Looking towards Iowa

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.

3 thoughts on “Looking towards Iowa

  1. PBS-Newshour yesterday highlighted the unexpected results re Beto O’Rourke in Iowa. This could be a significant factor because it partly answers a question other dems have asked of him: would he play well outside Texas. Being both a convincing Hispanic (to those who matter; his hometown is majority Hispanic and he grew up bilingual and bi-cultural; his diminutive name is not an affectation) and being a Texan could be huge too. Texas is just straining at the bit to turn blue and his effort made it nominally purple. The effect would probably spill over into Florida, another critical state that HRC was supposed to win but didn’t. Then there is the generational effect–which may be just enough to get the sods to actually vote.
    Having said all that, like most Americans, I don’t know anything much about him, except that apparently some Dems complain he was equivocal or uncommitted on some key issues that many other Dems around the country care about. But of course that may have been not unimportant in his close result in Texas and an awful lot of America, and especially the parts the Dems need to win back, share that conservatism.

    Joe Biden must be very frustrated, because he is probably too old for the next cycle but he may well have won in 2016. That “gaffe-prone” complaint is actually not at all a bad thing because it reflects his frank talk on some issues that appeals to the exact voters they lost in 2016 (and all the others forgive him). Some “deplorables” and blue-collar types in those northern rust-belt states that again, the Dems should not have lost, and only lost by small margins, meaning that Biden might have been enough to turn them. He may have also listened to the few Dems (like Michael Moore, from Michigan) who saw the looming trouble in those rust-belt states. He’s a natural campaigner (by some counts it would be his fifth campaign) and takes it to Trump better than most (and better than HRC did, not necessarily her fault). But alas, I don’t reckon the time is right.

    Sanders too is too old for the generational change that is in the air. Likewise Elizabeth Warren who is triply burdened as far as a contest against Trump (if ..), being a very liberal Liberal from Massachussetts, an academic economist, and of course a woman (and the Pocahantas thing). It’s terrible but much of America, including women in red states and infected with religion, is anti-women. Gillibrand can also take it to Trump, and gets under his skin but I don’t know if her appeal extends across the country and different groups needed, not to mention the natural disadvantage of being female. For the sake of winning and in being able to make changes in government, I don’t think the on-white candidates have much hope. This single factor may have been the difference, for Obama, between a rather disappointing presidency from a potentially transformational one.

    PBS-Newshour finished their piece by noting that the single thing that united all Dem voters this time, re candidates, was the utmost importance of choosing someone who can defeat Trump. An admission that it is too important to engage in buggins-turn and favouritism. This is the glass half-full side to Trump. It has made the Dems toughen-the-f up, at long last.

    Yesterday the DNC released their new rules on the primaries. Transparency. First debate in June 2019.


  2. A few points

    1. Caucus/primary polls are generally less accurate than regular polls. It is difficult for posters to judge who will actually show up to participate

    2. Polls this far out from the Caucus are only useful for judging levels of name recognition

    3. Biden is not only a centrist old white man but his record regarding school busing and the Anita Hill hearings will be poison in a Democratic party that is now united around social justice. Likewise, I think Warren’s recent Native American controversy will haunt her during the campaign

    3. Iowa’s Democratic caucus-goers are heavily White but also more left-wing than national Democratic primary voters. GIven that, Bernie and Warren really ought to be doing better than they are.

    4. I still think Kamala Harris is the early frontrunner because of the Democratic party’s racial demographics and California’s increased prominence in the primaries this cycle. That said the more people to get to know Beto the more they like him and his name recognition in early primary/caucus states will only increase from here.



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