With barely a month to go before the Iowa caucus, the Democratic Party’s presidential primary should be accelerating into the news cycle like a Formula One racecar burning its wheels, but thus far has looked more like a skateboard on the beach. The latest debate was roundly ignored. To steal a joke from Bob Newhart, it practically got a negative rating, which means several people who don’t own televisions were surveyed and said if they did own one they also wouldn’t have watched it.
Honestly, how can this possibly be? This is, after all, a contest to decide which Democratic hero will square off against a president that most party members view as a combination of Hitler, Darth Vader, and Benedict Arnold. It features the first prominently gay major candidate, and a woman poised to capture the nod for the fairer sex a second straight time. Joe Biden is bringing his “aw shucks guy from Scranton” A game, and Bernie Sanders is yelling as loud as ever.
There a few plausible reasons why this primary just can’t seem to get much traction. One often cited reason is that Democrats have essentially overshadowed their own primary with impeachment. After all, networks like CNN and MSNBC that should be laser focused on the primary instead spend approximately 58 out of every 60 minutes predicting Trump’s imminent doom, as they have been for three years.
Given the “historic” nature of this impeachment and all the “bombshells” and whatnot, there’s just not a lot of oxygen left in the green room for primary punditry. Deepening this self-inflicted wound is the fact that several senators who are leading candidates may wind up cloistered in a Senate trial, off the trail, for as long as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cares to keep them there.
It would be a mistake to place all the blame for the lackluster reaction to the race on impeachment or on the coverage Trump’s supersized personality generates. These are factors, to be sure, and as often as the media warns itself against being all Trump all the time, they just can’t quit him. But in fact, one of the biggest reasons for the boredom is the primary itself and its candidates. To see why, it’s useful to compare this current Democratic primary to the last GOP primary.
Both contests featured large fields that by the December before Iowa settled into a race between a top four. Like Biden today, Trump was hovering in the high 20s, with Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson each about 10 points back. That looks a lot like Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and to a lesser extent Pete Buttigieg. But there is a huge difference here: while Trump was a shocking front-runner, Biden is the most conventional candidate in the race.
Americans of every political stripe were transfixed by what most everyone thought was the Trump train wreck. The majority of Republicans in December 2015 were saying to themselves, “He can’t really win, can he?” Democrats were saying, “He can really win! Can’t he!” Meanwhile, the 25 to 30 percent of Republicans who had gone full MAGA were filling stadiums left and right and shouting their love of Trump to the high heavens. There is nobody out there doing much shouting about Joe Biden.
This could all change quickly. Impeachment may soon be a speck in the rearview mirror as Iowans caucus. That result can, as it often has, reshape the race and give it some vim and vigor. Current Iowa leader Buttigieg has a chance to catch a spark, and a war chest big enough to fan the flames. A strong Biden showing could solidify his lead, or there could be some unexpected surprise.
But for now the race remains in the doldrums. For all the talk about how electrified and fired up to beat Trump the Democrats are going into 2020, it has not translated into much interest in the race to decide who will give out that hoped for beating. That’s a curious thing.
Perhaps it’s why in polls so many Democrats say they are interested in a new candidate. Those are shoes that Michael Bloomberg would like to fill. But despite spending more on TV ads than NASA spends on space, his 5 percent polling is anything but astronomical.
This primary election needs some juice, and it needs it fast. If it remains a snoozefest and an afterthought, the eventual nominee will limp into the convention fighting Trump with little wind at his or her back.