The subtext underlying last night's Democratic presidential debate was the election coming up in three weeks: The caucuses of Iowa, which likely will mark a significant inflection point in the race to the Democratic nomination.
The widespread and probably accurate view is that four candidates are closely bunched together near or at the lead: former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Oneother senator, Amy Klobuchar, seems clearly to in a well-behind fifth place but has some chance, in the hotly-contested caucuses of a state similae to her home of Minnesota, of exceeding expectations.
The tension over this comes in part from an unusual but clear fact: The polling numbers are tight enough that, given the vagaries of the Iowa's byzantine caucus system, there's no realistic way to know which of the four major candidates will emerge on top: What the order of finish will be. A plausible case can be made for any of the top four finishing first or fourth, an uncommonly fluid situation (and fascinating for those of us who enjoy watching), and even a not-unreasonable longshot scenario for Klobuchar.
It reminds me of a something similar: The long-running debate over which of the candidates would be most or least able to defeat Republican Donald Trump in November.
The realistic answer: Their chances all would be close to the same.
Consider Biden, who probably most often has been described as the strongest of the contenders against the president. He would bring definite strengths: White House experience, deep political experience generally, strong support within his own party, strong support among minorities Democrats are counting on to vote, a generally good reputation and affection by many people who aren't even political allies; among other things. But there are minuses. He would not excite many Democratic activists, he has had trouble with campaign organization and fundraising (and getting campaign spending under control), age gas been an issue with him, and he is perceived in many quarters to be more of a mainstream stand-patter than an overturner of applecarts - an image not greater in line with the mood of the day. The pluses and minuses balance.
So do they balance with the others. Sanders has clarity and focus and a massive and extremely motivated support base (Biden's is wide but not deep); his campaign organization and funding are in fine shape; while his age shows visibly, you can easily forget it when watching the energy he brings to the field. There are also a number of Trump voters who might more easily flip to him than to any other Democrat. On the down side, his rhetoric and Democratic Socialist label are off-putting to many; many Democrats may resent the idea of nominating a contender who doesn't even consider himself one of them (not to mention having little background in supporting Democrats for office, at a time when the Senate hangs in the balance); the health issue will not vanish entirely; and so on.
You can run through the same exercise with Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, and come up with similar results: A balance of pros and cons, arguments in favor and against any of these contenders. Most analyses have tended to focus on one particular strength or weakness of one or another of them, and promote or diminish their chances on that basis. Look at the larger picture, with all of these elements in place, and what you see is a field of candidates with genuine strengths and counterbalancing weaknesses. They're all different among the various candidates, but which plus or minus you focus on may say more about you (or the analyst) than it does about which would be the strongest candidate.
This works another way too. Any of these candidates may gain votes from some quarter that another candidate might not, but they also lose. Maybe Biden could pick up some centrist and minority votes that, say, Warren might not; but Warren might draw votes from millennials and upscale suburbanites that Biden might not. And so on around the circle. (Of course, in a general election context, all of that is also pretty speculative anyway.)
Here's a larger point. In nearly any election with an incumbent on the ballot, the nature of the incumbent is a lot more important to the outcome than the nature of the challenger. That will be much more true than usual in 2020; the vote for and against Trump is far more likely to be decided by attitudes toward the incumbent than it will be attitudes toward the challenger.
Message to Democrats, then: Quit chasing your tail and driving yourselves crazy. Choose a good nominee. That's the the best you can do and, from this vantage point, that looks to be sufficient.