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Democrats Face A Long Road Before They Challenge Trump – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond*

Joe Biden may confirm this week that he is formally entering the race for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination. The former vice president is the early front-runner, but not the prohibitive favorite Hillary Clinton was in 2016 contest, and the tide could yet turn decisively against him.

With the first formal nomination contests not due until Feb. 3 next year in Iowa, the focus is nonetheless growing on the emerging Democratic contest, which could feature the party’s largest field of candidates in a generation. In the short term, the biggest decision that will shape the race is already expected, with Biden giving every indication he will make a third White House bid.

He is facing a vast field of challengers, including one being touted as the new Obama: Beto O’Rourke, 46, a former US congressman who in November’s Senate election came close to becoming the first Democrat to win in Texas since 1994. Other already announced contenders for the Democratic crown include US senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, plus former Obama cabinet minister Julian Castro, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee.

Despite the already crowded field, Biden will be a formidable candidate. He visited more than 30 states in 2018 while campaigning for Democratic congressional candidates. Measured against numerous benchmarks he has some key advantages, barring any major gaffes and presuming his good health continues.

The past few decades of US political history indicate that the victors in nomination contests for both parties frequently lead national polls of party supporters on the eve of the first presidential nomination ballot in Iowa, and also raise more campaign finance than any other candidate in the 12 months before election year. Biden leads in national polls and, as a former vice president, would be able to raise a lot of money if he runs.

From 1980 to 2016, the eventual nominee in about half the Democrat and Republican nomination races that were contested (that is, in which there was more than one candidate), was the early front runner by both of these measures. This was true of Clinton in 2016; George W. Bush, the Republican candidate in 2000; Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in 2000; Bob Dole, the Republican candidate in 1996; Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee in 1992; George HW Bush, the Republican candidate in 1988 and 1992; Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee in 1984; and Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate in 1980.

Moreover, in at least four of the exceptions to this pattern, the eventual presidential nominee led the rest of the field by one of the two measures. For instance, in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, Trump led a majority of national polls of Republican identifiers from the summer of 2015.  While he was not the leading fundraiser from external donations, the billionaire was well placed on the financial side of the ledger too because he self-financed much of his campaign.

Based on both fundraising and national-poll measures, Biden could become the clear favorite for the Democrats in 2020. Yet he also has some key weaknesses, and the forthcoming race is significantly more open at this stage than the one in 2016, which was Clinton’s contest to lose.

One of the potential negatives for Biden is that he would be, at 76 next year, the oldest presidential nominee in US history. This is one reason there has been speculation that to mitigate this he might seek only a single White House term and/or announce much earlier than normal in the campaign cycle his choice of a (younger) vice-presidential running mate.

Another reason Biden’s age may not undermine his campaign is that it would be at least partially balanced by the fact that he would be running against Trump (if he seeks a second term), who is only four years younger and appears less fit. Indeed, this scenario would result in the first clash of septuagenarian presidential candidates in US history.

Presuming Trump does seek re-election and wins the Republican nomination, which is probable, he could face a very tough race against the Democratic nominee, whoever that might be. One of the key factors that will influence the latter’s prospects will be whether, and how quickly, the Democrats can unite around the candidate, given the large number of contenders, and the ongoing debate within the party between centrists/moderates such as Biden and those who favor a more radical path, including Sanders.

After the controversies surrounding Trump in the White House, many Democratic operatives will be keen to avoid a bruising, drawn-out contest that exposes to the electorate significant divisions within the party, as happened in 2016. Four years ago during the contest between Clinton and Sanders, in particular, key differences emerged that contributed to the party losing an election against Trump that had been viewed as winnable.

While 2020 will be different from 2016, it is nonetheless the case that another divisive Democratic contest would only benefit the Republicans. Indeed, should Trump emerge easily as the Republican nominee, this may prove a tipping point in another close election.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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