Presidential election 2020: Back to the future

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Like many Americans, I am deeply worried about the coming year of domestic politics. This election has become a referendum not only on Trump but also, in many people’s eyes, on liberal democracy in the United States. 

In 2016, many liberals consoled themselves by calling Trump’s election a fluke. They pointed to the popular vote, or the inauguration’s crowd size, or the Mueller investigation. When it gradually became clear that Trump could ignore, lie about or obstruct these things, they focused on his abysmal approval ratings and the midterm elections. 

But none of this can overcome the full truth, which is that a large number of Americans voted for Trump, fully aware of his bigoted attitudes towards any number of minority groups. These Americans have celebrated Trump’s election, while condemning and dismissing obstacles like the Mueller investigation. Republicans as a group are by far the most likely to oppose impeachment. Despite Trump’s retreats in the Middle East, damaging trade wars and embarrassing nepotism, Republican voters in key swing states are sticking with him.

Democrats, particularly those who identify as centrists or moderates, have a tendency to write off the more bigoted and contradictory tendencies of the American electorate as uncommon, or flukes, or both. Trump’s election and possible re-election, if nothing else, must show that this narrative is flawed.

I’m certainly not the first person to make this point. But it’s worth revisiting as we come closer to the 2020 general election. The New York Times recently published an article about poll results which showed Trump leading Sanders and Warren, and only narrowly trailing Biden, in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina. I expect that the Biden campaign will lean into this heavily — Jill Biden has already asked people to vote for her husband, even if they don’t like him, because he is “electable.” 

Frankly, I think that this is a moment in which Democrats will have to choose between what they view as a safe bet and what they like. This is, to some extent, the choice that a lot of people made in 2016. I didn’t like Clinton, but I liked Sanders even less and hoped that Clinton’s experience and connections to more popular politicians would get her through. 

During democratic primaries, people tend to worry about whether candidates can appeal to undecided or swing voters. This plays into the “safe bet” question, as people argue for unexciting — or even unpopular — candidates on the grounds that their policies are moderate enough to lure independent and Republican voters. 

It’s time to let go of these ideas. Trump supporters have made it clear that they are in it for the long haul. Moderating, toning down and negotiating the Democratic platform into a bland morass of centrism will not win over Republican voters. If anything, the opposite is true — it was Sanders’ more radical policies which drew people who ultimately voted for Trump in 2016. Trump is successful because he is polarizing, and appeals strongly to a particular Republican base, not because he has some broad appeal to moderates. Perhaps it’s time for Democrats to learn from Republicans’ success and embrace their own base.

The argument might be made that swing voters will be alienated by a radical, or even further, left-wing candidate, and therefore vote Republican. In this election, it’s hard to see that happening. Even the most left-leaning candidates in the democratic field seem fairly centrist compared to Trump. Furthermore, Trump has spent three years showing himself to be an incompetent, corrupt bigot. Frankly, if there really are swing voters out there who prefer a bigoted screw-up to a competent candidate who supports Medicare for all, the Democratic party should ignore them. At some point, sacrificing one’s platform for the sake of luring voters becomes morally problematic. In this election in particular, the Democratic party must recognize this. Winning an election is meaningless if it requires sacrificing everything you are winning the election to accomplish.

What if Democrats start playing to the Democratic base? What if young liberals were genuinely excited to vote? The demographic game has changed since 2016, in ways significant enough to affect the election. But if people were reluctant to vote for a candidate they didn’t believe in in 2016, I can only imagine how difficult the Democratic party will find it to drag demoralized and unenthusiastic voters to the polls in 2020. 

Biden still has the most support among Democratic voters. But his popularity in national polls has been falling dramatically, while Warren’s has climbed. Biden is weighed down by his history of troubling behavior around women’s personal space, gaffes and possible age-related problems (remember to put on your record players, folks!). Arguably, his initial popularity was more thanks to his name recognition and association with Obama than it was to his own merits. 

In fact, Warren is now more popular than Biden among democratic voters in some polls. This is true even though 15% of Democratic voters are twice as likely to say that they are unsure about or have not heard of Warren. Although Warren may look weaker against Trump than Biden does now, there’s still a year before the election. That is more than enough time for Warren to increase her name recognition enough to tip the scale. (It’s also more than enough time for Biden to drive his campaign into the ground with gaffes and uncomfortable photo-ops with women.) Somewhat paradoxically, as unknown candidates drop out of the democratic field, it may be time to stop focusing on who’s most well known now and start asking who can become popular and exciting for the democratic base. 

Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Sarah Myers '21 is pursuing a BA in International Relations while also studying Physics, Mandarin, and German. She enjoys writing about politics, ethics, and current events. She spends her free time reading and convincing herself that watching Chinese television counts as studying Mandarin.