The very early, boring Democratic primary: Biden v. Bernie

There’s a dirty little secret in the 2020 Democratic primary that no one wants to talk about. Pundits won’t say it. Strategists and donors are in denial. But the truth is, the Democratic primary has been boring. As of today (assuming, as everyone does, that former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani meets with former Ukrainian diplomat to get info on Dems Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE runs) we’ve got a two-man race: Biden versus Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay: AP MORE (I-Vt.).

Sure, there are roughly a gazillion candidates. And scarcely a day goes by without someone new jumping in the race, sparking rounds of media coverage and speculation with all the intensity of a kid with a shiny new toy. We’ve seen mini-boomlets for various candidates — namely Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSan Francisco police chief apologizes for raid on journalist's home Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk MORE (D-Calif.), Beto O’Rourke, and now Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegJournalism is now opinion-based — not news-based Buttiegieg backs NFL players' right to protest during anthem: I 'put my life on the line to defend' that 2020 Democrats join striking McDonald's workers MORE.


In spite of all that, if you look at the polling so far, it has remained remarkably stable and most polls are more or less the same: Biden is No. 1, Sanders is No. 2. A few folks are battling it out somewhere just shy of 10 percentage points, and the rest barely make the board.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the RealClearPolitics tracker.

For five months, though he hasn’t yet announced his candidacy, Biden has been leading national polls by somewhere around a 9- or 10-point margin. After Biden, Sanders leads the cluster of 9-point candidates by somewhere around the 13-point margin he currently has. And then the rest of the field is a messy cluster. The state polls show a little more variability on this basic theme. Harris performs well in her home state of California; Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay: AP Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk MORE does a bit better in her home state of Massachusetts. But the early-voting states? They look pretty much like the national picture, with the exception of Sanders doing a bit better and Biden a bit worse in New Hampshire.

All the action essentially has been among candidates in the messy cluster area who surge a few points to reach the top of the 10 percent pack. Harris jumped a few points after her announcement, as did former congressman O’Rourke. Both have settled in around 8 percentage points. Buttigieg is in the midst of a rise, with positive media coverage. There are some good reasons to doubt, however, that he will escape the gravitational pull of the 10 percent range. For one, he hasn’t shown much appeal thus far with voters other than wealthy, white liberals. The “Morning Joe” wing of the party has found their candidate!

The real reason I don’t see Buttigieg getting much further ahead than Harris or O’Rourke, however, is that Democratic voters basically like Biden and they like Sanders. Both have very high favorability ratings. Both are extraordinarily well known and have been vetted by the American public for decades. It’s hard to imagine learning anything new or shocking about either of these two candidates that would create a significant swing.


There’s also no evidence that Democratic primary voters are really searching for a hot new candidate. In fact, if you ask Biden voters who their second choice is, it’s Sanders. And if you ask Sanders voters who their second choice is, it’s Biden. So, if for some reason one or the other top dogs were to falter, it would be the other top dog, and not the messy cluster, who would benefit.

But here are my significant caveats:

  • Obviously, it is very early in the race. Remember, Biden isn’t even officially in the race yet. His team struggled to handle the smallish and predictable “Biden-is-too-handsy” debacle. Will they be able to mount an effective campaign?
  • No debates have happened. Maybe someone will dominate or implode, Rick Perry-style.

  • Perhaps an alternative candidate will be able to consolidate the messy cluster to become a contender in the top three. Perhaps Buttigieg, or someone else, will be able to steal significantly from the Biden or Sanders base. (My bet here would be on Biden being more vulnerable; his supporters are not on fire for him in the way that Sanders’s people are on fire for him.) Also, the messy-cluster candidates are all closer ideologically to Biden than Sander, with the significant exception of Warren. In fact, one way to interpret the action in the 10-percent zone is a competition to be the Biden alternative, should Biden falter.

Obviously, anything could happen. I mean, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE is president, for goodness sakes. But today, there is really only one thing happening: Biden and Sanders are battling it out for supremacy.

And this battle makes a certain kind of sense, too. It’s the establishment versus the political revolution, the Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaIt's Joe Biden's 2020 presidential nomination to lose Assange hit with 17 new charges, including Espionage Act violations Progressive commentator says Obama was delusional thinking he could work with Republicans MORE era versus the new era of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Let’s just get back to what we were doing before Trump versus Let’s Forge Something Really New. Maybe the shocker that catches everyone by surprise this time around will be just how predictable the whole primary ends up being. Maybe in the era of Trump, boring is the new shocking.

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.