Well, if Iowa and New Hampshire were supposed to establish some clarity in the national race, it should be pretty clear by now that they failed miserably in their task. Rather, the Caucasian Couplet produced some surprising but not particularly conclusive results, which in any event don’t seem to be moving any of the national needles, but do provide further evidence that “bounce” and “momentum” refer more to spin than reality. Mayor Pete came away with the most delegates, but is still barely cracking 10% in the overall polls, and (as one satirist put it) still has a constituency whose complexions range from off-white to eggshell. Bernie’s co-victories with Buttigieg have propelled him to unlikely frontrunner status, but leading the field with 25% nationally hardly qualifies as an enthusiastic mandate. Amy’s Klobucharge produced a fun new word for next year’s OED, but few new backers. Warren was left for dead after two drubbings, and then produced what was arguably her best debate performance yet Wednesday night. The same might be said of Biden, though it may just be that he’s gotten more polished at reciting his resume. Finally, the apparent vacuum left by the prematurely reported demises of Warren and Biden created that golden opportunity Bloomberg had been waiting for so he could swoop in and rescue a polarized party deus ex machina . . . except that he didn’t.
So what does it mean that no candidate seems to be pulling away, that the field is not winnowing quickly, and that there’s a much better than whimsical possibility that there will not be a nominee in place before the convention? Does this somehow mean that the democratic party is in chaos? That the candidate pool is a weak one? That the nominating process has broken down?
Certainly, there are pockets of the press that advance such narratives, but this is (once again) one of those times when a little bit of history would both debunk an irresponsible narrative and shed a little bit of light on what’s actually happening.
What political writers tend to overlook, or never knew in the first place, is that there have for a long time been at least two conflicting forces within the democratic party leadership, and their respective political interests in the nominating process run at cross-purposes. On the one hand, there are those who have been invested in democratizing the process, opening up participation to the largest range of rank-and-file voters. This was the driving force behind the structural changes that began after Hubert Humphrey sleazed into the nomination in 1968 without entering a single primary. Up until that point, few states actually held primaries, and those that did frequently conducted them as non-binding “beauty contests,” or elected favorite son candidates, or caucused a non-binding delegate slate, with the understanding that the party apparatchiks would eventually choose a consensus establishment candidate. But all of this was undone by the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which in 1972 enabled the first version of the five-month extended primary season that survives (in ever-shifting forms) to this day. At least theoretically, the new rules would bring “power to the people” and do away with the infamous smoke-filled rooms.
But not long after the party enacted these changes, the empire began to strike back. Party insiders questioned whether the participatory primary process could actually produce nominees who were ready for prime time. And they had a point too, as George McGovern ran a heroic but doomed-from-the-start campaign against Nixon (1972), Jimmy Carter barely squeaked by the incompetent Gerald Ford (1976) and was subsequently drubbed by the incontinent Ronald Reagan (1980). So by 1984, those party insiders began slipping new rules into the process with the intention of reclaiming hegemonic control. This began with the creation of the notorious super-delegates, without whom the anointed milquetoast Walter Mondale never would have prevailed over Gary Hart’s upstart challenge. When the heir apparent proved to be no better a national candidate than McGovern had been twelve years earlier, the party truly did seem to be in disarray. So, they next hit upon the idea of front-loading the primaries with a bunch of conservative (mainly southern) states – the idea being that they could accomplish two goals of the hegemony, i.e., shutting down a long nominating process, and producing a centrist (read “electable”) candidate. Of course, the first “Super Tuesday” experiment in 1988 went off in their smoke-filled faces like an exploding cigar, as the southern states didn’t break exactly as they had hoped. Jesse Jackson won five of the mostly Deep South states with heavy black turnout, Al Gore won five of the northern-ish southern states, Mike Dukakis won almost everything north of the Mason-Dixon line, and even Dick Gephardt was able to knock off one state on the southern/Midwestern border. The battle went on.
What is kind of bizarre about all this is how the press has somehow bought into a narrative that had really originated with undemocratic, even reactionary, forces within the party, i.e., that the primary process is “supposed to” be settled quickly, that the remaining months of the primary process are merely decorative, and that any deviation from this script betrays a loss of control. If democrats find the primary season demoralizing, it’s only because they have a low tolerance for democracy. And that’s too bad, because the reality is that this one is likely to go on for a while, and it will be fascinating to see how participatory democracy plays out from now until June. And it may be even more fascinating if no candidate has secured a majority of the delegates by July.
So, where are we now? The narrative has changed slightly.
The New Lanes: At this point, it may be fair to say that the biggest story is less about who is dominating which lane than about whether Bernie is in his own high-speed lane, and whether anyone else can break out of the congested traffic and catch up with him. The subplot here is how high Bernie’s ceiling will be. He may be the “clear” frontrunner, but how far front can he run if he’s still only polling nationally at 25%? If he can pull away in Nevada, he may begin to prove that he’s not just a niche figure. If not, well, things will stay complicated.
Life Support: Both Biden and Warren were badly gored by Iowa and New Hampshire, but neither refuses to go down quietly. It’s not clear if they’re really trying to overtake Sanders, or if they’re simply hoping to amass enough delegates to force a second ballot in Milwaukee. Arguably, Biden has more to lose, as he really won’t have anything left in the tank if the African American firewall doesn’t hold next week in South Carolina. Warren reportedly got a big infusion of funds after her debate performance, so she may have some incentive to keep going a while longer, though it’s even harder to win with 15% nationally than it is with 25%.
Bucket of Crabs: Poor Pete and Amy. They surprise the hell out of everyone with their performances in the first two states, but each time one of them reaches up for some air, the other tries to pull him or her back into the barrel. What apparently began as a friendly Midwestern rivalry has devolved into something that is at best “testy,” and at worst borderline vicious. Mayor Pete especially has perfected this cerebral, composed, above-the-fray persona, all the while delivering well-calculated (and well-rehearsed) jabs with laser-like precision. And Amy, bless her heart, isn’t afraid to give it back. But if neither one figures out how to play outside of Peoria – they’re both in single digits in SC – their days will be numbered.
Horsing Around: If Bloomberg had some idea he could waltz in and dodge incoming from the circular firing squad, that misconception was quickly put to rest by five colleagues who found a perfect target on whom to vent their collective frustration. And they went right for the jugular too, with the Toteboard especially tickled to hear Warren invoke the specter of “horse-faced lesbians.” Even if the quote was actually “horsey-faced lesbians,” it’s a memory that Bloomberg would rather not be saddled with. And from being the designated spokesman for all billionaires who believe they earned and deserve their money, to pretending that sexual harassment victims actually wanted non-disclosure agreements, to putting forth a revisionist history of racial sensitivity, Bloomberg can anticipate his purchased poll numbers will start tanking soon. If they don’t, well, the Toteboard will be speechless.
Finally, the numbers:
Sanders: 3-2 (previously 7-3)
Biden: 3-1 (previously 2-1)
Warren: 6-1 (unchanged)
Buttigieg: 9-1 (previously 6-1)
Klobuchar: 15-1 (previously 50-1)
Bloomberg: 100-1 (previously 25-1)
Someone else: 50-1 (previously 100-1)
See you next week!