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Larry Donnelly: Biden, Sanders or Warren look set for nomination... why hasn't the Democratic primary been more competitive?

Huge support for just three Democrat front runners in the race for nomination is unusual, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

WITH THE FIRST US presidential caucus and primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire still three months away, uncertainty abounds as numerous Democrats continue their quest to be the party’s nominee running against President Donald Trump. 

That is, of course, presuming the Twitter addict does not become the first ever occupant of the White House to be removed from office. The general betting here remains that he will not, though it has become a less remote possibility in recent weeks. 

Unsurprisingly, at the beginning of this lengthy nomination campaign, the three candidates leading the pack were former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Most sage analysts would observe that this is due to name recognition. A voter would have to look long and hard to find a prospective Democratic primary voter anywhere who did not have a comprehensive command of the biographies of these candidates. 

Once the debates began and the men and women who will ultimately choose their party’s standard bearer really tuned in, the belief is generally that other candidates would rise in the polls. This widespread sense flowed at least in part from the manifest weaknesses of the initial front runners. 

All are arguably too old. Biden is prone to social blunders and, regardless of any ability to reconvert Trump voters, he has a certain past with some issues that are incongruous with the outlook of ascendant liberal Democrats.

Bernie Sanders is yesterday’s man and too far left for America.

Elizabeth Warren is an Ivy League law professor and Cambridge, Massachusetts resident who illegitimately claimed Native American heritage in an application in 1986.

She was also once quite ludicrously identified as a woman of colour in a Fordham University School of Law journal. These identifications could alienate middle American voters. 

If anything, the past several months have broadly confirmed these assessments. Despite the brutally frank political judgments being validated to a certain extent, the poll numbers have stayed pretty much the same.

ny-presidential-hopefuls-at-poor-peoples-campaign-forum Bernie Sanders is yesterday's man and too far left for the US, says Larry Donnelly. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

On 30 October, the Real Clear Politics website, an invaluable resource that aggregates polls to vitiate outliers, has Biden at 26.7%, Warren at 21.3% and Sanders at 16.8% for the presidential nomination in one poll.

The next closest challenger is the upstart mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, at 7.7%. 

Why has there been so little movement? Before considering why not, the reactions of some of the party’s senior figures have been interesting, if not especially illuminating.

On the one hand, meetings of panicky elder Democrats and big donors are rumoured to be ongoing. The subject of these alleged meetings: parachuting in a candidate to the rescue, such as Michelle Obama, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg or even Hillary Clinton or former US Secretary of State John Kerry. 

Others are resigned to Biden, Sanders or Warren being the nominee, as imperfect as they may be.

Secretary of Labour in the Clinton administration, Robert Reich, for instance, claimed in The Guardian that “all the other Democrats are irrelevant” and that “support must consolidate soon” in order to defeat Trump who “has never stopped campaigning.” 

Neither response gets to the heart of the very serious question of why no one has moved considerably in the polls. It is a perplexing mystery to me, and it is probably down to a confluence of factors which together create an objectively undemocratic nomination process.

The reasons for stagnation

First, but definitely not for the first time, the perversely outsized role of the almighty dollar in American politics is at the heart of the matter.

The three front runners each had a huge advantage with in-built national fundraising networks.

That ability to raise enormous sums of money at an extremely early stage was a decisive factor in whether competitors could participate in debates – especially important for lesser-known candidates needing every chance to disseminate their messages – is an affront to some of the party’s core values.

The Democratic National Committee and others sought to limit the number of debaters largely to avoid the chaos of the 2016 Republican primary, when 17 people crowded onto the stage in what invariably proved to be less than edifying affairs.

This is an understandable objective, yet there had to be less crude means of accomplishing it. Some very credible people, have not received a fair hearing. 

Second, the mirror has to be held up to the voters. It may be the case that they prefer Biden, Sanders or Warren.

Biden is definitely seen as the most electable. Sanders’ voters think he got a raw deal last time around and believe that America needs the radical surgery he is prescribing.

Others regard Warren as a candidate with concrete plans for serious problems facing the country and as an individual who towers over the incumbent in every important way. Backers of the three all make fair points. 

Nonetheless, it is difficult to fathom that these three candidates still command the support of approximately two-thirds of the primary electorate. Some commentators posit that there is plenty of time left and that more favourites may emerge. 

Even dedicated Democrats have a lot more on their plates to concern them, like paying mortgages and sending children to college, than the early trajectory of this campaign.

In that context, it is no wonder that many are not following it rabidly enough to drift away from the three figures they know best.

Much of the speculation as to who they might eventually gravitate towards currently centres on Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. That window is getting smaller by the day, however. 

Third, there is no one approaching the political stature of a once unknown governor of Arkansas or rookie senator from Illinois with an unpalatable name in the field. As such, the argument goes, there is a reason why not one of them is today close to Biden, Sanders or Warren.

This may be true, but all are certainly capable. Undeniably as capable as Trump and hopefuls like Klobuchar, Montana Governor Steve Bullock and a candidate who recently left the race, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan (who, full disclosure, would have gotten my vote).

Supporters of the three front runners will surely refute these observations and claim that what we are seeing is actually democracy at work – whether I or anyone else likes what the people are deciding or not. I disagree. Something about this process stinks.

At this point in the campaign, I just can’t foresee long drives between isolated Iowa farmhouses or door-knocking in working class Manchester, New Hampshire neighbourhoods in the coming months having an impact on the dynamics and making a relative outsider a global household name, as they often have in the past.

To me, that’s a profound shame. My hope that it will happen is fading fast. 

If I am right, and if Biden, Sanders or Warren is, therefore, the nominee, I believe that Biden could well be elected the next president. Those who desperately want rid of President Trump will constantly and justifiably be fearful of his propensity for colossal missteps. And for reasons outlined previously in this space, I am doubtful that either Sanders or Warren can win. 

Then again, I have been wrong on this front before.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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