To appreciate the unpredictability of the 2020 presidential process, it’s instructive to look at another turbulent time in Democratic Party politics. Between the three presidential elections of 1968 and 1976, the party faced the rise of an activist Left emerging as a power base within its clubby institution. During that period, Democrats were dealing with social unrest, growing racial divisions, generational conflict, and, later on, the corruption of a sitting Republican president.
But the Democratic nominees for president during that period of political chaos couldn’t have been more different from each other. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey in an attempt to build a bridge between the party’s past and the future. Four years later, the activists took charge and nominated George McGovern, the progressive warrior of his day. And in 1976, in the aftermath of Watergate, Democrats chose an idealistic, moderate outsider in Jimmy Carter to heal a wounded nation.
In this election, those types of choices are all being offered in a primary that will set the direction of a party in flux. Former Vice President Joe Biden, leading in most polls, is the safe, establishment-friendly choice in a time of intraparty turbulence. Bernie Sanders is the progressive rabble-rouser looking to transform the Democratic Party in his image. And Beto O’Rourke is looking to play the role of the fresh-faced Southern outsider who doesn’t quite fit the ideological straitjacket that activists are imposing on the electorate.
What’s useful to remember about the last generational fight was that the party didn’t automatically march to the beat of its most ideological voters at the time. Even as the party’s liberal wing emerged ascendant during the 1972 presidential election and the 1974 midterms, it still nominated a fairly conservative Southerner as its standard-bearer in 1976. Style meant as much to Democratic voters as ideology. The arc of the Democratic universe didn’t bend towards progressivism, despite the favorable demographic trends of the time.
It’s a reminder that voters don’t often fit the political archetypes that pundits impose on them. Despite being a throwback from the past, Biden is viewed favorably by a broad cross-section of Democratic voters that goes well beyond his high name identification. His long-ago opposition towards busing and support for Bill Clinton’s crime bill are apostasy to progressive activists, but are hardly guaranteed to damage his appeal with the party rank-and-file.
For example: McClatchy’s Katie Glueck reported this week on how beloved Biden is among black community leaders in South Carolina, many of them willing to overlook his less-than-woke positions of the past. The head of the Charleston NAACP told the news organization: “The fact that he served as vice president for the first African-American president … that’s another signal to the black community that there must be something special about that man.” House Majority Whip James Clyburn has insisted that the real race in the state is for second place, behind Biden.
Analysts are rightly skeptical of Biden’s strong standing in polls, viewing his frontrunner status as a reflection of his familiar profile. But it’s also important to remember that being a well-known politician offers a major advantage in a crowded field of over a dozen lesser-known challengers still struggling to get their campaigns recognized.
Sanders also has a clear pathway to the nomination, one that doesn’t depend on his hard-core base. The party establishment that loathed him in 2016 is now coming to peace with his candidacy. Many of his Democratic rivals are now mimicking his socialist rhetoric and signing onto policy proposals he first embraced. He’s likely to have a respectable floor of support in every state—a dynamic that will allow him to rack up an outsized share of delegates under the party’s proportional voting system. In a party that’s drifting leftward, the McGovern path is looking like a plausible option for 2020.
Or maybe voters simply want a candidate who promises a break from the politics of the past. O’Rourke, if he runs, looks like the closest reflection of this Carter-style pathway. His sunny approach to politics is a clear contrast to the slash-and-burn politics of the Trump era—not to mention the rampant pessimism of many of his Democratic rivals. He’s deliberately vague on where he stands on numerous policy issues. His close performance in ruby-red Texas last year offers evidence of his electability. There’s a reason why some savvy Democratic operatives view him as a political savior.
Those generation-ago elections offer electability lessons in the present. Carter was the only Democrat who won, though he nearly blew a race that once looked inevitable. Humphrey overperformed his party’s dim standing in 1968, but still couldn’t defeat Richard Nixon. Meanwhile, McGovern suffered one of the biggest blowouts in Democratic Party history.
If history repeats itself, the Democrats’ path to victory isn’t clear. But the path to failure—by catering to the loudest left-wing voices—is as predictable as ever.