If there were any doubts about Pennsylvania’s importance in the coming presidential election, last week should have put them to rest.
Politico reported that Democratic ad-maker Mark Putnam was spotted in Scranton’s Green Ridge neighborhood last weekend scoping out the house that Joe Biden grew up in — the house the former VP has returned to several times over the years while campaigning.
That, of course, came amid the will-he, won’t-he rumors surrounding Biden’s plans for 2020 — with insiders telling political reporters that it was no longer a question of whether the Scranton native would announce, merely when.
Then, on Tuesday morning, Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke held a meet-and-greet at Penn State University less than a week after formally throwing his hat into the ring.
O’Rourke and Biden are, of course, just two among a crowded field of declared and potential Democratic candidates seeking to unseat Donald Trump next year in a state which the Republican president has frequently cited as a key to his 2016 victory.
We asked several political science professors and a veteran political consultant to assess how the Democratic slate is shaping up — who’s in, who might be, who has the best shot at their party’s nomination — and how likely it is that the Democrats can take back the White House at all.
Not surprisingly, some feel it’s too early to say anything for sure, but there are also some factors worth considering.
Brian F. Carso, associate professor of history and government at Misericordia University, said a lot of early focus will come from name recognition, and this will favor Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“But both candidates are unusually old, and perhaps too familiar, so I expect their profiles to fade,” Carso said. “If Democratic primary voters favor an aspirational vision from a candidate, they might pick Beto O’Rourke. If they want a candidate with a lot of specific policy prescriptions, then Elizabeth Warren will appeal to them. It’s so early in the race that it’s impossible to predict.”
Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College, said with such a crowded field and 10 months to go until the primaries begin, it’s really hard to handicap the Democratic nomination.
“That said, I would have to give Joe Biden the highest probability of nabbing the nomination,” Borick said. “His connection to President Obama, broad appeal within the Democrat electorate, name recognition and general likability are a solid set of assets.”
“He certainly has weaknesses such as being gaff-prone and his many years in politics and older age certainly don’t create the same excitement as new an younger alternatives such as Harris or O’Rourke,” Borick said, “but within this large and growing field I think he is most likely to prevail.”
Political consultant Ed Mitchell was blunt: It’s impossible at this time to say who will win the Democratic nomination.
“It’s too early,” Mitchell said. “Current polls reflect name identification more than anything else. That will change.”
Blue Dogs vs. Progressives
David Sosar, political science professor at King’s College, said Biden and Sanders appear to be the favorites, however he said they also seem to be the more unlikely of the multitude of candidates. Sosar said Biden is by far the leader of the pack at this stage of the campaign, followed by Sanders.
“Both would on the surface seem inappropriate in the view of the new progressives — too old, male and white,” Sosar said. “The Democrats as a party (highly progressive to Blue Dog) are most concerned with beating President Trump than any other issue. They will therefore come together to support someone who has been tested and seems capable of winning.”
And Sosar said, despite Biden not yet officially in the race, he leads all others in the polling.
“Sanders came close to being nominated in 2016,” Sosar said. “His progressive position may not appeal to most of the voters; however, he appears to have a strong appeal to many voters of four years ago and he’s not as far left as many others.”
And then Sosar said this:
“The best candidate may have not appeared yet. I would see a female in late 40s to 50s with a moderate progressive position filling the template. Thus far none of the women on the Democrat campaign trail appear to be a good fit.”
Thomas Baldino, political science professor at Wilkes University, offered two other possibilities — Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who has not officially declared yet, or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“Both are centrist Democrats who are more likely to carry Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan,” Baldino said. “Those are all states that the Democrats need to win the Electoral College majority in 2020.”
Ideal running mate?
Carso says if Kamala Harris doesn’t get the presidential slot, then she would be an ideal VP candidate because she would give the ticket gender and ethnicity appeal, and strengthen the Democrats’ lock on California.
Similarly, Borick said O’Rourke could help a Democratic ticket win Texas — a typically Republican stronghold — much like LBJ delivered Texas for JFK.
Baldino says Sen. Amy Klobacher, of Minnesota, is a Midwestern candidate who would balance the ticket.
Borick said if Biden is the presidential candidate, there are many good complimentary VP possibilities.
“Following traditional wisdom, it may be valuable to look for a younger female and racially diverse candidate,” Borick said. “Obviously Harris fits that bill perfectly, but individuals like O’Rourke, Cory Booker or Julian Castro would be attractive options.”
Sosar said if Biden or Sanders is nominated, the Democrats are sure to nominate a woman for the vice presidency.
“Two males and no minority will turn off too many in the party to beat Donald Trump,” Sosar said.
Mitchell agreed, saying he doesn’t think the ticket should be two people of the same gender.
Can the Dems win?
Assuming the Republican ticket will again be Trump/Pence, what Democratic team would be best suited to deny them a re-election in 2020?
Carso says Democrats need to reclaim the Obama voters who switched to Trump in 2016.
“There’s room for progressive liberalism in their agenda if they have a charismatic candidate, but they would do best if they have a strong appeal to centrist voters,” Carso said. “Expect to hear a lot about the economic life of middle class Americans, health care, and the restoration of civility and the constitutional norms of a democratic republic.”
Baldino sets the odds at 50-50 for the Democrats defeating Trump in 2020, adding that a lot can happen in the next year-and-a-half.
“Trump could win the Nobel Prize, bring about 5 percent economic growth over the next two years and find a cure for cancer, all of which would assure his re-election regardless of the Democratic nominee,” Baldino said. “Or the Mueller report finds that Trump committed serious crimes, war with Korea occurs and the economy goes into a recession, all of which would make the election very close.”
The Mueller report was delivered to the Justice Department on Friday. While its conclusions were not yet known Saturday, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not recommend any additional indictments.
Borick thinks the Democrats have a strong chance to win, but noted that defeating an incumbent president is difficult, with only one (George H.W. Bush) losing his re-election bid since 1980.
“Trump does have significant liabilities, including fairly poor approval ratings and the potential of legal struggles that make his path to re-election challenging,” Borick said. “While his election in 2016 was certainly impressive, it was incredibly narrow with wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by under 1 percent.”
Borick said he’s not sure the president has gained many converts since the election, while he may have actually lost a small slice of his coalition and Democrats have become energized in opposition to him. That combination of factors, along with four years of demographic shifts, makes him think the Democrats are in a strong position going into 2020.
Sosar’s money is on Biden, saying the Scranton native is moderate enough and more of an “old school” Democrat who can take on some of the progressive views and not lose those who want a change in the constant political bickering.
“They need to compete against Donald Trump on his own territory,” Sosar said. “That means the candidate will have to phone in to every radio, TV, and newspaper around. They must be willing to accept interviews on Fox News as well as CNN and MSNBC. If the nominated team refuse to utilize all the tools available to them, they will be beaten badly.”
Getting out the vote
Carso said if Americans don’t come out to vote in 2020, “We should just run up the white flag and surrender any pretensions of self-government.”
Borick added, “I think the polarization around Trump will generate tremendous turnout in 2020. The 2018 midterms were a coming attraction for what I expect will happen next year.”
Sosar: “The bottom line, this will be a referendum on Donald Trump. The political bickering will only get worse as we get to 2020.”
Mitchell: “The vote should be heavy in 2020. All the candidates in both parties are working at developing strong grassroots and volunteer networks through digital campaigns and social media.”