Refining Aspirations: The Democratic Primary

The massive field of Democrats looking for their party’s nomination has been slightly reduced over the last few weeks. As it contracts, we are able to see what other candidates will be dropping away soon as the party closes in on its third debate.

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Keeping my eye on the Democrat nomination, I’ve been fascinated by the richness of the candidate field. This has been perhaps the strongest field of my lifetime. Yet, the party does seem to lack a clear direction other than being anti-Trump (and even in this capacity, it is often divided). With the line-up set for the third Democrat debate, I have to wonder if we will see these divisions displayed more prominently. By which I mean, the party is undergoing a major perspective shift (not unlike that of the 90s). Boiled down to a far too simplistic binary–will it focus on center-right electability or center-left progressivism? The winnowing of candidates will give party members a deep look into the candidates and likely reveal certain ones to be less than inspired or inspiring.

It is a good thing the debate has been whittled down to a field of ten candidates. Of these ten, there is a clear top and bottom half:

Top

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders

Former Vice President Joe Biden

California Sen. Kamala Harris

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Bottom

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang

Now, quite honestly, this is still too big of a field. I would contend the bottom five qualified participants don’t warrant inclusion because their campaigns have show little to no significant traction. Examining the polling datasome of which shows Senators Warren and Sanders overtaking former VP Biden–it’s clear most of the bottom half has stalled out. Even though I admire aspects of all of these candidates (especially Castro), they have show little to no improvement since they entered the race barely able to keep their heads above water. While each has had moments of national as well as partisan attention, something about these five just isn’t clicking with party members.

This same polling data might suggest Biden’s numbers continuing to decline, yet he still remains the frontrunner. As such, all of the bottom half candidates will be looking to go on the attack at Biden on Friday. I would contend Warren and Sanders will attempt not so much to attack Biden, but to tout themselves in order to show a clear distinction between themselves and the former VP. Given how mainstream media outlets have equated Warren and Sanders as candidates, we ought to suspect one of the pair to lash out at the other. 

One has to wonder, if these candidates and the even weaker one were to exit the race, where would their support go? Most likely, the most substantial of these small percentage points would end up being divided between Sen. Warren and Sanders. Inconsequential candidates like Wayne Messam, Joe Sestak, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Michael Bennett, Steve Bullock, Tim Ryan, Tom Steyer, and Tulsi Gabbard are all center-right Democrats and as such their supporters will undoubtedly find Biden the most amenable. Novelty candidates like Yang and Williamson really only draw support from fringe voters or nominal Democrats. These candidates are forgettable making their endorsements meaningless, much like Seth Moulton’s. Rather than think in terms of endorsements, we would do better to conceive of their exits are opening up resources for the other candidates. 

Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper, both entirely long-shot presidential candidates, have used the campaign to raise their national profiles so they can go into the races they can (and most likely will) win with more heft. While Inslee was a pegged as a single-issue candidate, his campaign has left a mark on the Democrats exposing the party’s leadership as being more than a bit out of touch. It makes sense to avoid single issue debates, but climate change is so much more than a single issue so to dismiss it does a massive disservice to the party. The supporters of these two candidates and those of Kristen Gillibrand, who just recently dropped out, will likely gravitate towards the more progressive candidates. Will parsing these supporters out between Sanders and Warren be enough to counter the supporters who will drift towards Biden? 

The third debate won’t necessarily answer these concerns once and for all, nor ought we expect it to. However, we will certainly see more assertive stances from the candidates and it may just be what party members need to see to push them one way or the other towards a candidate. Such is the aspiration of every debate.

**Update**

Something else to keep in mind. Ever since ex-VP Biden got into the race, his numbers have only gone down. Granted he still leads the field, but this seems more due to simple name recognition than anything substantive. While Biden is only trending downwards, Sen. Warren has been steadily growing in support. In fact, Warren’s support has grown so much, she ought to be considered a frontrunner alongside Biden rather than a candidate chasing him. Arguably, the same could be said for Sen. Sanders.

The most recent Economist/YouGov poll has Warren and Biden tied. CBS/YouGov poll released Sept. 8th showed Warren the leader in New Hampshire while the Boston Herald puts Sanders up by 8 points there. The only poll having Biden in the lead to the degree he was when he first announced is for South Carolina and this is likely due to the fact most of the would-be nominees are yet to actively campaigned there.

Simple fact is, neither Warren nor Sanders needs to go on the attack in regards to Biden. Rather, they simply just need to continue distinguish themselves from Biden by articulating their vision of the Democratic Party. It is a vision decidedly beyond Biden’s. To be honest, Biden is a retrograde candidate, one looking to an idealized past not unlike our current president’s nationalism. 

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