The 2020 Election Will Shred the Obama Coalition
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Only one can be the next Obama. Maybe not even one.
The coalition that Barack Obama built in 2008 was so powerful, and so successful in Democratic primaries, that 2020 contenders are treating it as a blueprint. But in a field with a dozen or more presidential candidates, no one is a perfect match to win over all of the key constituencies that drove Obama to electoral success.
While it’s still early in the race, what appears to be happening is candidates are trying to peel away different parts of Obama’s coalition. The dynamics are similar to the philosophy that in commerce a marketplace is always in the process of either creating or undoing bundles. What’s unclear right now is who will splinter off which groups, and what the Democratic marketplace will look like as the 2020 primaries approach.
The world of commerce can be instructive. The most well-known recent example of unbundling a popular bundle might be Craigslist. In the early 2000s, Craigslist was a one-stop shop for local commerce, where users could find anything from an apartment to a job to a place to sell their wares. It had classic network effects: Its high user base attracted people and businesses interested in using the platform, which made it difficult for competing platforms to attract users. At its peak, Craigslist was a powerful bundle of online services.
Competitors focused on offering specific services instead of trying to be the next Craigslist. That led to sites focused on job listings, on real estate, on dating, on e-commerce, and so on. While Craigslist is still around, it’s largely been unbundled, and is no longer the dominant force in local commerce it once was.
Similar dynamics appear to be emerging in the Democratic presidential primary. Immediately following Donald Trump’s election, there was a lot of discussion of who would be best suited to win back the working-class whites who voted for Obama twice and then voted for Trump. The list of possible names has only grown.
One key factor might be popularity among black voters, particularly given the compressed primary schedule in 2020 and how many delegates will be allocated by the middle of March in Southern states where black voters make up a majority of the primary. “South Carolina is the new Iowa/New Hampshire,” as the thinking goes. That theory appears to be at the heart of the approaches used by Senator Kamala Harris; Senator Cory Booker and former Vice President Joe Biden might follow the same plan if they enter the race.
But the unbundling doesn’t stop there. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will seek to win over suburban and educated women. Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, and Booker may seek to appeal to younger voters and those attracted to candidates with energy and optimism.
What’s notable is that it may be too “expensive” — either in terms of financial resources, policy commitments or style/identity realities — for candidates to appeal to more than two or three parts of the Obama coalition. In commerce, this sort of fracturing is all well and good; the end result may be a more fragmented marketplace with higher total revenue and profits, but life goes on. But a presidential primary doesn’t work that way. Ultimately, a party can select only one nominee.
While early polling may suggest little difference in electability in a head-to-head matchup with President Trump, these unbundling dynamics won’t stay suppressed forever. The groups that get left out of the Democratic nominee’s coalition may end up estranged from the party. It’s easy to imagine the future of the Republican Party being shaped by the losers of the 2020 Democratic primary.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.
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