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March 7th, 2019

Why the 2020 Democratic nomination may come down to a contest between Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

March 7th, 2019

Why the 2020 Democratic nomination may come down to a contest between Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In his second article on the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, David Wise outlines, based on history and recent party dynamics, how the contest may unfold. He writes that given the party’s seeming desire for a younger more diverse candidate, California Senator Kamala Harris is likely to be the candidate of the Establishment wing. Harris, he writes, in turn may find herself facing down ‘Heartland’ candidate, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar following the Iowa caucuses. Read the first article in this series here.           

The 2020 primary battle will be decided ultimately by the voters who make up the electorate of the Democratic Party.  In looking at the results of the 2016 general election the most loyal voters were women, people of color, particularly African American women, and younger, more educated voters.  The 2018 mid-terms saw more women candidates and more women elected than ever before. In the 116th Congress there are a record 127 women in the House (106 Democrats) and 25 in the Senate (18 Democrats) There are now nine women governors, six of whom are Democrats.  In 2018 five of these governors were elected to their first terms, of which four were Democrats.  The ascendance of strong women in leadership, most notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is a big factor going into 2020.  The backdrop of the #MeToo movement is also important.  In addition, in 2020 the largest voting bloc, for the first time, will be Millennials, the group that voted for the Democrats more heavily by percentage than any age group in 2016, a number that almost certainly been higher had Bernie Sanders been the Democratic nominee.  It is against this backdrop that the 2020 election will take place. 

Big names, early exits? (red) 

The three candidates with the greatest name recognition and therefore leading the early poll numbers are former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who would be 79, 80 and 72 respectively in their first year in office were they to win the election.  After an election in 2016 with the two oldest nominees in history and with a shift to Millennials as the largest voting block many will find wisdom in Howard Dean’s exhortation that the time has come for the Baby Boomers to get off the stage. Then there is the recent poll that showed across all demographics the favorite Democratic candidate in 2020 is “someone entirely new.”

There are other problems as well.  In the #MeToo era Joe Biden’s reputation for getting top physically close to women in public settings and as his treatment Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings will get attention.  In addition, Biden’s leading role in promoting the 1994 crime bill which contributed to mass incarnation might erode his current support by African Americans Then too, Biden’s promotion of the interests of credit card issuers in legislation that made it harder for some who faced high debts and that restricted Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection for credit card holders will undercut his image as a champion of the little guy.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the 2016 primaries was truly memorable, but as Alice Longworth Roosevelt said of a Thomas Dewey, “you can’t cause a souffle to rise twice.”  Although Sanders has more than anyone else affected the direction of Democratic Party policies, his time as candidate has probably passed.  In a similar way, although Elizabeth Warren has championed many causes dear to the hearts of the Democratic Party faithful, her relatively high unfavourability polling does not bode well for the long haul.  Warren would not play well in a general election campaign and her Native American DNA gaffe and recent “beer” video shows that her political instincts are often tone deaf.

It is very risky to go so far out on a limb, given not one but three early frontrunners, but my analysis assumes that for one reason or another none of these three candidates go the distance in 2020.

Two double threats (blue) 

Two fresh faces on the national scene are shown in Table 1 from my last piece in two different columns.  First term California Senator Kamala Harris is shown in both the Obama track and what we might call the Clinton track of the Establishment wing.  Like Obama in 2008, Harris is a highly articulate African-American with parents who are diverse in terms of ethnicity. Like Obama, Harris served just two years in Senate after stints in state government before deciding she should be elected president.  On the other hand, Harris comes off as a highly disciplined, aggressive and seasoned campaigner with the aura of a potential winner and this attractive to big donors.  As a Californian, Harris also comes onto the stage as a member of the party’s coastal elite.

Beto O’Rourke was, an unknown Congressman from Texas until his campaign caught fire and raised visions of an upset against the despised Republican incumbent Senator Ted Cruz.  The youthful O’Rourke (he was 42 days old when Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972) became an overnight sensation for progressives seeking to turn Texas blue. The problem for O’Rourke upon closer examination is that his Congressional record is not as progressive as assumed and there are other progressive candidates who are better qualified as keepers of the faith.  On the other hand, there have been some discussions between former President Obama and O’Rourke so it is possible that O’Rourke might pursue the Obama track.  There are some problems with that strategy.  First, despite his popularity, Obama was ineffective as president in building the national party and has not had great success as an endorsement kingmaker. Second, O’Rourke would not be likely to put together the Obama coalition in the same manner. Whether O’Rourke can keep the excitement and promise alive or whether he becomes the “flavor of the month” remains to be seen.

The Establishment 

The Establishment wing has produced the most nominees in recent history.  That is why it is called the Establishment.  Unsurprisingly it has the largest number of potential candidates with Biden standing out ahead of the crowd, at least for the moment.  Should my analysis above be correct, that will not last once the campaign heats up.  In 2020 the party will be looking for someone who is more in line with the younger, newer and more female face of the party who will also appeal to the core African American vote.  Two Senators have made early announcements in pursuit of this space. Kirsten Gillibrand replaced Hillary Clinton in the Senate but is unlikely to replace her as the nominee.  New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has been quite outspoken, but it is unclear that he has a committed constituency other than himself.

Then there is Kamala Harris who is listed above as pursuing the “Obama track” but who could become “the” preferred choice of the party’s large donors and party insiders if her candidacy catches fire.  She has star quality and the kind of drive that it takes to weather the pressures of a grueling campaign. On one hand she will be attacked as a female version of Obama, inexperienced and too impatient to announce.  On the other hand, she might also be attacked as a Hillary of color, too calculating and contrived.  And there are also other issues she will have to surmount.  Despite her attempt to spin it, her record as a prosecutor will be attacked as anything but progressive.  Her failure to prosecute current US Treasury Secretary and former One West CEO Steve Mnuchin for fraud will trouble the progressives as being too cozy with the financier class.  Finally, her relationship with former California Speaker Willie Brown while he was married and who appointed her to several important position may cause some voters concern. No candidate is ever perfect and the karma for Harris, absent any more surprises, still makes her the most likely ultimate candidate of the Establishment wing.

The Progressives 

The Progressives approach 2020 with two of the three big name candidates.  Despite the headlines and early polling, it is very likely that these two candidates will run out of steam.  If that happens, early the most likely beneficiary would be two term US Senator Sherrod BrownBrown has been one of the most consistent and outspoken progressive members of the Senate.  Although not an exciting and charismatic personality, he has managed to win two elections to the Senate in red-leaning Ohio, a state that Republicans must win in order to amass the required number of Electoral votes.  On the flip side, however, would be the fact that if the Democrats manage to gain control of the Senate in 2020 it will be by a thin margin.  Were Brown elected president, his vacancy would be filled by the governor of Ohio, who is a Republican.


Over the past two decades the United States has become increasingly polarized along ideological and class lines, a condition exacerbated by the deep divisiveness of the current incumbent.  The appeal of the Midland candidate is that they offer a, plainspoken approach from the heartland of America in stark contrast to the perceived disinterest in ordinary Americans by the coastal elites. The Midland candidates are more moderate than the more leftwards leaving progressives and therefor able to attract independent and a more moderate Republicans in a general election as exemplified by Governor Steve Bullock who has won four state-wide races (attorney general then as governor) in deeply red Montana, a state that Trump carried by 21 percent. The fact that the extremely popular Iowa Attorney General, Tom Miller, who was the Iowa Sherpa for Obama in 2008 has been squiring Bullock around on his trips to the state make it impossible to ignore him in this the Iowa caucus.  If there is a sleeper in 2020, it is Bullock.

One of the most notable of these candidates in the mild-mannered small businessman and former governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper of Colorado.  So, centrist is Hickenlooper that there were early rumors that he planned to run for vice president on a “national unity” ticket with former Ohio governor John Kasich. The name he has chosen for his PAC (“Giddy Up”) was not an auspicious way to start.

The Midland candidate evokes the image of Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in his defense of public lands (a cause dear to Bullock) and in condemnation of corruption in the Senate (Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado).  In the end, however, all these very genuine and attractive possibilities will have to come to terms with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota who, although in office in Washington, also conveys a folksy Midwestern image.  It also does not hurt at all that her name has been getting “mentioned” and she has been popping up for interviews in the liberal media.  Since the Midland candidate generally has neither the donor base of the Establishment, nor the army of Progressive faithful it is essential for any candidate coming out of this direction to score big in Iowa. The Iowa caucus is not only the first contest in 2020 but the state is agricultural and exudes “Midwestern values”.  It is, in other words, ideally suited to a Midland candidate. The fact that Klobuchar hails from a state that borders and is very similar to Iowa gives her somewhat of a “home field” advantage.”

The Dénouement 

I am not going to make a prediction about who will be the Democrats’ nominee next year; but I am laying out a framework for analysis for thinking through how the party’s nominating process is set to play out in 2020. There are too many variables, too many unknowns and too much time to make ahead to make firm predictions.  If one were making a bet today though, it would-be obvious to pick the Establishment candidate with the greatest name recognition, former Vice President Joe Biden.  As is clear from my analysis, however, that is not how the landscape appears based on history and judgments on party dynamics.

Since 1988 when South Carolina instituted a Democratic presidential primary the candidate winning at least two of the three contests (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina) has always won the nomination.  Two times there was a three-way split with the winner of at least one of the two primaries (New Hampshire, South Carolina) going on to win the nomination.  No candidate has ever won two of these three contests and lost the nomination.  Since the post-McGovern-Fraser Commission created the current hodgepodge of caucuses and primaries a candidate either from one of these three states or a state that abuts them has won eleven out of eleven of these contests.  Another major factor in 2020, as noted in my last article, is that Super Tuesday in the first week of March will this year include California.  This is the stage on which the first acts, and likely last act, of the 2020 nomination will play out.

If Amy Klobuchar is able to mount a serious campaign, as the Midland candidate from neighboring Minnesota, she could well be the winner in Iowa.  In New Hampshire, if both remain in the race, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both from states that border New Hampshire and both splitting the progressive base might fail to place first and, at a minimum, one of the two would probably have their chances at the nomination eliminated.  If the progressive vote gets split two or three ways, then the winner in the New Hampshire would likely be someone else.  If Klobuchar carries momentum into this primary and win, she would become quite formidable down the stretch.

It is also possible the Establishment candidate, presumably by this time Kamala Harris, could focus on New Hampshire and take the top with a very well-funded, well-organized campaign.  If Harris takes New Hampshire, then South Carolina becomes the pivotal state.  Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire that are northern states with a few minorities, South Carolina is in the Deep South and has a Democratic primary electorate that is heavily African-American.  If Harris wins New Hampshire and South Carolina she would head into Super Tuesday in which a big win would be decisive.  If Klobuchar or one of the progressives wins New Hampshire and Harris wins only in South Carolina she would still go into the California-supercharged Super Tuesday with a very strong hand

In 2016, 2018 and into 2020, the progressives have captured the policy agenda and will write the party platform, but they likely will not win the nomination. The Establishment and Midland candidates will co-opt the progressive message.  It seems like likely that two women, Klobuchar and Harris may be the last two standing, but it is Kamala Harris’ nomination to lose.  Will she?

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author  

David W. Wise
David W. Wise is a frequent commentator on foreign, national security and public policy. He was elected as a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention, at age 19, and was elected again in 1976. In 1980 he served on the convention’s Credentials Committee. He holds a graduate degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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Posted In: David Wise | Elections and party politics across the US

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