The Pundit’s Guide To Handicapping The Democratic Nomination

The Pundit’s Guide To Handicapping The Democratic Nomination

Is the Democratic field as strong as it appears? Or is it as weak as the Republican field of 2016 when an outsider thundered onstage and wiped all Republicans away?
Alex Castellanos
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“2016 really is the deepest GOP field in a very, very long time. In fact, it isn’t even close.” — Sean Trende, RealClearPolitics, Jan. 29, 2015

Five U.S. senators, a former cabinet secretary, a visionary tech entrepreneur, a polyglot mayor-soldier-intellectual, and a crusading former congressman will be on the stage for the third Democratic presidential debate, hosted by ABC on September 12 in Houston. Add to that a former vice president.

Is the Democratic field as strong as it appears? Or is it as weak as the Republican field of 2016 when an outsider thundered onstage and wiped all Republicans away? A fair estimation leads me to think the latter.

A few insufficiently confused friends have asked me to take look at the car crash that is the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination and assess each candidate’s prospects. Fortunately, I’m a resident of Washington, where a pundit’s imprecise predictions do not limit his employment potential.

So, with the disclaimer that previous results are no guarantee of future performance, we begin, examining the silver-tongued politician who hailed Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is clean and bright and articulate,” that roiling cauldron of political enthusiasm, the presumed Democratic front-runner until he isn’t.

Joe Biden

Occasionally, I’m asked, “Who would be the best Democrat to run against Donald Trump?” It would be a young Joe Biden. Unfortunately for Democrats, that’s not the Joe Biden they have. Instead, the Democrat leading the polls is the Biden we’ve seen wandering around the campaign trail like an escapee from a retirement home, lecherously exploiting gender gaps, and stumbling painfully through debates.

Does Biden lack the clarity of thought and expression he used to have? Yes, and he wasn’t gifted with remarkable abilities in those areas in his best days. In the unforgiving sport of politics, voters will wonder if the trauma of brain surgery and two aneurisms in his mid-40s are now contributing to Biden’s debilities. Biden’s problem is not just his age; it is his health. Time and the stress of a political campaign do not make these problems better, as voters will unavoidably observe.

What a consultant never wants to hear about his candidate is what David Axelrod has said about Biden: “This may be the best he can do.” Pity dooms candidates. When voters like a candidate and determine it is cruel to ask him to bear a burden beyond his abilities, they retire him out of kindness. It will be Biden’s strongest supporters who give him a gold watch, thank him for his service, and put him on the train to Delaware.

Biden’s supporters note Trump also says things that are not true and confuses the facts. There is, however, a difference: Our president distorts events willfully because it is useful, not accidentally because he is unaware.

Biden’s roller-coaster poll numbers are instructive: He sinks during debates when voters see him and rises between debates when voters don’t. When your best campaign is no campaign, Houston, you have a problem.

Recently, even between debates, Biden has been getting too much exposure: The latest Monmouth poll shows Biden sinking to a national tie with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, nine points behind Warren with liberals (45 percent of Democratic primary voters), losing his “small edge in the early states,” surrendering “His even larger lead in the later states,” and in fourth place at 6 percent with voters under age 50. Joe Biden is running a one-man negative campaign against Joe Biden. Unless someone stops him from campaigning, there is no telling how low he will go.

Biden’s campaign team has gotten the message: They are keeping him away from the campaign trail, ducking routine events, and playing “hide-the-candidate.” Remarkably, Biden’s campaign has replaced its candidate and his unscripted media events with a TV ad, more than five months before Iowa. It is a smart short-term move by Team Biden and may hold up his poll numbers temporarily.

Unfortunately for candidates who melt in the campaign sun, in presidential contests, TV ads become less effective closer to the election. Increasingly, voters see candidates directly, through the burning-hot lens of the omnipresent news media and the intense magnifying glass of social media. In short, Biden can run and hide, but not to election day.

In my experience, enthusiasm gaps like Biden’s engender upsets. Biden could be 10 percent to 15 percent ahead of Warren or Sanders and still lose to either in Iowa. I suspect that, before Iowa votes, it should be obvious he is not going to make it.

The decision he will face, available to him only before Iowa, is whether to drop out and preserve his place in history, or add an unnecessary last chapter of failure and embarrassment to a long book filled with success and affection. I’d expect to see a chorus of Biden’s supporters urging him to drop out before Iowa has its say.

Friends ask, “If Biden’s that weak, what is holding up his polling numbers?” It is not Biden’s name recognition or stature as former vice president. It is the lack of an electable alternative. Biden’s unenthusiastic supporters do not yet have anywhere to go.

Biden voters are trapped at a dull Biden speech, balloons deflating, campaign signs on the floor, and the only door out of the room leads to the rest of the Democratic field, where each and every candidate is making his or her best effort to become unelectable. That fittingly brings us to the revolutionary curmudgeon of Democratic politics, Russian honeymooner, millionaire author, and member of the 1 percent.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders’ problem is that in politics, as in the bedroom, it is difficult to lose one’s virginity a second time. In 2016, Sanders was a bright, distinctive voice for change, the only populist, revolutionary alternative to Hillary Clinton.

Bernie didn’t win the nomination, but he succeeded. He converted the Democratic Party to his public display of socialism. Bernie’s 2016 run paved the path for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad to become the inspirational soul of the Democratic Party. He opened the door so every Democratic candidate could raise his hand for wacky, leftist ideas like free government-run health care, even for illegal aliens.

Now, Bernie’s work is done. He blazed the trail that normalized socialism throughout the Democratic firmament. Bernie has nothing more to contribute: When every candidate is Bernie Sanders, simply younger, more charismatic, and slightly less disagreeable, why do Democrats need the original?

That leads us to the real frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, the Harvard Law professor for the working man, Bernie Sanders 2.0.

Elizabeth Warren

We’ve all seen the horror movie where the Monster returns from the grave. It always comes back stronger, angrier, and more resilient. Scarred and furious, the Monster is much tougher to stop the second time. Nothing is stronger than a candidate who has lost, learned, and grown, a candidate who has taken a beating and renewed herself.

That’s the big news: Pocahontas is back, drawing the largest crowds of any Democrat, although everyone thought she was dead and buried. Her counterfeit Indian heritage, all 1/1000th percent of it, is now built into her stock price.

As Peter Theil noted, she is the most dangerous candidate on the Democratic side because she has the clearest lecture on the economy. Unlike Democratic candidates who stand for everything and nothing, Warren knows exactly what her campaign is about and, native heritage aside, who she really is.

She is the most dangerous candidate on the Democratic side because she has the clearest lecture on the economy.

If Sanders is yesterday’s revolutionary-populist, Warren is tomorrow’s. Polling cements Warren as the candidate with the broadest support across the Democratic Party, college-professors and working class, men and women, left and farther left. Other than Sanders, who has been promoted to socialist emeritus, Warren is the only candidate who is an unambiguous populist, not just a lefty, European-style socialist. Only Warren is harnessing the working-class revolutionary passion that helped Sanders nearly beat Hillary Clinton.

And Warren has used that passion to build an organization. She has a top-notch ground game and social media effort, both amplified by the clearest message of any Democratic candidate: “The big and powerful are screwing the average American and I’m running to protect them.”

Warren has marshaled that populist resentment to support the most detailed and comprehensive mechanism to wage the class struggle since Karl Marx wrote “Das Kapital.” No matter the problem, Warren “has a plan for that.” Her plans even have T-shirts.

Does Warren’s enraged, radical socialism limit her in a general election? It does, thankfully. Reparations for slavery, the end of private health insurance, free health care for illegal aliens, hard-hearted demonization of employers, the elimination of sex distinctions, potential decriminalization of prostitution, a legislative wish for everything—Warren’s presidential campaign has breached the levees.

Does Warren’s enraged, radical socialism limit her in a general election? It does, thankfully.

Amazingly enough, the former Harvard professor doesn’t look as nutty as she is when standing next to a Democratic field determined to outbid her. Compared to the Squad, even Warren, on occasion, looks like a centrist.

So, in Democratic primaries and caucuses, Warren’s algorithm is powerful: angry populist + angry socialist + angry woman = Democratic nomination. Currently, in the Real Clear Politics polling average in New Hampshire, Warren trails Biden by 6 percent and Sanders by 4 percent. If Warren wins Iowa, takes a head of steam into New Hampshire, and edges out Sanders in the Granite State, it won’t matter if Sanders stays in the race. His votes will belong to her.

The open question for Warren remains electability. Has she tacked so far left to win the nomination that she loses it? Do Democratic voters fear she can’t do the one thing they want most: defeat Trump in a general election? I suspect not, because of the candidate she is running against: Trump polarizes voters and consistently underperforms in surveys, so Warren should always tie or lead Trump in surveys, just like everybody else.

Warren also has a distinction no other Democrat can boast: She has been the object of Trump’s affection at a level no other contender has attained. Pocahontas can pick a fight with Trump at any moment and guarantee a stream of valentines from the President’s Twitter feed.

When you can jump at will into the ring with the champ, you are the number one contender. And that is where we leave Warren as we turn to the rest of the Democratic field, including the Cheshire Cat of the 2020 race.

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris has a big smile and very little behind it. In sheer charisma, Harris is the candidate most like Obama in the 2020 field, but without a millimeter of Obama’s depth.

Obama withstood shots like Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God d-mn America!” and didn’t buckle. Obama appeased both Democratic centrists and leftists without appearing compromising, weak, or hypocritical. The same cannot be said for Harris, who gave Biden a good shot in the first debate and then displayed a glass jaw. On her feet, without the aid of prepared remarks, she seems unable to give as good as she gets or handle second-order debate.

On her feet, without the aid of prepared remarks, Harris seems unable to give as good as she gets or handle second-order debate.

Candidates with depth don’t attack an opponent for holding the same position they do on busing, as Harris did. Serious candidates don’t attack the same Medicare for All bill they have sponsored, although Harris did that as well. More importantly, Harris has tied herself into a knot running away from her prosecutorial record in California.

Instead of owning it and demonstrating strength, e.g., “Darn right, I was a tough prosecutor. If you commit a crime, if you victimize the weakest among us, and especially if you target disadvantaged African-American victims, I’m going to come after you, regardless of whether you are black, white, or purple.”

No, Harris tried to pretend she had been something she was not, while her record mysteriously disappeared from the government of California’s website. As I’ve said of Harris, when you’ve locked up more black Americans than George Wallace, it’s hard to be the greatest civil rights advocate in American history. And when you float around like a butterfly on issues and process your record through a blender, you raise doubts you can lead the nation.

So, what becomes of Harris? Not much, I suspect. If Biden collapses in Iowa and staggers through New Hampshire without dropping out, his black support is still likely to crumble by South Carolina. Black backing clings to Biden lightly, only because Obama chose him as vice president. Pointedly, as we all know, he does not have Obama’s support today.

When you float around like a butterfly on issues and process your record through a blender, you raise doubts you can lead the nation.

If Biden begins to dissolve, black Democratic leaders in Congress and the professionally aggrieved black-victimhood industry will abandon ship to preserve their fading power. They will start attaching themselves to other candidates like remoras.

The black vote is more likely to solidify around whoever is developing momentum than a weak candidate like Harris. If she has not hooked up the jumper cables to her campaign and given it a boost before she gets to California, she will likely find her support waning in her home state. Then, having demonstrated the lack of character that would make her a superb vice-president, she can start practicing going to funerals, while other candidates extend their embarrassment, including this next candidate.

Julian Castro

Castro is filling the now-obligatory Hispanic candidate slot. Occasionally in his first two debates, we’ve seen glimmers he can grow beyond it. Unfortunately, the more successful he becomes in establishing himself as the “Hispanic” candidate, the more he limits his opportunity to expand his identity. He’ll go nowhere until he resolves this conflict.

Castro once had his brother, an identical twin, secretly take his place on a parade float. Well, until we ascertain whether it is Julian or Joaquin Castro who is running, we can turn to a Democrat with an even fuzzier identity.

Corey Booker

Even in this pitiably weak field, Cory Booker seems unable to distinguish himself. Physically, there is a cartoonish, Muppet-like quality to the New Jersey senator that makes it difficult to take him seriously: He displays large, unblinking eyes on a monochromatic, featureless head.

Booker’s lightweight appearance accurately reflects a deeper problem: Booker is afraid to say anything unpopular. Booker’s campaign is featureless. He has the courage to say whatever Democratic voters want to hear, turning his message into forgettable background noise, the indistinguishable hum of tires on the campaign bus to nowhere.

Appropriately enough, that allows us to roll on to another candidate going nowhere and getting there quickly, the Lancelot of 2020.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto’s support seems to follow the inverse square law: The fewer his supporters, the more intensely they embrace their candidate. Beto’s fans see their candidate as a romantic figure, bringing purity to politics. For them, he is a true believer with the infectious power to make them believe.

As much as I love campaigns built on idealism, there is little room in today’s angry Democratic politics for romantic figures, a knight on a white horse, like Beto. Problematically, there is also nowhere else for such candidates to go: When Beto went negative at the end of his race against Ted Cruz, it eroded his purity. The problem with riding white horses is that you can’t get a speck of mud on them.

Even in King Arthur’s day, the romance of the Round Table did not last long. Neither, I suspect, will O’Rourke. But we still have all the excitement Minnesota can offer in another candidate.

Amy Klobuchar

Some pets we allow in our homes to become part of the family and play with the children. Others, we don’t. We keep the guard dog outside, where he is useful, knowing he might scare the children, growl at visitors, or bite grandma if we ever let him in. Right now, voters are keeping Amy Klobuchar outside the house, chained to a stake.

Given the choice, we would like our president to lead with both strength and compassion. Yes, Trump was chosen because of his bite: Republicans wanted to chew up the Washington establishment. Democrats, who want to preserve and expand that establishment, want a tough but friendlier companion.

Right now, Democrats can’t imagine petting Klobuchar—she’s a biter. If warmth inhabited Klobuchar, she could have contended for Biden’s “tough-moderate” lane, once the former veep vacated it. She hasn’t been able to find that kind-heartedness. Until then, we can take off our ties, move to higher ground, and consider a friendlier animal, already housebroken.

Andrew Yang

A portion of the Democratic Party does not value work and would, if given a choice, end it. They see work as something we are required to do, not as an indispensable element of our nobility, moral growth, and self-worth. Andrew Yang represents that perspective.

He believes machines will soon replace man and tells us that when our current desires are met by robotic engines, we will reach the end of history. He tells us we must prepare for a world where man has nothing more to want or produce, so we must grab $1,000 a month from the government and surrender to a life without work.

But that is not the human story. Man’s history of ambition and desire, and our insatiable hunger for meaning, tell us we will never stop searching for something better. If our work is mechanized or computerized, the inventive American mind will find more products to make, better services to provide, and new frontiers to imagine. Americans will never run out of work: We will create it.

Yang’s youthful and optimistic campaign lends politics an attractive simplicity. But imagining a world without work and offering $1,000 for breathing is the immature expression of an adolescent. I hope Yang ripens and puts on a tie, like the last candidate on the list.

Pete Buttigieg

The South Bend mayor may be last on our list, but he is not last with the oddsmakers. Buttigieg has not yet caught on beyond his base, but he is a polyglot, polymath, soldier, Christian, big-thinker who plays the piano. He’s gay in a party that celebrates tolerance. More importantly, he represents something new in an aging Democratic Party that only aims to return to what it was before Trump’s day.

If Buttigieg can become the candidate who represents something different than what Democrats were before Trump, he could evolve into a transformational candidate. Mayor Pete could lead his party into the future. With his public embrace of his faith, small-town values, and patriotic military service, he is one of the few Democrats with crossover potential. Buttigieg could contend for centrist votes Biden will abdicate.

With his public embrace of his faith, small-town values, and patriotic military service, he is one of the few Democrats with crossover potential.

However, these are angry times. After eight years of George W. Bush, our country was hungry for a cool, intellectual candidate of the future, who spoke of hope and change and hit jump shots. Democrats have no appetite for that today.

Now, even in the Democratic primary, cool Obama is routinely administered a whacking. Our country wants fire and brimstone. I suspect Buttigieg, despite his many gifts, is not angry enough for this moment and this election will not bring his day.

I hope he remains who he is and plays out his hand authentically. It would say something good about America if he gained the Democratic nomination. I would not bet my house on him, but if I were betting your house, perhaps. Buttigieg is one great speech away from getting the ride that makes him a 2024 contender.

Now you’ve got your 2020 Democratic Debate Playbook. If you worry that these 10 fine examples of Democratic political pulchritude may come into your TV room for only one night of riveting deliberation, good news: A billionaire, eco-activist coal investor and the first Hindu Hawaiian Samoan American to run for president are only a couple of polls away from also making the stage. If so, they’ll split the field into two stimulating nights of debating.

It will be just like “Game of Thrones,” although fewer will survive the last episode. See you there, in Houston, September 12.

Castellanos co-founded Purple Strategies, a bipartisan public affairs firm, and serves as political analyst for ABC News, ABC News Radio, and "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. His parents, refugees who fled Castro’s Cuba in 1961, came to this country with one suitcase, two children and eleven dollars.

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