Primary Pandemonium

Primary seasons are rough. To some, they seem unbearably prolonged. By nature, they bring out inter-party division and drama, weeding out the weak over several months. With Democrats disheartened after Donald Trump’s victory in November of 2016, the next election essentially began in spirit the second Hillary Clinton missed the mark. A million whispers spread throughout the party – who would be the next nominee to rise to Trump’s re-election challenge? Michelle Obama? Mark Cuban? Kanye West, perhaps? The actual field subsequent to 2019’s slew of campaign announcements was far less sensational – but Washington’s heavy-hitters crowded the debate stage along with dozens of fellow hopefuls. Joe Biden emerged from his political hiatus after descending from the vice presidency. Bernie Sanders came out swinging, fresh off his 2016 momentum. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and countless others made up the largest candidate field in American history. Each politician worked tirelessly to convince the Democratic Party that they had what it took to defeat the man in the White House. As the race evolved over time, winners and losers emerged – but only one candidate will claim the coveted Democratic ticket.

The first public challenge for the twenty candidates was an exhausting series of televised debates. To accommodate the almost comically crowded field, networks devised a system to randomly split candidates into groups of ten and hold debates two nights in a row. Over several grueling hours, candidates traded blows. It was messy – arguments often got rambunctious and loud among the ten people on the stage. Many lesser-known candidates like Marianne Williamson and Eric Swalwell hardly got a word in. By the first couple of debates, the top-tier candidates emerged in polling: Biden, naturally, held a steady first place in most cases. Sanders and Warren followed, trading second-place spots, while strong debate performances from Senator Kamala Harris along with newcomers Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang propelled them to the top quarter of candidates. 

With the Democrats crowding the state of Iowa months before the primary caucus, some struggled to fit. Late 2019 saw the first wave of major dropouts, including Senator Harris and midterm star Beto O’Rourke. By the time the Iowa primary came around on February 3, the field had winnowed significantly to about seven or eight candidates (which, in any other election, would likely have been the initial count). Inconveniently, with all eyes on Iowa for the past year, the state’s caucus system collapsed under the pressure. Convoluted counting methods and malfunctioning software plagued the night and its results, which arrived twenty-four hours late. However, when the smoke cleared, the outcome saw Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders locked in a virtual tie. The next week, the New Hampshire primary saw similar results, with Sanders narrowly beating Buttigieg. Those first two were milestones, but both states are predominantly rural and white. The real test was Nevada, a vast, diverse state with a large Hispanic population. Bernie took the primary with flying colors, blowing out every other candidate with a double-digit lead. Next was South Carolina, a vital state for a struggling Joe Biden. With Buttigieg seemingly securing the moderate vote in initial contests, it seemed Biden’s campaign had one foot in the grave. He had long banked on South Carolina being the saving grace for his candidacy. He did so correctly: Biden positively demolished the competition, with the help of congressional legend Jim Clyburn’s endorsement. After the last of the early states, the home stretch to Super Tuesday, the crown jewel of the primaries, had begun.

The days leading up to Super Tuesday on March 3 saw the creation of an entirely new field thanks to Biden’s win weeks earlier. A new threat to the candidates emerged: New York mayor Mike Bloomberg executed a nationwide spending spree on advertisements and shot up in Super Tuesday state polls. Unfortunately for Bloomberg, he sunk down after a dismal debate performance, taking a ruthless beating from Elizabeth Warren. Centrist Democrats Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar suspended their campaigns, unifying the moderate vote behind Biden. Warren, suffering in polls, instead chose to stick out Super Tuesday with what she could. The field was now concise; Biden was the single viable moderate choice, and Bernie was the single viable progressive choice. When the night finally arrived, Biden took ten of the fourteen states up for grabs, including the coveted North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Sanders, with a somewhat disappointing showing, stayed afloat with the enormous prize of California. Warren chose to end her campaign not long after, with her loss in her home state of Massachusetts being the nail in her candidacy’s coffin. Bloomberg dropped out with the ultimate return for his $500 million campaign investment being the territory of American Samoa. Apart from low-tier candidate Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, the race was now down to two white septuagenarians – one a seasoned liberal from Obama’s circle, and the other a revolutionary progressive. 

The first post-Super Tuesday elections saw Biden take a hefty lead. March 10, nicknamed ‘Super Tuesday 2,’ handed him four of the five states up for the taking. This included Michigan, dealing a blow to Bernie; he won the state over Hillary Clinton in 2016, signifying that the race was an uphill battle against Biden. The coronavirus pandemic stopped the world in its tracks, but the primary raged on. The two men competed in a televised debate, forgoing their handshakes and trading the usual packed auditoriums for a small CNN studio. The virus dominated the discussion for the night, while Biden notably pledged to select a woman to be his running mate. Several states scheduled to vote on March 17 postponed their primaries to June, but the highly-populated Arizona, Florida, and Illinois resisted calls to hold off. Biden swept the three states, handing him a nearly insurmountable lead over Sanders. As of this article’s writing, Biden tops Bernie by over three hundred delegates, making it mathematically improbable that Sanders will ultimately prevail. However, the race still has time to evolve. Elizabeth Warren, a popular figure with great influence among Democrats, has yet to make her endorsement. The selection of running mates may also change some minds and shift some perspectives: Biden, committed to choosing a woman, has prompted murmurings of Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, or midterm standout Stacey Abrams. Sanders, on the other hand, may pick campaign co-chair Nina Turner, Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin, or any of countless other progressives. This race still has months to go – and a number of factors can still influence the outcome. With a united GOP behind President Trump, Democrats will need a strong candidate with across-the-board appeal to win. Who that is – and if that person exists in the Democratic field – may still be a mystery for now.

Originally published in the digital edition of the Silent Noise in March of 2020.

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