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by | Jan 13, 2019 | Current Events, Government, News, Politics | 0 comments

There are fresh faces and old hands. Thirty-somethings and senior citizens. Billionaires and at least one person still paying off student loans. A skateboarder, a brewery founder and a coffee magnate are all taking a look.

Dozens of Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020.

The result could be a divisive, messy set of primaries, but many Democrats are exhilarated by the prospect of a wide range of choices, mirroring the congressional races in 2018.

“If there’s one thing we learned over the last two years, it’s that primaries are a good thing,” said Amanda Litman, founder of Run for Something, a group established after President Trump’s election in 2016 to recruit and train young progressives to run for office. “They make our party stronger.’’

In sorting through their choices between young and old, liberal and more centrist, white men and women and people of color, Democrats will be deciding not only who they want as a nominee, but what kind of party they want to be now that the Clintons’ quarter-century political dynasty is essentially over.

When Republicans had a similar situation in 2016, with sixteen serious candidates in the fray, the metaphor of “lanes” in which such clusters competed for oxygen and viability before the deal went down became nearly ubiquitous. As early as March of 2015 — before Donald Trump entered the race — the Washington Post’s Phillip Bump was slicing and dicing the field in terms of five “lanes” with different candidates competing for supremacy, with some transcending any one lane.

Bump had Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee as the leaders in the Tea Party lane; Walker, Huckabee and Jeb Bush as the top three in the “evangelical” lane; Bush and Chris Christie dominating the “moderate/establishment” lane; Walker and Bush doing best in the “very conservative” lane; and Rand Paul pretty much alone in a harder-to-discern “libertarian” lane.

Trump came along and scrambled these lanes and helped croak several candidacies. By February of 2016, Reid Wilson posited just three lanes:

‘The five remaining candidates in the race are competing for constituencies who might conveniently be characterized as establishment voters, values voters and change voters.’

Wilson suggested that Marco Rubio was fighting with John Kasich in the establishment lane; Ted Cruz was battling to subdue Ben Carson for supremacy among values voters; and Trump has the newly defined “change” lane to himself. Eventually, of course, all the “establishment” candidates vanished and Trump’s final battle was with Ted Cruz, who looked like an also-ran in the Tea Party lane in the early going. And in the end, the candidate who didn’t fit into any preexisting lane won the nomination and the presidency, casting doubt on the whole construction.

The earliest candidates to announce underscored the unparalleled diversity of the emerging field. A woman, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, was the first major national figure to set up an exploratory committee. A Latino, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, formally announced Saturday. A black woman, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, is on a book tour that will likely be followed by an announcement later this month.

But three white men’s decisions about whether to run could have outsized impact on the 2020 field: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas all have the rest of the field watching for their decisions.

If Biden runs, he becomes an instant front-runner on the strength of his experience and vast political network. His entry would also guarantee that a central question of the primary will be a generational one, as younger rivals will argue that it is time for the older guard to pass the baton.

That generational split will widen further if the 46-year-old O’Rourke jumps in. He became a national sensation in his failed 2018 Texas Senate campaign, with viral Facebook livestreams of him skateboarding, driving and cooking dinner.

O’Rourke is not the youngest hopeful: California Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin), one of the youngest at 38, still owes about $100,000 on his student loans.

If Sanders decides to run, his will be a big presence in the lane of left-leaning candidates, one that would likely crowd ideological allies such as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who announced her candidacy Friday, and Oregon Sen Jeff Merkley if he runs.

How might the chattering classes slice and dice the 2020 Democratic field?

  1. Ideological lanes: Bernie Sanders will anchor the progressive lane, with potential competition from Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, Jeff Merkley and Sherrod Brown. If there’s a moderate lane, Joe Biden will be the pace-setter, with dark-horse House members John Delaney and Seth Moulton, former governor John Hickenlooper, and possibly Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, all following in his wake. Down the road, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke might appeal to moderate voters and opinion-leaders if Biden doesn’t run or does poorly. Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Pete Buttigieg are hard to pigeon-hole ideologically. They, along with O’Rourke, Warren, Klobuchar, and multiple dark-horses (including 2004 nominee John Kerry) have potential as “party unity” candidates — a lane that tends to form late in the nomination cycle.
  2. Racial/ethnic/gender lanes: The size of the likely 2020 field means multiple candidates from demographic groups that are rarely represented in presidential contests. There’s never been a Democratic primary field with more than one viable woman or African-American. Gabbard, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, and Warren could create a “woman’s lane” in theory. Booker and Harris could battle for African-American votes, beginning in the early South Carolina primary. Julián Castro and Garcetti could attract the attention of Latino voters. And although it’s a sentiment expressed more in private than in public, there’s a constituency for the idea that Democrats need a white male to beat Trump — especially someone who can appeal to Rust Belt white-working class voters. Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown could wind up competing in a white working-class lane of their own.
  3. Generational lanes: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg and John Kerry are all potential Democratic candidates who are (or in Warren’s case, will soon be) in their seventies. That makes virtually everyone else a possible “youth candidate.” Gabbard, Pete Buttigieg, and Calfornia congressman Eric Swalwell are in their thirties; Booker, Castro, Garcetti, and O’Rourke are in their forties. If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had reached the constitutionally minimum age of 35, she might be a compelling candidate for the hard-to-mobilize but sizable millennial constituency.
  4. Fame lanes: In a big field like 2020’s, less-well-known candidates will inevitably battle with each other for the media attention the celebrity candidates take for granted. In a social media era, fame can arrive quickly (as Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated). So perhaps one or two of the candidates you have never heard of can strike name-ID gold before things get really serious.
  5. The electability lane: Depending on all sorts of factors such as the objective condition of the country and Trump’s relative popularity, the Democratic nominating contest could revolve around evidence and impressions about various candidates’ ability to beat the incumbent. Several proto-candidates, including Biden, Brown and O’Rourke, have nascent “electability” arguments that could grow powerful if Democrats begin to worry the 2020 general election will be as close as the last one. General election trial heats testing this or that candidate against Trump could become important, despite the bad experience Democrats had with trusting 2016 polls showing Hillary Clinton handily beating the mogul. Very particular electoral college arguments for electability–e.g., Sherrod Brown’s popularity in Ohio–could matter in a close nomination race.
  6. Luck lanes: The hardest thing to anticipate and adjust to are the fortuitous events that shake up nomination contests before and just after voters begin voting. If, for example, both Biden and Sanders — who lead most early polls — decide not to run, everything could change. The millstone Elizabeth Warren is trying to shrug off involving the essentially silly “issue” of her claimed Native American ancestry is an example of variables that are hard to calculate in advance. Whoever does best in critical moments of the nominating contest could rise to the top of the charts with a bullet. It’s impossible to know in advance.

And that’s the key thing to keep in mind when contemplating efforts to neatly classify the Democratic field: the one thing we should have learned from the 2016 GOP contest is that every rule can be broken. Going into that contest, political scientists had largely concluded that party elites pre-control presidential nominations. Trump blew up that supposition, which is part of the reason so many potential Democratic challengers to him are standing in line for 2020 in what some have labeled the “Why Not Me?” race. The primaries may surprise us, and there’s even a chance no one will have the nomination nailed down before Democrats gather for their convention in July. The “lanes” surviving candidates would traverse in the first truly deliberative Democratic convention since 1952 are impossible to anticipate. So perhaps we should treat it as a wide-open highway.

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