2020 elections

The 7 big bets that will decide who wins the White House in 2020

Most of the wagers candidates began placing months or even years ago are about to fail. A small handful will soon pay off.

Democratic presidential campaign signs

One way to think about presidential campaigns is as a type of wager. A candidate’s strategy is essentially a calculation about what factors will exert the greatest influence on voters and if that prediction is right he or she wins power.

In this light, the essential dynamic of presidential politics is not so different than buying stocks or even joining the office pool during March Madness: All are bets about future performance.

The notion of running for president as a big bet comes especially to mind today. The 2020 election is exactly one year away. The Iowa caucuses are exactly three months away. Most of the wagers candidates began placing months or even years ago are about to fail. A small handful will soon pay off.

Some of 2020’s big bets are obvious. Joe Biden is betting the support of African Americans and labor will compensate for the diverse vulnerabilities of his campaign. Donald Trump is betting the economy stays robust for another year and that he emerges from a likely House impeachment, paradoxically, with his supporters energized and his reelection prospects brightened.

But many of the most important wagers shaping 2020 strategies are not as visible to the naked eye. At the end of last week, we assembled a small group of POLITICO campaign reporters to illuminate the issue. One theme runs through their answers: There is a dividing line between candidates betting that old rules of presidential politics will reassert themselves at last and those who believe the United States is in a transformational moment in its politics manifested in ways that go far beyond Trump.

Here’s a rundown of seven big bets on the 2020 table:

The Big Bet: The campaign in 2019 was mostly B.S.

The debates, Twitter, endless cable chatter, all those POLITICO stories: It’s possible they amount to very little.

The person with the biggest bet on this scenario is Joe Biden.

Yes, it looks for now like the party has moved leftward and is hungering for innovation and inspiration in ways that don’t look promising for a prosaic, steady-as-she-goes moderate who first came to Washington in 1972.

Biden’s bet, said Chicago-based reporter Natasha Korecki, who has spent much of the past year reporting on Iowa, is that “the primary electorate is really looking for a moderate, that the moderates are the ones who are really going to show up, the sort of older-sector of the Democratic Party, they’re the ones that are going to come to the polls and that are going to caucus.”

This is the same bet, with considerably longer odds, wagered by other moderates, such as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

The Big Bet: The DNC knows what it is doing

Historically, the great winnowing agent of presidential politics is small, cold, rural states. Iowa and New Hampshire voters are the wolves who take weak cattle from the herd before most Americans get to pass judgment. Not fair, necessarily, but someone’s got to do it.

This year, party operatives in Washington decided they wanted to start this lupine function early. The thinking: There was no coherent way to have a nominating contest with two dozen candidates still in contention by the end of 2019. The way to thin the herd was to make candidates clear steadily rising thresholds for support in polls and in total number of contributors.

By appearances so far, this approach has created incentives for candidates to move leftward, since this is more likely to generate small-dollar contributions from activists nationally and to pulse national polling numbers. It has also given openings to candidates like tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who in earlier times might have been shooed from the race as a novelty candidate but this year has earned a spot on the debate stage, as well as ample publicity.

There's no way to know whether the Democratic National Committee’s bet pays off till a year from now, when we see what happens in the general election. The person with the biggest bet that the DNC has screwed up is Donald Trump, whose team is hoping Democrats pick a nominee they can portray as too liberal or too out of touch with the values of swing-state voters.

So far, reporter Alex Thompson said, “Despite a lot of grumbling from the campaigns, voters haven’t seemed [to care]— there hasn’t been an outcry to let Steve Bullock on the stage. It seems so far that the bet may have paid off.”

The Big Bet: Iowa is feeling young at heart

Earlier this year, it was common to hear candidates prattling about how times have changed, that the early states wouldn’t matter as much as in past elections, that this time it would truly be a national nominating contest.

As reporter Elena Schneider notes, there were good reasons for saying this or even believing it: The DNC rules mentioned above produced incentives to try to generate national enthusiasm rather than for candidates to simply park themselves in Des Moines and Manchester.

The candidates have almost uniformly abandoned this talk. They are counting on winning or beating expectations by a wide margin in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, and, with luck, still being serious contenders for the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29.

The biggest possibility of a major race-altering event is if Iowa voters decide to snub three of the oldest presidential candidates in history: Joe Biden (who will turn 77 later this month), Sen. Bernie Sanders (who turned 78 in September) and Warren (who turned 70 in June).

“Not to put this too crassly,” reporter Chris Cadelago said, “but [younger candidates] are betting that Iowa is going to look at this field and look to the next generation of candidates and not necessarily promote or elevate one of these 70-somethings.”

Especially if Biden is knocked out, the generational argument would have ideological repercussions, since it would allow a younger candidate like Pete Buttigieg (38) or Kamala Harris (54) with more centrist views to gain momentum.

The Big Bet: Bob Dylan is right again

“You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a’changin',” the poet laureate of the 1960s cultural revolutions sang (if you can call it that) in the fall of 1963, 21 years after Biden was born and 19 years before Buttigieg was.

Several candidates in the race, in their positions on expanding health care, decriminalizing illegal border crossings, providing reparations to descendants of slaves, and so on are betting that the ideological pendulum of American politics has swung left in decisive ways.

This may be the most consequential strategic divide of the Democratic race. Biden has spent most of his five decades in politics believing that the key for a successful progressive politician is to play defense — to avoid being caricatured as too liberal, to provide reassurance to voters concerned the party has drifted ideologically and culturally away from its working-class roots.

Warren, the greatest disrupter of Democratic politics this year, is a former Republican who believes the opposite: It is time for progressives to play a much more aggressive and undiluted brand of offense.

This is fundamentally a wager on the nature of the times, which are being shaped by a younger and more diverse electorate eager to use politics as a leveling instrument to attack entrenched power in government and corporate America alike.

“Some are more moderate, some are more to the left, but almost every single candidate is running to the left of where Barack Obama was in 2007, 2008,” Thompson noted. “There is an implicit bet that the country has, if not moved to the left, then at least voters will not be repulsed by some of these positions that are further to the left and they’ll be united in their desire to oust Trump from the Oval Office.”

The Big Bet: Elizabeth Warren has a plan … to not be flattened by her own plan

“I’ve got a plan for that,” the Massachusetts senator says, a mantra supported by detailed proposals articulated in crisp, clear and emphatic words.

Except ... Warren was murky for months in 2019 about whether her support of “Medicare for All” was actually an endorsement of Sanders’ plan to essentially blow up Obamacare and abolish private health insurance. Eventually, and eager to leave no daylight between her agenda and the demands of many liberal activists, she clarified that this was indeed the case — without matching Sanders’ concession that this expensive dream would require raising taxes for the middle class.

In recent days, she has tried to fill in that gap. And, in doing so, she has ignited fears among many in the Democratic operative class that she has needlessly put herself to the left of the general electorate and created a big vulnerability that could be exploited by Trump.

Warren’s bet, in the eyes of several POLITICO reporters who have watched her closely, is that this unconventional politician believes she has a conventional skill: The ability to turn on the fog machine when needed.

Cadelago notes Warren has signaled she has several priorities, and so Medicare for All wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing she pushes for. Korecki predicted that as a general election nominee Warren might wiggle out of her primary position and say it was merely an aspirational goal. Reporter Holly Otterbein, on the other hand, noted recent New York Times-Siena College polling that showed Medicare for All has the support of 73 percent of likely Democratic Iowa caucusgoers and that Democratic consultants might be wrong in warning her current stance is “totally crazy.”

The Big Bet: The 2020 primary electorate really will be different

One candidate who could survive middling performances in the early states is Sanders. He attracts roughly 15 percent support in polls, and this support looks durable. His most ardent backers regard him as different, not just a politician but the leader of a movement.

Sanders' big bet is that this movement has the capacity to grow and to appeal to voters who have not previously participated in Democratic contests. If true, this could give him staying power in the race even if he has yet to score big victories by spring. From early on, Sanders has demonstrated strength with younger voters, with Hispanics and with working-class voters.

Otterbein notes the obvious risk: Lots of candidates historically have pledged to expand the electorate and not many have been successful. “On the other hand,” she observes, “there was evidence in 2018 that some of these groups actually did see a real big boost in turnout. Latinos — their voter turnout increased more than any other ethnic group. And the younger generations outvoted the boomers and older generations.”

The Big Bet: No one cares what we think

The “we” in this instance is not just a bunch of POLITICO reporters. It is the larger community we are part of, including other news organizations, the professional operatives and analysts who tend to be our sources, the embedded assumptions that tend to inform our work.

It is a large group of candidates that hopes this bet comes true, including any Democrat who is not in what is now regarded as the top tier (Biden, Warren, Sanders, and, barely, Buttigieg) and is laboring against media presumptions that they have only the faintest and most implausible chance of being president. (Bennet, Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Julián Castro, among others, have all been forced to take this bet.)

But two people in particular are organizing their candidacies around the proposition that a media-operative class is simply incapable of understanding the radical and disruptive character of the times.

On the Democratic side, the person who is the most vivid example of this is Andrew Yang, whose “big bet,” Schneider said, “is, basically, we all don’t get it.” His de facto slogan, she added, could be this year’s new derisive phrase, “OK, boomer.”

But, above all, the person whose fate hangs on this bet is Trump.

The media-operative class believes: You know, on balance, it might not be a great idea to promiscuously shred norms about how presidents are supposed to comport themselves, to gratuitously insult people who don’t support you and even some who do, to lurch daily from outrage to uproar to scandal, all culminating in a likely impeachment trial in the winter before your reelection campaign.

Trump says: I don’t care.

His big bet, Thompson concluded, was highlighted in his recent television ad that said, “He’s no Mr. Nice Guy, but sometimes it take a Donald Trump to change Washington.” The wager is that “his projection of strength and willingness to throw elbows and jabs will end up being more appealing, despite all the controversy.”