Washington-based pundits and reporters keep telling us that the Democrats are looking for a presidential nominee who can win next November. CBS, CNN, NPR and Democratic strategists repeat the mantra that next year’s primary voters will have “electability” as their first concern.
The problem is that most Democrats believe anyone they nominate will prove electable against Donald Trump. They dislike President Trump, consider him a clown or worse, and assume that most voters share their view. They would impeach him if they could, but think Vice President Pence might be harder to defeat at the ballot box. Democrats believe the 2020 election will be decided not by the attractiveness of their own candidate, but by millions of voters who will stream to the poll to get rid of a president they don’t like. That belief frees them to pander to intra-party interests while ignoring warnings about the general election weaknesses of the various contenders.
An election in which an incumbent president is seeking a second term is always in part a referendum on his first term performance, but only in part. Voters in a general election face a binary choice and weigh the incumbent’s performance against the likely direction in which the candidate and party seeking to unseat him will take the country. Likability and style matter, but so do issues.
Still, if anyone can beat Mr. Trump, Julian Castro, “Beto” O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang are just as electable as, say, Joe Biden or Kamala Harris. They race to the left to please the activist wing of a party that many already view as too leftist. Watch successful entrepreneur and presidential wannabe John Hickenlooper duck and dodge as reporters ask if he is a capitalist. Mr. Hickenlooper is no dummy and knows that free enterprise and capitalism are fighting words to many Democratic primary voters.
In a normal cycle Mr. O’Rourke the hacker, DWI arrestee, and murder fantasist with no job would be given short shrift based on his record and bizarre background, but this time around he warrants the cover of Vanity Fair and millions of dollars from Democrats looking for the next Barack Obama. Meanwhile, the virtually unknown wannabe Andrew Yang draws 3000 people to a rally at which he pledges to give every American a check for $1,000 every month while perhaps reiterating his vocal opposition to circumcision, and another candidate under consideration by voters simply shrugs off seemingly credible charges by a fellow progressive that he sexually assaulted him. Baggage doesn’t seem to matter — yet.
Electability rarely dominates primary voter behavior regardless of what voters may tell reporters. The point of the nominating process is to give party members a chance to choose a candidate they like and who shares their values. They may wonder about their favorite’s electability, but usually vote for him or her anyway.
The Democratic wannabes are racing to the left because they are vying for the votes of a Democratic primary electorate that has moved left. There are so many candidates because like the polling placing Hillary Clinton over the top, operatives universally accept that 2020 general election will be all about Trump. The primary is the totality of the race.
Horse race numbers at this point amount to little, but Bernie Sanders still owns the hearts of Wisconsin Democrats. What’s more important is that Wisconsin Democrats want their party and its candidates to move left. In a recent Emerson Poll fully 24 percent of Wisconsin Democrats polled said they want their party to move “significantly” further left with another 31 percent saying it should move “slightly” more to the left. That left less than half of those polled fine with a party already far more leftist than the Democratic Party of Roosevelt, Kennedy or even Obama. If Democratic primary voters in California and other states are anything like those approached by the Emerson pollsters in Wisconsin, a wannabe who hedges his devotion to leftist causes is likely to fare badly on primary day.
Any Democratic hopefuls who head to Wisconsin, California or Iowa thinking the voters they are courting are going to be attracted by a candidate worried about how is or her message will sound to a broader electorate should read the Emerson poll results and pray that their belief that anyone, spouting just about anything can beat Donald Trump is correct or they could face real trouble next fall.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.