There has been a lot of political talk and pollster analysis lately suggesting that Donald Trump has a clear path to re-election. The usually estimable Nate Cohn in The New York Times pointed to numbers showing Trump’s popularity among his base in the Midwest. Cohn speculated that high turnout could allow Trump to win key states like Wisconsin and Michigan once again, and maybe flip states that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried such as Minnesota.
In addition, Cohn noted, though Trump’s approval rating is low nationally, it’s close to 50 percent in Wisconsin and Florida. So while the national picture looks bleak for Trump, the Electoral College is more promising for him.
Other commentators have pointed to Democrats’ schisms on race, and Trump’s efforts to make AOC and her squad the leftwing and Muslim face of the Democratic Party, in the hope of both rallying his base and alienating moderates.
Never underestimate the capacity of Democrats to turn on one another. But that said, I think the defeatist talk is too pessimistic.
For one thing, Democrats will probably win any turnout derby. Democratic turnout was depressed in 2016, both black and white. There was substantial falloff from the Obama coalition of 2008 and 2012. There were a lot of “I’m holding my nose and voting for Clinton bumper-stickers” as well as millions of potential Democratic voters who just didn’t bother to vote.
A total of 4.4 million people who voted for Obama in 2012 didn’t vote at all in 2016. Some of them were in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Trump’s base, meanwhile, was at a fever pitch. Despite Hillary Clinton’s high hopes as the woman who would finally smash the ultimate glass ceiling, Trump even carried a majority of white women. Increasingly, it looks as if the Democrats’ finalists could be Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. Imagine the surge of women’s support if one of them were the nominee.
As an antidote to Cohn’s defeatism, have a good look at this detailed paper written last year by three Democratic political analysts, both moderates and progressives, Robert Griffin, Ruy Teixeira, and William H. Frey, and published by the Center for American Progress and three other think tanks.
The punch line is that there are several possible winning recipes for Democrats. One strategy is to rally the rainbow base. Another is to appeal to moderates. Yet another is to win back some white working class voters who defected to Trump. The best one, in my view anyway, is to emphasize both class and race, and maximize turnout among voters of color and persuade white working class voters that Trump betrayed them.
Looking at the race state by state, even if a couple of Midwestern states stayed in Trump’s column, others that Trump narrowly won last time such as Pennsylvania are unmistakably trending Democratic. According to the CAP analysis, to win the Electoral College, Trump would need to hold on to the states he won last time and add such states as Maine, Nevada, and Minnesota—all of which are even more Democratic than in 2016.
Demographics also favor a Democrat. Young people often stay home. But the youth turnout is likely to be large this time and young people tend to be more progressive when they vote.
A lot of Trump’s base was old. Elderly voters were influenced last time by the demonizing of the Affordable Care Act, which is a lot more popular now; and Trump keeps trying to destroy it. Some of Trump’s older base will have died off. The potential Trump base, even with higher turnout, is shrinking, while the potential progressive base is growing.
That said, the election is far from a cakewalk for Democrats. Success will depend not just on what the candidates and the eventual nominee have to say, but on what other Democrats have to say. Ocasio-Cortez and her squad are useful counterweights to the party’s corporate Democrats, but the election cannot be mainly about them or Steve Bannon’s strategy of racializing economic issues could win again. Whatever it takes, AOC and Speaker Pelosi need to bury the hatchet—preferably in a choice part of the Republican anatomy.
And of course it matters who is the nominee. Speaking just for myself, I’ve long been impressed by two things about Elizabeth Warren. One is her capacity to speak about race in ways that bridge over schisms of race and class. The other is her brilliance at connecting policy to narrative and the lived life of citizens. My guess is that while some potential Democratic voters might rather have a drink with Biden, Warren will wear better.
And we all had better temper those drinks. It’s only July of the pre-election year, fully six months before the first caucuses, more than a year before the Democratic National Convention and sixteen months before Election Day. There will be lots of surprises between now and then. In the meantime, we are at risk of getting punch drunk on premature punditry.