The Democrats still have twenty candidates running for president in 2020, ten of whom are doing well enough to keep qualifying for the debates, and perhaps five who are currently contention. We’re a long way from having a nominee, and it could end up being one of several people. But it’s now become clear that there is only one path available for anyone getting to the nomination.
During this week’s debate, Julián Castro learned the hard way about a path that won’t go anywhere. He tried going hard after Joe Biden, in an arguably mean spirited way. Based on the responses from the pundits and across social media, it backfired on Castro pretty badly. He was already polling at around one percent, so he can’t exactly drop much further, but we’d be shocked if he goes up any. In fact he may have just sank his own campaign.
This comes after Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden in the first debate. In that instance some observers thought she was in the right for doing so, while a some observers thought she wasn’t. The poll numbers are the ultimate arbiter, at least as far as winning goes. Her poll numbers did go up a bit, and Biden’s did come down a bit. But Biden’s numbers ended up largely rebounding, and he’s still firmly in first place, and Kamala is now only polling at around six percent in an average of current polls.
Julián Castro and Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden in very different ways, with different results, but the big picture ended up being the same. The Democratic candidates who have attacked Biden haven’t gotten much out of it, in terms of increased support levels. It’s becoming clear that there isn’t a good way to attack Biden, at least in the eyes of Democratic primary voters, because Biden is too broadly liked. Not everyone loves Biden. But if you attack him, you’re definitely going to lose some supporters while possibly gaining some other supporters, and that’s not a way to get ahead.
So how does a Democratic candidate manage to boost their own poll numbers, while bringing Joe Biden’s poll numbers down, without attacking Biden in the process? That’s the million dollar question. If anyone cracks that code, they have a real shot at becoming the nominee. Elizabeth Warren has arguably been the closest to figuring this out thus far. She largely sticks to policy talk, and openly disagrees with Biden on a number of specifics, but seems to make a point of not attacking him. She’s also the only candidate whose poll numbers have significantly gone up since the start of this. In this cycle at least, Democratic voters are signaling that they want to hear candidates present their ideas and then attack Trump, not present their ideas and then attack each other.
Anyone who wants to win the 2020 Democratic nomination is going to have to figure out how to convince current Joe Biden supporters that they’re a better choice than Biden is, without trying to tear Biden down in the process. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk. We’re not necessarily saying that’s how it should be, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s how it indeed is. There’s still a very long way to go, and no one is a lock for anything. But the roadmap to the nomination is clear.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report