Reality vs. the Democrats

Jonathan Chait:

In 2018, Democratic candidates waded into hostile territory and flipped 40 House districts, many of them moderate or conservative in their makeup. In almost every instance, their formula centered on narrowing their target profile by avoiding controversial positions, and focusing obsessively on Republican weaknesses, primarily Donald Trump’s abuses of power and attempts to eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans.

The Democratic presidential field has largely abandoned that model. Working from the premise that the country largely agrees with them on everything, or that agreeing with the majority of voters on issues is not necessary to win, the campaign has proceeded in blissful unawareness of the extremely high chance that Trump will win again.

A new batch of swing state polls from the New York Times ought to deliver a bracing shock to Democrats. The polls find that, in six swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona — Trump is highly competitive. He trails Joe Biden there by the narrowest of margins, and leads Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Normally, it is a mistake to overreact to the findings of a single poll. In general, an outlier result should only marginally nudge our preexisting understanding of where public opinion stands. This case is different. To see why, you need to understand two interrelated flaws in the 2016 polling. First, they tended to under-sample white voters without college degrees. And this made them especially vulnerable to polling misses in a handful of states with disproportionately large numbers of white non-college voters. The Times found several months ago that Trump might well win 270 Electoral College votes even in the face of a larger national vote defeat than he suffered in 2016.

All this is to say that, if you’ve been relying on national polls for your picture of the race, you’re probably living in la-la land. However broadly unpopular Trump may be, at the moment he is right on the cusp of victory.

What about the fact Democrats crushed Trump’s party in the midterms? The new Times polling finds many of those voters are swinging back. Almost two-thirds of the people who supported Trump in 2016, and then a Democrat in the 2018 midterms, plan to vote for Trump again in 2020.

Perhaps some of that movement represents a desire by voters to check Trump’s power and restore divided government. But the poll contains substantial evidence that Trump’s party lost the midterms for the hoary yet true reason that Republicans took unpopular positions, especially on health care, and ceded the center. Rather than learn the lesson, Democrats instead appear intent on ceding it right back to them.

The “center,” of course, is a somewhat hazy concept, subject both to overinterpretation and misinterpretation. Capturing the center isn’t the only reason politicians win elections, and some policies that Washington elites consider “radical” are in fact popular. Nonetheless, it really is true that there are a bunch of persuadable voters who can be pushed away from a party based on their perception that it’s too radical.

And the Democratic presidential primary has been a disaster on this front. The debate has taken shape within a world formed by Twitter, in which the country is poised to leap into a new cultural and economic revolution, and even large chunks of the Democratic Party’s elected officials and voting base have fallen behind the times. As my colleague Ed Kilgore argues, the party’s left-wing intelligentsia have treated any appeals to voters in the center as a sign of being behind the times.

Biden’s paper-thin lead over Trump in the swing states is largely attributable to the perception that he is more moderate than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Three-quarters of those who would vote for Biden over Trump, but Trump over Warren, say they would prefer a more moderate Democratic nominee to a more liberal one, and a candidate who would find common ground with Republicans over one who would fight for a progressive agenda.

There are lots of Democrats who are trying to run moderate campaigns. But the new environment in which they’re running has made it difficult for any of them to break through. There are many reasons the party’s mainstream has failed to exert itself. Biden’s name recognition and association with the popular Obama administration has blotted out alternatives, and the sheer number of center-left candidates has made it hard for any non-Biden to gain traction. Candidates with strong profiles, like Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, have struggled to gain attention, and proven politicians like Michael Bennet and Steve Bullock have failed even to qualify for debates.

But in addition to those obstacles, they have all labored against the ingrained perception that the Democratic party has moved beyond Obama-like liberalism, and that incremental reform is timid and boring. The same dynamic was already beginning to form in 2016, though Hillary Clinton overcame it with a combination of name recognition and a series of leftward moves of her own to defuse progressive objections. Biden’s name brand has given him a head start with the half of the Democratic electorate that has moderate or conservative views. But it’s much harder for a newer moderate Democrat lacking that established identity to build a national constituency. The only avenue that has seemed to be open for a candidate to break into the top has been to excite activists, who are demanding positions far to the left of the median voter.

The primary has not doomed Democrats. Warren and Sanders are still close enough to Trump that they can compete, and new events, like a recession or another scandal, could erode Trump’s base. But the party should look at its position a year before the election with real fear. The party’s presidential field has lost the plot.

Warren is a particular problem, according to CNBC:

The bitter feud between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Wall Street is spilling into Democrats’ efforts to take back the Senate next year.

Some finance executives have recently told Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that they are, for the moment, holding back from donating to Democrats running for Senate in 2020 due to their concerns with Warren becoming a front-runner in the race for the party’s presidential nomination, according to people familiar with the conversations. These people spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the private nature of the talks.

The move is intended to put pressure on party leadership and Schumer, who represents New York and has received millions of dollars in donations from Wall Street, to distance themselves from Warren’s economic populism.

These financiers, which include hedge fund managers and private equity executives, are also worried that Warren’s policies, were she to defeat President Donald Trump, could be detrimental to their businesses. They believe Republicans could keep her potential administration in check if the GOP holds onto or expands its Senate majority. Republicans have a 53-47 majority in the Senate; Democrats need to flip a net of four seats to take control.

“They feel, rightly or wrongly, attacked. Not just that there will be higher taxes, but that she is running her entire campaign as them being boogeymen,” said a political advisor familiar with the deliberations. “They don’t feel safe going to Trump, they feel disillusioned by Biden and they see this as a tactic to slow her down. They see it as a way to put pressure on the party as a whole to move away from Warren.”

This person did admit, however, that the financiers are playing right into Warren’s messaging against wealthy donors influencing politics by stonewalling Schumer on donations.

The donors’ signals to Schumer come as they are increasingly frustrated with former Joe Biden’s campaign, which has lagged behind Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. They had hoped he would be the clear front-runner, particularly because of his experience as President Barack Obama’s vice president. His once-double-digit lead in Real Clear Politics’ national polling average has him up an average of nearly 9 points over Warren, who had briefly overtaken Biden last month. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday has Biden up 4 points over the Massachusetts senator.

These executives also privately say that they still hope Biden will become the Democratic nominee as they contend he is the only candidate who can beat Trump in key battleground states. A New York Times Upshot poll released Monday shows Biden tied or ahead of the president with registered voters in swing states including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida. Warren, on the other hand, is behind or even with Trump in most of those states.

Bernard Schwartz, a longtime Democratic donor and the CEO of BLS Investments, acknowledged that he knows of people on Wall Street who have declared to Schumer and party leadership that they won’t spend in favor of Democratic Senate candidates if Warren is the nominee.

“I think at the end of the day it’s going to be very hard for Elizabeth Warren to be the leader of the party,” he said, while adding he likes her personally yet is not in favor of some of her policies. “I think the party is much more centrist than the people who have the microphone.”

Schwartz, who said he doesn’t think Warren could beat Trump, is currently backing Biden for president and said he wants to contribute to the new pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country. He also said he doesn’t believe that there are many Democrats in the financial industry who would refuse to help Senate Democrats if Warren is the nominee.

A spokesman for Schumer declined to comment. Representatives for Warren did not return a request for comment.

Schumer has represented New York on Capitol Hill since 1981, after he was elected to the House. In 1998, he was elected senator. During his tenure in the federal government Schumer has received more than $13 million in donations from the securities and investment industry, including from employees and the political action committees of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. …

Warren has publicized a wide range of plans targeting the wealthy and corporations that she wants to implement if she makes it to the White House. Her latest idea is to double her billionaires wealth tax from 3% to 6% to help pay for her $52 trillion “Medicare for All” plan. Warren’s wealth tax proposal would also impose a 2% tax on net worth between $50 million and $1 billion.

Wall Street has responded to her ideas with vitriol and threats. Some Democratic finance leaders have privately warned the party that they could end up sitting out the presidential election entirely or back Trump instead.

Leon Cooperman, a billionaire investor, has virtually gone to war with Warren and wrote in an open letter that he’s being treated by her “as if a parent chiding an ungrateful child.” Cooperman was responding to a tweet in which Warren called on him to “pitch in a bit more.”

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