Who Can Beat Donald Trump?

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Screen Shot 2019-07-09 at 10.45.08 PMThe 20 plus Democratic candidates for the 2020 Presidential election

Every senator looks in the mirror and sees a future president. But these days, for Democrats at least, it’s not just members of Capitol Hill’s upper chamber who are picturing themselves sitting in the Oval Office. Congressmen, governors, mayors, even people who hold no elected office — men and women at seemingly every rung of the political ladder, including no rung at all — are suddenly eyeing the White House.

For this, Democrats can thank (or blame) Donald Trump. His election in 2016 showed that the barriers to entry to the White House weren’t nearly as formidable as political professionals once assumed. More important, Mr. Trump at the moment seems eminently beatable, with an approval rating hovering just south of 40 percent. No other president in the era of approval polling (going back to the 1930s) has been this unpopular at this point in his presidency.

A result is that the Democratic presidential field in 2020, maybe indeed, a recent informal survey of Democratic strategists produced a list of more than 30 fellow party members who are — or who, in the minds of these insiders, should be — thinking about running for president in 2020. Although Democrats are united in their opposition to President Trump, the fundamental party cleavage runs between populists and centrists. The Democratic presidential nominee in 2020 will be the person who either finds a way to appeal to both wings or, just as likely, divines which wings represent the greater number of primary voters. Following is a guide to some of the potential candidates — and the political bets they’ll be making.

A recent poll put Bernie Sanders’s approval rating at 75 percent, which makes him the most popular politician in America. He’s the standard-bearer for the populist left whose “Medicare for All” bill, while still a liberal pipe dream, now seems as much of a litmus test for ambitious national Democrats as abortion rights. He will also be 79 years old on Election Day 2020.

Joe Biden, a son of Scranton, Pa., appeals to the same working-class white voters who flocked to Mr. Trump in 2016. Some progressives no doubt look upon him fondly from his days as Barack Obama’s vice president. But Mr. Biden’s three-decades-long centrist Senate record, from his handling of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing in 1991 to his vote for the 2005 bankruptcy bill, might make him a tough sell to today’s Democratic primary voters. And he’ll turn 78 in November 2020.

If she really runs, Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts senator, would instantaneously be the Democrats’ putative front-runner. Her anti-corporate agenda has made her a fund-raising powerhouse, and she seems to have found an ideological sweet spot between the centrist Clinton and populist Sanders factions. Additionally, thanks to the “Nevertheless she persisted” meme, she’s become a feminist heroine. Ms. Warren, who’ll be 71 in 2020.

Sherrod Brown, an Ohio senator, hails from a crucial swing state and has strong labor backing. He’s never seemed interested in a presidential run — until now. A finalist in the 2016 Democratic veepstakes, he would be formidable in Rust Belt states. His politics match the mood, and while he might not have the raw talent of Senator Warren, he’d be a strong Plan B.

And if the populist wing is looking for a Plan C, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon humbly suggests himself. He was the only senator to endorse Mr. Sanders in 2016, has been spending a fair amount of time in Iowa of late, and has become the go-to guy on Capitol Hill for liberal groups like MoveOn.

Mr. Corey Booker, a New Jersey senator, has seemingly been running for president since he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in the ’90s. But some of the well-heeled backers he picked up along the way — including Big Pharma and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump — are now political poison in a Democratic primary. He may end up spending as much time distancing himself from his old supporters as cultivating new ones.

Kamala Harris, a freshman California senator, has become a liberal rock star with her tough questioning of Jeff Sessions and other Trump administration officials during Senate hearings. It’s her record as California attorney general, her previous job, that could trip her up: She declined to prosecute OneWest, the bank once headed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, for alleged foreclosure violations. Still, Ms. Harris seems the most promising of this group — not least because she has less of a voting record her opponents can use against her.

The difficult choice facing Democratic primary voters looks even more inscrutable after the first round of party presidential debates

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The 20 plus Democratic candidates for the 2020 Presidential election

Terry McAuliffe, who’ll finish his term as Virginia governor early next year, is an unapologetic friend and backer of both Clintons. He’s a famously fabulous fund-raiser and he has put together a solidly (and surprisingly) progressive record in the commonwealth — tightening gun control laws and reinstituting voting rights for more than 150,000 felons. His national stature grew during the Charlottesville protests when he provided the sort of moral leadership so sorely lacking from the White House.

Millennials are expected to surpass baby boomers as the largest generation of eligible voters in 2020. So it would only make sense for a few politicians who might still get carded to run themselves. One is Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts congressman, is a charismatic, intelligent Iraq war veteran who isn’t afraid to call out party elders like Nancy Pelosi. He’s only 38, and it’s almost certainly too soon for him to have much of a chance at winning the nomination in 2020, but it doesn’t hurt to put his name into the 2020 veepstakes.

Christopher Murphy, a 44-year-old Connecticut senator, is casting his message at a different segment of millennials — those who live on Twitter, where he offers running political commentary, or listen to podcasts like “Pod Save America,” where he’s made several appearances. His and Mr. Ryan’s campaign slogans write themselves: “You’re Only as Old as You Feel.”

Suffice it to say, the events of 2016 were enough to make any billionaire think a run for the White House was suddenly plausible. And even if Facebook’s political troubles have made a Mark Zuckerberg candidacy a non-starter, 2020 is drawing the interest of a range of other rich people. Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the N.B.A.’s Dallas Mavericks, is the most similar to Mr. Trump, right down to his starring role on a reality-TV show. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, cuts a less bombastic figure, frequently denouncing partisanship.

The difficult choice facing Democratic primary voters looks even more inscrutable after the first round of party presidential debates. Nothing matters more to Democratic voters than picking a nominee with the best chance of beating President Trump, who many party activists consider an existential threat to their values and priorities. But the question of which Democrat is most “electable” against Trump looks murkier and more contested than ever after the last two debates.

Case in point, the then-frontrunner, Biden, delivered a performance almost universally regarded as unsteady when he was challenged most forcefully by Harris on his record on school busing during the 1970s but also by Sen. Michael Bennet on the deal, he cut in 2012 with Republican Mitch McConnell during the “fiscal cliff” triggered by the expiration of the tax cuts that passed under President George W. Bush.

In the new CNN poll, 43% of Democrats picked Biden as the candidate most likely to beat Trump, a strong but not overwhelming result. More impressively, Biden still led among those who had watched the debates. He even led Harris among nonwhite Democrats on that question by more than 6 to 1. But other results showed a crack in his foundation: Among the three-fifths of Democrats in the poll who said they were most focused on finding a nominee who could beat Trump, Biden led only narrowly in the horse race, drawing 23%, compared with 18% for both Harris and Warren.

In that sense, the encounter with Biden offered Harris a double benefit: It not only showcased her formidable debating skills but also demonstrated weakness in Biden. A wide array of Democratic observers instantly concurred that Harris had propelled herself back into the top tier of candidates — a conclusion reinforced, at least for now, by the CNN survey.

But almost as soon as Harris earned plaudits for her confident, dynamic performance, skeptics raised doubts about the substance of her remarks.

Centrist voices in the party noted that during the debate she again stumbled trying to explain whether she would ban private health insurance in a single-payer system. (The answer seems to be yes, except for peripheral services such as cosmetic surgery.) And after the kinetic force of her challenge to Biden faded, others questioned whether Democrats in 2020 really want to debate the efficacy of school busing.

From the other direction, longtime Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who conducted focus groups around the debates for the liberal activist organization Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote, predicted from those sessions that Harris could face resistance among African American voters who conflate an attack on Biden with a challenge to Obama’s legacy.

“Assuming Biden is able to get his act together, he has a real base (among African Americans), I believe, grounded in historical dynamics that make it very hard for Harris to make further gains,” Greenberg said. “At some point Biden is going to push back, maybe using the President (Obama), by saying ‘I’m carrying on his legacy.’ “

As they assess these contrasting considerations, Democrats find themselves second-guessing their choices from day to day, if not hour to hour. The conundrum is that no one can convincingly say today whether the strategy of mobilizing nonvoters is more likely to beat Trump than a focus on trying to persuade swing voters who may be tiring of him. Whether Democrats can replicate that success with Trump himself on the ballot, though, is another question — one of many for which there are no reliable answers right now.

New forecasts from the nonpartisan States of Change project offers similarly mixed messages. The projection that minorities are likely to increase their share of the national vote by 2 percentage points again in 2020, while non-college whites decline by an equal amount and college-educated whites remain stable, might encourage a mobilization strategy. But the group’s forecast that whites, many of them, older, will still cast just over 80% of the 2020 votes in the critical states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, and nearly 90% in Wisconsin, offers evidence for those who want to focus on persuading swing voters.

The bigger thing is nobody really knows what’s electable or not. “Electability is this notion we know what voters want. One of the silver linings of 2016 is people are finally starting to understand that politics and political change are not linear and that things that are very surprising happen all the time. … By any measure, Donald Trump should have not won the 2016 election, but he did, and I think that is forcing many people to change their mind about what is electable and what isn’t. – Content Curated By Jason Zengerle and Ronald Brownstein

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