- - Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Only 3 months old, Democrats’ presidential race already seems too long. Expect it to get a lot longer. Even though trends have clearly emerged, they will not play out quickly. 

According to Real Clear Politics’s average of national polls, just prior to the first debate (June 25), Joe Biden stood at 32 percent, Bernie Sanders at 16.9 percent and Elizabeth Warren at 12.8 percent. Three months later (9/19-10/1), Mr. Biden has fallen to 26.2 percent, Ms. Warren has risen to 24 percent and second place, while Mr. Sanders has remained flat at 16.8 percent. 

Collectively, there has been significant movement, too. The percentage of voters not assigned to any candidate has dropped from 11.8 percent to 8.5 percent. The collective establishment/moderate group (Mr. Biden, Steve Bullock and John Delaney) has dropped from 33.2 to 26.6 percent. The collective left (everyone except the previous three) has risen from 55 percent to 64.9 percent. 

There are several notable developments below these headlines’ surface. 

Among individual candidates, four formerly prominent challengers have fallen. Three months ago, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke all looked capable of challenging as top contenders; now, none do. There is a decided separation between the top three candidates and everyone else. 

Interestingly, while there are only three significant candidates, it is a four-corner race, because of the large left support separate from Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders. Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders combine for 40.8 percent of support; this leaves a very large 24.1 percent spread across the rest of the large left field. 

Put in perspective, “the rest of the left” field leads Mr. Sanders and ties Ms. Warren. It barely trails Mr. Biden. 

This also underscores another aspect of the race. While there may be three leading candidates, the race over the prevailing ideology is over.  The left is pulling away from the moderate/establishment camp. 

Three months ago, the moderate/establishment camp trailed the left by 22 points. Now that gap has ballooned to 38.3 points. At almost two-thirds of total Democratic support, the left has already won; the only question is where this overwhelming support will coalesce. 

There is a numeric pattern to the Democratic race. It is four-cornered: Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders and the remaining left. It is a three-candidate race: Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders; everyone else will fall away once pride allows or poverty demands. It exists on one end of the political spectrum: The left. Roughly, only one-quarter of the Democratic electorate, and one meaningful candidate, resides elsewhere. 

Only “two” appears missing from the Democratic race’s profile. Actually, though, it is there, as “too,” as in “too long” — because that is going to be the duration for deciding the Democratic nominee. The dynamics argue for a drawn-out campaign of attrition.

The left’s increasing ascendancy is squeezing out Mr. Biden. There are few unattached Democratic voters and as they have chosen, they have not chosen Mr. Biden. Even as the “unattacheds’” percentage has shrunk, so has Mr. Biden’s. Nor are they likely to choose Mr. Biden; he is thoroughly known and if they have not chosen him by now, there is no reason to expect they will.

However, Mr. Biden enjoys a monopoly advantage in his place on the Democratic political spectrum. No other significant moderate/establishment Democrat exists. Even as his slice of the party’s electorate erodes, he retains it all. Make no mistake: Mr. Biden cannot win, but he does not have to leave. Nor will Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders necessarily make him. He is no danger to them, because there is no room for him to grow. Instead, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders will focus their fight on the remaining left’s huge voter bloc. 

Next, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders will turn their attention on each other. With the left so ascendant, there is no other real contest than seeing who represents it. Mr. Biden cannot challenge them there, but he can — by retaining his moderate/establishment monopoly — keep them from pulling away. 

Each of the three has reason and means to stay. Mr. Biden is the sole voice for the party’s moderate/establishment remnant, whose power and purse can keep him running. Ms. Warren is rising, but the fact she could win the nomination also means she will have to play safer for the general election. 

Ms. Warren will find herself in Hillary’s 2016 predicament. She will also find Hillary’s 2016 foe equally dogged. Mr. Sanders has a dedicated core and a long history: No one has better bona fides for the left. He also proved in 2016 he will not drop out: If he would not for Mrs. Clinton, he certainly will not for Ms. Warren. Nor will he stint his run to the left: With this being the race’s direction, he will have a big advantage in being able to play without restraint in it. 

Just 3 months old, the Democrats’ race seems much longer. Even with its contours already clear, it will not end quickly. Democrats are shaping up for a year that could seem to them — and the rest of America — like an eternity. 

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department. 

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