Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 25 days until the Iowa caucuses and 299 days until the 2020 election.
After a full year of stumping and sniping, only 25 days remain before the crucial Iowa caucuses. If that makes you sad, cheer up: The latest data suggests that Democrats are still so divided that the primary may go on (and on, and on) for another six months — with no nominee until the very end of July’s national convention in Milwaukee.
Early-state polling has been scarce since the start of the holiday season. But this week new surveys from Iowa and New Hampshire finally surfaced, and they both showed the same thing: a tie at the top. In the CBS News/YouGov Iowa poll, three candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg — all received the exact same level of support (23 percent); Elizabeth Warren trailed by 7 points. Meanwhile, a Granite State Monmouth poll out Thursday found Buttigieg with 20 percent, Biden with 19 percent and Sanders with 18 percent — another statistical draw. (Warren lagged at 15 percent.) And those polls aren’t outliers; the RealClearPolitics averages in both states show Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg clustered in a narrow 2-or-3-point range.
This isn’t entirely unprecedented. In the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were fairly evenly matched right up until caucus night. But two-candidate Iowa contests have been far more common in recent cycles: Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders; Donald Trump vs. Ted Cruz; Mitt Romney vs. Rick Santorum in 2012; Romney vs. Mike Huckabee in 2008. And even that year the spread among Democrats in Iowa was bigger than it is now, Edwards wasn’t tied with Clinton and Obama in New Hampshire as well — and there wasn’t a fourth high-polling candidate further dividing the pie.
Most importantly, the 2008 field wasn’t very polarized — unlike this year’s extremely well-sorted lineup, which reflects deep demographic and ideological divides among a Democratic electorate struggling to reconcile its moderate tendencies with rising progressive pressure. Black voters and moderates are with Biden; young voters and liberals are with Bernie; Buttigieg and Warren are battling over white college-educated voters who want to thread the needle. Those silos aren’t going away. Factor in a big-spending billionaire (Michael Bloomberg) hoping to swoop in on Super Tuesday and the party’s terror of losing to Donald Trump, and you’ve got a recipe for lasting division and indecision.
In 2008, Obama and Clinton kept campaigning through the final primaries; Clinton didn’t concede until early June. So it’s conceivable that this year’s even more unusual dynamic could lead to an even more extraordinary outcome: no single candidate securing the delegate majority he or she needs to clinch the nomination by the end of the primary process. In which case, the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee would likely be “contested.” Think multiple rounds of balloting, with the also-rans redistributing their delegates to the leaders and the final say likely going to the 758 “superdelegates” — unpledged party and elected officials seated automatically, rather than chosen by primary voters.
On Thursday, the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight published its first-ever primary forecast — a comprehensive attempt to incorporate all of the relevant data (current polling, past polling bounces, endorsements, fundraising and so on) into a probabilistic projection of who might win the nomination based on what we know now. It found that while Biden has the best chance of securing a delegate majority, his odds (pegged at 43 percent) still don’t clear the more-likely-than-not threshold. After running 10,000 simulations, FiveThirtyEight’s model pegs Biden’s average final delegate tally at 1,563 — roughly 400 shy of a majority. The chance that none of the candidates will arrive in Milwaukee with a majority was put at 13 percent, ahead of either Warren or Buttigieg. (Sanders was at 21 percent.)
It’s not hard to imagine how a contested convention might happen. State delegates are allocated proportionally — no Democratic caucus or primary is winner-take-all — and candidates generally have to clear 15 percent of the vote in order to secure any delegates at all. With four candidates polling higher than 15 percent, and with none of those candidates commanding a substantial lead in the polls, there is a real possibility of a fairly even distribution of delegates, no matter who wins a particular primary or caucus.
To be sure, the traditional path-dependent mathematics of presidential primaries will probably still hold sway in 2020: Someone wins Iowa, which in turn reshapes New Hampshire, which then creates momentum heading into Nevada, South Carolina and the March 3 Super Tuesday bonanza, at which point 40 percent of delegates will have been selected. Candidates might drop out; rivals might join forces; things will change.
And yet if current polling trends continue, it’s also increasingly likely that Democrats could face the longest, most divisive primary in recent memory, ending in a contested convention that may leave the losers dispirited and bitter at the very moment the party needs unity most.
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