Democrats stagger into primary season

There’s now less than three weeks to go until the first voting of this year’s American presidential election: the Iowa caucuses, on 3 February, which will kick off the process of delegate selection to ultimately choose the two parties’ presidential candidates.

Although there are two parties, there is in reality only one contest. The Republican Party, strange as it may seem, is fully united behind incumbent Donald Trump; a number of states will not even bother to hold a Republican primary. All the action is on the Democrat side.

And there, what was a record large field has been steadily narrowing. Since the beginning of November, when we last surveyed the position, Kamala Harris has (as predicted) dropped out, followed in the last fortnight by Julián Castro, Marianne Wilkinson and Cory Booker.

That nominally leaves 12 candidates, but three of them – Michael Bennet, John Delaney and Deval Patrick – have failed to make any impression at all. A further three are clinging on to a sort of semi-relevance: Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang.

Steyer managed to just clear the hurdle for participation in this week’s debate, courtesy of a massive advertising blitz that produced a bounce in the polls in two early-voting states (Nevada and South Carolina). The other two didn’t even make it that far, although both have a certain novelty value: Yang as an outsider with bold policy ideas, and Gabbard for her closeness to Donald Trump.

But for all practical purposes there are just six serious candidates. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren make up the first tier; they are followed by a second tier consisting of Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.

By most measures the first tier are clearly the ones to beat. But the second tier are not without hope. Buttigieg is running third in the polls in Iowa, behind Biden and Sanders but ahead of Warren; Bloomberg is mostly ignoring the early states, but is almost neck-and-neck with Buttigieg for fourth place nationally.

Klobuchar is back with the also-rans in national polls, but has risen to the high single digits in Iowa. She is now clearly the best-qualified candidate of those under 70; that may give her some potential, but the fate of such high-profile dropouts as Harris and Booker may indicate that that’s not what most Democrat voters are after.

So unless something dramatic happens soon, it will probably come down to one of the top three. Nationally, Biden remains in the lead – his support has been stuck in the high 20s for the last six months. But since we last looked at the numbers, Sanders has overtaken Warren for second place; it remains close, with perhaps three or four points between them.

Iowa is rather different. Biden and Sanders are virtually tied for first place, with Buttigieg and Warren a strong third and fourth. New Hampshire is similar to Iowa; Biden and Warren are just slightly stronger, Buttigieg a bit weaker but still well in contention.

How much difference do the early states make? Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has a new statistical model for forecasting the contest, which weights them pretty heavily. Last week, for example, it gave Biden a 40% chance overall of having a majority at the Democrat convention, but that rises to 80% conditional on him winning in Iowa and falls to 20% on the basis of him losing there.

The effect on the others is equally dramatic. Buttigieg starts with just a 10% chance; that rises to 37% if he wins Iowa, but falls to just 2% if he loses it.

Those effects, of course, have almost nothing to do with the actual delegates at stake in Iowa or New Hampshire. Their numerical impact is trivial. But the early states are vital as indicators of the candidates’ support, and for the momentum and publicity that they deliver for the following rounds.

Whether they are quite as vital as Silver’s model suggests remains to be seen. Iowa has picked the eventual winner in the last four contested Democrat races, although it should be said it hasn’t done as well with the Republicans – the last three winners there were Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.

But the early states certainly winnow the field. For a long-shot to put serious effort into them and fail means the end of their candidacy: so for Klobuchar, for example, a better-than-expected performance in Iowa is an absolute necessity.

The big three, on the other hand, have enough electoral capital that they could survive a loss in Iowa. But if one of them can win both Iowa and New Hampshire – especially by convincing margins – then they will become almost impossible to beat.

Otherwise, after Iowa, New Hampshire (11 February), Nevada (22 February) and South Carolina (29 February), the caravan moves on to Super Tuesday, 3 March, when 14 states vote on the same day, including the two largest, California and Texas.

Four years ago, election-watchers got a full four months of entertainment from the primaries as the Republican contest was not finally decided until May. But historically that’s most unusual; it’s more likely than not that Super Tuesday will put the issue beyond serious doubt. If it doesn’t, three big primaries a fortnight later (Florida, Illinois and Ohio) probably will.

For the Democrats, gearing up to try to beat an incumbent president, that’s just as well. They need the time to rally around whoever their voters settle on. Most polling suggests that those voters are primarily looking for a candidate with the ability to beat Trump, and although they disagree on who fits that bill they are generally happy with the overall quality of the field.

I confess that I find that surprising; to me, the remaining frontrunners are an uninspiring lot. But Iowans, like the rest of us, are now stuck with them.


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