I will go out on a limb and say no one absent from the stage will be the nominee, nor will Steyer, Gabbard or Yang. In all likelihood, the nominee will be one of three senators, a former vice president or a Midwest mayor. Three of them (Biden, Warren, Sanders) are in their 70s, two are women and three are moderates (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar).
Granted, it is a strange lineup for a party that is so dependent on nonwhite voters and, as the media keep telling us, has been trending far-left. The ascendancy of moderates is also reflected in Warren’s decline when she embraced the progressives’ Medicare-for-all plan. Sanders has a constituency that is loyal, limited and non-transferable. In short, right now we do not see enough staunch progressive voters to produce a plurality for any candidate. (The Warren-Sanders vote in national and early state polling cumulatively remains under 40 percent, although just barely in Nevada.) After all the hoopla about the party’s shift to the left, the three moderates might have the inside track for the nomination.
Despite an uneven performance and disproportionately negative coverage, Biden has kept a loyal base of supporters, including a significant plurality of African American voters, who have not been tempted to shift en masse to another candidate. If Biden can survive the first two primaries with comparatively few nonwhite voters, he will have a sizable advantage as states with higher percentages of nonwhite voters weigh in. The other candidates’ hopes rest with Biden’s unraveling in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden’s worst-case scenario would be a poor finish in both and a single opponent sweeping both.
Buttigieg’s path is straightforward: a top finish in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, the departure of one or more lagging candidates and then a one-on-one match-up against either a super-progressive or Biden. If it is the latter, however, African American voters might deprive him of the nomination.
Then there is Klobuchar, the emerging dark horse, if only because she has survived and gained stature by making it to the debate stage with better-known candidates. She successfully developed a solid ground game in Iowa and a feisty persona with a moderate message. She has to perform, as they say, “better than expected," in Iowa, which amounts to beating one or more of the top four contenders (Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg) and then slugging it out state by state. Her best hope comes in a race in which she becomes the last moderate standing.
It is worth noting that voters supporting a candidate who fails to get 15 percent in the first round in the Iowa caucuses are freed up to choose another candidate. The Iowa winner might turn out to be the second choice of the fifth-place candidate. (Yes, this is a heck of a way to pick a nominee.)
None of this means that Warren or Sanders, who have come down in the polls from their spring and summer highs, are out of it. However, as we know, once candidates’ poll numbers have dropped substantially (e.g., former congressman Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Kamala D. Harris), it is hard to get voters to reconsider them.
Between now and Feb. 3, when the voting starts in Iowa, a candidate can get hot, or stumble; an unexpected event (such as an impeachment trial) might throw a monkey wrench into the race. Anyone tempted to predict the outcome should consider just how many bits of conventional wisdom have evaporated upon contact with real voters. In other words, nobody will know much of anything until the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire speak.