Is Kamala Harris the likely Democratic nominee in 2020?

The estimable Henry Olsen makes a good case that she, at a minimum, she is more likely to be the nominee than anyone else. He bases his case on the pattern that has prevailed in the Democratic party since 1984:

A candidate appealing to educated, more liberal Democrats challenges a relatively more centrist rival favored by the party establishment; the progressive wins most primaries and caucuses in New England, the West, and Wisconsin, while the centrist wins most of the remaining states. This outcome has historically doomed the progressive, from 1984 challenger Senator Gary Hart to Sanders himself, because there are more centrists than progressives or liberals.

The only wild card has been the African-American vote. And it hasn’t been very wild:

Non-whites almost invariably back the more centrist candidate, providing that person with key support to defeat his or her more liberal challenger. Africans-Americans and Latinos backed Walter Mondale over Hart in 1984 and Bill Clinton over Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown in 1992, delivering the nomination to both men in the process. They did so again in 2016, backing Hillary Clinton by margins as large as 80 percent, allowing her to win most Southern and Midwestern primary states as a result.

African-Americans have abandoned the establishment candidate only when a serious African-American sought the nomination:

Jesse Jackson won two states dominated by African-American Democrats in 1984 and swept six Southern states in 1988. Crucially, Barack Obama owed his nomination in 2008 to African-American voters, riding their overwhelming support to win seven Southern states and many delegates in Midwestern and Northeastern states with large, urban black populations. If not for their support, Obama would have merely been yet another failed progressive challenger.

Therein lies the difference between the Obama insurgency of 2008 and the Sanders insurgency of 2016:

[E]xcept for the African-American community, support for Obama in 2008 and Sanders in 2016 is strikingly similar. According to 2016 exit polls, Sanders ran best among self-described “very liberal” voters, beating Clinton among them in virtually every state. Similarly, 2008 exit polls showed Obama beating Clinton among those voters in all but four states. Obama and Sanders also swept party caucuses, each winning the same states in these progressive-dominated contests. Sanders and Obama also both won the more progressive-minded primary states of Oregon, Montana, and Wisconsin.

Had Sanders attained Obama’s support among African-Americans, then he, not Hillary Clinton, would have been the 2016 nominee, regardless of superdelegate support.

Speaking of superdelegates, the Democrats are probably going to sharply reduce their number. Hillary Clinton gave them a bad name last time.

Add it all up, and the situation looks quite favorable for Harris. She will run as a progressive in the Obama-Sanders mold. Like Obama she has the advantage of being African-American. She may not move African-Americans to the same degree as Obama and Jesse Jackson did, but she should massively outperform Sanders with this cohort.

In addition, a cutting back on superdelegates will work to her advantage against any establishment candidate.

Finally, Harris will benefit from the decline of anything resembling a Democratic center. As Olsen points out, in 2016 “very liberal” Democrats made up a significantly larger percentage of Democratic primary voters than they did as recently as 2008, while moderate conservative primary voters were outnumbered in virtually every state.

However, Harris’ path to the nomination is littered with uncertainty, as one would expect this far out. She might have to share the progressive vote with Sanders and/or others. She might have to share the African-American vote with Cory Booker. If Joe Biden runs, it’s conceivable that, given his service to Barack Obama, he could win a decent share of the African-American vote as the establishment candidate.

Harris might also turn out to be a dud on the campaign trail.

So if the bet is Kamala Harris vs. the field, I’d take the field. If it’s Harris vs. any single candidate, I’d bet on Harris.


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