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Scott MacKay Commentary:The 2020 Democratic presidential election

As summer fades to fall, the Democratic presidential contest gains traction

The parade is forming for the primaries and caucuses that in less than five months will winnow an overflowing group of candidates that can’t even fit on one debate stage.  The Public’s Radio political analyst Scott MacKay parses the 2020 Democratic field and talks about how 2020 will differ from 2016. (Advance copy of commentary scheduled to air Monday.)

Presidential campaigns are usually compared to marathons. That’s not so now; the 2020 campaign will more resemble a sprint.

That’s because the rules have been dramatically altered. The biggest change is the elimination of the super delegates, the party functionaries and elected officials who lined up behind Hillary Clinton in 2016. There were almost 800 super delegates in 2016. They’re gone and their influence will be replaced by primary voters and caucus goers.

The other notable element is the shortening of the electoral process. The first event is the traditional Iowa caucus on February 3rd, followed a week later by the kickoff primary in the snows of New Hampshire. February rounds out with caucuses in Nevada and the South Carolina primary.

Then on March 3rd, voters in 15 states face primaries. They include delegate-rich California, the New England states of Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine and the biggest southern draw, Texas. By the time returns roll in that evening, roughly 40 percent of delegates will be locked in.

This means an early decision on a challenger to President Trump; the Democratic nominee will likely be clear by the middle of March, says Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic consultant who was a top adviser to Bernie Sanders in 2016 but is not affiliated with any campaign now.

“Getting ahead early is the key to being the nominee,” says Devine. A candidate who is ahead by 250 delegates or so by St. Patrick’s Day is probably unstoppable. Thus, the Rhode Island and Connecticut primaries, slated for April 28th, would have scant impact.

The early polling has favored former Vice-President Joe Biden, Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has ridden her I’ve-got-a-plan-for-that charismatic wonkery to break into the top tier.

Polls this far out are notoriously bad predictors, particularly in New Hampshire, where finicky voters are known for making up their minds in the waning days, or even hours. So far, the White House hopefuls are spending more time and money in Iowa than New Hampshire. The two states are overwhelmingly white and Democrats lean liberal in both. But they are much different events. The Iowa caucuses are low-turnout affairs, dominated by liberals and labor union members.

New Hampshire is a traditional election, with turnouts higher than 50 percent. Independents can cast ballots. Traditionally, it winnows New England candidates. It’s difficult to see how Vermont’s Sanders and the Bay State’s  Warren both survive New Hampshire, unless they land in a virtual tie for first. The expectations for Sanders are high; he defeated Clinton by 22 points  there in 2016.

After the opening events, the campaign moves quickly to South Carolina, a primary dominated by African-Americans. Biden is leading in polls there, likely because of his loyal service to President Barack Obama. It’s rare in our society for a white man to serve as a number two to a black in a high position in politics or most other major institutions in America.

The other big question the early events will answer is the left, progressive turn among Democrats. There has been much hand-wringing among moderates over some progressive stances that those in the middle fear play into Trump’s hand. These include Medicare-for-All, decriminalizing pot and the borders, aggressive climate change plans and impeachment.

Soon it will be time for voters to decide what the media pundits have been wrestling over. Devine argues that Medicare-for-All can be finessed into a winning message. Drug and insurance companies are unpopular, says Devine, and Trump hasn’t come up with a credible replacement for the Obamacare system Republicans so detest.

Get ready for a short, albeit bumpy, roller-coaster ride. The rhetoric will heat up as Democrats decide who should take on the unpopular Republican president. Before the snow melts in New England, we should have a good idea of who might be that candidate.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political analysis at our web site at Thepublicsradio.org