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

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

Is Joe BidenJoe BidenNew York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications 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 TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE are weighing as the primaries grow closer.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders 'outraged' after MLB threatens to cut ties with minor league teams Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute 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 ClintonNo, the polls aren't wrong — but you have to know what to look for How to shut down fake Republican outrage over 'spying' on Trump More than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls 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 RomneyIs a trap being set for Trump in the Senate trial? The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial MORE in 2012 and Democratic nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryUN chief warns unchecked climate change will mean 'survival of the richest' Conservatives rip FBI over IG report: 'scathing indictment' Live coverage: DOJ inspector general testifies on Capitol Hill MORE in 2004.

Insurgent candidates — Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability 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 HarrisBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Sanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Booker cancels NH activities, campaign says he has the flu MORE (D-N.J.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Buttigieg rolls out endorsements from South Bend officials Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

“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.