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 BidenPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump Warren, Buttigieg fight echoes 2004 campaign, serves as warning for 2020 race Trump: Giuliani to deliver report on Ukraine trip to Congress, Barr MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren, Buttigieg fight echoes 2004 campaign, serves as warning for 2020 race Democrats battle for Hollywood's cash Sanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax Warren, Buttigieg fight echoes 2004 campaign, serves as warning for 2020 race Democrats battle for Hollywood's cash MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBooker campaign rakes in million after Harris exits 2020 race Democrats battle for Hollywood's cash Yang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations MORE (D-Calif.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWarren, Buttigieg fight echoes 2004 campaign, serves as warning for 2020 race Chicago Mayor Lightfoot to Buttigieg: 'Break that NDA' to have 'moral authority' against Trump Sanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire MORE, Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker campaign rakes in million after Harris exits 2020 race Sunday talk shows: Lawmakers gear up ahead of Monday's House Judiciary hearing Democrats battle for Hollywood's cash MORE (D-N.J.) and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBiden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events There's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down 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 CastroTop Sanders official on Harris: There's a lot of 'unfairness baked into the system' Democrats voice frustrations at plight of black, Hispanic presidential candidates Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates 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 BennetBloomberg on 2020 rivals blasting him for using his own money: 'They had a chance to go out and make a lot of money' Senators want FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates 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.