There is a battle being waged within the Democratic Party and while it’s unclear who will emerge victorious, the winning side will have a monumental effect on the Party’s success moving forward.
By David Todd McCarty | Friday, February 7, 2020
The fight to control the future of the Democratic Party in America will come down to whether the voters believe a moderate can unite the party and return the country to sanity, or whether a political revolution is needed to combat the forces of authoritarianism. The top tier of candidates that has emerged this election cycle are more or less evenly split between these two camps: Two moderates and two revolutionaries.
Electability is almost always in the forefront of Democratic voters’ minds, as the Party itself is such a hodgepodge coalition of diversity, but with so much anxiety concerning defeating Donald Trump, it’s seen as a moral imperative this election cycle. But the other quandary for many voters is the question of whether you vote for the person who you think is most qualified to lead the country towards a better tomorrow, or the person you think is the most likely to beat Donald Trump. This is the crux of the primary dilemma for Democrats.
Moderate Democrats believe that the way to win a general election is to drive the party to the middle where a candidate is more likely to appeal to a majority of Democrats, as well as capture as many independent voters as possible. Their premise is that most of the country is actually rather moderate in their own politics and not very well represented by liberal elites that live on the coasts and make up a large part of the intelligentsia. Incremental change is a Moderate’s motto, not radical revolution. Slow and steady wins the race, and too much change, brought too quickly, is a recipe for failure.
Of the four top tier candidates, two of them could be considered Moderates. Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. Amy Klobuchar would also fall into this category but it seems unlikely, given her national polling and a poor performance in Iowa, that she’ll make it to Super Tuesday in March.
Joe Biden is the ultimate establishment candidate. He literally was the establishment, with bonafides that rest in his decades in public office, including 36 years as a Senator and eight as the 47th Vice President of the United States. As a 77 year-old white, Christian man, you would be hard-pressed to find someone more representative of the old guard Democratic Party.
The case for Biden is that he is a traditional candidate with moderate ideas; that he is the candidate that can right the ship that Donald Trump is currently trying to sink. He’s not the shiny new today, but rather a safe return to normalcy. Biden considers himself the reasonable antidote to an unstable Trump.
Biden comes from an era when he was the socially-minded liberal fighting against the old-world establishment, but now he represents the establishment and his ideas are no longer fresh or new. His claim is that he is the Democrats best chance of uniting the party and defeating Donald Trump.
“For a Democrat to beat President Donald Trump in 2020 and to have a shot at retaking the Senate, they’ll have to win in places Hillary Clinton lost,” writes political reporter Laura McGann. “Democrats who’ve done it before want former Vice President Joe Biden to be the nominee. Biden has way outpaced his competitors in number of endorsements, and he’s earned them from Democrats who’ve won tough races in places that will be tough again in 2020. In Pennsylvania, four sitting Democratic members of Congress have come out for Biden. In Arizona, where Democrats have a slim chance of picking up a Republican-held Senate seat, Biden has been endorsed by former Gov. Janet Napolitano (a rare Democrat to have won statewide in recent history). Sen. Doug Jones — the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alabama in decades — has endorsed him, too.”
Biden’s coalition is a combination of working class white voters and people of color, especially older voters. He does not do particularly well with more liberal college-educated voters and young people. He recently came in a disappointing fourth in Iowa.
“The case for Pete Buttigieg is simple,” writes Dylan Matthews. “The Democratic Party wins when it nominates young, charismatic leaders who are able to convince people outside the party’s base that Democratic values are their own.”
You need look no further than past successful Democratic nominees such as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and John F. Kennedy.
Mayor Pete, as he is affectionately known, has risen quickly, seemingly out of nowhere, to the top of the polls in the early states. It’s true that Iowa and New Hampshire are hardly representative of the national electorate, given their overwhelmingly white and left-leaning nature, but momentum is built in these early states and if Buttigieg does well in New Hampshire, after having tied for first with Sanders in Iowa, he could have the momentum to do well on Super Tuesday, which represents just over 80% of the possible delegates.
“Democratic primary voters are weighing competing priorities,” say Matthews. “They want a nominee who is progressive but still electable. They want a leader who is smart and even-tempered but who ideally isn’t of an age and health status that puts their ability to run a presidential campaign and serve a full term in doubt. They want a president who can represent underrepresented groups while speaking to Obama-Trump voters who feel threatened by that kind of social progressivism.”
Despite the media narrative, Mayor Pete is a lot more progressive than he gets credit for. He would easily be the most liberal Democratic nominee for President in American history, but his policies simply do not call for as radical changes as Sanders or Warren, so he is pegged as more of a moderate.
Buttigieg does better with older white voters than he does with young voters, better with college-educated whites than working class, and so far he has made little headway with Black Democrats or Hispanics, but that could change if he is suddenly seen as more electable.
Pete shocked a lot of people by coming in virtually tied for first in the Iowa Caucuses and got a bump in the New Hampshire polls.
While the Moderates believe that incremental change is the best solution to the major problems facing the country, there are others who think America is so broken, politically, financially and socially, that only wholesale change will do. They want to see institutional changes that will change how our very society operates, from how we tax the rich and perform corporate oversight, to criminal justice reform, funding of higher education and how we will possibly grapple with the existential threat of climate change. For this group of Democrats, we are way past making incremental changes, and are in desperate need of immediate, radical changes if we have any hope of survival.
Most people don’t think of Bernie as a unity candidate. But as factional a candidate as the media narrative would suggest, Sanders’ case for being the Democratic nominee, despite not being a Democrat, is that he can attract voters who would not ordinarily consider voting for a Democrat. Sanders’ coalition is a unique mix of working class, college-educated whites, and unaffiliated voters. He is a unique political animal that has been in Congress for decades, and yet has retained his outsider status as a liberal independent. He is no machine candidate and he clearly frightens the Democratic machine, which does as much to delight his most ardent followers as he does to scare off more moderate voters.
“The Vermont senator is unique in combining an authentic, values-driven political philosophy with a surprisingly pragmatic, veteran-legislator approach to getting things done,” says Matthew Yglesias. “This pairing makes him the enthusiastic favorite of non-Republicans who don’t necessarily love the Democratic Party, without genuinely threatening what’s important to partisan Democrats. If he can pull the party together, it would set him up to be the strongest of the frontrunners to challenge President Donald Trump.“
The Democratic Party is worried that Bernie will do to them what Trump did to the Republican Party, remake it in his own image, and yet his followers hope the very same thing. Bernie calls his campaign a political revolution and that is precisely his intention. His critics worry that being branded a socialist will be all Trump needs to beat him in a general election, but a case could be made that Trump is going to try to brand any Democrat that runs against him as a socialist. He might as well own it, and younger voters have proven that not only do they not fear that label, they have embraced it.
Bernie’s biggest hurdle is his lack of support from Black Democrats, who worry that his more extreme ideas are not going to be acceptable to large swaths of the general electorate and will therefore make him less electable.
Bernie did as well as expected in Iowa but didn’t run away with the show. He is expected to win New Hampshire handily, so the issue will be if he is dominant or not.
Elizabeth Warren might just be the most natural combination of the most attractive traits of all the other candidates. She’s a progressive with a drawer full of policy plans, a self-described capitalist who believes we need to regulate capitalism, and a woman who understands the inequality of America first hand. She is Bernie light, Pete with a plan, Biden with a clue.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States,” she said during the July debate, “just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.“
“The next Democratic president will be limited by Senate Republicans,” writes Ezra Klein, “as well as a political system that amplifies the voices of the rich and the connected. Warren offers the best shot at a transformative presidency even if those limits remain in place, and she’s got the clearest plan for attacking those limits head-on.
Warren gets support from progressives who are either turned off by Bernie and his supporters, or who simply feel that electing a woman would be good for America. She’s also overwhelmingly pulling from college-educated white voters, and she suffers from a post-Clinton hangover that questions whether a woman can beat Donald Trump in today’s vitriolic environment.
Warren came in third in Iowa, which while not great, was not unexpected either. She will need to gain momentum if she has any shot at winning the nomination.
Nothing defines the Democratic Party more so than its lack of ability to define itself. This isn’t a failure of strategy or imagination, but the natural result of a Party that is a diverse coalition of groups that sometimes have little in common other than an enemy.
There is not one single issue, or even combination of issues that every group agrees on. There are a multitude of issues that important to each group, and yet possibly even tertiary to another. Building a coalition with significant enough numbers to defeat the Republican takes a lot of horse trading and compromise.
You can’t really talk about Democrats chances of winning national elections without talking about Black voters, as they are a critical part of the Democratic coalition, and yet not a monolithic voting bloc. Without significant voter turnout in the Black community, Democrats cannot win a national election, but there is no single issue that unites them, with the possible exception of electability.
Black voters are traditionally considered more moderate than their white counterparts, especially among older voters. There is some question towards whether this is ideological or self selecting, being that the Democratic establishment has deep ties to the Black community and Black leaders are, more likely than not, to themselves be part of the political establishment. Consequently, Black communities are more likely to vote for more moderate, establishment candidates than for a more progressive candidate with policy ideas that might benefit them.
One theory is that Black voters are more sensitive to electability issues than white voters, since the failure of the Democratic Party to win elections disproportionately affects Black communities than it does their white counterparts. Some would even argue that as a general rule, Black voters are more practical than ideological, when it comes to picking an individual candidate. Better to have something than nothing, is the thinking.
Working Class Voters
Working class voters used to be the bedrock of the Democratic Party, but sometime in the 1970’s Democrats began to look to the suburbs at white, college-educated voters as their core, and intentionally or not, turned their backs on the working class.
The election of Donald Trump was the culmination of decades of worth of effort on the part of the Republican Party to turn those communities into a class of voter that would vote Republican even as their very platform outsourced manufacturing and broke unions.
They discovered new leverage to motivate working class voters to support the Republican Party, other than good jobs and fair pay that Democrats had promised. They developed a plan to energize rural, white America with fears of liberals taking their guns, undermining their faith, giving immigrants their jobs, and turning white people into a permanent underclass. It worked.
The reality is, nothing has been more catastrophic to America’s working class than the policies of the Republican Party. A close second has been the policies of the Democratic Party. The global economy, automation, artificial intelligence and the outsourcing of manufacturing to cheaper labor markets devastating entire communities across the country and neither political party stepped in with policies that would mitigate the destruction.
If Democrats are going to regain the trust of the working class, they will need to put their money where their mouths used to be, and develop a long-term strategy for once again providing stable employment at living wages for millions of hard-working Americans. The good news is that they are in a superior position to do just that as Republicans reject raising the minimum wage, taxing the rich, and providing corporate oversight of inexhaustible corporate greed.
College-educated Whites are typically far more liberal than other groups in the Democratic Party, and have done as much as anyone to push the party to the Left. In fact, recent studies reported that for the first time ever, college educated whites are more likely to identify with a group other than their own. This doesn’t mean that they think they are Hispanic or Genderqueer, but that they prioritize policy decisions that benefit a group other than their own.
Like other groups, they are not monolithic either, prioritizing different political agendas or candidates, but are generally in alignment with regards to social justice, the environment, gun control, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigration reform. It’s rarely the case that they disagree on the crux of the issue, but typically on the best way to fix it.
The danger behind all these well-meaning, highly-educated white people is that they tend to overreach and assume they know what’s best for everyone, including groups other than their own, which can lead to resistance and even resentment.
The Path To Victory
The fight to control the direction of the Democratic Party is not a sign of disfunction, but rather a sign of its health. A new wave of activists and political leaders are pushing up against the status quo of the old guard, while the establishment fears the party losing control of its focus and floundering in obscurity. Water must find its level, and the Democratic Party will find its. Shake ups must occur to keep things fresh and relevant.
When it comes to the Presidential election, the fact is, that all four of the top tier candidates are quite different, and Democratic voters are not that ideologically siloed. When you look at first and second choices among Democratic voters, they don’t even necessarily break down ideologically. Those who like Warren, might also consider Biden, even though they are practically diametrically opposed; a voter who is considering Bernie might also consider Pete, even though they are ideologically and in most other quantifiable ways, opposites.
The mental formula that your average voter is using to calculate the feasibility of each candidate is a complex combination of identity politics, policy positions, personality and perceived electability.
You need look no further than Iowa, where despite the utter collapse of their archaic caucus system this past week, many voters expressed existential angst over who to caucus for. Iowa voters take their electoral duties very seriously and many worried that if they chose wrong, it could screw up the entire election and cost Democrats the Presidency. They might not have been wrong—but not because of who they chose as a candidate—they have their state party to blame for that fiasco.
Many voters around the country have expressed a desire to vote for the candidate most likely to beat Trump, over their own personal preferences. Do you choose the candidate that mostly closely shares your beliefs and ideals, or do you choose the candidate you believe others will vote for, and therefore, most likely to bear Trump?
The problem is, no one knows yet, who will excite voters, and who will drive people to the polls. Are the Democratic electorate’s visceral fear of four more years of Trump, enough to get them to vote in large enough numbers to defeat a re-energized Republican base? Or will in-fighting between the campaigns cause rifts too deep to overcome?
With passions running high and anxieties running deep, the indecision of choosing a candidate is just as likely to cause confusion and fracturing, then the loyalty to a single candidate over the Party. This conflict is likely to continue throughout the election cycle and could cost Democrats the election if a clear winner doesn’t emerge.
Democrats need to recognize that they have a common enemy in Trump, and that to defeat him, they will need to swallow their pride, deal with their own insecurities, and work together to turn the tide.
This is democracy in America.