Exclusive: No, the Democratic establishment isn't jamming anyone down your throat

Exclusive: No, the Democratic establishment isn't jamming anyone down your throat
NBC News screenshot

They say that generals are always prepared to fight the last war, and if my social media feeds are any indication, a lot of people believe the Democratic establishment is trying to anoint a bland centrist in Joe Biden as their 2020 nominee.


The reality is that the 2020 cycle differs from 2016 in just about every important way. Last cycle was a race for an open seat after two Democratic terms; this time we have a Republican incumbent. It was widely assumed that Trump couldn't win in 2016--and that even if he did that he would be constrained by advisors or the Republican Party. Nobody can believe either of those things now. Trump has the advantages of incumbency, more money and better organization this time around, and there is no candidate on the Democratic side with a history that's even remotely similar to Hillary Clinton's

Clinton came into the 2016 race with incumbent-like polling --throughout the first half of 2015, around 60 percent of primary voters said they backed her, according to RCP's average. More importantly, Democratic elected officials and party activists--the "establishment"--coalesced around her candidacy early and stayed there.

FiveThirtyEight has been tracking early endorsements by those same party actors, as it did in 2016. As they point out, "party elites use endorsements to influence not only voters but also each other, hoping to get other powerful party members to rally behind the candidate they think would be most acceptable."

An endorsement from, say, Barack Obama would carry exponentially more weight than one from the Democratic Mayor of Corncob, Nebraska, so FiveThirtyEight uses a points system which gives a higher score for an endorsement from a sitting governor than a senator, more for a senator than a representative, etc.

Clinton won the 2016 endorsement race by a wildly lopsided 523-13 (they stopped tracking endorsements after the nomination was secured).

This year is very different. According to a WSJ poll conducted last month, only one in eight primary voters have decided on a candidate, and the "establishment" is just as unsettled. Here's FiveThirtyEight's endorsement scores at this early point in the 2020 cycle (their methodology was slightly different in 2016):

As you can see, Biden is only slightly ahead of Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders all have significant support from the party establishment.

Interestingly, given the view that the DNC continues to be hostile toward the Sanders campaign, the Vermont Senator leads the field with six endorsements by DNC members, followed by Biden and Booker with five, Harris with three and several other candidates who scored one.

Not only does this suggest that the "invisible primary" is just as wide open as the real one at this early stage, but it also provides another data-point showing that Biden's image as a solid front-runner is a media-driven mirage. As FiveThrtyEight notes, "the pace of endorsements — whether leaders coalesce early around a single candidate or are backing a variety of candidates — can indicate how drawn out the primary season will be," and a lack of consensus can spell trouble for a candidate with an early lead.

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