It started with a bang. Democrats in the US were tripping over themselves at the start of this year to audition as their party’s chief Trump-slayer. Even the local dogcatcher could defeat Donald Trump, people joked. The field was the largest and most diverse in history — record numbers of women, non-whites, the first openly gay candidate, young aspirants and old. Among those still standing, few show signs of winning the hearts of a party that likes to fall in love, as the saying goes. It was Democrats, after all, who produced John F Kennedy and Barack Obama.
Who will be their saviour in 2020? The radar is troublingly faint. None of the leading candidates shows much promise of uniting a disparate base. The Democratic party spans every minority, a key chunk of the blue-collar union classes, a majority of the wealthiest and most educated Americans and more besides. Even when Mr Trump is your opponent, it takes a sprinkling of magic to unite a coalition that diverse. Rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight may all loathe the president. What else will bind them?
The challenge is accentuated by the party’s split on the meaning of Mr Trump. Some, led by Joe Biden, believe he is an aberration. Others, led by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, see him as a symptom of a pre-existing American condition. The former treats 2020 as an emergency. Mr Trump must be removed at all costs. Other goals can wait. The latter sees next year as an opportunity. Now is the best chance to restructure America’s faltering capitalist system. It takes a rare kind of politician to blend these priorities.
Each of those left suffers from obvious deficiencies. In Mr Biden’s case, they are hard to redress. The biggest is his family’s history of monetising his name. Neither Mr Biden’s younger brother, James, nor his son, Hunter, are alleged to have broken any laws. But their long-running ability to profit from Mr Biden’s well-recognised name and status at least partly neutralises his attack on Mr Trump’s corruption. Mr Biden appears blind to his family’s faults and remains tongue-tied when asked about them.
Mr Trump is also likely to raise doubts about Mr Biden’s stamina. He would be 78 on inauguration. Older voters like him. As do African-Americans and some blue-collar Democrats. He has yet to make inroads with college-educated and younger Democrats.
Ms Warren’s fan base is a mirror image of Mr Biden’s. Her wonkish campaign is reminiscent of many former Democratic contenders, from Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s to George McGovern in 1972, Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Paul Tsongas in 1992. What echoes on campus faculties and with metropolitan journalists is a reliable sign of limited broader appeal. As Stevenson said after being told he had the support of every thinking American: “Yes, but I need a majority.” Ms Warren has struggled to reassociate herself with the blue-collar Oklahoma of her upbringing, as opposed to Massachusetts where she became a Harvard professor.
Mr Sanders shares with Ms Warren a penchant for radical promises. Each may indirectly have been damaged by the scale of Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party’s defeat in last week’s British election. The Democratic party’s moneyed wing now has a champion in Michael Bloomberg, who is the ninth richest person in the world, according to Forbes. But his upside is capped by a lack of charisma. Should the field still be fragmented on “super-Tuesday” in early March, when half the US states hold a primary, Mr Bloomberg’s record election spending may be enough to bring about a brokered convention — the party’s first in decades.
But that only underscores the problem. Neither Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, nor Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator, has achieved name recognition with African-American voters. No one has won the nomination without majority black support, which Mr Biden commands. Then again, history also says that no one becomes nominee unless they win either Iowa or New Hampshire, where Mr Biden looks weak. Time is running short.
The lack of an obvious winner would matter less if Mr Trump’s base had started to crumble, or if the US economy were heading into recession. Neither is yet apparent. Most polls show roughly half of Americans back his impeachment, which means that close to half do not. History is also on Mr Trump’s side. Most presidents win second terms. In order to stop that, Democrats need a champion. Their least bad bet, according to the polls, is Mr Biden. That is scant reassurance. What started with a bang risks ending in a whimper.