(CNN)The wine track and the beer track are back.
The leading candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential race are assembling coalitions of support through the early primary polling that are reminiscent of the patterns that repeatedly shaped the struggles for the party’s nomination in the last decades of the 20th century.Like such predecessors as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, former Vice President Joe Biden is relying heavily on voters from what’s been called the Democrats’ “beer track”: blue-collar, older and moderate whites, along with African Americans. Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who many in the party see emerging as Biden’s most serious rival, is following such brainy predecessors as George McGovern, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown and Howard Dean to run best among voters from the “wine track”: college-educated white liberals. Bernie Sanders, the third candidate leading the polls, straddles this divide, relying heavily on independents and young people — who often gravitate toward “wine track” candidates — but also showing consistent strength among working-class whites.Read MoreThis reversion to the voter alignments that drove the party primaries during the late 20th century represents a back to the future moment for the Democrats. In 2008, Barack Obama scrambled this historic pattern and won the nomination by combining a strong performance among college-educated whites with a big advantage among African Americans; to an underappreciated extent, Hillary Clinton followed that model to beat back the unexpectedly strong challenge from Sanders in 2016. In effect Obama and then Clinton moved black voters from the beer track to the wine track, creating a new winning majority.But now Biden, with his strength among blue-collar and older whites and African Americans, has established a consistent lead in national polls by reassembling the historic beer track coalition that fractured in 2008 and 2016. That suggests one of the decisive questions for Democrats in the coming months is whether another candidate can dislodge enough African American voters from Biden’s camp to re-create something like the Obama coalition of black voters and white-collar whites. Warren today looks best positioned to do that, but many believe that Sen. Kamala Harris of California, despite her uneven performance so far, could still find an audience among college-educated whites and African Americans, especially women in both groups. 2 Democratic Party lanesFrom 1972, the first year that control of the nomination shifted mostly from party bosses at conventions to voters via primaries, through 2004, the Democratic race often reduced to one leading candidate from each of these two lanes — what I’ve called in the past the “wine track” and the “beer track.””The Democrats are split on the one hand racially and on the other hand in class terms,” says Northeastern University political scientist William Mayer, an expert on the presidential primary process. “And those have been persistent differences all the way through, you could even go back to 1972.”The wine track candidates have drawn support primarily from well-educated, financially comfortable white voters, many of whom identify as independents rather than partisan Democrats, who are liberal on social and foreign policy issues but generally less focused on economic concerns. Beer track candidates have relied mostly on blue-collar whites and African Americans, more open to lunch-bucket economic appeals and moderate to conservative positions on cultural and national security issues.Not all presidential primaries divided the party along these lines, but when they did, the beer track candidate almost always beat the contender from the wine track.In 1984, beer-track candidate Mondale, the favorite of organized labor, beat “Atari Democrat” Hart, the champion of “new ideas.” In 1992, Bill Clinton, with a message that married economic populism with the notion of personal responsibility in social policy, amassed strong margins among blue-collar whites and African Americans to beat Tsongas and Brown, each of whom had considerable appeal to upscale white liberals. In 2000, Gore used a similar coalition to easily turn aside the challenge from former Sen. Bill Bradley, who also ran well among wine-track voters. The divide wasn’t quite as sharply delineated in 1976, but Jimmy Carter relied on a similar pattern of support — particularly a big lead among African American voters — to win the nomination over rivals who included wine-track favorite Morris Udall, a wry liberal US representative from Arizona.How Obama and Hillary Clinton prevailedThe clearest exception to the beer track’s preeminence came in 1972, when McGovern mobilized white liberals and young people to win the nomination over Humphrey, a classic beer track candidate bolstered by strong support from organized labor. Still, even McGovern benefited from a divided opposition and won the nomination with only about one-fourth of the total primary vote.Obama shattered these pieces and reassembled them into a new combination in his epic 2008 primary victory over Hillary Clinton. Obama that year split college-educated white voters — the core of the wine track constituency — almost exactly in half with Clinton and captured more than four-fifths of African American voters, according to a cumulative analysis by ABC pollster Gary Langer of all the 2008 primary exit polls conducted. That allowed Obama to overcome Clinton’s 2-to-1 advantage among white voters without college degrees.Clinton, more than is commonly realized, followed that same path to beat Sanders eight years later. As Obama did against her in 2008, Clinton in 2016 split college-educated white voters almost exactly in half against Sanders but she won more than three-fourths of African-American voters, according to a cumulative CNN analysis of all the 2016 exit polls. (She also won about three-fifths of Hispanics and nearly two-thirds of voters who identified as Democrats.) That allowed Clinton to survive Sanders’ nearly double-digit advantage among white voters without college degrees, as well as his huge leads among younger voters and independents who participated in the Democratic primary.The success in both 2008 and 2016 of “the Obama model” for winning the nomination reflected in part the changing nature of the Democratic coalition. Compared with the late 20th century, white voters without college degrees now make up a much smaller share of the Democratic electorate, while college whites and minorities have grown. In 2016, according to the cumulative CNN exit poll analysis, whites with at least four-year college degrees represented the single largest slice of Democratic primary voters: just over one-third. African Americans and whites without college degrees each composed about one-fourth of the electorate, with voters from other racial minorities contributing the final roughly one-seventh.What Warren/Sanders need to doWith these demographic changes as the backdrop, some Democratic strategists, such as Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager in 2016, predicted as the primaries began that “this thing will be won (in 2020) by some combination of the Obama coalition, college whites and African Americans.”But so far this year, the three major pieces of the Democratic electorate — college and non-college whites and minorities, especially African-Americans — are combining in patterns that look more like the late 20th century than the 2008 and 2016 races dominated by the “Obama coalition.”In most polls, Biden has held a strong lead among African Americans as well as older and more moderate voters of all races; usually he also runs more strongly among white voters without college degrees than those with advanced education. In the ABC/Washington Post national Democratic primary poll released Sunday, for instance, he won 24% of whites without college degrees, compared with 19% of those with degrees.Warren’s support usually inverts that pattern. In the ABC/WP poll she drew 27% of college-educated whites, leading among them — compared with 19% among non-college whites. The latest national Quinnipiac University Poll showed her trailing Biden narrowly among college whites while he held a 10-point advantage among non-college whites — and a roughly 35-point lead among African Americans. Warren also consistently runs much better with liberals than moderates: The ABC/Washington Post survey found her drawing about 3-in-10 of the former, compared with only about 1-in-10 of the latter.Sanders also run much better with liberals than moderates — and does better with younger than older voters and with non-college rather than college whites.Many Democratic analysts argue that these patterns present Warren and Sanders with the same challenge: expanding their bases beyond more liberal whites. Though their support doesn’t entirely overlap — Sanders tilts more toward blue-collar whites, Warren toward white-collar ones, for instance — they share the common problem of attracting meager numbers so far among African Americans. “I think that the foundation for these candidacies is pretty clear,” says David Axelrod, the top political strategist for Obama and a senior CNN political commentator. “In the case of Warren and Sanders it’s incumbent on them to expand their bases.”Can Warren do it?In 2016, Sanders ran competitively with younger African Americans but overall attracted just one-fifth of black voters, according to the cumulative CNN exit poll. This time, many Democratic observers give Warren a better chance than Sanders of building a beachhead in the black community if she emerges in a strong position from the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Though Warren’s poll numbers remain modest among black voters, she has been well received before predominantly minority audiences such as the She the People and National Action Network gatherings last April and a CNN town hall before a largely African American crowd in Jackson, Mississippi, last March.”In a business analogy the question is how do you scale,” says Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren. “I look at (those) performances as a trial market, and then the question is how do you scale your production to a national audience and national market?”LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter, agrees that Warren, or perhaps Harris, could still find an audience among black voters, particularly women. Brown said that while Biden starts with an advantage in the black community based on his familiarity and his role as Obama’s vice president, she believes he has not been able to expand or harden that support during the campaign.”I think he’s maintaining,” Brown said. “I just don’t see any new ground … and in some ways I think he’s losing a little ground. Young people are not excited by this campaign at all.”That tepid response, Brown believes, has left an opening for Warren, or perhaps Harris (though Brown cautions that Harris has not yet established the connection she expected). “Elizabeth Warren has folks’ attention,” Brown said. “They are not committed just yet to her, but in terms of conversations I’ve had with black women, people are saying, ‘I’m listening. She has my attention.'”The stakes could not be higher for the other candidates in eroding Biden’s advantage among black voters. Liberal college whites are growing as a share of the Democratic electorate, and Warren, in particular, has shown the potential to become a very strong candidate among them, as demonstrated by the huge crowds she recently drew in the white-collar enclaves of Minneapolis and Seattle. But many party strategists remain dubious that Warren — or anyone else — can win by consolidating those voters alone if Biden maintains an edge with the party’s other two biggest blocks: blacks and blue-collar whites. “I still think she’s operating in too small a sandbox,” says Joe Trippi, the campaign manager in 2004 for Howard Dean, another “wine track” candidate who fell short. “I think she’s running the best campaign of anybody out there. I think they are doing a lot of things right. The problem for her is so far what looks like an inability to broaden out her to reach to more diverse elements of the party. Bernie had that problem in 2016.”Biden wants to run in the general election against President Donald Trump by offering to restore a sense of normalcy after all the turmoil of Trump’s presidency. Whether Biden gets the chance to present that case may depend on whether he can first restore the “beer track” as the winning path to the Democratic nomination.