Almost exactly one year ago, when the 2020 Democratic primary field was still forming, I published a post here at Honest Graft entitled "There Are No Clear Lane Markers on the Road to the White House." The piece criticized the practice of sorting candidates in party primaries into simplistic "lane" categories as a means of identifying their sources of voter support, most threatening competitors, and degree of strategic advantage or disadvantage.
As I argued then, this metaphor distorts the actual behavior of voters, whose preferences in multi-candidate primary elections are much weaker, less predictable, and more open to other sources of influence than the "lanes" theory allows. I even suggested that the unjustified popularity of this concept had contributed to the widespread failure to anticipate Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 Republican primaries. Other candidates, consultants, and pundits alike misinterpreted Trump's early success as mostly reflecting the inability of a hypothesized "establishment lane" to coalesce around a single opponent, and they incorrectly anticipated that Trump would eventually hit a hard ceiling of support in the Republican electorate before he won a majority of delegates.
In a testament to the intellectual influence of this blog over the American political universe, the "lanes" conception of nominations has exploded in popularity over the year since that post was written. In fact, it's become inescapable. The conventional wisdom now blaring from nearly every political analyst with a prominent media perch suggests that the Democratic race can be fairly described more or less as follows:
1. Democratic voters and candidates fall into one of two main categories corresponding to ideology—left (Sanders and Warren) or center (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg). Voters can be assumed to prefer any candidate within their ideological lane over any candidate outside it.
2. In the national Democratic electorate, the center lane is at least as large as the left lane. However, Sanders has successfully consolidated most of the left behind his own candidacy, while the center remains split among multiple candidates without a clear favorite.
3. The unity on the left against divided opposition in the center represents Sanders's most important strategic advantage in the race. If he wins the nomination, this will be the biggest reason why.
Devotion to these three assumptions has become so prevalent that it's common to see journalists on Twitter simply aggregate the vote shares of candidates in each "lane" after the results arrive in a primary or caucus, as if the two sets of contenders are fishing for votes in two completely different lakes. On Sunday, NBC News published an analytical piece by Sahil Kapur and Ali Vitali based on the premise that these two ideological lanes had become battle lines in an intense factional fight among Democrats, and that candidates who tried to bridge the supposedly vast expanse between "left" and "center" risked satisfying nobody in the party—the doomed fate, they claimed, of early dropouts like Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker.
And yet, there's plenty of evidence that things are just not that simple.
Political scientists have long known that ideology does not play nearly as strong a role in the thinking of regular citizens as it does in shaping the perceptions and preferences of political elites; in fact, this finding is one of the most foundational insights of the academic study of public opinion. Democratic voters, in particular, are likely to view politics through a lens of group identity and interest rather than ideological abstraction. It can seem almost inconceivable to those who spent their days and nights absorbed in politics, and who are socialized into forming a fundamentally ideological conception of the political world, that plenty of rank-and-file Democrats might be deciding between, say, Warren and Klobuchar, or might fail to recognize the existence of a massive philosophical difference between "Bernie" on one side and "Mayor Pete" on the other. But reporters who speak to attendees at candidate rallies regularly encounter such voters—sometimes to their amazement—and they are even more prevalent among the segment of the public that isn't sufficiently engaged in politics to spend their leisure time at campaign events. According to the polling firm Morning Consult, 23 percent of Sanders supporters ranked Biden as their second choice in early February, 28 percent of Biden voters chose Sanders as their second choice, and 29 percent of Bloomberg supporters chose either Sanders or Warren.
On Friday, Yahoo! News released survey results measuring Sanders's head-to-head performance against each of the other major Democratic candidates. As the accompanying article noted, these findings contradicted the idea that Sanders has a natural ceiling of support short of a national majority, or that he would necessarily face a disadvantage in a one-on-one race against anyone from the "moderate lane." But the results also demonstrated that there was a significant segment of the Democratic electorate that preferred Biden to Sanders at the time of the survey but also preferred Sanders to Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Bloomberg. In one single blow, then, the Yahoo! story undermined all three of the common assumptions listed above. Yet its publication doesn't seem so far to have inspired major media authorities to abandon the "lanes" theory of the 2020 Democratic nomination.
Sanders currently holds a favorable position, but it's not because he's united his own ideological "lane" while his opponents are dividing theirs. Sanders is in good shape at the moment because there is no other single candidate who can boast the same combination of strengths—personal following, financial resources, organizational capacity, and early-state success—that are traditionally associated with victorious presidential nomination campaigns. The candidates who are best-known and best-equipped to compete with Sanders nationally (Biden, Warren, and Bloomberg) underperformed by media consensus or declined to compete in Iowa and New Hampshire, while the candidates who have overperformed so far (Buttigieg and Klobuchar) can't match his national support or fundraising ability. Thinking in terms of "lanes" not only misrepresents the true state of the race, but also underrates Sanders's chance of victory by characterizing it as a function of divided, rather than weak, opposition.
Sanders's advantage may not last. A rival candidate could catch on or bounce back; these things have happened before. But the "lanes" theory suggests that his candidacy would be threatened merely by the consolidation of the rest of the field, and there's good reason—from recent survey data to the Republicans' experience in 2016—to reject that assumption. Presidential nominations are highly dynamic processes, and imposing excessive analytical order from above on voters' behavior is introducing rules that are just meant to be broken.