It’s been said that the Democratic Party seldom misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The Democrats demonstrated that in 2016, losing the White House despite the fact they were running against one of the most unpopular characters in American history.
Now, 12 months before the next presidential election, there is fear in the party’s ranks that they might be about to do it again.
By multiple standards, Donald Trump is in deep trouble. He’s facing impeachment, his approval ratings hover around 40%, and the Democratic voter base is aflame with desire to send him packing. National polls show him trailing all of the Democrats’ leading presidential contenders.
Yet Democratic bigwigs and financial heavy hitters look at those candidates and see weakness everywhere. Their concern has prompted former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick to enter the race. Some party activists have even encouraged failed 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton to make another try.
What set off the panic was a recent New York Times / Siena College poll that showed Trump running strongly in six battleground states that are likely to decide the 2020 race.
In the United States there is no such thing as a national election. Instead, there are elections in each of the 50 states to choose slates of electors pledged to the nominees. Because the apportionment of electors gives disproportionate weight to states with fewer people, the popular vote winner has been defeated twice since 2000.
One of those times was Trump’s election in 2016. He received nearly 3 million fewer votes than Clinton.
The Times wrote that the poll results and other data “suggest that the president’s advantage in the Electoral College relative to the nation as a whole remains intact or has even grown since 2016, raising the possibility that the Republicans could – for the third time in the past six elections – win the presidency while losing the popular vote.”
Former vice-president Joseph Biden has led the crowded Democratic field from the moment he announced in April that he was running. His close association with former president Barack Obama makes him popular with the African-American voters who are the party’s bedrock constituency. His folksy style and blue-collar roots feed the idea that he can win back at least some of the white working-class voters who abandoned the Democratic Party in 2016 to vote for Trump.
But while Biden’s poll numbers have remained fairly steady, his uneven debate performances and disappointing fundraising cast doubts on his campaign’s central message: that he is the most electable Democrat running. Even some of his supporters wonder if, at 76, Biden is energetic and nimble enough to best Trump in what promises to be an extraordinarily vicious contest.
For the last two months, Biden has found himself at the center of the impeachment drama now roiling Washington. Trump is accused of misusing his office by attempting to strong-arm Ukrainian officials into announcing an investigation of the former vice-president and his son, Hunter. The younger Biden sat on the board of a Ukrainian natural-gas company while his father was in office.
Trump has loudly and repeatedly charged that the Bidens were corrupt – claims that appear to be entirely fabricated. But their repetition could succeed in tarnishing Biden’s image.
Biden’s chief competitor for the Democratic nomination appears to be Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose progressive policy agenda calls for sweeping changes in American society. Her poll numbers have rocketed up since summer, into a virtual tie with Biden. She draws large, enthusiastic crowds and is raising lots of money.
But the Times / Siena College battleground-states poll of likely voters showed Warren losing to Trump in all but one: Arizona, in which she was tied. Other polls show that many of Warren’s policy views, including canceling student loan debt and abolishing the current system of employer-sponsored private health insurance in favor of a free, government-run plan, find much less favor with the broader US electorate than among Democratic primary voters.
Also, Warren has yet to generate much enthusiasm among African-American voters. In South Carolina, where black voters are a majority of Democratic primary voters, a recent poll showed Warren the choice of only 9% of African-Americans. Biden had 46%.
Whichever Democrat ends up running against Trump next year will win at least 90% of black voters. But the size of the turnout will be crucial. Far fewer African-Americans turned out for Clinton in 2016 than for Obama in the two previous elections.
Running close behind Warren in the polls, and with a similar set of proposals, is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist who ran a strong race against Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries.
Also near the top of the Democratic field is South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, like Biden a political moderate. At 37 years old the youngest of the candidates, he says he would be a bridge to a new era of American politics. Buttigieg impresses many voters with his intelligence and grasp of issues. But his youth, and the fact that he is openly gay, appear to have worked against him.
Behind Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg is a cluster of 13 candidates who so far have failed to make much of an impression on voters. Some, like Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar, California’s Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey’s Senator Corey Booker, have impressive political résumés. Others, like former Pennsylvania congressman Joe Sestak and the mayor of Miramar, Florida, Wayne Messam, are all but invisible.
At the heart of the Democratic race is a divide between the party’s centrist and left wings on the best strategy for defeating Trump. Centrists argue for reaching out to white independents and moderate Republicans – the voters who helped the Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives in 2018. They say that either Warren or Sanders would be an easy foil for Trump, whose favorite tactic is to caricature and demonize his opponent.
The turnout factor
Meanwhile, the left says Democrats don’t need to moderate their views, so long as they mobilize large numbers of the young, the black, the Hispanic and the gay. But ever since the voting age was lowered to 18 for the 1972 election, liberals have had visions of masses of revolutionary youth coming to their rescue. In the 2018 off-year elections, only 36% of the under-30 age group voted – just over half the rate of their grandparents.
Hopeful progressives are pointing to recent data from this month’s Virginia state legislative elections, swept by the Democrats. Early voting participation among 18-29-year-olds tripled from four years earlier, the biggest increase for any age group.
As 2019 closes out, the nearly year-long preliminary phase of the 2020 presidential campaign is also drawing to an end. The Iowa Democratic caucuses on February 3 will be the first chance for citizens to start winnowing the field.
New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina follow over the following three and a half weeks, and then, on March 3, comes Super Tuesday – 14 states, including California and Texas – in which one-third of the population will be eligible to vote.
By the end of March, more than half the delegates to the July Democratic Party nominating convention will have been chosen.
Prior to his retirement in 2006, Henry Eichel had a 37-year career as a newspaper reporter, all but one year of it at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. From 1975 on, he was the paper’s chief South Carolina correspondent, based in the state capital of Columbia. A US Navy veteran, he served in Vietnam during 1967-68.