Updated Dec 1, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' 2020 chaos theory

headshot
Joe Biden hugging a voter

Joe Biden started an eight-day bus tour yesterday in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Democrats say a very realistic scenario now calls for Pete Buttigieg to win Iowa, Elizabeth Warren to win New Hampshire, Joe Biden to win South Carolina and Bernie Sanders to win Nevada.

Why it matters: With Buttigieg's rise in Iowa and Warren's deflation, Democrats' 2020 race has no real front-runner as the big field begins the two-month holiday sprint to the caucuses on Feb. 3, 64 days from now.

The intrigue: Mike Bloomberg, who's bypassing the early states, thinks a split decision opens a path for him to make a big statement on Super Tuesday (March 3), which includes California.

  • But other candidates contend the former mayor will have a standing start at a time when another candidate or two will have excitement and momentum coming out of the early states.
  • That's part of the reason Bloomberg's candidacy is so fascinating: No one has tried a self-funded race with anything like the spending Bloomberg has already unleashed.

Iowa has a history of abrupt surprises. Matt Bennett of Third Way, the center-left think tank, shared a fascinating tally showing that the leader in December polls wins contested caucuses less than half the time.

  • Of the last 10 contested Democratic contests in Iowa, the candidate who was in first place in December polling won just three times (Walter Mondale in 1984, Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016).
  • In 2004, John Kerry won Iowa after being sixth in December polling, behind leader Howard Dean. [Corrected]
  • Once, the candidate who was in 10th place in December polling won the caucuses. That was former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, in 1976.
  • The tally goes back to 1972, when the modern era of candidate selection began. It omits the re-election campaigns of Presidents Clinton and Obama, who were unopposed for the nomination.

The bottom line: If the race plays through along these lines, the nominee will be chosen in July — at the convention in Milwaukee. That is Bloomberg’s play.

Go deeper:

Go deeper