The Plausibles: Handicapping the Democrats’ Big Five

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- While six candidates have qualified for Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, the first five to qualify appear to be the remaining plausible contenders for their party’s presidential nomination.

They are former Vice President Joe Biden, ex-Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and three U.S. senators: Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The sixth candidate to qualify, the California hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, and the other seven still running? Anything is possible, but none have demonstrated the depth, breadth or variety of support that’s needed to have a realistic chance to win. Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg Opinion, is one of the other Democrats in the race.

All five of the plausible nominees are in the top six in elite endorsements. They’re out front in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first contests will take place on Feb. 3 and Feb. 11, respectively. They’re perhaps the top five in national polls. At least four of them have conventional qualifications for the job, with Buttigieg a bit of a stretch. At least four of the five have policy preferences and priorities that are within the mainstream of the party (and I’d include Sanders too, making it five for five, despite his rhetoric that emphasizes differences). So it’s time for a look at how they stand going into the final debate before the voting begins.

Biden. Biden is the most likely nominee at this point. He’s leading in the national polls. He’s either leading or close to it in the Iowa polls, although there’s only been a single poll there since mid-December. He’s also moved into a clear lead in terms of support from party actors. He’s been leading throughout the campaign in high-profile endorsements, and that lead has grown stronger since the beginning of December, while he’s also doing well among early-state activists and party-loyal big donors.

As a nomination candidate, Biden resembles Walter Mondale in 1984, only he’s somewhat weaker. Mondale, like Biden, had been vice president. Mondale had an even bigger lead in endorsements and a larger lead in the polls throughout the year before the election. Mondale even won decisively in Iowa. But then Mondale suddenly lost steam, and he eventually just barely won the nomination. It's a good reminder that early polls can be misleadingly strong for candidates like Mondale and Biden (and Sanders) who are well known before the campaign begins. Most voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are just now starting to pay attention, and few in other states have tuned in so far. It's hard to tell in advance how many are really committed to Biden, and how many are just telling pollsters they're with the only candidate they know about — and how many of those might be enticed by a new name who emerges from the early contests. 

Warren. She’s slumped in the horse-race polls for a while, but has apparently stabilized in third place, at least nationally, meaning that a relatively small rally could put her at or close to the top. She’s in second place in endorsements and does pretty well in other measures of support from party actors. It’s easy to imagine her finishing ahead of Sanders in both Iowa and New Hampshire and then squaring up one-on-one against one of the less liberal candidates. Warren’s potential advantage shows up in both polls and surveys of party actors: She appears to have the potential to appeal to a broad group of Democrats, and few find her unacceptable. 

Her biggest problem if she does manage to emerge on top after the first contests? The possibility that Sanders will stay in the race even if he doesn’t have a real chance, thereby splitting the votes of the most liberal voters. But if she can beat Sanders early and then get his endorsement, it’s not hard to picture her winning fairly easily after that.

Klobuchar. Klobuchar has emerged from the pack in Iowa and even New Hampshire, but only enough to move into fifth place in those states. She’s at about 7% in Iowa polls, and would have to find a way to produce a significant late rally to get into the top three there. The odds are that won’t happen, and that she’ll drops out.

However, she’s made some progress already. She’ll be one of only five on stage in Des Moines, and that may mean that voters only tuning in now — and that’s a lot of voters — will make her one of the small group that they seriously consider when they make up their minds. She’s shown some ability to profit from the squabbling of others, and the advantage of being in last place (of those still in serious contention) is that it’s unlikely that anyone will attack her. She’s fourth in endorsements, leading both Sanders and Buttigieg. She’s running a coalition-style campaign. Late, large movements happen all the time in Iowa, and if she manages to benefit from one, she could have a real chance to gain ground with a broad coalition of party actors and voters. 

Buttigieg. He’s faded a bit in the polls, and my guess is that he’s had his moment and he just didn’t have much appeal after all. He has raised lots of money, but I’d be more impressed if he had secured more endorsements; the lack of success there during the weeks when he was doing best in polls and in the media probably signal a real lack of enthusiasm among party actors, perhaps because of his limited governing experience. Polling shows a problem for him with black voters, an important Democratic constituency, and while it’s possible that winning Iowa could change that, it’s also possible it’s more deeply rooted. If so, his chances are really small. 

On the other hand, polling gives him a realistic chance to win in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and if he can do that, he would be a serious candidate afterward. He’s more likely to survive Iowa than Klobuchar, but I think she’s quite a bit more likely to be nominated if she does get over that hurdle than he would be.

Sanders. He could win, but he’s the least likely of the plausible nominees to actually get to the nomination. He’s a factional candidate, and the process rewards coalition-style candidates. That’s always been the case and still is. He’s the least likely of this group to have party actors coordinate on his behalf if he does move into the lead, and the most likely to confront a real movement to try to stop him. That’s partly because he just hasn’t tried hard to reach out to the rest of the party the way that Warren has, and it’s partly because, regardless of what Sanders and his supporters argue, most party actors think that a self-identified socialist who believes the way to reach out to the electorate is to ignore the ideological middle poses a significant general-election risk. 

That said: He’s done well over the last six months. He may not have retained the loyalty of everyone who voted for him in 2016, but his position in the national polls is a bit better now than it was back in June. He’s only fifth in endorsements and hasn’t expanded his reach beyond very liberal party actors, but he’s showing strength among them. If he can beat Warren in Iowa and New Hampshire and consolidate the very liberal side of the party behind him, he could go on to win.

FiveThirtyEight tallies endorsements from members of Congress, big-city mayors, members of the Democratic National Committeeand some other party leaders. For how endorsements matter, see this.

Klobuchar is in fifth place nationally according to some of the polling aggregators, but a bit lower in some other estimates.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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