republicans that Democrats are not actually socialists are going to nominate a democratic-socialist to be their leader.

But if 2016 taught us anything, it’s that what we “feel” isn’t necessarily trustworthy. How often did we feel Trump’s run was unsustainable? That his latest gaffe would surely be his undoing? That once someone punched him in the mouth he would fall apart? We felt that way very, very often. In the meantime, he just kept leading national polls, and his supporters could care less what we all “felt.” Now Donald F. Trump is somehow President of the United States.

So sure, it feels like the candidate with the most cash, one who wins Iowa and New Hampshire (and Nevada?), should win the primary. There is no historical precedent to say otherwise. But then again, no primary has ever led to the nomination of a democratic-socialist before either. How do we resolve this conundrum?

I’d like to finish my decidedly unconfident prediction by throwing out my feelings and sharing with you the most telling statistic I could find regarding where this race is heading.

As of now, Biden and Sanders are the clear polling leaders nationally and in every early state. Still, they total no more than 50% in any of those places. The other 50 to 55 percent are allocated to the other candidates and undecided voters.

In February, the field will winnow. If the polls, and we of the punditry, are right, it is Biden and Sanders who will most likely survive that winnowing. Warren will drop off, and her voters will mostly go to Sanders. But Buttigieg and Klobuchar will drop off, and their support will mostly go to Biden. But Steyer and Yang will drop off, and their support goes to Sanders. But Bennet and Patrick drop off, and their support goes to Biden. (Oh, and Gabbard will drop off, and her support will mostly go to Trump.) Meanwhile, all the undecideds are still waiting to pick sides.

So the question really is, when it comes down to two choices, after the February field is cleared and the spring delegates start coming in faster than we can keep up, who do Democrats want between these two men?

A recent Echelon Insights poll asked this very question. Though the top line results when putting the two candidates with the rest of the field had only three points between them — 29-26 in favor of Biden — the result of a hypothetical two-candidate race had a much wider margin. One candidate had a pretty convincing 54-38 lead.

That candidate was Joe Biden.

So while Sanders won only 12% more of the field, Biden added twice that. As the field winnows, Biden will become stronger by picking up supporters of withdrawn candidates.

So I think Biden loses tonight, finishing second, third, or even fourth. Then he’ll be top three in New Hampshire. Then top two in Nevada and top one in South Carolina, states with minorities that are sick of being told what to do by indefensibly earlier states that are neither demographically nor ideologically representative of the party.

At that point, it’s Biden as the candidate moving on an upward trajectory, just as we hit Super Tuesday. On that day, Bernie Sanders will win California big, but Joe Biden will win more states and more delegates, all on his way to winning the 2020 Democratic Primary.


12 thoughts on “Who Will Win the 2020 Democratic Primary?”

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