Do Dems need someone people like to beat Trump?

Do Dems need someone people like to beat Trump?
© Greg Nash

Democrats are debating how likable their nominee will need to be ahead of a 2020 presidential race they predict will be the most negative and bruising political campaign in history.

Some say finding a fighter to take on President TrumpDonald John TrumpSasse: Trump shouldn't dignify Putin with Helsinki summit Top LGBT group projects message onto Presidential Palace in Helsinki ahead of Trump-Putin summit Hillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' MORE will be more important than finding the proverbial candidate one wants to get a beer with.

ADVERTISEMENT
“Given how radioactive this president is across wide swaths in the country, I’m not so sure how important likability will be,” Democratic strategist Jim Manley said. “It’s always nice to be liked, but people are going to be more interested in a fighter, I think.”

At the same time, others say the party would ignore personality at its own peril.

“Likability always matters in every election,” said Patti Solis Doyle, who served as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' 10 things we learned from Peter Strzok's congressional testimony Get ready for summit with no agenda and calculated risks MORE’s campaign manager during her 2008 presidential bid.

Democrats believe Clinton’s negatives hurt her in 2016, and they recognize that Trump was quick to seize upon them. No matter who their nominee is in 2020, they are bracing for the same strategy from Trump.

“Trump can’t survive a referendum on him or his presidency. He can only win by making the race a choice between two evils,” says Democratic strategist David Wade. “You can safely predict he will run a scorched-earth campaign to make his opponent unacceptable, to drive down Democratic enthusiasm and take his liabilities off the table by creating a false equivalency.”

“If voters think Trump is corrupt, he’ll work to make them think his Democratic opponent is swimming in the same muck,” he said.

It’s possible dozens of Democrats will seek to become their party’s nominee in 2020, and Democratic strategists say none of them particularly stand out in terms of likability.

“I think we have a lot of qualified, talented folks, but I’m not sure that anyone has yet risen to the top and captured the hearts of the rank-and-file Democrats across the country,” Solis Doyle said. “We’re getting closer to finding that person but I don’t know who that is yet, though.”

A Harvard/Harris Poll survey from October 2017 found that Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOn paper, Wilkie is the perfect candidate for VA secretary, but his qualifications go further Sacha Baron Cohen mulls arming toddlers with guns in inaugural episode Ocasio-Cortez to campaign with Bernie Sanders in Kansas MORE (I-Vt.) is the nation’s most popular politician, though that poll didn’t ask respondents about former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenBiden: I’m ‘ashamed’ of Trump’s border policies Biden to ramp up campaigning for Dem candidates after Labor Day: report California Dems endorse progressive challenger over Feinstein MORE.

A Morning Consult–Politico poll in June found Biden — with his “Uncle Joe” persona — was the most popular candidate with the Democratic base.

That latter poll, however, suggested many Americans simply don’t know enough about politicians such as Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisMcConnell: I won't be intimidated by protesters Booker seizes on Kavanaugh confirmation fight Seeking asylum does not make illegal entry into America legal MORE (D-Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandMidterms will show voters are tired of taking back seat to Wall Street McConnell: I won't be intimidated by protesters Dem senator: Kavanaugh would 'turn back the clock' on women's health care MORE (D-N.Y.) to have an opinion this early on in the cycle.

The most popular and successful Democratic politician in recent years was former President Obama, whose personal approval ratings remained high even as many voters soured on his agenda. It’s one reason why Obama was able to win reelection in 2012 and points to why personality and the mysterious “likeability” quality is important for candidates and those handicapping their chances.

“In the most recent election you had two very unlikeable candidates, and one could argue that one voted for the lesser of two evils,” said Solis Doyle. “What does that mean for the field in 2020? I think it’s going to be a shit show … but I do think the person that prevails will have to be resilient and that they’ll be able to give back as much as they give.”

After losing the election in 2016, Clinton expressed regret that she didn’t attack Trump as hard as she could have.

In her book “What Happened,” she wrote about the presidential debate in St. Louis where Trump lurked behind her.

“It was incredibly uncomfortable,” she said. “He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled. It was one of those moments where you wish you could hit pause and ask everyone watching, ‘Well, what would you do?’ Do you stay calm, keep smiling and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye and say loudly and clearly, ‘Back up, you creep. Get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women but you can’t intimidate me, so back up.’ ”

To date, Trump has yet to focus on any would-be opponents in 2020, with the exception of Oprah Winfrey.

After Democrats flirted with the idea of a Winfrey White House bid, Trump said he would most like to run against her and that it “would be a painful experience for her.”

“I’d love to beat Oprah,” Trump said. “I know her weakness.”

Winfrey has made it clear she isn’t interested in running for the White House.