2020 elections

Elizabeth Warren and the Democrats’ 2020 Electability Dilemma

Is Elizabeth Warren electable against Trump in 2020? How would we even know? Photo: Hadley Green/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s semi-announcement of a much-expected 2020 presidential candidacy represents something of a formal opening of the presidential cycle just as 2018 ends. And with it came some familiar fretting about Warren’s popularity in Massachusetts and nationally, and how it affects her viability when a potentially vast presidential field is winnowed. CNN’s Harry Enten, for one, isn’t impressed by Warren:

“The fact is Massachusetts is a very blue state,” Enten explained. “Hillary Clinton won there by 27 points, Liz Warren only won there by 24. And keep in mind that 2018 was a much better year for Democrats nationwide, so the fact that Liz Warren did worse than Hillary Clinton in Massachusetts suggests that perhaps she is a below-par candidate.”

CNN then showed a poll they had conducted were she ranked seven out of ten among other Democrats who could potentially run for president in 2020….

 ”[I]n Massachusetts, Liz Warren, when matched up against her opponents in a potential Democratic primary, she’s actually polling third or fourth behind Biden and Sanders, which suggests something’s quite wrong,” [Enten] said.

Explanations of Warren’s pallid poll numbers range from her lack of engagement of national political media to her allegedly “too liberal” ideology to borderline sexist concerns about her “schoolmarmish” or “standoffish” persona, and fears of blatantly sexist public rejection of women — especially older women — as presidential prospects. Most recently, her struggle to overcome the idiotic taunts from Trump and other conservatives over her claim to a minor Native American heritage seems to typify her predicament. Even though she is by all accounts a brilliant woman with a unique capacity to understand and articulate the plight of the middle class in an era of great corporate power and official corruption, and may be ideally positioned to unite her party, her standing has been deteriorating. Politico sums it all up as Warren’s “battle” with the “ghosts of Hillary Clinton” — the supremely qualified yet “standoffish” older woman who lost to Trump in 2016 after he subjected her to smears and slurs far worse than “Pocohontas.”

The comparisons to Clinton, however, raise an interesting quandary for Democrats: retroactive judgments notwithstanding, Clinton looked entirely “electable” against Trump right up to Election Day. In RealClearPolitics’ 2016 general election polling averages, Clinton led Trump from beginning to end on all but six days (three in May and three in July). In polls that included minor candidates, Clinton led throughout except for two days in July. And lest we forget, Clinton won the actual popular vote by 2.1 percent. So she was eminently “electable” — but nonetheless wasn’t elected.

How, then, are Democrats to adjudge “electability” going into 2020? Do they stick with conventional polls, figuring that Trump cannot twice draw an inside straight by winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote? Do they focus obsessively on potential nominees’ Electoral College potential, recognizing that individual state polls are generally less reliable than national surveys? Or do they look at candidates’ favorability ratios, since HRC’s were relatively poor? Even then, Clinton’s 47/52 favorable/unfavorable rating (according to the final Gallup survey) was a lot better than Trump’s 36/61. And that was after months of savage pounding of Clinton by the Trump campaign and both conservative and mainstream media. Who’s to say the same thing couldn’t happen again in 2020?

The sui generis character of the Trump era led my colleague Eric Levitz, after a careful assessment of “electability” data in 2016 and 2020, to suggest we’re in uncharted territory in which claims of a superior ability to beat the 45th president should be taken with a shaker of salt.

Electability arguments have always been handy stalking horses for substantive disagreement. But in previous cycles, there was some plausibility to the idea that party pooh-bahs could identify in advance which candidate was most likely to prevail in November.

In the age of Trump, this just isn’t so. If mocking prisoners of war and the disabled — and bragging about adultery and pussy-grabbing — do not necessarily render one “unelectable,” it’s impossible to believe any Democratic operative who says with certainty that a honeymoon in the Soviet Union [a potential Bernie Sanders problem] does.

Does that mean Democrats should ignore public-opinion data altogether? No, of course not. It’s entirely possible that Trump’s well-established unpopularity — particularly if the economy slows or stalls — means that any credible Democrats could take him down in 2020, when he will be the symbol of the chronically despised status quo in Washington rather than a sort of scourge of God sent to slay the bureaucrats and drain the swamp. And that’s without even knowing what Robert Mueller or House Democratic hearings might disclose about collusion or corruption in Trump’s inner circle.

But perhaps more to the point, Democrats won’t be able to stop thinking about “electability” as the hour of decision approaches. For most Democrats, the prospect of a second Trump term in the White House is an existential threat, whereas in 2016 his initial election was a bad but implausible nightmare. A second Trump term would not only drive progressives wild with frustration and fear: It could tangibly mean enough additional Supreme Court decisions to guarantee an end to abortion rights and other cherished constitutional protections, along with a federal judiciary skewed to the right for a generation and enough backsliding on critical challenges like inequality and climate change to darken every American’s future.

So if early polls show one potential Democratic nominee cleaning Trump’s clock while another trails him, the knowledge that polls can change between the primaries and November — and have in any event gotten Trump’s standing tragically wrong in the past — may not matter that much. Levitz is right that Democrats should stop tormenting themselves with hypotheticals and “simply vote for whichever candidate they would most like to be president.” But in the end, “electability” is going to be an important factor, because when it comes to ending the Trump presidency in 2020, nothing will be left to fickle chance.

Elizabeth Warren and Democrats’ 2020 Electability Dilemma