May 20, 2019

Establishment Candidates vs. Progressives

question mark

As you may remember, Democrats were presented with two viable choices in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. First, we had Hillary Clinton, anointed by the mainstream news media as "the presumptive nominee" and "the first female president" well before we knew which other candidates might be running. Second, we had Bernie Sanders, a clear underdog candidate who would go on to generate more enthusiasm among the youth than anyone expected despite what would eventually be recognized as what amounted to sabotage by the Democratic Party.

Clinton was the establishment candidate who had strong support among older voters who were more interested in holding on to what they had than revolution. Sanders was the revolutionary and the clear choice among younger more progressive voters seeking more radical change. Clinton won the primary, at least in part, because older voters are far more likely to vote than younger voters. And yes, I am sure it helped that the Democratic Party and most of the mainstream news media made no secret of favoring her.

As we approach another Democratic primary, there is a sense of deja vu in the air. Joe Biden appears to be the establishment candidate. He's leading in the polls, is well-regarded by older voters, and there is an air of inevitability about his odds of being the top establishment candidate throughout the primary process. I would not compare it to what we saw with Clinton in that I have not seen the absolute conviction that he will win the nomination. After all, he has some competition from other establishment candidates that she did not. Bernie Sanders is running again and polling well so far. It is not yet clear whether he will be the choice for younger more progressive voters this time. He has some strong competition, and the gap between where he's polling and where some of his competition is polling is much smaller than the gap we see between Biden and his establishment competitors.

What does seem clear is that Democratic voters are likely to face a similar choice in the primary between at least one establishment candidate and at least one (but probably more) progressive candidate. Last time, voting seemed to come down to which candidate one most wanted to see in office. This time, I expect that consideration to be relevant; however, I also expect more voters to be concerned about which candidate has the best chance of beating Trump. It will be interesting to see how this plays out among voters who do not necessarily believe that the person they'd most like to see in office is the one with the best chance of defeating Trump.

If Biden continues to do well in the polls, Democratic voters hoping for someone more progressive will need to coalesce behind a single candidate (eventually) and then turn out in far greater numbers than they did for Sanders in 2016. I realize we are still early in the process, but I can't help thinking that seems like a tall order.