Primary Colors 2020
by Kevin Kelton
Democrats, forget left vs. moderate for a moment and talk raw primary politics. Because ultimately primary races are a battle of personalities, not political purity. Once Joe Biden and Beto O’Roarke jump into the 2020 race, the field will be set.* Now the game is primary chess. So let’s look at the board.
Bernie Sanders is likely to win or do very well in his neighboring New Hampshire, the second big prize, a place where an old school candidate like Biden is not likely to run well. (Granite staters tend toward newer flavors.) And South Carolina will be tough for both Joe and Bernie, two guys not known for playing to the grits crowd.
That means Joe must win Iowa. Otherwise he’ll be 0 for 3 in the first three contests⁺ and no one comes back from that except the ’04 Red Sox.
If Beto or Kamala Harris can knock off Sanders in New Hampshire, that could douse The Bern for good. Harris seems positioned to do well in minority-heavy South Carolina. But neither of them is likely to break free if they don’t win Iowa. At best, one might emerge as the fresh-face candidate who will still have to fend off the old guard to prove their mettle.
So once again Iowa is key, even more so this time than normally. (How do a few hundred thousand caucus voters kidnap the nation every four years?) Should Biden somehow win there, it’s probably a Biden-Bernie or Biden-Beto or Biden-Harris race.⁺⁺
That would set up yet another epic battle for the ideological soul of the party, with pragmatists behind Biden and ideologues splintering between Bernie and Beto or Harris. There’s only one lane out of that bowling alley, while Biden would be free to play to the pragmatist, anti-Trump crowd.
But for Joe to get there, it’s Iowa Iowa Iowa. Can he out-caucus Sanders in the heartland? Or will a smooth-talking Music Man (or Woman) from out west come in and steal their swooning Iowan hearts?
If Biden stalls in Iowa, NH and SC become the game. The party will lurch left. Everyone will be touting Medicare For All and play some version of a Green New Deal hand. “I’ll see your carbon tax and raise you a solar jobs bill.” Each will have their own version of a Robin Hood wealth tax, turning the debates into a giant Mathletes club. “Is 70% of an eight figure salary greater than 2% of a nine figure estate? Please show your work.”
And Trump will run against socialism, no matter who tops the ticket. Meaning the world may finally learn what would’ve happened if a Democratic Socialist had secured the 2016 nomination and ran against Trumpism.
There. I just spared you the next year of your life. Now, who do you like for 2024?
* No one is waiting to see what Jeff Merkley or Michael Bennett will be doing. And Sherrod Brown doesn’t have the fire to catch fire.
⁺ The Nevada caucus actually comes before SC this time, but I don’t see that traditionally blue state being much of a factor. Considering it’s so far west compared to the others and what that entails in travel time, it may not get much candidate play at all.
⁺⁺ At this point I don’t give Amy Klobuchar much of a shot, but we can’t rule her out, since “Midwestern nice” plays well in Iowa. And though I personally like Elizabeth Warren, I doubt she can compete in this field. She has no lane that I can see, and I get no sense of traction for her in Open Fire, my Facebook focus group.