Why Warren and Sanders Are Good Bets to Win in 2020

Predictions are always a dangerous game in politics. But if you want to figure out who is likeliest to earn the Democrats’ 2020 presidential nomination, you could do worse than to look at the 2016 Republican primary.

On its face, this would seem to be a strange way of going about it: the two parties’ electorates and motivations have never been further from one another, at least since the Civil War. But the battle within the GOP in 2016 is surprisingly relevant to today’s Democratic race in a few key respects. First, the race will feature a wide array of hopeful candidates seeking to unseat a known quantity seen as politically vulnerable. Second, those candidates are already sorting themselves into two basic tracks: an “establishment track” and an “anti-establishment” one. Third, the Democratic base also wants its share of populist revenge against the elites who have undermined their well-being.

I was one of the few writers to consistently predict from early on that Donald Trump (or perhaps Ted Cruz) would win the GOP nomination over his more establishment foes (and that he had a very good chance of winning the general election as well.) It wasn’t just a hunch: it was based on a close reading of the GOP base as well as basic polling.

As the race wore on, the GOP primary winnowed into two tracks: one featuring Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the anti-establishment lane, and the other featuring essentially everyone else in the establishment lane. The problem for the establishment candidates was that, month after month, the combined weight of the anti-establishment lane consistently outpolled the establishment one. In polls conducted before the Iowa caucuses, the sum of Trump and Cruz support was consistently higher than the combined numbers from the rest of the field. Worse for the establishment, there were only two candidates in the anti-establishment lane to split their delegates, while a much larger number of traditional players fought for the establishment lane under the assumption that eventually Trump and Cruz would crash to earth. This further weakened the establishment candidates. By the time Rubio was left as the only plausible challenger to the Trump-Cruz ascendancy, he was already mortally wounded.

Combined with the obvious fact that the GOP primary electorate was looking for a rebel leader, a political disrupter, and an ugly revenge against liberal America, it wasn’t too hard to figure out what would happen. If you made predictions based on the actual data rather than wishful thinking or erroneous assumptions about the basic decency of the electorate, it was easy to know that Trump or Cruz would sail to victory. It was also easy to see that Clinton would not be quite the lock to win that many expected.

Similar lessons apply to the Democratic race in 2020. Accurately sensing that the Republican president is historically vulnerable, a veritable army of Democratic hopefuls are jumping into the race. Broadly speaking, however, a relevantly similar dynamic is occurring in the Democratic field, as it did in the GOP’s 2016 field. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are occupying the populist, anti-Wall Street, revolutionary lane, freaking out the banking class and earning the support of much of the activist base. (Tulsi Gabbard could be a complicating factor here, but her glaringly conservative stances on many issues will likely cap her base of support.) The rest of the field cannot be as easily characterized as “establishment” as the anti-Cruz/anti-Trump wing of the GOP was in 2016, but most analysis suggests that Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Biden, Delaney, Castro and the rest will be playing for the older, more traditional electorate that propelled Clinton to a surprisingly narrow win over Sanders in 2016.

But the establishment wing is facing much greater headwinds in 2020 than Clinton did against Sanders. First, there are far more of them running, which will split the delegates they can earn. Second, the democratic socialist left is increasingly ascendant, embarrassing and scaring off centrist billionaires and forcing even most of the establishment candidates to campaign for Medicare for All, housing reform, and wealth taxes that, just a few years ago, the previous Democratic nominee said that were unicorn fantasies that would never happen in our lifetimes. Third, millennials will be a much greater share of the electorate than they were in 2016: by 2020, they will be 40% of the electorate. Finally, it’s increasingly clear that economic populist anger against the obscenely wealthy is excellent politics not just within the Democratic base but also among independents. In 2016, only one candidate was giving angry voters someone to blame for their economic plight. In 2020, there’s an excellent chance that Democrats will be offering a compelling counternarrative, naming the actual villains who have been immiserating the poor and hobbling the middle class.

It’s still too early based on current polling to say whether the anti-establishment track on the left will perform as  strongly in 2020 as the GOP one did in 2016. Early polling at this point is reflective more of name recognition than much else. But with the Sanders and Warren share of the vote consistently hovering around 25%, there is good reason to think that a familiar pattern may be emerging again.

Much has been made of the advantage conferred by the Deep South states in the primary field, and the advantage that candidates who perform well there will have. But it’s also important to remember that Clinton-Sanders battles notwithstanding, voters of color are not actually more moderate than white liberals ideologically. Further, in 2016, not only did African-Americans under the age of 30 support narrowly support Sanders, but voters of color under 40 did so overwhelmingly. And four years will have passed since then. Finally, it is difficult to see Biden, Harris, and Booker withdrawing from the race for one another before the Southern primary is already decided, effectively splitting the delegate tallies from older voters less inclined to democratic socialist politics. In other words, the South will likely not be quite as determinative as many pundits seem to believe.

None of this is a guarantee, of course. Unpredictable events happen that can render some issues more surprisingly salient than others. Candidates can make career-ending gaffes. But given what we know so far, betting against either Sanders or Warren to take the nomination would be a risky call.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.