The Democrat’s Agonizing Choice

It is possible that whichever candidate the Democrats nominate to run against Donald Trump will win. Perhaps Trump’s apparent ceiling in public approval of around 45% is also the upper limit of his share of the vote in the next election. The fact that Trump’s approval rating has been the least variable of any sitting president may suggest that how Americans respond to Trump’s strong and unusual personal characteristics will decide the next election. If so, then he will surely lose not only the popular vote but also the electoral college.

On the other hand, it is conceivable that Trump could win no matter which Democrat opposes him. In normal circumstances, an incumbent president would be almost impossible to beat given the favorable economic indicators now in evidence. True, many economists expect a slowdown ahead, but it may arrive too late to impact the general election of November, 2020. Indeed, the June employment data were unexpectedly positive, there are few signs of inflation growth and the Fed is sending signals of a possible rate cut, which might extend the current record growth stretch that is nearing a decade in length.

Under either of the above scenarios, it matters not who the Democrats nominate but instead whether votes focus more on Trump’s personality and character (since a majority disapproves, Trump loses) or upon the state of the economy (absent a serious downturn, Trump wins).

If you believe that either of these sets of factors will prove decisive, then you should vote to nominate the Democratic presidential candidate who most closely matches your own preferences, whether these center upon policies, character, experience, etc. There is no need to worry about which Democrat has the best chance to beat Trump since factors outside the control of the Democrats or their candidates will decide the outcome in any case.

At present, however, polls and other data forecast a close election, suggesting that neither judgments about the president’s personal traits nor economic fundamentals will necessarily prove decisive.

This allows for a third possibility. The election could turn on which Democrat is nominated. If this were the case, then primary/caucus voters have to consider electability. Personal preference may be trumped (so to speak) by strategic considerations. Some voters may bypass their preferred candidate in favor of someone they believe has a better chance of victory in January.

But how to figure who is more electable? There are two theories.

The conventional wisdom is summed up by the median voter theorem, which says that the candidate who most closely matches the preferences of the median voter – i.e., the voter precisely in the middle of the relevant ideological spectrum – will win. According to this theory, the Democrats should nominate a candidate most likely to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans – the swing voters who typically decide elections. Such a nominee would necessarily be more moderate (i.e., less liberal or progressive) than the majority of Democrats.

But why would Democrats nominate someone further to the right than their own position, especially if more liberal candidates are available? This could happen if the liberal vote is divided among a larger number of candidates while the moderate voters within the party gravitate to one candidate. It could also happen if Democratic voters expect a close general election and believe that a moderate candidate has a better chance of victory in the fall – i.e., if they vote strategically rather than according to ideological preference.

Recent evidence does not offer much support for the idea that the Democratic Party would have a better chance of winning by nominating someone more moderate than the party’s own center of gravity in hopes of attracting independents and some Republicans. After all, the party has nominated a long list of centrist candidates who lost – e.g., Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry and Hillary Clinton. In fairness, however, Bill Clinton won by tacking to the center (but with help from Ross Perot in 1992) while Gore and Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote, despite losing the electoral college.

Some advocates of the centrist strategy argue that Clinton’s 2016 electoral college loss was due to poor campaign strategy rather than the ideological position of the candidate. A shift of 70,000 votes across three upper Midwest states that typically vote Democratic would have changed the outcome. Unfortunately, Clinton took victories in these states for granted and failed to devote the time or money needed to successfully defend this Democratic “blue wall.”

According to this analysis, the lesson is not to shift leftward in 2020, but instead to focus on regaining the support of the white working class voters of the Rust Belt that were lost in 2020 due to Clinton’s inattention combined with targeted appeals by Trump.

The alternative approach is to consider 2020 a base election. Rather than seeking to attract independents and moderate Republicans by tacking right, the path to victory lies in driving up enthusiasm and turnout among those groups that make up the core of Democratic Party support. This worked in 2008 when the party nominated Barack Obama, who positioned himself to the left of Clinton in the primaries (although he governed from the center in office) and who managed to increase turnout among core Democratic constituencies in the general election.

Advocates of this approach point out that there are relatively few genuine swing voters in the center. Rather, the political climate is increasingly polarized. Under these conditions, the key is to get your own people to the polls. That requires a nominee who represents the party’s own center of gravity, even if he or she is to the left of the country as a whole.

Of course, the Democratic Party’s center of gravity has moved significantly to the left in recent years. A nominee that far left could drive up turnout on the Republican side – Republicans lukewarm about Trump who would stay home if the Democrats put up a centrist candidate might feel obliged to cast a vote for Trump in order to prevent a more liberal/progressive Democrat from reaching office.

The real wild card for the Democrats are young people. Young Democrats are far more liberal than their elders. But they do not traditionally vote in large numbers. By nominating a very liberal candidate, the Democratic Party would be betting that young people would be enthused enough to vote in November. In fact, victory would probably require it. The youth vote did expand in the 2018, helping Democrats take the House. Yet it still remained low compared with older Americans.

The choice is agonizing because Democrats badly want to beat Trump. Yet young Democrats, especially, also see a historic opportunity to change the Democratic Party into one that is more inclusive, less deferential to corporate interests and less driven by caution and fear. These tensions show up in racial, regional and inter-generational divides within the party.

Another important factor has to do with down-ballot races for the Congress and state legislatures. Many of the Democrats who flipped red seats blue in 2018 ran as moderates. If the Democrats run too far to the left at the presidential level in 2020, then some of these gains could be placed at risk.

Yet progressives point to a number of high profile races in 2018 where Democrats in traditionally red or purple states either won or lost by unusually small margins by adopting a populist message that not only energized the Democratic base but also attracted traditional non-voters whose views do not fit easily within the traditional left-right spectrum. Moreover, even moderate Democrats embraced more liberal positions than in past electoral cycles. The 2018 results are thus open to interpretation.

If Trump’s approval ratings are a good predictor of the next presidential election, then any Democratic candidate is likely to win. If voters based their choice upon so-called economic fundamentals, then Trump is likely to win (unless the economy tanks between now and then).

But if 2020 turns out to be a close election – like 2016 – it could matter greatly who the Democrats nominate and what ideological and strategic choices they make. Do we need a candidate who can attract centrist voters and win back the industrial midwest? Or do we need a candidate who can bring out the base by representing the liberal values of core Democratic constituencies and young people?

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