The Memo: Dems fret about fate of Obama coalition

It’s early days in the 2020 Democratic primary, but there are already concerns about whether any candidate will be able to recreate the famous Obama coalition.

Former President Obama won two terms in the White House by scoring strong support from young voters, nonwhites and upscale white liberals.

As a large Democratic field forms, each candidate with their own demographic strengths and weaknesses, it is not at all clear the feat will be repeated.


“At least in the primary, no candidate is going to recreate the Obama coalition. It’s not gonna happen,” said one Democratic strategist not aligned with any 2020 candidate.

The strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, added, “You’re going to have this very unique challenge because you have many candidates who are strong on various attributes with various audiences. … This much diversity is broadly a strength but, in a political sense, it just slices up the pie.”

One possible consequence is a long and fractious primary where no single candidate dominates — a prospect that unnerves some party insiders because of its potential to deepen disunity.

Meanwhile, early opinion polls illuminate the basic contours of support for many of the major candidates.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend provided the most detailed look so far at this aspect of the race.

Pollsters asked an open-ended question about whom respondents would vote for in the primary, rather than listing the candidates — a technique that demonstrated the fluidity of the race, since a full 47 percent of respondents expressed no opinion.

Among those who did have a view, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE (D) led the field with 13 percent, followed by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Briahna Joy Gray: Voters are 'torn' over Ohio special election Shontel Brown wins Ohio Democratic primary in show of establishment strength MORE (I-Vt.) with 9 percent, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegSunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate Sunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Chasten Buttigieg: DC 'almost unaffordable' MORE (D) at 5 percent, and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenStaff seeks to create union at DNC America's middle class is getting hooked on government cash — and Democrats aren't done yet California Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisKamala Harris and our shameless politics Pelosi: House Democrats 'ready to work with' Biden on eviction ban Meghan McCain predicts DeSantis would put Harris 'in the ground' in 2024 matchup MORE (D-Calif.) with 4 percent each.


The more granular findings of the poll were arguably more revealing, however.

They showed Biden with a significant problem with younger voters and Sanders still experiencing challenges with nonwhite voters and older people.

The rough shape of support for Warren and Buttigieg was strikingly similar, with both candidates exhibiting vulnerability with nonwhites and voters without college degrees.

Biden drew the support of 22 percent of respondents aged 65 or over — but just 5 percent of those under 40.

Sanders was almost twice as popular among whites as nonwhites, and almost three times as popular with under-40s as with over-65s.

Even though support for Warren and Buttigieg was more modest overall, they did relatively well with college graduates, scoring 8 percent and 9 percent support, respectively, in that demographic — in contrast with 1 percent and 2 percent support from non-college graduates.

Those results mostly comport with another recent poll by Monmouth University. The Monmouth survey showed Sanders’s support running three times as strong among the under-50s as the over-50s, for example, as well as stark contrasts between white and nonwhite support for both Buttigieg and Warren.

Still, there is considerable volatility in the polls.

Sanders backers, for example, note that the Monmouth poll delivered a completely different verdict from the Washington Post-ABC News survey in terms of nonwhite support.

In the Monmouth poll, the Vermont independent was much more popular with nonwhites than with whites. He led the field among nonwhites with 27 percent support.

People close to Buttigieg say his personal commitment to diversity is reflected in everything from his campaign staff to his decisions about where and how to campaign. The South Bend mayor met with Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem on Monday and will campaign in South Carolina — the first of the primary states with a substantial black population — this upcoming weekend.

Whatever the limitations of the current polling, one key challenge for any candidate will be how to expand support without sacrificing existing strengths.

There are 21 candidates in the field now, and still more, including former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform For true American prosperity, make the child tax credit permanent MORE (D-Colo.), mulling bids.

That leaves significant risk of an atomization of the Democratic field. Some Democratic insiders are already fretting about the possibility of a brokered convention in Milwaukee next July.

But other, more optimistic voices can be heard as well.

Those who express a more hopeful outlook argue that predictions of intraparty doom are premature. They insist there is one factor virtually all Democrats can rally around: opposition to the current president.

“Trump is the greatest unifying force in the Democratic Party in decades,” said strategist Tad Devine, who has worked on many past presidential campaigns but is not aligned with any candidate this time around.

“There is uniformity among people who are either Democrats or could be persuaded to vote for a Democrat — it is a huge consensus against the president.”

Devine noted that the divisions during primary season can be severe, and that the prospect of a prolonged struggle during this cycle “doesn’t help.”

But he drew a contrast between the current moment and battles of the past. In 1980, for instance, Devine worked for then-President Carter, who endured a rancorous primary battle with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

“They were never able to find common ground,” Devine recalled. “But I don’t think that’s the case today. Almost all the mainstream candidates running … any of them who win a clear victory will be supported by almost all Democrats.”

Whether any Democratic nominee will have the same magic as Obama did in 2008 remains very much in doubt. In that instance, and in 2012, Obama received more than 50 percent of all votes cast in the general election — an achievement that the only other two-term Democratic president of recent times, former President Clinton, did not match.

Still, even a former Obama campaign aide said that opposition to Trump could transcend all else.

“Folks will be energized not just for what the candidate stands for. You are also going to get the folks coming out to defeat Trump,” the former aide said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE’s presidency.