At the onset of the presidential nomination process, the Democratic establishment was confident that former Vice-President Joe Biden was its best bet to defeat President Trump. Biden was perceived as a centrist who would appeal to core Democratic voters while attracting swing voters and disaffected Republicans. To the establishment’s dismay, Biden’s campaign has floundered, allowing Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to turn his once comfortable lead into a three-way tie. Even Peter Buttigieg has begun to best him in some states. This situation has prompted Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg, to enter the race.
The candidacy of Deval Patrick, former two-term governor of Massachusetts, is a puzzlement. Patrick has little national name recognition, no established core of supporters, and even though an African American, he has no deep roots in the black movement. Before and since leaving office, he has worked for corporations battling unions, seeking government handouts, and foreclosing on mortgages. Such a record is not very appealing to most Democrats. Barak Obama supposedly supports his candidacy, but he is unlikely to make a formal endorsement of anyone.
Patrick will compete in the New Hampshire primary (Feb. 11), where Sanders and Warren have substantial grass roots organizations and Buttigieg is showing unexpected strength. Patrick could end up an inauspicious fourth or fifth in his debut primary. As he has no significant support in Nevada (Feb. 22), his fate would then rest in what he can do in South Carolina (Feb. 29), where Biden has a strong base among African Americans and where Corey Booker and Pamela Harris have campaigned vigorously in black communities. Unless Patrick is surprisingly successful, a poor showing here would be a death knell.
Michael Bloomberg, former three-term mayor of New York, has name recognition and heads a media empire. Nonetheless, he has decided not to compete until Super Tuesday (March 3) when 16 states vote. These include highly populated states such as California and Texas, swing states such as Virginia and Colorado, and the home states of two major candidates, Vermont and Massachusetts. Bloomberg’s personal fortune will allow him to compete aggressively in all states in an effort to win a reasonable share of the delegates who comprise more than a third of the total national Democratic delegates. If he does well, he will emerge as a serious contender. If not, his campaign is doomed.
Biden is the candidate most affected by the belated candidacies of Patrick and Bloomberg, who are appealing to the same voters he has been courting. To date, he has run a lackluster campaign filled with verbal blunders and is regarded by many to be out of touch with current culture. His son’s lucrative involvement in a Ukrainian gas company has led some Democratic to ask just what kind of “normal” Biden represents.
Peter Buttigieg’s chances also are clearly threatened by the newcomers who may take away enough moderate votes to stall his rise. Buttigieg has a pleasing personality and is effective at town hall meetings and debates, but he does not hesitate to aggressively criticize fellow Democrats. He has fiercely attacked Warren’s health care plan, but does not offer a detailed alternative.
Warren has used Bloomberg’s candidacy as an example of why billionaires can easily afford her proposed 2% tax increase on them to finance health care. Warren’s potential for success benefits from having centrist votes being divided between Biden, Buttigieg, Patrick, and Bloomberg. She has built solid organizations in several states to advance her programs.
Sanders has assailed Bloomberg as one more super rich guy trying to buy his way into office. Mainly, however, Sanders primarily emphasizes his own views and attacks Trump’s positions rather than quarreling with the other Democratic candidates. He has a fiercely loyal core constituency that is focused on bringing new and disgruntled voters to the polls.
The Democratic establishment, far weaker than usual, shudders at the hint Hillary Clinton has made about possibly running. The reality is that polls indicate Warren-Sanders have the support of 40% of primary voters. Bloomberg would be an appealing prospect if the establishment did not fear that swing voters might be alienated by having to choose between a Democratic billionaire and a Republican millionaire. Not spoken of openly is the fear that having Buttigieg, a married homosexual, at the head of the ticket would likely galvanize Trump’s hard-core base, particularly evangelicals. None of the African American candidates have generated much voter enthusiasm. These perspectives keep Biden in the game.
The primaries and caucuses of March are critical. At their conclusion, the weaker candidates will have run out of money and energy. The field will still remain large with possibly four or five viable contenders. This probability gives a potentially decisive role to critical states such as New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut that vote in April, May, and June. An old-fashioned convention that no one enters as a sure winner is a possibility.
While intense multiple campaigns could generate voter fatigue, they are just as likely to invigorate the Democrats into carefully thinking about who has the best prospect of denying Trump a second term. A key element in that calculation is to select a candidate who doesn’t simply promise to undo Trump’s policies but has an agenda designed to improve the deteriorating American standard of living.