Beware Arrogant Candidates Who Can’t Win But Will Split the Vote

by Benjamin Studebaker

As I look at the 2020 Democratic primary field, I’m reminded of the 2017 French presidential election. Do you remember? In the first round, the Left Party’s candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, got 19.6% of the vote, failing to secure the 21.3% he needed to beat Marine Le Pen and advance to the second round. Mélenchon just narrowly missed the boat because he didn’t command the whole left block. 6.4% of French voters instead picked the Socialist Party’s candidate, Benoît Hamon. A further 1.7% of French voters chose the candidates of the Communist Union or New Anticapitalist Party. The left could have commanded as much as 27.7%. It only needed about a fifth of these additional left-leaning voters to slip past Le Pen. But these left wing candidates refused to drop out of the race, and the result was a depressing second round, in which the only alternative to France’s status quo was right nationalism. So when I look at the Democratic Party’s field, I ask myself–who is the Mélenchon, and who are the Hamons?

In the new Morning Consult, there are only two Democrats who poll over 10% with registered voters:

The people who support Joe Biden don’t support Biden because they think he’s the most progressive or left-wing candidate in the race. They support Biden because he was Barack Obama’s Vice President. Biden voters are nostalgic for the old Democratic Party–they aren’t excited about the new one. They don’t know or don’t care about the role Biden played in opposing busing to desegregate schools, his support for military interventions abroad, his tough-on-crime posturing, or his close relationships with the financial and corporate interest groups that have commandeered the Democratic Party over the past 40 years. What they do know is that Barack Obama picked Joe Biden, and if Obama could pick Biden they’ll happily pick him too.

Biden is the candidate of the Obama die-hards, and there are a significant number of them. These people are still unable to recognise that for many Americans, the Obama years were not good years. During the last six years of Obama’s presidency, job growth was concentrated in cities, with most rural counties seeing no growth or even job losses:

2018.01.23_Map1_Nat employment growth

It shouldn’t surprise us that the counties where jobs disappeared are the counties where Donald Trump flourished. Professionals living in big cities miss Obama. But if you were left out of the rain, Obama nostalgia doesn’t cut the mustard. Delivering real economic change for the people in the orange counties requires a bolder economic strategy than the kind Obama offered. If we want to help the people in these places have good, stable lives, we need to beat Joe Biden. But this won’t be enough–even if we can bring down Biden, we can expect these establishment voters to migrate to other candidates who promise milquetoast solutions. Someone like John Kerry–Obama’s Secretary of State–could be the inheritor of Obama nostalgia, if Biden were to flame out early. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris appeal to Obama’s professional, coastal, urban audience, and they have good relationships with the banks. Obama nostalgia is a hydra. Slay one head, and more appear.

So who doesn’t have good relationships with the banks? In recent weeks, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have tried to differentiate themselves from the pack by proposing a mix of wealth and estate taxes on millionaires and billionaires. Anyone can claim they support Medicare For All. Harris for instance claims she supports it while also supporting multiple other contradictory pieces of healthcare legislation:

For years, Republican candidates told their primary voters they were for repealing and replacing Obamacare, and then, once in power, they reneged on their commitments and betrayed their supporters. We can expect the same thing on healthcare from many of these Democrats. Strong progressive tax proposals, on the other hand, terrify and upset rich people and make those rich people much less likely to donate to your campaign. Candidates who take tough stances on the billionaires are taking real political risks in the primary–they are asking the donors to donate elsewhere.

But I have some bad news. Even if you put Sanders’ and Warren’s vote shares together, Biden still has more. If we’re going to assemble a left-wing coalition that can overcome the centrists, we cannot afford to split the vote. We cannot run both Mélenchon and Hamon. We have to make a choice. Elizabeth Warren made her presidential intentions clear more than a month ago. Bernie Sanders’ announcement, though long-rumoured, hasn’t even happened yet. And still, Sanders has more than 3 times Warren’s support.

We can look at various different demographics. It makes no difference.

Among Democratic leaners: Sanders has 15%, Warren has 6%. Good luck in closed primaries.

Among Millennials: Sanders has 19%, Warren has 3%. Good luck finding young people to work for you.

Among voters earning less than $50k: Sanders has 15%, Warren has 3%. Good luck with ordinary folks.

Among African-American voters: Sanders has 12%, Warren has 0%. Good luck in the South.

Despite this, I still see so many left-wing and progressive voters acting as if it’s no big deal that Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and other such people have chosen to run. These people pose an existential threat to the left’s ability to defeat the Biden voters. Mélenchon needed just a couple points. Sanders could easily end up in the same situation, with the Warren voters being the difference between Trump vs Sanders and Trump vs Biden, or Kerry, or Harris.

I’ve made the case before that Warren isn’t that left-wing. But even if you think she is, her candidacy is a problem. Her favorability net rating–the difference between the number of people who say they like her and the number who say they dislike her–is remarkably poor:

She is a weak candidate. She can’t win. Some on the left are excited that a number of inequality scholars–including Thomas Piketty–have had good things to say about Warren. But Piketty was a strong supporter of Hamon, too. He has really struggled to find strong political vehicles for his economic agenda, and the left in France has paid the price. Let’s not pay it again. We need to send a message to Warren that when Sanders gets into the race, she needs to get out of it. If she stays in despite continued poor poll performance, we’ll know that she doesn’t intend to help the left win the presidency–she’s there to siphon votes away from competitive candidates and weaken our position.

The same goes for Tulsi Gabbard, or for any other candidates who proclaim progressive credentials but poll in the single digits. If they really want to help us win, they’ll help Sanders. If they won’t help Sanders, they are there to help themselves.