2020 Democrats: state of the race (June 2nd, 2019)

The rules for who is allowed in the debates for the Democratic nomination is very “inside baseball,” but can potentially have a dramatic impact on how things play out.

The best example of this is from 2016, when the GOP had a massive field with no real front runner early on (if you’ll recall, Trump’s support gradually grew while a series of “boomlets” for other candidates rose only to pop). As with the Dems 2020, the GOP of 2016 decided to showcase 20 candidates over the two initial nights of debates with ten being featured in each. In the GOP case, they chose to give the second night to the ten candidates with the highest polling average, leaving the first night for the so-called JV squad or “kiddie table.”

The early GOP debates helped to shape the field. The dominant story line became Trump bulldozing the field with his now cliched brand of labeling his fellow debaters with nicknames (“low energy Jeb”) and other fun time attacks. But there the desired “winnowing effect” of the debates also took place in other ways.

Most memorably, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie annihilated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (both considered viable presidential nominees at the time) for using the same canned lines about President Obama repeatedly. It really is a beautiful take-down and moment of political theater. Ah, Mr. Christie… such a gifted natural politician, yet so flawed.  And then there’s one of my all time favorites from the 2012 cycle.

Anyway, cut to 2020 and the Democrats have taken a different tack: they’re still going with ten candidates a night over two nights (June 26th and 27th), with the inclusion of the 20 (because there are more than 20 candidates in all, if you haven’t heard!) determined by a combination of poll standings and fundraising criteria. But instead of having a “kiddie table,” the invited candidates will be selected randomly for which night they’ll appear on, with the caveat that candidates with a polling average over 2% will be again randomly sprinkled over the nights to further ensure that we don’t get an “accidental” JV squad debate.

As with many things, I can see this criteria having consequences that we can’t predict as yet. We won’t know the make up of the debates for a few weeks, but they may well have a lasting impact on how the nomination process plays out (or… maybe they won’t, who knows?). For example, even though the “major” candidates polling over 2% will be spread out over two nights, the specifics of this selection could be crucial.

For example, if Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are selected for the same debate, that automatically becomes the “major” debate, with the relative impact that the other debate may get a lot less attention. Further, let’s say that Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg land in the same debate, along with some longer shot candidates like Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper. This then becomes both a major debate and then the de facto “white dude debate.” You could have an old versus young version of this dynamic, or Senators versus non-Senators, etc.

With all of that being said, it totally makes sense that “No One Knows How to Prepare for the Democratic Debates.”

And meanwhile, the stakes for the third debate, set to take place in September, ramp up the qualifying criteria significantly:

  • DNC to raise qualifying threshold for third presidential primary debate in Sept. Now candidates need to hit *both* thresholds, which have doubled: – 2% in 4 major polls – 130,000 unique donors, including 400 from 20 states.

As Nate Silver notes:

  • Bad news for anyone not named Joe, Bernie, Elizabeth, Kamala, Pete, Beto and maybe Amy or Cory or Andrew.

So, really, the winnowing will likely take shape based on this but again, we don’t know what the unforeseen consequences of these largely behind-the-scenes rules (for most) will be.

This New York Times story does a good job of framing the “race within the race.” Pull quote:

  • With a historically large field of 23 candidates apparently now set, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, both African-American, are competing with Mr. Biden and other candidates for the support of black voters; Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, who are both under 50, are vying for the mantle of generational change; Senator Elizabeth Warren is encroaching on Senator Bernie Sanders’s support from the party’s left wing; and six women are making the case that it is long past time for a female president.

I think the use of the word “overblown” here is, well, a little overblown, but it’s a fair point that it’s exceptionally rare for a front runner to march to the nomination without some serious competition along the way:

  • Best illustration of the race’s volatility isn’t just the appetite of activists for a Biden alternative – it’s also Bernie’s softness w some of his ‘16 voters. Public + priv polling we got shows Warren encroaching on his left esp w the most upscale & engaged.

I personally would like to see a candidate eventually consolidate the support of the left (and in my view Elizabeth Warren would be an exemplary candidate to pull that off) and then have an active debate with the eventual “centrist” front runner (and while Biden has a very solid shot at holding onto this territory it’s by no means a done deal at this point).

Let’s do some quick hits on some of the candidates:

Elizabeth Warren 

Good NYT piece that fits with the Warren is gradually gaining on Sanders story line: “Elizabeth Warren Gains Ground in 2020 Field, One Plan at a Time.”

  • Ms. Warren still faces the long-term challenge of growing her support to include a broader population of Democrats, including nonwhite voters as well as moderates. And she faces obstacles in multiple directions: In addition to competing with Mr. Sanders for voters on the party’s left flank, she faces stiff competition from other candidates to emerge as an alternative to Mr. Biden, whose centrist campaign could appeal to a broad swath of Democratic voters.

I do wonder how much, “I’ve got a plan for that!” will work as a campaign slogan over the long haul. That being said, the substance of her proposals are indeed notable and could help her to break through. For example, a timely “plan for that” this week involves allowing the Department of Justice to indict a sitting president.

Beto O’Rourke 

Beto to The New Yorker

  • [T]he thirty members of the press, in your face, at the first event, at the second event, at the third, and then day after day after day, and asking almost nothing about anything that we just experienced together in that room.”

Makes you wonder why the press isn’t asking about what happened in the room, bringing original reporting of a unique event to break through the din and what’s largely commoditized reporting… is their job to follow these candidates around to get quotes about the national news of the day?

Mayor Pete 

Pete Buttigieg was on The New York Times’ The Argument podcast recently, arguing that he’s the right Democrat with the right experience for our times. By talking about how as a mayor he makes executive decisions and runs municipal departments that congresspeople don’t have to, and the fact that he’s the only candidate with military experience (save for Seth Moulton), and that he’s the youngest and only openly gay candidate, he does an exceptional job of turning the, “Isn’t this guy the mayor of some city in Indiana?” question on its head.

Kirsten Gillibrand

One candidate who seems like she “should” be more of a player in the 2020 race but to date hasn’t been a factor is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Hailing from Democratic power center New York and successor to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, she would seem to have a natural base to launch a campaign, but this Politico piece looks at her “failure to launch.” As with the rest of the pack, there’s lots of talk about how early things are and how little poll numbers mean at this point.


On Trump’s re-elect chances, Harry Enten notes:

  • I’d be far more sold on the idea that the economy was going to carry Trump to victory in 2020 if he had an approval rating above ~42% with what most observers would argue is a good economy.

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

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