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

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 ObamaDemocrats make gains in Georgia Senate races: poll 'Democrat-run cities' fuel the economy, keep many red states afloat Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein 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 KerrySeinfeld's Jason Alexander compares Trump dance video to iconic Elaine dance This time, for Democrats, Catholics matter President's job approval is surest sign Trump will lose reelection MORE (D-Mass.) and former Gov. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyPoll: Trump, Biden tied in Georgia McConnell says he would give Trump-backed coronavirus deal a vote in Senate Trump tells Fox he wants bigger relief deal as Pelosi's deadline nears 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 CainHerman Cain'Saturday Night Live' spoofs fly on Pence's head at debate Trump's illness doesn't absolve him of responsibility Press: Election is now referendum on how Trump handled COVID-19 MORE and former House Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (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 TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally 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 McCainDemocrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Trump digs in on conspiracy theory over bin Laden raid 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 BidenJoe BidenBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally 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 HarrisTrump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally Overnight Defense: US, Russia closer on nuclear treaty extension after Moscow accepts warhead freeze | Khashoggi's fiancee sues Saudi crown prince | Biden nets hundreds more national security endorsements Democrats make gains in Georgia Senate races: poll MORE (D-Calif.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and, somewhat amazingly, Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegLGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress Buttigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 MORE of South Bend, Ind. Even though Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez rolls out Twitch channel to urge voting Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Tipping point week for Trump, Biden, Congress, voters 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.