The 2020 Democratic nomination process pulled a surprise this year. It showed that doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire probably doesn’t matter anymore.
Doing well in Iowa has been a great predictor of eventually winning the Democratic Party nomination. With the exception of 1992 when their incumbent senator was in the primary, banking Iowa proved to be the momentum that carried over to the nomination. Iowa sends only 41 delegates to the national convention, out of 3979 pledged delegates. That’s about one percent of pledged delegates. New Hampshire’s track record of being the first primary state is much worse than Iowa’s, but it picks only 24 delegates. Nonetheless, until now, it’s been an easy decision to decide to invest heavily in Iowa’s caucus and the New Hampshire primary as well. They set a candidate’s narrative on their eventual electability.
Biden won only six of Iowa’s 41 delegates and no delegates in New Hampshire. Yet he’s going to win the nomination in a landslide. What went wrong?
South Carolina went wrong, or perhaps right. Biden won 39 of its 54 delegates there. South Carolina Democrats of course are mostly African American voters. This time around, South Carolina set the narrative on who the nominee would be, surprising pretty much everyone, including the Biden campaign. Biden won ten of the 15 Super Tuesday states, held just four days later. South Carolina effectively set the narrative this time around, and African Americans showed and have emerged as the Democratic Party’s principle power broker.
The lesson from this should be obvious: if you want to be president, you should spent a whole lot of time and resources in South Carolina and a whole lot less in Iowa and New Hampshire. And if you want to win South Carolina, not only do you need to spend a lot of time there; you need to invest much of your political career to working on issues that African Americans care about. Also, those who discount the savvy of African American voters do so at their peril.
Biden was assumed to be the front-runner before any voting started. Polls generally gave him the edge. It’s just that many of us didn’t believe the polls. Joe looked bland and tired, and we found it much easier to be enthused about progressive candidates. I was enthused about Elizabeth Warren. I still am; she’s just out of the race now. So many progressives like me were hoping to convince principally non-white voters to vote for our favorite, but the biggest voting bloc in the party decided they wanted pragmatic Joe instead of ideological Elizabeth or Bernie.
Biden did it despite the plethora of mainstream candidates that included Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Mike Bloomberg. He did it on a shoestring budget. While early and principally white voters found things to like about these candidates, the party’s African American bloc did not. They signaled to other minorities that form what is now arguably the core of the Democratic Party who they should vote for. And primary voters listened, trusting their instincts more than the traditional white base of the party.
This election’s primary process then seems to suggest a new era for the Democratic Party: as the party principally of African Americans and other minorities. This leaves progressive whites in an awkward place because we seem to vote disproportionately for progressive white candidates. A few will cross party lines and vote for Republicans and Trump instead, but most of us will have to rethink the optics of our voting choice. We need to realize that our power and influence in the party is diluted and is likely to remain this way in 2024 and beyond, and that minorities are the party’s new majority.