Democrats ponder the top six

It’s been a while now since we looked at the state of play for next year’s United States presidential election – which for practical purposes means the race for the Democratic Party nomination, since that’s where all the action is.

The election is a little over 18 months away, and the first actual voting for candidates, the Iowa caucuses, is in half that time, on 3 February. But nonetheless, the campaign is well under way, with the number of serious candidates already (depending on just how one defines “serious”) somewhere in the mid-teens, with probably a few more to come.

But there’s a fairly high degree of consensus about who are the front-runners at the moment. Although the order varies, the betting market, opinion polls and expert rankings tend to converge on the same top six: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Among the remainder, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang are probably the most frequently mentioned.

With twelve months of campaigning ahead, give or take a bit, there’s plenty of scope for a dark horse to emerge, or for an early leader to crash and burn. Nonetheless, the predictive power of the polls, even at this stage, is historically quite good, so it’s worth trying to say something intelligent about the current top tier.

The top six are all highly skilled politicians – they would not have got this far if they were not. Their personal strengths and weaknesses will be carefully probed in the coming months, but three criteria that come immediately to mind are age, experience and ideology.

Age provides a sharp division within the group: the generation gap is one of the first things to strike the observer about the field. Warren is 69, Biden 76 and Sanders 77; by contrast, Buttigieg is 37, O’Rourke 46 and Harris 54.

So Democrat voters will have to decide whether it’s time to make the move to the next generation. Running against a 72-year-old president, whose cranky old man persona only highlights the age issue, are they better off trying to beat him on his own turf, or would a dash of youthful enthusiasm be preferable?

For what it’s worth, my view is that the older generation has had its chance and it’s time to move on. The fact that Biden and Sanders continue to lead in the polls suggests that Democrats have not yet come around to that point of view, but that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually do so.

Experience, of course, correlates to some extent with age. But it’s almost a hundred years since the Democrats have endorsed a candidate who had not previously served as a senator or governor (the last one was John Davis in 1924). When trying to make the contrast with Trump’s inveterate ignorance, is this really the time to try that experiment again?

That test would rule out O’Rourke (a former congressman) and Buttigieg (mayor of South Bend), as well as several of the lesser lights.

When it comes to ideology, things are less clear-cut and more subjective. With one exception, the leading candidates are all well within the party mainstream. Biden is to the right and Warren to the left, with the others somewhere in between: some of the differences are quite subtle, and it’s not clear how significant voters will find them.

The exception is Sanders, who is not a party member and who rhetorically at least disclaims the adherence to capitalism that the others all profess. I have suggested before that Sanders’s “socialism” is nominal rather than real. But to some extent that is beside the point: rhetoric sometimes matters more than reality.

For those on the far left, Sanders seems to at least open up the possibility of fundamental changes to the American political and economic system, as Jacobin magazine’s Bhaskar Sunkara argued a few months ago. Nate Silver interprets Sunkara’s argument to mean that “Sanders and Warren may not be swimming in the same lane” – that, despite their agreement on many policy questions, their ability to take votes from each other is limited.

Whatever Sanders’s actual views about the future of capitalism, there’s no doubt that his movement partakes of some of the disturbing features that we associate with, say, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain or Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France: hostility to trade and globalisation, scepticism about immigration and a willingness to soft-pedal the fight against the extreme right.

Now, one might argue that the mainstream of American politics is a stagnant swamp rather than a vibrant waterway, and that it badly needs some stirring up. But while there’s a lot of truth in that, it doesn’t follow that voters are yet willing to embrace an anti-capitalist candidate. The Democratic race may be better for having Sanders in it, but he is more effective as a gadfly than a serious candidate.

Finally, while on the subject of the United States, don’t miss the recent discussions in the New York Times about the electoral college. First, Jamelle Bouie, who delivers a comprehensive indictment against the institution; followed by Sean Wilentz, who defends it against the claim that it was a contrivance to protect the interests of slaveowners; and most recently Akhil Reed Amar, who demolishes Wilentz’s position without actually challenging the college’s existence.

As usual, I think opponents of the electoral college have much the better of the argument, but it’s a debate we’ll probably hear more of in the next 18 months. Unless the election looks like not being close, in which case it will be happily forgotten about until the next time it returns to plague American democracy.



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