What 2020 Might Look Like

Everybody has an opinion, and it usually matches their politics. Will Donald Trump be re-elected? No way, say the resisters. Of course, say the “red hats.” Not if Bernie is nominated, say the Socialists. And the moderate Democrats and #NeverTrump Republicans keep cautioning Democrats to stop moving left. But what do the numbers say?

Above is what I call the consensus concession map. The states in blue and red are the states that almost no one is arguing will change. The Democratic nominee starts at 175. Trump starts at 103. Under virtually any scenario where either side loses states they have above, the election was simply a national consensus landslide against both the losing party and nominee.

How likely is that to happen? It’s not going to happen. The Democrats almost can’t get beaten any worse than this, as Donald Trump is an unpopular incumbent President. I see no scenario where Trump falls below this either- his approval is higher today than it was on Election Day of 2016, when it was just 38%. He got 46% of the vote that day. With over 90% approval among Republicans, Trump basically can’t lose these dark red states. His current approval on Real Clear Politics is 43.2%.

So where do we begin? Let’s start here, a fair approximation of what is truly possible as a battleground. All of the Obama-Trump states in play, all of the states Trump was close in are in play, and the Democrats hopes in some Southern and Southwestern states remain in play. From here, we begin at 188-125.

Here’s some cold water on everyone though- not all of those states are in play. If either party ended up winning all of these states, it’s a historic blowout. Just for fun, here’s what those maps would look like.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems, understand that those scenarios are really unlikely unless one side or the other dramatically changes it’s mind about itself. Since that won’t happen, here’s my realist battleground map:

Behold a map where the Democratic nominee starts out with every Hillary state but Nevada, while Trump is defending the “Obama” states he picked up, plus Arizona and North Carolina. In other words, it’s 2016 and 2012’s battlegrounds, plus Arizona. What do we know about this? The Democrats only need to be a little better than they were in 2016, but these things usually run in one-sided trends at the end. Trump had to win all the swing voters in 2016 to squeak out a win, but he did. Barack Obama won nearly every swing state in 2008 and 2012 as well.

What might a Democratic victory look like? Here’s a few possibilities:

This is the “momentum” Democratic map, where the swing voters all break Democrats way at the end, and Democratic turnout is high.

This is the scenario where Democrats squeak out a win by flipping the PA/MI/WI states from last time, plus North Carolina, where they had a good midterm, but states like Iowa and Ohio just don’t budge, Trump hangs on in Arizona, and Florida continues trending badly. This map is essentially one where both messages work at reaching their sides, but Democrats win.

Here’s a possible narrow victory through the Rust Belt.

Here’s a scenario through North Carolina.

Ok, so enough with the fun stuff- how does Donald Trump win? You said it couldn’t happen last time, but it did. So let’s start with scenario A, 2016. He gets back to 46% and wins.

Not much imagination in that. So let’s go with a scenario B- where Trump builds off of 2016. He surges in some of the predominantly white states he lost last time, and gets this:

Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire flip, and Trump wins on the back of over 60% of the white vote.

One more scenario here, which is just a straight Trump sweep of what he won last time, the three states above, and the more diverse, but highly competitive Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia.

Could there be chaos? Yes. Ties are possible. Very possible. I came up with two plausible pathways there.

Who knows who controls Congress under this scenario, but things get chaotic. I doubt either side accepts the results. Things are bad.

How do Democrats most insure defeat in 2020- embrace a “base only” strategy and completely eschew persuading anyone that’s not neatly in their demographic camp. While the “emerging” electoral coalition that includes minorities and millennials largely is out there, the reality is that it is not ready to insure electoral college victories. This is where a “screw the Rust Belt strategy” begins 2020:

It’s not as dreamy as some people make it sound on the internet or on TV. Not at all.

So where do I have 2020 right now? Here’s my current prediction map:

I do not take into account the nominee or VP- yet. I might give Joe Biden more Rust Belt states, or Kamala Harris a shot at Georgia, or a ticket with Castro on it Arizona or Texas, but for now I can’t. I just give these states based on generic opinions. I might give Trump more states against a Bernie Sanders or other more lefty candidates too. But, without the benefit of particulars, I’m here right now.

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The Presidential Race, Through Two Debates

Two debates, and their post-debate spin, are over. Two quarters of fundraising are over. The polls are somewhat stable. We’re reaching the point where we can start to make some assumptions about this race. There is starting to be some “tiering” of the field. Here’s mine:

  • The front-runners- Joe Biden stands out here on his own. The former Vice-President still leads the polls, and he raised the most money per day in his first partial quarter. His first debate not withstanding, he’s done well so far. Despite a drop in the polls, Bernie Sanders remains here too, as his fundraising and polling still stands out. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are also clearly in here too. Based on money and media coverage, Pete Buttigieg is also clearly in this group. In a field of 25, these five are clearly the elite.
  • Viable and Alive, But Disappointing- I really like most of the candidates in this group, but polls and/or fundraising suggest they are failing to meet expectations. Cory Booker remains serious, but he seems unable to connect with voters or donors so far. Amy Klobuchar has a great track record of winning a swing state, but she’s been almost silent on the debate stage, which is translating to her (lack of) traction. How many of you remembered that Michael Bennet, a great Senator that also wins a swing seat, was still in the race? Kirsten Gillibrand has been, and this is charitable, bad at this, so far. Jay Inslee is an awesome Governor, and everyone agrees with him on climate change, but no one seems to think he’s going to win this thing. John Hickenlooper does a great job at smacking Bernie, but it isn’t translating into anything other than calls for him to run for the Senate. Steve Bullock is a red state Governor, the mother of electability arguments, and he’s trapped in single digits too. Literally everyone loves Julian Castro, and many want him on the ticket, but yet he can’t raise any money. His fellow Texan, Beto O’Rourke, is a former front-runner that now has struggled to do much but define who he sees as racist for the rest of us. I still think any of these candidates could break out and become a front-runner, but they’ve all come up short so far.
  • It’s not Gonna Happen, Bro- Bill de Blasio is the Mayor of the largest city in the country, but he’s been reduced to “tax the hell dot com” for attention. Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton are actual Congressmen, not that it’s helping them much. John Delaney was a Congressman, not that it’s helping him much either. None of these folks are going to win, even though I like some of them.
  • Wtf- Who thought letting a pro-Kremlin, pro-Assad stooge on the debate stage was a good idea? Please come pick up Tulsi Gabbard for us. Tom Steyer is going to spend millions of dollars to tell us why he’s more progressive than everyone else, and he still won’t be President. Andrew Yang has a position on circumcising guys. Joe Sestak has lost two PA Senate races. Mike Gravel has teenagers running his twitter account, so there’s that. Ever heard of Wayne Messam? I know you saw Marianne Williamson, and know all about the “dark, psychic forces” she’ll defeat as President. Why are these people running?

So by my count, there are 25 total candidates, but only 14 with an actual chance. Of those 14, I would be happy with about ten of them being nominated. I’d be excited by maybe six of them. So at this point, that’s my state of the race.

On Elizabeth Warren

When I say I like Elizabeth Warren, some people are surprised. In fact, she is among my favorite candidates in the field (I do not have one candidate, yet). If the primary were today, I wouldn’t be voting for her, but I’m still considering her. I find her intellect to be very, very impressive.

“But Rich, you hate Bernie! But Rich, you’re a moderate (only by today’s warped politics)!”

I’m amused by the notion that someone couldn’t both like Elizabeth Warren and say Joe Biden, or Cory Booker. I suppose in the world where you’re silo’ed off into corners from the start, sure. In truth, there are things I like about many candidates, and things I don’t. Warren certainly has done or said some things that drive me nuts. I also find a lot to like in her- her feisty spirit, her detailed plans for everything (cuts both ways here), and her clarity about what she represents.

Given how badly I’ve beaten on Bernie Sanders though, and the ideological ties between him and Warren, it is worth examining why it is I like her, and whether or not I am giving her a free pass that I don’t afford him. I say he’s too far left for me, he’s not electable, he’s not a good Democrat, that he’s a lefty Trump. I think that’s all true. How is she different?

I’ll start on the ideology. There are lots of similarities. Both are absolutely progressives. Both embrace a much bigger, more active federal government. Why is her progressivism better than his? Certainly she is more serious, and has more concrete plans, but is that really better? Having a white paper for everything also means giving the GOP a target for everything. Even if she did win, what would she get done? Which of her plans would get 218 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate? I know she says she wants to get rid of the filibuster, but that’s actually a terrible idea- inevitably the GOP will control the government again someday, and probably control the Senate more often if current demographic trends hold, and a future version of Trump would only need 51 votes for a “Mass Deportation Act,” or some other white nationalist garbage legislation. Besides, even at a 50 vote margin, I think it’s very dubious that single-payer health care or complete student loan forgiveness would pass a Democratic Senate. I’ve spent a lot of time ripping Bernie for not being truthful about how he’d pay for his ideas, and to Warren’s credit she has laid that out more clearly and honestly (even if she won’t admit a tax increase is coming to Chris Matthews). If we’re being honest though, her pathway to actually enacting her plans is as unrealistic as Bernie’s. That’s even more true when you consider the messed up State our government will be in come 2021.

Is she more electable than Bernie? While I say she is, the polls disagree with me. Bernie, much like Joe Biden, usually beats Trump by a significant margin. Elizabeth Warren, like Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg, is normally in a margin of error race either way. The entirety of my electability theory for Warren is that she has more actual appeal to the base of the Democratic base than Bernie, and that she will excite people more. The first problem with that theory is that I have absolutely no science or statistic to back that up, other than basically crediting her for being a woman. The second problem with my theory is that the Democratic base doesn’t win the major swing states on it’s own. Firing up the base was Hillary’s strategy, and she consistently, narrowly lost the swing states. My assumption that Bernie would be exposed as weak once the “socialism” attacks start on him is something I stand by, but why wouldn’t that work on Warren? If Bernie didn’t exist, we would be calling Warren the most left-leaning candidate on economic issues in modern politics. She’s for single-payer health care, the “Green New Deal,” free child care, and student loan debt forgiveness- just like Bernie. Really, she’s open to almost all the same attacks, but she doesn’t call herself a socialist. I pretty much base her electability on her being smarter and more detailed than Bernie, and her being a woman. In the end, is she even as electable as Hillary Clinton?

I can definitively say that at least she is a Democrat. Bernie is not. Warren calls herself a Capitalist, while Bernie literally calls himself a Socialist. On these two matters, I give her major points over Bernie. To be clear, they are purely an argument in semantics, but they mean something to those of us who both want to win in 2020, and maintain some level of pragmatism moving forward. Beyond that, Warren has lent her hand to the cause of electing other Democrats around the country, while Sanders has spent his time building up groups like the Justice Democrats, groups that criticize and primary Democrats. Sure, Warren has done some annoying things like lend credence to the conspiracy theories of Berners that the 2016 primary was rigged against Bernie, but I at least believe she’s on our team. He’s a Trojan horse.

If Sanders is a “lefty Trump,” isn’t Warren also kind of extreme? Both are populists at their core, and lefty progressives, but there is a real difference in the two. For Sanders, there is a narcissistic edge that Warren doesn’t quite have. For her, it is more about the ideas, while Bernie is mostly leading a movement that has ideas, but is centered around himself. This is much more like Trump, where the ideas can change if it works for him. In some ways, marriage to the actual ideals like Warren has can be almost fundamentalist, but it’s still preferable to marriage to the leader- Which history shows can lead to awful outcomes.

If I’m being honest, a real evaluation of Warren definitely leads to some actual misgivings. She’s probably a step to the left more than I’m comfortable with. Even so, I’m more comfortable with her than Bernie. While I don’t necessarily believe in her winning and enacting policies she’s promising, I could sleep much better at night with her than Bernie.

The Debates are Terrible? Blame Tom Perez.

I pretty much give Debbie Wasserman-Schultz a pass for her tenure at the DNC. The chair really doesn’t have much control over things when there is an incumbent President from their party. The only thing I do blame her for was allowing an independent to run in the Democratic Presidential Primary. Party membership should be a minimal requisite, since you’re putting them on stage with your candidates.

Tom Perez seemed obsessed with fixing all the non-problems from the start. He had his humiliating “listening tour” with Bernie, which ended up being a sign out the gate of what was ahead. In his determination to be “more fair” than his predecessors in 2016, Perez decided we would let 20 candidates debate over two nights- never mind that we don’t have 20 serious candidates. Never mind that we have no less than seven people who are absolutely certifiable in the field of 25. We wanted to give everyone a chance.

Worse than the size of the field though is how they qualify. Perez’s DNC decided to make a candidate’s raw number of donors a standard, a metric that favors internet sensations. Candidates like Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang found quick success meeting these standards, while actual members of Congress and Governors just struggled. Let’s face it, cults do well on the internet. As we saw with Bernie Sanders in 2016, once like minded people find each other in online communities, they feed off each other. Suddenly you have some very strange, very different kinds of views on your stage when that is one of the only two metrics that matter.

Isn’t it good to have diversity of views on stage? I guess that depends on your goals. The goal of the DNC should be to nominate the 46th President of the United States in 2020, a candidate who can beat Donald Trump. Forcing legitimate candidates to debate with people who have fringe ideas, or worse yet, appeal to the political fringes themselves for small dollar donors, doesn’t help us nominate a candidate who can appeal to the broader electorate. Without a doubt there are people on the political left who’s goal is to move the conversation further left, but it’s important to understand that there is a point where that goal is at odds with winning an election. The nation as a whole is not activist Twitter, or a Reddit thread, or a DSA meeting. One can reasonably want to move the health care conversation a step left of Obamacare and still realize there are limits to how far that can go.

Tom Perez’s insistence on letting literally any voice on stage landed us with a pro-Assad Congresswoman basically calling one of our top candidates an over zealous prosecutor last night, and an absolute lunatic saying she would defeat Trump with “the power of love” the night before. This is not helpful for a party that is trying to win an election this year. It may seem cruel and narrow, but Democrats should have stuck to raw dollars raised and polling data to determine the ten candidates we should have had on stage. We’d be able to see all the top candidates at once, without the circus coming to town. Unfortunately, Tom Perez tried to appease the crazies from the last war.

Power

So there’s another Al Franken article making the rounds talking about the regret over Franken’s sacking in 2017 from the Senate. Apparently people have regrets. They feel like there was a rush to judgment. Maybe the Senate Ethics Committee should have investigated, they’re saying. All of these were my thoughts at the time, but I’m actually a bit less sympathetic to Franken now. For one thing, he admitted bad actions. Two, he resigned. As we’ve seen from the Governor of Virginia to the President, if you’re shameless enough to tell your critics to go to hell, you don’t have to exit stage left.

The moment was bad for Franken though. The feminist movement was reeling from Trump’s victory over Hillary. The “#MeToo” movement was taking off. There were pictures. He was only disputing some of the details. I think a lot of people are revising history to pretend he could have survived and been a powerful voice in the Senate. He was the casualty ready and available to a political moment. Stubbornness probably doesn’t change that.

As with most political moments though, the chaos was not random, or without point. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has taken a lot of grief for her role in this chapter, and that’s probably unfair. Yes, she absolutely used the moment to take down a potential rival, but is that rare? Is she alone? In Democratic Party politics, the answer is no. The party is a coalition, and different factions compete for power every day. It’s less common to be so public in the GOP, in part because they have more core shared ideology across their party, and more shared identity. Not all groups within the Democratic Party actually are cheering for each other to succeed.

What Gillibrand did to Franken is really not that much different than Bernie’s populist broad side on Hillary in 2016’s “anti-establishment” moment, the Obama campaign wacking Bill Clinton over his Jesse Jackson comments in South Carolina’s 2008 primary, or AOC and “the Squad” attacking their more moderate Democratic colleagues after a recent immigration vote, or for that matter their attacks on Speaker Pelosi. The ideological and identity driven chess played within Democratic Party politics are constant, and when the moment arrives, they are used to bludgeon rivals. While some cringed as Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden on busing in the first Democratic debate, the reality is that she just did what every other modern candidate for President has done with an opening.

The post-1968 Democratic Party is a patchwork quilt of diversity, a coalition of interest groups who are only bound by the varying levels to which their causes have been oppressed in American society. Beyond that, you can find enormous gaps in the interests and beliefs from one group to the next. Because it is precisely these specific interests that bring these voters, activists, and donors to the table, Democratic power holders must decide to what level they need to cater to each group to reach power. For Gillibrand with more ardent feminists, or Harris with African-American voters and women, the choice to attack their white, male counterparts was probably easy and instinctual. It was a direct appeal to the interest groups whom they needed support from to rise to national prominence. Again, I think we need to be careful not to slam them for making a political judgment while we applaud those we like for doing the same thing. Both Barack Obama, using Iraq and “establishment politics” as foils for his “Hope and Change,” and Bernie Sanders, using class politics and open attacks on “the establishment” to elevate his Democratic Socialism politics, slammed Hillary Clinton as a cold creature of Washington, out of touch with the spirit of the American left. Many of my friends and I treat one much more favorably than the other, in no small part because he won.

Of course, it’s also worth remembering what a disadvantage that Democratic patchwork quilt really is politically. The Republican Party doesn’t have nearly the same identity divisions, or ideological ones, and is really open to anyone who can convince themselves conservative ideology helps them (so basically, white folks, mostly). They can stand up and cast themselves as defenders of a “majoritarian” American institution or concept- the flag, church, troops, cops, capitalism- and they don’t really have to critically examine the flaws of what they’re defending. Democrats have to have open, public debates about these things, because (for instance) African-Americans and organized labor voters might have drastically different views of the police based on their ideology and experiences. Democratic politicians may take nationally unpopular positions on issues like reparations or de-criminalizing border crossings, to win election in their Congressional district, or to seek the passions of activists and donors who care about those positions at a national level. Democrats like to wonder why their broadly popular positions don’t set the terms of the debate, while ignoring the unpopular positions that their coalition forced them to take.

Representing a patchwork of oppressed groups makes winning elections very difficult to win. Representing a group, or even several inside the coalition is a great way to rise to power within the party. Of course rising to power in a political party that has seen it’s power decline in the past quarter century from these internal struggles may not seem like a victory worth having. Then again, if you’re a traditionally oppressed cause, having power, even less power, beats being left out altogether.

The 2020 Race Update

The field changes, the field stays the same. That’s the lesson of 2020 so far. Eric Swalwell is out, Tom Steyer is in. As things go quiet from the Starbucks man, Me. “Appalachian Trail” Mark Sanford himself considers a primary against Donald Trump. This election is off the rails.

Is this the Democrats version of 1980, or another 1972? Good question. I take no joy in this, but I’d say the signs point towards a 1972. The party is generationally divided, impeachment is still very unpopular with everyone but Democrats, and Trump’s personal qualities- particularly whether or not he’s a racist- are at the center of the debate. It’s worth noting that Democrats won the 1970, 1982, and 1986 mid-terms, just before blowout Presidential “re-election” (Bush 41 was VP in 1986) victories. Then again, 1978, 1990, 2006, and 2014 suggest sometimes you can see the storm coming two years out.

This is my updated feelings on the 2020 field for President:

  • Love them (in no order)- Biden, Harris, Booker, Klobuchar, Castro. These are my most favorite candidates. I’m still looking at all of them for the primary, and I’d vote for any of them in the general election. Yes, they’ll fight a bit, this is competitive, but I’m not getting caught up in that mess. These are my favorites. I think all of them at least have a chance to be on the ticket. Obviously Biden and Harris are among the leaders to win the nomination.
  • Like them- Warren, Buttigieg, Beto, Bennet, Inslee, Hickenlooper, Bullock. I’d vote for any of these candidates in the general election, and I’m still considering them in the primaries- though they’re slightly behind the front group to me. Obviously Warren, Pete, and Beto have a better chance to be nominated than the rest, but I have concerns about each of their electability right now. I really like the other four, but have doubts about their viability in the primary (like Beto). Again though, I’d be happy with any of them.
  • Unsure- Messam. I know little to nothing about him yet.
  • It’s Not Happening- Delaney, Ryan, Moulton, Sestak, De Blasio. I like some of them more than others, but I think they’re all not going to be the nominee, and they haven’t quite convinced me to overlook their flaws yet. I’d be fine voting for them in the Fall though.
  • No- Bernie, Gillibrand, Steyer. I will not be voting for any of them in the primaries. If they are nominated against Donald Trump, different story.
  • Never- Tulsi, Trump. Never means never. Like primary, general, whatever. Trump obviously isn’t in the primaries, but I think the point stands.
  • Whut?- Yang, Williamson, Gravel. Who is actually funding them? Why? What is this?
  • Not Democrats (In Order)- Schultz, Weld, Sanford. Do I prefer them? I’d only vote for Schultz in a Trump-Tulsi match-up, or if the GOP doesn’t nominate Trump or Pence, and the Democrats do nominate the “no” group. Weld pretty much only gets my vote in the event he’s nominated against Tulsi. I can’t see myself voting for Sanford, but if he runs, he gets my best against Trump.

What say you?

Trump’s Battlefield of Choice

From the very start, Steve Bannon laid it out bare:

“I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

It fits with the Trump campaign’s 2016 strategy– sacrifice educated white votes from suburbia to pick up more plentiful (especially in swing states) lower middle class white voters. Trump wants to talk immigration, trade, and retracting the American global role, and he wants Democrats to talk racism, sexism, and things that generally don’t resonate with their voters, or swing voters. It works pretty well for them, or it at least did.

If you were going to pick a dream scenario for Trump, it would be a fight over racism with “the Squad”- AOC, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Just days after AOC called out Speaker Pelosi for “racism,” Trump could hardly resist injecting himself into this mess. Now he is in a fight with four women of color, two of which are Muslims, all of which are quite left, and at least two of which have a history of questioning Israel’s decency and legality. It’s a wet dream for him in motivating his base, and convincing the persuadable voters- the roughly 8% of the electorate who said they didn’t like Trump in 2016, but voted for him anyway- that Democrats don’t really care about people like them. Battling with AOC in particular, who isn’t popular nationally, or even in just New York, is perfect for Trump. Trump needs to keep almost all of these voters, and AOC is the opponent to help him do it.

One of the big fears Democrats in DC should have is that their base is certain Trump is unpopular, and just being bold and unapologetic is a winning strategy. It’s worth noting that Trump is currently polling his best on record. It’s also worth noting that this comes right after the first Democratic debate (perhaps it wasn’t a hit?). Many Democrats point to last year’s mid-terms, or Trump’s overall not impressive poll numbers as evidence he will be beaten in 2020. They point to Democratic advantages on issue polling, which also existed in 2016. They point to a perceived slew of new Democratic voters- even if registrations don’t back that up. It’s like 2016 didn’t happen- Democrats are sure the country feels like they do. Plenty of signs say otherwise though.

One of them is the debate we’re having- this is Trump’s favored battle field. Donald Trump wants the Democrats to focus their attacks on him on racism and sexism, and he wants AOC to be a big part of it. AOC and Ilhan Omar poll really poorly with the voters Trump swung in 2016, and he’d like them to be the face of the Democratic Party.

None of this is to excuse Trump’s tweets and general racism, but do consider it a call back to reality. Over the past three weeks, AOC has been a dominant figure in our political news. First, her Chief-of-Staff called moderate and new Democratic members today’s “Southern Democrats,” basically quasi-segregationists. Then Nancy Pelosi stepped in to defend them. Then AOC called her a racist. Then the House Democrats defended Sharice Davids against AOC’s Chief-of-Staff calling the Native-American, LGBT member part of a “racist system.” Then Trump tweeted racist things about “the Squad.” Now the House has rebuked him. It’s AOC, all the time. America doesn’t like it. They don’t like her.

A (Too Early) Look at 2020

November 8th, 2016 was shocking to a lot of people, but it should not have been. The Clinton campaign was built to maximize their total vote number, and it did, despite the candidate facing a number of challenges that were unique to her. The Trump campaign was built to maximize his swing state vote. Both succeeded. That gave Trump a win.

The Clinton campaign was very metric driven, producing huge call numbers and lots of volunteer shifts. Hillary’s campaign focused in on turning out the “Obama coalition.” Her travel scheduled focused on urban vote centers where the goal was turnout. She ran phenomenal vote numbers out of big cities- Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Miami- even as she lost swing states. She ran record breaking margins in the huge blue states (California and New York), and narrowed red states with large minority populations (Texas, Arizona, Georgia). The only candidate to get more votes than Hillary was Barack Obama- maybe the best political talent we’ve ever seen.

The Trump campaign made an early gamble that paid off- they could never get nominated in a conventional campaign, and the resulting “traditional” Republicans they lost in wealthy suburbs (the supposed “small government,” anti-tax breed) were less useful than the newcomers and Democratic converts they were targeting. Trump gambled that 90% of the 46-47% that had voted for McCain and Romney would stick with him, even as he ran harder on identity right-wing politics. With that base of about 42%, Trump took aim at Democrats that Hillary was less interested in- lower middle-class earning whites. He went after “Gephardt” Dem issues like global trade deals. He attacked illegal immigration, which Democrats used to decry as lowering wages. And he called her a war hawk. It didn’t hurt that Bernie Sanders attacked these same vulnerabilities in Hillary in the primary, but the strategy was very lucrative for Trump- those voters live disproportionately in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine- and Trump saw the benefits pay off in close state after close state.

Not much seems to have changed for 2020 so far. Trump is messaging to the exact same people so far. The only wrinkle in his strategy is an increase in talk about Israel, which clearly is meant to help him hold Pennsylvania and Florida. Democratic messaging hasn’t changed much either. Democratic messaging has focused on “expanding the base,” and increasing turnout. Both sides have largely doubled down on 2016. The result is a rather highly engaged electorate very early on- more people than ever say they will vote in 2020.

What can we gather from this? What will 2020 look like? I have some very early predictions about the electorate.

  • I expect turnout to be up from the 2016 number of 138 million to between 142-145 million voters.
  • I expect the electorate to be about 69% white and 31% non-white.
  • I expect the Democratic popular vote win to increase from about 3 million votes in 2016 to 5 million votes in 2020. I expect the Democrat to get about 72 million votes to Trump’s 67 million votes.
  • I’m predicting a 50% to 46% Democratic popular vote win.
  • Despite all of this, the election is no better than a toss up for Democrats. If I were a betting man, based on Trump’s approval taking a bump up after the first Democratic debate, I’d say he should be favored to basically hold around 300 electoral votes. He has a decent chance of holding his 306 from last time, and even expanding it. Re-running 2016 on both sides, or Democrats just trying to be “better” at it, is not likely to change anything. Trump’s current approval sits between 43 and 47%, while it was 38% on Election Day in 2016.

This runs counter to what you might think if you spend a lot of time interacting with progressive activists on Twitter, so it’s a bit jarring for many of us. The fact is that both sides are re-running the 2016 playbook, and I don’t see a lot of evidence that any Democrat is much (if any bit) stronger than Hillary. Of the 20 some candidates, my feeling right now is that there are three to maybe six with a chance to beat Trump. They’re not all polling at the top of the field. The chances that Democrats nominate someone who’s appeal is strong with all or part of the base, but not with swing voters, are real. If that happens, you could be looking at something slightly worse than 2016 for Democrats, an environment where Speaker Pelosi not forcing her endangered members to walk the plank early ends up paying off in preserving the Democrats as relevant in at least one chamber of the government.

Bad Choices

I’ve been a Democrat since I registered to vote in 2001. Among my core reasons for picking the Democratic Party were growing up in a union household, being angry about the 2000 Election, thinking Bill Clinton was a pretty good President, and believing the Gingrich Republicans leading Congress were incompetent, cruel people. Within a year or two I would become a more active Democrat in large part due to my opposition to the Iraq War. I went to intern for an anti-war Congressional candidate, then for a young, progressive, exciting Mayoral candidate in Bethlehem. When 2004 came around, I wanted Al Gore to run again, as I found him to be right about the two most important issues in the world, the Iraq War and climate change. When he took a pass on another run, I backed Wesley Clark, because he had the right mix of electability, and being right on the big issues, like Iraq. When he didn’t win though, I backed John Kerry. The stakes were too high in my mind.

I’ve been a loyal Democrat ever since. I’ve worked for candidates that are members of the Progressive Caucus, and open Blue Dog candidates. I’ve worked for candidates who were Muslims, Jewish, women, Latinos, African-Americans, and anything else you can imagine. In 2008, when my first choice candidate (Chris Dodd), and my second choice candidate (Hillary Clinton) were out, I enthusiastically voted for Barack Obama. In 2016 Hillary was my candidate, and for the second time I went to work for her, but if she had lost to Bernie in the primaries, I would have voted for him, despite my misgivings. I think overall values generally matter more than the individual candidates. Within reason.

One of the things that attracted me to the Democratic Party was it’s reasonable style and competency. Democrats were not absolutists in the way the GOP was. Democrats were not trying to ignite culture wars, use wars to prop them up politically, or embracing bigots in the manner of Jerry Falwell. They felt like the right party to me.

People should not over marry themselves to a party though, not unless they can trust that said party will not lead them away from the values that brought them there. You should have red lines you won’t cross. You should have standards you uphold. If you’re an honest broker, you should probably have some members of your party you refuse to embrace, because they violate values of your’s. You should have limits to how far you compromise yourself.

One of these folks for me is Tulsi Gabbard. While I agree with her overall philosophy that we should stop fighting wars of aggression and spending our blood and treasure over seas, I cannot stand with an Assad apologist. What Assad has done to the Syrian people may or may not be worth fighting a war, but it certainly doesn’t warrant support. I could not back her after she met with Assad and cast doubts on his crimes.

The second person I’m pretty absolute about isn’t a Presidential candidate, this time. I could not bring myself to vote for AOC for anything though. I’ve laid out my reasons for not liking her, from attacking her Democratic colleagues, to her lack of legislation, to her support of Bernie, to her sloppy messaging. The truth of the matter is, she’s our version of the Tea Party. That’s not the kind of government I support. I don’t give a damn if she angers Republicans- she doesn’t get work done on her job. Everything is posturing and advocacy.

There are plenty of other members of the Democratic Party I’m not big fans of. Bernie isn’t actually a Democrat, but I would really struggle to support a “socialist.” I do not agree with Rep. Omar and Tlaib’s more extreme positions on Israel. I can’t support a Congressman representing Chicago and being anti-choice and LGBT rights like Rep. Lipinski. The Democratic Party has some folks I can’t be too positive about. I try to give Senator Manchin a pass when possible, but his position on coal isn’t something I support.

To blanketly support every member of your party makes you a partisan hack. You may find the other party unacceptable and refuse to vote for it, handing your votes to imperfect Democrats by default, that’s a values judgment you make when you need to. Just don’t argue that you really believe in everyone on your side. That’s an inhuman political position. That’s just being a hack. I generally try to not discuss people I don’t like on our side. Lately that’s been hard.

The Democratic Base and Winning Elections

If you want to understand American politics, take a look at the House Districts that Democrats held continuously between 2011 and 2019. What you will find unites them is that in nearly all of them, the Democrats in those seats won with over 60%, and often over 80% of the vote. While Democrats won nearly half the vote for the U.S. House, and actually more in 2012, they won a minority of the seats in Congress. Some of this was a direct result of gerrymandering. Even if you unpack gerrymandering, the problem is that Democratic base voters largely live packed together in cities and inner suburbs. Highly educated white voters, single women, African-Americans, non-Christians, Latinos, Asians, and the LGBT community largely live in urban enclaves. The result of these voters becoming the backbone of the Democratic coalition is that Republicans are virtually non-competitive for any major city Mayoral race in America. The flip side of that coin is that Republicans have controlled the U.S. House for 20 of the last 26 years.

If you understand the geography of American politics, and the demographics, you understand everything. You understand why Bush and Trump could both win without majorities, and why Trump might win again. You understand why Democrats struggle to win majorities in the House and Senate, even when they win more votes. And of course, you understand the impending demographic hell awaiting Democrats in 20 years, when half the country lives in eight states. The big, diverse, broad coalition Democrats have built may in fact grow substantially bigger, but they probably are destined to be ruled by a not-so-diverse minority of regressive thinkers, as things stand.

The American Constitution was not written to support majority rule, but frankly to protect the rights of states, communities, and minorities of the population from doing things they didn’t want to do (to be read at that time as slavery, but later desegregation and other awful stuff). While many on the left have come around to realizing the system is rigged against them electorally, none of them have really come around to any sort of realistic changes. Abolish the electoral college? Abolish the Senate? These ideas require Constitutional Amendments, which require a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of Congress, or by ratification by two-thirds of the states (38), either in the legislatures there of or a constitutional convention. Good luck there. Some suggest packing the Supreme Court the next time Democrats get power, but remember, the Republicans will do the same the next time they’re in charge too. There’s no quick, easy fix to our system of government.

Now that I’ve laid out the demographic, electoral, and constitutional hell lying ahead of the American left, let me make you feel a little bit better. Democrats can win elections to change things for the better. There are three living former Democratic Presidents who managed to win fairly large electoral college majorities. Hillary Clinton would have won an electoral landslide in 2016 with just 500,000 more votes spread out correctly across Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. Democrats won the House in 2006, 2008, and 2018 under our current rules. Democrats controlled the Senate for part of 2001 and 2002, and again from 2007 to 2015. Unless you’re convinced Russia can hack voting machines and change votes, Democrats can actually win some elections and make change that way. It is possible, but maybe not the way you want to win.

One of the most common, and fair laments of progressives is “why do Republicans listen to their base, and Democrats don’t.” It’s a fair question, but one that takes us back to geography and demographics. The average Democratic Congressman wins by a larger margin than Republican ones, even in fairly drawn districts. This is a nice way of staying the obvious- Republican districts (their base) has more in common with competitive districts (the 40 that Democrats won in 2018) than Democratic districts (our base), demographically speaking. They’re whiter, more practice religion, more are married, and more own homes than rent- to name a few things. Democrats did well in 2018 by focusing their appeal to these voters on issues like health care and education, rather than proposing large scale wealth redistribution and social justice programs that polled well among the base. These are the types of voters who would support Bill Clinton’s abortion position of “safe, legal, and rare,” but might cringe at going further. There’s probably a sizable group in these districts that gave Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton negative approval, but also say they disapprove of “socialism.” To put it bluntly, they’re not big fans of “extremes.” Republicans have seen some erosion of their support in these communities in the era of Trump, but they didn’t buy into the full Democratic base vision either. Democrats have always needed to maintain some base of support beyond their base to win elections. Before it was “Blue Dogs” and with electoral realignment it is the upper middle-class suburbanite. They’re not out at marches and demonstrations, and they’re alarmed by extremism in both parties. They’re demographically more like Republicans, but socially lean left. They don’t want their taxes raised, but they want their government services functioning. When push came to shove in 2016, many of them voted demographics. In 2018, Democrats clawed them back.

What this means, both in Presidential and Congressional Elections, is that Democrats are prisoners to the middle more than Republicans, both because of geography and demographics. It also means that the voters most loyally supporting Democrats are quite a bit different than those last voters that Democrats need to win over. It creates a natural tension between social and economic progressives and the politics in the swing districts. This manifests itself on issues like impeachment, where the base is near unanimous in support, but the issue lacks majority support. The same snag can be hit on issues like immigration, where there is broad agreement that Trump’s position is bad, but more ambitious Democratic positions don’t poll well either. The base wants and needs different things than the voters who hold the key to majorities. In short, elections are a tough business.

I have real doubts about theAmerican future right now. On the one hand, we may just end up in a hellscape, where a regressive minority rules a progressive majority. We also may end up with an overly pragmatic, successful Democratic Party wins elections, but perpetually fails to satisfy or excite the passions of their most enthusiastic voters. The third option? I don’t know, but it’s probably pretty ugly.