Since the Democratic presidential nomination is wide open and will have more than a dozen serious candidates, it is foolhardy and premature to speculate about how the race will play out. So let’s be foolhardy and premature and do exactly that.
In the early polls—to which, of course, we should pay no attention whatsoever—Kamala Harris has broken out of the pack of new candidates and is running third, behind the two old guys with the widest name recognition, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, both of whose support may be soft.
That trio does make a certain degree of sense in terms of the party’s make-up. As an African American and child of immigrants (from Jamaica and India), Harris may win particularly strong support from people of color. Sanders’s biggest appeal is to white progressives and others who want to shake up the status quo, while Biden is the candidate of continuity, moderation, and familiarity, though he hasn’t yet said whether he’s running.
Leaping ahead, let’s say that three principal candidates emerge from the early primaries and that Harris is one of them, especially because California and the southern states vote in early March, which should give her a boost (assuming Stacey Abrams stays out of the race).
Sanders may have to duke it out with Elizabeth Warren because they appeal to many of the same voters. Both will also be expected to do well in New Hampshire, which has often given an edge to candidates from neighboring states. A recent national NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that being a “socialist” and “over 75” were the two characteristics respondents identified as least desirable in a presidential candidate. But Sanders has a devoted core following, which may be larger than Warren’s. So let’s suppose Sanders wins the battle in New Hampshire and other early states, forcing Warren to suspend her campaign. (I’ll come back to the opposite possibility later on.)
Let’s call the third main surviving candidate from the early primaries Candidate B. That could be Biden, or Beto, or Booker, or Brown, or even a candidate whose name somehow doesn’t begin with B like KloBuchar. Candidate B is by no means a conservative but is perceived as more moderate than Sanders or Harris. (If Candidate B is Sherrod Brown, that may not be true.) There could even be more than one Candidate B if a candidate who is running fourth or fifth decides to stay in the race because none of the top three is winning a majority of delegates.
Here the nomination rules used by the Democrats become important. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats don’t have any winner-take-all-primaries; delegates are allocated proportionally to votes, except that candidates who receive less than 15 percent of the vote get no delegates. The 15-percent threshold will knock out many poorly performing candidates, but the proportionality rule opens up the possibility of a contested convention in a fragmented field with no single dominant figure.
A contested convention is also more likely because of the new rules about superdelegates, who are barred from voting on the first ballot, though they can vote on later ones. As a result, the superdelegates can no longer give a first-ballot victory to a candidate who comes out of the primaries just short of a majority with pledged delegates alone.
So let’s now imagine what happens in our three-way race if Harris, Sanders, and Candidate B emerge as the leaders from the primaries, but none has a majority, which forces the convention to go to a second ballot.
If any one of these candidates is close to a majority, the superdelegates voting on the second ballot may decide the nomination. Indeed, it might be hard for the superdelegates to deny the nomination to a candidate who has won a plurality of the votes and has a significant lead in delegates over the others (this is most likely how Sanders could emerge as the nominee). If, however, the top candidates are bunched closely together and the superdelegates give the nomination to Harris or Candidate B, Sanders and his supporters may claim the party has cheated him a second time and the outcome is illegitimate—a nightmare for Democrats, who want to go into the general election united.
But let’s now assume the superdelegates are not enough for Candidate B, Harris, or Sanders to win the nomination, and consequently potential deals among the candidates come into play. At this point if not earlier, a dark-horse fourth candidate could become a kingmaker. But if bargaining among the top three candidates is decisive, Harris likely becomes the pivotal player because Candidate B and Sanders are probably ideologically incompatible. In addition, while Sanders could offer Harris the vice presidency, Sanders accepting the vice presidency on a Harris ticket seems implausible. So a deal between Harris and Candidate B is far more likely, with the question of who takes the top spot depending partly on their relative position in the delegate count.
If you've followed me so far, the most likely outcome has Harris on the ticket, one way or another.
We can also imagine a variety of possibilities here depending on who Candidate B is. If B is Biden and he is ahead, Harris may agree to be his vice president; if Biden is behind, he may just throw his support to Harris and step aside to stop Sanders, whereas if Candidate B is Beto or Brown and also lagging in the delegate count, he may agree to be vice president. (As far as the Democratic Party has come, a ticket with both Harris and Booker, or even both Harris and another woman, seems unlikely—a factor that constrains possible combinations.)
What if Warren prevails over Sanders in the early going and is the alternative to Harris and Candidate B? in that case, the bargaining at the convention could go a different way because Warren and Candidate B might be able to forge an alliance. A Biden-Warren ticket, for example, is not as implausible as a ticket with both Biden and Sanders (which, among other things, would undoubtedly set a record for combined age).
Yes, you’re right, it’s way too early to engage in this kind of speculation. I should be using my time and yours more productively—don’t we all have more urgent things to do? Besides, it’s not as if the future of the world depended on the Democratic nomination.
Oh, wait … it does.