The Memo: Democrats struggle to find the strongest swing-state candidate

The Memo: Democrats struggle to find the strongest swing-state candidate
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Is Joe BidenJoe BidenUkrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' Warren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll MORE the most electable Democrat in the pivotal states that will decide the 2020 election?

That’s a key question Democrats desperate to beat President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE are weighing as the primaries grow closer.

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Biden’s argument is that he is a better cultural fit for the traditional Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin than Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll Warren avoids attacks while building momentum Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE (I-Vt.), the two progressives he’s battling at the top of the polls.

It’s an argument Biden is making to constituents in those states, which all shifted to Republicans in 2016 for the first time in decades. But the argument is also resonating in other places, where Democrats are obsessed over which of their candidates is best positioned to win the battlegrounds Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonUkrainian official denies Trump pressured president The Memo: 'Whistleblower' furor gains steam Missing piece to the Ukraine puzzle: State Department's overture to Rudy Giuliani MORE surprisingly lost three years ago.

National polls show most of the front-line Democratic candidates defeating Trump in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups. 

But those are not surveys of Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin, where Clinton’s losses have haunted Democrats.

Clinton beat Trump in the national popular vote by almost 3 million, but still lost the Electoral College.

Biden, his fanbase argues, is best-placed to prevent a repeat of that scenario given his roots in Scranton, Pa., and his centrist brand of politics.

Yet this is far from an open-and-shut case.

Several sources who spoke to The Hill noted that Sanders had also been an appealing candidate to working-class voters in his 2016 campaign, while hewing to a significantly more left-wing ideology than Biden. 

Progressive activist Jonathan Tasini, who backed Sanders, said of the Vermont senator, “People feel he is very authentic when he is talking about the economic challenges — how the devastating trade agreements have hollowed out these so-called Rust Belt states. His message resonates.” 

There is also a hot debate about the validity of the electability argument itself. 

Some Democrats argue that it makes sense for voters to calculate who has the best chance of defeating Trump when making their own decisions. But others worry that an effort to pick the most “electable” candidate, rather than the person who most inspires them personally, is prone to backfire. 

Purportedly electable nominees have often gone down in flames. That was the fate of Clinton in 2016, GOP nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBolton replacement inherits tough challenges — including Trump Bipartisan group of senators urges FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately Trump judicial picks face rare GOP opposition MORE in 2012 and Democratic nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryIn New Mexico, a phony amigo Warren shows signs of broadening her base Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE in 2004.

Insurgent candidates — Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaKrystal Ball tears into 'Never Trump' Republicans Sanders campaign announces it contacted over 1 million Iowa voters Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE in 2008 or Trump in 2016 — won the general election after beating more establishment candidates in the primaries.

“I don’t see how anyone can say with any certainty at this stage, ‘This is a candidate who can win, this is a candidate who can’t win,’ ” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is also a columnist for The Hill.

Mellman and others point out that polling data this far out from an election has limited utility. But that will not stop political insiders trying to read the tea leaves.

Some polls do provide welcome news for Biden, but the case is far from watertight.

An EPIC-MRA poll of Michigan voters last week found Biden beating Trump by 10 points in the Wolverine State. But the same poll had Warren defeating the president by 6 points — hardly the kind of difference that suggests the nomination of Warren would be politically suicidal for Democrats.

A late July poll from Quinnipiac University showed Biden defeating Trump handily in Ohio, by 50 percent to 42 percent. No other Democratic candidate performed nearly so strongly as the former vice president. Of the other five candidates tested — Warren, Sanders, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll Iowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Warren avoids attacks while building momentum MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerIowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding 2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum MORE (D-N.J.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding MORE (D) — all were either tied with Trump or bested by a single point.

In 2016, Trump won Ohio, previously considered a bellwether, by a comfortable 8 percentage points.

Still, Jerry Austin, a Democratic strategist in Ohio unaffiliated with any presidential candidate, argued that predictions were tricky, in part because every election — particularly one being fought in such a polarized political climate — brought an influx of first-time voters to the polls, who are predominantly young people.

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“They are not Biden aficionados, as older generations are,” Austin said. “First of all, they don’t even know Joe Biden when he started in politics — they weren’t alive. That doesn’t play to Joe Biden’s benefit.”

Austin also pushed back against the idea that a nominee with Biden’s personal demeanor would necessarily play better in the Midwest than someone like Warren, whom Republicans have in the past tried to paint as an out-of-touch elitist, given her status as a former Harvard Law School professor.

“The knock on Warren that she is too professorial was fair at one time and is not fair anymore,” Austin contended. “She has proven that she can communicate with people on different levels, and she has run the best campaign.”

But others still retain doubts about the ability of Warren or Sanders to win over independent voters with their more left-wing worldview — however much they enthuse the party base.

“One of the dangerous mistakes people make is confusing a primary voter with a general election voter,” said one unaffiliated Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak kindly. Citing 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis, who lost heavily to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, the strategist added, “You can be an incredibly strong primary candidate but that doesn’t make you a strong general election candidate.”

It is precisely that prospect — the nomination of someone beloved by the grassroots who goes on to lose to Trump — that is a nightmare scenario for many Democrats.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.