As ten Democratic candidates take the stage tonight in the third debate the safe bet is actually the most dangerous gamble.
In every single Presidential race since 2000 voters have chosen the non-traditional candidate. Let that fact sink in for a bit, and then consider that coverage of the 2020 Democratic race has largely focused on electability even as the moderate candidates have cratered and the more liberal Warren and Sanders are on the upswing.
Whether it was an open seat, or an incumbent election, when it comes to Presidential candidates Americans don’t like the safe and staid choice: voters chose Bush over Gore (or at least made the race enough of a toss up the Supreme Court got to weigh in); Obama over McCain; and Trump over Clinton. In every case the more aspirational “change” candidate won.
The more cautionary tales is that this pattern holds even for challengers taking on unpopular incumbents. Even though George W. Bush was considered grossly incompetent by the time of his reelection campaign, having lied the country into the Iraq war, John Kerry (presented as the responsible alternative) lost even as Democratic challengers picked up House and Senate seats. When Republicans accused Obama of having overreached and nominated Mitt Romney to campaign against Obama and what Republicans perceived as “too much change” in the form of the Affordable Care Act, Romney was trounced even as Republicans and the Tea Party won seats in Congress and the Senate.
The American electorate has shown itself willing to vacillate wildly when it comes to policy preferences (how else do you explain electing Obama twice only to replace him with Trump), but less willing to budge when it comes to the respectability argument. Voters are fed up and willing to risk it all by putting in place the candidate they think is willing to shake things up. And if it doesn’t work they’ll move on to the next candidate who promises to do so. Which is why Biden’s candidacy of continuity is ultimately so dangerous.
Biden and Warren are now tied at 26% according to the latest poll. Add in the 16% for Sanders and that’s 42% of the likely Democratic electorate signalling support for the two most disruptive candidates. As the field narrows, the Democratic electorate looks primed for another change candidate. We’ve seen what happens to inevitability candidates before. In 2020 that is the lesson to heed.