Opinion

The befuddling Democratic presidential race

Harris’ apparent collapse exposes the folly of the political prediction game

The apparent collapse of Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign serves as another reminder of the folly of the political prediction game, Shapiro writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Declaring that America was at an “inflection point,” Kamala Harris launched her presidential candidacy in January with a stunning 20,000-person outdoor rally in Oakland.

Reflecting the conventional wisdom at that moment, Lisa Lerer wrote for The New York Times, “There’s one thing many leading Democrats seem to agree on: Kamala Harris is a formidable contender.” And Joe Scarborough gushed in an op-ed for The Washington Post, “Kamala Harris has what it takes to fill a big political stage. … The California senator looked very much like a political contender who belongs in the big leagues.”

Nearly 10 months later, Harris’ own campaign is facing an inflection point. Short on cash and abandoning the New Hampshire primary, she claims to be more invested in Iowa than the cast of “The Music Man.”

But according to the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll, released Saturday, Harris has the support of 3 percent of likely caucusgoers, putting her on par with (gulp) Tulsi Gabbard.

My point is not to write an obituary for Harris’ 2020 presidential dreams, though prudence suggests it might be time to start collecting notes. But the California senator’s apparent collapse, combined with the complete flameout of Beto O’Rourke, serves as a reminder of the folly of the political prediction game.

Donald Trump’s nomination and election should have destroyed the belief that soothsaying works in presidential politics. Recall the smart-set TV prophets confidently declaring in 2015 that only three candidates could possibly win the 2016 GOP nomination: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or, for lovers of wild long shots, Scott Walker.

Part of the problem is that cable TV news, in particular, rewards misplaced certainty and scorns any expression of humility in the crystal ball game. Ratings are boosted by a steady diet of TV pontificators eager to answer the question “What’s going to happen?”

‘Uncharted waters’

When it comes to handicapping a presidential race as baffling as the 2020 Democratic nomination fight, the proper response is to shrug your shoulders and mutter something honest, like, “Damned if I know.”

Presidential primaries should be marked on maps as “uncharted waters” because all the contenders are from the same party. That means that voters usually have to choose among candidates with roughly the same worldview. For all the overdramatization of differing Democratic approaches to health care, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have far more in common with each other than they do with any Republican.

[Some Democrats see political system overhaul as winning 2020 issue]

Historical analogies (beloved by political reporters like me) also offer limited guidance. Since MSNBC went on the air in 1996, there have been just four Democratic presidential nomination fights before this campaign cycle. And if relevant history began with the rise of Twitter, then we are really only talking about the Hillary-versus-Bernie 2016 race.

Even though it existed in the blissful world before social media, the nine-candidate 2004 Democratic presidential primary fight probably offers the closest contemporary parallels.

With George W. Bush in the White House and the Iraq War raging, the 2004 Democrats were animated by their scorn for an incumbent Republican president. (Sound familiar?) Unlike 2008, which was dominated by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, there were no superstar candidates on the ballot in 2004. Howard Dean (originating the role now played by Pete Buttigieg) was the surprise fresh face, roaring from obscurity as a little-known governor of Vermont to near the top of the national polls.

The enduring lesson from 2004 is that the best way to win the Iowa caucuses is to get hot at the very end.

Six weeks before the 2004 caucuses, a Pew Research poll gave John Kerry and John Edwards a combined 23 percent support among Iowa Democrats. But then Dean and Dick Gephardt began running attack ads against each other, and the beneficiaries were Kerry and Edwards, the other two leading candidates contesting Iowa. Kerry (38 percent) ended up winning the caucuses, with Edwards (32 percent) a close second.

A different era

But the 2004 storyline can only be stretched so far. Edwards’ Iowa surge was powered by a surprise endorsement from The Des Moines Register in an era when newspapers still had clout. Kerry was saved by taking out a $5 million loan against a Boston town house that he jointly owned with his wife, Teresa Heinz. These days, with Tom Steyer in the race and Michael Bloomberg on the cusp, $5 million is the equivalent of a child’s piggy bank.

Impeachment alone should daunt even the most arrogant political prognosticator.

The date and pace of a Trump trial will dictate whether the six senators still in the Democratic race will be spending late January in Iowa or sitting mute as jurors on the Senate floor. Would such a scenario give a major advantage to Biden and Buttigieg, who would be free to campaign nonstop? Or would any candidate not in Washington seem irrelevant with Democrats riveted by the developing case against Trump?

Then there is the Bloomberg factor.

Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman (who both led national polls in 2003) tried skipping Iowa in 2004, only to see their support levels collapse in New Hampshire. Bloomberg, who did not even file for the New Hampshire primary, apparently intends to avoid all the early contests, banking everything on a massive $100-million-plus ad campaign in the 14 Super Tuesday states (including California and Texas) with March 3 primaries.

The historical evidence suggests that Bloomberg will soon learn “Money can’t buy me love.” But, like so much in campaign 2020, that is a guess rather than a certainty.

I keep flashing back to a flailing John Kerry campaigning in unheated New Hampshire firehouses in mid-December 2003 because the firefighters’ union was about all he had going for him. Six weeks later, after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, Kerry was on a glide path to the nomination.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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