2020’s Calm Before the Storm

The Democratic race has settled into a state of stability: Joe Biden as the front-runner, with everyone else figuring out how and when to try and catch him.

By David Catanese, Senior Politics Writer ?May 24, 2019
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By David Catanese, Senior Politics Writer ?May 24, 2019, at 2:43 p.m.

2020’s Calm Before the Storm

The Associated Press

With a month still to go month before the first debate, no rival candidate has made an explicit case against Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential front-runner.The Associated Press

The Democratic race for the ticket to take on President Donald Trump is idling into the Memorial Day holiday in a state of stasis.

The two dozen candidates are regularly dropping policy proposals, popping up in televised town halls and mining social media channels for that elusive viral moment. But the broad contours of the primary campaign toward the end of May are remarkably close to what they were when the year began.

Joe Biden is not only the undisputed front-runner, he's acting like one. A month into his third quest for the presidency, the former vice president spent the week holding a trio of closed fundraisers in Tennessee and Florida without a single public event, even as requests for his presence pile up.

It's a defiantly traditional way to run, and one that exudes his team's confidence in his initial standing. There's less need for incessant Instagram postings or appearances on "Morning Joe" when you're universally known and winning comfortably. Biden's national lead was measured at 18, 19 and 20 points in three separate polls this week. A fresh survey of the New Hampshire primary found him pacing ahead of the field by a gaping 21 points, which very well could be an outlier.

Nevertheless, the underlying numbers are pointing his way, too: Democrats are prioritizing the ability to win over all else and an overwhelming majority are fine with nominating another white man, regardless of the palpable cravings for a female or a person of color from elites.

"Idealism is giving way to, 'We've got to get Trump out.' If they don't have five horns growing out of their head, it's, 'I think we can work with them,'" says Minyon Moore, a former top adviser to Hillary Clinton. "People say about Joe Biden it's all about name ID. It's a little bit more than that. He's got texture, he's got value, he's got grit. He's got something more that people want to hold onto."

Despite months of hand-wringing from Democrats and media types about his reluctance to make it official, Biden's delayed entrance now looks prudently wise. Tighten the window of the race, slow down the pace of the game and force your opponents to recalibrate: It's what he's done successfully so far.

The assumption of Biden's rivals, of course, is that he is just another temporary front-runner who has only one place to go.

"The front-runner tends to drift downward. Most times they go down, sometimes they hold on," says an adviser to Biden's most pronounced opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Team Sanders and other Democratic campaigns hold roughly the same view of Biden's standing. They point to the vulnerabilities of a 40-year career and see a lumbering anchor on his back. Trade, the Iraq War, the crime bill, the bankruptcy law, Anita Hill. Taken together, the record will be too much for this new Democratic Party to swallow, no matter how much they're fond of good ol' Uncle Joe. So goes the theory for how Biden tumbles over time.

But at the moment, the waters are calm. No candidate is daring to make the explicit, concerted case against Biden. Sanders launched a few opening salvos after Biden's immediate entrance – and on Friday, Sanders' campaign manager Faiz Shakir sent an email to supporters decrying Biden's "high dollar" fundraising events attended by "corporate lobbyists." But rival campaigns see no need to rush to the punch, given there's still a full month until the first debate and eight months until Iowa votes.

It's so very early, wails everyone not working for Biden – which is true, to a point. But four months of a campaign has been had, and most candidates are around where they started.

Even the surprise star of 2019 – South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg – has come back down to earth after a boomlet. Buttigieg has proven himself to be smart, steady, likeable and accessible on the trail. But while the media adoration around the 37-year-old remains sky-high, his polling numbers have grounded in single digits.

May has been the best polling month for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has been creeping up on the heels of her friend-turned-rival, Sanders. Given their alignment on populist, progressive politics, it's difficult to imagine them turning on each other. But each might be inhibiting the other's ability to coalesce liberal support necessary to pose a bonafide threat to Biden.

"I think Bernie still has a head start in the left lane and it'll be hard for Elizabeth Warren to overtake him. But not impossible." says Bill Press, a liberal talk show host who consulted with Sanders on his 2016 campaign.

After a sterling liftoff in January, Sen. Kamala Harris of California is also suffering from a streak of stagnation. An early truth that's held in this primary campaign is that the candidates doing the best are those who know exactly how they want to run, critics be damned.

Biden is just fine being the safe establishment favorite who can defeat Trump. Sanders is the progressive revolutionary not willing to settle for tepid incrementalism. Warren is the policy nerd, arguing for structural economic change in drowning detail. Buttigieg is the bright new future-forward thing.

Harris has fallen victim to not yet effectively branding herself beyond personal charisma and an attractive biography. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who dated Harris in the '90s, penned a recent column describing her campaign as "wobbling" and her staff as "too touchy" to a routine question about serving as a running mate.

But Harris' more abiding problem is wrestling with her record as a prosecutor. She's struggling with how to wield her work as an advantage as her party shifts away from tough-on-crime tactics and views law enforcement warily. "The Unknowable Kamala Harris" is the headline of a comprehensive look at her prosecutorial record in The California Sunday Magazine, which concludes that her rhetoric does not always match her actions.

Competing ideological pressures have made Harris especially cautious and mindfully careful, even when it comes to the most frivolous questions. Just this week, Politifact rated her call for independent investigations of police shootings a "full flop" after opposing them as recently as 2014.

"She's had some stops and starts with the town halls, but she still commands the eyeballs. People are very curious about her," says Moore, who thinks Harris is swimming against the same current most other contenders are. "People get very interested in you and the next thing you know somebody else comes out of the gate and you switch your attention to them … While people like to say, maybe she's not as high-profile as she was, she is growing steadily. … I'm not worried about her numbers not soaring."

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Beto O'Rourke has similarly suffered through the gauntlet of raised expectations. At the start of the year, some Sanders advisers worried he could morph into the younger, more attractive Bernie. Now they think he missed his moment by waiting so long and then launching without a fully fledged organization and clear rationale to run, besides being "born to be in it."

Like Harris, O'Rourke's biographical profile looks enticing. But his opening months on the trail have been defined by apology and regret – for being white, for making jokes about his wife, for appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair.

"I have my work cut out for me to be a better person," a downbeat O'Rourke told "The View" earlier this month.

Perhaps conjuring up the old Beto would do him better. A December poll of Iowans had his support in double-digits. The most recent caucus survey found that support cut in half.

There are 18 other candidates not named in this article, and that's a contributing reason for the primary's current calm equilibrium. The options are almost too vast for even the most-engaged voters to sort through and properly distinguish, especially if you're a white male, which currently number at 13.

Four of the 24 candidates won't make the debates, per the criteria set out by the Democratic National Committee, which is limiting participants to 10 per stage on two consecutive nights. A Monmouth University national poll this week showed 11 candidates polling under 1 percent.

It's still early in the 2020 campaign – but not to qualify for the debates. That deadline arrives in just three weeks, so count this holiday period as the calm before the storm.

David Catanese, Senior Politics Writer

David Catanese is senior politics writer for U.S. News & World Report and founder of the blog T...? Read more

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