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 Clinton Rally crowd chants 'lock him up' as Trump calls Biden family 'a criminal enterprise' Undecided voters in Arizona wary of Trump, crave stability Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw 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 KerrySeinfeld's Jason Alexander compares Trump dance video to iconic Elaine dance This time, for Democrats, Catholics matter President's job approval is surest sign Trump will lose reelection MORE in New Hampshire. By mid-February, Dean was out.


So where does the Democratic race stand now?

California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisUndecided voters in Arizona wary of Trump, crave stability Foreign policy is on the ballot in 2020; so is American credibility Perez on Biden's poll leads: Democrats 'take nothing for granted' 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 closing argument: Why voters cannot trust Trump on healthcare On India, the US must think bigger Biden, Kelly maintain leads in Arizona MORE (populist). 2000: Bill Bradley (progressive) and Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreFox News president warns of calling winner too soon on election night: 2000 still 'lingers over everyone' Older voters helped put Trump in office; they will help take him out Debate is Harris's turn at bat, but will she score? MORE (populist). 2008: Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJacobin Editor-at-Large: Valerie Jarrett's support for Citigroup executive's mayoral campaign 'microcosm' of Democrats' relationship with Wall Street Obama to stump for Biden in Philadelphia On India, the US must think bigger MORE (progressive) and Hillary Clinton (populist). In the 2016 Democratic race, Bernie SandersBernie SandersPush to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Senate Democrats seek to alleviate public concern about some results not being available on election night Georgia senator mocks Harris's name before Trump rally: 'Kamala-mala-mala, I don't know' 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 BidenBiden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus Rally crowd chants 'lock him up' as Trump calls Biden family 'a criminal enterprise' Undecided voters in Arizona wary of Trump, crave stability 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 WarrenPush to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Georgia senator mocks Harris's name before Trump rally: 'Kamala-mala-mala, I don't know' Warren, Porter to headline progressive fundraiser supporting seven swing state candidates MORE, Julian CastroJulian CastroSanders says Democrats should have given more speaking time to progressives Castro says DNC should have put more Latino speakers on stage from beginning Jill Biden defends husband's cognitive ability from Trump attacks: 'It's ridiculous' MORE, Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker 'outs' Cruz as vegan; Cruz jokingly decries 'scurrilous attack' Why Latinos should oppose Barrett confirmation Judiciary Committee sets vote on Barrett's nomination for next week MORE, Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 Biden town hall questioner worked as speechwriter in Obama administration: report MORE, Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter's handling of New York Post article raises election night concerns | FCC to move forward with considering order targeting tech's liability shield | YouTube expands polices to tackle QAnon Democrats question Amazon over reported interference of workers' rights to organize Dueling town halls represent high stakes for Trump 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 John TrumpPolice say man dangling off Trump Tower Chicago demanding to speak with Trump Fauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Biden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus 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).