Surprises and Non-Surprises in the 2019 Democratic Campaign

In looking over the five developments in the Democratic primary race that surprised Ed Kilgore in 2019, I was interested to see the differences in our perspectives. I already covered the first two items on Ed’s list in the piece I wrote last week on the predictable strength of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. I’m also not the least bit surprised that black voters are wary of nominating a minority candidate after seeing how much of the country seemingly went crazy during the presidency of Barack Obama. The only areas of partial agreement I have with Kilgore involve Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang.

He doesn’t really explain why Biden’s steadiness surprises him, but his explanation appears just a bit shy of adequate:

Biden’s resilience is often attributed to Democratic primary voters’ obsession with electability, reinforced by his durable support from nonwhite and elderly white voters who fear a Trump victory more than they hope for some hypothetical progressive administration.

That’s all accurate but I’d add a few things. First, it’s an inescapable fact that most Democrats simply like Joe Biden whether they agree with his politics or not. Second, minority voters are well-disposed to Biden not only because they see him as “electable” but because they value the job he did as Barack Obama’s loyal and capable lieutenant. He earned their gratitude and their trust, which is why Kamala Harris didn’t help herself by attacking his record on busing. Third, elderly Democrats are more comfortable with Biden’s style of leadership and more forgiving of the flaws in his record than younger voters because they suffered through the worst of the conservative backlash against the progress made in the 1960’s. Fourth, Biden does have some strengths in areas where the Democratic Party is increasingly weak, including among white working class Catholics (especially if they’re unionized) and the socially liberal/economically conservative “New” Democrats that proliferate in the suburbs. When you add all of this up, it’s hard to see how Biden’s support could fall below about a quarter of the Democratic vote. It’s really his uneven debate performances and signs of aging that have prevented him from running away with the nomination.

I confess that I thought Sanders’ heart attack might be a game changer that blew up my previous analysis and so I do share a bit of surprise with Kilgore when he talks about Bernie’s ability to weather that storm. But since I predicted that Sanders would stick above fifteen percent no matter what (and thereby get delegates in nearly every congressional district in the country), I can hardly say it defies my expectations to see him polling in second place at 19 percent. He has enough of a loyal remnant from 2016 that I never could envision him falling below a fairly high floor.

The third item on Kilgore’s list is the strength of Pete Buttigieg, and here I agree.

In March, he was well below one percent in candidate preferences. Now he is at 8.3 percent and, more importantly, leads the polling averages in Iowa and is a close second in New Hampshire.

Buttigieg is not doing so well in states that vote later in the process, where nonwhite voters — among whom he has very low support — are predominant.

I did not see Buttigieg getting any traction and am genuinely surprised that he’s been able to build so much support in Iowa. He’s one of the strangest political characters I’ve ever encountered because his support comes from such disparate places. His LBGTQ support is self-explanatory, and he positioned himself as an economic centrist so I see how he’s getting a chunk of Biden’s natural constituency. But it’s really his support from Silicon Valley libertarians that seems to have driven him above the long list of also-rans. If you support platform monopolies like Facebook and Amazon, Buttigieg is your guy. He’s the anti-Elizabeth Warren wrapped up in an “aw shucks” Midwestern package. It’s a giant fraud, but it seems to be effective. As Harris and Booker failed to get traction, Buttigieg became even more important to the venture capitalists and tech monopolists, but I can’t say I saw this coming.

The fourth item on Kilgore’s list is his surprise that nonwhite voters do not show a preference for nonwhite candidates. Latinos prefer Biden to Castro and blacks prefer Biden to Harris or Booker, so we’re not seeing any significant racial solidarity in terms of candidate choice. In addition to indirectly benefiting Buttigieg, this is probably the easiest thing to explain on the list. Trump has ridden a wave of racist backlash against the presidency of Barack Obama. This is terrifying to liberals of all types, but nonwhites are obviously the most threatened by the rise of a white nationalist movement. It’s natural to want to drain the blood out of this fever rather than risk feeding it with another minority candidate. This can be called an “electability” argument, but it’s based in more than mere political fear. It’s a fear of personal safety and loss of rights. Black and Latino voters are looking for protection and a return to normalcy, and that’s a different kind of pragmatism than just who can win.

The last item on Kilgore’s list involves Andrew Yang:

There have been a number of conventionally strong candidates who have dropped out or seem to be heading in that direction. Among them are Montana governor Steve Bullock, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, and early Texas sensation Beto O’Rourke. And there are other barely surviving presidential prospects with pretty good résumés, such as Senators Cory Booker and Michael Bennet and Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and John Delaney.

Andrew Yang has consistently outperformed them all. He has qualified for all seven presidential candidate debates (including the upcoming event in Iowa) and is currently tied with Amy Klobuchar in the RealClearPolitics’ national polling averages.

Yes, Yang has some interesting signature policy proposals, and yes, he’s done well intermittently in debates, and yes, his fundraising totals have been impressive, and yes, he’s got a social-media Gang spreading his word. But still, his campaign is overperforming any reasonable expectations.

Yang was already doing surprisingly well when I decided to take a good look at him. So, I basically came at analyzing his appeal after that appeal had already been demonstrated. It’s hard to be surprised after the fact, but Yang’s ability to hang on even as he comes under greater scrutiny is a testimony to his talents as a politician and, especially, as an organizer. He’s funny and charismatic, which goes a long way in politics and probably explains most of his success. But, to be honest, we shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of his candidacy. He’s polling nationally at 3.6 percent and in eighth place behind Tom Steyer and Cory Booker in Iowa. Most of the surprise pertaining to Yang is not about how well he is doing but that he’s done better than well-established politicians like the governors of Colorado, Washington and Montana.

So, Yang and Buttigieg have surprised me a bit, but I’ve been put off-balance more by Elizabeth Warren’s missteps and the amount of money Steyer and Michael Bloomberg are throwing around than anything else. These are the wildcards I struggle with as I try to game out the Democratic nomination. And, of course, I have no idea how the eventual trial of Donald Trump will impact things. It could boost Biden but there’s a good chance that it will hurt him at just the wrong time.

I guess I’ll never understand how Warren became convinced that she needed to get off the themes that made her formidable and take the left-most position on health care. She didn’t need to fight on Bernie Sanders’ turf. She needed to prove she could make a class-based pitch to Trump Democrats and compete among labor Democrats in Rust Belt states. She needed to show she understood the concerns of minorities and could be depended upon to support and protect them. The last thing she needed to do is fight over the white progressive vote with Bernie Sanders.  But she planted her flag in the wrong place and all it did was put her back behind Bernie and in Nowheresville in the campaign.  Before she made that error, I thought she had the best chance to beat Biden. I no longer think she has any chance of doing so.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com