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 ClintonGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Resistance or unhinged behavior? Partisan hatred reaches Trump's family 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 KerryGrowing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal MORE in New Hampshire. By mid-February, Dean was out.


So where does the Democratic race stand now?

California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Harris gets key union endorsement amid polling plateau 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 ClintonPrince Andrew says he regrets staying with Jeffrey Epstein Now for your moment of Zen from the Trump impeachment hearings The Hill's Morning Report — Public impeachment drama resumes today MORE (populist). 2000: Bill Bradley (progressive) and Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreWarren goes local in race to build 2020 movement The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Krystal Ball hits media over questions on Sanders's electability MORE (populist). 2008: Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Krystal Ball: Patrick's 2020 bid is particularly 'troublesome' for Warren Deval Patrick: Biden 'misses the moment' in 2020 campaign MORE (progressive) and Hillary Clinton (populist). In the 2016 Democratic race, Bernie SandersBernie SandersSinger Neil Young says that America's presidents haven't done enough address climate change New poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide 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 BidenBudget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide READ: Foreign service officer Jennifer Williams' closed-door testimony from the House impeachment inquiry 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 WarrenNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Bloomberg, Patrick take different approaches after late entries into primary race Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne MORE, Julian CastroJulian CastroThe Hill's Campaign Report: Late bids surprise 2020 Democratic field Castro unveils sweeping disability plan Saagar Enjeti rips Buttigieg for praising Obama after misquote MORE, Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Overnight Health Care: Warren promises gradual move to 'Medicare for All' | Rivals dismiss Warren plan for first 100 days | White House unveils rules on disclosing hospital prices | Planned Parenthood wins case against anti-abortion group MORE, Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne MORE, Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandMaloney primary challenger calls on her to return, donate previous campaign donations from Trump Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee She Should Run launches initiative to expand number of women in political process 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 TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election 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).