Trump retains a built-in electoral advantage, and it's no good denying that. Are the Democrats ready to fight?
An elevator pitch is a simplified version of a complex idea, used to woo a potential investor, editor, sponsor or someone else with the power to "greenlight" a project. An elevator pitch should take no longer than 30 seconds.
The 20 Democratic candidates on stage during the first two nights of first presidential debates each had only slightly more time than that to sell their ideas to the American people.
On Wednesday night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren dominated among a field of lesser, "second-tier" candidates as deemed by their polling numbers. She is a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. In essence, Warren was the adult at the kid's table. Julián Castro and Sen. Cory Booker put in noteworthy performances — although they are essentially auditioning for vice president.
On Thursday night, Sen. Kamala Harris showed herself to be a star and a likely future president of the United States. Bernie Sanders is a broken record playing the same old song — albeit a good one — but the novelty is gone. Joe Biden is being chased by the political Grim Reaper: He can hear the footsteps gaining on him. He actually said, “Anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry," after losing an exchange with Harris about his "compromises" with Jim Crow-era white supremacists in the service of what he believed to be the greater good.
The other candidates, with few exceptions, were largely forgettable.
These first debate(s) are not "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," "Rollerball" or Kinji Fukasaku's "Battle Royale". They are more like a rough scrimmage in full pads between two high school football teams.
As a group, the Democratic presidential candidates have much to celebrate. Public opinion polls show that at present Donald Trump will likely lose to the Democrats' presidential nominee, be it Biden, Harris, Sanders, Warren or someone else.
But if the Democrats drill beneath the surface they will see that there is much for them to worry about regarding their chances of defeating Trump in the 2020 election.
For one thing, Trump remains remarkably popular among white voters, especially white men. In a Quinnipiac University poll released on June 11, Trump trailed all the leading Democratic candidates. Among white voters, however, Trump beat every major Democratic presidential candidate by a margin of six to 10 points — with one exception. Biden and Trump were in a statistical tie, with the latter leading by 47% to 46%, within the survey's margin of error. Other national polls have consistently shown that Donald Trump wins among white voters by an average of 10 points.
In some ways this is predictable. The Republican Party is the country's largest white identity organization. The two major parties are increasingly sorted by racial attitudes, and those white voters who are the most hostile towards nonwhites have found their natural home in the Republican Party. Conservatism is a system of motivated social cognition; racism and racial authoritarianism are among its key features. In today's extremely polarized environment, political values are a reflection of social identity. Because of this, whiteness rules supreme for many Trump and Republican voters.
Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina explained this to me in a phone conversation:
The idea behind white identity politics is that there is a subset of white voters and/or white Americans in general who feel a sense of attachment to their group. They feel a sense of solidarity. They think that their race and their racial identity is important to who they are, and that influences how they see and view the political world. Tied up in that sense of identity is the belief that whites are losing out in the United States and that their status and their power are somehow under threat. Subsequently, these white voters are responding to that politically by supporting policies and candidates that they view as protecting their group and preserving its status.
Donald Trump is a candidate who campaigned on lowering levels of immigration, building a wall, and doing things that were going to preserve the "right" composition of the country, as viewed by those white Americans who feel embattled. He promised to provide and support policies like Social Security and Medicare that are associated with whiteness and disproportionately benefit white people. Trump is going to keep "America First" and "Make America Great Again" He is very much the candidate of white identity.
Of course white identity mattered before Trump came on the scene, as Jardina also noted: "One thing that we know is that whites who felt a strong sense of solidarity with their group in 2012 were far less likely to vote for Obama."
What is most troubling for American democracy and the general future of the country is the fact that Trump's white voters support him despite his evident collusion with a foreign power to influence the 2016 presidential election, his habitual lying, his authoritarian beliefs and attitudes and his gross disregard for the Constitution. Trump has been accused of sexual assault or sexual harassment by at least 22 women. He has put brown and black children and families in concentration camps. He has conducted a dangerous and irresponsible foreign policy, has further destroyed the environment, gutting America's prestige and respect around the world, has pursued ruinous economic policies and a pattern of evident corruption, has openly admired dictators and despots and embraced the politics of white supremacy.
Other polling data and research shows that many of Trump's voters are embarrassed and ashamed of him. Public opinion polls also show that a plurality of Americans — including white people — believe that the United States is heading in the wrong direction. Yet many of these white voters, who theoretically know better, still support Donald Trump.
It is clear that white identity politics and white backlash against America's multiracial democracy makes Trump remarkably popular among his voters. So the 2020 election is not a normal referendum on varying economic policies, or on the incumbent president's competence in terms of improving the common good. Instead Trump's voters are evaluating his "gifts" as a racist and their emotional-psychological identification with him as a symbol of both white power and white victimhood.
Trumpism is a political cult of white identity politics that offers Donald Trump a level of almost unfailing support. The Democrats have no easy solution for this problem. This deep devotion is also reflected by how Trump's "spread" is the narrowest in the last seven decades of American public opinion polling:
We think that pollsters, and the general public, shouldn’t compare Trump’s approval ratings to past presidents.
What can be compared? The difference of highs and lows.
According to historical Gallup polls, Trump’s spread — the difference between the highest recorded and lowest recorded approval rating poll — has never been more than 13%. Not a single president since this type of robust polling began, back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, has ever shown this level of consistency in approval ratings. In fact, the next-smallest spread was 27%, for John F. Kennedy.
Trump’s approval ratings show that he has the strongest base in historical times.
Various voting models also suggest that if the economy continues to perform well that Donald Trump will win an easy victory in 2020.
Another advantage Donald Trump possesses is that he is worshiped by white right-wing Christian evangelicals despite violating every normative code of honor and decency. Why? White right-wing Christian evangelicals are exceptionally hostile towards nonwhite immigrants and other people of color. They are also afraid that they will somehow become "oppressed" or even "vanquished" in an existential battle with "non-believers." As such they are devoted to Trump as a messiah and savior.
Robert Jones, author of "The End of White Christian America" and the founder and chief director of PRRI, explained in an article for the Atlantic how white Christian evangelicals are a secret weapon for Trump and the Republicans in the 2020 election:
What fuels the Republicans’ political strength, in other words, is not current white Christian population levels, but the fact that white Christians historically turn out to vote at higher rates than nonwhite and non-Christian Americans. These higher turnout rates are driven by a number of factors. Voting is highly correlated with other forms of civic participation, such as church attendance. Voting is also highly correlated to education levels, and white Christians are more likely than nonwhite Christians to hold a four-year-college degree. Finally, voting is a habit that has been strongly emphasized in white Christian churches, especially among white evangelicals since the rise of the Christian right in the 1980s.
What does all of this mean for 2020? While Republicans will still benefit from the population dynamics of yesteryear, the maximum lag is about two to three presidential-election cycles. According to current projections, 2024 will be the year that white Christians — already less than half the population—will be a minority in the electorate as well. Between now and then, on the one hand, Republicans will need to expand the base of their party if they want to continue to be competitive nationally.
Democrats, on the other hand, need to take seriously the continued strength of this underappreciated Republican asset. Demographic trends may be a bright light on the Democratic Party’s horizon. But unless turnout patterns shift dramatically, next year’s electorate will look more like the America of 2012, not 2020.
The famous voters of the "white working class" also remain a key group in the 2020 presidential election. While Trump's support is supposedly softening among that cohort in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, he remains that group's preferred candidate.
And while political scientists and other experts predicting that the 2020 election may see record rates of participation, those black and brown voters, young people and others who are likely to come out in droves to oppose Trump are also concentrated in areas where Democrats already dominate. Moreover, one cannot overlook how the same forces that motivate the Democratic Party's voters may be opposed with the same level of energy by Trump voters. The Electoral College and other structural features of the American electoral system — such as gerrymandering — in conjunction with outright voter suppression, voter theft, vote fraud and possible outside interference, means that white Republican voters will still have an outsize influence on the 2020 election.
Democrats must beware the blinders of being fixated on white working-class voters — men in that group have not supported the Democrats since the 1960s — while simultaneously being keenly aware that those same voters in a few battleground states could swing the election again in 2020. This is not an easy task.
In addition to mobilizing their base and selecting the best candidate with the highest likelihood of defeating Trump, what must the Democrats do to win the 2020 election?
Over the long term, Democrats must secure America's electoral infrastructure from outside interference. Given the extreme rightward turn of the U.S. Supreme Court and its hostility to protecting the equal rights of all Americans, the Democrats must also "pack the court" — increasing the number of justices to better represent the interests of democracy and freedom.
In the immediate short term, the 2020 Democratic nominee and the party as a whole must be willing to embrace a new normal by discarding any notions of civility and compromise with Republicans and Donald Trump. As Hillary Clinton learned in 2016, "When they go low we go high" is a prescription for perpetual defeat in America's current political environment.
Democrats must also study how the Republican Party and Trump's minions (as aided by Russian operatives) used the Internet, social media and other digital technology to distort the 2016 presidential election. Democrats, liberals and progressives have fallen woefully behind in using the digital battlefield to build political victory.
As new research by sociologist Robb Willer demonstrates, the Democrats must also make a more sophisticated use of framing, capturing Republican talking points and turning them to their own advantage.
When Republicans talk about "family values," Warren, Harris and other candidates should pivot back to the fact that it is Democrats who support health care for all, women's rights, and access to a good education for all children and young people.
When Trump and other Republicans talk about "national security" and "patriotism," the Democrats should adjust their narrative to point out that they are the party that will keep America safe from Russia and other hostile foreign powers, show the many ways that Trump and his regime have betrayed the country's safety, and demonstrate that real security begins with a strong middle class and broad economic opportunity at home.
Such a strategy may win over some weak Trump voters, undecideds and independents. It could also demobilize and confuse other Republican voters. To win Democratic strategists must focus on mobilizing their base voters while also paying attention to the other side of the equation: How best to keep Republican voters and other Trump fans from showing up at the polls in 2020 and beyond. The Republican Party has mastered such tactics. Democrats must do the same against the Republicans.
In conjunction with the above, Democrats must use simple, clear direct messaging which speaks to both emotions and the facts: The Republicans are trying to kill you. The Republicans are making you sick. Republicans don't care about your family. Republicans don't want you to vote. Republicans are stealing your money and giving it to rich people. Donald Trump thinks you are stupid.
Ultimately, the most important question that the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nominee must answer is this: Are you willing to do anything and everything possible under the law to defeat Donald Trump, the Republicans and their anti-democracy movement? Nothing less than a full-throated "yes" is acceptable.
Of course the moderators of the Democratic primary debates will never have the courage or freedom to ask such a question. [So] we must ask it, and demand an answer.