CBSN

Commentary: Four scenarios for the 2020 Democratic primary

Like it or not, the Democratic presidential primaries are almost upon us. Messages are being tested. Trips to Iowa and New Hampshire are being planned. Somewhere, one supposes, excitement is being felt.

The Center for American Progress hosted the party's first big cattle call of the year in Washington this week, a chance for the faithful to catch a glimpse of potential contenders like Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. Since there's no clear favorite or frontrunner in the race for the nomination, there's no real reason why any Democrat can't entertain fantasies of dominating Donald Trump on the debate stage in a couple years. They all may have some baggage, but so did Donald Trump, who went from punchline to Republican nominee in a matter of months.

At the start of that primary contest, Trump was underestimated in large part because few understood what Republican voters really wanted or cared about. There was the theory that they wanted the most conservative candidate in the race, meaning Ted Cruz had the edge. Then there was the theory that establishment support would be the deciding factor, meaning Jeb Bush was the guy to beat.

As it turned out, a plurality of Republican voters wanted someone who wasn't all that conservative and had no establishment support. Trump only won about 45 percent the votes cast in the Republican primaries, which didn't matter in that year's 16-car pileup. The more crowded the race, the fewer votes you need to win it.

Democrats are expected to field a similarly large number of candidates in 2020, which might bode well for Bernie Sanders, who already won about 43 percent of the Democratic vote in 2016. In what we might call the ideological scenario, where enough Democratic voters have moved significantly to the left in recent years and prize progressive authenticity above everything else, Sanders might quickly outflank his opponents and win the nomination. An ideological scenario could also wind up benefitting Elizabeth Warren, an early tribune of post-crash progressivism.

But lets allow that the Democratic electorate, like the Republican electorate in 2016, may be less ideological, or at least policy-driven, than most observers assume. Perhaps, like the GOP's voters last cycle, they're more attracted to a candidate's emotional pull.

Let's call this the personality scenario. Given that Sanders has proven himself to be a compelling figure, he could still win if Democrats are looking need a candidate they can appreciate on a visceral level. But this might also be the scenario in which Joe Biden, who's leading in early polls, triumphs.

The knock on Biden is that he is too moderate and out-of-step with his party, which would doom him in the ideological scenario. With a political career going back nearly half a century, there's no shortage of stances he'll be hard pressed to defend should he run in 2020. He took a leading role in passing the 1994 crime bill the Democrats' activist base despises, for example, as well as the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill that made it harder for consumers to get debt relief.

But Biden's charm and personal history, not to mention his perceived ability to win back the white working class voters that helped give Trump the presidency, are strong advantages. If Democratic Party regulars are a little more ideologically unmoored than some suspect, his inherent likability might be enough to deliver him the nomination, particularly if he remains popular among the black voters that form the core of the Democratic base.

That brings us to the identity scenario, or whether Democratic voters in 2020 are really going to be in the mood to nominate a white guy. When Democrats win, it's usually because of high turnout among women and people of color. So why shouldn't female and minority Democratic voters want to nominate someone who looks more like them?

There's an argument to be made that, given the country's demographic realities, the next Democratic presidential nominee should not be a white male candidate. As it happens, in 2020, Democratic voters should have no shortage of women and minority candidates to choose from, such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand or Amy Klobuchar. All have their faults and merits, and any one of them could conceivably be the nominee in 2020 – particularly if Democratic primary voters demand diversity at the top of their ticket.

Or perhaps Democrats will sense that none of the biggest names in their party is the ideal candidate to take on an anomaly like Trump. This would be the outsider scenario, in which the party passes over their big-name governors and senators for someone like Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, or Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Both start off as virtual unknowns on the national stage, and while it's unlikely either would become the nominee, there's a chance one or the other could pull off the dark-horse upset. This scenario becomes more plausible if you imagine the higher-profile candidates tearing each other to pieces in the early states, perhaps allowing for an alternative to emerge later on as a consensus candidate.

This all just serves to underscore how wide open the race for the Democratic nomination is at this early date. This is not 2016 -- when Hillary Clinton's nomination had mostly seemed inevitable for years. Now, we don't know what the Democratic Party is, and we really don't know what it wants to be. Whom it chooses to be its nominee in 2020 will give us some clues, but predicting who that nominee will be at this moment is a fool's errand. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.