The state of politics in the United States has made it feel as if we’re on the cusp of a 2020 election that remains more than a year away. Regardless of anyone’s ordinary views on the conservative-liberal spectrum, Donald Trump has enabled inhumane policies, empowered monstrous figures, and displayed an increasingly unstable mental state. As prominent Republican strategist (and “Never-Trumper”) wrote recently, “Trump is coming even more undone.” This has in turn led to an almost-ludicrous degree of urgency among the Democratic powers vying to unseat the president, with over 20 candidates entering the race and contentious, early debates boiling down to shouted talking points from fringe figures seeking to score soundbites that will be repeated on cable news.
The truth, though, is that things haven’t yet begun to go haywire. Judging by Trump’s behavior leading up to the 2018 midterm elections (when he belligerently drove a fear-mongering campaign about a “migrant invasion”), as well as his recent state, the president is going to get more erratic and unusual the closer we get to the 2020 election. And the Democrats, for all of the early confusion, haven’t really begun to take shots at one another yet (save for Kamala Harris’s scripted and art least somewhat misguided attack on Joe Biden in the first debate).
This is just to say that while things look a little crazy right now, they’re also bound to get wilder in time. And or that reason we’re taking a moment now to take a completely objective look at where things stand in the Democratic primaries. Political views and opinions aside, these are where the candidates are situated as we head into the fall of 2019.
Joe Biden Leads
There are stories being written fairly consistently about a lack of enthusiasm in former Vice President Joe Biden’s base, or about his slipping numbers. But for the most part (as political statistics guru Nate Silver has noted at various points), these stories are inaccurate. Biden is the clear leader in the Democratic field, and has led in the vast majority of polls and betting odds listings to date. What may be true is that the leader at this point doesn’t necessarily stay at the top (Hillary Clinton was miles ahead of Barack Obama at this point in 2007). There are also indications that Biden’s lead is slimmer in specific, vital primary states (like Iowa) than it is nationally. But there is still no accurate way to describe the race but that Biden leads it.
Progressive Champions Are Nipping At His Heels
Whether or not Biden’s numbers have slipped marginally, the two progressive champions of the Democratic field – Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – do appear to have consolidated enough strength to be nipping at the vice president’s heels. Some of the latest gambling odds in the U.S. have actually seen Warren pull even or jump ahead of Biden, and Sanders actually took the lead in one of the most recent national polls. Again, it’s clear that overall, when multiple indicators are considered, Biden leads – but if he’s the 1A of the field, Warren and Sanders are 1B and 1C in some order.
Kamala Harris Has A Sustainability Issue
The other name that’s consistently appeared among those listed above is that of Kamala Harris, the senator from California. Harris has been viewed as something of a rising star, and is seen by many as the Democrat with the best chance of building a wide coalition. She’s had some significant highlights during the early primary season as well, including a stirring launch event and a strong, if contentious, first debate. However, when Harris has theses moments and her polling numbers spike, they always seem to drop back down – at least so far. She has undeniable political talents and may yet rise in the race, but right now it’s fair to say she’s having trouble sustaining success on the campaign trail.
Pete Buttigieg Is Best Of The Rest
If those four – Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Harris – represent a top tier South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg appears to be a clear fifth. While a few polls, most notably those for the Iowa primary, have shown in him the top two or three, he’s largely established himself as a sort of best of the rest – occupying a zone all his own between the top tier and the candidates polling significantly lower. He’s quite young (something he’s making a point of running on) and there are real, if unfortunate questions about whether a gay candidate would have a real chance in a general election. In the primary however, Buttigieg has been resilient, and strong fund-raising numbers make it likely that he’ll remain in the race for quite some time.
A Lower Tier Is Established
As we just said, Buttigieg appears to have carved out a sort of second tier all to himself. But below him there’s also a cluster of candidates with interesting experience and relatively high name recognition who are poised to linger in the race. Senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke comprise this lower tier of would-be contenders. At the moment, they seem more like potential vice president picks down the road, because for the most part they’re each polling in the 2-3% range nationally. They’re all fairly major figures in the party though, and it’s early enough that one or two of them could make the jump to contender status.
Moderate & Fringe Candidates Can’t Motivate
There are a few decidedly more moderate candidates in the Democratic field – such as Senators John Delaney and Steve Bullock – as well as some fringe candidates like Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and author Marianne Williamson – who simply seem to have trouble motivating Democrats to care about them. While there are some perfectly logical arguments suggesting the Democrats would do well to nominate a moderate, the enthusiasm and the numbers in the party seem to be of a different mind. Of these four, Gabbard has had the most sustained support, and she actually has a some very liberal views that would appeal to the progressive base. One or two incongruous and conservative-leaning aspects of her political future, however (such as defense of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and a history of supporting gay conversion therapy) have likely put a ceiling on her potential.
There’s A Billionaire Wildcard
Finally, we should acknowledge the presence of billionaire wildcard Tom Steyer, who took a break from his ceaseless impeachment campaign to run or president. Steyer is a longtime Democratic donor who got into the race with a burst of spending on digital ads that have put him on the map. Steyer has actually begun to register in some of the polls, and while he has not yet met the polling requirements that would put him on the stage for the next round of debates, he seems to have a shot. At this moment it’s very unlikely that Steyer will be the nominee. In all likelihood he’ll drop out and devote his considerable resources to getting the eventual nominee elected. But as Americans learned in 2016, it’s foolish to count out a motivated and wealthy businessman.