Between now and spring 2019 you’re going to see plenty of polling of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders. You’ll hear from lots of supposedly plugged-in operatives. Iowans will be poked and prodded. (How meaningless a survey, especially in December 2018, could you come up with? The Wall Street Journal wants us to know that 76 Iowa insiders want “a fresh face” and “yearn for a nominee with the energizing charisma of President Barack Obama.”)
You will hear that by deciding to get in (or stay out) so-and-so “upset” or “shook up” the race, which doesn’t yet exist and hasn’t begun. There is only one decision that really makes a difference: Will former vice president Joe Biden run? He’s in some sense the linchpin for the race, and certainly for those Democrats more ideologically centrist.
Now let’s start with the clear possibility he could run and lose in the primary to a fresh upstart. That was precisely what happened in 2008 when freshman Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) beat the overwhelming, establishment favorite with a huge money and organization advantage at the beginning of the race. (In the “ignore all polls before we get close to the Iowa caucuses” department, try the Democrats' 2008 race.) Right now Biden has universal name recognition (hence he leads in silly, early polls). If he did enter, he would instantly drain the well of “establishment” money and scoop up Clinton-Obama era staff. However, after months on the trail and numerous debates those advantages could well dissipate. In short, he’s far from a slam-dunk if he decides to run.
If Biden does run, it would be hard slogging for someone pitching the same working-class message (e.g., Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio) and those who are more moderate (e.g., Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Michael Bloomberg). In that case the race may boil down to Biden vs. the winner of the progressives' mini-primary. Biden would act as a deterrent to many moderate candidates who already are uncertain of their fundraising prowess. On the left of the party, you would likely see everyone including Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) , Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), billionaire activist Tom Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) try to be the last man or woman standing, eager to go up against Biden as the race narrows from dozens (potentially) to just a few contenders.
Incidentally, it’s going to be hard for one progressive to distinguish himself or herself from the others. Sanders and Warren may divide up the anti-Wall Street, not-embarrassed-to-identify-as-socialists group while Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) would battle for those who think a blue-state senator is the answer to their worries. The one who may win in such a crowded race, as in the 2016 GOP primary, may be the one who has no equivalent in the field. (There’s a reason why Beto is getting so much attention). Being different helps in a very large field.
Anyhow, getting back to Biden, if he wins and goes up against President Trump (or, if lightning strikes, Vice President Pence or another contender), you’ll have the battle of the septuagenarians. For many Democrats, that would seem like they are sacrificing a possible advantage of a younger nominee who’d be easier to relate to and could paint Trump as an out-of-it fuddy-duddy. Questions about both candidates' health and longevity would be highly relevant.
However, if Biden does not run -- and for a 76-year-old with the chance to provide his family with economic security, free from the campaign trail grind, who’d blame him if he passed? -- then candidates of all ideological shades will flood into the race. The Democratic Party will undergo an ideological debate, but with so many candidates saying very similar things, the race may boil down to the question of which candidate connects emotionally with voters and is perceived as capable of beating Trump. (I would caution the Democrats that those are two very different things, and if the imperative is to get rid of Trump, they’d be wise to take someone a little less dreamy if he/she can beat Trump.)
The worst of all worlds from the point of view of the Democratic Party may be if Biden delays his decision or says he’s out, but sounds occasionally like he might get back in. That’s a recipe for paralysis, as staff and donors hold out until they are certain one way or another if Biden will run.
In short, in the next few months, Biden’s decision is about the only critical factor. On his decision, the nomination and the future of the country may well turn. He should, for the sake of his party and the country, decide sooner rather than later.