President Donald Trump is historically unpopular. He is almost certainly going to be impeached. And the strong economy — by far the best card in his political arsenal — is widely expected to crash between now and Election Day.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have a host of candidates beating him in head-to-head contests, both on the national level and in key swing states. Moderates, independents and suburbanites swing more and more their way almost every time there’s been an election. November election nights have proven happy occasions for Democrats ever since Trump took office.
Dems are so jittery about their chances that even with a field of more than a dozen plausible contenders, candidates still feel there are openings to jump in.
Democrats have particularly made gains in governorships and state legislative seats, which makes its officeholders a factor in redistricting after the 2020 census, after getting shut out of the process earlier this decade. Most prominently, Democrats flipped the House blue for the first time in eight years, putting lawmakers there in a position to impeach Trump.
And yet, Dems are so jittery about their chances that even with a field of more than a dozen plausible contenders, candidates still feel there are openings to jump in. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick made his entry official last week, while former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken steps needed for a run. Technocratic moderates with deep business experience, neither’s profile is ideologically all that different from top-tier candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, or a scrum of governors and senators in the mid-level of the field.
As Trump himself might ask, what the hell is going on?
What’s happened is that Democrats have over-learned the lessons of 2016. They're essentially scared of their own shadows, and not following what was the reasonably sound Hillary Clinton campaign strategy in 2016. Indeed, the problem wasn’t that it wasn’t the right strategy; it’s that she wasn't the right candidate to execute it.
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Three years later, some Democratic influentials fear the 2020 race will be a repeat of the desultory 2016 contest, when Clinton, the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state, lost to one-time casino owner and beauty contest proprietor Trump in arguably the biggest political upset in American history.
They still regret that the Democratic National Committee effectively put its thumb on the scale for Clinton over unconventional opponents such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, while more potent rivals like then-Vice President Joe Biden, were dissuaded from running in the first place. And they rue that they didn’t take more seriously warning signs about Clinton’s high negatives and wanting campaign skills, especially against a showman like Trump, who, whatever his myriad other faults, knows how to capture and keep an audience tuned into his antics.
At the time, then-interim DNC Chair Donna Brazile privately mused about trying to a ditch Clinton as Democratic nominee after her campaign’s secretive approach to informing the public about health issues she suffered, but that went nowhere. Now, less than three months out from the first 2020 nominating contests, such second-guessing by Democratic elites is out in the open. Would-be 2020 candidates who had been on the sidelines, like Patrick and Bloomberg, think these doubts mean there’s an opening for them to be the party saviors.
This sort of of teeth-gnashing over the quality of emerging standard-bearers is a regular practice for Democratic elites, going back at least to the spring of 1976. That year various groups undertook an effort to block former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s nomination, though he would go on to win the presidency that fall.
So what the Dems need to do is relax and make peace with their current crop of candidates. That point was made recently by no less than former President Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor and a figure revered by most Democrats.
“Everybody needs to chill out about the candidates, but gin up about the prospect of rallying behind” one of them, Obama said Thursday at a Silicon Valley fundraiser attended by many high-donor Democrats — the very type of party big-shots who have fretted so much about the 2020 field’s electability.
Perhap the most perverse aspect of Obama’s efforts to soothe nervous donors is that the Democratic base is largely happy with their choices. A Gallup poll released on Oct. 9 found three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents satisfied with their party’s 2020 lineup. And an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken Oct. 27-30 showed 85 percent of Democrats are “very” or “fairly” satisfied with the field.
And these are voters highly focused on the prospect of beating Trump rather than waging an ideological crusade. A national poll by Economist/YouGov in November found that for 65 percent of respondents, choosing a Democratic nominee capable of defeating Trump was more important than one with whom they agreed on the bulk of issues. State-specific polls have yielded similar results.
Additionally, Democrats are turning out and winning in off-cycle elections that typically fail to attract much interest, indicating a high level of political engagement. Most recently, Republicans lost the governorship in deep-red Kentucky and Democrats held onto it in crimson Louisiana.
The most direct path back to the White House for Democrats remains rebuilding the Obama coalition, what The New York Times in late 2016 described as “an alliance between black voters and Northern white voters.”
Clinton attempted to recapture it and did so nationally. Putting the Obama coalition back together in sufficient numbers to win the Electoral College as well is eminently doable with the candidates Democrats already have.
This time around, the party has an abundance of candidates who don’t carry Clinton’s political baggage and high negative ratings. By running a moderate center-left figure, such as Biden or Buttigieg, Democrats have a good chance of reclaiming the White House in the 2020 elections.
So who’s making them seem weak? The donor class. The ones that over-invested in Clinton, on the one hand, and, on the other, are terrified by the idea of an economy run by Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator running as a left-wing populist. Somehave jabbed at Warren over her proposed “wealth tax.” And some analysts think she’s just too far left to beat Trump.
Ironically, the area that should perhaps worry Democratic insiders the most — low fundraising numbers — is the one that the establishment can do the most about.
Ironically, the area that should perhaps worry Democratic insiders the most — low fundraising numbers — is the one that the establishment can do the most about. Instead of hand-wringing, the party deans should get their act together, back the candidates competing now rather than widening the field more, which will only cost and deplete everyone more, and calm down; 2020 is not 2016.
For a user’s guide, they can turn to Wendy Davis, a Democratic National Committee member and city commissioner in Rome, Georgia. She said in a recent interview that she’s not hearing much clamor among party activists for new candidates such as Patrick or Bloomberg to jump in.
“I think there’s something for everyone to like in this field,” Davis said. “This notion that we don’t have a candidate who can beat Trump, I don’t see that.”