One of the many, many neurotic fears Democrats took away from the 2016 election is that Trump hypnotized Hillary Clinton into focusing on his unsavory character instead of promoting her own potentially popular policies and agenda, which undermined her ability to mobilize her base or to persuade swing voters. In the successful Democratic 2018 midterm campaign, it appeared, the lesson was learned, as candidates talked more about health care and income inequality and reproductive rights than about the strange orange man in the White House. Given Trump’s world-class narcissism, it may have even thrown him off-balance to be anything other than the perpetual center of attention.
For those who feel strongly about the need to give the president as little attention as possible, this analysis (subscription required) of 2020 Democratic presidential ads from the Cook Political Report could set off alarm bells:
Admo tracks all political ads on the airwaves and automatically transcribes the ads. Using this feature we measured the number of times words have been spoken in presidential primary ads in Iowa. “Trump” has been uttered 25 more times than “message,” the second most spoken word. For reference, the frequency gap between the second and third most spoken words is only seven. The “Trump” number is inflated by the number of ads aired by billionaire Tom Steyer, which are very focused on Trump and impeachment. However, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and former U.S. Rep. John Delaney have also explicitly mentioned the President in their ads.
This focus on the President so early in the primary process may come as a surprise since the Democrats found success in 2018 with disciplined messaging and their scripted focus on healthcare.
If you think about it, though, a focus on Trump makes sense, because in the Democratic nomination battle, the ability to defeat Trump — a.k.a. electability — is a big (perhaps the biggest) concern of primary voters. Of course they want to hear candidates explaining how they will beat him like a drum, and to see the steely expressions on their faces as they do so. This does not mean they are indifferent to policies or substance (the debate over health-care policy is pretty extensive already) or have been seduced into playing Trump’s game. Nor does it mean they would campaign exactly the same way in the general election.
So calm down, Democrats: There will be plenty of time to ignore Trump (if that’s even remotely possible for a figure who has blotted out the sky and haunts so many nightmares) once the ultimate contest is underway next year.