Saturday, February 8, 2020

Voters Are Still Looking For The Hope And Change President

In a rant on MSNBC that went viral on Tuesday evening, longtime centrist Democratic strategist James Carville vented his concerns about the party’s prospects for beating Donald Trump, taking particular aim at the party’s leftward lurch with particular aim at Sen. Bernie Sanders. His diatribe took place against the backdrop of an Iowa caucus where old guard centrist Democrats’ favorite candidate, Joe Biden, placed a weak fourth after Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and just ahead of Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

In his rant, Carville uses the narrative framework for the Democratic primary campaign in 2020: There's a fraught and difficult choice between nominating an "electable" centrist or choosing a more progressive candidate who will motivate the base but supposedly will have a much harder time defeating Donald Trump in the general election.

Carville’s message is clear — Democrats have to choose between progressive economic and social programs and winning elections — a sacred doctrine in old party leadership members and mainstream media circles. There is no real evidence for this proposition. Yet this is precisely why former Vice President Joe Biden has been held out as the most "electable" candidate for the general election, on the grounds that he appeals to the supposed moderate voters who are viewed as the key to a Democrat winning the White House in 2020.

The "moderate" voter in Carville’s imagination is not all that well-defined most of the time, but taking a stab at it, I'd say what is being imagined is often someone like Biden: Economically more conservative than most Democrats but generally liberal on social policy, while occasionally saying conservative-friendly things about race and gender issues to reassure white voters that he's not too woke. The idea is that candidates like that will scoop up voters, mainly in suburban areas, who often vote Republican but are gettable because they're economically conservative but basically cool with issues like gay marriage and abortion rights.

The problem is that while this category of voters existed when Carville ran Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, they don't really exist in modern American politics. These fabled economically conservative but socially liberal voters only constitute about 4% of the electorate. This is in contrast with the consistently liberal (45% of voters), economically liberal but socially conservative (29%), and the consistently conservative (23%).

As Amanda Marcotte observes in her Salon article, ”Are centrist candidates really the most "electable"? It may be the opposite
If we're talking about people who voted for Barack Obama and then switched to Trump, they mostly fall into group No. 3, the economically liberal but socially conservative types — aka "populists" — who seemed to feel safe making the switch mainly because Trump was (incorrectly) perceived as posing no threat to social safety net systems like Medicare or disability benefits on which this group relies.

All of which is to to say that the "centrist" model for a Democrat has it exactly backwards. If the goal is to win over swing voters in Midwestern states, the winning strategy isn't to back an economically centrist candidate like Biden, but a Democrat who appeals so strongly to these voters with progressive economic policies that they're willing to set aside the racial resentment that led them to vote for Trump.

Incidentally, this is part of the reason why Obama won in 2008. A small but important percentage of populist voters stifled their racism and voted for the black candidate for economic reasons. But Obama also ran in a time of economic crisis, when those voters were extremely worried about the security of their jobs and benefits. With a relatively strong economy, it may simply be impossible for Democrats to win them back this time around — and there's no point trying to appeal to them on social issues. Even the most socially conservative Democrat is far more liberal than the most liberal Republican, so any strategic effort to appeal to social conservatives is likelier to alienate liberal voters than to accomplish its stated goal.

There are many fluctuating factors in play that make it nearly impossible to say for certain what an "electable" candidate looks like, one thing that's worth noting is that both Obama and Trump were able to garner a great deal of media attention by being something new and different. (Indeed, this might be the only quality they share.)

In Obama's case, it was not just his race, though that certainly mattered in terms of making the 2008 election seem historic. Obama was not actually on Hillary Clinton's left during the 2008 primaries — at least not on policy — but he was perceived as such, with his message of “Yes We Can - Change.” Obama represented historic change in the minds of voters.

Similarly, Trump, hateful monster that he is, was able to cast himself as a decisive, bold figure who offered historic change. Trump presented himself not as a compromiser who would work with Democrats, but as a President not given to compromise who would change Washington and “drain the swamp.” That helped generate enough enthusiasm among the declining Republican base - and some former Obama voters - to drag him across the finish line.

What these elections demonstrate is that voters aren't really inspired by middle of the road candidates playing it safe by moving to the center. Instead, candidates do better by convincing voters that this election is a historic moment and they don't want to be left on the sidelines.
There are a number of 2020 candidates who have that juice for different reasons: Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren in particular seem to be generating that type of excitement. That is perhaps why these candidates finish in the strong one, two, and three positions in the Iowa caucuses.

It could be catastrophic if Democratic voters, listened to Carville’s panicky delusion that only a "centrist" can win, and blow their chance to beat Trump by nominating exactly the wrong kind of candidate.

As I lay out in the article, “But Hillary Won By 2.68 Million Votes,”Democrats lost control of more than 1,000 state and federal elected offices to Republicans between 2009 and 2016, including the White House, by running moderate / centrist candidates.

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