Opinion: Geography may determine presidential primaries

David Shribman

Let’s talk geopolitics.

Now that three female senators — Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—have used deft debate performances to rock the septuagenarian male front-runners off their pedantic pedestals, geography rather than gender is coming into play.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, speaks at the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami, as Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., left and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke listen.

The United States may have a national culture—and television (and then the internet) may have smoothed over geographical differences—but regional identity still matters.

Politics is no different. The Electoral College is not the only place where national preferences and choices are trumped by regional factors. So, too, is the process that leads to a presidential nomination—which is why Harris, Klobuchar, and Warren are on the verge of transforming strong national debate performances into powerful geographical advantages, with important consequences.

Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Warren are from states that share borders with vital early political states and Ms. Harris was elected to two major offices in a state that votes early in the nomination process and that delivered a 62-percent margin of victory to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton three years ago—two percentage points above the customary political definition of a landslide. Ms. Clinton did far better in California than Donald J. Trump did in Mississippi.

Klobuchar’s Minnesota shares a border with Iowa, where the precinct caucuses are the first political test of the 2020 presidential election. (Iowa is surrounded by six states, so it has lots of borders.)

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a forum on Friday, June 21, 2019, in Miami. Democratic presidential candidates Warren, shown, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke support the idea of a moderate wealth tax on the fortunes of the richest one-tenth of the richest 1% of Americans.

Over the years Iowa’s neighbors have found the Hawkeye State to be a peculiarly congenial battleground. Minnesota’s Walter F. Mondale won the state in 1984, and Missouri’s Richard Gephardt won four years later, with Illinois’ Paul Simon taking a strong second place. All three profited from the advantage Klobuchar is prepared to weaponize: busing scores of supporters to flood meaningless but highly visible events like the Iowa steak fury scheduled for Sept. 21 in the Water Works Park in Des Moines. Already 20 of the candidates have confirmed they will be there.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire looms as the unlikely staging ground for a dramatic struggle of two stern New England neighbors, Warren and Sanders, progressive titans with the most developed policies in the field. The two have cadres of homestate supporters who can flood over the southern and western borders to provide canvassing armies, phone bank legions and get-out-the-vote couriers.

There never has been a ‘’home game’’ struggle quite like this in New Hampshire, which within living memory was so conservative that its governor, Meldrum Thomson Jr. (in office 1973-1979), put the state on record for American withdrawal from the United Nations and also advocated arming the state’s national guard with nuclear weapons. Slightly earlier, Sen. Styles Bridges (governor 1935-1937, senator 1937-1961), was regarded as the reactionary’s reactionary and voted against condemning Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announces his legislation to cancel all student debt, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, June 24, 2019. Sanders called the student debt burden in this country the absurdity of sentencing an entire generation, the millennial generation, to a lifetime of debt for the crime of doing the right thing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The big winner of the debates and the calendar may be Ms. Harris, who opened her campaign with astonishing fanfare, then slipped from view, and finally surged to new prominence after challenging the civil rights record of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who as a onetime Delaware senator and a Scranton neighbor has been counting on a strong performance in Pennsylvania’s primary, which to his disadvantage is late in the process—April 28.

That is eight weeks — a lifetime in politics!—after the California primary, moved from its customary early-June lot to March 3. In her 2016 Senate campaign, Ms. Harris prevailed with 62 percent of the vote, another landslide. She has to be regarded as the prohibitive favorite in California, which will account for more than a quarter of the delegates required for the Democratic nomination.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

Ms. Harris won’t get all those delegates, of course, and she’s not the only Californian in the race. Rep. Eric M. Swalwell Jr., with a base in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties near San Francisco, is also a presidential candidate with a breakout moment in the Miami debate.

He recalled that Mr. Biden, who would be 81 years old when his first term drew to a close, once called upon his elders to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders, and he challenged Mr. Biden to pass the torch himself. A moderator asked: ’’Vice President, would you like to sing a torch song?’’ But it was more a night to be torched than to sing a torch song.

Indeed, perhaps the song being sung is a farewell — to the notion that biology is destiny. Perhaps the new ballot ballad is a hello — to the idea that geography is destiny.

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.