The Only Safe Bet in 2020


Last New Year’s Eve, one of my politically curious friends made a little prediction: By the end of 2019, Joe Biden would be the Democratic front-runner.

Because we’re really, really cool people, he quickly wrote up his forecast in the dorkiest possible way — a Google Calendar item complete with a reminder so he could correctly time his expected gloating for 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2019.

When that alert popped up on Tuesday night, it ignited a bit of a debate.

Sure, Mr. Biden leads most national polls. But we don’t hold a national primary. In Iowa and New Hampshire — those two crucial early-voting states — Mr. Biden is lagging behind. Oh, and the last Democratic Party-approved poll of an early-voting state was conducted before Thanksgiving, so any numbers on the race are totally out of date anyhow. Fun!

The whole discussion felt emblematic of the political year we’re entering. From Congress to the campaign trail, our politics are profoundly unsettled.

As it has for weeks, the Democratic race remains crowded and confusing, continuing to lack a candidate who truly captures the imagination of a wide cross-section of primary voters.

In Congress, it’s unclear how — or even whether — impeachment will proceed. And in the White House, a polarizing and unpredictable president continues to flout political norms and inflame the deeply divided country.

Nothing feels predictable.

Just take this week’s financial announcements about the final quarter of 2019. Senator Bernie Sanders, a 78-year-old who had a heart attack just three months ago, raised the eye-popping sum of $34.5 million. Pete Buttigieg — a former mayor whose previous political experience consists of running a city of about 100,000 people — outraised Mr. Biden, a former vice president. Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur running on the slogan “MATH,” brought in $16.5 million, as Julián Castro, a former big-city mayor and cabinet secretary, dropped out of the race, lacking the funds to continue.

And we don’t even have a total price tag for former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, a billionaire who has already spent more money than all his rivals combined on advertising. If he continues at his current pace, he’ll spend about as much as what President Barack Obama’s campaign spent on advertising during the entire 2012 election — and that’s before Super Tuesday on March 3.

But, frankly, this is a moment that feels bigger than tracking polls or fourth-quarter Federal Election Commission filings. As my colleague Peter Baker pointed out before the holidays, impeachments historically come at times of profound national transition, periods in history when a divided country is questioning the very fundamentals of its political system.

Our colleague Sydney Ember, who has been living in Iowa to cover the run-up to the first nominating contest, has been keeping her eye on the calendar. Here’s her first dispatch of 2020 for On Politics, from Des Moines:

One month left.

Come Friday, there will be just 31 days until the Iowa caucuses. That still seems like an eternity to me, but here in Iowa, it’s the final countdown. After an exhausting few months of chasing candidates around the state, it finally — finally! — feels like things are really getting going.

Though candidates left Iowans in peace for a couple of days last week to celebrate the holidays, they have returned in full force. Since Christmas, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — the top four candidates in Iowa, according to the most recent polls — all completed Iowa swings. All except Mr. Buttigieg will be back this weekend.

And at their campaign events, there is a new urgency.

“I remember the first few times I came through and heard things like: ‘Well, you’re in my top seven, let’s see how you do. I want to see you speak six more times and then we’ll see,’” Mr. Buttigieg said at a packed event in West Des Moines last weekend. “I can tell now that we’re getting to decision time.”

“We’re getting down to the short strokes,” Ms. Warren told the crowd at her own event in Des Moines.

Mr. Sanders, speaking at a New Year’s Eve event in Des Moines, earnestly reminded Iowans that they “set the pace for this entire election system.”

Lisa Lerer

2020-01-02 18:49:45

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