By Todd Schaefer
For the Democratic Party in 2020, the US presidential election represents both an opportunity, and a threat. It is an opportunity, because President Donald Trump appears weak and vulnerable despite being an incumbent during relatively good economic times, and in fact, his tumultuous administration and brash, populist, and norm-breaking style, along with continuing economic inequality, has limited his overall appeal.
It is also a threat, because while Trump came into office having been barely elected and carrying rifts with some segments of his own party, he has, since his unlikely victory in 2016, effectively unified and rallied Republicans – especially the “base” supporters in the grassroots – behind him. Besides having a strong core of support, he has had a few notable achievements besides his chaotic and mixed political skills, making him a formidable opponent and complicating any efforts to unseat him.
Granted, one thing that unites the more diverse and fractious Democrats, at both the elite and mass levels, is their distaste for, and strong desire to defeat, Trump. The fear – as evidenced by polls suggesting Democrats are more anxious, Republicans more enthused, about the November general election – is that without the right candidate, Trump could do as he did in 2016, when he surprisingly vanquished Hillary Clinton.
A major obstacle toward achieving their goal is the presidential selection process itself. As a consequence of being a federal system, in the United States, both the processes for nominating major-party candidates, and electing one after the nomination, are decentralised and based on state, not national electorates – despite the fact that the presidency is effectively the only truly national office in the land.
The nomination process, since 1972 and rules adopted after the divisions of the Vietnam War, is now determined by candidates running in primary elections (or open caucus meetings) in different states in order to secure delegates to a national party convention that then officially nominates them. This makes it a candidate-centered system where party hopefuls run against each other. Grassroots partisans (or, in some states, even non-partisans) thus determine how many of their states’ allocated delegates, based loosely on population and other factors, go to each candidate. If one candidate can secure a majority through this process, they are the nominee.
In theory at least, this makes the system very open and democratic, and indeed, the US is unlike almost any other democracy in limiting the power of its party leaders and “elites.” In practice, however, the role of geography, campaign finance, and mass media (because partisan voters can’t use party as a cue, since they are choosing between all, say, Democrats) have a large effect. This is why the Democratic field of over twenty—a usually large number, but still often around ten — has already dropped to a large handful. The net effect is that this process rewards media buzz, fundraising (to pay for ads), and organisation and appeal in certain states which might not readily reflect the larger country or party electorate, over experience and national gravitas.
Second, the general election process is likewise a state-level one, with presidents chosen indirectly by how many votes they win in the Electoral College. Democrats are disadvantaged here because the number of votes each state is worth is determined by its congressional delegation, which is proportional to population for the House, but equal in the Senate. This means rural states – which now tend to be strongly Republican – get more relative weight than they deserve. It also means that states that are “safe” for each party (California for Democrats, Texas for Republicans) are ignored in favour of those less safe “battleground” or swing states, making a national contest really about a handful of places like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc. It was Trump’s narrow win in some of these states Obama carried in 2012 that gave him his victory. In a sense, the Democrats have too many voters in places they are already likely to win. Thus, they have to either motivate key voters who were ineligible or stayed home four years ago, or win over disaffected Trumpers.
The difficulty for the Democrats is that all of the remaining candidates have major electoral strengths and weaknesses. Thus, any of them could win, and any of them could lose, as none is the consensus choice or the complete package. I briefly review the remaining contenders, though there are other unlikely hopeful dreamers left too.
Joe Biden is a former Vice-President and a longtime US Senator. He has the most experience, backing among mainstream party leaders and is seen as the grand old uncle of the party. He can claim to rebuild the Obama coalition of educated professionals, ethnic minority voters, and even some blue-collar men and compete with Trump in some of the crossover states. He’s worked with Republicans in Congress.
The knock on him is that he has a habit of making embarrassing gaffes (true, not as fatal now given Trump’s mouth) and is in a sense past his prime, not just due to his age but having been unsuccessful in two prior attempts over 30 years apart. His generation and voting record make him less appealing to the young and women voters (there are charges of sexism) and his track record provides ammo for the opposition. Also, his son has been involved in some rather unsavoury personal and business scandals, including some dealings in Ukraine, which ironically were part of the charges of corruption and failed impeachment of Trump by the Democrats – but with it came bad publicity. Thus, he would not be inspiring and might have similar enthusiasm problems Hillary Clinton did.
Bernie Sanders is the maverick, anti-establishment candidate – a “democratic socialist” who for practical reasons has been elected on the “independent” label, though caucuses with Democrats. In a parliamentary party system, he would not be selected given mutual distrust with Democratic leaders, but then again, in that case he would likely be in a different party altogether.
A Senator from the small but unusual state of Vermont, and having been a government official for decades himself, Sanders is seen as an idealistic crusader against wealthy elites, and for national health care, free college (which can be expensive in the US), and a safety net much larger than the US has traditionally supported. The argument in his favour is that he has inspired hordes of young people who might turn out for him rather than staying home, and could appeal to some of the downtrodden and working class, many of whom reluctantly went for Trump over Clinton.
His difficulties are that he is probably too left even for the new Democrats in Congress, much less moderates and Republicans, meaning he must bring new people to the polls more than win over current, especially elderly, voters. Similarly, his populist extremism might in turn motivate Republicans to come out to defeat him.
Elizabeth Warren, a progressive Senator from Massachusetts, holding Ted Kennedy’s former seat, is in a sense, “Sanders lite” or at least agrees on such issues as national health care and taxing the wealthy, but has more pragmatic and specific approaches on how to do it. In fact, she has more experience as a private attorney and as an executive having run Obama’s new department of consumer protection (which Trump has gutted).
She could thus theoretically appeal to both wings of the party, those of Biden and Sanders, and might be a strong compromise candidate, but so far has failed to do so in the primaries. Her base is white, well-educated suburbanites, a key swing group, but has not done well with minorities and workers. She also may have “peaked early” by generating excitement and poll numbers late last year that haven’t materialised in the early contests, raising the question of whether she can stay in the race.
Lastly, there’s Michael Bloomberg, billionaire former mayor of New York City and owner of a business media empire. He claims both “outsider” and “insider” status and besides spending hordes of his own money on ads, supposedly has crossover appeal to suburban Republicans.
But he has been more attractive in theory than reality, being aloof, waiting for the big states, and attacking Trump via the television. His business practices raise questions about his appeal both to the working class, and women, while his oversight of the NYC police and handling of the city administration have raised qualms about him from minorities and other factions he would need to turn out to beat Trump. He does have the war chest to fight on and could emerge as an alternative to Sanders.
Currently, Sanders is the frontrunner, having placed second in Iowa and first in New Hampshire and Nevada, despite all of them being smaller states with few delegates. In usual fashion, having done well, the national media – focused on the horserace – portray him as being almost unstoppable even though 46 of the 50 contests remain (with Joe Biden having just succeeded in taking the South Carolina primary). In fact, in the next stages, several states go in groups, such as “Super Tuesday” this week when a number of Southern states, plus giant California, hold theirs.
Theoretically it is still up for grabs – one reason Bloomberg entered late – but the psychology and money game mean that unless other contenders, especially those in the supposed “centre-left” lane can emerge, Sanders may well build a practically (though not mathematically) insurmountable lead. If past is prologue, the field will quickly winnow even more, despite the six-month process being barely a month old. Thus, one of the others must find a way to break through without dividing their support among each other.
Like Trump in 2016, Sanders has a core of rabid, true-believer followers that in his case allow him to fundraise off the internet, not rely on major donors, and give him a solid base of organisational and grassroots support. These factors enabled him to make a strong run against Hillary Clinton four years ago. He is likely to go far, then, even if he does not prevail and at least has some indirect influence over the party despite not really being in it.
If Sanders is the nominee, it will thus be the case that both major – and, in our two-party system, the only viable – parties will have been taken over by insurgent movements, albeit with different philosophies, something unheard of in American politics. What this means for the future of the US is unclear, but in the recent past, when this has happened in one party, it has meant its landslide defeat, with the exception of Trump’s narrow win in 2016. Mainstream Democrats are therefore afraid Sanders might pull them down by driving moderates or voters who would choose a different type of Democrat, into Trump’s hands.
But Republicans who wish for Sanders as an easy target – believing with his “socialist” label and long-ago radical past, to be an anathema in a capitalist, freedom-obsessed country – should beware. Polls show him strongly competitive with Trump nationally. Plus, Democrats thought Donald Trump unelectable in 2016, and as people in humid Florida can tell you – lightning can strike twice.
Todd Schaefer is a Professor of Political Science at Central Washington University. He is an expert in American politics.