The Democratic fight to take on Trump heats up

Joseph MicallefMy opinion on American presidential politics and $3 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Then again, you can dispense with my opinion and just spend the $3 to get the coffee.

But if you want my opinion. …

The Iowa caucuses are upon us – the first major moment in the United States presidential primary process. Iowans in both the Republican and Democratic parties will vote on Monday, starting the process to select their parties’ presidential candidates for the Nov. 3 election.

So it’s time to put money down on who will gain the first foothold for the Democratic party – and get a cup of coffee.

Theres no point in previewing the Republican race since the partys national committee has pledged its undivided support to President Donald Trump. Many states have simply cancelled their Republican primaries as a result.

In the Democratic race, all the polling shows Bernie Sanders with a narrow lead over Joe Biden, in Iowa and nationwide. Sanders is surging at just the right time. It’s virtually certain he will come in first or second in Iowa.

But Biden’s strength is understated. That’s because party officials lean towards Biden and they show up to vote virtually 100 per cent of the time, while others often drop out at the last minute. So Biden could squeeze out a narrow victory. If he does, with a victory in South Carolina on Feb. 29 certain, that will cement his position as the front-runner.

The Democratic Party leadership is showing concern that Sanders might win. If Biden collapses, they’re looking at Michael Bloomberg to take his place. As a result, rule changes have been made to allow Bloomberg to participate in party debates.

Biden is still the de facto front-runner if you discount Sanders’ strength in California and New York. Despite an overall poor campaign performance, Biden continues to hang in.

At the same time, Elizabeth Warren is coming across as increasingly frantic. She’s throwing out proposals for abolishing the electoral college process and wiping out student loan debt by presidential order as soon as she’s sworn in, notwithstanding that she’s on tenuous legal ground in doing so. This is hurting her with Democratic moderates who saw her as a more rational, less radical alternative to Sanders.

But the Democratic base is still very fluid. It will likely turn to Warren for a second look if she just waits.

As it stands, Pete Buttigieg should come in third in Iowa, with Warren fourth. The key issue is whether these two are bunched close to the winners or distant. If they’re distant, they will be perceived as being stuck in the second tier. If they’re close to Sanders and Biden, they’ll be regarded as first-tier candidates regardless of their overall rank.

Unless Amy Klobuchar can crack the top three – an unlikely scenario – she’s probably done. None of the upcoming primaries favour her. Still, of the female senators who entered the race, she outlasted Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, two more prominent and better-financed contenders.

Bloomberg has surged in the polls to fourth spot with nine per cent of the support. The media is playing this up but it doesn’t strike me as showing significant strength when you consider he has spent over US$135 million on advertising in the last 90 days.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Biden announces his vice-presidential choice to be an African American woman as a way of cementing his support among that constituency. If he does, it will be a sign of weakness, if not downright panic in his camp.

All other candidates are irrelevant at this point.

But there are outlier scenarios:

  • It’s possible that Biden crashes and comes in third or fourth. If that happens, where did his support go? If it goes to Sanders and he wins convincingly, party establishment will go into full panic mode. If it goes to Buttigieg, then he will be heralded as the Biden alternative, at least until the South Carolina primary. Buttigieg doesn’t have the strength to get over the finish line but he can stay in the race for a long time.
  • Warren surges. That’s improbable unless Sanders suddenly shows weakness, which is unlikely right now.
  • Klobuchar surges. That’s possible but a Klobuchar or Buttigieg surge will likely come at the expense of Biden and will turn out to be a short-term event.

As anticipated from the beginning, this race is turning out to be a battle between progressives and moderates for the soul of the Democratic Party. I still think it will come down to Biden versus Warren.

On the “progressive” side, there are only two alternatives: Warren or Sanders. Right now, it looks like Sanders. But three months ago, it looked like Warren. This choice is still very fluid. Prominent progressives are lining up behind Sanders.

The Iowa caucus is a ranked order of preference voting system. So second and third choices can sometimes upend expected results.

On the moderate side, it looks like Biden for now. The alternative is Bloomberg, followed by Buttigieg and Klobuchar. All three have challenges to overcome.

It’s highly unlikely that Biden goes away as he will do well in southern primaries.

So right now it looks like a race within a race – a battle to be the moderates’ standard bearer and one to be the progressives’ standard bearer. Neither will be resolved soon.

In the meantime, those contenders will continue to fight it out to be the Democratic standard bearer. It will be a bloodied and bruised bunch that makes it to the party convention starting on July 13. As this fight progresses, party unity will be ever more fleeting.

Few of the candidates have focused on Super Tuesday races. On those days, multiple states hold their primaries. The assumption has been that by the end of February, the likely nominee will emerge and they can coast through those primaries.

That seems increasingly unlikely, in part because money will be a key factor contesting Super Tuesday primaries and that favours Bloomberg.

Milk or sugar with that cup of coffee?

Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.

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