Disclaimer: It’s silly to try to predict the outcome of the Democratic primary race so long before the actual voting begins (and — yes — it’s a long time until February). Still, one of the two questions I’m asked most often is who I think the Democrats are going to nominate (the other is what I think will happen with the impeachment inquiry). So, to satisfy the appetite of those who have asked me to speculate about the identity of the eventual Democratic nominee, I’m going to offer not a prediction exactly but several scenarios which at this moment appear more or less plausible. I’m not going to rank them by likelihood because there are too many moving parts to speak with any level of confidence about the eventual outcome, although some are more likely than others.
A few constants have characterized the race over the past year. Democrats are searching for the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump, although as I wrote recently, they are divided over whether that means offering voters a return to the relative sanity of pre-2016 America or a way to fix the structural factors that facilitated Trump’s rise. The race has been defined by this strategic division rather than by a dominant leader or ideological differences (even the high profile dispute over health care is more about what’s feasible than what’s desirable), creating a high degree of fluidity as several challengers have had their turn in the spotlight. Joe Biden has hovered above everyone for the length of the year, but his failure to command the field has lent the contest an uncertain quality while giving hope to his opponents. Still, only a few candidates have legitimately contested the nomination. Despite boasting a cast of thousands, the field sorted early into a few serious challengers and way too many also-rans and wannabes (bonus points to anyone who can name the other Joe who was running until last Sunday).
As of this writing, there are four leading candidates who have at least a theoretical path to the nomination, and a score of candidates waiting in the wings for their moment to come. Let’s consider the path for each contender along with a scenario for the emergence of someone not presently in the conversation. Of course, the usual caveats apply: This is informed speculation only. No one knows what’s going to happen. The scenarios described below may look ridiculous in two months.
SCENARIO 1 — Joe After All: He’s having trouble raising money, and he’s spending it way too fast. His debate performances have ranged from lackluster to cringeworthy. A senior advisor in charge of Latino outreach recently quit because she felt the candidate has failed to evolve on immigration issues. Yet, despite these ominous signs that his campaign is in trouble, Joe Biden could still emerge as the Democratic nominee and fulfill the narrative that was scripted for this cycle when he announced his candidacy months ago. For this to happen, Biden has to arrive at the campaign’s fourth contest in South Carolina with his African American support intact. And for that to happen he either has to finish in the mix in Iowa and New Hampshire, or hope that (a) Mayor Pete wins both contests to emerge as Biden’s main challenger and then (b) fails to make inroads with communities of color, preserving Biden’s strength in the South and allowing him to ride it to the nomination. Right now, Iowa appears to be a more daunting obstacle than the South Bend mayor. Its Democratic voters are predominantly white and progressive, and Biden’s retail and organizational efforts in the state have not kept pace with his opponents. He doesn’t have to win but he has to keep it close. As narratives go, there’s a big difference between finishing second and finishing fourth, and the narrative coming out of Iowa will determine who has momentum when it matters most.
SCENARIO 2 — Revolution: The energy in this campaign has come from the progressive left. Ever since Democrats approved a Bernie-inspired platform in 2016, progressives have flexed their growing muscle in the party, and you need look no further than how far the least progressive candidates are willing to take health care policy to see how progressives have become the Democrats’ intellectual engine. But winning policy points and winning the nomination are different things (as Sanders will certainly acknowledge). In his second attempt at the brass ring, Bernie has had to share political space with Elizabeth Warren, even if demographically they appeal to different voters. Although he has kept a large percentage of his supporters from last time and relied on them to fill his coffers with small contributions, his solid base of support has been both his ceiling and his floor. Bernie is probably going to need to win Iowa or New Hampshire to break through. With Iowa shaping up to be a close four-candidate contest, a win there is not impossible and would put him in a favorable position to win New Hampshire, where as a Vermont senator he is almost a favorite son. From there, Sanders would have a lot of natural strength in the upper Midwest, where he performed well in ’16. If Biden falters and no one successfully steps up to replace him, it’s possible to envision a scenario where Sanders wins it all. And win or lose, all those $25 checks can carry Bernie deep into the primary season if he so desires.
SCENARIO 3 — Big Structural Change: Elizabeth Warren is alone in having engineered a slow, steady rise from obscurity. Where Harris experienced a bubble and Buttigieg is rapidly inflating, Warren built her campaign one selfie at a time. Her organization reflects her message that you can’t initiate big changes if your donors won’t let you, so she eschews corporate fundraisers and expensive consultants and has invested heavily in her field organization. This potentially leaves her in strong shape in Iowa, a caucus state where organization matters. Her steady rise began to reverse several weeks ago under heavy bombardment from her opponents in the October debate over her support for Medicare for All, a moment she did not handle well. But unlike Harris, whose support fell in proportion to its dramatic rise, Warren continues to hold much of her base and remains a strong second choice among Iowa voters. If she can go into caucus day as the preferred second choice of bottom-tier candidates, she has a chance to come out on top in a state where participants have to make another selection if their first choice fails to meet a minimum threshold of support. But she will probably have to win Iowa to propel her to a win in New Hampshire (where like Bernie she is from a neighboring state). It is hard to see Warren winning the nomination if she can’t pull this off, but it is hard to see her losing it if she does, especially with the simultaneous momentum boost she would get in delegate-rich early voting states like California (where she and Bernie lead the field) and Texas. Since the parties began selecting the nominees through primaries in 1972, no Democrat has failed to win the nomination after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, and Warren does have a longstanding tendency to persist in the wake of obstacles.
SCENARIO 4 — The Young White Knight: Is Mayor Pete the flavor of the month or a real threat to be the nominee? It depends on whether he can consolidate his support over the next two months and expand it over the following three, which in turn depends on how he handles attacks from his opponents which did not materialize at the last debate but will certainly occur at the next one if his star continues to rise. Buttigieg is a compelling candidate who can speak to voters who don’t want to rock the boat like Bernie and Warren but who don’t want to go back to the last administration or worry that Biden can’t go the distance. I’ve argued that at least for now, his appeal is based as much on who he is not than on who he is. That will have to change if he’s going to be the last candidate standing in Milwaukee next summer. He has shown flashes of political talent and will need it if he’s going to go deep into the process. He will have to win Iowa — a state where he’s a good fit for the same reasons Biden is not — and be competitive in New Hampshire, hoping that Bernie and Warren come out of Iowa with equal momentum and split the progressive Granite State vote. From there, it’s hard to see where he goes next, at least right now. As the campaign moves South, he will have to make inroads with voters of color to be competitive. A strong early performance could accomplish that, striking a fatal blow to Biden’s hopes, but nothing we’ve seen so far suggests it’s likely.
SCENARIO 5 — Michael Bloomberg: Nah, it’s not happening.
SCENARIO 6 — Dark Horse: Mayor Pete is this cycle’s dark horse — the candidate who emerged from obscurity to go from asterisk to contender. Is there room for another? With so much uncertainty in the electorate, you can’t rule out the possibility that someone unexpected is going to emerge from the sidelines just before the balloting begins. On the other hand, it’s not like these candidates haven’t been campaigning forever. You would think that if Amy Klobuchar or Corey Booker could build support they would have done it already, but circumstances can change and candidates who didn’t get a first look in July can have appeal the following February if the electorate is unsettled. The one thing we can say with great confidence, though, is if it’s going to happen it will be at the start of the process, before momentum inevitably takes over and front-running candidates become hard to stop. And a political space would have to open for a dark horse to materialize. If Biden falters early and Mayor Pete can’t attract his voters, it’s possible to imagine someone emerging from the pack with appeal to Democrats who don’t want a revolution or big structural change. But history suggests if it doesn’t happen quickly it will be too late.
SCENARIO 7 — No Decision: This is the Democrats’ nightmare scenario, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Both the “Go Big” progressives and the “Go Back” Biden faction are well represented in the party, and they could battle to a draw behind Warren or Bernie on one hand and Biden or a Biden replacement on the other. Typically, as the primary season progresses, one candidate inches ahead and reaches a tipping point where it’s clear they will become the nominee. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Hillary was competitive in ’08 until almost the very end of the process. Reagan came within a hair of upending Ford in ’76. Those contests were resolved early enough to avoid the chaos of a second convention ballot, so the no decision scenario doesn’t have to result in total breakdown. But given divisions in the party over how to run against Trump, this odyssey will have to end with some sort of reconciliation between the two camps for Democrats to be united next fall. That’s the case regardless of which of these scenarios (if any) comes to pass. And if the convention goes to a second ballot for the first time since the Adlai Stevenson era, remember that so-called “super delegates” — elected officials, consultants and other party leaders — who were not chosen in the primaries and who cannot vote in the first round will be able to vote in the second. In this scenario, they would hold the balance of power. After eighteen months of wooing ordinary voters, it would come down to what elites feel is best for the party. And that means the Democrat who towers over everyone else might just get to tip the scales. Welcome back, Barack Obama.