Democrats desperately need to conquer their electability fears
Democrats had one of their signature paroxysms of fretting this week, when The New York Times released a poll showing President Trump neck-and-neck or ahead of his most likely Democratic opponents in several Electoral College swing states. It inspired another round of furious debate over which candidates and policies are best to put up against Trump.
Now, it is definitely true that Trump could win re-election next year. But he isn't unbeatable, and there is no way to know beyond question who is the best candidate to take him on. What is sure to help, though, is fighting to the very last erg of strength.
To start with, we should note that the Times poll is directly odds with other recent polls, which have found Trump significantly trailing the leading Democratic candidates in some of those same swing states. Nationally, Trump is very unpopular, and the economy is looking distinctly soft — perhaps dragged down by Trump's nonsensical trade war and a Wall Street bubble of at least modest size that appears to be deflating. He faces a daily deluge of negative press attention about his corrupt dealings with Ukraine as the House impeachment inquiry drags on. At bottom, Trump is certainly the weakest incumbent since George H.W. Bush, and probably much longer than that.
On the other hand, Trump is an incumbent, and incumbents always have a chance to win — particularly if they cheat, which Republicans are near-guaranteed to at least try. This combination of incumbency bias and bad polling has many writers running scared. New York magazine's Jonathan Chait, for instance, argues that the Times poll proves leading Democrats have been living in a "fantasy world," driven by a Twitter echo chamber to support unpopular policies like Medicare-for-all. It is certainly possible for a campaign to drive down its numbers with sufficiently unpopular stances, but Chait has to bend the evidence considerably to apply it to the current Democratic primary.
"Biden's paper-thin lead over Trump in the swing states is largely attributable to the perception that he is more moderate than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders," he writes — but fails to mention that Sanders, the most left-wing candidate, is ahead in the three critical Rust Belt states that handed the election to Trump, whereas Biden is only tied in Michigan. Meanwhile, Warren leads only in Arizona, despite running on a very similar platform to Sanders.
This suggests that policy commitments aren't the only thing that matters when assessing popularity. There is also the candidate's personality, reputation, campaigning style, fundraising ability, and so on — in short, their skills and suitability as a politician. While Warren and Sanders are similar in policy terms, Sanders' crusading populist outsider persona is quite different from Warren's professorial affect, and arguably more suited to an age in which the status quo is widely despised. There is also surely some sexism knocking a few points off Warren's total, and possibly some anti-Semitism off that of Sanders.
It's also worth noting that Chait's laser-like focus on electability somehow went missing between 2015-16, when he was writing stuff like a trolly article saying liberals should root for a Trump victory in the GOP primary, and casually dismissing Sanders' primary candidacy without a single word about Sanders polling 4-5 points better than Clinton in matchups against Trump at the time. I'm sure I don't have to remind readers how nominating the Safe, Reasonable Centrist against Trump turned out in the last election.
Furthermore, it is not at all clear that abandoning Medicare-for-all and sprinting to the right in a panic will win more votes than it will lose. The policy continues to poll with more than 50 percent support, despite months of sustained attack from Big Medical agitprop and cynical opportunists like Pete Buttigieg. (Support does drop if people are primed against it, but also increases if people are primed in favor of it.)
More importantly, Medicare-for-all also motivates a fairly numerous core of dedicated activists who are about equal parts enthusiastic for universal coverage and terrified that the existing health care system — which is falling apart before our very eyes — will leave them penniless or dead. If Sanders or Warren were to give in to fear and abandon their commitments here, it would inspire outrage and despair among some of the most committed Democratic shock troops, and (quite rightly) make the candidates seem like liars. There would be endless media cycles about the Great Medicare Flip-Flop. A similar deflating effect would happen if the party nominates Biden or Buttigieg.
On the other hand, several other decidedly non-moderate policies have major support. At The New York Times, David Leonhardt also worries that Democrats are making a "grave mistake" by running too far left, but somehow fails to mention that legal pot, allowing workers to elect board members at their firms, placing half of corporate stocks into a fund controlled by its workers, credit card interest rate caps, socializing drug development, a Green New Deal, and paid family leave all poll well above water. Funny how these kind of ideas tend to get left out of the popularity discussion!
At any rate, if there's anything the presidency of a reality TV show host should prove, it's that we should be skeptical of arguments about which kind of candidate is sure to win. There are risks on every side, and any of the candidates on offer could win or lose against Trump. There is simply no way around a hard-fought campaign whose outcome is uncertain.
What will definitely be necessary is confidence and fighting spirit. Democrats have a majority of the country at their backs, and if they can just convince themselves of that instead of jumping at shadows, they will have the best possible chance of winning.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.