NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, May 20th, 2019

Candidates other than Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders vie for traction ahead of first debates

Ever since Hillary Clin­ton head­ed for the woods in the after­math of the 2016 elec­tion, the 2020 con­ver­sa­tion on cable tele­vi­sion and else­where has been dom­i­nat­ed by Joe Biden, and to a less­er extent Bernie Sanders.

These two can­di­dates rep­re­sent rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent visions of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s future, but they share one thing in com­mon; they are both aging white guys from the North­east. In oth­er words, they look almost noth­ing like the party’s most­ly young, female, high­ly racial­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly diverse base.

Being ahead in the polls has obvi­ous advan­tages, but his­to­ry shows that the ear­ly fron­trun­ners have no guar­an­tee of mak­ing it to the 2020 gen­er­al elec­tion (this isn’t a pure­ly Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non; just look at Boris Johnson’s attempts to take con­trol of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty in the Unit­ed King­dom.)

It helps to have name recog­ni­tion when start­ing out.

But name recog­ni­tion alone doesn’t decide a pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. There are oth­er cred­i­ble can­di­dates seek­ing the nom­i­na­tion.

Per­haps in recog­ni­tion of this fact, ear­ly on in the cam­paign, a great deal of media atten­tion was paid to oth­er fig­ures in the pri­ma­ry. From Jan­u­ary to March, the two indi­vid­u­als sit­ting at third and fourth place in the polling were Kamala Har­ris and Beto O’Rourke, both high-pro­file ris­ing stars with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty.

Kamala Harris speaking

Kamala Har­ris cam­paigns in Neva­da (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Kamala Har­ris is the junior sen­a­tor from Cal­i­for­nia. A child of immi­grant par­ents, she is the only female black and the only Indi­an-Amer­i­can sen­a­tor.

A vet­er­an of Cal­i­forn­ian pol­i­tics, Har­ris served as a Dis­trict Attor­ney in San Fran­cis­co, the state Attor­ney Gen­er­al, and was elect­ed to the US Sen­ate in 2016. Har­ris is the epit­o­me of a vot­er from the sol­id core of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base: female, non-white, from a coastal state, high­ly edu­cat­ed, and sup­port­ive of lib­er­al poli­cies such as Medicare for All and mar­i­jua­na legal­iza­tion.

At a glance, Beto O’Rourke is almost incom­pa­ra­ble with Har­ris: a white, male Tex­an whose rise in the Par­ty was extreme­ly rapid in com­par­i­son to Har­ris’ decades-long ascen­sion to becom­ing a house­hold name.

Beto O'Rourke speaking

Beto O’Rourke speaks at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic State Con­ven­tion in Cal­i­for­nia (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

O’Rourke’s “ris­ing star” sta­tus comes from his 2018 cam­paign to unseat the wide­ly dis­liked Ted Cruz. He ran an ener­getic cam­paign, ulti­mate­ly miss­ing his goal by a slim mar­gin. Beto’s appeal with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is root­ed in part on the strate­gies he employed in 2018: woo­ing the Lati­no vote, uti­liz­ing social media effec­tive­ly and, most of all, mobi­liz­ing armies of grass­roots vol­un­teers.

Democ­rats see these strate­gies as the key to beat­ing the cor­po­rate machine pol­i­tics of the Repub­li­cans in future elec­tions.

How­ev­er, both of these chal­lenger cam­paigns have slumped in ear­ly polls that have come back from the field since the end of March, while sup­port for Biden and Sanders has remained remark­ably con­sis­tent in that peri­od.

Their inabil­i­ty to gain trac­tion ahead of the first Demo­c­ra­t­ic debates in Mia­mi could offer insights about how the 2020 pri­maries will play out.

Both can­di­dates have been accused of lack­ing a cen­tral theme or empha­sis to their cam­paign. Har­ris has cam­paigned on issues with­out real­ly mak­ing them her own, while O’Rourke seems to be work­ing under the premise that he “was born to be in it,” while fre­quent­ly com­ing up short on actu­al pol­i­cy issues.

The can­di­date who has over­tak­en them in the polls, Eliz­a­beth War­ren, is the oppo­site of this. She has very effec­tive­ly pitched her­self as the vision­ary leader Amer­i­ca needs, impress­ing lib­er­al vot­ers even more than Bernie Sanders.

Focus­ing on the issues is prov­ing an effec­tive way to gain atten­tion. Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee only polls around 1%, but his laser-focus on address­ing cli­mate dam­age fre­quent­ly gets him admir­ing men­tions from com­men­ta­tors.

Har­ris has unfor­tu­nate­ly – like every black woman in Amer­i­can his­to­ry – had to con­tend with stereo­types. Recent­ly, sup­port­ers of Joe Biden sug­gest­ed that she would make an excel­lent vice-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date (a play Biden had already tried and failed to win over Stacey Abrams with).

As a white man, O’Rourke does not suf­fer from the stereo­types that Har­ris has to deal with; instead, he has his own prob­lems. O’Rourke’s crit­ics on the left see a cam­paign sat­u­rat­ed with priv­i­lege, espe­cial­ly after com­ments like “I was born to do this,” and fre­quent com­par­isons in the media to the Kennedy dynasty.

O’Rourke found plen­ty of sup­port from pro­gres­sive activists for his Sen­ate run. But there are those among his sup­port­ers who would pre­fer to avoid ele­vat­ing yet anoth­er rich white man to the pres­i­den­cy next year.

The 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry will like­ly be as dif­fi­cult to pre­dict as the Repub­li­can pri­ma­ry was in 2016 – indeed, with over a year until the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion in Wis­con­sin, the race remains wide open. There are clear lead­ers with respect to name recog­ni­tion, but no true fron­trun­ners. Either Har­ris or O’Rourke could con­ceiv­ably hop into the top tier by the time the vot­ing begins.

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