The race for the US’ top job

America prepares to choose a new president beginning with the Democratic Party presidential primaries and caucuses that start in February, as the Democrats look for a candidate who can stand against Donald Trump

Nationally Biden has the highest poll numbers among Democrats Any Democratic candidate will need to recover white working voters

Finally February 3, following months of campaigning, fundraising and debates, Iowa voters expressed their support for somebody from the 11 or so Democrats running for President. Why Iowa? It’s tradition, although the fiasco in reporting the results may end that. And while most states hold primary elections, Iowa makes Democrats meet in people’s houses and schools, to “caucus”, to discuss issues and support candidates. (I know. I grew up in Iowa and caucused in 1976, and still vote there). Opinion polls indicated that former Vice President Joe Biden, along with Senators Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) would likely receive strong backing, and perhaps others, such as Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar or South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg might exceed expectations. The Democratic Party primary and caucus calendar fills up pretty quickly in February and until March 3, when voters in 15 states will select about 40% of the delegates to the Democratic Party National Convention that will meet in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the middle of July. But rural Iowa, with a small population of just over three million, more than 90% of it white, goes first. The winner there, or another candidate with a surprisingly good showing, will command an advantage in raising money and attracting media coverage.

Nationally Biden has the highest poll numbers among Democrats. But much of his support is regarded as “soft”, which is vulnerable to slipping to another of the candidates. Evidence of this possibility is Biden’s continuing difficulty in raising the millions of dollars in campaign funds that a few of his rivals have managed. The gold standard for Democrats is Barrack Obama, who received billions in contributions from about three million Democrats in 2008. Biden must be working from the former President’s email list, as I have received dozens of appeals for cash from his campaign over the past two months.

If Joe Biden eventually is elected, he will be 78 at his inauguration in 2021. This is eight years older than any other first term President. So age is another factor in Biden’s vulnerability, as many Democrats worry he cannot offer a vigorous campaign against Trump. Democrats boast a lot of old timers. Bernie Sanders is even older than Biden, and is recovering from a heart attack. Billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is 78, even Elizabeth Warren is 70. Nobody should be surprised if a younger candidate emerges soon. But who?

In his favour, Biden appears to be the Democrats’ preferred candidate with the party’s key constituent group, African Americans. In recent presidential elections nearly 25% of all votes for Obama and other Democratic candidates for president have come from black voters. Had African American support for Hillary Clinton not dipped slightly in 2016 she would be President today. The couple of African American competitors for 2020 on the radar have dropped out of the contest for President, basically citing a lack of financial support to continue. Neither Cory Booker nor Kamala Harris (a disclaimer here, I contributed to her campaign) were still around for the Iowa voting, although one of them could be an attractive pick for Vice President. Biden has been saying nice things about Harris.

A presidential candidate’s selection of his Vice President used to be mostly a question of geography, that is, a selection that would balance the ticket. Bostonian John F. Kennedy’s choice of Texan Lyndon Johnson is a classic example. Recently Vice Presidents have been picked with social, ethnic or demographic concerns in mind. George Bush looked to Dick Cheney for experience or “gravitas”, Trump really needed help with the Republicans’ evangelical Christian constituency, so he chose Mike Pence, an evangelical. And Obama selected Joe Biden, popular with white working class voters. Now Biden stands above the other would be candidates in his appeal to both white voters and to African Americans. And if he or another old timer wins the nomination, expect somebody younger and female as Vice President.

Any eventual Democratic candidate will need to recover white working voters in states that Hillary Clinton lost. This means Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Obama won two elections in which he received less than 40% of all white votes. But he managed to win easily in those three states and even in rural Iowa, a state Clinton lost by nine points. Rebuilding the coalition of a respectable percentage of white voters, most Hispanic voters, and nearly all African American voters is vital for a Democrat to take the White House. But even in the best of forecasts, the Democrats have to overcome a built in disadvantage in winning the Electoral College, which disproportionately favours smaller Republican leaning states. Clinton of course received nearly three million votes more than Trump, but managed to narrowly lose a few key industrial states and the election.

Trump enters this election year with a pretty stable low approval rating that is around 40%. Whatever you think of him, he is divisive, and it’s hard to imagine him suddenly becoming more popular. But the last time an incumbent President lost reelection was in 1992. The economy is strong. Trump has billions to spend, and he will undoubtedly get outside – and illegal – help from Russia and perhaps others. Any subtle shifts in voting groups’ preferences will be important in determining the outcome. But the overriding factor will be the Democrats’ ability to select a President and Vice President ticket that generates more enthusiasm than the one last time.


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