Why Dems can’t make up their minds

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - EJ Dionne E.J. Dionne is on Twit­ter: @ EJDionne.

The cam­paign for the 2020 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion is radically un­set­tled be­cause the party’s pri­mary vot­ers are in a deeply un­cer­tain mood. They try on can­di­dates, find them want­ing, and move on to some­one else.

Fur­ther con­fus­ing the con­test is the suc­cess of two can­di­dates, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and Sen. Bernie San­ders, I-Vt., in main­tain­ing bases of sup­port large enough to block the way of other con­tenders.

The loy­alty of Bi­den’s en­thu­si­asts among older vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly African Amer­i­cans and more mod­er­ate whites, has made it very dif­fi­cult for Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ka­mala Har­ris, D-Calif., among oth­ers, to break through. Both the Booker and Har­ris cam­paigns now seem in jeop­ardy.

And to have any chance, the lat­est en­trants, for­mer New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and for­mer Mas­sachusetts Gov­er­nor De­val Pa­trick, need Bi­den’s can­di­dacy to col­lapse. Given the re­mark­able sta­bil­ity of Bi­den’s sup­port af­ter an ini­tial drop in the sum­mer, this open­ing may never come.

In the mean­time, San­ders’ loy­al­ists on the party’s left have pre­vented Sen. El­iz­a­beth Warren, D-Mass., from con­sol­i­dat­ing the party’s pro­gres­sive wing.

As a re­sult, the roughly 40% of the party that sup­ports ei­ther Bi­den or San­ders is, for the mo­ment, largely out of the reach of other con­tenders. The re­main­ing 60% floats around in search of an al­ter­na­tive.

This dy­namic has led to the lat­est twists in the cam­paign: Warren, af­ter soar­ing to the top of the pack, has fallen back, and South Bend Mayor Pete But­tigieg has emerged as a ma­jor fig­ure in the con­test.

The find­ings of two Quin­nip­iac Polls, one re­leased last week, the other in late Oc­to­ber, un­der­scored the volatil­ity of the con­test among those vot­ers not com­mit­ted to ei­ther Bi­den or San­ders.

In the Oc­to­ber poll, Warren led the field with 28%, with Bi­den at 21%, San­ders at 15% and But­tigieg at 10%.

The lat­est sur­vey showed Bi­den back on top with 24%, But­tigieg at 16%, Warren at 14% and San­ders at 13%.

The rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity of the Bi­den and San­ders num­bers pointed to an­other key find­ing in the Novem­ber sur­vey: Over­all, only 33% of the Democrats sur­veyed said they had made up their minds. But 43% of Bi­den sup­port­ers and 49% of San­ders sup­port­ers ex­pressed this de­gree of cer­tainty; by con­trast, only 29% of Warren back­ers and 25% of But­tigieg’s said they had made up their minds.

The sur­vey did con­tain two pieces of good news for Warren, signs of her resid­ual strength. She still ranks first as the can­di­date with the best pol­icy ideas. And she was by far the lead­ing sec­ond choice, picked as the al­ter­na­tive by 35% of San­ders’ sup­port­ers, 43% of But­tigieg’s and 19% of Bi­den’s.

This could pro­vide the ba­sis for a come­back. But the news for now is of how a can­di­date who seemed briefly on the verge of dom­i­nat­ing the con­test (with leads na­tion­ally and in both Iowa and New Hamp­shire, which vote first) was pulled down by the sus­tained at­tacks of her op­po­nents, wonks, and pun­dits.

The prox­i­mate cause of her de­cline was her strug­gle over a sin­gle payer health plan. She en­dorsed it af­ter show­ing an ini­tial re­luc­tance. Then she de­tailed a plan for how she would pay for it, to mixed reviews. Then she pulled back by say­ing she wouldn’t in­tro­duce a “Medi­care for All” plan un­til her third year in of­fice.

The saga was a les­son in how com­pli­cated de­fend­ing sin­gle payer would be in a gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign. But the fact that Warren ap­pears, for now at least, to have shed so much sup­port so quickly is a mea­sure of the un­sta­ble ter­rain in which can­di­dates other than Bi­den and San­ders are try­ing to root their can­di­da­cies.

It will now be But­tigieg’s turn to try to trans­form a surge of pos­i­tive feel­ing into en­dur­ing sup­port. He has, polls sug­gest, be­gun to break through with one group that had eluded him: whites with­out col­lege de­grees. But he is still be­ing vir­tu­ally shut out among African Amer­i­cans, the most loyal com­po­nent of the Demo­cratic coali­tion.

It is a But­tigieg strength that he is a fresh and in­tel­li­gent voice well-re­moved from past Demo­cratic fights. But this leaves him with­out a his­tory that sus­tains old loy­al­ties of the sort that have ben­e­fited Bi­den and San­ders, can­di­dates twice his age.

What­ever they dis­agree on, Demo­cratic pri­mary vot­ers are united by their pas­sion to de­feat Don­ald Trump. The in­de­ci­sion in their ranks re­flects their dif­fi­culty in de­cid­ing who among their cur­rent choices can get that job done.

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