I spent the night of the Iowa Caucus in a high school cafeteria in Des Moines, observing an exercise in, if not democracy, then perhaps civic engagement. The DsM 43 caucus appeared to go smoothly, and Elizabeth Warren narrowly prevailed. But as we soon learned, everything else in the state went haywire. 

It would take the rest of the week for the caucus results to be counted, and even then, an imprecise and error-ridden picture remains. But despite the mind-boggling screw-up by the Iowa Democratic Party, the impression on the ground the week before the caucuses was borne out: Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders had the most vigorous organizations, and they could each claim a victory of sorts. Buttigieg would leave with a hair more delegates and a hint of momentum; Sanders had more votes. 

The anger at the IDP’s failure may accomplish what all the substantive arguments against Iowa going first haven’t: killing the Iowa Caucus, its prominent role in the nominating process, or both.

On Tuesday night, after the INDY goes to print, New Hampshire will vote—the first actual primary in the nation. Even if, as expected, Bernie Sanders wins, the nomination fight won’t be settled. 

Joe Biden began the campaign the odds-on favorite. But he never established a dominant position, and his weaknesses have been exposed. He doesn’t particularly energize people. His organization and fundraising have lagged—problems evident in his dismal showing in Iowa. Many Democrats have real concerns about how he’d perform in the long, grueling general election campaign. 

At the same time, but for different reasons, Buttigieg and Sanders are risky propositions. Warren has clear strengths, but also vulnerabilities. Amy Klobuchar, though making a late push in New Hampshire, is a long shot. Mike Bloomberg, armed to the teeth with unprecedented resources to spend, is about to move in earnest.

All of the candidates share the view that Donald Trump is a genuine threat to democracy who must be defeated in November. Who is best positioned to do so—and how—is the fulcrum of the nomination fight. The candidates sit on a continuum between transformation and restoration. 

The two poles are Sanders and Biden. Sanders, of course, promises a “revolution,” a fundamental overhaul of the rules of American capitalism and a major expansion of the safety net. His critique of the status quo is longstanding. America is captive to a small economic elite, profiting off of everyone else. The system is rigged. Sanders, both by executive action and by fomenting a revolution from below, will unrig it.

Then there’s Biden, who believes America is a “beacon of hope” and democracy to the world, as he told a crowd in Des Moines last Sunday. America is not fundamentally broken. America and its people are basically good, its foundation and principles enduring and just. 

Yes, we have some things we can fix, like improving access to health care and addressing climate change. But our real problem is Trump, who has degraded our institutions, alienated our allies, and besmirched our standing in the world. We don’t need fundamental change. We merely need to excise a cancer from an otherwise strong body.

The others fall somewhere in between. Like Sanders, Warren argues that American capitalism needs an overhaul. The rich and powerful dictate terms to everyone else, resulting in a deeply unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity. But Warren has also, over the years, lauded the energy and entrepreneurship of Americans and the benefits of healthy competition, as long as the competitors are governed by fair rules and smart institutions—like Warren’s brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren is a vigorous reformer, not a revolutionary.

Closer to the restoration pole is Buttigieg, whose language of healing evokes (or nostalgizes) a more unified time. But Mayor Pete has also adopted many of the planks of the increasingly liberal grassroots of the party. He supports a $15 federal minimum wage, just like Bernie. He favors high-quality, universal health coverage, even if he doesn’t endorse M4A (though he once did). He wants a cash allowance to help families pay for long-term care. He advocates for a carbon-neutral economy. 

Klobuchar and Bloomberg—who was donating to Republicans as recently as 2018—are certainly closer to the restoration side. But they have also both endorsed liberal positions that are a break from the status quo. Klobuchar also calls for a $15 minimum wage—as does Bloomberg—federally mandated paid family leave, abolition of the Electoral College, and two years of free college. Bloomberg wants to cut greenhouse emissions in half within the decade. 

While there is a convergence around notably progressive positions, the nomination fight is playing out against the backdrop of a basic political reality: that the most reliable models for predicting presidential election outcomes usually include variables about the short-term health of the macroeconomy. 

Here we’re not arguing about whether millions of Americans are still in poverty or whether inequality remains at historic highs and major changes are needed to address these ills. The fact is that the indicators of economic well-being most predictive of election outcomes currently bode well for Trump. One consequence for the Democratic field is that the candidates pushing further-reaching programs—especially Senators Sanders and Warren—might gain less traction with the general electorate than they would under different circumstances. 

That doesn’t mean their long-term solutions are wrong. (I’m partial to them.) But they may be, if nothing else, victims of bad timing. 

On the other hand, the political scientist Rachel Bitecofer—who, in 2018, more accurately predicted the midterm elections than anyone else did—believes that 2020 will be a Democratic year. The basis of her argument is there will be maximum anti-Trump turnout almost regardless of who the Democratic nominee is. If true, this thinking obviates one of Sanders’s core propositions—that he is uniquely positioned to turn out voters no other candidate could. In hindsight, Sanders might have had a better case in 2016 than he does this year. 

Regardless, one of the challenging and disorienting features of the 2020 race is that we face both profound long-term problems—including the climate crisis—and the urgency of beating Trump. Many on the left will argue that, in every election, more moderate Democrats insist that we must beat fill-in-the-blank, and, therefore, pie-in-the-sky schemes will just have to wait. Meanwhile, we just keep kicking the can down the road. 

They’re not wrong. But the paradox of this moment is that the short-term conditions necessary to get the attention of the electorate in order to sell it on long-term change may not be in place. And the far-reaching consequences of ignoring the menace in the White House may motivate more people to vote Democratic than might bolder plans for deep-seated transformation.  

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

Jonathan Weiler is a teaching professor of global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and the co-author of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics and Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide.

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