It’s a familiar plotline. An interloper runs for a party’s presidential nomination and, with an anti-insider pitch, scores wins and near-wins in the first contests with vote pluralities.
His numerous opponents, fearful of antagonizing his enthusiastic supporters, launch attacks on one another that, predictably, hurt the attacker as well as the target.
Party establishment types, convinced the interloper is a sure loser in November, dither and tilt things mildly against him while trying to maintain the impression of fairness.
Candidates with no chance remain in the race, dividing the anti-interloper vote, hoping the interloper will collapse. But he doesn’t, and even starts winning absolute majorities in late contests.
That’s how Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, and so far, it’s consistent with how Bernie Sanders is doing in this year’s Democratic race.
Remember that Trump lost the Iowa caucuses to Ted Cruz, and that 65% of New Hampshire Republicans voted for somebody else. Sanders’ performance so far is comparable: He had a lead in first- and second-round popular votes in Iowa, though he lost SDEs (state convention delegate equivalents) to Pete Buttigieg for a total of 564-562; and he won 26% to 24% over Buttigieg in New Hampshire.
The animus of the party establishment is even clearer than in 2016 — with Iowa Democrats’ bolloxing of the vote count and the repeated anti-Bernie bias of MSNBC and CNN. Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and Fox News handled Trump more gingerly four years ago.
Sanders looks hard-pressed to grow his core constituency (under-35s) as Trump did his (non-college grads) at this point four years ago, though in time, Trump’s ceiling grew higher.
Sanders repels the highest-income Democrats, for obvious reasons. He got only 16% in affluent Bedford and Windham, two of the three New Hampshire towns he lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the vote there — and likely in the affluent precincts of contests to come — was split between Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, each of whom has constituency problems.
Buttigieg gets just about zero support from black voters, who cast more than 20% of Democratic ballots nationally and a majority in South Carolina. Many Democratic voters’ sense of moral superiority derives from Democrats’ near-unanimous support from blacks as well as the charge, based on thin to zero evidence, of Republicans’ and Trump’s racism. Buttigieg puts that at risk.
As for Klobuchar, she has little history with black and Hispanic voters, and her surges in Iowa and New Hampshire were powered by white college graduates, who have been notoriously changeable in their preferences so far. And she doesn’t have nearly the money Buttigieg has raised, much less the billions — that’s not a misprint — Michael Bloomberg can spend.
Those problems are nothing compared to those of Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, who finished with single digits in New Hampshire and lost two-thirds of their peak support in polls. But why should they drop out before Super Tuesday, March 3, when 39% of delegate votes will be determined?
One possibly salient difference between the 2016 Republican race and the 2020 Democratic contest so far is turnout. With Donald Trump as a box office draw, in 2016, Republican primary and caucus turnout was up 44% from its previous peak nationally, up 54% in Iowa and up 15% in New Hampshire.
There was a similar upsurge of Democratic turnout in 2008, but not in 2016 and not so far this year. Democrats’ Iowa turnout was up only 3% from 2016 and down 27% from 2008. Democratic turnout in New Hampshire was up 8% from 2016 and up 1% from 2008.
The 2008 turnout numbers nationally and in the opening states showed the Democrats’ huge enthusiasm edge, which was evident in November. 2016 turnout showed Democratic enthusiasm flagging and Republican enthusiasm about equal, foreshadowing November.
The 2020 Iowa and New Hampshire turnout is far below widespread expectations. My theory to explain this apparent disillusion: Democrats are still in shock over the collapse of the Russia-collusion meme. They fully expected to savor Donald Trump being frog-marched out of the White House. And now many of them have less appetite for politics — MSNBC and CNN ratings are down — when it seems he might just get re-elected.
Of course the 2016 Republican plotline may not be replicated by the 2020 Democrats. Bernie could stumble. Pete or Amy could soar. Bloomberg, unorthodox both in party affiliation and on policy (see his abject apologies for his successful stop and frisk policy), could spend his way to the nomination of a party that bemoans the role of money in politics. Maybe it takes one interloper to beat another.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.