Democratic voters want to know how this all ends. They’re fixated on electability, which is notoriously hard to gauge. You have to guess what other people will think several months in the future, with no idea what will happen in between. Prioritizing electability in presidential elections led Democrats to nominate John Kerry, while ignoring it led them to nominate Barack Obama. “Voters are not very good at predicting electability,” summed up pollster Patrick Murray. But despite this obsession, Democrats are whistling past one enormous threat to the electability of the Democratic nominee: a long and divisive primary.
Giving your opponent a big head start, during which he can spend his effectively unlimited sums of money while wielding the power of incumbency and the bully pulpit of the presidency, is bad for electability. Trump doesn’t need to know who his opponent is to start running ads promoting himself and building the grassroots infrastructure he needs in swing states. He has already started, prompting Dan Pfeiffer, a senior strategist on President Obama’s 2012 re-election race, to raise the alarm. Pfeiffer would know, since the Obama campaign did to Romney what Trump is doing to Democrats now. “The Obama campaign ran its first reelection television ad in January 2012. Trump has been running digital ads for months,” Pfeiffer warned, back in April 2019. “This has given him extraordinary running room to strengthen his standing with both his base and his persuasion universe.”
Even in 2008, John McCain had a months-long head start, winning the nomination in March and taking the lead over Obama in polls, while it took Obama until June to beat Hillary Clinton. Put simply, there’s just not much evidence that long primaries are ever good, and a lot of evidence that they’re bad—potentially, very bad: a 2016 study found that long primary races cost the eventual nominee 6 to 9 points in the November election and reduced their odds of winning by 21 percent.
And yet, a long primary is exactly where electability-obsessed Democrats are headed. It’s a case of paralysis by analysis on a mass scale, a slow-motion indecision that is leaving voters polarized between the progressive candidates they love and the moderate ones they think they have to accept in order to beat Trump. “Usually in the primary I vote for whoever I like the most, but this one I will put in electability,” a New Hampshire carpenter told the New York Times.
But while the moderates are selling themselves as the safe choices, they’re far more likely than the progressives to lead Democrats down the risky road of a long, divisive primary. This isn’t 1996—we’re not dancing the Macarena at the convention and the moderates aren’t the unity candidates—the progressives are. The party has shifted leftward, with self-identified liberals making up the largest share of the party in seventeen years. All the energy, enthusiasm, and grassroots support lies with the progressives, who can raise ungodly sums of money without attending a single fundraiser. To borrow Chris Rock’s analysis, they are the “of the moment” candidates, not the “it’s my turn” ones—and the of the moment candidates win. The sooner Democrats realize that, the faster they can unify the party and turn their attention to beating Donald Trump.
The road to perdition starts by wishing away what happened in the last presidential election. On April 30, 2015, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy on the grassy field on the east side of the Capitol Building, nicknamed the Swamp. I was working in the Senate at the time and walked by to check it out. Hundreds of reporters were sitting in the press galleries inside, just a few dozen steps away, but only a handful bothered to come outside to cover his announcement. Within a few months, everything had changed: he rocketed to international prominence on the strength of his message, sparking a grassroots movement to challenge the establishment attempt to anoint former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the nominee.
This cycle, Sanders has shown that 2016 wasn’t a fluke, “quieting critics who questioned whether he could recapture the energy of his upstart 2016 campaign,” as USA Today reported in April. For most of 2019, he continued to poll at the top of the field, while Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren was stuck in single digits. In July, Vox’s Ezra Klein declared Sanders “the Democrats’ real 2020 frontrunner.”
Then the moderate candidates trained their fire on her, attacking her from all sides at the October debate. Around the same time, Sanders had a heart attack. But unlike other candidates, like Congressman Beto O’Rourke and Senator Kamala Harris, who declined and never recovered, Warren and Sanders proved resilient. Bernie is back to where he was over the summer, at 16 percent in the Economist’s averages, while Warren’s numbers have “stabilized” at 15 percent according to Quinnipiac pollster Tim Malloy.
What’s holding both Bernie and Warren back are concerns about their electability. For moderates, it’s the reverse—the idea that they’re electable is keeping them afloat, but their poor performances (in Joe Biden’s case) and narrow appeal (in Pete Buttigieg’s) are preventing them from breaking away.
Biden is a weak frontrunner who can win the nomination, but probably not quickly. More likely, his path to victory will be a joyless slog, just like his campaign so far. Biden’s problem is that he seems like he can beat Trump in polls, but not in real life. He looks and sounds significantly worse than he did a few years ago. Former Obama strategist David Axelrod, who has known Biden for years, described him as “Mr. Magooing” his way through the last debate. At one point, Biden claimed to be endorsed by the “only” black female senator, meaning his supporter former Senator Carol Moseley Braun, but seeming to forget that he was standing next to Senator Kamala Harris. Biden’s campaign conflates these episodes with the gaffes he’s always been known for. But on a gut level, they seem different, and are a cause for concern. As the field winnows, voters will see more of Biden, and be forced to reconcile his poll numbers with how he performs in real life. While voters may be willing to excuse Biden’s shortcomings, his unsteady performances are unlikely to inspire converts or motivate people to hit the streets and knock on doors en masse—the kind of things that win campaigns.
Buttigieg, the opportunistic young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, seems to have sensed Biden’s weakness and made his move, refashioning himself over the summer from a bold progressive into a young old. In response to complaints from donors, Buttigieg dropped policies like expanding the Supreme Court and abolishing the electoral college from his stump speech, according to the New York Times. But politics is about coalition-building, and Buttigieg skipped that part. The attention he pays to reporters on the campaign trail seems to exceed the attention he paid to black residents of the city he ran—by his own admission, it took him years to realize that South Bend schools were segregated. That inattention has carried through to his campaign. Older white people like him, but he has proven incapable of assembling any other parts of the Obama coalition. According to the Economist’s poll aggregator, Buttigieg registers just 10 percent support with voters under 44, 6 percent with Hispanics and doesn’t even register with black voters. A new poll this week has him stuck at zero percent with black voters, despite extensive efforts to win their support.
If you look at the moderates and progressives as blocs, they’re within a few points of each other straight down the line, with each side trading leads nationally, in the early states and in the massive group of states that votes on March 3rd, aka Super Tuesday. It’s easy to see how these blocs will polarize, but polarization is not inevitable. To the contrary, a range of reliable data suggests that polarization is likely only if a moderate wins early states—and that by contrast, Democratic voters will quickly rally behind a progressive.
Second-choice support gives us an idea of where voters will flow as the field winnows, and it shows that all roads lead to the progressives. According to the measures of second-choice support tracked by the Economist and Morning Consult, Warren and Bernie are the second choice of each other’s supporters—predictably. But they’re also the second choice of Biden and Buttigieg’s supporters. So if Warren or Sanders win in early states, they’re poised to easily attract the supporters of the moderates, quickly unifying the party. But if a moderate wins early primaries and one of the progressives fades, most of the losing progressive’s supporters are likely to go to the other progressive, not the moderate—leading to a polarized and potentially very long primary.
The progressives will have more than enough money to stay in the race: just as Sanders outraised Clinton in 2016, he and Warren have outraised the moderates this cycle, pulling in around $25 million each last quarter, compared to $19 million for Buttigieg and $15 million for Biden. While Warren and Bernie raise all their money from grassroots donations, Biden and Buttigieg rely on big donors, forcing them to spend enormous amounts of time mingling with the super-rich behind closed doors or in Swarovski crystal-clad Napa Valley wine caves, as Buttigieg did last week, while the progressives will be free to spend a candidate’s most valuable resource—their time—with the people.
There’s so little reliable data on electability because the sample size is ridiculously small: there have only been 24 presidential elections since the advent of modern polling. One of the most-often cited pieces of research on presidential electability is a study of House races—which is circular, because over the last decade or so, the outcome of Congressional races have come to depend almost entirely on the outcome of presidential races. We are largely flying blind—we should check the instruments, but Biden, Warren, and Sanders all beat Trump consistently, both in national polls and in the Real Clear Politics averages of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. And one thing we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that a long primary where Democrats spend their finite resources like time and money attacking each other, instead of Trump, while Trump spends his unlimited money attacking them, is bad.
In a crowded field, Democratic voters have options, but they may not be the ones they think they have. At the end of the day, there may only be three choices: Warren, Sanders, or a long and divisive primary. Let’s choose wisely.
Adam Jentleson is a columnist for GQ. He served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, where he advised on strategy and led one of the largest and most diverse communications teams on Capitol Hill during the Obama administration.
It was one of the most arresting viral photos of the year: a horde of climbers clogged atop Mount Everest. But it only begins to capture the deadly realities of what transpired that day at 29,000 feet. These are the untold accounts of the people who were there.
Originally Appeared on GQ