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The Democrats Don’t Have a Frontrunner

With less than four months before the Iowa caucuses, none of the leading contenders have been able to overcome the obstacles in their paths.

Joshua Lott / Getty Images

Before the final game of the 1944 World Series, a veteran sportswriter looked at the two bedraggled teams gathered at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. During the last year of World War II, with their star players in Europe or the Pacific, both teams were filled with aged has-beens and younger 4-Fs. Assessing their odds, the baseball writer said sadly, “I don’t see how either team can win.”

The same could be said of the vast field of Democratic contenders gathered outside Columbus, Ohio, for the fourth debate of the primary season.

Sure, most of them could probably defeat a ranting, raving Donald Trump in November 2020. But winning the nomination and standing with arms raised in triumph on the stage of the Milwaukee convention seems a stretch for all of them from Joe Biden on down.

Smart people in the Democratic Party, whose judgment I normally respect, are convinced that Senator Joe Biden will win the nomination after clinching the African American vote in South Carolina and sweeping the following Super Tuesday primaries. That was the path, they point out, followed by two other establishment favorites: Al Gore in 2000 (who never lost a primary) and Hillary Clinton (who always had a lead over Senator Bernie Sanders) in 2016.

But for a former two-term vice president, Biden has a surprisingly weak array of institutional backing. According to a tabulation by the website FiveThirtyEight, Biden boasts the support of just five senators and three governors. Of course, Donald Trump’s election has cast doubt on the shopworn idea that the “party decides,” but these endorsement decisions—or lack of them—provide an intriguing measure of how political insiders regard their self-interest—and the odds of aligning with a winner.

A Republican strategist, who is no friend of the Trump White House, told me that he was surprised that Biden had failed to assert himself when Ukraine hit the headlines. “As a professional,” the GOP insider said, “I would have assumed that Biden would be shouting from the rooftops, ‘See. I’m the Democrat that Trump is afraid of. That’s why he’s going after me and my son.’”

Okay, the former Delaware senator may have been paralyzed because Hunter Biden was in the GOP crosshairs over his lucrative, but legal, business activities in Ukraine. But why wouldn’t Biden—the longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—at least have led the Democratic response to Trump’s disastrous and humiliating retreat from Syria?

Those in politics and the campaign press corps who worship at the shrine of momentum assume that Senator Elizabeth Warren will keep rising in the polls and winning primary contests all the way up until the DNC in Milwaukee. But as the once high-flying Howard Dean can testify from the 2004 Democratic race, it can be a dangerous mistake to assume that political trends continue on a straight-line trajectory.

I have long believed that Warren’s appeal is rooted more in her life story as a professor transformed into an unlikely politician than in her left-wing proposals to restructure the economy. The idea that she has a detailed agenda (“Warren Has a Plan for That”) seems more popular than the policy ideas themselves.

In fact, the arena where Warren has been uncharacteristically vague is in failing to provide full details of her “I’m with Bernie” support for his Medicare for All. Her stance on the issue could be risky (particularly as she must win over upscale voters who might not want their private health insurance to be abolished). But, worse still, if Warren were to retreat now, it would seem like a patently political move rather than a principled one—which would undermine what makes her campaign so unique.

In the history of Democratic presidential primaries dating back to the 1970s, no outsider candidate like Warren has ever defied gravity all the way to the convention. Even Jimmy Carter in 1976 (the patron saint of all candidates with asterisks in the polls) lost a string of later primaries to a California governor named Jerry Brown (yeah, that guy) and others.

If not Biden or Warren, then who?

That mystifying question helps explain why extreme long-shot candidates like Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet stay in the race, even though they have been exiled from the debate stage.

In theory, Sanders would be the obvious beneficiary from a collapse at the top. With a seemingly unlimited supply of money and enough dedicated supporters to meet the DNC’s 15-percent threshold to win delegates in the primaries, the Vermont socialist could stick it out until the convention, as he did in 2016.

But even before Sanders’s heart attack, his campaign was a shadow of 2016. He has continually shed supporters without attracting new followers in significant numbers. At times, the Sanders campaign has reminded me of the Shakers, a nineteenth-century Protestant sect whose members did not reproduce. They left behind beautiful furniture and no worshippers.

Kamala Harris may have peaked with her kickoff rally in Oakland. It attracted 20,000 supporters, a crowd she has, as yet, never been able to replicate. A June debate attack on Biden for his 1970s opposition to cross-district busing was impressive in the moment, but ended up making Harris look like just another politician out to score points by dredging up an issue from the distant past.

Blessed with the most infectious laugh in politics, Harris still has time to surmount her problems, finding a message and a rationale for her campaign. But she may be suffering from we-are-the-future-of-America California arrogance combined with a belated realization of the old-fashioned, pre-television need for personal campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Pete Buttigieg needs to extend his base beyond college-educated white voters. The contradictions of the Buttigieg campaign were on display a few weeks ago in Waterloo, Iowa, when 600 Democrats huddled under rain slickers in a steady downpour to hear the Indiana mayor speak at an outdoor event. But even though Waterloo is the most diverse city in Iowa, Buttigieg’s crowd was overwhelmingly white.

When I interviewed Buttigieg during that Iowa trip, I asked him about his role as the first openly gay candidate to make a major bid for the White House. I had heard from Iowa voters that while they were not prejudiced against a gay candidate, they worried that their neighbors might be. And I mentioned that John Kennedy had surmounted anti-Catholic bias in 1960 by giving a famous speech on the proper role of religion in politics to a leading group of skeptical Protestant ministers in Houston.

Buttigieg pointed out that Barack Obama had faced similar scrutiny in 2008. “I remember people in Indiana saying, ‘I’m ready. I’m just not sure that the world is ready,’” Buttigieg said. “I know that those same conversations are happening around me.”

There are other candidates who still cannot be completely counted out. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, in particular, are the Waiting for Godot contenders. Many have been waiting for one of them to break through in Iowa or New Hampshire, but we are now in the second act—and absolutely nothing has happened.

By the spring of 2020, as the Democrats choose a nominee, it will seem so clear, so obvious, so inevitable. But, despite the premature certainty of those rushing to anoint Biden or Warren, I still see a cloudy future that should chasten handicappers everywhere.