The Fourth Big Indicator to Watch in 2020 — the Democratic Strategy

Welcome to the last Big Indicator we’ll be watching for the next ten months as we try to evaluate the general election horse race. So far, they are:

  1. President Trump’s approval rating, which impacts the all-important…
  2. Electoral MapBoth 1 and 2 will be affected by…
  3. President Trump’s election strategy

In response to that strategy, we must now consider:

4. The Democratic strategy

Like President Trump, the Democratic nominee will generally have a two-pronged approach.

Prong #1: Demonizing Trump, including reframing the success of the American economy

Yesterday, I discussed the Democrats’ uphill battle on the perennial number one issue of presidential elections. I’m referring to, of course, the stupid economy. No, wait, I mean the economy, stupid.

The traditional topline economic indicators — employment, the stock market, consumer confidence — are at record or near record bests for recent history. The Democratic nominee will try to distract from these positives by throwing a bunch of mud on the wall and seeing what sticks.

To be fair, there’s plenty of mud to sling. Manufacturing growth has stalled, including in potential election-deciding Pennsylvania, much in thanks to the President’s trade war. A recent Federal Reserve report found that Trump’s tariffs led to job losses and higher prices, a particularly painful double-whammy for many in the Midwest. Our trade deficit has grown. The $23 trillion national debt breaks records every second as the country runs nearly a trillion dollar annual deficit, a problem exacerbated by the Republican tax cuts, which have not paid for themselves through increased revenue from a growing economy. The number of uninsured Americans just rose for the first time in ten years. Inequality in America has reached a 50-year high. Job outsourcing has increased, recently topping 200,000 for Trump’s presidency. The growth of Trump’s economy resembles that of President Obama’s second term, which is to say an average of 2.5% annually — at least a half-point short of Trump’s guarantee. Deportations of illegal immigrants have fallen. There is not a southern border wall for which Mexico has paid.

Jobs. Trade. Immigration.[1] Trump’s big three. Since all of the above were promises made by candidate Trump but failed to deliver by President Trump, Democrats have their fair share of fodder. There’s only three big problems:

1. I might have been able to squeeze all of that into a paragraph, but paragraphs don’t fit on bumper stickers and they don’t make for great soundbites. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” was the single most powerful slogan I have ever seen, and we can expect “Keep America Great” will be just as motivating to his base of voters. Meanwhile, he’s perfected the art of repetitive language so his message connects with — and gets perpetuated by — voters. “Record low unemployment” and “record high markets” are a pair of three-word claims that are much easier to comprehend than a paragraph that sounds like a bunch of spun facts.

2. Republicans’ strong link to Trump is more than just about economics. It’s a cultural connection as well, one fashioned from resentment toward liberals, the media, and the wheels of time. No one has more ferociously fought back against those antagonists than this President. The resulting loyalty has proven profound. Democrats can make all the nuanced economic points they want, but it’ll take more than that to sever the bond between the queen bee and her workers.

3. Can Democrats offer a reasonable alternative? Perhaps the Trump economy isn’t perfect, but it’s nowhere near a disaster either. Voters will wonder if a hard pivot to the left is worth the risk. Sure the national debt is a problem, but Democrats do not have the reputation of taking fiscal responsibility seriously. Trump’s protectionist trade policies might have curbed economic growth potential and led to higher prices, but American progressives have long supported protectionist policies. Most Americans think illegal immigration should be dealt with, but do Democratic leaders? On that issue, can any Democrat come across as reasonable to anyone not on the left?

In sum, can the Democrats put up someone that will convince enough voters in key states to switch presidents?

It’s still reasonable to see the election as a referendum on the President; if he’s in the low 40s he’d lose to any Democrat, but if he’s in the high 40s he’d beat any Democrat (as I said with Part I). However, in a competitive election where the President clocks in between 44 and 47 percent and the Electoral College can tip in either direction (discussed in Part II), the contest will evolve into a choice election (discussed in Part III). And that leads us to…

Prong #2: Undetermined

Prong #2 depends on the Democratic nominee.

The party’s struggle between the Far Left and Center Left was writ large across the 2019 portion of the Democratic Primary, particularly at the debates. The Far Left’s most obvious ambassadors are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who currently combine for 33.7% in Real Clear Politics’s average of national polls. We could also throw in Andrew Yang giving everyone free money as part of the Left so that’s 3.4 more percentage points. If we’re generous, Tulsi Gabbard’s 1.8% support could be considered part of the Far Left at times, though the Far Right embracing her calls into question this generosity. Tom Steyer, despite his wealth, has run as a California Democrat, which is another 1.8%. Finally, I feel the late Julian Castro and his 1.3% ran in the Left lane as well. In total, the Left nets a healthy 42% support in the Democratic Primary. As for the Center Left, we can throw in everyone else of note: the not-so-killer Bs — Biden (28.6), Buttigieg (7.9), Bloomberg (4.9), Booker (2.4), Bennet (0.3) — and Klobuchar (3.3), John Delaney (0.6), and Deval Patrick (a not ideal 0.0). They total about 48%.[2]

It’s a fascinating bifurcation, but only one lane can win. Sure, one side might throw the other a bone with their VP pick, but whomever’s at the top of the ticket will guide the party into the general election, and it’s the top of the ticket that will determine the Democratic strategy.

It’s fair to ask at this point: which lane makes for the better nominee?

The two camps are predictably divided on this question. Pragmatists think they should focus on winning issues with persuadable voters — particularly in swing states, which have different priorities than coastal voters — that might dislike Trump but would sooner vote for him and his economy then someone who promises to disrupt it. They’d point to data that suggests moderates are better general election candidates. They’d say that when the Left says “Medicare For All,” swing voters hear “Take Our Private Health Care.” When the Left says “Ban Fracking” and “Let’s Have a Green New Deal,” they hear “Take Our Jobs” and “Let’s Have a Lot of Uncomfortable Change Fast.” These don’t seem like ways to win an election, which means no change of any kind will occur.

The Left, meanwhile, says an ambitious, bold agenda is how one wins. They’ll point to polls that show that individual progressive priorities are supported by a majority of Americans, and if they can make their case to America in a general election, then excitement will naturally follow. They’ll say the Democrats ran a pragmatist four years ago and lost. They might also point out increased partisanship in the modern era means very few persuadable voters remain, and therefore the way to win an election is convincing base voters to turn out. They say that persuading the persuadable is either a hopeless task or one that will provide diminished returns, and that instead the winning path consists of creating new voters that didn’t participate in the 2016 election at all.

We don’t know which is better moving forward, and it’s almost certain that devotees of either camp think the evidence is clearly on their side. What we do know is that the primary process will determine Prong #2 of their general election strategy.

Speaking of that primary process, it’s time to get back to it. I hope you’ve enjoyed my sojourn into the general, but on Monday it’ll be time for my first Democratic Power Rankings of 2020. See you then!


FOOTNOTES:

[1]Foreign policy is another arena in which one could make a case for and against Trump. There’s Russia, China, North Korea, and, most pressingly now, Iran, but I don’t see foreign policy heavily impacting the 2020 election, barring a major international development. 

[2]I can’t figure out what lane Marianne Williamson’s belongs to, nor am I entirely sure that a lane would want to claim her. “You know what, Marianne? You can keep your 0.1%. No, no, really, it’s okay! We’ll turn over some couch cushions or something.”

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