It’s September, and both major party conventions have come and gone, which means the general election has officially begun. To say that 2020 has been a volatile year would of course be an understatement. As coronavirus raged out of control, Donald Trump’s abysmal handling of the crisis caused his poll numbers to plummet, and it looked for a month or so that Joe Biden, despite lacking a message, a platform, and a constituency, was on the path to victory. In the past couple of weeks, however, the race has tightened, and betting markets are now considering the race a virtual dead heat. How did this happen?
Well, the Democrats’ strategy in 2018 was to reach out to conservative independents and moderate Republicans in affluent white suburban districts, and they are going back to that same playbook in 2020. We see organizations like The Lincoln Project running ads non-stop against Donald Trump, and Biden racking up endorsements from Republicans like Jeff Flake, John Kasich, and others. The DNC’s courting of well-to-do conservatives has further alienated progressives, who, to put it very mildly, were never big on Biden. Nonetheless, the Democrats doubled down on this triangulation approach, hoping their success in 2018 would translate into a victory in 2020.
This was always a precarious strategy, as a presidential election, unlike a Congressional midterm, is a series of statewide races in which it is important not just to win a purple district by a few hundred or a few thousand votes, but to animate your ideological base in the cities and districts where they live in large numbers. In the Democrats’ case, this means driving turnout in major metropolitan areas. So for example, in Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb winning the 18th District by 755 votes was enough to put a win on the board in 2018, and that was all that mattered, because there was no presidential race going on at the same time. In order for Democrats to win statewide in 2020 and secure Pennsylvania’s electoral votes for joe Biden, a modest victory in Lamb’s district will likely be irrelevant if the party cannot generate large turnout in large Democratic cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
But the other flaw in the Democrats’ 2020 strategy is that they have gone all-in on their ability to reach out to moderate Republican voters who don’t tend to embrace Democratic policy positions, and are certainly not sympathetic to the goals of progressive grassroots activists in groups like Black Lives Matter. As these protest movements (in key swing states, no less) become more intense, suburban moderates are likely to rethink their support for the Democratic ticket, which was always based more on their personal revulsion for Donald Trump than any actual affinity for Joe Biden or the Democratic Party. A campaign built on shunning your ideological base and appealing to constituents who are predisposed to opposing you is a campaign likely to fail. The latest Emerson poll, as of this writing, has Biden up by just 2 points nationally over Trump. It seems the Democrats’ affluent suburbanite strategy is already starting to backfire.
Will the Democrats’ patchwork coalition hold? Will Trump’s contradictory attacks on Joe Biden as both the architect of mass incarceration and the enabler of anarchist mobs resonate? Will the themes of 2016 (nationalism vs. globalism, free trade vs. protectionism, etc) re-emerge as decisive issues in 2020? Will the Democrats’ failures to offer substantive policy solutions to urgent societal problems once again spell doom?
We discuss these questions and much more on episode 85 of the Due Dissidence podcast. Listen to our full general election preview by clicking the player below:
Photo: Bridget Cooke