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 ClintonWhy does Bernie Sanders want to quash Elon Musk's dreams? Republican legislators target private sector election grants How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 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 KerryThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - US vaccine effort takes hit with Johnson & Johnson pause Overnight Energy: Michigan reps reintroduce measure for national 'forever chemicals' standard |  White House says gas tax won't be part of infrastructure bill Kerry to visit China ahead of White House climate summit MORE in New Hampshire. By mid-February, Dean was out.


So where does the Democratic race stand now?

California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden defends Afghanistan withdrawal after pushback Scalise carries a milk carton saying Harris is 'missing' at the border Harris to visit Mexico and Guatemala 'soon' 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 ClintonA leadership menagerie of metaphorical scapegoats How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 Biden is thinking about building that wall — and that's a good thing MORE (populist). 2000: Bill Bradley (progressive) and Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 The information superhighway must be accessible and affordable for all American Rescue Plan: Ending child poverty — let's make it permanent MORE (populist). 2008: Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' Obama: Biden made 'right decision' on Afghanistan Biden spoke to Bush, Obama ahead of Afghanistan troop withdrawal MORE (progressive) and Hillary Clinton (populist). In the 2016 Democratic race, Bernie SandersBernie SandersBernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' Briahna Joy Gray: IRS needs proper enforcement mechanisms to tax wealthy Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  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.


Right now, Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations Democrats to offer bill to expand Supreme Court Former Israeli prime minister advises Iran to 'cool down' amid nuclear threats 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 WarrenForgiving K in school loans would free 36 million student borrowers from debt: data IRS chief warns of unpaid taxes hitting trillion Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  MORE, Julian CastroJulian CastroMore GOP-led states risk corporate backlash like Georgia's More than 200 Obama officials sign letter supporting Biden's stimulus plan OVERNIGHT ENERGY: McEachin signals interest in Biden administration environment role | Haaland, eyed for Interior, stresses need for Native American representation | Haaland backers ask Udall to step aside in bid for Interior post MORE, Cory BookerCory BookerBiden's DOJ civil rights nominee faces sharp GOP criticism Congressional Black Caucus members post selfie celebrating first WH visit in four years Black lawmakers press Biden on agenda at White House meeting MORE, Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegWhite House says gas tax won't be part of infrastructure bill The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden meets with bipartisan lawmakers for infrastructure negotiations Senate Republicans label Biden infrastructure plan a 'slush fund' MORE, Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandIntelligence leaders warn of threats from China, domestic terrorism Jon Stewart accuses VA of being 'an obstacle' to burn pits medical care Family policy that could appeal to the right and the left 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.


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 TrumpTrump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances Race debate grips Congress US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts 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).