Twenty years ago, as the 2000 Iowa caucuses loomed (less than four months after The Green Papers first went 'live' online), I wrote a piece for this website with the title It's The Delegates, Stupid!!! in which I noted that [o]ne fact, however, cannot be denied- regardless of the outcomes in Iowa... - and that is this: that the rules of the nomination game still dictate that a presidential contender get a majority of the delegate votes on the floor of his party's National Convention in order to become that party's Nominee.
I was to receive few, if any, accolades for my so well handling the role of 'Captain Obvious' back then, yet I soldiered on to also say that [w]hile it is true that the major parties' National Conventions have, by now, devolved into political versions of Jerry Lewis-style Telethons (except that they tend to be four times as long!)- mainly because they no longer choose a nominee who has already clinched the presidential nomination through his reaching the "magic number" of a majority of pledged delegates at some point earlier in the pre-Convention phase of the campaign,... [t]he caucuses in Iowa are not, in and of themselves, going to get any contender any closer to that "magic number"; they can only give those who come out of Iowa as having done better than expected a potential boost toward the subsequent primaries which WILL get them closer to it.
Much has changed in the two decades since I first wrote the above: nonetheless, certain truths I considered in my Commentary of 23 January 2000 remain worth at least some consideration even now.
In that same piece, I quoted from James [later, Viscount] Bryce's The American Commonwealth, in which Lord Bryce had described three different types of contender for a Major Party's presidential nomination: these three types were called by him 'Favourites', 'Dark Horses', and 'Favourite Sons'; I also then noted that the transition from nomination for President of the United States by the National Conventions themselves (into at least the 1950s [the last time more than one ballot was necessary for a Major Party Convention to nominate someone for President was back in 1952]) to nomination through clinching enough delegate pledges via a series of Presidential Primaries and Caucuses or State and local Conventions over time (effective from the 1970s on [1972 being the last time that any vote on the floor of a Major Party Convention had an at least viable potential to change the outcome]) had itself engendered changes in both the names, as well as at least some of the definitions, of Bryce's categories-- to, instead, "Front-Runner[s]", "Challenger[s]", and "Special Interest-based" candidates.
What the first two groups of these three consist of now is rather (again) obvious: A 'front-runner' is the person (or, perhaps, persons) seen, at least just as the Primary/Caucus begins (as it is now about to start in 2020), to be the most likely contender(s) to end up as the presidential nominee of the Party (depending on just how well, or not, said front-runner(s) might do as each series of Presidential Primaries and/or first-tier Caucuses take place, pretty much week after week after week); the 'challengers', thereby, are those not front-runner(s) who are, nevertheless, seen as less likely (yet still viable, and at least probable) presidential nominees.
The third group of presidential contenders I first described two decades ago are those I have denominated the 'Special Interest-based' candidates, which I back then defined as those contenders seen as representing some cause or ideological bent within the party which the front-runners and the leading challenger(s) seem- at least to those who support them- to have, at best, largely ignored or, at worst, outright abandoned. I then further noted an at least lineal relationship to the favorite son candidate of old by saying that [t]hose who manage to survive through the pre-Convention phase and, thus, limp into [their Party's National Convention] with noticeable support on the floor..., even though they will certainly have no chance of winning the party's nomination, will only agree- in the traditional manner of the "favorite son" of old- to openly support the presumptive nominee at the Convention if that nominee can be induced to show at least some favor to the interests and policy positions of their respective supporters.
Certainly, those within current field of Democrats seeking the Presidency (former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg being a special case I will come back to later in this piece, as he is not contending the earliest first-tier Caucuses and Presidential Primaries) can be described in terms of these three more modern- as it were- variants of Bryce's original categories of contender for a Party's presidential nomination. But, if only for a bit herein, we first have to address
The Grand Old Party, as an institution, is certainly 'all-in' with President Donald Trump (along with Vice-President Mike Pence) and, even though there have been other announced Republican candidacies for the Presidency- most notably, those of former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld- each of these seem to be, at best, something of a reworking of the quixotic campaigns for the 1972 GOP presidential nomination by Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook and California Congressman Pete McCloskey (one from the right, the other from the left) against then-incumbent President Richard Nixon. Thus, absent some rather bizarre circumstances we cannot right now foresee (even given the Impeachment Trial of President Trump in the Senate), there is currently no real 'open' race (despite the efforts of both Walsh and Weld) for the 2020 Republican presidential (and, for that matter, vice-presidential) nomination at this point; as a result, then, the 'sexier' story within that Wacky, Wonderful World of Political Punditry this time round currently involves
First, as regards the most obvious front-runner amongst same: beyond much doubt, this would be former Vice President Joe Biden primarily because, also without a doubt, Biden very well fits Lord Bryce's definition of "Favourite" for a Party's presidential nomination as a politician well known over the Union and drawing support from all or most of its sections. He is a man who has distinguished himself... the drawback to him is that in making friends he has also made enemies. (Certainly, judging from rather recent events, Vice-President Biden has made an enemy of President Trump himself!)
The only overridingly negative issue for Biden right now involves the fact that his son, Hunter, is the very person the President sought to have investigated for "corruption" by the incoming administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in return for certain favors from the United States of America (besides military aid, a publicly-seen audience with President Trump in Washington DC: something Zelensky very much wanted as a show of support over and against the Russian Federation). While this may, or may not, be of political import come the General Election campaign this Fall- and, of course, only should Joe Biden emerge as the Democratic nominee for President- it is not of much importance overall within the current battle for that very nomination: for President Trump's actions in this regard have generally gained Biden much sympathy, even amongst his strongest rivals within the Democratic Party; in any event, Impeachment of Trump (even without Removal by the Senate) in and of itself certainly doesn't hurt Biden- or, for that matter any of the other Democratic contenders (including Mike Bloomberg)- among most of those within the electorate trending towards the Democrats, as these are the voters most committed to participating in the upcoming Caucuses and Presidential Primaries: thus, these are those within the Democratic Party who will the more determine just who the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nominee will actually be!
As for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders: we have to first go back to his 2016 'right down to the Convention' challenge of eventual presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to note that, four years ago, he started out as a 'Special Interest-based' contender (clearly, he began his campaign as a champion of the progressive Left, thereby- here again quoting myself- "representing some cause or ideological bent within the party... largely ignored or... outright abandoned"). Indeed, he had "manage[d] to survive through the pre-Convention phase... with noticeable support on the floor" and, as a result, he emerged as the principal challenger within the Democratic field to Mrs. Clinton's presidential bid, thereafter "openly support[ing] the presumptive nominee at the Convention" only when both she, as well as the Party itself, was "induced to show at least some favor to the interests and policy positions of [his] respective supporters".
Going into the 2020 Presidential Election cycle, Senator Sanders has his foot in the doors of two of the three above-delineated groups of candidates: he remains "Special Interest-based" (only in that he still represents, to so many, a bona fide progressive Left challenge to the likes of the more 'trad-Liberal' Vice-President Biden); but also (and this rests largely on his own 'laurels' as the most tenacious intra-Party challenger to the eventual presidential nominee four years before) a "Challenger" per se. The only "fly in the ointment" as might otherwise regard his being the same this time round is the presidential candidacy of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
For Senator Warren also has her foot in the doors of two of three camps: she also seeks (in competition with Senator Sanders) to be the champion of the progressive Left (thus, her candidacy is likewise 'Special Interest-based' [as I have defined it above]), yet she also is so strongly seeking to supplant Vice-President Biden as a "front-runner" (not that Senator Sanders is not also doing so, but the base support for Bernie Sanders still very much depends on his "outsider" status [his continuing to be an Independent Senator, while campaigning as a Democratic Party presidential contender], much more so than does any like support for Senator Warren at this juncture). Unlike the political affiliation issue as regards Sanders (a self-described "democratic socialist"), there is no question that Warren is, in fact, a Democrat!
In any event, these three- Biden, Sanders, and Warren- make up what we might fairly classify as the (as of this typing) top-tier Democratic Party presidential contenders (the 'big three' as it were, if only at moment). All other Democrats still contending for that Party's presidential nomination are, thereby, forced to- now very early on in the Primary/Caucus "season"- "punch above their weight" in relation to these 'big three'!
Neither these other candidates, nor their campaigns, will publicly admit this, of course: but the immediate goals of all but the 'big three' already cited above are quite different from those of Biden, Sanders, and Warren themselves (for, again absent some strange and unforeseen circumstances [especially within these earliest Primary or Caucus states- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina], there is little doubt these 'big three' will be fighting on into 'Super Tuesday' during the first week in March in any event). All Democratic presidential contenders other than the 'big three', therefore, have a more immediate- as well as more important- goal (however unstated): to simply survive until 'Super Tuesday' and then (albeit only if so surviving, obviously) take it from there and, in this regard, we are dealing with primarily 'Special Interest-based' (as hitherto defined in this piece) contenders:
We'll start with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar: her "special interest", as it were, is to best represent the upper Midwest from which she herself hails (on the theory that, since Hillary Clinton lost in the Electoral College back in 2016 primarily through her inability to keep Donald Trump from winning Great Lakes States that would otherwise be expected to be in the Democrats' own column, Senator Klobuchar is herself the best equipped, among all the other Democratic presidential contenders [including the 'big three'] to win those very States back should she be the Democrats' presidential nominee [in this regard, Klobuchar is representative of a region she herself might fairly argue has been "at best, largely ignored or, at worst, outright abandoned" by her own Party, at least back in 2016]).
Senator Klobuchar's main problem (perhaps a better word here, though, would be 'challenge') is two-fold: on the 'macro' level, she still (should she, in fact, be the nominee; let alone her also having to eventually do so in order to even become the nominee!) has to yet turn herself into- to here quote Lord Bryce- "a politician... drawing support from all or most of [the American Union's] sections" and, by so doing (that is: should her candidacy make it to, and past, 'Super Tuesday', of course) possibly become the- or, at least, a- "front-runner" for the nomination. Running for that nomination as 'best in the Midwest' is all well and good, but obviously most voters in this country are themselves not Midwesterners!
Yet Senator Klobuchar has an even more immediate 'micro' problem: for the first true test of strength amongst most of the Democratic presidential contenders- Iowa, of course- is actually in the Midwest! In the main, then, her whole 'I can win the Midwest [back] from President Trump' argument flounders if she ends up with a poor showing in the Hawkeye State (and it would thereafter be very rough sledding to thereafter "spin" such a poor showing going into New Hampshire and, if possible, beyond).
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg also hails from the Midwest, of course, but his candidacy is (whether he likes it or not) also 'Special Interest-based', in that he is the one remaining most viable alternative right now if rank and file Democrats might want to go younger with their Party's presidential nominee than- in particular- the 'big three' (none of whom is under the age of 70). Mayor Buttigieg is, thereby, trying to be both the youthful candidate (in fact, he was born within the oldest cohort generally defined as 'Millenial') yet, at the same time, more moderate in his liberalism (and thereby present himself as best able to challenge Joe Biden for "front-runner" status-- that is: only if he has a good showing [perhaps even coming in ahead of at least one of the 'big three'] in Iowa): it remains to be seen just how much Buttigieg's political moderation (necessary for political survival, even as a Democrat, in his native Indiana to begin with) can successfully "play" amongst younger Democratic Party voters who trend more progressive (although Mayor Buttigieg being the sole Gay candidate [in addition, the only one in a Same-sex Marriage] gives him at least some- yet, in the main, not all too much- progressive 'cred').
All in all (and certainly no less than this will be the case for Senator Klobuchar), Iowa will certainly be the first true test of Mayor Buttigieg's delicate moderate-progressive liberal balance: if he doesn't do all that well in the caucuses come Monday evening, it may well also be his last test as a presidential candidate!
The remaining Democratic presidential contenders are all most firmly in the 'Special Interest-based' category: billionaire Tom Steyer began his presidential candidacy by continuing to push Impeachment of President Trump; once President Trump's Impeachment by the House (though not, as things have now turned out, his Removal from Office upon Conviction by the Senate) first became a realistic possibility this past Fall, Steyer thereafter the more emphasized Climate Change as his principal issue. Now, obviously, Mr. Steyer has to do more to broaden his own candidacy's goals (even though, yes, he already has policy positions on many other issues besides the Earth's climate) if he wishes to remain a viable contender for the nomination (unless, instead, he simply wants to try and collect National Convention delegates principally in order to have the proverbial "seat at the table" and thereby make sure Climate Change is addressed in the Democrats' platform come a Convention which will not be nominating him).
Meanwhile, millionaire entrepreneur (and former corporate lawyer) Andrew Yang seems to be pushing a quite different, yet also specific, policy agenda: one hinging on an argument that the American Economy- as more usually defined, and then struggled over, by Democats as well as Republicans, liberals as well as conservatives (and those in between)- is right now not all that well prepared for the challenges (global, as well as domestic) of emergent 21st Century Technocracy. I obviously can't know just how familiar Mr. Yang might, or might not, be with the work of geographer Peter J. Hugill (in particular, Hugill's World Trade since 1431 and Global Communications since 1844, both first published back in the 1990s), but Yang's policy arguments seem to well dovetail with Hugill's own notion (within World-System Theory) that the nation that wishes to become, and thereafter remain, a superpower- if not also a hegemon- is the country that not only advances the latest technology, but also controls it (and, at the same time, expands its impact and effect geographically: thereby using its technological advantages in this regard to more influence [if not actually control] the 's 'World Island' [that is, Eurasia] of geographer Halford Mackinder, which Mackinder himself considered the very key to global dominance).
In contrast, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (like Pete Buttigieg, both a first-cohort Millenial as well as a military veteran) appears to be running on, among other things, moving America away from just such influence over (let alone, any control of) Mackinder's 'World-Island' through not engaging in what she calls "wasteful wars" (other than those specifically targeting those who more directly attack us, including overseas terrorists) in order to promote, as well as be able to better fund, a more progressive policy agenda at home. Meanwhile, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet offers what he calls 'the Real Deal' (an obvious play on FDR's New Deal) which he promotes as "an agenda that is progressive, paid for, and popular among the majority of the American people" (in the end, however, a more moderate vision of progressive liberalism as compared with Congresswoman Gabbard: thereby putting himself more in line with Vice-President Biden, Senator Klobuchar, and Mayor Buttigieg than with at least most of the other Democratic presidential contenders already mentioned above).
As for these two last-mentioned contenders whose political traction (for whatever reasons) is not, at least so far, nearly as good as 'the big three' (or even Klobuchar and Buttigieg, let alone Steyer and Yang), we are now truly- come the Iowa caucuses- within the realm of former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris's 1976 "The winnowing-out process has begun, and we have just been winnowed in", one in which so "be[ing] winnowed in" is itself rather dicey (and keep in mind that, but a week after having been "winnowed in" in New Hampshire's Primary back then, Senator Fred Harris was in fact winnowed out in that of Massachusetts).
What to watch for, then, come Monday evening 3 February 2020
Unless the Democratic presidential contender who comes in first in Iowa's caucuses does so by a significant percentage point margin over the candidate immediately behind (or, alternatively, if the top two in Iowa are close to one another, yet both are still far ahead of 3rd place on down), the notion of a candidate having "won" Iowa will, in the main, have no real meaning. If, on the other hand, the top three- or four, perhaps even five- candidates (once the "smoke clears" after the Iowa caucus numbers are first being crunched into the wee hours of Tuesday morning) are all bunched up within a few, to no more than several, percentage points of one another, expect quite a bit of Fred Harris-type "We have just been winnowed in" statements from such candidates, along with more than a few (hopefully friendly, at least publicly) disputes as to just who the "real winner" in Iowa actually has been.
But such is but the reality of what the Iowa caucuses actually do: they merely begin the separation among those who have a real chance to ultimately win the Party's presidential nomination (again, the "front-runners"), those who can somehow still remain viable (and thereby retain at least a "puncher's chance" at that same nomination, if only for the time being: the "challengers"), and those who will seriously, not to also mention immediately, have to very much worry about the campaign coffers drying up before even the New Hampshire Presidential Primary the following week (unless some "special interest"- that is: regional or ideological appeal not found within the first two groups of candidates- can continue to, somehow, garner them just enough [especially financial] support to carry on).
In the end, though, it's still the Delegates, stupid: again (to here quote myself from two decades ago now), the rules of the nomination game still dictate that a presidential contender get a majority of the delegate votes on the floor of his party's National Convention in order to become that party's Nominee! Thus, what to watch for as more and more results of the Iowa caucuses come in throughout the evening, and on into the night, is simple: watch who gets, and who does not get, enough of the caucus voting to ultimately qualify for National Convention delegates pledged to them from the Hawkeye State.
The "magic number" (actually, the 'magic percentage') here is 15 percent (the threshold established by the Democratic Party's national rules for qualifying for Delegates pledged to a particular candidate): scroll about a third of the way down our site's 'Iowa Democrat' page and you will see a table headed 'Precinct Caucuses (preliminary)' which will tabulate the caucus results in terms of 'State Delegate Equivalents'. The main question in Iowa will be: which of those candidates listed thereon ends up with at least 15 in the '%' column of that table? Those with at least 15% therein will, regardless of where they might actually place (unless, again, the candidate who does best somehow "blows out" the field and/or there is a large percentage gap between even 2nd place and the rest), be in pretty good shape going into New Hampshire; those short of 15% will likely have to very quickly reconsider the futures of their respective presidential candidacies (although the closer to 15%, the better-- even for these [but only if no candidate is clearly a big winner in the Iowa caucuses: a bunched-up field of Iowa finishers increases the number of such presidential contenders who can then more easily move on to New Hampshire]).
Beyond what I have already written above in this piece, then, there is not much more for me to say about the Iowa caucuses themselves.
The 'elephant in the room': Mike Bloomberg
Had the field of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders been of the much more usual type-- that is, everyone in contention already declared as (hopefully, should their candidacies be able to survive long enough) contesting the earliest Caucuses and Primaries leading up to 'Super Tuesday' in March-- this Commentary would have already ended. But, this time round, that field is clearly not "of the much more usual type".
The reason for this is one Michael Rubens Bloomberg: multi-billionaire equity trader, media mogul, and former Mayor of New York City (over three consecutive 4-year terms). Rather than Mayor Bloomberg taking part in these earlier Delegate Selection Events throughout this month, he yet waits in the wings (all while still running television ads nationally) for those who might survive February 2020 to take him on come March's 'Super Tuesday'.
Thus, rather than Iowa at least truly starting to remove the "haze" from the field of Democratic presidential contenders and, thereby, beginning to clarify just who, and who is not, more likely than not to gain the Party's presidential nomination (as also would New Hampshire's Presidential Primary on Tuesday 11 February, Nevada's Caucuses on Saturday 22 February, and South Carolina's Democratic Presidential Primary on Saturday 29 February [with 'Super Tuesday' then looming a mere three days thereafter]), we are actually just as much- as Iowa's caucuses, then the Delegate Selection Events in those other aforementioned States proceed- looking at who, amongst the other candidates already mentioned above, will only end up having to engage Bloomberg.
As for Bloomberg himself, he is (as one might well suspect) self-funding his campaign: on the one hand, this at least hypothetically would allow donors- especially large donors- who might otherwise give him their campaign donations to, instead, give more money to other candidates for elective office down-ballot (assuming that such donations go to Democrats running for Congress, Statewide office, State legislatures, etc.- if not also the few Republicans willing to be publicly seen as largely opposed to the actions, if not also the policies, of President Trump's Administration): for the most part, Bloomberg actually encourages this...
on the other hand, however, it makes the current state of Bloomberg's presidential aspirations rather difficult to "read" (for there are no Federal Election Commission filings of campaign finances independent of Bloomberg's own resources to now peruse: therefore, one cannot glean from these filings, as is the case with other presidential candidates [including that of President Trump himself], just how much monetary support- or not- a given presidential contender might be getting, with concomitant conjectures thereby discerned as to just how well, or not, their campaign might actually be going, any and all of their own respective "spin" notwithstanding). Thus, while Iowa's caucuses will begin to separate the truest contenders from the "pretenders" amongst most of those whom we have been seeing, and hearing, on the televised Debate stages over the past several months as they contest for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination, we will still have to wait yet another month to see just how Mike Bloomberg's presidential candidacy might then fit within all this.
'Tis often said that Money can't buy one Happiness; and the Beatles, more than a half century ago, told us all that "money can't buy me Love": it remains to be seen, however, if money- and lots of it- can alone possibly win a Major Party's presidential nomination!