On the menu today: a big, detailed examination of where Democrats are after New Hampshire. It’s not a pretty picture.
Democrats Must Have Made a Wrong Turn at Albuquerque
Morning Jolt readers, you’re a generally but not entirely right-of-center audience. But let’s take a moment to step into the shoes of the average politically engaged Democrat. The kind of person who was shocked and horrified on Election Night 2016 and who has, since that night, been determined to make Donald Trump a one-term president. Think about what has happened, from the perspective of that person, in the past 14 months or so.
As the 2020 presidential election cycle dawned, the outlook was bright for these Democrats! Their party had just won a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and won gubernatorial races in a bunch of key states: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Mexico, Maine. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation kicked into high gear and appeared to spell trouble for President Trump. Trump’s approval rating remained underwater throughout his presidency. All Democrats had to do was find someone who would win 10,704 more votes in Michigan, 22,177 votes in Wisconsin and 46,765 more votes in Pennsylvania.
And then the cycle began . . . but things didn’t turn out quite right.
Julian Castro, the “Latino Obama,” who was going to galvanize and drive up turnout among Latino voters the way Obama did among African Americans didn’t even crash and burn; he never got off the runway.
Maybe it was always a little farfetched that Beto O’Rourke was going to be the candidate who could put Texas and the South and Midwest in play. But he, too, never really went anywhere. Steve Bullock was always something of an implausible longshot, but he offered a message that should have proven intriguing to the party, contending there were still plenty of winnable votes in states Democrats had written off in recent cycles. (Remember, Obama won ten more states than John Kerry in 2008, including Indiana and North Carolina.) But Democrats just didn’t seem that interested in what Bullock had to say.
Tim Ryan was always a longshot, but he was practically engineered in a lab to win back the voters who abandoned the party in 2016 in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa. He, too, never got more than a cursory look, and nobody’s discussing him as a useful choice to be the nominee’s running mate.
Another guy who was in this mold, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, chose not to run, and the party lost one of the more plausible consensus choices.
A lot of Democrats initially thought Kamala Harris was the complete package: biracial, a woman, a progressive prosecutor, a deep-pocketed network of supporters in California — everything “the Resistance” envisioned as the antithesis of Trump, and perhaps the right thematic successor to Barack Obama. After that first debate, with her hard shot at Biden, she looked like she was ready to enter the top tier . . . but the air just slowly let out of the balloon, and she ran out of funds.
If Harris wasn’t the right choice to follow in Obama’s footsteps, perhaps Cory Booker would have been or should have been the one: Mr. Sunny Optimism, the youthful and energetic snow-shoveling Newark mayor, giving speeches like a preacher on Sunday but laid back enough to make funny videos with Chris Christie. No, he ran out of money before the voting started, too.
And the Democrats found themselves with a much smaller, much whiter, and generally much older selection of candidates than they expected when the contest began.
Presented with an unprecedented variety of choices, Democratic primary voters, or at least the ones who answered their phones to pollsters and opened their wallets, weren’t so motivated to sort through all of them. The debates, which were supposed to be showcases for a large crop of rising stars, turned into a cacophony of pandering and gimmicks. Too many of the candidates sounded the same; a lot of candidates found themselves competing for the same core group of progressive activists and no one wanted to say no to anyone. Abolish ICE? Sure. Decriminalize crossing the border without permission? Why not? Ban private health insurance? Full speed ahead! Taxpayer-funded abortions? No questions asked! O’Rourke handed the NRA the soundbite they had always wanted, declaring, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15s!” to a cheering audience.
Most of the newer candidates couldn’t get much traction because voters seemed happy with the better-known, well-worn options. Good old smiling Joe Biden became the instant frontrunner, and his supporters seemed immovable for almost the entirety of 2019. He locked up African Americans, the South, rural and older Democrats. That looked like a solid base, one that could power him to the nomination, clearing everyone else out of his way like a snowplow.
But once the voting started, Biden’s seemingly solid base of support went down faster and harder than the Iowa caucus vote-tabulation app. Fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire? Nobody’s ever gotten the nomination after a start such as that. As long as Biden was a serious option, the Jenga tower of the “safe” plan for Democrats in 2020 remained intact. Run on a “return to normalcy,” reassure all of those moderates and independents and suburbanites who were freaked out by Trump’s circus and chaos, and let the progressives know with a wink and a nod that they would get their share of policy wins in 2021. But Biden flopping yanks out the bottom piece of the Jenga tower. The old familiar consensus-building option is gone.
(And let us pause to note that at no point did Barack Obama throw the Biden campaign a life preserver.)
Biden couldn’t have timed his collapse much worse. If he wasn’t going to win, better to flop early and let the voters focus upon and evaluate the other younger options. But somehow it does get even worse. This is the moment that the Democrats who aren’t comfortable with Sanders need to take a long, hard, uncomfortable look at their options, select an alternative, and unify behind that candidate. For once, Sanders enjoys a bunch of structural advantages. But Biden’s campaign says they plan to hang around until at least Super Tuesday. Unless Biden plummets to the low single digits, the non-Sanders vote will remain divided too many ways to overtake the Vermont senator. Republicans lived through this last cycle with Trump, and Democrats appear to have learned nothing from watching that.
The sudden and severe collapse of Biden distracts from the almost as sudden and severe collapse of Elizabeth Warren. She looked like a strong contender, and some called her the frontrunner back in October. She led Iowa as late as November! She led New Hampshire! In theory, she’s still in it, but she’s sliding fast. She’s the perfect candidate for one of the most vocal segments of the party — middle-aged to older white-collar white women who have an unwavering faith in the federal government’s ability to solve complicated problems. That’s an important demographic, but not a sufficient one.
Last night, when it became clear Warren was set for a disappointing fourth-place finish, she laid out an argument that sounded like a pitch to make her the unifying pick at a divided Democratic convention in Milwaukee this summer:
If we’re going to beat Donald Trump in November, we are going to need huge turnout within our party. And to get that turnout, we will need a nominee that the broadest coalition of our party feels like they can get behind. We win when we come together . . . The fight between factions in our party has taken a sharp turn in recent weeks with ads mocking other candidates and with supporters of some candidates shouting curses at other Democratic candidates. These harsh tactics might work if you are willing to burn down the rest of the party in order to be the last man standing.
Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire have left their fellow party members in the other 48 states with a menu of deeply flawed options.
Bernie Sanders hasn’t run a tough general election in decades, and all of his big breaks in his political life came from improbable luck. He wants to run on socialism when unemployment is at 3.6 percent, and has been at or below 4 percent for nearly two years. (In a recent Gallup poll, only 45 percent of Americans say they’re open to voting for a socialist candidate; 53 percent say they would not.) Sanders’s supporters don’t get along with other Democrats, he would galvanize Wall Street and the business community to get active in support of Trump’s reelection, and he frightens the soccer moms in the suburban districts that flipped the House in 2018. Democrats would concede one of the most reliable and highest-turnout demographics and hope to make up for it with the listenership of Chapo Trap House. All of this assumes Sanders doesn’t have another heart attack between now and Election Day.
At first glance, Pete Buttigieg is the latest young rising star with soaring oratory — the successor to John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. He makes some history as the first major gay presidential candidate — nobody remembers Fred Karger. But he apparently has almost no ability to sell himself to African Americans — and he’s been trying, and spending considerable resources on that goal, for months now. He’s getting 4 percent of the African-American vote nationally. He looks even younger than his 38 years, and his experience as mayor of South Bend is underwhelming. One African-American writer recently offered a scathing assessment: “[Buttigieg] is the embodiment of white privilege — someone afforded the opportunity to hold the most powerful office in the world when he has less experience in office than our local church deacon.”
Mike Bloomberg? He’s the walking embodiment of everything Bernie Sanders has always dreamed of running against. He’s rather shamelessly spending his way to the first tier. If the Democrats nominate Bloomberg, the epitome of Wall Street wealth, the Bernie Bros stay home, vote for the Green Party, or maybe even go out and form their own party. The nominating convention in Milwaukee would set up a Democratic Party civil war, and one not easily healed.
That leaves . . . Amy Klobuchar? Maybe the Minnesota senator is the safest bet at this point — no thrills, but enough experience and some corny mom jokes. She’s not trying to throw pro-life Democrats out of the party. She at least acknowledges the existence of the deficit. But she’s got to turn into Wonder Woman in the next four weeks — either get into the top tier in Nevada or South Carolina, see a spontaneous emergence of supporters in Super Tuesday states, preferably have a rival or two drop out, get a giant infusion of funds, and be ready to fight Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg the rest of the way.
The task for Democrats remains the same: just do a little bit better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. If Democrats had just won one and a half percent more in each state than she did four years ago, they would have won Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
(If Trump does one and a half percent better, he wins New Hampshire and Minnesota.)
But the task may have gotten harder in the past three years. Gallup released this morning a survey showing 61 percent of Americans say they are better off than they were three years ago, higher than the 50 percent who said so in 1996 and 2004, and 52 percent say they can afford more than they could three years ago — significantly higher than in previous cycles where an incumbent won reelection. Sixty-two percent give Trump a great deal or fair amount of credit for improvement in the state of the economy in the past few years.
ADDENDUM: You’re going to hear a lot of Democrats reassuring themselves by crowing that the turnout in the Democratic primary New Hampshire broke the 2008 record. (Actually, as of this writing, they’re 5,000 short of the record, with 3 percent of precincts remaining.) Record turnout or near-record turnout is a good thing, and Democrats should be pleased. But New Hampshire allows both Democrats and independents to vote in the Democratic primary, and when you look at the voter registration numbers, almost 78,000 more voters were eligible to vote in this contest compared to twelve years ago. When you’ve got a bunch more eligible voters and no competitive contest on the GOP side . . . shouldn’t your party set a turnout record?