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Why You’re Wrong About the Democratic Primary

Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.

Warren’s down! No, she’s back! O’Rourke is hot! No, he’s faltering! Biden is dead on arrival! No, he’s unstoppable! The 2020 Democratic presidential campaign already has the feel of a stock market, with TV pundits and Internet prediction experts monitoring the minute-by-minute movements on the big board.

There’s much to praise about all this attention. It provides gainful employment for hundreds, if not thousands, of campaign workers, journalists, pollsters and hotel, restaurant and car-rental employees. It offers leisure-time speculation for the millions of TV viewers searching for a successor to “Game of Thrones.” And in the pages and on the websites of our best journalistic enterprises, it even provides detailed, tough-minded looks at what the women and men in the race intend to do with the powers they seek.

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Here’s what it does not do, though: tell us what will actually happen in 2020. If voters and the news media take that to heart, and focus our attention on the character and the intentions of the candidates instead of who’s winning eight months before anyone votes, the coverage—and the choosing—will be better for it.

And what the history of modern presidential nominating contests suggests about this moment is that the seemingly daily polling, and the “she’s-surging-he’s failing” stories, have all the staying power of sandcastles at high tide. The last half century of presidential primaries is a catalog of slow erosions of “insurmountable” leads, sudden shifts of the current, candidates left for dead who have revived and triumphed, front-runners hit with a blow from nowhere that recalibrated the certainties of a moment ago. If there’s a candidate you like in this race who you feel isn’t getting the attention she deserves, it’s far too early to fret. The history is varied enough to worry every one of the top-tier candidates, and provide comfort to most, or even all, of the rest. Even John Delaney. Here are a few lessons for the field.

How confident should Biden be?

Joe Biden entered the race in April, and since then, the former vice president has polled more strongly than nearly anyone anticipated, staking out what is, six weeks later, a 17-point lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average. How safe is a lead like that? The canonical cautionary tale is that of Ed Muskie, the former senator from Maine. In 1971, he was the consensus choice for president among a wide range of Democrats, considered the most electable challenger to a president despised by progressives: Richard Nixon. But the intensity of the party’s anti-war elements, and a New Hampshire win that was characterized as a defeat by the news media, sank Muskie by spring.

But if Biden starts to fade, that doesn’t mean you can write him off. More than three decades after Muskie, in the summer of 2007, the Republican front-runner, Arizona Sen. John McCain, was out of money, having gorged on an army of operatives. His top campaign aides had fled. By that autumn, the new, undisputed poll leader was former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose path to the nomination would be a romp through moderate, populous states like New York and New Jersey. In California and Florida, Giuliani was anywhere from two to four times as popular as his nearest rivals. Could a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun-control candidate actually win the presidential nomination of the Republican Party?

Well, no. As soon as voters actually began, er, voting, Giuliani sank like a stone. And as is so often the case in presidential campaign politics, Giuliani’s collapse helped to cement a conventional wisdom that was soon upended. The failure of a mouthy, socially moderate New York mayor was one reason so many discounted the consistent lead in the polls held by Donald Trump in 2016. Could a formerly pro-choice, currently anti-free trade, antiwar candidate actually win the nomination of the Republican Party? Well, yes.

The very year that Giuliani fell apart, as McCain was going from front-runner to also-ran to GOP nominee, Hillary Clinton held a sizable lead in the Democratic polls. One of the keys to her contest with Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008 was supposed to be her strong position in the battle for African-American votes. In November, 2007, POLITICO reported that Clinton was besting Obama among African-Americans. As late as December 2007, she and Obama were effectively tied among black voters. But when Obama won the Iowa caucuses, his victory in a virtually all-white state validated him as a credible Democratic nominee. Within days, the African-American vote moved decisively to him, and black officials who’d endorsed Clinton began switching almost by the day.

This is why the results in Iowa and New Hampshire are so crucial for Biden: If Kamala Harris or Cory Booker perform well in the early states, Biden’s own significant lead among black voters in 2019 might similarly fade.

There is a Democratic campaign, however, that offers Biden a measure of reassurance. In 1984, the most recent Democratic vice president, Walter Mondale, seemed to be facing nothing but calm seas and fair winds. Mondale proclaimed the campaign “the sweetest primary in history.” On the day of the New Hampshire primary, eight days after he won the Iowa caucuses by a 3-to-1 margin, the New York Times reported that “Walter F. Mondale now holds the most commanding lead ever recorded this early in a presidential nomination campaign by a nonincumbent.”

The next day’s Times reported that Colorado Sen. Gary Hart had beaten Mondale in New Hampshire by 10 points—a win that upended the race completely and put Hart on a path to win a series of primaries. Still, by the time it was over, Mondale was saved by black voters in Alabama and Georgia, by big-city Democrats in Illinois and New York, and by questions about the “unknown” Hart.

Then again, in November 1984 Mondale lost 49 states to the incumbent Republican president, so perhaps Biden shouldn’t take too much comfort from this history.

What about Bernie?

As for Bernie Sanders, his surprising strength in 2016 might be mitigated by the precedent of a similar candidate from 2004. By late 2003, the insurgent campaign of his fellow Vermonter, Howard Dean, had turned the Internet into a cash machine of astonishing and unprecedented proportions, fueled by the anger of progressive Democrats at what they perceived as a timid and centrist party in Washington that wasn’t responding to the grassroots anxiety over the unilateralist Republican in the White House.

Just in the third quarter of 2003, Dean raised $ 15 million, almost all of it in small donations. His anti-Iraq War message had won him a significant lead in the polls. At year’s end, CNN reported that Dean was polling twice as high as his nearest rivals. Both of the Democratic contenders from 2000—Al Gore and Bill Bradley—endorsed him.

John Kerry’s more mainstream campaign, meanwhile, had become a joke. In November, Jon Stewart mocked the Kerry campaign on “The Daily Show” and highlighted the departure of key staff members. Then the calendar flipped to the election year of 2004, and a combination of fears over Dean’s electability and a Democratic electorate unsure of the risk of an unknown candidate caused Dean’s support to collapse in what his top campaign aide Joe Trippi calls “a flight to safety.” The former Vermont governor finished third in Iowa and was plummeting in New Hampshire even before his caucus-night “scream.” A few weeks later, he was out of the race.

The Rise of the Rest

The rest of the field—from rising contenders like Pete Buttigieg to candidates like Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren who were deemed to be struggling after promising debuts—can take heart that primary campaigns are so volatile that they sometimes shift, quite literally, overnight. In March 1976, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan had lost five consecutive primaries, and was virtually out of money. His aides were beginning to reach out to the campaign of President Gerald Ford to discuss the details of Reagan’s withdrawal. But in North Carolina, Reagan was propelled to victory by the field army of Senator Jesse Helms and the impact of a half-hour televised speech that denounced Ford’s foreign policy. Reagan then ran off a string of primary wins, leading to an intense, contested convention in Kansas City, where he fell just a few dozen delegates short of unseating an incumbent president in his party’s primaries.

Reagan faced a similar, if more abbreviated, challenge four years later. After Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses, prominent NBC analyst Tom Pettit said, “I would like to suggest that Ronald Reagan is politically dead.” Six weeks later, Reagan’s landslide win in New Hampshire put him on the road to the nomination and the White House.

History’s lesson is not that front-runners are always doomed to fail like Muskie or Dean or Giuliani, but that at some point they will have to survive a serious competitor. For Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, the worst days were in 1999. Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator, was out-raising Gore and leading him in some New Hampshire polls. The sitting vice president was jettisoning longtime political aides and moving his headquarters. But once the voting started, Gore won every contest. That same year, Gov. George W. Bush’s coronation was disrupted when John McCain beat him by a record margin in New Hampshire. But starting in South Carolina, the consensus choice of the GOP establishment prevailed over the heretic. In 2011 and 2012, Mitt Romney was often displaced as the front-runner in polls by a series of rivals, including “9-9-9” tax-plan candidate Herman Cain and, more plausibly, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But once Romney dispatched Gingrich in Florida, the contest was over. Hillary Clinton in 2016 did not expect Bernie Sanders to match her bankroll, or to prove a persistent rival, but he did, though by the end she was the clear winner in total votes cast and delegates won.

Unless Trump Changed Everything

But even that time-tested observation—that every frontrunner must surmount an existential challenge to his or her candidacy—has now failed the test of time. In 2016, Donald Trump, a candidate with no political experience and no measurable support from his party’s establishment, never trailed in the polls and was never seriously threatened during his campaign for the nomination. Based on the lessons of history, Trump’s inevitable fall was confidently predicted by journalists and insiders, even as he racked up primary victories and delegates. The day former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush withdrew from the race, on February 19, 2016, his brother George W. was telling a New York audience that he did not believe Trump would win the nomination.

Every winning candidate’s journey to the nomination is serpentine, and their stories are so varied that, depending on what contest you look at, there are enough different paths to provide encouragement to just about any candidate. Will voters choose familiarity, as they did in 1984 and as Biden may hope they will do again? Or will they go for a Reagan-like insurgent who represents a rising ideological wing of the party, like Sanders? Can Harris or Booker draw large portions of black voters by doing well in an early contest, as Obama did in 2008? Will a candidate now struggling and basically given up for dead (Kirsten Gillibrand?) come out on top, as Kerry did in 2004 and McCain did in 2008? Or what if the past offers no guidance whatsoever, as was the case in 2016?

The answer to each of these questions is: We don’t know, and we won’t know for quite a while. The adage that “if you want to hear God laugh, make a plan” has a corollary: If you want to hear God start wheezing and crying and struggling to breathe, make a prediction a year in advance. And when it comes to presidential primaries, you could sometimes have generated a divine belly laugh just by trying to project a day into the future.

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