Edit: clearly, this article ended up being untrue, as Biden became the nominee and beat Trump. I’m keeping it up, however, as a product of it’s pretty-COVID time and a testament to how much the pandemic reduced Trump’s popularity and increased voter turnout enough for even someone like the Biden described here could beat him.
A few months ago, I put out an article entitled “The Ungodly Privilege of Vote Blue No Matter Who.” It proceeded to make the rounds on Donut Twitter, where folks either decided I didn’t know what I was talking about because I was young and uneducated or that I was a hypocrite because of how educated I am. Rose Twitter much preferred what I had to say. It seems that, much like the now-completed Star Wars sequel trilogy, those who set out to hate it hated it and those who set out to love it loved it.
However, there is one glaring omission that I made in the writing of this piece and, being that the primaries are now upon us, it’s time to address it. For the sake of my arguments in The Ungodly Privilege, I mostly assumed that all candidates stood a chance at winning in a general election against Donald Trump. Now I must correct myself: almost none of them do.
What does it take to win in an election against Donald Trump? Well, we know from our most recent case study (i.e. 2016) that a few things don’t work:
· Clinton’s campaign purposefully treated Trump as a “unique threat” beyond that of a regular Republican. This played into his grand, anti-establishment narrative.
· In debates and town halls, the Clinton Campaign treated Trump as a good faith actor. Trump is a gnat flying around the stage — rather than ignoring him and centering her message as she should have, Clinton tried to out-civility him, own him with focus-grouped rhetoric, and show the world he was a sham. It forced her to engage with him, sink to his level, and play the game on his terms instead of her own.
· Threatening the electorate. Much of the campaign rhetoric, rather than centering a vision for the future or a goal for the people under Clinton, centered Trump as a person and how terrible it would be if voters allowed him to become president. The focus remained on him; her place on the ballot might as well have read “Not Trump.”
· When Clinton did talk about herself, it was all about her resume. I will concede to her supporters that she had incredible qualifications, but it didn’t do her much good. The people want to hear what you will do, not what you have done. Otherwise, it’s alienating.
· Centering independents and Republican-to-Democrat swing voters. Independents make up 38% of the US electorate, but 93% of them “lean” towards one party or the other and vote as reliably with the party they “lean” towards as people who identify with said party outright. This means that the true independents Democrats could reliably expect to move one way or the other represent only 2.66% of the population and that 2.66% are some of the most apolitical, least engaged voters in the country. In terms of Republican-to-Democrat swing voters, this is an even tougher sell. Pew Research Center finds that “a sizeable majority” of individuals identify with a political party because they view the opposing party negatively. On top of that, the same research finds that Republicans hate Democrats more than Democrats hate Republicans. Getting those Republicans to switch sides is tougher than anyone on the Hill is willing to admit. It’s easier just to convince people who oppose you to stay home (which is generally the Republican strategy). Unfortunately, it doesn’t work both ways: Republican turnout is steady so they generally win when turnout is low. You can’t change their minds and you can’t make them stay home. The way Democrats win is by overpowering the consistent Republican electorate with waves of Democratic voters. Clinton lost in part because the Republican bloc stayed the same as previous years, but participation from traditionally-Democratic voting blocs like Black and Hispanic voters fell. By centering unwinnable groups like Republican-to-Democrat swing voters and independents instead of focusing on shoring up the coalition Clinton depended on and expanding it to outnumber Republicans, Clinton shot herself in the foot.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I’m not going to say that sexism against Clinton means we should never run a female candidate again or something. These were her major strategic errors, things which could have been fixed and should be repaired by whoever runs against Trump next. The real question is, who is capable of making those repairs?
Treating Trump as a unique threat seems to be the modus operandi for this particular crop of candidates. It’s like the man’s name is “most dangerous president in American history.” To be fair, from where I’m sitting, it looks like that’s what he is, but that’s also what they said about Bush. If we continue on the status quo, maybe the next Republican will be even worse and the cycle won’t end until the world does. So, perhaps none of the major candidates are capable of combatting Trump without feeding his narrative at least a little. However, they can skirt around giving him free press by centering their own messages instead.
So, which of the frontrunners is prepared to treat Trump like a gnat flying around the stage? I’ll be focusing my analysis on the top four candidates in the Iowa Caucuses (Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren, and Biden), who also happen to be the top four candidates in national polls at the time of this piece. Also, I’ll warn you in advance: as with all political projections, this is a hypothetical, so I’ll be basing my predictions on what I’ve seen from these candidates in the past. I tried predicting the future through other means, but my tarot cards tried to tell me that Biden would win Iowa and we saw how that went.
It’s obvious that Bernie Sanders can deliver an on-brand message; he does it so well that he’s been criticized for being too repetitive. Even if you dislike him, you have to admit that this man can talk about the billionaire class at a camera for as long as you’ll let him and he won’t be phased by what’s going on around him. Trump can insult him in person or on Twitter and it doesn’t stop him — it’s hard to imagine it would start stopping him once the primaries end.
Pete Buttigieg, on the other hand, has had a problem with messaging and even many journalists struggle to figure out what he stands for. He’s good for platitudes, but not inspiration, which is what these folks need to distract the public from whatever insults Trump lobs at them on cable news the night before. We already saw how Elizabeth Warren capitulated to Trump in the beginning of the campaign cycle by taking a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry, which not only backfired immensely with the indigenous community but reinvigorated Trump’s attacks on her. She responded by insisting he make a charity donation he had promised to and attempting to turn the situation against him, which failed miserably. In her biggest public debacle with Trump, she treated him as a good faith actor and let him set the stage; she seems to have learned nothing from watching the Clinton campaign. Meanwhile, Joe Biden also takes cues from the ghosts of runners-up past as he continues to focus his campaign messaging on being “the guy who can beat Trump.” It seems shutting down Trump to center Biden’s own message probably wouldn’t be his strong suit.
Now, what about the resume thing? When they aren’t talking about Trump, are these candidates sharing their ideas for the voters’ future or are they talking all about themselves? Bernie’s campaign, colloquially referred to as the #NotMeUs movement, has been deliberate in its attempts to center the issues and the people, rather than Bernie himself. Does that mean that Sanders is completely without a cult of personality? No. But does it mean that he can inspire people who aren’t part of that cult? Absolutely. And he has already.
Buttigieg is running almost exclusively on his personal qualifications and how electable he is in theory from the view of an ivory tower. That strategy was alienating in 2016 and it will be alienating in 2020. Warren might do better at rallying around promises to voters rather than herself as a candidate, since her most prominent messaging is “I have a plan for that,” but she’s still centering herself rather than the voter and the narrative of the smart person coming to save us can be and has already been viewed as condescending. Meanwhile, Biden draws on his tenure as Obama’s vice president every chance he can get, plus he has a terrible habit of telling voters not to vote for him. Not looking good if the goal is to convince people you’re here to support them.
Last of all, and arguably most importantly, let’s talk about who would be voting in each situation because, while Clinton won the popular vote with her strategy, she proved one can’t secure the presidency by pursuing imaginary independents and Republican-to-Democrat swing voters. Bernie has the most diverse coalition, the most new voters, tons of “unlikely” voters, and still manages to secure a strong enough core of support to reject money from super PACs, break the record for individual donations, and out-fundraise all of his competitors so far (unless you count donating to oneself as fundraising, in which case billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have him beat). Bernie’s coalition is strong, energized, and unafraid to be mean to you on the Internet.
On the other hand, Buttigieg struggles with Black voters and Elizabeth Warren struggles with the working class. Biden has historically had a stronghold in terms of his coalition, however his abysmal approval rating among Millennials and Generation Z, who now make up the majority of the electorate, combined with his declining base support post-Iowa, which showed the cracks in his armor of electability, has left his position in question. His strongest demographic, the “65 and older” vote, will go to Trump by a landslide anyway in a general election, meaning he’ll need a broader coalition to avoid getting swamped by Trump’s inevitability with age demographics. The numbers indicate he won’t be able to deliver.
It’s clear that, if we learned anything from the Clinton campaign’s strategy, our best and likely our only bet is Senator Bernie Sanders. However, in case you’re worried I read all those articles incorrectly and came to the wrong conclusion, I’ll add a couple facts and figures here as well.
· Sanders consistently beats Trump in direct matchup polling, frequently by the largest margin of victory.
In the wake of the chaos in Iowa, which included more than a dozen inconsistencies that harmed Sanders, I’m beginning to suspect the Democratic Party would rather have another four years of Trump than a potential Sanders presidency, so perhaps this whole article is a moot point. Lord knows the party system is designed to maintain itself and the Sanders candidacy does represent a shift that might leave establishment political figures out in the cold after they have already grown used to a life of political relevance and personal wealth. However, if this piece ends up in the hands of just one person who genuinely does care about defeating Trump, perhaps it was worth the effort.
PS. If you’ve still got hangups about a Sanders candidacy besides whether he can beat Donald Trump, I’ll direct you towards another article: Every Argument Against Bernie, Refuted.