Michael Barone / December 13, 2019

The (Sometimes) Bizarre Democratic Nomination Race

Some recent news stories verge on the bizarre — the House Democrats’ futile fuss over impeachment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s acceptance of President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade treaty.

Some recent news stories verge on the bizarre — the House Democrats’ futile fuss over impeachment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s acceptance of President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade treaty. But they’re not as bizarre, or possibly as consequential, as unanticipated developments in the Democrats’ presidential nomination contest.

Consider the role of money, which Democrats are always saying plays too big a role in politics. This year, it plainly isn’t. Their two billionaire late entrants, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, aren’t running away with the contest.

Steyer is at 1.7% in the RealClearPolitics average, and Bloomberg’s 5.5% surely owes as much to his formidable three terms as New York mayor — and his groveling apology for his successful stop-and-frisk policy — as his $30 million Thanksgiving week ad buy.

Internet technology has made big money less important. Twitter and Facebook are orders of magnitudes cheaper than TV ads, which used to be the only way to reach voters post-Iowa/New Hampshire. And the internet has enabled seemingly long-shot candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg to substantially outraise former Vice President Joe Biden, who relies on traditional Democratic big contributors.

If money doesn’t work the way it did, neither do ethnic or racial identity. John Kennedy could count on Irish Catholic voters and Barack Obama on blacks; Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton ran well with white Southerners back when they cast a big share of Democratic primary votes.

But this year, half of black Democrats, about one-quarter of primary voters, are supporting Biden, and only handfuls have supported the three black candidates. Sen. Kamala Harris ended her candidacy earlier this month. Sen. Cory Booker has bemoaned the lack of diversity among the candidates qualifying for the December debate (he’s not one of them). Late entrant and former Gov. Deval Patrick has made no perceptible impact beyond canceling one Iowa event when only two people showed up.

Historically, black voters tend to give near-unanimous support for one candidate. It’s a rational strategy if you identify as a member of a group systematically discriminated against, and black candidates have been among the beneficiaries.

But that impulse may be fading. The first black president has been elected and re-elected, one of only four presidents in the last century to clear 50% in two elections. Even as The New York Times’ The 1619 Project argued that slavery was just as relevant as ever, many black voters may not feel as beleaguered or oppressed as in the past, particularly as black Americans’ unemployment rate is a record low and blacks’ incomes are rising faster than average.

Similarly, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro has not won significant support from Hispanics (a category invented by the Census Bureau in 1970). It’s not clear what a part-time mayor of San Antonio has in common with Puerto Ricans in Florida, Dominicans in New York or Mexican Americans in California.

The third thing that seems bizarre, or at least surprising, about the Democratic race is that left-wing policies are proving not nearly as popular as media coverage of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Green New Deal would suggest. Elizabeth Warren’s embrace of and then backing away from “Medicare for All” is the prime example, and Tom Steyer’s crusade against climate change is not winning votes from many of the Democrats who tell pollsters it’s on their list of important issues.

In early debates and campaigning, Democratic candidates seemed eager to endorse left-wing policies — a wealth tax, racial reparations, racial quotas and preferences, ninth-month abortions, open borders — unlikely to appeal to majorities of general election voters. Now they seem more skittish. Policies advanced on the Democratic Twitterverse by clever young staffers but lacking any significant, popular yearning turn out to be duds.

This may be due to a disjunction between what animates the Democratic Party and its vision of what it once was. The Democratic Party, always a coalition of out-groups, is united these days by fear and loathing of the cultural style and populist proposals of Donald Trump. But the Democrats’ self-image, rooted in history, is that of tribunes of the economically deprived, and they are drawn to advance redistributionist policies in the hope of regaining the working-class whites who were their largest constituency 50 years ago.

That hope is probably vain, and the result has pitted current Democratic constituencies against one another. Gentry liberals are attracted to Elizabeth Warren (but not her taxes) and Pete Buttigieg; seniors like Joe Biden; low-income Gen Zers and Hispanics (there’s considerable overlap here) dig Bernie Sanders. And, undoubtedly, there are more surprises, maybe bizarre surprises, to come.


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