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The Democratic State of Play

A simple sketch of where we are post-New Hampshire.
February 12, 2020
The Democratic State of Play
Frontrunner? (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

For all the muddle, we actually now have quite a bit of clarity. We know on February 12, 2020, almost nine months before Election Day, that it is very likely that the winner on November 3 will be one of five Americans: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, or Mike Bloomberg. The grueling pre-primary competition, and the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire, have narrowed the field considerably from where we were six months ago.

The fact that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee was never much in doubt, but now there is none at all. One might note, though, that Trump’s 86 percent of the vote in New Hampshire suggests a bit more GOP resistance to him than is often portrayed, and the existence of voters who could perhaps be pried away by the right Democratic candidate come November.

Who is that candidate? Democrats are in the process of deciding.

The Democrats of Iowa and New Hampshire preferred Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, who virtually tied in both states. Normally if two candidates occupy the first two spots in Iowa and New Hampshire, and especially if a different candidate takes third place in each state, one would expect the race to settle into a contest between the two frontrunners.

There’s a lot of history suggesting that if you want a major party nomination for president, then you should be in the three in Iowa and the top two in New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg meet that standard.

Therefore the single most likely outcome going forward—the “normal” outcome, made far more likely, of course, if Sanders and Buttigieg continue on to take the top two spots in Nevada and then South Carolina—is a Sanders-Buttigieg race. After all, if the same two candidates run 1-2 (in whatever order) in the first four states, the other existing candidates are presumably done, and it’s hard to see someone else then breaking through.

But these are not normal times. And these two frontrunners are perhaps more vulnerable than most. One is a socialist who would be the oldest person ever nominated by a major party. The other is a small-city mayor who would be the youngest nominee in over a century.

Perhaps that’s why this contest doesn’t quite feel ready to settle down to a traditional two-way race, a la Mondale-Hart, Bush-McCain, or Obama-Clinton. (Though surely it could do so.)

Which brings us to the two candidates who can disrupt things.

Amy Klobuchar’s path is simple, but not easy. She has to beat Buttigieg in either Nevada or South Carolina—preferably in both and preferably while also beating Sanders in at least one of them.

That’s not impossible. Her surge in New Hampshire shows her to be a formidable candidate and she has certain other advantages: Ideologically she’s close to the center of the party; she’s 59-years-old rather than 38 or 78; and she’s the only woman left in contention. But Buttigieg’s strong close in New Hampshire suggests he won’t be easy to dislodge, Klobuchar starts way back in both Nevada and South Carolina, and Nevada is a caucus state which rewards organization, of which she has very little.

Enter Mike Bloomberg. If the intra-moderate Buttigieg-Klobuchar contest doesn’t produce a clear winner, and if both look somewhat weakened by Nevada and South Carolina, then Bloomberg could emerge, as his plan would have him do, as the alternative to Bernie Sanders.

This would be easier if Bloomberg seems, in the polls, to be a credible alternative in the Super Tuesday states even before South Carolina, so that a muddled result there would spark a sudden and massive pivot to him over the next three days. In this respect, Bloomberg’s performance in the Nevada and South Carolina debates—assuming he’s on those stages—takes on considerable importance. His massive spending makes him a possible contender; but you can’t win the nomination with paid ads alone.

The above picture of where we are is undoubtedly too simple, and obviously doesn’t begin to take account of many important variables or anticipate many possible surprises: Some of which fall into the category of known-unknowns and others are unknown-unknowns.

If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s to be prepared for both.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.