It’s that time again. With impeachment quashed and a bombastic State of the Union Address out the way, it’s full steam ahead towards November’s bumper election, which will see the presidency, the entire House of Representatives, 35 of the 100 Senate seats and 13 governorships contested. The most important and entertaining race will, of course, be Donald Trump against whoever the Democrats put forward for the highest office in the land.
The Story So Far
Trump’s renomination is de facto automatic. Having been cleared of impeachment charges by a party-line vote the Senate, he is seeing the highest approval ratings of his entire term at 49%. The excitement lies for the moment in the Democratic contest, which saw a record 29 candidacies announced. The field has narrowed to 11, among them three from ethnic minority backgrounds, three women, two veterans, two billionaires and one member of the LGBT community. You may or may not think that demographic point-scoring is remotely important, but many Democrats do, and it is mostly the support of registered Democrats that candidates need to secure the nomination. The system of presidential primaries (state-run elections by which the parties choose their candidates) is torturously complicated. Some states have closed primaries, in which only registered party members may vote, some semi-closed, in which unaffiliated voters may also participate, some open, in which voters may vote in any party primary. There are also semi-open and blanket prima…I’m bored too. Essentially, every state, every overseas territory and D.C. have an indirect election to determine how many delegates they send to the party convention in favour of each candidate, and the candidate with the most delegates becomes the nominee. The process lasts about the first half of election year, with candidates often dropping out after falling behind in early contests. Things kicked off last Monday with the Iowa caucuses (a caucus is like a primary except it’s a party-organised show of hands in a restaurant/basketball court/living room. A few, presumably nostalgic states, still have caucuses instead of primaries. I did say it was complicated.), but an administrative meltdown led to the full results being delayed almost a week, leading to an amusing situation in which practically every candidate took to the stage the following morning claiming they had won.
The Democratic Field
The next stop is New Hampshire, with voting taking place on 11 February. In this armchair pundit’s opinion, there are only two people who could eventually take the nomination. They are Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who you might remember from 2016, and Vice President Joe Biden, Obama’s old running mate. Relevant for the time being are Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT-edge-EDGE). Senator Warren is a friendly Massachusetts representative stuck playing second fiddle to Bernie in the democratic socialist orchestra. She is a former Harvard Law professor, known for her very public fight with Trump over Native American ancestry. At 70, she is in the nursing home bracket along with most of the serious candidates. Bloomberg, 9th richest man in the world, former Republican and another septuagenarian (triple threat!), is a three-term former mayor of New York City who spent $10 million on a Super Bowl ad endorsing gun control – not a winner with the beer and chicken wings crowd. He is a deep-pocketed man who has run an unorthodox campaign, forgoing early primary states to focus on ‘Super Tuesday’ in March, where more delegates are up for grabs than any other day. He is also self-funding his campaign – he won’t even let voters donate money to him. Donor criteria have prevented Bloomberg from qualifying for the televised debates so far, but the DNC changed its rules and Bloomberg was at the podium for the debate in Las Vegas on 19 February. His strategy has left a lot of people scratching their heads, but with $300 million (!) committed to political advertising so far, one does begin to wonder. The market for Republican billionaires, though, might just be too crowded already. Pete Buttigieg is a gay millennial combat vet (an actual triple threat) and the former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city the size of Worcester. He edged out Bernie for a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, but turnout was low, and the state is overwhelmingly white and rural. His support among black voters is close to zero. He recently spoke in favour of late-term abortions, which may tarnish the centrist image so key to his electability.
Back to, as Trump calls them, Sleepy Joe and Crazy Bernie. Trump was the oldest ever president to be inaugurated, at 70 – both these two would blow his record out of the water. Bernie is 78 and suffered a heart attack in October. Biden is a spritely 77, nine months junior to Bloomberg (though I suspect Bloomberg has uploaded his brain onto a trading platform by now). Bernie is authentic – he’s been banging his drum on the left of the party solidly since 1991 – but polling shows his authenticity failing to appeal to moderate voters. Biden is more moderate and has credibility, especially among black voters, from his eight years in office alongside Obama. Weak debate performances have contributed to a decline in his polling numbers from a soaring peak of 41%, and the results from Iowa were, in the man’s own words, a ‘gut punch’. Joe’s campaign would benefit from the endorsement of President Obama, which has so far been withheld. Why am I so down on all the Democratic candidates? Am I a closet Trump supporter? No. The Democratic field is simply weak, and Trump is looking stronger than ever.
What’s Going to Happen?
Bernie is America’s Corbyn – that tells you all you need to know. Biden has been breathing hard recently. Moderates in the party hope he hasn’t run out of puff. Critics have made much of the fact his son Hunter took a seat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company after the revolution in 2014, while his father was Vice President. Trump’s dirt-digging into this is what triggered the impeachment investigation. It is early days, but Biden needs to bounce back in the coming weeks and months to stay in contention. He will expect a boost from strong black turnout in South Carolina and beyond.
Trump has the wind at his back. The partisan impeachment vote in the House and subsequent acquittal, combined with a very strong economy, have given him the upper hand. Unemployment is its lowest in over 50 years, with his term-long average the lowest in history. Black unemployment is at its lowest ever level. Median household income is its highest ever. To even stand a chance, the Democrats need to put a positive case to the American people, and that’s something they haven’t shown they know how to do. Calling Trump ‘a pathological liar’ and ‘the most corrupt president in history’ might not be unfair, but it might also not be very smart. Much like Labour, the Democrats ought to spend less time fighting one another trying to be ‘right’ and more time trying to win.
My gut predicts Bernie’s consistency carrying him through to the nomination, but an eventual loss to Trump. Washington outsider Buttigieg might be able to beat Trump, but I don’t see him beating Bernie. I wouldn’t mind being wrong on that though – an Oxford PPEist in the White House would be no bad thing.