With more than a year until election day, many Americans aren’t especially engaged with national politics. But polling shows Democrats are paying more attention than usual at this stage of the cycle, and the ratings for last week’s Miami debates were strong, with more than thirty-three million people watching the party’s contenders lock horns over two nights. But four hours of soundbites from twenty candidates, many of them largely unknown to viewers, don’t necessarily tell us much about who’ll end up where.
The debates did offer some insight into the men and women who are putting themselves forward to run against Donald Trump in November 2020, and the fallout is already showing up in their polling and fundraising. But the short story of the debates is that some candidates don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, and a long battle will take place among the smaller number of well-qualified candidates before the Democrat nominee emerges.
This battle will be fought not just on policies but also on the contenders’ likely ability to get out the vote and sway the left and right of the party. It will also rest on how voters in the primaries balance factors like race, gender, sexual identity, age and experience, and how much they are attracted by a candidate’s record outside the Beltway.
The old men — former vice-president Joe Biden (aged seventy-six) and senator Bernie Sanders (seventy-seven) — are starting to look and act their age. Questions about Biden have shifted from whether his policy record and positions are out of step with today’s Democrats to whether he is up to the job. Is he old-fashioned or just too old?
Sanders still seems perpetually angry but — to quote one pundit — “his bark does not seem to have the same bite as in 2016.” With a number of other candidates pushing policies like Medicare for All and reductions in fees for tertiary education, he is also beginning to sound repetitious rather than revolutionary.
Two female candidates — senator Elizabeth Warren and senator Kamala Harris — saw their chances improve as a result of their debate performances. Warren sent a clear message that she will challenge Sanders for support from the party’s left. She got good reviews for her suite of policies (“I’ve got a plan for that”), but they could be too liberal to woo moderates during the election campaign.
Harris got noticed in the debate because she tackled Biden on busing and his early record of working with segregationists, but she also presented credible centrist positions that undermined his status as the centre’s frontrunner. In the short term her gamble to take on the perceived leader of the pack seems to have paid off in the polls. But she is likely to end up competing with a number of other newer, younger faces.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who responded to questions in a low-key style, showed that the recent hype around his candidature is not without foundation. While he faces scrutiny over the recent police shooting of a black man in his hometown of South Bend, he earned kudos for his willingness to deal directly with that issue and take responsibility for having not done more to push the diversification of the local police force.
He will face competition from Julian Castro (housing and urban development secretary in the Obama administration and former mayor of San Antonio) and senator Cory Booker (former mayor of Newark), both men of colour with impressive personal stories and résumés who will appeal to minorities and young voters.
A handful of candidates — people like senators Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet and governors Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper — might have looked more impressive in a smaller field. Some might be considered as vice-presidential material, and some might do better as time goes by, but mostly they have generated questions about why they are running and why they don’t stay in their current positions where their abilities are clearly needed.
And then there are the long shots, or more accurately the B-graders. Sadly, they include former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who seems to have lost the infectious energy he exhibited in his Senate battle in Texas in 2018. Others include New York mayor Bill de Blasio, former congressman John Delaney, businessman Andrew Young and the four candidates who didn’t qualify to be part of the first debates.
Two women who fall into this category got some attention by virtue of their unusual positions: self-help author Marianne Williamson, who says she will “harness love” to defeat Trump, and congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard whose anti-interventionist foreign policy stance has endeared her to some on the right.
A feature of both debates was how far left the majority of candidates (and arguably all of the major contenders) are veering in their embrace of liberal positions on healthcare, immigration, taxes, transgender rights and abortion. This is perhaps most obvious in the pressure Biden is under to change his stances on abortion and criminal justice for drug offenders.
Of course, Democrat candidates are known to run to the left during primaries only to become more centrist during the general campaign. But this tendency is particularly dangerous in this election.
First, it runs counter to last year’s successful midterm strategy, which saw the Democrats take back the House with a program of moderate policies. It leaves in a vulnerable position newly elected moderates facing re-election and denies the power this group has been able to wield in the House.
Second, it gives Trump, untroubled by a serious primary challenge, and the Republicans plenty of opportunities to highlight divisions among the Democrats and demonise their “socialist” policies.
Third, with such a large field of candidates creating pressure to stand out, some could adopt quite extreme policy positions and attempt to take down their Democrat opponents rather than Trump. The debate format obviously aggravates this pressure. Attack politics can backfire, especially when the targets are of a different race or gender.
And finally, there is a very real risk that the current focus on Medicare for All, healthcare access for undocumented immigrants, and free college tuition means that other issues that are top-of-mind for voters are not taken up.
Americans consistently put healthcare at the top of the list of things they want to see addressed. In a poll by the Pew Research Center, 69 per cent of those polled saw it as the key priority, along with the economy (70 per cent) and terrorism (67 per cent) — well ahead of jobs (50 per cent) and deficit reduction (48 per cent). But the public’s concerns are with healthcare costs, especially the increasing cost of health insurance premiums and medicines, rather than with coverage. Costs top the list of worrying household expenses, and for many the spectre of medical bankruptcy looms.
At a time when Obamacare has never been more popular and yet never more threatened by executive orders from the Trump administration and court challenges launched by Republican states, abandoning the commitment to restore and expand Obamacare in favour of Medicare for All is a dangerous gamble. It is also a lost opportunity to fight the Republicans on the solid ground of their failure to support the law, and its consequences. Medicare for All, which comes in many forms, provides Trump with plenty of material for fearmongering.
Single-payer healthcare is a confounding idea for the many Americans who have been convinced that it is socialised medicine and socialised medicine is bad. Perhaps because Medicare is so popular with older Americans, the general idea of Medicare for All has a surprisingly high level of support, but this drops precipitously when details are provided.
Polls from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that 56 per cent of Americans favour Medicare for All, and 74 per cent favour allowing people under sixty-five the option of buying into Medicare for health insurance coverage. But when told that Medicare for All would raise taxes and eliminate private health insurance, support falls to 37 per cent.
On the question of who is best placed to prevail against a president with a capacity to control the political conversation and a ruthless drive to keep his presidency, the most recent polls show Biden and Sanders losing ground to Warren and Harris. Otherwise, as this CNN poll shows, there has been little change. Harris seems to have made the most gains, especially among African-American voters.
The next debates are scheduled for 30 and 31 July in Michigan. By the time the September–October debates are scheduled, tougher qualifying rules will have whittled down the candidates considerably. Currently only Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg and possibly O’Rourke will qualify. That will allow greater scrutiny of policies, more probing of how they will improve the lives of all Americans, and an increased focus on foreign affairs.
One certainty is that the scrutiny of personal foibles and past records will continue, aggravated by Trump’s commentating from the sidelines. Unless they lose their cool, candidates who are already well known — Biden, Sanders and Warren — are likely to survive this scrutiny better. Harris, Buttigieg and Booker, on the other hand, will be more vulnerable to the inevitable exposés.
No agreement seems to exist among Democrats and their advisers about how to deal with the dirt, lies and obfuscation that will be part of the Trump campaign. Should they go high, or go low? Relatively few Democrat voters say that their presidential nominee should “fight fire with fire,” but some candidates, like Warren, Sanders and Gillibrand, have chosen to attack Trump as the problem. It was encouraging to see how many of the Democrat candidates responded strongly and promptly to insinuations about Kamala Harris’s racial background this past week.
As the primary campaign proceeds, the Democrats will need to work hard to generate voter enthusiasm, and particularly to appeal to swing voters. Trump’s election strategy appears to be to stick with his rusted-on base — a strategy that respected analyst Rachel Bitecofer sees as costly — and maybe even to play games with vice-president Mike Pence, which would lose him votes with evangelical Christians.
Voter turnout will be galvanised if there is a woman, a person of colour, or a Latino on the ticket, says Bitecofer. That’s looking increasingly likely. But some Americans are allowing themselves to dream of a Harris-Buttigieg ticket, and that might be one too many precedents for America in 2020. •