It is now a new year, the Iowa caucuses are only a few weeks away, and that means it’s time for Herman’s Toteboard to end its year-long moratorium and weigh in on the state of affairs in this long and often confusing Democratic primary. The next month or two are likely to determine just how long, and how confusing.
In one sense, a lot has happened since the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir declared their candidacies over the last year. Much of this followed the regular script, as most of the quixotic (Bullock, Inslee, Bullock, Hickenlooper) and marginal (O’Rourke, De Blasio, Moulton, Ryan, Williamson) figures gave it their best shot and then quickly faded away, with a few others (Gabbard, Bennett, Delaney, Steyer) due to follow soon. But there were a few surprises too, as some genuinely promising candidates – Gillibrand, Harris, and maybe Castro – just never seemed to distinguish themselves enough to catch on with a critical mass of voters. This is all pretty typical of the winnowing that has to occur when you have a field this big.
But in another sense, the race seems to have settled into something of a dull, sticky paste, as very little has actually happened among the main contenders for quite some time. If you look at composite polling figures for the four candidates who are getting the most press – Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg – the numbers are virtually unchanged from where they were last July, with Biden holding a stubborn but uninspiring lead, Sanders maintaining his loyal Bernistas but few others, Warren enjoying and then losing the mid-autumn bounce that made it look briefly like a two-person race, and Mayor Pete struggling to make the transition from “quixotic” to “major” candidate. There’s also a little bit of interesting but probably insubstantial noise on the margins, like Klobuchar and Yang both getting good debate grades and poking up ever-so-slightly from low single digits to mid single digits, some billion-dollar weirdness from Bloomberg, and questions about how long Booker can keep going with a campaign that seems to be going nowhere.
In short, the race for the nomination seems kind of stuck, and it may not get unstuck until a few caucuses and primaries force out a few more candidates. Although it’s tempting to blame this torpidity on some inherent weakness in the field, the Toteboard is more inclined simply to point out the heterogeneity of the democratic rank-and-file, and how challenging it is for candidates to appeal to multiple constituencies that may have conflicting interests. In fact, even identifying the party’s multiple constituencies is itself a PhD dissertation in the making, as democratic voters don’t divide easily along the obvious lines of ideology, race, ethnicity, religion, income, education, gender, age, or sexuality. As a nod to this complexity, the fivethirtyeight gang, for example, initially offered a polythetic model of five overlapping “corners,” that cut across the more conventional demographic lanes: lefties, party loyalists, millennials, blacks, and (surprisingly) Hispanics/Asians. It was an interesting shot, but the model overestimated the appeal of several candidates (like Harris, Booker, and Gillibrand) and failed to anticipate the durability of Sanders or the modest rise of Buttigieg. Clearly, predicting success in this round cannot be reduced to counting how many boxes the candidates check.
And so, the Toteboard proposes something much more simple, and perhaps more crude, by looking at how Obama owed his success – in both the primaries and the general election – to scoring a powerful trifecta of three large and important voting blocs that aren’t always on the same page, i.e., African Americans, educated white liberals, and white urban working class voters. No, those aren’t the only groups that make up the Democratic coalition, and no, those groups do not necessarily behave or vote monolithically, but the Toteboard does not see how the eventual nominee can earn a mandate without working through those particular territories. The roadmap for success probably involves doing well in two of them and making some clear inroads into the third.
The problem here, and the reason why the numbers have turned so flat, is that these three constituencies tend to employ different criteria for determining who will be their champions, and it’s a pretty tight needle to satisfy all of those criteria. Speaking again with admittedly crude (but useful) generalizations, the educated white liberals usually vote some combination of ideology and gravitas, i.e., for the ready-for-prime-time candidates who have a history of taking principled stands on progressive causes, and this is where Warren and Sanders find their most obvious bases. But African American audiences don’t necessarily jump to whoever is brandishing the “right” ideological credentials. The last several decades of elections indicate that black voters are more likely to get enthusiastic about individuals who have some kind of a personal, concrete, historical connection to their communities. Obama is certainly the most obvious example, as was Jesse Jackson (who ran in 1984 and 1988), but black candidates don’t automatically rush to the top here (Harris and Booker are prime examples of this), and individual white candidates have appealed for different reasons. A half-century ago, there was Hubert Humphrey for his outspoken (and early) support of civil rights, later Bill Clinton for his comfort in the black church and general affinity for black culture (remember references to him as the first black president?), and most recently Alabama Senator Doug Jones, for his successful prosecution of the Birmingham church bombers. If you want to see what this kind personal connection looks like, go find youtube videos of Bobby Kennedy speaking extemporaneously from a flatbed truck to a black audience in Indianapolis on the night of MLK’s assassination. And it makes a big difference when that connection just isn’t there, for whatever reason. When Gary Hart first sought the nomination in 1984, his progressive voting record just didn’t really matter to traditional black voters. One southern African American leader noted with dismissive irony that Hart came from a state that “has more cows than black folks.” The statement spoke volumes. If Hart didn’t really know blacks, didn’t really have a personal connection to them, how could black people trust him to represent them? At the moment, this seems to be Biden’s lane, almost certainly due to his connections to Obama, but it’s still not quite clear how firmly that connection will hold.
The third group, the white working class, may be the toughest nut of them all to crack, and the toughest to characterize, as their preferences tend to shift, and even their party loyalties have been up for grabs for decades. The Toteboard’s best take on what drives this group is a pragmatic concern for who “gets” them and their needs, for who is really looking out for their interests. And there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all model for what type of candidate that is, as many voters from this bloc went for Obama twice, but then became disillusioned and converted to Trump. It’s hard not to think about that white, flat-topped, power-lifting Florida pizza shop owner who brazenly bear-hugged Obama and yanked him off his feet. The guy identified as a republican but voted for Obama twice because he was “his man.” It’s not just that they’ll vote for the candidate they’d most like to have a beer with – it’s that they want to have a beer with someone they can most identify as one of their own, regardless of race, party, gender, or geography. It would be interesting to see whom the hugger and his friends like this time around.
And so, you can probably see where this going. Biden is the weak frontrunner because he does well with African Americans and the white working class, and well enough with white liberals. And the other candidates know which bases they have to hold, and which ones they have to target. Warren has to keep the “liberal elite” from jumping ship and simultaneously build on her appeal to young blacks and prove to the white working class that they are the “little guys” she’s looking out for. Buttigieg has to wrestle some moderates from Biden and convince blacks he’s not just another northern white politician who takes their votes for granted. Sanders doesn’t really have to do anything, but that’s just because he lives for a state of perpetual revolution. Klobuchar, Yang, Booker, and Bloomberg (three of them would be fun to have a beer with) need to prove that they have the better claim to at least one of these groups, or their candidacies will be dead real soon.
A quick note on frontrunners: It may not quite be accurate to think of Biden as the “frontrunner,” since there haven’t actually been any real votes cast. A better term might be “presumptive frontrunner,” which describes the candidate who has some combination of fundraising, consistently high polling numbers, and a media narrative of inevitability. Note that this does not get applied to just anyone who is the early leader in the polls, especially if their popularity is restricted to a narrow constituency and there’s a large pool dividing the rest of the numbers. For instance, George Wallace was actually leading the democratic field in early national polls in 1976, but no one really expected him to get the nomination. Likewise Jesse Jackson in 1988. Regardless, Biden may not want to be too widely perceived as the presumptive frontrunner, as democratic candidates with that distinction have never fared very well historically. Ed Muskie (1972), Ted Kennedy (1980), Gary Hart (1988), and Hillary Clinton (2008) were all presumptive frontrunners going into the primary cycle, but all of them bombed out once the voting season started. And those presumptive frontrunners who actually did get the nomination, Walter Mondale (1984), Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004), and Hilary Clinton (2016) all lost in November. Phrased in reverse, none of the three democrats who have won the presidency over the last 50 years entered the primary season as presumptive frontrunners. Jimmy Carter (1976) and Bill Clinton (1992) came from fields that had no presumptive frontrunner, and Barack Obama (2008) knocked off Hillary Clinton. If history is any guide, Biden might not want to feel too cozy at the top of heap.
And although this Toteboard has gone well beyond verbose, it is necessary to offer one final word about the elephant in the room, i.e., impeachment. One of the most head-exploding moments of Trump’s presidency – and there have been many – was his indelicate comparison of congressional inquiries into his behavior as a “lynching.” The reasons why this comparison is so wrongheaded are too numerous to list, yet the Toteboard would like to make the bold suggestion that Trump actually invoked the right metaphor, but bungled what is was that should be compared. The real point of reference here is not the victims of lynchings, but the smug, grinning defendants who were rightfully accused of lynching black men and women, as well as the juries of “peers” – i.e., other white male racists, Klan members, and corrupt politicians – who enabled continued violence by effectively acquitting the criminals even before the trials began. The Toteboard can only think of the 1947 murder of Willie Earle in Greenville, SC, committed by nearly three-dozen white men, and how the trial was treated like a “church picnic,” how the jury heard no exculpatory evidence but came back with a not-guilty verdict after five hours anyway, and how the defendants waved gleefully in Life Magazine photos as though they were grand marshals in a Patriots Day parade. The Toteboard thinks it’s be pretty clear who Trump is, and who Mitch McConnell and his fellow republican worms are in this analogy.
Signing off, until shortly before the Iowa Caucuses.