The campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is radically unsettled because the party’s primary voters are in a deeply uncertain mood. They try on candidates, find them wanting, and move on to someone else.
Further confusing the contest is the success of two candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in maintaining bases of support large enough to block the way of other contenders.
The loyalty of Biden’s enthusiasts among older voters, particularly African Americans and more moderate whites, has made it very difficult for Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., among others, to break through. Both the Booker and Harris campaigns seem in jeopardy.
And to have any chance, the latest entrants, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, need Biden’s candidacy to collapse. Given the remarkable stability of Biden’s support after an initial drop in the summer, this opening may never come.
In the meantime, Sanders’ loyalists on the party’s left have prevented Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., from consolidating the party’s progressive wing.
As a result, the roughly 40% of the party that supports either Biden or Sanders is, for the moment, largely out of the reach of other contenders. The remaining 60% floats around in search of an alternative.
This dynamic has led to the latest twists in the campaign: Warren, after soaring to the top of the pack, has fallen back, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has emerged as a major figure in the contest.
The findings of two recent Quinnipiac Polls underscored the volatility of the contest among those voters not committed to either Biden or Sanders. In an October poll, Warren led the field with 28%, with Biden at 21%, Sanders at 15% and Buttigieg at 10%. The latest survey showed Biden back on top with 24%, Buttigieg at 16%, Warren at 14% and Sanders at 13%.
The relative stability of the Biden and Sanders numbers pointed to another key finding in the November survey: Overall, only 33% of the Democrats surveyed said they had made up their minds. But 43% of Biden supporters and 49% of Sanders supporters expressed this degree of certainty; by contrast, only 29% of Warren backers and 25% of Buttigieg’s said they had made up their minds.
The survey did contain two pieces of good news for Warren, signs of her residual strength. She still ranks first as the candidate with the best policy ideas. And she was by far the leading second choice, picked as the alternative by 35% of Sanders’ supporters, 43% of Buttigieg’s and 19% of Biden’s.
This could provide the basis for a comeback. But the news for now is of how a candidate who seemed briefly on the verge of dominating the contest was pulled down by the sustained attacks of her opponents, wonks and pundits.
The proximate cause of her decline was her struggle over a single-payer health plan. She endorsed it after showing an initial reluctance. Then she detailed a plan for how she would pay for it, to mixed reviews. Then she pulled back by saying she wouldn’t introduce a “Medicare for All” plan until her third year in office.
But the fact that Warren appears, for now at least, to have shed so much support so quickly is a measure of the unstable terrain in which candidates other than Biden and Sanders are trying to root their candidacies.
It will now be Buttigieg’s turn to try to transform a surge of positive feeling into enduring support. He has, polls suggest, begun to break through with one group that had eluded him: whites without college degrees. But he is still being virtually shut out among African Americans, the most loyal component of the Democratic coalition.
Whatever they disagree on, Democratic primary voters are united by their passion to defeat Donald Trump. The indecision in their ranks reflects their difficulty in deciding who among their current choices can get that job done.
E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.