Joe Biden seems to think that Democrats are really well positioned for 2020, recently arguing “We could run Mickey Mouse against this president and have a shot.”
The rest of us aren’t so sure:
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, a plurality (48%) of Americans want Trump to be unseated in 2020. Yet only a quarter of respondents believe that Democrats will be able to pull this off. Count me among that group who wants Trump to lose but believes that he’ll win. This is (in)famously where I came down in 2016. 2020 seems like it may shape up as more of the same.
No matter who they nominate, the election will be something of a longshot for Democrats. When a party takes the White House, they almost always stay there for at least 8 years. Going all the way back to the Civil War, the only true exception to this pattern is Jimmy Carter.
Public dissatisfaction with the direction things are going, low approval ratings, etc. — these only matter when the opposition puts forward an alternative that people actually like and believe in. It can’t be someone who is just marginally less terrible: presented with a choice between the “the lesser of two evils” the public tends to stick with “the devil they know.” As a result of the “default effect,” what matters most isn’t how the public feels about the incumbent, but how they feel about the challenger.
For Jimmy Carter, the problem wasn’t just that he was unpopular (other candidates were less popular and won reelection, like Truman). He had the misfortune of running against Ronald Reagan. “The Gipper” was charismatic, trusted and liked by many. He had an ambitious vision and inspirational rhetoric. He wanted to shake up the system. For this, Republican gatekeepers tried to stop him in 1980 (as they had successfully done in 1976). The media, and some of his rivals, argued he was too old. Party technocrats claimed the math didn’t work out on his plans – branding them ‘voodoo economics.’ The opposition party cheered at Reagan’s eventual nomination, believing he was too far to the right to be electable in the general. Instead, he notched two consecutive landslide victories and fundamentally reshaped the Republican Party in his image.
Bernie Sanders is obviously the closest thing to a left-wing (antidote to) Ronald Reagan — and he has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner in national polls, just as voting is kicking off. He swept the popular vote in both rounds of the (chaotic) Iowa caucuses, won New Hampshire, and is trending to take Nevada as well. He has a solid shot at getting enough votes to close the deal on his nomination without a (divisive) brokered convention. He has the lowest unfavourability rating of any Democratic contender.
This is all good news, right? Apparently not:
Shortly after the release of the NBC/ WSJ poll showing that Sanders poised to eclipse Biden, the DNC decided to change the rules for their forthcoming debate, eliminating the requirement that candidates demonstrate evidence of grassroots support. This was transparently an attempt to help Michael Bloomberg qualify for the February 19, 2020 debate given that Biden seems to be stagnant, Warren is crashing, and Buttegieg (like Kamala, Castro, Booker, Beto et al. before him) never really caught fire in national polls despite all the hopes and money elites poured into his campaign, despite the extensive positive media coverage, etc.
The obvious question for the DNC, of course, is who exactly do they think Bloomberg’s “base” would conceivably be? How could he energize the party after making the debate stage, and translate the initial polling buzz that accompanies virtually any newcomer into enduring traction)?
There are a good number of Americans who are both socially and economically right, or socially and economically left. There are even a number of voters — including large numbers of African Americans and Hispanics — who are socially conservative but left-leaning on economic issues (i.e. they support robust government social safety nets, benefits, infrastructure investment, trade protectionism, etc. but lean right on cultural issues). Consequently, a culturally conservative candidate (like Reagan) or an economically populist candidate (like Sanders) – or someone who mixes these currents (as Trump positioned himself in 2016) – any of these types of candidates have clear paths to victory.
However, there are very few Americans who are “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” (like Bloomberg). This is a political creature that exists among the relatively well-off in the Boston through D.C. or Seattle through San Diego coastal beltways, and pretty much nowhere else besides (and many of these vote libertarian). Worse, Bloomberg is a particularly problematic example of this elusive species.
He was among the chief proponents of “broken windows” and “stop and frisk” policing – which statistically did nothing to reduce violence, but did lead to the harassment of many, many people of color—not to mention more than 150,000 detainments over petty crimes (like possession of drugs). According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, at least 80% of people stopped in any given year were black or Hispanic, yet, in 2013 Bloomberg lamented that stop and frisk “disproportionately stops whites, and minorities too little.”
Roughly a week before his Nov. 24 2019 announcement that he was entering the presidential race, Bloomberg had a conveniently-timed change of heart, and expressed regret about championing these policies (all the way through January of that same year). Yet, less than a month after that, it was revealed his campaign had exploited prisoners to make solicitation calls. There is a word for uncompensated labor that is coerced from people who have been excised from their communities. It isn’t a word that plays well with African Americans.
And don’t even get me started on his record with respect to women. His support for unconstitutional surveillance of Muslims (and subsequent comparison of civil libertarians – and teachers’ unions – to NRA ‘extremists’). Or the uncomfortable overlap between his media company and his campaign.
Again, the DNC needs someone on the ballot that people will be genuinely excited to vote for. Bloomberg is not going to be that person. He can buy all the advertisements and campaign staffers — bribe all the social media influencers — in the world (God knows, he seems to be trying), but that is unlikely to change Democrats’ fate in November if he were the nominee. We’re talking about a billionaire who previously compared Social Security to a Ponzi scheme, while bemoaning the “unfair rap” that bankers got after the Great Recession – a financial crisis which he blamed, of all things, on the elimination of racial redlining! Where is the constituency in America that believes, “Social Security? Meh. Rather than getting benefits from the government, I’d love a nanny-state to interfere with me buying a ‘Big Gulp’ (also, bankers and racial segregation have been unfairly demonized in recent years)”?
DNC, a humble suggestion: rather than wracking your brains for new tactics to stop Sanders, perhaps more attention could be directed towards beating Trump?