It’s a Wide Open Race

AP Photo/Richard Shiro

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to a crowd about his presidential run in Greenville, South Carolina. 

On December 12, 1974, when Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter announced his candidacy for President of the United States, he had two percent national name recognition. As the junior man on the national staff of the Washington Post, I drew the assignment to cover his press conference at the National Press Club. Hardly any other reporters showed up. The Post put my story on the shipping page.

As late as early January of 1976, after more than a year of campaigning, the Gallup Poll showed Carter to be the choice of just four percent of likely Democratic voters. Yet the centrist Carter went on to win the Iowa caucuses as four liberals in the race split the liberal vote. With that momentum, Carter went on to win the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic nomination, and the presidency. 

He was the ultimate outsider in a year when insiders were disgraced. The rest of the Democratic field proved surprisingly weak; and Carter quickly became a media favorite. 

Could 2020 be like 1976? 

In 1976, of course, there was no Internet, no 24-7 news cycle and no social media. If anything, an unknown long-shot today can be come a contender even faster.

The abrupt rise of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is Exhibit A. Out of nowhere, Mayor Pete is now running third in preference polls of likely voters in the  Iowa precinct caucuses, behind Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden—but ahead of far better known candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. And Buttigieg hasn’t even officially declared. 

Take a look at the CNN Town Hall that he did last week, and you can see the outsider appeal. He’s Midwestern in the best sense of the word—a straight shooter, unpretentious, public minded, with a gentle sense of humor. When the first questioner asked what a mayor was doing running for president, Buttigieg replied that the federal government would do well to be governed more like a well-run small city, and not vice versa.

Okay, Buttigieg is 37, and he’s gay. That makes him a long shot. But he’s also a Rhodes Scholar and a combat vet. And with the exit of Sherrod Brown from the race, the liberal-but-reassuring-white-guy-from-the-Midwest slot is now open. Unlike the other young white guy in the race, Beto O’Rourke, Mayor Pete seems to know what he stands for.

No, I have not fallen in love with the latest candidate flavor of the week. I continue to believe that Elizabeth Warren is the most original and compelling of the contenders, both in narrating the lived frustrations of ordinary Americans and connecting their concerns to a political and policy story of what needs to be done.

But the improbable rise of Buttigieg tells us something about this race. We really have no idea who will be in the real final tier. 

Yes, it’s likely that it will include Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders. But early favorites often peak too soon, stumble and lose favor. As in 1976, we just don’t know how a very large field will fragment the progressive, or centrist, or identity vote, and who will break out.

We can imagine that Harris will vault into the lead on the strength of winning most of the Southern primaries plus California. We can also imagine that Harris will be tripped up by her record as a prosecutor, her less-than-stellar performance in recouping damages from the banks on behalf of underwater homeowners, and by the rise of other candidates of color.

We can imagine that Bernie has to be a finalist because of the strong affections of the party’s progressive base. Yet we can’t predict how that vote might be spilt by the staying power of Elizabeth Warren, who has certain energizer bunny characteristics, and by other candidates deciding to run to the left. And the conventional wisdom may just decide that 78 is too old.

It’s possible that the field will be winnowed down to two or three by the March primaries and the fact that the also-rans will have to quit for lack of money. But the combination of no more winner-take-take-all primaries and the randomness of who emerges from the pack means that the contest could go all the way to the August 2020 convention.

This time, there are something like twenty Democratic candidates at risk of crowding each other out, and producing an anomalous nominee. The economist Kenneth Arrow famously devised what came to be called the Impossibility Theorem.

Namely, when voters have three or more alternatives, the outcome is basically indeterminate in terms of preferences. In short, anything can happen. 

Ranked choice voting, where second and third choice preferences are automatically redistributed, can help address that dilemma. But they don’t have that in the Democratic nomination process, unless you count the end-game at the Convention. And there, if no candidate has a clear majority of delegates, the horse trading can once again produce almost any outcome. This was the case before 1952, when front- runners often were not the nominee.

What’s troubling, assuming that Trump escapes impeachment, is that the large and unwieldy Democratic field could well have another eighteen months to whack away at each other, while Trump and Fox News whack away at them. It would be nice if the presumptive nominee were known by next March’s primaries, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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