There is quite a bit of talk about how the 2020 Democratic nomination will be all about candidates in the mold of Bernie Sanders. The narrative goes something like this: Bernie Sanders supposedly gained momentum from his 2016 primary loss to Hillary Clinton, and his national popularity now makes him the frontrunner for 2020. This narrative has become pervasive throughout political media, but there are a few big problems with it. First, popularity polls years out from the primary contest mean virtually nothing. After all, it was only five years ago when Hillary Clinton was named the most popular politician in the United States—with 61% of Americans approving of the former Secretary of State. The next problem with the Sanders 2020 narrative is the most serious: it completely ignores Black voters and the southern states.
Black voters in the south essentially determined the outcome in the 2008 and 2016 primaries, yet political commentary about 2020 rarely mentions how this demographic will impact the race. The Democratic Party, like the country at large, is undergoing demographic shifts that leave the party less white each year. A majority of Black Americans live in the south, and that percentage is increasing as Black people move to the region from the west coast, the Midwest, and the northeast. The Democratic Party in the south is disproportionately Black, with Black voters making up a majority of the party in a number of southern states.
These voters are likely to have an outsized influence on the 2020 primary race, which means that the most successful candidates will probably have a long track record of appealing to Black voters.
The south is often discounted or ignored in political commentary on the 2020 primary. But the region has a huge number of pledged delegates. Considering that the southern states hold twice as many pledged delegates as the Midwest, and over five times as many as New England, it is interesting to think about why the region is often ignored in 2020 commentary.
In the past two Democratic Primary contests, the southern states (and Black voters in general) largely united behind a single candidate. The rebuttal to the “southern states determine the primary” argument is that 2020 will draw a large field of candidates, and a number of them will split the southern vote. In a single day primary for the entire country, this would be a possible outcome. Instead, the primary is strung out over six months, with batches of states having their primaries every few weeks. In this system, money and oversized campaigns become a major factor. Candidates who do poorly in the debates prior to the first contests will drop out before Iowa. And those that do poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire won’t make it to Nevada, due to a lack of fundraising or a campaign organization that essentially falls apart. By the time South Carolina rolls around, only two to three candidates will even be viable.
Consider the 2016 Republican Primary. Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki withdrew before the primary even began. By the time South Carolina came around on February 20th, only Trump, Cruz, and Rubio finished in double digits (34.5%, 19.3%, and 11.8%, respectively). Names like Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Jim Gilmore, Jeb Bush, and Ben Carson dropped out relatively early on. A similar dynamic will likely take place with a large Democratic field in 2020. The field might look daunting at the open debates in late 2019, but it will narrow considerably by South Carolina, the first southern state in the contest.
By then, only two to three serious candidates will be left, and if history repeats itself, Black voters will likely unite behind one of those candidates, giving that person a huge advantage in the coming Super Tuesday contests.
Although the superdelegates rule change was broadcast by pundits as a major shift in the 2020 primary, the reality is it means virtually nothing for 2020. The rule change says superdelegates can only vote on the 2nd ballot at the convention if a nominee can’t be decided on the first ballot. That was largely their intended purpose since their creation several decades ago. The real, significant rules change is the number of caucus states moving to primary contests. Colorado, Minnesota, and Idaho are all moving from caucuses to primaries. Caucuses have lower turnout and historically make it more difficult for the elderly, minorities, and the poor to vote. Primaries have higher turnout and are generally more representative of the state’s political preferences.
With the number of caucus states shrinking significantly, there is less real estate for an upstart, anti-establishment candidate to dominate a caucus contest with a small percentage of the electorate.
Candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and even Montana Governor Steve Bullock are often mentioned as tier one candidates for the 2020 Democratic Primary. Although each of their candidates has a base of support in their home region, they would all likely face tremendous difficulty in the south, especially in comparison to candidates of color like Kamala Harris or Cory Booker. It would take someone of supreme talent, and maybe even southern origin–perhaps someone like a Senator Beto O’Rourke—to successfully overcome that dynamic. Joe Biden is another reasonable possibility, as he has a friendly relationship with the Black Democratic establishment and served as Vice President to Barack Obama. Obama’s endorsement would hold tremendous influence in the 2020 nomination process, particularly in respect to Black voters, and Biden is one of the few candidates who could secure that endorsement before the primary contests end.
To win across the south, 2020 candidates will need an extensive history with Black voters, a strong relationship with the Black Democratic establishment, and an acknowledgement of Black institutions, like the Black church and HBCUs. This is where something like Sanders’ fight for superdelegate reform could come back to haunt him. Although the superdelegates rule change won’t impact the 2020 contest directly, the Sanders’ backed move angered a number of members of the Black Congressional Caucus, many of which hold tremendous sway in southern districts. Candidates who find themselves at odds with the Black establishment will only make it that much harder for themselves when they have to ask those politicians for endorsements later. 2020 might field a large number of candidates with varying ideologies and different home regions. But the fundamentals of the primary remain the same—whoever can win over the southern states will likely be the next Democratic nominee.