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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 Clinton 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 Kerry in New Hampshire. By mid-February, Dean was out.

So where does the Democratic race stand now?

California Sen. Kamala Harris 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 Clinton (populist). 2000: Bill Bradley (progressive) and Al Gore (populist). 2008: Barack Obama (progressive) and Hillary Clinton (populist). In the 2016 Democratic race, Bernie Sanders 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 Biden 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 Warren, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand. 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 Trump. 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).

Tags 2020 Democratic candidates Al Gore Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Cory Booker Democratic debate Democratic Party Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Kerry Julian Castro Kirsten Gillibrand Pete Buttigieg

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