Democrats in disarray: 2020 election at risk

The Democrats are in disarray and face a number of problems winning the 2020 election. For starters, the Democratic presidential nomination process is highly fluid. In early primary and caucus states, no candidate has managed to sustain a lead over time. The criteria for qualifying for a debate slot and the debates themselves have hurt candidates and the party. The most moderate voices and lesser-funded candidates do not qualify for the debate stage.  

At the debates, the media panelists goad candidates to attack each other. They dig up long-forgotten or controversial comments and challenge candidates to defend themselves. Candidates, to win attention, outdo each other in moving to the left or in making bold declarations on controversial issues such as “Medicare for All.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the initial front-runner, has been an embarrassment. He is not a good debater, is inarticulate, seems to be confused and out of touch, and makes numerous gaffes.    

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have staked out far-left positions and have minimal support outside of progressive Democrats. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has limited recognition and support among blue-collar and minority Democratic voting blocs.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, noting the disarray in the Democratic field, has entered the contest. He wisely refuses to get sucked into the early primary and caucus battles. He is actively campaigning, counting on doing well in early March’s Super Tuesday primaries, where one-third of the convention delegates are at stake. 

The Democrats should be wary of the Jeremy Corbyn-Labour Party effect: A socialist-focused agenda and failure to confront anti-Semitism in the party is a losing strategy.

Another problem Democratic candidates face is the impeachment process. Impeachment has become a partisan political brawl. It has not gained support among Republican voters, who are strongly opposed, or among independent voters, who are evenly divided on its appropriateness. Recent Politico-Morning Consult polling shows overall support for impeachment barely breaking the 50 percent range. Further, polls of voters in battleground states revealed that impeachment is unpopular there. 

Without broad-based support, impeachment will backfire on the Democrats. It will hurt their 2020 presidential election prospects. The Republican-controlled Senate will surely acquit. President Trump will claim vindication and victory and be in a better position to win the 2020 Electoral College vote. 

Many Democratic strategists are engaged in magical thinking. They seem to believe that “ascendant voters” — 18- to 24-year olds, millennials, younger single women, minorities and people of color — will march en masse into the voting booths and support the Democratic presidential candidate. Past voting patterns do not support this scenario. “Ascendant voters” are fickle and are likely to either not vote at all or support third-party candidates. 

Most troubling for the Democrats is the abandonment of the non-college-educated, blue-collar working class, which has always been a faithful and key voting bloc. Many Democrats disparage its more traditional social and cultural outlook. Democrats lecture these voters about lifelong learning, STEM education, preparing for the new global economy, innovation, and entrepreneurship. This attitude, as illustrated by the 2016 Hillary Clinton candidacy, taints the party’s presidential prospects. It must be avoided by the current crop of candidates.   

Most Democrats have turned away from the concerns of working-class voters — loss of livable-wage jobs to globalization and unfair trade arrangements. Instead, the candidates take on a global citizen perspective, playing into the Trump nationalist narrative. Biden, Sanders and Warren are courting union members with promises of wage increases for lower-wage employees, not the creation or return of high-wage employment.

Impeachment does not appear to be an effective tool for Democrats. The ascendant voters have not yet ascended in sufficient numbers. Candidates have not as yet appealed to the traditional working-class Democratic base. What are the Democrats to do?  

Whoever the nominee, he or she needs to build a realistic winning coalition that includes the formerly dependable non-college-educated blue-collar voters. Also, they need to focus on winning the key battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina.

This will entail a careful balance — a more moderate tone, an empathetic embrace of the working class and a progressive agenda for those ascendant voters who do go to the polls. A Democratic victory is possible. But so far, it is not looking likely. The alternative: four more years of the Trump presidency.

Joshua Sandman, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at the University of New Haven. He has studied the presidency for more than five decades.

Tags 2020 Democratic candidates 2020 election Bernie Sanders Democratic debate Democratic Party Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Factions in the Democratic Party Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg

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