This article is the first in a two-part series for the Debatable newsletter about the 2020 presidential election. Thursday’s edition will cover Republican prospects next November. You can sign up here to receive Debatable on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Assuming the role once again of party buzzkill in chief, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, issued a warning on Friday that some Democratic presidential candidates, in her view, are too far left. “What works in San Francisco does not necessarily work in Michigan,” Ms. Pelosi told Bloomberg News, stamping out policy ideas, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, that have caught fire on the party’s progressive wing. “Remember November,” she said. “You must win the Electoral College.”
Astead Herndon, a Times political reporter, swooped in on Twitter, pointing out that the ideological landscape of the country is not that neatly mapped: As any Bernie Sanders supporter worth her fair-trade salt will tell you, it was he who won the 2016 Democratic primary in Michigan. But one year from the general election, a new Times poll suggests that Ms. Pelosi may have a point: Across six battleground states, only Joe Biden leads President Trump, narrowly, among registered voters; Mr. Sanders finds himself in a deadlock, while Elizabeth Warren trails the president by two percentage points.
Of course, as 2016 so colorfully illustrated, polling is hardly an exact science, especially this far out from an election. But the Times data offers little hope that the Democratic Party’s existential angst over how to resuscitate itself will be resolved anytime soon.
The debate: While Mr. Biden is promising a return to normalcy, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders are calling for “big, structural change” and “a political revolution.” Which way leads to a 2020 victory?
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING
The party needs to stop obsessing over moderate swing voters
The Democratic Party should stop focusing all of its attention on the small slice of white, Obama-Trump voters and do more to galvanize its young, diverse base, argues Melanye Price, a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, in The Times. Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats must appeal to the center, but an increasingly popular theory has emerged on the left — tested in practice by progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Katie Porter, who beat more conservative incumbents in 2018 — that the party doesn’t need to make such compromises if it can expand its pool of voters.
Ms. Price writes that by next November, seven million young people of color will have turned 18 since the 2016 election. These young, more progressive Americans could help the Democrats win in 2020, she writes, but not if the party ignores what they want by continuing to cater only to white swing voters:
By expanding the numbers of young people, people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. folks and progressive whites who vote, progressives can take back the White House. The Democratic Party should mount a campaign with a bold set of propositions that excite progressives and not those voters for whom racial fears can be easily exploited.
Sean McElwee, a co-founder of Data for Progress, and three political scientists, Jesse H. Rhodes, Brian F. Schaffner and Bernard L. Fraga, agree that the Democratic Party’s focus on swing voters has come at the expense of other constituencies. Their analysis shows that while 9 percent of Obama 2012 voters went for Mr. Trump in 2016, 7 percent — more than four million people — stayed home, and 3 percent voted for a third-party candidate.
Moving left, the authors say, might actually help the Democrats with this group, since they’re more likely to support progressive policy priorities than Obama-Trump voters are:
Obama-to-nonvoters are a relatively liberal segment of the country who have largely been ignored. They are mostly young and nonwhite, and they represent an important part of the Democratic Party’s demographic future. Given the likelihood that many Obama-to-Trump voters will remain in Republican ranks, it is hard to imagine how Democrats can win elections if this group remains on the sidelines.
No, the party really needs swing voters
Actually, nonvoters aren’t that progressive, Matt Yglesias of Vox argues. He writes:
Sean McElwee of Data for Progress is a major proponent of mobilizing Obama voters who didn’t vote in 2016 rather than chasing Obama-Trump switchers. And his numbers show, very clearly, that these drop-off voters are more progressive than Obama-Trump voters or Romney-Clinton voters. But, critically, Obama voters who either voted third party or stayed home in 2016 are less progressive than consistent Democrats.
So while policies like the Green New Deal and higher taxes for the rich are popular among Democrats over all, there’s no guarantee that a candidate who champions them will inspire Obama voters in swing states who stayed home in 2016.
In the process of doing so, though, Democrats could end up botching the strategy that won them back the House in 2018, argues Jonathan Chait in New York magazine. Many of the 40 districts the party flipped were moderate or conservative in makeup, he writes, and were won by candidates who campaigned against the most unpopular elements of Mr. Trump’s agenda — cutting taxes for the rich and repealing the Affordable Care Act, for example — while avoiding taking unpopular positions of their own.
Now, as the Democratic Party shows signs of tacking left, nearly two-thirds of those who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 but a Democrat in 2018 plan to vote for him again in 2020. Mr. Chait writes:
Biden’s paper-thin lead over Trump in the swing states is largely attributable to the perception that he is more moderate than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Three-quarters of those who would vote for Biden over Trump, but Trump over Warren, say they would prefer a more moderate Democratic nominee to a more liberal one, and a candidate who would find common ground with Republicans over one who would fight for a progressive agenda.
Left or right is the wrong question
Ideology is actually a poor lens through which to view the Democrats’ 2020 electoral strategy, writes Nate Cohn, a domestic correspondent for The Upshot. That’s because the Democratic electorate “is not clearly or predictably split into clear ‘lanes’ of progressives and moderates,” he notes. “Many don’t hold consistent views on the left-to-right spectrum.”
In fact, the relative insignificance of ideology writ large is a phenomenon supported by a good deal of research, as well as common sense: If voter preferences were arrayed evenly along an ideological spectrum, with the fabled moderate in the middle, one would expect Mr. Sanders, not Ms. Warren, to be in third place against Mr. Trump; that she’s not is most likely a product of sexism, Mr. Cohn finds. And that’s not even to mention the Republican Party’s continued domination of national politics despite its deeply unpopular positions.
What explains voters’ apolitical politics? In their book “Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work,” the University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse write:
Most people have strong feelings on few if any of the issues the government needs to address and would much prefer to spend their time in nonpolitical pursuits. … The people as a whole tend to be quite indifferent to policies and therefore are not eager to hold government accountable for the policies it produces.
Rather, voters seem to pick their candidate based on claims of shared identity — demographic, socioeconomic, cultural or otherwise — which manifests as partisanship. What this means for the Democratic presidential race is open to interpretation.
To be sure, there are probably limits to how far left the party can go, Dave Wasserman, an editor for the Cook Political Report and a contributor to NBC News, told Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker. But he noted that pundits once thought it unimaginable for a Republican to get elected on a promise to build a wall on the southern border and make Mexico pay for it; Medicare for All and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement perhaps should not be viewed as disqualifying for Democrats, either. He told Mr. Chotiner:
Generally, the tiny sliver of voters in this country who are still persuadable are not highly ideological people. They are fundamentally anti-élite in nature, and they are looking for three characteristics in a candidate for President that don’t have much to do with left-versus-right. And those characteristics are authenticity, being a credible agent for change and empathy. In other words, does this person understand my daily struggles? And a common thread between Obama and Trump was a common touch.
As Jonathan Bernstein has written for The Times, political scientists think ideology and demographics matter, though it’s not certain exactly how; beyond that, the business of predicting the next election is mostly tea leaves.
The presidency is not enough for the Democrats, writes Jamelle Bouie [The New York Times]
What happened to America’s political center of gravity? It moved right. [The New York Times]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: The best and worst Halloween candies, according to the presidential candidates.
Patricia from Maine wrote in: “I am so disappointed that none of the candidates showed any awareness of the slave chocolate issue. No one suggested using free-trade chocolate.” (For more on this issue, check out this Washington Post article.)
Abigail from Pittsburgh wrote in: “The fact that Liz Warren does not like Good & Plenty almost makes me rethink my vote — who doesn’t like small delectable bites of licorice covered in just the right amount of hardened sugar to create ideal balances of flavor and texture?! Suspicious, if you ask me 🙂”
Marc from New York commented: “Where’s Bernie? Very disappointing. He just seems like he would know his way around a chocolate bar.”