Donald Trump is not yet half way through his term, but already there’s plenty of attention focused on the 2020 presidential election, and particularly on the identity of the Democrat nominee.
Last week saw the first serious opinion poll of Democrat voters in Iowa – the midwestern state that, in rather more than twelve months time (the currently scheduled date is 3 February 2020), will cast the first votes in the process of selecting the candidates of both major parties.
Patently, a great deal can happen before then. But the likely candidates are already well into the process of testing the water, and formal announcements from at least some of them are probably not far off. So it’s interesting to see what this poll tells us about the current state of play.
Former vice-president Joe Biden was a clear leader, with 32% support. Vermont senator and self-styled “socialist” Bernie Sanders came second on 19%, followed by unsuccessful Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke with 11%. The next three were also senators: Elizabeth Warren on 8%, Kamala Harris 5% and Cory Booker 4%.
Interestingly enough, the top five in the Iowa poll are also at the top of Sportsbet’s market for the nomination, although the order is different. O’Rourke is a narrow favorite at 4-1, ahead of Harris at 9-2, Warren and Biden both 5-1 and Sanders further back on 10-1.
Republican candidates can usually be sorted, with occasional doubtful cases, into “mainstream” and “crazies”. Democrats do not lend themselves quite so easily to categorisation. Sanders’s explicit leftism puts him in a class of his own (although in Europe he would pass as a fairly conventional social democrat), but none of the other front-runners are ideologically distinctive.
Broadly speaking, Warren and Harris could be described as “progressive” and Biden and O’Rourke as more “centrist”, but the differences between them are relatively minor.
The generational divide, however, is more striking. O’Rourke is 46 and Harris is 54. Booker is 49; Amy Klobuchar is 58, Kirsten Gillibrand is 52. These are reasonably typical ages at which to run for president – for comparison, at this stage in their campaigns Barack Obama was 45, George Bush Jr was 52 and Bill Clinton was 44.
Biden, on the other hand, is 76; Warren is 69, and Sanders is the oldest of the lot at 77. (Michael Bloomberg, another with some support in the polling, is also 76.) Even Ronald Reagan, considered old at the time, was only 67 at this stage of his career; Trump himself was 68, a year older than his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
So a key decision the Democrats need to make is whether to go for generational change or stick with the old and familiar. Almost inevitably, the more established figures start with an advantage in name recognition and fundraising ability, but it’s not clear they will do so well with the voting population at large – particularly in a country where building turnout among one’s own support base is so important.
Iowa Democrats said (by 49% to 36%) that they preferred a “seasoned political hand” to a political newcomer like Trump. But the younger Democrat hopefuls are not newcomers in that sense; they are senators and representatives with long histories in the party.
A related but separate question is the importance of “diversity”. Biden and Sanders are white anglo males; so is O’Rourke, although he has a Hispanic nickname and strong Hispanic support. Booker is African-American; Harris, as well as being a woman, is of mixed Jamaican and Indian descent, while Klobuchar’s exotic surname marks her Slovenian heritage.
Biden has a history of being gaffe-prone, but has now reached the stage in his career where he is regarded as a safe pair of hands. His association with Obama adds to his popularity among Democrats, so his lead in Iowa is not surprising. But as Alex Shephard points out in the New Republic, Hillary Clinton was also extremely popular before she became a candidate. It could, as he says, be “all downhill from here.”
Some of the reasons that derailed Clinton’s campaign have no relevance to Biden. But the basic problem of being seen as tired and out-of-touch remains. To win, Democrats will need to convince the electorate that they are the voice of the future, not the past.