I want to preface this with the same caveat I include in all of my columns centered around 2020 presidential polling in the year 2019: if these numbers were set in stone, Rudy Giuliani would be formally called President Giuliani. Same goes for Howard Dean in the early 2004 race. Or perhaps Jeb! in 2016. Most people who say “I’m voting for candidate X” this far out from actual voting are really saying “candidate X is the one I’m most familiar with.” Name recognition is King in a country which re-elects their representatives at about a 90% clip despite a little less than 20% approval rating for those same representatives. What I get at below is one of many scenarios that could unfold over the next year, but it’s also one that seems like the most likely outcome based on current polling.
By this same point in the 2008 Democratic primary—August 2007—Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had cobbled together 57% of the vote combined. As of right now, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren comprise just under 64% of all Democratic primary polling, per the RCP average.
While 2020 is a unique election that undoubtedly makes the race far more unpredictable than any other in recent memory, the top tier of contenders does seem to be set—once you include Kamala Harris’s current polling average, four candidates own nearly three-quarters of 2020 polling. A lot can change in terms of proportion, but we’re close enough where history indicates that the final field is likely set. The only question remaining seems to be whether Pete Buttigieg—the only candidate left polling above 3% (a typical margin of error)—can force his way in to this final four.
The exact same generational dynamic which defined the 2016 presidential election has now arrived on the shores of the Democratic Party. If you get all your news only from MSNBC and #resistance Twitter, this new Pew chart may shatter your political reality. The charge behind “Bernie Bro” is one of the most factually inaccurate, yet widespread, beliefs in all of politics. If anything, the opposite is true.
If you are a Joe Biden supporter, you are most likely over the age of 50, white, living outside an urban area, and religiously affiliated. If you support Bernie Sanders, you are most likely a nonwhite woman, and there’s a 34% chance that you are under the age of 30—far likelier than any other candidate. If you are under the age of 30 and support Joe Biden, there are about 400 others like you. It is stark seeing how little of Biden’s support is rooted in the new left.
While Elizabeth Warren’s policies are the farthest left that any non-Bernie presidential contender has proposed in millennials’ lifetimes, she is also the most likely candidate to be supported by older white college graduates—who tend to be more conservative. She has become something of a Demilitarized Zone between the warring boomer and millennial factions of the Democratic Party.
The dynamic underpinning the 2020 Democratic primary is very simple: the older generation hears Joe Biden’s “nothing will dramatically change other than getting rid of Trump” sales pitch, and a controlling plurality believes that to be the correct course of action. The under-50 crowd largely aligns themselves with Bernie and Warren’s righteous crusade to dramatically redefine American life away from the one our parents built for us, and the only millennial candidate in this race is trying to build something of a centrist brand in that same anti-establishment vein.
Joe Biden versus the new left is a proxy war for the larger battle taking place against America’s gentocracy—a war that goes beyond politics. No other western country is so overwhelmingly and comprehensively ruled by the over-50 crowd the way that America is. Younger people want to take power away from them, while older folks want to keep it. That’s the undercurrent to all American politics and economics these days.
Majorities of the under-35 crowd simply look at politics in a completely different light than majorities of the over-35 crowd, as demonstrated by these two poll responses below. Biden’s support is grounded entirely in completely subjective and undefinable measures like “electability” and “personal characteristics,” while the majority of both Bernie and Warren’s support is rooted in their aggressive policy positions—which again, are the farthest to the left of standard Democratic politics than any primary contender in Gen Z’s, millennials’ or Gen X’s lifetimes. On a majority basis, young people simply outright reject the politics of Biden’s generation. There’s no other way to read this kind of polling.
Kamala is a contender because she's a shrewd politician and is probably the most naturally talented campaigner of the bunch. The problem she presently faces is that Elizabeth Warren stole the momentum that folks like me thought was destined for Harris, but this problem is not intractable. In fact, this new Pew poll demonstrates that Bernie and Biden voters are about as equally locked-in to their decision, while current Harris and Warren supporters express a willingness to shop around.
While a lot can still unfold over the coming months, there is undoubtedly one dynamic that is unchanging in this primary, because it is the battle that has been simmering at the base of the Democratic Party since well before 2016. Leftists have coalesced around a self-described Democratic Socialist proposing a New Deal-style platform, and the establishment and those happy with the status quo have rallied around a longtime centrist who openly promises not to change power's standard of living in our modern Gilded Age.
Everyone else is still searching for a candidate, and Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are the biggest beneficiaries of this huge chunk of ideological refugees trying to find a foothold between the corporate wing of the Democrats and the leftists leading the insurrection. These are the two dominant factions in the Democratic Party, and they also define the left and right poles of the party as well. Leftists who want to evangelize the cause should be wary of using the famed “centrist” slur against folks just trying to find someone new to like, as current polling proves that these are the people who will choose the Democratic nominee (also because ideologically, the Democratic Party is staunchly united on policy that is quite far to the left—very few Democrats are actual centrists).
And so we arrive at the brutal reality at the heart of all 2019 polling in the 2020 Democratic primary: neither Bernie nor Warren is really that close to Joe Biden, but the two of them combine to beat him. We see this in both the RCP average (33% to 30%) and in many recent polls. It is accurate to say that progressives have won the battle for the ideological soul of the Democratic Party. The 2020 Democratic Platform is mostly indistinguishable from Bernie's platform. The last presidential debate was one long refutation of the neoliberal and outright conservative policies of the Obama Administration (especially on immigration). Millennials and Gen Z are the two largest and most liberal generations in American history. It's not a matter of if, but when, true progressive change will come to the Democratic Party, because father time is undefeated.
However, as demonstrated by the fecklessness of Nancy Pelosi’s House majority to do anything of consequence to rein in a transparently criminal president, the institutions which currently control the power in the Democratic Party are largely aligned with Biden’s style of “don’t rock the boat” politics, despite his decades-long inability to go four milliseconds without shoving his foot halfway down his throat. Since declaring his candidacy for the presidency, Joe Biden filmed a video not apologizing for a lifetime of being creepy (at best) with women, then two months later he told a 10-year-old girl “I’ll bet you’re as bright as you are good looking.” In the following weeks, he praised segregationists and equated poor kids to nonwhite kids—and yet, his RCP average is higher than it was before he declared.
The adjective you’re searching for to describe that dynamic is “Trumpian.”
Joe Biden is the big favorite to win the Democratic nomination as of right now. Not only does he beat everyone head to head, but combining any two candidates in any combination does not surpass Biden’s polling average, save for one. And this is where it gets tricky. As it currently stands, it looks like the 2020 primary was specifically designed to get the Democratic Party to rip itself to shreds.
Given the unfair hysteria created around Bernie Sanders, I think it’s safe to say that Elizabeth Warren would have an easier path to the Democratic nomination, assuming both began with the same level of support (most polling shows them consistently within the margin of error of each other right now). All polling reveals that if you are white, over the age of 50, and make over $100k per year, there is a single-digit probability that you are a Bernie voter. There are very few demographics where he polls in the single digits, but the professional class who rules the Democratic Party is one of them. Not only does Warren not have this problem, but she is popular with this group of voters.
Given that no one would benefit more from ranked choice voting than Elizabeth Warren, a ticket with her as president and Bernie as VP would be a slight favorite right now in the Democratic primary. It’s not like Bernie’s supporters are going to ditch him for another candidate, and Warren’s presence at the top of the ticket would signal to all the squishy-on-socialism Democrats that it is still acceptable to join the new left in rejecting a Biden presidency.
Unfortunately, given what I have experienced firsthand growing up in this professional class community who wholly rejects Bernie, there is little doubt in my mind that a ticket with Bernie as president and Warren as VP would be decried as too radical by plenty of current Warren supporters—and many older, white, and comfortable Democrats would join their peers in flocking to Biden. That doesn’t mean a Bernie-Warren ticket could not win (especially since Bernie has consistently polled above Warren until she caught him very recently), but I think that a ticket with Bernie Sanders at the top carries far more risks in the Democratic primary than one with Elizabeth Warren fighting to be our first female president.
Which brings me to the “specifically designed to tear each other apart” portion of my fear. Bernie supporters believe in a fundamentally different vision for both economics and government than the one espoused by Elizabeth Warren’s plans. Warren believes that capitalism can work when workers are aggressively written into the social contract, and Bernie believes that so long as private ownership of the means of production and profit remain the fundamental basis of our economics, true worker equity cannot be achieved. It is unreasonable to expect Democratic-Socialists to support anyone other than the only Democratic-Socialist running (and the same goes for any other ideological voter)—especially when said Democratic-Socialist has indisputably set the agenda for this election. There is a tremendous case to be made that Bernie Sanders has earned the right to be president far more so than anyone else in this race.
But because this older guard of Democrats do not look at political ideology as the primary driver of their politics like younger Democrats do, this nuance will get lost in a forced narrative of sexism and ego. We’ve seen this playbook before, and it’s worked to radicalize a significant and powerful chunk of Democrats against Bernie Sanders. He is both the national leader of a movement and a toxic brand among a powerful voting bloc—a brand that can be used against progressives’ goal of gaining popular support for leftist policy. If Democratic Socialism is going to be accepted among Biden voters, it will come via friendlier faces like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, not Bernie.
If this dynamic continues into actual voting—where Biden easily beats Bernie and Warren, but loses to Bernie plus Warren—the Sanders campaign may be faced with two options. They can remain ideologically stringent and hand Biden a plurality on a plate—gambling all leftist 2020 hopes on a contested convention—or join forces with a capitalist who nonetheless agrees with Bernie on step one in this process of remaking America: laying waste to the monopolies choking the life out of our society.
Ideological rigidity is an excellent tool for shifting the Overton Window, but politics at its core is about building a coalition big enough to enact your most important legislative priorities. Polling proves that the far-left coalition is the largest in the Democratic primary, but it is not close to a majority, and as long as far-left liberals and progressives remain divided, a lukewarm Biden plurality winning by gerontocratic default remains the most likely outcome for the 2020 Democratic primary.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.