Reflections on the Silly Season

I’m watching the blossoms on the trees outside my window. They will soon turn into young leaves, which will mature, turn color, and fall to the ground. Much later the process will repeat itself. Only then will we reach Election Day 2020, some eighteen months from now.

Welcome to the silly season of presidential politics, when the election is so far off that much of what happens has little or no bearing on what will happen when things get real. Predictions are useless at this stage, but with presidential candidates now declaring their intentions a full two years out, it is possible to offer a few thoughts on the dynamics that might shape what happens in the coming months (and, technically, years). In this spirit, and in no particular order, I offer ten early observations on the Democratic presidential race.

  • People aren’t paying attention. If you read this blog you may find it hard to believe but, honestly — they aren’t. Activists are engaged. So are political junkies and people in Iowa and New Hampshire who can’t drive to work without passing a presidential candidate. For everyone else it’s background noise at best.
  • Polls are fairly useless. This is because people aren’t paying attention. In the early stages of a campaign, polling registers name recognition and media attention. That’s why Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders top most polls. In April 2003, that distinction went to Joe Lieberman. In April 2015, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush led the Republican field. Remember when people were talking about a Bush dynasty?
  • Still, polling can point out danger signs for candidates. No one in the Democratic field is better known than Joe Biden, yet his best polls thus far have him in the low 30s. Bernie Sanders is close behind, but with less support than he had at the end of his 2016 campaign. Neither can be considered a commanding frontrunner, and less well known candidates have more room to grow.
  • Even though less well known candidates have more room to grow . . . there is only so much oxygen to fuel that growth, and the field of twenty is almost certain to shrink before the first votes are cast. Some candidates with seemingly strong resumes (Booker, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, Hickenlooper, Castro) had underwhelming openings and have struggled for attention or remain virtually invisible. As the year goes on it will be harder for second and third-tier candidates to break through.
  • Authenticity matters. Pete Buttigieg is the unlikeliest of breakthrough candidates, and you can attribute it in part to his authenticity. An openly gay devout millennial, Mayor Pete is waging a values campaign from the religious left — an unoccupied space in our politics. He doesn’t sound practiced when he speaks. Whether he can build a national campaign or play in the major leagues remains to be seen, but candidates who project authenticity can cut through the clutter. Bernie and Elizabeth Warren exhibit this quality. Others who sound like they’re mouthing political boilerplate should take note.
  • Substance matters. Speaking of Warren, she has been a policy machine since announcing her candidacy, rolling out detailed plans on everything from taxing wealth to ending student debt. On this she is joined by many of her competitors, who have taken positions on universal health care, the environment, and other large issues. The horserace will inevitably cast a long shadow over coverage, but the early going has been unusually substantive. Democratic voters have an appetite for candidates who say what they want to do as president and how they plan to do it. Candidates who speak in generalities should take note.
  • Message matters. There is a desire among Democratic voters to address economic inequality, social justice and the restoration of democratic norms. Candidates who figure out how to address these issues can go far. Candidates who articulate an overarching narrative that connects them can go very far. See Mayor Pete’s opening argument for a textbook example of how it can be done.
  • The big field is a good thing. Twenty candidates are running. Nineteen will lose. The winner will have to survive a marathon that’s sure to refine their message and campaign skills.
  • Gender, race and age. Joe Biden’s candidacy makes it a certainty that Democrats will litigate the question of whether a white man in his late 70s should be the public face of a party that won the 2018 midterms on the strength of younger voters, women and voters of color, and how the politics of diversity plays out in the Trump era. Compared to some of his challengers, Biden’s base skews older, whiter and more working class — essentially the voters who could make the difference in the Rust Belt states that put Donald Trump in the White House. But Biden’s appreciation of race and gender were shaped in an earlier time, and he will have problems reaching Democrats under 40. Win or lose, he will be regarded as a transitional figure. He’s betting his success on the Democratic Party and the country being not quite ready to plunge into the twenty-first century.
  • Everyone wants to beat Trump. Not everyone agrees how to do it. In addition to sorting out matters of gender, race and age, Democrats will have to decide whether they want to return to the liberal politics of the pre-Trump era or embrace a new progressivism, itself available in flavors ranging from the social democratic policies of Sanders and Warren to the slightly more measured progressivism of Kamala Harris to whatever it is exactly that Beto is offering. Is this a big moment requiring bold initiatives or time to play it safe? And does playing it safe make it more or less likely to motivate the voters needed for a winning coalition? Does the party want something completely new or the reassuring comfort of the status quo ante? Do they bet on restoring the “Blue Wall” in the Midwest or go for a realignment in the Sun Belt, or (as I will argue they should do in a future post) attempt both? And who would be the candidate suited to these various Electoral College strategies?

Democrats have a very long time to figure this out, and unforeseen events are bound to shape the way the primary season unfolds, occurring as it is against the backdrop of impeachment hearings by another name. When the trees start to bloom again one year from now, much of what is presently uncertain will have come into focus.