Democrats are feeling pretty cocky about the upcoming presidential campaign. They look at polls showing their top three candidates all lead President Trump and start feeling like it doesn’t matter who they nominate.
Many Democrats forget that four years ago, polls showed Donald Trump as the only Republican losing to Hillary Clinton. They also forget that the Republicans are raising tons of cash to spend on ads defining Democrats’ nominee. Their cockiness can be seen in the degree to which Democrats act as if they have stopped caring about persuading swing voters.
In fairness, both sides are focused on a base turnout strategy for 2020 over a persuasion strategy. Team Trump may have the financial advantage necessary to work on expanding the electoral map, at a minimum causing his opponent to spend time and money on states a Democrat would like to take for granted. The president will also continue pitching moderates on his record, because he is always closing. Nevertheless, his campaign is founded on retaining the coalition that won 2016.
Democrats have their own base turnout strategy. Their current debate over “electability“ assumes they can win if they turn out the “rising American electorate” of unmarried women, minorities, and younger voters. They don’t remember—or don’t want to remember—that Barack Obama may not have eagerly sought votes from blue-collar white voters, but he made the effort not to lose too many of them.
Nate Cohn, who covers elections, polling, and demographics for The New York Times, recently warned Democrats on Twitter: “I think the salience of ‘persuasion’ in elections – whether voters flipping is a major force explaining variance in election results – might be the single area where I most completely disagree with the conventional wisdom on Twitter, or at least what the CW looks like to me. My ‘interactions’ are full of people asserting things like: there are no swing voters; the only thing that changed in 2018 is turnout, Democrats can’t and haven’t won over any Trump voters. And whatever you think of the optimal strategy for Democrats, this is all facially untrue… In our final polls of GA06, IL14, CA48 over the last days of the race, the sample was R+6 or more in all. Dems led in all, and ultimately won. Dems had huge inroads with past GOP voters.”
Yet Democrats forget the converse also has been true. Alec McGillis of ProPublica responded to Cohn, “Obama-Trump voters were a real thing, folks. I ran into them constantly in the Midwest.” Chris Arnade, author of “Dignity,” chimed in: “Same. But it seems nobody wants to hear that despite many places flipping hugely from Obama to Trump.”
The dynamics that elected Trump remain a problem for the eventual Democratic nominee. David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, recently explained why the “let’s win without working-class whites” mentality doesn’t hold water for Democrats. This demographic comprises 45 percent of all eligible voters, but: 61 percent in Wisconsin; 61 percent in New Hampshire; 56 percent in Michigan; 56 percent in Minnesota; 56 percent in Pennsylvania; and 47 percent in North Carolina.
According to Wasserman, a Democratic nominee who alienates this demographic risks losing in Maine, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. Wasserman also thinks Democrats’ path to victory in 2020 “absolutely” depends on retaining the gains they made in diverse, college-educated suburbs in 2018, but advises even a slight drop among white non-college voters “could negate all of it,” given the demographic’s size and geographic distribution. Furthermore, he warns woke Twitter that Democrats “have an awful lot more room to fall” with this demographic, “and that’s especially true in many of the most critical [Electoral College] states.”
Patrick Ruffini, the CEO of the political research and intelligence firm Echelon Insights, recently noted “[a] key and underappreciated fact: The ‘rising American electorate’ is largely a blue state phenomenon.” After 2016, Democrats seem to have realized this. But their response has been to rage against the Electoral College and look for ways to circumvent it, instead of trying to persuade or accommodate their fellow Americans.
Aside from demographics, swing voters can be viewed through the lens of issues. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey finds that as many as 16 percent of voters are persuadable. (Competing lower estimates of the number of swing voters do not seem to account for the expectation of high turnout in 2020.) KFF found President Trump has a seeming advantage with swing voters on the economy, while Democrats may take the advantage on climate change, health care, and immigration.
Democrats currently do not seem particularly interested in persuadable voters, whether from the standpoint of demographics or issues. Democratic elites, and their representatives in the media, are pressing their preference for Elizabeth Warren, who is losing to Joe Biden with black and blue-collar white voters, and to Bernie Sanders with young voters.
In addition, the campaigns of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker look like they are on life support. For a party that thinks the “rising American electorate” is their ticket to the White House, its elites seem intent on engaging in a leftist form of white identity politics instead with Warren.
Moreover, Warren is a terrible candidate on the issues where a Democrat might persuade swing voters. She has embraced a socialist, single-payer health care scheme that eliminates private insurance, likely increases costs for many middle-class families, and does not command majority support even among Democrats.
She has embraced Jay Inslee’s extreme agenda on climate change while facing an electorate that does not want to pay an extra $10 on their electricity bills to fight it. Lastly, Warren’s support for decriminalizing border-trespassing and expanding the pool of illegal immigrants she wants to make citizens seems designed to repel non-college whites who do not identify with either party.
How hard are Democrats trying to lose in 2020? They aren’t rallying behind a self-identifying socialist. But they do not seem motivated to do much more than clear that lowest bar ever.