Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders

The last four presidential nomination contests have been defined by opportunity and celebrity. The 2020 Democratic nomination race seems unlikely to be an exception.

Opportunity has existed in two forms across these four elections, but was similarly rooted in the negative partisanship that defines American politics. In 2004 and 2012, the incumbent presidents (George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden's sloppy launch may cost him Nagging misconceptions about nudge theory The Hill's Morning Report - Trump tells House investigators 'no' MORE, respectively) were unpopular with opposition partisans and perceived as vulnerable heading into the election. This led to large fields of challengers with no clear favorites. While both parties eventually settled on “safe” nominees — Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryBiden's sloppy launch may cost him Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary China, Russia, Iran rise in Latin America as US retreats MORE (D-Mass.) and former Gov. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden's sloppy launch may cost him Election agency limps into 2020 cycle Giuliani: Huckabee would have made 'an excellent president' MORE (R-Mass.) — there were several “lead” changes in the horse race polling during the nomination phase.

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For example, in April 2003, former vice presidential nominee and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) was leading both Kerry and Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), but by October 2003, Gen. Wesley Clark was leading Gephardt, Lieberman and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.). Kerry was still in the top five, but he had dropped from second to fifth. But once the contests got under way and Kerry won Iowa and New Hampshire, activists who were eager to start the campaign against Bush fell in line with the media momentum and made Kerry the winner.

Although Romney’s path to the nomination was harder than Kerry’s because of the newly organized Tea Party, the shape of the race was defined by these activists’ ardent desire to oust Obama from the Oval Office. In 2011 and the first part of 2012, they tried on a variety of candidates from businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). But Romney, like Kerry, had held steady in the top tier and, after he won Florida in late January and secured most of the available delegates in February and March, his opponents dropped out and Republicans closed ranks.

With no incumbent on the ballot, 2008 and 2016 were open-seat elections. This seems like a different kind of opportunity — a race that has the potential to turn into a choice, rather than a referendum. But with the prevalence of negative partisanship, no contest is a choice. All are about enmity. In other words, while some may believe that Obama won his nomination because of his positive message of “hope,” his victory originated in the desire of activists to “change” from a Democratic Party led by the Clintons. Similarly, President TrumpDonald John TrumpForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Lara Trump: Merkel admitting migrants 'one of the worst things that ever happened to Germany' Financial satisfaction hits record high: survey MORE offered conservative activists a way out from the Bush family’s dominance of the Republican Party and the establishment elites, as signified by the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden's sloppy launch may cost him Cindy McCain weighs in on Biden report: 'No intention' of getting involved in race Why did Mueller allow his investigation to continue for two years? MORE of Arizona.

Celebrity also showed up in two distinct ways. In 2004 and 2012, momentum substituted for celebrity in the nomination contests, but as was revealed in the general election races, momentum fades. The enthusiasm for Kerry and Romney was not lasting, and the anti-incumbent antipathy among independents was not strong enough to prevail. But in 2008 and 2016, enamored activists kept faith with their celebrity nominees and independents were dissatisfied enough to turn these elections into referendums against the incumbent party’s nominees.

So, how will opportunity and celebrity play in 2020? We already know that President Trump’s historic weakness in the polls and high disapproval among opposition partisans and independents has led to the largest field of Democrats ever running.

It is also the case that while former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenElection analyst says Biden could face uphill battle attracting small-dollar donors Biden's announcement was a general election message, says political analyst Gillibrand 'not worried' about being 'discounted' in 2020 race MORE may seem like a “safe choice” to take on Trump, Democrats should think twice about what it would mean to nominate someone who is considering a campaign theme of “continuance” as opposed to “change.”

Celebrities don’t have to come from Hollywood, but they do need to have some buzz about them. In order to win, they should already be in the top tier of the horse race polls, be raising solid sums of money, and have a shot at victory in at least two of the first four contests.

When looking across the 2020 candidates, the ones that fit this celebrity bill are Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe symbol of 'Wakanda' and black political vision Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary Sanders dominates, Buttigieg surges in 2020 social media battle MORE (D-Calif.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and, somewhat amazingly, Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegColbert links large 2020 Dem field to Avengers: 'A group of every available person in the universe' The Hill's Morning Report - Trump tells House investigators 'no' Buttigieg draws new scrutiny, criticism MORE of South Bend, Ind. Even though Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersElection analyst says Biden could face uphill battle attracting small-dollar donors Gillibrand 'not worried' about being 'discounted' in 2020 race Biden's sloppy launch may cost him MORE (I-Vt.) also is in a position to win the contest, it seems there are too many in the party who view him unfavorably for his celebrity to unite the activists around his candidacy.

Looking ahead, we’re surely in for a wild ride, fueled by a debate between those Democrats who believe the party should choose “nostalgia” and a “safe choice” (Biden and the Midwestern battleground) as opposed to “hope and change” and the “future” (Harris, Beto or Buttigieg and the Southern battleground).  

But if there is anything to learn from the last four contests, it’s that when activists fall in love with a celebrity candidate, they elect them. Simply put, Democrats need a celebrity candidate to beat Trump — and Biden is too-much “yesterday’s news” and a “turn-off” to those who voted against Obama’s legacy in 2016 to be that person.

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.