State of the Race 2020: Pre-South Carolina

Written by Ben Szioli

Wow, crazy how two weeks can just disappear on you. It feels like it’s been a month. We had the Nevada debate on the 19th, the Nevada caucuses on the 22nd, and the South Carolina debate on the 25th.

After Former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg got absolutely flamed in the Nevada debate, Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) scored a surprisingly large victory there, riding on a racially diverse coalition. The South Carolina debate turned into a firing squad, but Senator Sanders stood his ground, and the establishment looks as divided as ever, trying to stop him.

That brings us to the South Carolina primary, where Sanders had drawn close to Former Vice President Joe Biden (DE) in the polls, before the Nevada caucuses brought Former Vice President Biden back into the running. Since then, Biden has taken a considerable lead in the South Carolina polls, and his campaign expects to win the state. An upset would propel Sanders to the top of the pack, in a commanding fashion.

Senator Liz Warren (MA) needs to do well in South Carolina or her lack of momentum will put her home state of Massachusetts out of reach for her on Super Tuesday. A strong showing for Tom Steyer (CA) could keep him in the race at least until Super Tuesday, when he will almost certainly lose in California. South Carolina is do-or-die for Senator Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (IN), who need to show that they can draw support from black voters. Senator Klobuchar, like Senator Warren and Tom Steyer, also faces the possibility of losing her home state on Super Tuesday.

BROKERED CONVENTION

There’s a lot of paranoid fear among Bernie supporters, and gleeful hope among Bernie detractors, that if Senator Sanders comes in to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee with a plurality (but not a majority) of delegates, that the convention will coalesce to nominate someone else.

While this is absolutely possible, it would be completely unprecedented, and it is completely undemocratic. But since pundits are pushing the idea seriously (though many Democratic officials have played down the possibility), I’m going to analyze it seriously, as well.

If Sanders comes in first place in the primary with a plurality of delegates, then it is a question of how close he is to a majority. If he is within a few percentage points of 51% of the delegates, he will win easily on the second ballot in almost any case. The meddling of pledged delegates would be meaningless, as superdelegates would have to nominate Sanders in order to avoid taking the blame for that meddling. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe (VA), a former DNC chair, has suggested as much.

Then we must ask who comes in second place and how well they perform. If the second place candidate is within a few percentage points of Sanders – say, 45% and 40% – then there would ensue a legitimate second-ballot race to secure 51% of the delegates. This isn’t a conspiracy, Bernie people; it’s just how elections work.

However, in a situation where Sanders emerged as the winner of the election and no clear second-place candidate existed, then the idea of nominating anyone but Sanders would be dead in the water. Trying to shed my cynicism for a moment, I think enough delegates from other candidates would be uneasy about overturning the primary vote result that a 51% majority couldn’t be whipped up.

This brokered convention idea also falsely assumes that the candidates currently in the race will remain in the race. If no candidate can go the distance against Sanders and actually remain competitive until the convention, then the “delegate coup” idea starts to look more and more like an Aaron Sorkin fever dream and less like a real political mechanism.

The final factor that makes a delegate coup vastly unlikely is, as I said in the Post-New Hampshire column, the state victory count. If Sanders does amass a plurality of delegates, he is likely to have a lead in the number of states that he has won. If no other candidate is winning states, despite collecting delegates, it would look increasingly bad for anyone to contest the convention, and bad for delegates of other candidates to get on board with it.

Candidates don’t limp into the convention and then contest it and try to rob the winner. They just don’t. If that happens this time around, it will be a sign of democracy dying in our nation. I like to believe it won’t. In the past, when someone clearly was going to win the election, the opponents dropped out and the candidate was nominated uncontroversially. In 2008, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (NY) eventually dropped out and nominated Former President Barack Obama (HI), and Bernie did the same for Former Secretary of State Clinton, just as reluctantly.

If Sanders, or anyone, genuinely beats the competition, the same should happen this year: the candidates should drop out one by one until the nominee gets to the convention unchallenged (by anyone except perhaps Former Mayor Bloomberg, who we will get to later). Whoever the primary winner is, they should be endorsed by fallen candidates in order to prevent a delegate coup. Any other outcome could destroy the Democratic Party.

PARTY UNITY, MY ASS

In the event that someone besides Sanders is nominated, whether he wins the primary or not, the narrative will begin to be pushed, as it was in 2016, that Bernie supporters are refusing to support the Democratic nominee. And some will not support the Democratic nominee. But the numbers show that Clinton 2008 voters and Sanders 2016 voters voted for the nominees (Obama 2008 and Clinton 2016) at comparable rates. However, far less Sanders 2016 voters voted for President Donald Trump (FL) than Clinton 2008 voters voted for the late Senator John McCain (AZ).

We should expect to see the same in 2020. Any attempt to suggest otherwise is just preparation to let Bernie take the fall if the Democratic nominee loses.

If the Democratic Party does not nominate Sanders, I think the numbers are clear that they will lose the enthusiasm of his base. The base may vote for the nominee, but that’s not what the biggest loss is. The biggest loss is that when those Sanders supporters become disenfranchised, they lose the ability to effectively argue in favor of the nominee. They may support the nominee, but they won’t be able to convince other people. They may knock on doors, but their pitch will be less meaningful.

And beyond Democratic primary voters who might or might not vote in the general, nominating someone besides Bernie alienates a huge swath of independent voters and new voters who Bernie can bring into the political fold, if the Democratic Party would just allow him to. These independents and new voters are what are truly at stake if the Democrats rob Sanders.

They seem to know this. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) signaled on Wednesday that they are fine with a Sanders nomination, and the Obamas are still impartial in the primary, despite efforts to recruit Former First Lady Michelle Obama (HI) as a Vice Presidential candidate to stop Bernie.

Not to be blunt, but have you ever known someone who was very smart about everything, but very stupid about sports? The kind of person who has in-depth, numerically sound explanations for their horrible sports opinions? The kind of person who constantly suggests dream-team trades that would never and could never happen? That’s modern politics.

Our click-motivated media and political discourse have turned us into the equivalent of callers on a local sports radio show. Everybody is an armchair coach. Everybody has their perfect presidential Cabinet lined up. But, just like how your buddy will never coach the Eagles, those armchair political trades [Okay, voters; I’ll trade you Senator Sherrod Brown (OH) and Michelle Obama for Bernie Sanders!] will never actually happen.

Unless democracy is dead. There is always that possibility.

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DEMOCRATS

Senator Bernie Sanders (VT): Coming off a landslide victory in Nevada, Bernie is not just the frontrunner in these primaries; he’s on a path to win the nomination outright. Of the first 100 delegates, Bernie is estimated to have secured 45: a rate that is more-or-less good enough to turn the nomination into a lay-up, if it continues.

His opponents are scrambling to unite against him, but with five “viable” centrist candidates – or four and a half, depending how you rate Senators Warren and Klobuchar on centrism and viability, respectively – that’s strategically impossible. Ideological inclinations and personal histories make it even harder to imagine the field clearing to leave just one candidate against Bernie.

Hardest yet to imagine is any of the other candidates beating Bernie in a head-to-head matchup. Polling backs up my incredulity.

Beyond that, Sanders is in a position where, when each consecutive candidate drops out, he will absorb a chunk of their voters, and another chunk of voters will lose interest and stay home from the election. Any centrist consensus candidate would struggle to motivate more of their rivals’ voters to turn out and vote for them than Bernie would motivate to vote for himself. Much like the premise of the Japanese video game Katamari Damacy, as Sanders gets rolling, he will pick up undecided voters and grow, moving on to the next level – I mean, the next candidate – picking up their voters as well.

That brings us to South Carolina, where Biden still holds a polling lead. A win in South Carolina would turn these primaries into a victory lap for Sanders, but realistically, second place is what he should expect. Simply outperforming his polling would boost him on Super Tuesday and beyond. A strong showing would be particularly meaningful, given that Sanders was crushed in South Carolina in 2016, and that loss was used to hamper his campaign through the rest of that primary.

But after Sanders’s crushing success with Latina/o and Hispanic voters in Nevada, and his excellent second-place showing with black voters, South Carolina is looking primed for an upset. Warren, Klobuchar, and Former Mayor Buttigieg have little appeal among black and brown voters, which puts them in a poor position to absorb fleeing Biden supporters in South Carolina, where a majority of the Democratic voters are people of color. With Bloomberg off the ballot and Steyer coming into the election delegate-less, the field is cleared for Bernie to recoup any of Biden’s losses. A falter in South Carolina would likely spell Biden’s demise, to Bernie’s benefit.

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Former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg (NY): Bloomberg is still high in the polls, but a Super Tuesday disappointment looks ready to unfold. The Nevada debate is regarded by some as the most lopsided debate in modern United States history, and it sent Bloomberg’s polling tumbling. What looked like a meteoric rise to second place has turned into a dead tie with Biden. Since then, while Bloomberg flew under the radar in the South Carolina debate, where Sanders was the main target, Bloomberg has done nothing to reverse his fortunes.

Not appearing on the ballot in South Carolina, Bloomberg is prepped to limp across the finish line on Super Tuesday. Falling short there should render him unviable, but his money can and likely will keep him in the race until the convention. While every other candidate, I suspect, would concede defeat and drop out, Bloomberg probably won’t. His plan is already to steal the nomination at the convention after losing the primary. I can’t see why any degree of success or failure in the primary would change his course of action.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden (DE): Biden survived Nevada. A continued collapse there would have tanked his chances in South Carolina, as well as on Super Tuesday. Instead, Biden slightly outperformed the polls. This resurrected him in the South Carolina polling, turning a near-tie with Sanders back into what is predicted to be an easy win.

Not every prediction model agrees, though. Researchers at George Washington University predicted this week that Sanders would win the South Carolina primary handily, by a margin of five to ten points. I can’t rectify that result with the existing South Carolina polling. At best, polls have shown a neck-and-neck race between Sanders and Biden. While Biden’s support fell through in the particularly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he corrected his course in diverse Nevada, which sets him up to succeed in even-more-diverse South Carolina. Even just matching the polls there should put Biden over the top by (my own guess) about six points. If Sanders wins, I have to imagine it will be by a razor-thin margin.

Assuming that Joe follows through in South Carolina and secures a win, he is back in contention, which could spell disaster for opponents seeking to benefit from his demise.

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Senator Liz Warren (MA): Warren’s campaign has re-energized itself, making one last push to try to show a broad coalition of support in South Carolina. Warren hopes to do well among women, and she hopes to out-perform her fellow second-tier candidates among black voters. Doing so would establish Warren as the fourth viable candidate in this race.

Remember, this is the year of the black woman, particularly in South Carolina. Women of color are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, and whoever can secure their support is looking at an easy ride through these primaries.

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Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (IN): Mayor Pete has been reduced to the level of an afterthought. After childishly attacking Klobuchar for a verbal slip-up on the Nevada debate stage, Buttigieg was rebuked by Klobuchar, who mused, “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.” Much like the way Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (TX) plummeted after taunting Biden’s memory at the September debate.

I have no idea how many times I’ve said this, but unity is the overarching theme of this primary. The party base knows we need unity to overcome President Trump. Candidates who are perceived as divisive have failed so far this year. What would have been excellent attacks in past election cycles are now blowing up in the faces of the candidates who try to launch them. Buttigieg has, for the second time, tempted fate in that regard. His polling since then has only fallen off, which matches my prediction that any noteworthy personal attack between candidates, even if successful, will result in polling losses for the attacking candidate.

Given that his polling is falling off, Buttigieg has to scrape by with no momentum on Super Tuesday. Falling short of second or third place in the delegate count on March 4th would spell the end of Pete 2020.

● ● ●

Senator Amy Klobuchar (MN): It’s funny; I had predicted earlier that since no support was present for Klobuchar early in the primary, that no support would materialize later. Despite her continued presence in the race, and her pick-up of delegates in Iowa and New Hampshire, Klobuchar has not really budged in the national polls since I made my prediction. She still sits below 5% in a race where the viability threshold is 15%.

Her position in Minnesota is actually now in jeopardy. Sanders has come up from below to tie Klobuchar. A loss in her home state, as is the case with any candidate, would end her chances at the nomination. Sympathy from Pete’s unfair attacks won’t take her far, and her lack of success with minority voters is a huge dead weight on her candidacy.

● ● ●

Tom Steyer (CA): Steyer is in do-or-die mode. No longer meekly trying to befriend Sanders, Steyer went on the attack in the South Carolina debate, jumping on the Bernie dogpile. If Steyer can pull delegates in South Carolina, he has a reason to stay in the race. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t.

In any case, Super Tuesday brings Steyer’s home state of California. While it is interesting to ask if he will earn delegates there, the reality is that he has almost no chance to win. A loss in his home state, by conventional wisdom, should put him to bed.

● ● ●

Representative Tulsi Gabbard (HI): Tulsi has not dropped out yet, which leads me to wonder if she will do so in any timely fashion. This hold-out is beginning to validate Democratic Party narratives about Gabbard seeking an independent run for president. Going along with that data point are several others: Gabbard’s praise for Rush Limbaugh, her appearances on Fox News, her support from Republican and even KKK leaders, and her defense of Trump after he fired impeachment witnesses earlier this month.

It’s shocking to find myself saying this, but… is Gabbard about to leave the Democratic Party? Or is she just very aggressively campaigning for Vice President? It’s certainly an interesting tactic if she intends to curry favor with Trump supporters before joining Sanders for an independent-friendly ticket. Or maybe this is just her dispute with the DNC from 2016 finally coming to a head.

In any case, there is no longer a concrete expiration date on Gabbard’s campaign.

REPUBLICANS

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Incumbent President Donald Trump (FL): With the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary both canceled for Republicans, Trump is now essentially unchallenged in the primary.

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Former Governor Bill Weld (MA): Weld is now faced with the need to turn a meager 10% showing in New Hampshire into a real resistance on Super Tuesday. If he loses his home state, it’s over. If he wins his home state, it’s probably still over. But it would keep Weld in the race.

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Former Representative Joe Walsh (IL): Apparently Walsh dropped out of the race earlier this month, and it just wasn’t really reported anywhere. It was a long time coming, given the way that his attacks on Trump grew increasingly desperate, and the fact that he couldn’t cut the mustard in the Midwest.

Walsh made some more eyebrow-raising comments this week, writing that not only would he vote for Sanders over Trump, he would also campaign for him. These comments, taken in hand with Walsh’s previous anti-Trump comments leaves the writing on the wall: Walsh is going to leave the Republican Party once this all shakes out, I’d bet.

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Roque “Rocky” de la Fuente: De la Fuente is going to appear on the ballot in 20 m

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