The 'invisible primary' has begun

The first primary of the 2020 presidential campaign is underway. It’s called the “invisible primary.” Nobody actually goes to a polling place to cast a ballot — but there are winners and losers.

The invisible primary takes place the year before the presidential election. The winner is the candidate who ends the year with the most support in the polls and the most money raised.

Does the invisible primary predict the ultimate winner? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It worked four years ago when Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Democratic demolition derby Juan Williams: Don't count Biden out Candidates in Obama's orbit fail to capitalize on personal ties MORE and Donald Trump came out on top of their respective parties. It didn’t work in the 2004 election when the winner of the invisible Democratic primary was Howard Dean. In January 2004, when the actual voting began, Dean came in third in the Iowa caucuses and second to John KerryJohn Forbes KerryConsensus forming for ambitious climate goal: Net zero pollution New Hampshire primary turnout is a boost to Democrats New Hampshire only exacerbates Democratic Party agita MORE in New Hampshire. By mid-February, Dean was out.

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So where does the Democratic race stand now?

California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisConway: Trump is 'toying with everybody' by attacking Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk comments The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Beleaguered Biden turns to must-win South Carolina MORE was the clear winner of the first Democratic debate. That has brought her a huge amount of media attention and a rise in the polls. She may become the leading progressive candidate. But not necessarily the nominee.

Since World War II, Democratic primaries have often ended up as showdowns between progressives and populists. The difference is social class. Progressive Democratic voters tend to be relatively affluent, well educated and liberal, particularly on social issues like abortion and guns. Populist Democratic voters tend to be working class, non-college educated and moderate on social issues, though often liberal on economic issues like health care.

In the 1950s, Democrats were divided between Adlai Stevenson (progressive) and Estes Kefauver (populist). In 1968, it was Eugene McCarthy (progressive) versus Robert Kennedy (populist). In 1972, George McGovern (progressive) and Hubert Humphrey (populist). 1984: Gary Hart (progressive) and Walter Mondale (populist). 1988: Michael Dukakis (progressive) and Richard Gephardt (populist). 1992: Paul Tsongas (progressive) and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonJuan Williams: Don't count Biden out Consensus forming for ambitious climate goal: Net zero pollution Democrats' choice: Unite or go down to defeat MORE (populist). 2000: Bill Bradley (progressive) and Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreClarence Thomas breaks his silence in theaters nationwide New Hampshire only exacerbates Democratic Party agita What Trump got right MORE (populist). 2008: Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaA Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press Juan Williams: Don't count Biden out Candidates in Obama's orbit fail to capitalize on personal ties MORE (progressive) and Hillary Clinton (populist). In the 2016 Democratic race, Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE branded himself a populist, but his core support came from young progressives.

Democrats won in 2018 because, in a midterm, the party didn’t have to come up with one presidential candidate. In 2020, they do.

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Right now, Joe BidenJoe BidenJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE dominates the populist wing of the party, often described as “moderates.”

The progressive field is more crowded — and more divided.

Harris is poised to challenge Sanders as the progressive alternative to Biden. But she faces a lot of competition from other Democrats popular with the NPR crowd — Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Budget hawks frustrated by 2020 politics in entitlement reform fight MORE, Julian CastroJulian CastroCandidates in Obama's orbit fail to capitalize on personal ties Conway: Trump is 'toying with everybody' by attacking Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk comments Democratic rivals sharpen attacks as Bloomberg rises MORE, Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSpeculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage Conway: Trump is 'toying with everybody' by attacking Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk comments Democratic rivals sharpen attacks as Bloomberg rises MORE, Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE, Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHillicon Valley: US hits Huawei with new charges | Judge orders Pentagon to halt 'war cloud' work amid Amazon challenge | IRS removes guidance on Fortnite game currency Gillibrand proposes creating new digital privacy agency Lobbying world MORE. Biden has to hope progressives fail to unite behind a single “Stop Biden” candidate.

The polls show Biden doing best among older Democrats. To young progressives, Biden is a voice of the past. The English novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Like bipartisanship and compromise. And collaboration with outright racists. To older Democrats, however, the past is when things used to work — before Trump came along to cause chaos and disruption. They’re counting on Biden to restore that past.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, white populists, led by organized labor, were the dominant force in the Democratic Party. They began leaving the party when Democrats embraced the civil rights movement. Non-college educated whites have not voted for a Democrat for president in more than 50 years.

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The populist vote in the Democratic Party today is mostly minority voters. Southern whites and northern white ethnics (who used to be called “Archie Bunker” voters) have become out of reach for Democrats. White working-class voters are often depicted as the swing vote, but they’re unlikely to swing back to the Democratic Party, not even for Biden. Biden started the race with strong black and Latino support. He’s finding out that he can’t afford to alienate those minorities.

The swing vote today is college-educated white suburban voters who are appalled by President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE. In 2018, Democratic House candidates made their biggest gains in affluent suburban districts like Orange County, Calif., and Fairfax County, Va. Those upscale voters respond to progressive messages on social issues like abortion and guns. Not to tax hikes or “socialism.”

The 2016 election taught Democrats an important lesson. They expected that revulsion at the prospect of a Trump presidency would rally the party. That didn’t quite happen. Here’s why:

I talked to a lot of Democrats after the election. Many of them admitted that they never liked Hillary Clinton. She was a charter member of the Washington establishment. When she called Trump supporters “deplorables,” she displayed the fatal flaw of liberals — condescension. What finished her off was a headline in the New York Times on Election Day: “Hillary Clinton has an 85% chance to win.’’ A lot of voters concluded, “She doesn’t need my vote.”

Democrats are not going to make that mistake again.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).