Democratic Nomination Race Already Down To The Top Three?

As the race for the Democratic nomination heads into the fall, it looks as if it has already winnowed itself down to a top three.

With two weeks left to go until the next debate and 154 days still left until the first votes are cast in the Iowa Caucuses, some analysts are arguing that the race for the Democratic race has already filtered down to a top three, with the rest of the pack unlikely to break through to make a run for the top:

The bottom is falling out of the Democratic presidential primary. And the top-tier — no longer five candidates, but three — is becoming more insurmountable.

For more than a year, Democrats had approached their nominating contest with a widely-shared belief that — like Republicans in the earliest stages of their primary four years ago — they, too, might take turns rising and falling in an expansive field. That expectation sustained the campaigns of more than two dozen contenders this year.

But in recent weeks, the leading band of candidates has contracted unexpectedly early. Heading into the fall, only three contenders are polling above single digits: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg remain at the periphery, while lower-polling candidates have largely failed to muster sustained, upward movement in fundraising or polling.

According to interviews with about two dozen Democratic operatives and consultants, there is little reason to expect any of them will.

“It was legitimate to say ‘Top 5’ for a long time, but with the exception of Kamala Harris being at the outer perimeter of the top three … you’d have to have a strange confluence of events for someone outside those four to win,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime Hillary Clinton confidant. “It would require all four failing. Like, you would need all four of them to be in a plane crash or something.”

For every other candidate, Reines said, “It’s too late in the game to keep saying it’s too early.”

By this point in the Republican primary in 2016, Jeb Bush was already cratering. Scott Walker had risen and fallen. Donald Trump was in first, still to fend off a surge from Ben Carson before running away from the field.

The 2020 Democratic primary, by contrast, has been defined by its relative stability, with two full fundraising periods and two sets of debates now done.

Anna Greenberg, a pollster who advised former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s since-aborted presidential bid, said there was no boom-and-bust for Democrats because the primary “started so early, before voters really started paying attention,” and because of “the sheer volume of candidates.”

“It’s a little bit surprising because compared to ’16 on the Republican side, where it seemed like a number of people had their moment in the sun … there hasn’t really been anybody who’s taken a meteoric rise,” said Scott Brennan, an Iowa Democratic National Committee member and former state party chairman.

Brennan said he’s spoken with several campaigns recently whose advisers “feel like they’re poised and ready, they’re poised and they’re waiting for their moment.”

But “for whatever reason,” he said, “they haven’t had that.”

Advisors and supporters of the candidates locked out of the top of the field will, of course, tell us that it’s still early enough in the game that, to borrow the old phrase, ‘anything could happen.” However, it seems fairly clear that we are at or near the point where a Democratic race that started out with nearly two-dozen people running for the nomination has winnowed down to the point where you can count the number of actual contenders for the nomination on one hand and still have fingers left over.

At the top of that list, of course, would be former Vice-President Joe Biden, who currently stands at 28.9% in the RealClearPolitics average, and, with the exception of a few polls that now clearly seem to be outliers, has been at the top of every national poll and every poll in the states that will be holding primaries in February 2020. Behind Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders (RCP average 17.1%) and Elizabeth Warren (RCP average 16.5%). After these two candidates are those candidates who might have been, but who seem to be slowly fizzling out. Senator Kamala Harris, for example, had a brief surge during the summer after the first debate but has since fallen back to the point where she stands at 7.0% in the RCP average. Behind her, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is basically stuck at the same point he’s been since initially surging way back in April, with a 4.6% poll average and showing no signs of picking up support beyond what’s already got. Beyond Buttigieg, there are the candidates — O’Rourke, Booker, and Yang — who are averaging between 2% and 3% and, of course, the ten candidates who are under 2% and, in most cases, below 1%.

For better or worse, I think the thesis of the Politico article is largely correct. While there may be room for Kamala Harris to make a comeback, especially given the fact that the California primary is so early in the schedule this year, the odds that any of the other candidates are going to make a breakthrough somewhere between slim and none. Pete Buttigieg remains an interesting candidate, and could very well be a contender for the Vice-Presidential running mate slot, but he still hasn’t been able to catch fire and, most importantly, still has not managed to find a way to make progress among African-American Democrats. As for the rest of the candidates, they’ve been given their opportunity to make an impression and they’ve failed. Much as we’ve already seen several candidates do, it’s time for them to start packing it in and looking for something else to do.

FILED UNDER: Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jen says:

    Sure, it’s down to the top 3, with (checks calendar) more than 5 months to go before voting. Unless Biden makes a huge gaff. Or Bernie does or says something that sets off a firestorm. I don’t see Warren stumbling on a self-inflicted problem, but all three of these folks aren’t spring chickens and it’s entirely possible that one or more could have a health-related problem.

    I truly do understand the urge to narrow the field, and yes, it’s entirely possible that come February 2020 this could be the same three we’re talking about. But it’s a bit much to declare the race all but over months before any voting begins. I want to see the Sept. and Oct. debates, and see how each of the top 5 are faring in fundraising. If Harris and Buttigieg don’t have the money to keep their campaigns going, that’s one thing. But if they are raising money solidly and have almost a half a year until voting begins, why would they drop out before a single vote is cast?

  2. Forunato says:

    I continue to be troubled by Biden’s obvious decline.
    The modern Republican party has saddled us with a dementia addled POTUS – TWICE. I see no reason to risk returning the favor.
    I’ve never bought into Bernie’s fiscally insane revolution. I like the guy, I’m thankful he has expanded the field of what’s possible. Don’t want him as POTUS.
    I’m disappointed that, even facing true national emergency that is upon us (Trump and the criminally disposed GOP), Bernie and Joe have risen to the top and are among the very best our party has to offer.
    I’m fine with Warren. Inspired, no. Fine, yes.
    And although the odds are long, I’m still of the opinion that Pete will surprise when the ballots are actually cast.

    My pragmatist top three would be Michael Bennet, Pete, Amy Klobuchar (then Warren)

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  3. @Jen:

    It’s not just an urge to narrow the field, it is the fact that we’re getting close to the point where candidates who do not appear to be contenders are going find it increasingly difficult to raise money for their campaigns. And it’s going to come at just the time when they need to have money to organize volunteers and run ads to get attention for their campaigns in the early states. Add to that the fact that California’s primary comes just about two weeks after South Carolina and the idea that someone who is polling 2% or lower has a realistic shot at breaking through.

  4. Teve says:

    @Forunato: I heard a podcast with Michael Bennett, he’s pretty good. Too fiscally conservative, in my opinion. That’s the instinct that gets you austerity, which is a disaster.

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  5. Kathy says:

    I’m going to quote about half of Harry Turtledove’s characters: “That’s why they have an election. To see who wins.”

  6. Jen says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Agreed about the money part, which is why I made that distinction for Harris/Buttigieg. But if they are still raising money, they should stay in as long as they can afford to.

    I am going to be incredibly annoyed if my only choice is between three aging baby boomers. I’ll deal with it, of course, but I won’t be happy.

  7. Kylopod says:

    I just checked RCP. At this point in the last cycle (Sep 2015), only two Republican candidates were consistently polling in double digits: Trump and Carson. Cruz, who would eventually be the runner-up, was stuck in single digits. Carson did not win a single primary, was quickly overtaken by Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, and ended his campaign just after Super Tuesday.

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  8. Kylopod says:

    @Jen:

    I am going to be incredibly annoyed if my only choice is between three aging baby boomers.

    Only Warren is a boomer. Biden and Bernie are pre-boomers.

  9. Fortunato says:

    @Teve:
    Point taken.
    Michael Bennet’s campaign is indeed a sober call for fiscal responsibility and a return to sound, deliberative governance. I (personally) don’t derive from that, threats of Ryanesque austerity.
    The folks at Vox did a deep dive into Bennet’s fiscal bona fides a few days ago and came away impressed. Seems Sen Bennet may have crafted a legit plan to make America (largely) recession-proof.

  10. Jen says:

    @Kylopod: Even worse.

    Yeah, I didn’t feel like typing out “two end-stage Silent Generation and one baby boomer.” Technically, Kamala is a baby boomer, but on the cusp of Gen X.

    I think you understood my point.

  11. Kylopod says:

    @Jen:

    Technically, Kamala is a baby boomer, but on the cusp of Gen X.

    You know, I didn’t realize that. Looking her up, I see she was born in Oct. 1964. That makes her just a couple of months away from being “officially” Gen-X according to most of the standard definitions.

    Colloquially, I’ve heard people extend Gen-X to the early 1960s, which would include Obama. (I remember running across articles describing Obama as the “first post-boomer president.”)

  12. Fortunato says:

    This should bring an end to the ‘is the race over’ debate : )
    Yesterday’s NY Post Page Six, in an article titled Hamptons shop dubs Pete Buttigieg a 2020 frontrunner thanks to cup sales
    The article states:

    Sales of candidate tchotchkes — from cocktail napkins to plastic cocktail tumblers — at East Hampton souvenir store the Monogram Shop have been known for predicting the outcomes of nearly every primary and general election since 2004.
    ..He’s booming in the poll at the Monogram Shop.. ..the shop sold out of Buttigieg cups with fans having to come back for more.

  13. Scott F. says:

    @Jen:

    “It was legitimate to say ‘Top 5’ for a long time, but with the exception of Kamala Harris being at the outer perimeter of the top three … you’d have to have a strange confluence of events for someone outside those four to win,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime Hillary Clinton confidant. “It would require all four failing. Like, you would need all four of them to be in a plane crash or something.”

    According to the analyst quoted in the article, the field is supposedly down to four, not three. I think that’s about right.

    One of the three post-retirement age candidates is going to crash (figuratively, not in a plane). The relative stability of the race so far is anomalous and I have a hard time believing the Democrats will coalesce around the final nominee without some turmoil considering the stakes this election. A quiet, predictable race for the nomination just doesn’t sit with the zeitgeist in the country right now.

  14. Moosebreath says:

    @Kylopod:

    “Colloquially, I’ve heard people extend Gen-X to the early 1960s, which would include Obama. (I remember running across articles describing Obama as the “first post-boomer president.”)”

    I am definitely of that mind, both as to when the Boomer/X boundary should be and that Obama is an X’er. I think 1961 is a transition year, and people born that year could be part of either generation, but Obama shows far more X’er traits than Boomer ones.

  15. Teve says:

    @Fortunato: I’ll check that vox piece out. I like the guy.

  16. Bill says:

    @Forunato:

    I’m fine with Warren. Inspired, no. Fine, yes.

    That’s about how I feel too. I have problems with both Biden and Sanders.

  17. Kathy says:

    The way I see it, the Democratic candidate for 2020 has one job: defeat Trump.

    Everything else is secondary. Among the top five candidates, I’d trust them all to do a decent job, and a much better job than Dennison even wanted to.

    The means for achieving the top priority are not clear. Is it accomplished by stimulating turnout among Democratic voters, or by getting some people who voted Trump in 2016 to vote Democratic next year? Or more likely a bit of both.

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  18. Scott F. says:

    @Kathy:
    I’d extend the scope of that one job in an important way: defeat Trump with coattails. The stain of Trumpism on the country won’t be removed with McConnell still in place.

    To my mind, that means the eventual candidate is going to have to create some enthusiasm in and beyond the Democratic base. Where that enthusiasm will come from is unclear right now, but I’m in the camp that believes the field has meaningful shake-up in its future. Beating Trump badly is so important to the Democrats that I can’t see the party sleepwalking to a preordained nominee. That happened last time and it didn’t go so well.

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  19. Jen says:

    @Scott F.: I agree with your point about a quiet, predictable race being an anomaly this year–that might be part of my reluctance to accept the Politico assessment.

    I am not challenging the numbers–I agree that these three are where the bulk of support is residing. Buttigieg hasn’t broken out–but, he outraised everyone in Q2. Harris’s support has stalled, but I’m not willing to write her off yet either.

    This is why I’m waiting to see how the Q3 fundraising looks. If Buttigieg’s fundraising has dropped off, that’s a pretty clear signal. If he continues to outraise the rest of the field, that says something too. Same with Harris.

    If these are our choices–Warren, Biden, Sanders–they aren’t particularly inspiring choices. I’m dubious about any of them exciting the base. Of the three, the only one I have fundamental issues with is Bernie. I have no desire to vote for him at all. None. I will grit my teeth and do so if I must, but UGH, please no.

  20. Kathy says:

    @Scott F.:

    Coattails are important, but I say still secondary. Yes, I would like to see McConnell as minority leader, at most, but McConnell cannot keeps screwing up the economy with tariffs, nor can he keep alienating America’s allies, or propping up dictators the world over.

    BTW, out of curiosity, what happens if the senate is tied 50-50 between the two parties (assuming independents caucus with one party or the other)? I know the VP is the tie breaker, but that applies only in legislative votes, unless I have that wrong. I mean, who gets to be majority leader?

  21. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy: What you describe happened for a brief period in 2001 (ending when Jim Jeffords switched parties, handing the Dems control). Basically, what happens is that the party in the White House, due to the vp serving as tie-breaker, gets majority control, but committee assignments get divided between the parties.

  22. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Jen:

    I am going to be incredibly annoyed if my only choice is between three aging baby boomers.

    Even Obama (born 1961) is technically a boomer, albeit on the border between boomer and Gen-X. If the Strauss-Howe generational theory is correct, there’s a strong possibility that as Gen-X is a Nomad generation, there will never be a true Gen-X president and we’ll go directly from Boomer presidents to Millennial Presidents

  23. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    Thanks.

    That is so undramatic.

    Not that I expect a fight to the death Schummer vs McConnell, or anything like that (even the Romans didn’t do that). And to be frank, I can’t see any other likely way to settle things. But it’s so undramatic.

  24. Jen says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes, I consider Obama a Boomer president–who served two terms. I really do think it’s time for a generational change, not for change’s sake, but because I do think that the Presidency is a physically demanding position. One need only look at the photos of Bush 43 and Obama when each took office and when each left to see that the pressures of the job are high. I think Trump clearly shows signs of stress and fatigue.

    As a Gen X’er, nothing would surprise me less than my generation being skipped entirely 😀

  25. Moosebreath says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    “If the Strauss-Howe generational theory is correct, there’s a strong possibility that as Gen-X is a Nomad generation, there will never be a true Gen-X president and we’ll go directly from Boomer presidents to Millennial Presidents”

    If the Strauss-Howe generational theory is correct, then 1961 is the start of Gen-X, so we have already had one.

    Also, Nomads generally have not been skipped over as Presidents. The Lost Generation gave us Truman and Eisenhower. The Gilded Generation gave us all the Presidents from Grant to McKinley.

  26. michael reynolds says:

    Surely we all know that this generational theory is nonsense. Right? It makes about as much sense as astrology.

  27. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Moosebreath:

    To clarify I meant that if the Strauss-Howe theory is correct that Gen-X remains culturally disconnected, that passivity will combine with our smaller numbers to prevent a Gen-Xer from becoming president. That is, not that all Nomad Generations will never have presidents, but rather that this specific Nomad Generation will never have one.

    And whether you put Obama just over the line into Gen-X or just over the line into Boomer, he’s still an edge case.

  28. Jen says:

    @michael reynolds: I use it as a general demarcation of groups that had similar cultural influences during their upbringing. Nothing more.

    Bottom line for me, I’d rather not have a septuagenarian president. I don’t think it points to fresh thinking or voter excitement.

  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    The three front runners—Biden, Sanders, Warren: 76, 77, 69.

    The headlines are telling me that the AARP is going to be mad at me, but,,,

    What’s wrong with this picture?

  30. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Count me among the Gen-X voters who is more than happy to throw my hat in with the Millenials.

  31. Bill says:

    @Jen:

    Bottom line for me, I’d rather not have a septuagenarian president. I don’t think it points to fresh thinking or voter excitement.

    Both parties have been rolling out the old tired folks for the last 25 years. Bob Dole, John McCain, Hillary Clinton. The Dems need to remember how all three of those did.

  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kylopod: The paradigm shifts in American life that happened in the early 60s make the Baby Boom Generation a little difficult to suss out in a lot of ways. Children born in 1960 and after had a significantly different childhood than the ones my brother (1947) and I (1952) had on many levels. It’s almost like a completely different world.

    At least, that’s my take.

    ETA: “I have a hard time believing the Democrats will coalesce around the final nominee without some turmoil considering the stakes this election.”

    And that is the problem. “Four more years… four more years…”

  33. Jen says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Warren turned 70 in June, and Sanders turns 78 on Sunday.

    Time stops for no one…

    @Bill: I agree completely. And both Bill Clinton and Obama were derided for being too young/without sufficient experience/afflicted with “young man in a hurry” syndrome.

  34. Kylopod says:

    The other day I saw someone refer to Joe Rogan as a boomer. Rogan was born in 1967, the same year as Kurt Cobain. When I pointed this out, the person explained that boomer just meant he’s old and out of touch. So I guess we’ll all be boomers one day, assuming we aren’t already.

  35. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Kylopod:

    When I pointed this out, the person explained that boomer just meant he’s old and out of touch.

    This is the bookend to old people calling kids millennials when the actual millennials are mostly in their 30s now.

  36. wr says:

    @Jen: “I think you understood my point.”

    I think so. Was it bigotry?

  37. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: Thank you.

    By the way, saw a big stack of Michael Grant books with one-word titles — I think it must have been the Gone series — shrink-wrapped together in the window of an English-language book store next to the flower market in Amsterdam…

  38. wr says:

    @Bill: “Both parties have been rolling out the old tired folks for the last 25 years. Bob Dole, John McCain, Hillary Clinton. The Dems need to remember how all three of those did.”

    That explains why Trump won. Because the Dems ran this aging old hag, while the Republicans brilliantly ran the much younger, practically millennial candidate who was born… two years before her.