With Joe Biden set to declare his candidacy for president, the race for the Democratic nomination is about to be fully engaged.
According to the polls right now, it looks like a two-man race between Biden and Bernie Sanders, but do not pay too much attention to the polls, at least not yet. The history of Democratic politics suggests that we could be in for some surprises. I think it is going to be a wild ride.
Democrats have a history of selecting candidates who were not very well known at the start of the primary. That is in stark contrast to the GOP, which usually picks somebody that voters already know. If you go back to the first cycle in which the Democrats really allowed their voters to pick, you see that pattern: George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, Barack Obama in 2008. This is not an iron-clad guarantee, mind you. Walter Mondale in 1984, Al Gore in 2000, and Hillary Clinton in 2016 were all definitely the front-runners at the start of their races, and they won in the end. But the Democrats do like to pick candidates who were previously unknown.
That means, in turn, that a lot depends on who catches fire or who flames out. Voters do not know a lot about these candidates, so as they learn more about them, the polls can undergo huge shifts. For instance, Hillary Clinton had a pretty comfortable lead in South Carolina at the end of 2007. But then Obama began to catch fire in Iowa, and Democrats around the country started to notice him, and he won the South Carolina primary handily. Something similar happened with John Kerry during the 2004 cycle. He had gone heavily into New Hampshire in 2003, but had little to show for it, as Howard Dean was dominating the early polls. So Kerry shifted his resources to Iowa in a last-ditch effort to save his campaign, and it worked. He caught fire there, and Dean famously flamed out. Kerry dominated the primaries from that point onward.
The Democrats are also a notoriously factional political party, with a lot of different constituencies that have their own preferences. That sometimes leads to strange results, as factions can reinforce or neutralize one another. For instance, in 1976, Carter was the candidate of liberals in the South, who did not wish to back George Wallace. But he was also the candidate of moderates in the North, who thought that Mo Udall was too left-wing. A year before, nobody could have predicted that would happen. Another surprising event, from 1988: Dukakis won the nomination in large measure because Al Gore and Jesse Jackson split the southern vote, with Gore winning southern whites and Jackson winning southern blacks. Four years later, the South lined up solidly behind Bill Clinton, which delivered him a string of victories right before the primaries in Illinois and Michigan.
Another point to bear in mind is the allocation of delegates in the Democratic primary. It is almost entirely proportional. Republican states usually give bonuses to the candidate who wins the most votes, even if it is a plurality victory. Sometimes, those bonuses can be enormous. This is how Donald Trump was able to win more than 60 percent of the GOP delegates in 2016 while only winning about 45 percent of the vote. The Democrats do not do that. Their delegate totals are going to track their vote totals pretty closely. This, too, can create surprises, because it stretches out the length of the contest, as front-running candidates sometimes struggle to build an unbeatable delegate lead.
For instance, in 1980, Ted Kennedy challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination, but it did not go well at first. Carter’s job-approval rating surged in reaction to the Iran hostage crisis, while Kennedy seemed unsure of himself in an infamous interview with Roger Mudd. Though Carter dominated the early contests, including a better than two-to-one victory in Illinois, he did not accumulate enough delegates to put away Kennedy, who finally won a significant victory in New York. From that point forward, it was a dog fight all the way to the convention. Carter won enough delegates to secure the nomination, but Kennedy thought he could hang in because of the allocation rules of the Democratic system. And if Carter had stumbled, Kennedy might very well have surged to victory. Something similar happened in 2016. Hillary Clinton built a solid delegate lead, but the rules of the Democratic nomination never gave her enough to force Sanders out. If she had made some critical mistake, he could have won the nomination.
All of these patterns might be on display in 2020. Or maybe just some of them. Or maybe none of them! We cannot possibly know. And with about a dozen serious Democrats vying for the nomination, it is impossible to know who would benefit from which series of events.
All in all, history strongly suggests that we could be surprised by what the Democrats end up doing. Somebody that no one is thinking about right now could win the nomination, owing to a series of circumstances that nobody could possibly predict.