Arnon Mishkin: 2020 Election -- The state of the Democratic race on May Day

With Biden’s official entry, the Democratic race appears to break into four distinct groups: the Biden “Let’s Just Beat Him” squad; the Left/Democratic Socialist camp (essentially Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren); a “Maybe-the-Next-Obama” cohort of less well-known candidates who have emerged from the pack but have not yet “captured lightning” (Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke) and a clique of current also-rans whose strategy appears to amount to “There Must be a Pony Here Somewhere.”

Biden had a strong announcement roll-out and is now very much the front-runner. Three recent polls have him jumping by almost ten points over where the Real Clear Politics average placed him just before his announcement.

Currently, Biden is running ahead of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as well as a host of others.


This is a very different picture from what it looked like a week ago.

Prior to Biden’s announcement, he and Sanders appeared fairly close to each other in the polling with the others struggling for recognition.

Ironically enough, the only candidate in recent memory who got as big a bump upon announcement was Donald Trump himself in 2015. When he descended that escalator, he was in the single digits, but after a dramatic speech about immigration and a pledge to build a wall, he quickly shot up 20 points in the RCP average.

What made Biden’s announcement bounce so large?

One could say he took a page from Trump by focusing his announcement on what angered his party the most. Biden focused almost entirely on opposition to Trump and examples of some of the most controversial moments of the Trump presidency, particularly his response to the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

Four years earlier, Trump’s announcement solely hit the Republican hot button of immigration. This year, Biden galvanized Democratic hatred of Trump. Biden is convincing Democrats that he is their best tool for defeating Trump.

Recent polls show bad news for Sanders, who had been in the mid-to-low twenties in recent polling but now appears to be below 20. His very clear strategy remains to try to leverage his loyal support (which no polling suggests is leaving him), bring them out on a snowy January night in Iowa, and then clear the field in New Hampshire. That avenue remains potentially available for him, although it does seem somewhat narrower.

Note that one should never underestimate Sanders. He has a platform with demonstrated appeal for a large chunk of the Democratic primary electorate, and thus far none of the other candidates have appeared to dislodge him from that.

Sanders’ decline is also bad news for Biden. The best scenario for the former VP is a Democratic race that is clearly a choice between him and Sanders.

For Biden, the Democrats split between those who want Biden and those who would -- at worst -- be merely satisfied if he’s the nominee. For Sanders, the party is split between the “Bernie-Bros” and folks who would be deeply disappointed if he’s the nominee.

A race that appears to be Sanders vs. Biden could result in folks peeling off from the lesser candidates to ensure a non-Sanders nominee. If Sanders is in decline, it’s harder for Biden to force that choice on the Democratic primary electorate.

Some of Sanders decline is benefiting Elizabeth Warren, who has gone up from ranking sixth in the RCP average to ranking third as of now. Her clear focus on an articulation of clear, liberal programs gives her both the ability to compete for that segment of the primary electorate, although like Sanders she retains liabilities; it’s not clear she can grow beyond that group.

Many Democrats would not be satisfied with her as the nominee, and any growth she shows may, as with Sanders, cause some voters to seek a “safe harbor” such as Biden.

The third group I call “Maybe-the-next-Obama.” It consists of Buttigieg, Harris and O’Rourke.

Each of them combines a clear articulation of Democratic values with personal attributes that are consistent with the theme of “hope” that Obama articulated so effectively.

Each of the three, moreover, appear to have a loyal constituency and a clear ability to raise significant funds to maintain their campaign efforts in the early primaries.

For Harris, the biggest opportunity is to leverage her apparent base in her home state of California as well as to do well in South Carolina, the third primary/caucus state -- and the first one where African-American voters represent a significant share of the vote.

In California, early primary voting, which represents the bulk of the primary electorate, starts on the day of the Iowa caucuses. But in order for Harris to capitalize on that potential base, she must prove her credibility as a candidate -- between now and the start of voting. There’s plenty of time, and she’s got plenty of money, but her recent town halls have fallen short of expectations.

Beto O’Rourke has also demonstrated staying power through his fundraising prowess, despite some skepticism from the national press focused on his limited experience. His challenge is that his persona -- young, articulate, white male -- is fairly close, and potentially eclipsed by Buttigieg’s.

Pete Buttigieg’s was the first of the “unknown” candidates to break out -- based on a sequence of very effective appearances and an excellent announcement speech. His demonstration of credibility appears to have opened a significant source of financing.


That said, in recent days, he appears to have stalled due to challenges he has appealing to African American voters, based in part on his record in South Bend. He doesn’t need African American support to do well in Iowa or New Hampshire, but their votes become very important in later states, and thus far, it’s not clear how he gets their support.

All the candidates in “Pony clique” are still searching for ways to emerge from their muck.

There’s nine months before the first vote, and one thing is certain: things will change.