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The Rules of the Game

James Ferguson
Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren

The fight for the Democratic presidential nomination will begin to assume a more concrete shape on the nights of June 26 and 27, when twenty candidates take the stage in Miami for the first round of debates. They qualified to participate by meeting one of two criteria before June 12: securing a minimum number of donors (at least 65,000) or registering more than one percent support in three major polls. The qualifying criteria are the same for the second round of debates in Detroit on July 30 and 31. For the third round, to be held on September 12 and 13 (in a location not yet chosen), the criteria are essentially doubled, which could winnow the field considerably. The Democratic National Committee has sanctioned twelve debates, to be held until next April.

The nomination is usually settled by that point in the election cycle—perhaps not officially or mathematically, but practically. It was clear by mid-March 2016, for example, that Bernie Sanders would not catch Hillary Clinton, and it was equally clear by around the same time in 2008—if not earlier—that Clinton would lose to Barack Obama. In 1992 Bill Clinton essentially wrapped up the nomination by winning the Illinois primary on March 17.

There are reasons to think that this time the nomination battle could drag into June 2020, when the primaries end, or even, some have suggested, all the way to the convention in July, making for the first truly contested Democratic convention since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson arrived and declared himself to have no interest in the nomination but delivered a welcoming speech so good that it ultimately led to the delegates choosing him on the third ballot over Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver. The reasons have to do, first, with new rules the party wrote after the Clinton–Sanders battle in 2016, and, second, with a growing schism in the party between its two poles of influence in the age of social media: the younger, urban, and more left-leaning people who carry out a daily and often pestiferous political dialogue on Twitter, and the older and more traditionally liberal-to-moderate people who make up the actual backbone of the party across America. If there is a division within the party that will bring it to ruin in 2020, this is it.

One might wish that this schism did not exist during an election in which the fate of the republic is at stake in a way it arguably has not been since 1860, or that the Democrats had not made these particular changes to its nominating process. But it does, and they have. Both reflect the seriousness of the fight to define the party anew as it crawls out of the Clinton “New Democrat” era in search of some as-yet-unnamed identity. I think both factions more or less agree on the problems: the recent failure of American capitalism to provide the more broadly shared prosperity we once enjoyed, the crisis facing our democracy and institutions under Trump, and the depraved authoritarianism of the Republican Party. But Democrats are quite divided on the solutions, a division that already helped put Donald Trump in office and could, if combatants on both sides of the argument don’t tread cautiously and think ahead, help to reelect him.

The rules changes grew out of a deal brokered by Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez at the party convention in 2016, when he agreed to the naming of a Unity Reform Commission to rethink the nominating process. The commission was convened the following spring with twenty-one members—ten chosen by Clinton, eight by Sanders, and three by Perez. Clinton selected as chair Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, a longtime Democratic operative who is today the campaign manager for Beto O’Rourke; Sanders selected as vice-chair Larry Cohen, the former head of the Communication Workers of America. Both are respected and were seen as good-faith choices.

The most contentious issue they faced was the power of the high-ranking party insiders and elected officials known as superdelegates, a category that had been conjured into existence after the 1980 election to try to ensure the success of mainstream candidates (the move was a delayed response to the 1972 nomination of George McGovern, whose campaign was seen as too left-wing by many party regulars and who lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide). Superdelegates could vote at the convention, and in 2016 they gave Clinton a big advantage. Many of them endorsed her before the primaries even began, and they were counted in the running delegate totals published daily in The New York Times, The Washington Post, fivethirtyeight.com, and other venues, perhaps giving the impression that she had earned more delegates in the primaries and caucuses than she had.

Other, less fraught issues facing the commission concerned the manner in which pledged delegates would be awarded and an effort to make states switch from caucuses to primaries, on the grounds that primaries are more democratic and attract a more diverse electorate (to caucus, a person has to go to a school gym or some such place and stay for several hours, whereas voting in a primary usually takes ten or fifteen minutes). This year about ten states will drop caucuses and hold primaries instead; the critical early states of Iowa and Nevada will stay with the caucus format. There will be two kinds of primaries: those approved by the legislature and run by the state, in which case the taxpayers foot the bill, and “party-run” primaries, for which the party must pay. Polling places are fewer and voting hours shorter in the latter category. It’s thought that the move to primaries will hurt Sanders and help Joe Biden and other more conventional Democratic candidates, since caucuses tend to attract the ideologically passionate and mostly white voters from whom Sanders draws the bulk of his support.

Delegate-selection rules remained unchanged. All pledged delegates are awarded on a proportional basis—the Democrats have no winner-take-all states—and candidates need to get 15 percent of the vote to win any delegates. The rules probably benefit Sanders—and a crucial question for nearly everyone involved is how the rules help, or hurt, Sanders—because he has a committed core of voters who will get him to 15 percent in most states. But the large field could complicate matters considerably. For example, it might happen that only one candidate clears the threshold, while three or four get 12 or 14 percent, which will lead to inevitable cries of unfairness.

On the fraught matter of superdelegates, the commission fought a pitched battle. Initially, the Sanders people wanted the superdelegates to be bound to the results of state primaries. But that wasn’t going to happen: no powerful governor or septuagenarian senator is going to be told that he or she can’t choose freely which candidate to support. There were strenuous objections to any diminution in the superdelegates’ power from other powerful forces in the party, notably the Congressional Black Caucus, many of whose members are superdelegates, and organized labor, since many union leaders are as well. “The Congressional Black Caucus was mad as hell that somebody who wouldn’t even declare himself a Democrat was dictating Democratic Party rules,”1 says Elaine Kamarck, a member of the commission, perhaps the country’s foremost expert on the nominating process and the author of Primary Politics (2018), a detailed and authoritative history of these matters—once settled in smoke-filled rooms.

In the end, a compromise was reached so that the superdelegates—renamed “automatic” delegates, in an attempt to eject a now-tainted phrase from the lexicon—would only have a vote if no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot. They would still be allowed to endorse whomever they wanted whenever they wanted along the way. But their endorsements would not be counted in those running delegate totals and thus would not affect the public’s perceptions of the candidates’ standings during the primary process.

There is one other big change worth noting, this one to the calendar. California’s legislature voted to move the state’s primary up to March 3, Super Tuesday. The state has historically voted in June. This could provide a big early boost to favorite daughter Kamala Harris. It also figures to make for a bare-knuckled Biden–Sanders (and possibly Warren) showdown, since they’ll have the money and name recognition to compete in the state, which many other candidates will not.

What will be the impact of all this? Maybe nothing. Maybe one candidate will head to the July convention in Milwaukee with a clear majority of the 3,768 pledged delegates. But what if one does not? Writing in The American Prospect last September, Paul Starr put it this way:

A Democratic candidate who came into the convention with a plurality of delegates and was put over the top by superdelegates on the first ballot would not face a legitimacy problem. In fact, since the creation of superdelegates in the 1980s, they have always reinforced the choice of primary and caucus voters. But the new procedure doesn’t allow superdelegates to perform that function on the first ballot. It both undermines and highlights what may be their deciding role. It may also accentuate party divisions, create more opportunity for backroom deals, and prevent the ultimate winner of the nomination from planning the convention to maximize its impact on voters.2

The obvious nightmare scenario, which Starr didn’t spell out, is this: Biden (or Harris, or Warren, or some other registered Democrat) has a narrow lead over Sanders, by around two hundred or so delegates, but lacks a majority. Or perhaps Sanders and the Democrat are basically tied, or, in the extreme case, Sanders actually leads narrowly. On the first ballot, no one gets a majority.3 On the second, the superdelegates swoop in and vote for the Democrat to block Sanders, as they would almost surely do. I suspect you can imagine how things might go from there: Sanders and his backers will cry that the people’s revolution was thwarted by the corporatists (especially if the Democrat is Biden). It could be worse than 2016.

It is under these rules that the battle over the future direction of the Democratic Party will play out. If you read the daily press, you are probably under the impression that the party has swerved militantly to the left. Democrats are braying for impeachment. The new crop of House Democrats is allegedly typified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—the Bronx-based democratic socialist who is already so famous that she is identified only by her initials (AOC) and who is the subject of a constant, Fleet Street–like fascination in the right-wing media—and Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota representative who appears to be AOC’s best friend and who made the cover of Newsweek a mere three months into her congressional career because of some provocative tweets about Israel.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which Twitter drives the political conversation now. Journalists were instantly drawn to Twitter because as an aggregator of information it is unsurpassed. You follow people you trust, and you see their tweets, which often include links to useful articles and studies that you would probably not have seen otherwise. Whatever it is you wish to stay abreast of, be it American politics or the Brexit debate or the situation in Venezuela, you have only to follow a few reporters or experts who cover the field, and you soon have access to mountains of information.

But it didn’t take long for Twitter to become the venue for ferocious debates and volcanic verbal abuse issued with coarse directness in 140 (now 280) characters. And since journalists mostly get their sense of the political conversation from Twitter and it is dominated by younger and more fire-breathing types, political perceptions and depictions of the Democrats in the media have come to reflect their priorities. My friends and I often remind ourselves: Twitter is not the real world.

Recently, The Upshot, The New York Times’s page devoted to political data-mining, ran an extensive feature comparing Democrats who are on Twitter to Democrats who aren’t.4 Twitter Democrats are more likely to self-identify as liberal, to think of themselves as activists, to have college degrees, and to be white. Democrats who are not active on Twitter and do not fit this profile, in contrast, are practically invisible in the media. So who are they, these “Actual Democrats,” as the Times called them, who actually decide the Democratic nominee? I asked Alan Abramowitz, the esteemed electoral demographer at Emory University, and he shared with me some numbers from the 2017 Pew Political Typology Survey, which he describes as being based on “a very large and high-quality sample” (the Pew numbers include Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents).

Democrats in the Pew survey skew younger than their Republican counterparts. About 43 percent are under forty, and just 12 percent are over seventy (the numbers for Republicans in those categories are 32 and 17 percent, respectively). A rather remarkable 56 percent are female. Just 54 percent are white, as opposed to more than 70 percent of Democrats on social media, with blacks and Latinos constituting 19 percent each (Republicans are 81 percent white). Of four designated income levels, the most represented by far is the lowest, under $30,000, at 36 percent. Likewise, of four designated education levels, the most represented by far is high school or less, at 37 percent—although interestingly, 15 percent of Democrats have graduate degrees, while only 8 percent of Republicans do. About a third of Democrats don’t express a religious affiliation, which means two-thirds of them do, which again is quite different, at least in my experience, from Twitter Democrats, who seem for the most part irreligious.

What’s really arresting, however, is that—again according to the Pew numbers—only 46 percent of these Democrats describe themselves as very liberal or liberal. Another 37 percent call themselves moderate, and fully 15 percent—of Democrats—say they’re conservative. To compare this to Republicans: 67 percent said they were conservative or very conservative, 28 percent called themselves moderate, and just 4 percent (these are very confused people) said they were liberal.

What explains the 15 percent of Democrats who are conservative? Mostly, they are more religious than other Democrats, according to Kathleen Frankovic, a consultant to The Economist/YouGov poll. Fifty-seven percent say religion is very important in their lives, as opposed to 33 percent of all Democrats. Conservative Democrats are slightly less female than Democrats overall, and slightly more African-American. Half of conservative Democrats didn’t vote in 2016, and those that did supported Clinton over Trump by 37 to 13 percent, but that 13 percent is three times the percentage of all Democrats who voted for Trump.

Now consider some more numbers. Last November, Gallup asked Democrats and Republicans if they’d like their party to be more moderate or more (respectively) liberal or conservative. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents wanted their party to be more conservative, by 57 to 37 percent. But among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, the numbers were 54 percent more moderate, and 41 percent more liberal.

In other words, overall, and contrary to much of what one sees on the cable networks, the Democratic Party is still a liberal-to-moderate party. Add to this what appears to be an emphasis among the rank and file on choosing the candidate who seems most likely to beat Donald Trump, and one can readily see why Joe Biden shot to the top of the polls after announcing that he was running. The party’s base seethes with hatred for Trump, but it doesn’t necessarily want a radical program of change—which it will not get in any case, since Mitch McConnell seems likely to remain the Senate majority leader. It just wants to win, rid the republic of this curse, and worry later about what comes after. To such people, a former vice-president and establishment figure who might be able to win back those famous lost voters of 2016 looks, for now, like the safe choice.

This describes what you will sometimes see referred to as the “Revolution vs. Restoration” debate. Sanders, obviously, represents the former, and Biden the latter. The other candidates fall at various points in between. It is not acrimonious yet, but it surely has the potential to be. In the 1990s the Democrats were divided between Clinton’s New Democrats and the more traditional liberals, but those disputes tended to revolve around particular issues like trade and welfare reform—or, at their broadest, traditional Keynesianism versus the sort of hybrid of Keynes and Milton Friedman embraced by Third Way Democrats.

The fight this election, however, feels as if it has the potential to be more like the early 1970s, when the party was riven between what we might broadly call the old-guard, law-and-order Daley wing and the McGovern wing. The analogy isn’t precise: there are no Mayor Daleys in the Democratic Party anymore; they’ve either moderated their racial views or become Republicans. Still, the current divide seems not solely economic, but something more holistic, more driven by sensibility, experience, identity, emotional responses to power, and ideas about how to challenge and take it. A divide like this encompasses all issues: economics, gender, race, climate—you name it. It is about a fundamental worldview, and such disagreements are deeper and less amenable to compromise.

We will see what happens once the voting starts. But with an establishment that would like to close out Sanders, the Sanders base itching to convert perceived slights into matters of war, a media happy to amplify these feuds in the name of clicks, and a president (and his propaganda network, Fox News) just waiting to throw gasoline on any minor Democratic fire and build it into an inferno, the primaries are a potentially dangerous situation.

Finally, what of the candidates’ inherent qualities? Biden is in the race, and in the lead, mostly because he seems the most electable. Which is odd, in a way, because he’s done quite poorly in his previous runs; but then he had not been the vice-president for eight years of a president beloved by the rank and file. He will have very high support among African-Americans because of the Obama connection. Two Quinnipiac polls taken about a month apart found him with the support of an average of 46 percent of African-Americans; Sanders was in a very distant second place, with 10 percent. For black voters, many tangible gains of the past decades are under direct threat if Trump wins again, and they tend, much more than whites, to vote “not for what might be gained but according to what might be lost,” in the words of Theodore R. Johnson, a Brennan Center for Justice fellow, who is African-American.5

Biden has spent his career finding the safe middle position. That isn’t enough now. We were reminded recently of his longtime support of the Hyde Amendment (prohibiting the spending of federal dollars on abortion services), which he renounced a day after the pressure began to build, suggesting that he will probably have a lot of explaining to do for those past safe positions, especially to women voters (who might also have reservations about his habit of touchy-feely flesh-pressing). He could also do worse than to demonstrate that he has some ambitions for the country beyond Restoration. American capitalism is not the same beast it was when he first took office, in 1973—the year, coincidentally, when wages started stagnating. He should give younger voters in particular a sense that he understands this.

Sanders is Sanders. He has one gear, the same gear he’s had since he entered public life in the 1980s. It bewitches some, bewilders others. He will not change. The prevailing school of thought among Washington Democrats is that he’ll do less well this time around, because in 2016 he was the only alternative to Clinton. This time, there are many more options. Of course, that’s what Washington Democrats hope, because they quite dislike him. There seems no denying that he will collect delegates, hitting that 15 percent threshold in most states.

Elizabeth Warren has run the best and most substantive race so far, with her many proposals, and she has been more effective on the stump than many observers would have thought, with some forceful and memorable lines. At a town hall meeting in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in early June, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked her about the Hyde Amendment, then in the news. She opposed Hyde and all such restrictions, she said; the intensity of her pitch and cadence increased as she explained why:

Understand this. Women of means will still have access to abortions. Who won’t will be poor women. Will be working women. Will be women who can’t afford to take off three days from work. Will be very young women. Will be women who’ve been raped. Will be women who have been molested by someone in their own family. We do not pass laws that take away that freedom from the women who are most vulnerable.

Warren has the problem of being perceived as less “electable” than some other candidates. This is unfair in some ways (because she’s a woman) but not completely so in others: she’s a Massachusetts liberal, and the Democratic Party is 0-for-2 with those in recent times; and her mishandling of her claims of Native American heritage was the sort of thing that hints at general election campaign trouble. But she has reach into both the social media and the regular Democratic camps, and thus the makings of a possible compromise candidate acceptable to both broad factions.

The leaders among the rest of the field are Kamala Harris, who has trailed off just a bit after a well-orchestrated debut, Pete Buttigieg, who had a great spring, and Beto O’Rourke, who had a bad one. Several others are serious, smart people. They are stuck inside a process that will grant them fleeting seconds of opportunity. They will need to stand out in the debates—seize those brief moments they are granted to say something memorable that will get played and replayed on cable news. Most of all, they’ll need to do or say something that convinces people they can beat Trump.

This attribute is, for now, elusive. Will it be the toughest pugilist? The sunniest optimist, to make the most striking contrast to the man who invoked “American carnage”? The most reassuring, to the nonideological middle? The most galvanizing, to the ideological base? It could be any of those things, or (more likely) some combination of them. Hopefully, Democratic voters will know it when they see it.

—June 19, 2019

The description of conservative Democrats in this article has been revised since publication.

  1. 1

    Sanders has continued to run as an independent for the Senate. 

  2. 2

    Paul Starr, “Did the Democrats Just Set Themselves Up for a Fiasco?,” The American Prospect, September 6, 2018. 

  3. 3

    In this scenario, other candidates hold the remaining nine-hundred-odd delegates. It might well be likely in this case that those candidates release their delegates to the Democrat in first place, thereby, again, blocking Sanders. 

  4. 4

    Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy, “The Democratic Electorate on Twitter Is Not the Actual Democratic Electorate,” The New York Times, April 9, 2019. 

  5. 5

    Theodore R. Johnson, “Why Do Black Voters Support Biden? They Just Want to Beat Trump,” The Washington Post, May 31, 2019.