Reading the tea leaves on the Democratic nomination contest

Reading the tea leaves on the Democratic nomination contest
© The Hill Illustration

It won’t happen tomorrow. Or next week. Or even next month. No one is leaving soon. 

Communications technologies — social media, websites, email — allow long-shot campaigns to stay around for a long time (recall former Rep. Ron Paul’s campaign in 2012). 

Possessing a low-dollar lifeline and personal microphone, parties no longer can constrain a candidate’s presidential ambition or channel it towards more strategic aims (for example, the Senate contests in Texas, Colorado or Montana).

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The 21st century promise of democratized politics has arrived.

But by October, after the higher-threshold September debates and the third-quarter fundraising deadline have passed, most candidates will decide it’s time to put away their “childish things” and turn towards their common purpose: defeating President Trump.

Who will remain once the field is culled, likely by half? Generally, only those who have a credible shot at placing in the top five in Iowa or New Hampshire. 

And this is where nomination politics are nowhere near as open and inclusive as they purport to be. The candidates who win party nominations don’t usually emerge from the back of the pack. Instead, they come from the few candidates who make up the “top tier” in the polls, the fundraising, endorsements and media coverage. Even Donald Trump, who was a wildly unlikely choice for his party in 2016, consistently led in the polls and his shockingly improvisational candidacy garnered by far the most media coverage

So what does this mean for the Democrats? It means that over the next couple of months, the field is likely to sift and sort, and reshuffle the eight candidates who reside in the top third: former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial Hillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball on Sanders-Warren feud: 'Don't play to the pundits, play to voters' MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders over handling of feud with Warren On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders over handling of feud with Warren On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial Overnight Energy: Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate impact | Republicans offer details on their environmental proposals | Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 MORE (D-Calif.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial Hill.TV's Krystal Ball on Sanders-Warren feud: 'Don't play to the pundits, play to voters' Poll: Sanders holds 5-point lead over Buttigieg in New Hampshire MORE, Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDNC announces new criteria for New Hampshire debate The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders, Warren feud rattles Democrats The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial MORE (D-N.J.) and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans Poll: Sanders holds 5-point lead over Buttigieg in New Hampshire MORE (D-Minn.). 

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Though, after the debates last week, it seems possible that former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian CastroJulian CastroBiden says he would consider Castro, O'Rourke for VP, Cabinet positions Joaquin Castro follows brother in backing Warren Deval Patrick knocks lack of diversity in Democratic debate MORE may be able to make the leap from No. 9 and knock O’Rourke out of the top. It also seems possible that continued disenchantment with Biden’s candidacy could boost Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans Klobuchar on missing campaigning for impeachment: 'I can do two things at once' MORE (D-Colo.), a passionate pragmatist, into the top tier.

The one thing that stands out when looking at this field is that Democrats are likely to nominate a senator (five of the eight in the top tier; if you include Biden, the number is six) as opposed to a governor. While this may not seem surprising given recent history (Barack Obama and John McCain were both senators in 2008), this may well indicate something of a change in our modern politics. 

And it may be that Trump’s presidency has revealed the absurd logic of selecting an “outsider” to fix Washington. How can someone who knows nothing about how national politics works fix it? Only rocket scientists know how to launch, land and safely bring home an astronaut from the moon. Only those who know politics can fix it.

As I have argued, Americans have been convinced for more than 40 years, since the major failures of “insider” presidents (Lyndon Johnson with Vietnam and Richard Nixon with Watergate), that the only way to make Washington work was to elect an “outsider” who would “change” politics. From Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, governors generally were thought to be the solution.

Then came Trump, the ultimate “outsider” who had no political experience and a disdain for learning about the system. He said he would “drain the swamp,” but that’s not what he has done. And his gut-based decision-making and crass rhetoric is not only causing issues in the international arena, it is exhausting much of the country (certainly, the Democrats).

We’ll see. A lot more politics must play out over next summer and fall, but the polls to watch will be those in Iowa and New Hampshire because that’s where the choices will be made. And those polls likely will be influenced by the amount of time the candidates are able to spend in those states (meeting voters and giving speeches) and resources (staff and money) they are able to plow into their campaign organizations there. 

No matter how many stick around, only the top third of the field likely will have what it takes to even have a shot at placing in the top five in Iowa or New Hampshire.

By the time January rolls around, Democrats are going to be champing at the bit to unite the party around its nominee and take on Trump. As such, it doesn’t seem likely that a candidate who hasn’t made it in February will be able to break in come March (Rudy Giuliani learned this lesson in 2008).

Speculating today, it seems likely that the nominee will be a senator and that the eventual Democratic ticket will be led by a progressive reformer (Warren, Harris or Booker) who is balanced with a pragmatic moderate for vice president (Klobuchar, Bullock or Bennet) or a charismatic rising star (Buttigieg, Castro or O’Rourke). 

But as former frontrunners Howard Dean (2004) and Hillary Clinton (2008) know from experience, Iowa’s results can change everything. Stay tuned; it’s sure to be a wild ride.

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