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COMMENTARY

Daggers drawn for Democratic 2020 race

THE potential release to the public of the Mueller report, at least in partial form, may not be the only development shaking up US politics in coming days. For Joe Biden could reportedly make an announcement soon to formally enter the Democratic 2020 race.

The former vice-president is the early front-runner, but he is not presently the prohibitive favourite Hillary Clinton was in the 2016 contest, and the tide could yet turn decisively against him. With the first formal nomination contests not until Feb 3 in Iowa, focus is nonetheless growing on the emerging Democratic presidential nomination battle which could see the largest field of candidates for the party in a generation.

In the near term, the single biggest decision that will shape the race is Mr Biden's entry with him giving every indication that he will make a third White House bid after running in 1988 and 2008. Yet, he is facing a vast field, including the 46-year-old some are claiming to be the "new Obama", Beto O'Rourke, the former US Congressman who nearly became in November's Senate election the first Democrat to win a state-wide race in Texas since 1994.

Among the other announced contenders for the Democratic crown are US Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Amy Kobuchar. Plus former Obama Cabinet Minister Julian Castro, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee.

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While Mrs Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, has said she will not run again, there remains the possibility of other significant politicians jumping into the race. This includes New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and former US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Despite the already crowded nature of the field, Mr Biden will be a formidable candidate and his entry is much anticipated after he visited more than 30 states in 2018 campaigning for Democratic congressional candidates. By numerous benchmarks he has some key advantages, barring any major gaffes and presuming his good health remains in 2019 and 2020.

NATIONAL POLLS

The past few decades of US political history indicates the victor in nomination contests for both major parties frequently leads national polls of party identifiers on the eve of the first presidential nomination ballot in Iowa, and also raises more campaign finance than any other candidate in the 12 months prior to election year. Here, Mr Biden currently leads national polls, and would raise a lot of money as a former vice-president if he runs.

From 1980 to 2016, for instance, the eventual nominee in around half the Democrat and Republican nomination races contested (that is, in which there was more than one candidate) was the early frontrunner by both of these two measures. This was true of Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016; George W Bush, the Republican candidate in 2000; Al Gore, the Democrat nominee in 2000; Bob Dole, the Republican candidate in 1996; Hillary's husband Bill Clinton, the Democrat nominee in 1992; George HW Bush, the Republican candidate in 1988 and 1992; Walter Mondale, the Democrat nominee in 1984; and Jimmy Carter, the Democrat candidate in 1980.

Moreover, in at least four partial exceptions to this pattern, the eventual presidential nominee led the rest of the field on one of the two measures. This was true of Republican Donald Trump in 2016; Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.

For instance, in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, Donald Trump led a majority of national polls of Republican identifiers from summer 2015 into 2016. While Mr Trump was not the leading fundraiser from external donations among the Republican field, he was well positioned on the money side of the ledger too because the billionaire self-financed much of his campaign before becoming the official Republican nominee in July 2016.

On both the fundraising and national poll measures, Mr Biden could become the clear favourite for the Democrats in 2020. Yet, he also has some key potential weaknesses, and the forthcoming race is significantly more open at this stage than in 2016 which was Hillary Clinton's contest to lose.

One of the potential negatives for Mr Biden is that he would be, at 76, next year the oldest presidential nominee in US history.

This is one reason why there is some speculation that he may seek the White House for one term only and/or announce much earlier than normal in the campaign cycle his preference for a (younger) vice-presidential running mate.

One other reason why Mr Biden's age may not undermine his campaign, decisively, is that this factor would be at least partially neutralised running against Mr Trump (if he seeks a second term) who is only four years younger and who appears less fit. Indeed, this scenario would see the first ever clash of septuagenarian Democrat and Republican candidates in US history.

Presuming Mr Trump seeks re-election and wins the 2020 Republican nomination, which would be probable but by no means certain, he could face a very tough race against Mr Biden or whoever the eventual Democrat nominee is. One of the key factors that will influence the latter party's prospects of defeating the Republicans will be whether, and how quickly, it can unite around its own nominee given the potentially large number of contenders, and the ongoing debate within the party between centrists/moderates such as Mr Biden and those favouring a more radical path to power in 2020, including Mr Sanders.

AVOIDING LONG CONTEST

After the policy and personal controversies from Mr Trump being in the White House, many Democratic operatives will be keen to avoid a bruising, introspective and drawn-out contest that exposes significant intra-party division to the national electorate, as happened in 2016. Then the contest between Mrs Clinton and Mr Sanders, in particular, saw key differences opening up which helped contribute to the party losing an election against Mr Trump that was potentially winnable given the tight margins of victory he eked out in multiple states, and the fact that Mrs Clinton won the popular vote.

While the circumstances of 2020 will be different from 2016, it is nonetheless the case that another divisive Democratic nomination contest would probably only benefit Mr Trump if he is the Republican nominee again. Indeed, should Mr Trump emerge easily as the Republican nominee in 2020, this may potentially prove a tipping point in another tight general election contest.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.