Democrats Still at Square One

With two debates down and too many more still to go, Democrats are pretty much where they were before the June debates in Miami and the July debates in Detroit.

That shouldn’t surprise you. The Iowa caucuses are still almost six months away, and voters are just starting to tune into the campaign. They know full well they don’t have to embrace one hopeful now.

Instead, they can continue to comparison shop, evaluating performances in debates, on television interviews, on the stump and in the heavy news coverage.

And those who care about electability can watch the polls. After a rather combative set of debates — courtesy of CNN, which was more interested in roughhousing by the candidates than in uncovering their priorities and management styles — where does the Democratic race now stand?

President Donald Trump is still the egotistical, abusive promoter of division that he has been, which is one reason why his job approval ratings are so poor given low unemployment rates, substantial wage growth and a generally vibrant economy.

Sure, there are things to complain about — e.g., growing deficits and debt, trade wars and the growing wealth gap — but if Trump acted like a normal president, he would be coasting to reelection.

Instead, the president, who drew 46 percent of the popular vote in 2016, sits generally in the 40 percent to 43 percent range in hypothetical ballot tests against a variety of top-tier Democratic hopefuls.

Former Vice President Joe Biden performs best against Trump, but he isn’t the only Democrat to lead in head-to-head ballot tests.

Democrats have a number of ways of increasing their vote share in 2020, including attracting more base voters (who either didn’t turn out or voted for a third party candidate in 2016) and/or improving their showing among suburban women and women with a college degree, swing groups that turned more Democratic in the 2018 midterms.

If they improve their showing among one or both of those groups, the president will have a difficult time winning a second term.

Of course, Trump still has a narrow path to 270 electoral votes, and Republicans will try to demonize and discredit the eventual Democratic nominee, making him or her unacceptable to enough voters to produce another Trump victory.

Obviously, Trump’s chances of discrediting his opponent varies with that challenger. He’d use different tactics against Biden than he would against Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

But no matter whom the Democrats nominate, Trump’s campaign will be built around destroying him or her.

The Democrats will be in much better position if they can make the 2020 about Trump.

Sure, their nominee will need a positive agenda and appealing vision, and the party will adopt a platform in Milwaukee at next summer’s nominating convention.

But the Democratic nominee needs to spend much more time making the 2020 election a referendum on Trump than a choice between two ideologies.

Electability will become a bigger concern in the months ahead. But right now, ideological positioning, candidate skills and past records are more important.

So how have the Democrats fared so far? Not particularly well.

Biden, the early national front-runner, continues to be the best-positioned Democrat in the race.

As Barack Obama’s former vice president, he starts off with considerable support in the black community. But he also has a long-developed reputation for appealing to working-class white voters, like the ones in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who elected Trump.

A progressive with more than a mere touch of pragmatism, he has appeal to both his party’s base and swing voters.

But Biden received underwhelming reviews in Miami. He recovered somewhat in Detroit, but he didn’t appear agile during his second debate, stumbling more than a few times.

Yes, I know, we all stumble. But at 76, he (and Sanders, who is 77) are under a microscope.

Biden’s lengthy record continues to give plenty of ammunition to his opponents. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro all raised issues with him in Detroit that he either didn’t answer or was ineffective rebutting.

Fortunately for him, he will have more opportunities to put doubts about his campaign skills to rest. California Sen. Kamala Harris was the clear winner of her first debate with Biden, but she found out how quickly things can change.

Targeted by others onstage in Detroit, she was put on the defensive immediately about the latest version of her “Medicare for All” plan.

Quickly, Harris’ shoulders drooped, and her smile vanished. She looked at various moments deflated, bored and frustrated.

Yes, it is only one night. But it was a missed opportunity. With Biden and Harris having less than ideal nights, Sanders and Warren are, at least briefly, the short-term beneficiaries.

Both are passionate populists, with boundless energy and an unquenchable desire to bash corporations and the rich.

But Sanders embraced the “socialist” label years ago, and his agenda has not strayed fundamentally from that goal, leaving him open to Republican attacks that his election would destroy Trump’s greatest accomplishment — the economy.

Of course, Sanders leads Trump in most polls, and his supporters will argue that shows his electability, to say nothing of his appeal to progressives who never warmed to Hillary Clinton.

But the amount of opposition research on Sanders must be mind-numbing, considering that he is now 77 years old and his political activism goes back to the early 1960s. He first ran for office in 1971.

Warren doesn’t quite have Sanders’ baggage, but she is vulnerable to the same criticism.

Maybe more importantly, those hopefuls who embraced “Medicare for all” suddenly find themselves on the defensive against those defending Obamacare and those workers not eager to give up longtime union-negotiated health care coverage.

So, Democrats face an uncomfortable reality.

Trump is damaged goods, but most of their own top-tier hopefuls have their own liabilities — or at least have to worry about their ideological positioning, campaign skills and electability. Luckily, Iowa is still many months away.

Note: This column appeared initially on Roll Call on August 6, 2019.

For the 2020 Democratic field, ‘electability’ doesn’t mean much — for now

Most discussions about “electability” boil down to what path Democrats need to take to win the White House.

Do they need a presidential nominee who mobilizes the base (including nonwhites, younger voters and those on the left) or one who attracts white, suburban swing voters and maybe even a 2016 Trump voter or two?

The ideal Democratic nominee — the candidate with the best chance of winning an election — would appeal to both groups, as Bill Clinton did. But what if no candidate shows that breadth of appeal? Or if more than one hopeful (following different paths) looks able, or even likely, to defeat President Donald Trump?

Defining ‘electable’

Many on the left take issue with the concept of “electability” at all. They argue that it’s just a rationale for supporting old, white men.

As a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List told Vox, “Metrics like authenticity and likability and electability are just code that we use against candidates who are not like what we are used to.”

There is a kernel of truth to that, but it’s mostly poppycock.

The Democratic field has both men and women who are likable (California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden) and unlikable (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren).

The same goes for electability. Candidates have different assets and liabilities, though it certainly is true that observers sometimes err in evaluating the importance of both (as we did with Trump in 2016).

Each Democrat will have his or her own reasons for thinking this hopeful or that one is most “electable.”

Some of those reasons will constitute wishful thinking, while others will merely confirm preferences.

Undoubtedly, some calculations will be based on the candidates’ race or gender, or on their age or ideological positioning.

Over the long haul, survey data will establish a pecking order in the Democratic contest that will separate the wheat from the chaff, the electables from the unlikelies. And that’s when we will know the most electable hopeful — or, more likely, the handful of hopefuls with the best chance of winning next November.

Who is the most electable Democratic hopeful right now? It’s Biden, obviously.

He performs best in head-to-head ballot tests against the president, both nationally and in key states, and he has potentially broad appeal.

But Biden may not look like the strongest Democratic challenger to Trump three weeks from now, three months from now or next March. The campaign will affect the public’s perception of his appeal.

Crowded at the top

The early polls raise a more interesting and complicated issue. What happens if multiple Democratic hopefuls lead Trump in head-to-head matchups? What if three or four or five Democrats look “electable?”

In most polls, Biden does better against Trump than do other Democratic hopefuls.

But Sanders also bests the president in most national and key state polls, and other Democrats are running even or slightly ahead of Trump.Top of Form

In the June 9-12 Fox News poll of registered voters, Biden led Trump by 10 points, Sanders did so by 9 points, Warren by 2 points, and Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg by 1 point .

A June 6-10 Quinnipiac poll found Biden leading Trump by 13 points, Sanders up by 9, Harris by 8, Warren by 7 and Buttigieg by 5.

In Michigan, which Trump narrowly won in 2016, a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll found both Biden and Sanders leading Trump by 12 points, with Buttigieg, Warren and Harris holding leads in the low- to mid-single digits.

Biden’s electability argument weakens noticeably if he and at least one other Democrat look roughly equally strong against the president.

Does it really matter to Democrats that Biden beats Trump by 10 points but Sanders beats Trump by “only” 8 or 9 points? Probably not.

Deciding factor

Ultimately, the question of electability will likely come down to how people see the Biden path to election and the Sanders/Warren/Harris path.

Do they believe that the most progressive voters in the Democratic coalition would stay home if Biden, one of the more pragmatic liberals in the 2020 field, is nominated?

Would those voters risk the re-election of Trump because Biden isn’t progressive enough? That seems unlikely.

Or, do they believe that working-class whites will stick with the president and moderate, suburban female voters will return to Trump (or at least stay home) if their only alternative is someone like Sanders or Warren, two progressive ideologues?

Traditionally, nominees move to the middle during a general election because that’s where most of the persuadable voters are.

In spite of all the recent focus (since 2000) on “the base,” swing voters still determine who wins most competitive elections. That’s why Biden seems more electable now, and his path to the White House appears easier than Sanders’ or Warren’s.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 25, 2019 issue of Roll Call.