In a political landscape shaken by President Trump, Democrats are gearing up to choose a primary candidate who can harness the public imagination.
“I see a real shift in the Democratic Party toward more liberal positions on issues like civil rights and immigration, in large part a reaction to Donald Trump,” said John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “But as of now there’s no one candidate with broad appeal.”
That vacuum is why at least two dozen Democrats — from party stalwarts with decades in the public eye to congressional back-benchers with social-media savvy to ex-CEOs with millions to spend — are laying plans to run, each convinced that she or he can beat a president they see as fatally flawed and perhaps illegitimate.
At the same time, “the anger against Washington that elected Trump is still out there,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “The less time the Democratic nominee has spent in DC, the better their chance of beating him.”
“In 2016, Republicans built a governing coalition that could be available to Democrats if they’re smart,” Tim Chapman from right-leaning Heritage Action, said of the overlap of working-class voters, suburban Republicans, and traditional rank-and-file conservatives Dems need to attract. “If they can cleave off enough working-class and suburban voters, Republicans can’t succeed.”
But first, the wannabes have to dodge intra-party crossfire, avoid emotional battles over identity politics and tiptoe around hard-left policies that could alienate the centrists they’ll need to win in November.
One year before the Iowa caucuses, here’s the state of play.
Five heavy Democratic hitters win substantial support in recent surveys. But voter polls this early in the cycle are mainly a matter of name recognition, experts say.
Former veep Joe Biden, 76, wants the job, but both his age and his elite status cut against him. “Joe Biden is a creature of Washington, DC,” Bannon said, and can’t mobilize the electorate’s frustrations.
Biden, who first ran for president in 1988, must convince the party that it’s finally his turn, Sides said — and as a classic New Deal liberal, he’s out of step with the progressive mood of the Democratic base. Still, “he’s appealing to the suburban and working-class parts of the Republican coalition,” Chapman said. If Biden makes it through the primaries, “He could be a real threat to Trump.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 77, retains his core of passionate supporters, but young Democrats typically pick a fresh favorite each cycle, Sides said. “In 2016 they were not by and large supporting Sanders for his platform, but for his persona.”
“Sanders takes the working class issues seriously,” Chapman said, making him a legitimate challenger to Trump in the general election. “But he’s so liberal, I don’t think he will be able to break into the suburban Republicans’ world.”
Two women rank high in the earliest polls, both former first ladies. “I’d like to be president,” Hillary Clinton told an interviewer in October. But another campaign looks unlikely. Turnout on her joint book tour with husband Bill was dismal, and a December poll of Democrats showed 70 percent opposed to her making a third run for the White House. Several potential candidates have met with her recently to court her endorsement — apparently sure that she won’t run against them.
Michelle Obama, too, has pulled strong numbers in recent polls, but she shows no signs of contemplating two grueling years on the campaign trail. She has said repeatedly she’s not running.
Locally, both Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio seem like obvious potential candidates. But Cuomo endorsed Biden’s candidacy last week, putting an end to speculation (for now) that he was toying with a run. And de Blasio’s many trips to woo out-of-state progressives have done nothing to build his support: A December poll placed him at a rock-bottom 0 percent among registered Democrats.
With the rise of digital fundraising, some analysts are tallying a candidate’s micro-donors to gauge support. By that measure, Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 700,000-donor army makes him a contender — even though he lost his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz and burned through nearly all of the $80 million they sent him.
“O’Rourke is a blank slate, and that means he has the potential to do something completely unexpected,” said political historian Frank DiStefano. “If he’s savvy, he could be a transformational candidate.”
O’Rourke’s star power sparked reports last month that Biden’s advisers were considering him as a running mate, but experts say the combination could cause more problems than it would solve.
“Some people in the party still think Hillary Clinton’s worst mistake was not putting an African-American on the ticket with her,” Sides said.
“It’s very unlikely that the Democrats will have two white males on the ticket,” Bannon agreed.
“The Democratic Party is now about 40 percent nonwhite, and there’s a lot of energy among activists to put race and gender at the forefront,” said Sides, whose book “Identity Crisis” examined the impact of race and gender in the 2016 election. “They’ll want the ticket to look like the House’s freshman class, the most diverse in history.”
First-term Sen. Kamala Harris of California would let voters check two diversity boxes: She’s both female and African-American. She launched a high-profile media tour last week to tout her memoir, “The Truths We Hold” — and to dip a toe into the presidential race.
“Harris will be in the Senate only four years by the time of the next inaugural,” Bannon said, a short tenure that will help her dodge the Washington-insider label. “Being seen as an outsider is a strong point in her favor.”
Two local senators, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey, will also campaign in part on the basis of identity — Gillibrand as a woman, Booker as an African-American. Gillibrand has a $10.5 million war chest left over from her November re-election campaign.
But their ties to Wall Street and the financial industry could be the kiss of death this cycle, Bannon said.
“Democratic primary voters are very hostile to the economic status quo, and big money is a big problem for them,” he said. “Other Democrats will attack them on that basis.”
Julian Castro, former mayor of San Antonio and a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, is the only Latino in the race — and is making that fact a major talking point. A December poll of Iowa caucus-goers pegged him with 1 percent support.
“The problem is he is basically playing second fiddle to O’Rourke in Texas,” Bannon said.
Castro may be running to position himself for a different spot on the ticket.
“Latinos are a rising political force in the Democratic Party,” Bannon said. “If Castro gains a national following in the course of this campaign, that could make him an ideal running mate.”
Issues and Agendas
“There’s not a lot of daylight between these candidates in terms of agenda,” Sides said. “The differences will mainly be a matter of degree, and in the broad themes they use to engage voters.”
As an anti-corruption crusader, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts could capitalize on widespread anti-government anger. She was a Harvard Law School professor before winning her Senate seat in 2012.
“I don’t think she’s been around DC long enough to have been scarred by it,” Bannon said. “She’s been a vocal critic of corruption in government.”
“She’s a pragmatist, ultimately, but trying to appeal to as many of the progressives as she can,” said DiStefano.
But Warren is prone to gaffes — like her awkward “I’m gonna get me a beer” comment in a Jan. 1 Instagram video posted to announce she was exploring a run, and her attempts to explain away past claims of Native American heritage. Furthermore, 56 percent of Massachusetts voters don’t want her to run.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is positioning herself as a champion of the “forgotten voters” of the Midwest. “After four years of Trump mean, ‘Minnesota nice’ would be a welcome contrast,” said Bannon.
Klobuchar just cruised to re-election in a state that came within 1 percent of a Trump victory in 2016.
“She definitely appeals to working-class voters,” Chapman said. Her moderate tone could be a negative among the progressives who power the primaries, but one poll of Iowa caucus-goers found 10 percent of them in her corner.
Little known outside the Pacific Northwest, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington last week told The Atlantic that he is running on a climate-change platform that Democratic primary voters — but few others — love.
“The green agenda would carry massive implications for the economy,” Chapman said.
If Inslee’s campaign gains traction, “there will be a lot of pressure on the rest of the Democrats to get on board — and the candidates trying to appeal to the broader center will have a hard time navigating that.”
Some Democrats, following in Trump’s gilded footsteps, are pouring their own cash into their White House bids.
“Mayor Michael Bloomberg will be a tremendously important player with all the money in the world to throw into the campaign,” Chapman said. “Democratic primary voters will be skeptical, though, because of his wealth and because he is not as liberal as others in the race.”
The billionaire bought buckets of goodwill in 2018 by donating millions to the party’s successful effort to take the House in November’s midterm elections.
Fellow moguls Howard Schultz, former Starbucks CEO, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook are also reportedly mulling presidential runs, although neither drew any support in a December McLaughlin poll.
Meanwhile, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, the first Democrat to enter the race, has spent $3.5 million campaigning in Iowa since the summer of 2017 — with a meager 1 percent voter support to show for it, according to local polling.
Ultimately, “with grass-roots methods and social media, it’s the energy behind the money that matters more than the spending itself,” Chapman said.
The political chaos of recent years could be evidence of voters’ desire for a major shake-up — one that the current slate can’t deliver.
“For decades our politics has been stagnating,” said DiStefano, whose upcoming book “The Next Realignment” traces our cyclical history of disruptive political change. “There is a demand in the electorate to update it.”
Recent polls find large numbers of Democrats — in some surveys, a majority — unhappy with the best-known candidates and longing for new faces in the race.
“I’m absolutely convinced one of the unknowns will come out of the dust to be a player,” said Bannon.
He cites Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid for governor of Georgia in November, and Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, as two to watch.
“Before Obama, the two biggest Democratic dark horses have been Democrats in the South holding local office, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter,” Bannon said.
“The South is becoming ever so slowly more friendly to Democrats. Landrieu or Abrams could capitalize on that trend.”
“The best hope for the Democrats is that out of a field of 20 candidates, 16 will pander to the base — allowing one of the other four to gather some momentum,” Chapman said.
“I think only a few will be able to put together a centrist approach to the general election campaign — and that candidate would pose a tremendous challenge to Republicans in November.”
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