With less than three months to go before the critical Iowa caucuses next February, senior members of the Democratic Party appear to be in freak-out mode.
What once appeared to be a one-man Democratic nominating race led by Joe Biden has morphed into a four-way race with no prospective front-runner who might draw the party’s diverse constituencies together to present a united front to Donald Trump in 2020.
Biden, who once led the rest of the field by a substantial margin, nationally and locally, has fallen to fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire and is slowly bleeding support to Senator Elizabeth Warren on his left and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg on his right.
His support is even slipping in South Carolina, once his presumed “firewall”. Only Nevada and to a lesser extent Texas, suggest that Biden’s support is holding firm. All of the other primary contests, from California to New York, are completely up for grabs.
The problem for Democrats is that Biden and his rivals, including stalwart Bernie Sanders, have distinct and competing bases of support. This gives each candidate a piece of the primary electorate but no way of stitching together a majority coalition. As a result, the party’s not becoming more invigorated – only more divided.
Biden enjoys strong support among older voters and African Americans as well as Hispanics, Warren has growing support among White women, especially progressives, and Sanders has by far the strongest following of any candidate among the party’s youth.
Buttigieg seems to be gaining primarily among White moderates, especially younger voters, which has allowed him to peel off some support from Biden and Sanders both.
But race remains a big factor. Unlike Biden, Buttigieg Sanders and Warren have yet to make a real mark with minority voters — an enormous problem in a party where minority voters are critical to mobilizing the base and getting out the vote.
Ideology also divides the field. Warren’s blistering “east the rich” campaign rhetoric and policy stances have earned her kudos from progressives (and siphoned off some votes from Sanders) but have prompted a fierce backlash from wealthy donors, who have quietly warned Democrats that they will back Trump if Warren is the nominee.
Likewise, Sanders is viewed by many in the party as “unelectable,” in part because of his open identification with “socialism” but also because of his dogmatic and irascible style and his seeming inability to connect with women.
Speculation is now rampant that at least three other candidates will soon emerge as “dark horses” in a last-ditch effort to shake up the race and find a candidate that can bridge these intractable divisions.
One of them is Michael Bloomberg, who seems for the first time ready to take the plunge after flirting with a run three previous presidential cycles.
The second, of course, is Hillary Clinton, who retains a core group of supporters from 2016 who feel that she won because of her 3 million popular margin over Trump in the race Hillary swore off 2020 a year ago but no one actually believed then that she could resist the possibility of running again should an opening appear – which appears increasingly likely.
And the third and perhaps most intriguing prospective candidate is former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, Barack Obama’s old mentor who declared he wouldn’t run a year ago despite being urged to do so by Obama’s inner circle and by the former president himself.
On paper, all three have something to offer the party, even this late in the game. Bloomberg, who’s one of the richest men in the world, arguably has the least to offer, because he’s even older than Biden and is temperamentally out of step with the progressive wing of the party.
His prospective entry into the race has already been denounced by Sanders, who accuses him of trying to “buy” the election. (Bloomberg should be so lucky)
Clinton, of course, is unpopular with some Democrats who blame her for the party’s defeat in 2016. They also resent her grandstanding early in the campaign season when she seemed to imply that she deserved another chance at the White House.
But that was a year ago when the party’s prospects seemed brighter. Now the party’s growing desperate. Clinton’s kept herself in the mix in part by inserting a number of her 2016 operatives into other people’s campaigns. She also has ready access to big donors and could re-establish herself quickly
Patrick is the least well known of the three but his close association with Obama gives him “street cred,” especially if the former president were to offer his endorsement once Patrick decides to jump in.
On the issues, Patrick holds considerable crossover appeal. He’s progressive on immigration and criminal justice and a host of issues important to the party base. His one drawback, perhaps, is his association with Bain Capital, which marks him as a conservative on economic issues.
Unlike Biden, though, Patrick’s proven himself to be a vigorous and effective campaigner. He’s also Black and has a successful tenure as governor in a Blue State under his belt, giving him executive-level experience and credibility that other candidates lack.
The real question is whether there’s time for anyone, other than Clinton, to make their mark quickly and effectively. If the other candidates balk, it could turn into a real nightmare.
The very fact that some in the party are considering a “dark horse” alternative to the current field this late in the game is illustrative of how weak and divided the Democrats are – and it shows.
Trump’s already amassed the largest campaign war chest in GOP history and is sitting atop a successfully growing economy. Despite the threat of impeachment, it’s the Democrats who are twisting in the wind, gasping for air