OP-ED: Let it play out: The Democratic primary is really just getting started

Keith C. Burris
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Amy Klobuchar celebrates with her supporters in Concord after a strong third-place finish in the New Hampshire Primary. (Preston Ehrler / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images/TNS)

There are many notes, thoughts and perhaps even lessons to be gleaned from the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Let me suggest three:

1. Nobody really knows what the dynamic of the Democratic presidential race is yet. Or how it is going to reveal itself. And if someone tells you he or she does, don’t believe that person.

Democracy is messy. And this is not a bad thing. Public policy is complicated and human beings, be they citizens or leaders, are complicated.

Moreover, it is just possible that Democratic voters are being deliberate at this moment. New Hampshire voters are quite deliberate. (They are also, at times, earnest members of various echo chambers.)

The polling, so far, has been notably off — erratic, contradictory and, even when curated or averaged, wrong. This was true also in 2016.

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This is not because the polling has been careless. Polling methodologies, if anything, have become more and more refined. It is because large sections of the public have decided not to disclose all that they think and feel to pollsters. And that is a good thing also.

How about a national discussion of pollsters volunteering to stop polling and predicting a week before election days, or at least 48 hours before?

The elites have embarrassed themselves again as well. They told us Joe Biden would be a strong nominee and that he was the most electable candidate. Voters have thus far disagreed with the first premise and disproved the second. The elites are now telling us that Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar would be better able to stand up to Donald Trump in battle and in direct confrontation than Bernie Sanders. Does that seem true?

The press has not done well either — more often muddying rather than clarifying. Iowa, for instance, was not a tie. One candidate got more votes. The temptation to “analyze” and tell us what it all means, in the news columns and in broadcasts, rather than, to the best of the reporter’s ability, what was seen and heard, is where political news has been lost. The ultimate vanity, and stupidity, is two news anchors interviewing each other. No wonder these people never saw Donald Trump coming in 2016.

Electability will be demonstrated not by the opinion of ersatz experts but by voters.

Nobody really knows much yet.

2. The voters are still in the mode of expanding choice rather than constricting it.

This, too, is good, not bad. Who said that the field should be winnowed to two or three people after New Hampshire? Who made that rule?

Some in the punditocracy call the Democratic race “chaos.” Nonsense.

Some say a protracted contest weakens the ultimate nominee. Well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Besides, the contest has been anything but vicious so far. The worst thing anyone has said is that maybe a woman would have a tougher race than a man and that maybe a socialist would have a tougher race than a capitalist. Neither of which is a cruel or devastating observation. The truth, of course, is that it depends upon the woman, and the socialist.

Democrats will be united in their campaign against the president. And the truth is that they agree about almost everything and disagree only in degrees, to an almost scary extent. If you dissent on abortion as a positive good, or on drastic taxes on the rich, you are not only not welcome in the Democratic presidential race, you are not welcome in the Democratic Party.

3. However, Democratic primary voters will not be choosing a presidential nominee based on party or ideological purity. Yes, there is broad and deep agreement on the big issues. The average Democrat believes there is global warming, for example. But if a candidate is more gradualist than radical, that’s perfectly acceptable. Hence the rise of Mayor Pete and Senator Amy.

I don’t think the Biden fade or the Sanders surge (in national polls) is because Biden was more moderate or Sanders more radical. I think Biden is an inherently flawed candidate and Sanders an inherently strong one.

Consider that Mike Bloomberg is a recently registered Democrat and Sanders has never registered as a Democrat.

So purity is not going to be the test. I believe Democratic voters are looking for two things this year: First, character. By character, I mean integrity, courage and clarity of mind. And, second, an ability to take it to Trump. Not just to denounce and deplore him but to challenge him on issues, including his issues, like trade and economic opportunity for people in the heartland.

The system, and the voters, have only just begun to test for those qualities. We are not in the fourth quarter of the game. We are about to start the third play of the first quarter. Let’s have a little faith and confidence and let the game play out.

— Keith C. Burris is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers.