You Don’t Know Who Can or Cannot Beat Trump

Well, here we go. The Democratic primaries are about to get underway with the infamously weird Iowa Caucuses. It will be a roller coaster from now until the Virgin Island caucuses on June 6. And there’s always a chance we won’t have a nominee until the Dem convention, which begins July 13.

Here’s today’s gripe: I’m still seeing people in all forms of media declaring with great confidence who is and isn’t “electable.” But don’t listen to any of this. It’s all theories. Nobody really knows. “Nobody” includes famous politicians and people who spout opinions on the teevee as well as everybody on social media.

Steve Rosenthal at The American Prospect:

Most public polls now show Sanders, Biden, and Bloomberg beating Trump by between three and seven points, with most of the other candidates beating him by slightly smaller margins. And the most recent CNN poll shows that 57 percent of Democrats believe the party should nominate the candidate with the strongest chance of defeating Trump—the highest it’s been since last June.

Here’s the rub: Trying to figure out who is the most electable candidate is a losing proposition…. The path to the White House is littered with countless candidates who on paper and in early polls were supremely electable and created a fair amount of excitement—but then something happened.

Usually what happened was elections. The people who look good in theory before the primaries begin are not always the same people who actually get the votes. That’s true more often than not, I believe.

The “experts” are going by the conventional wisdom of recent decades, which is based on theories that maybe were valid in the past, or not, but is mostly blind to the state of the electorate at the moment. The voters who turn out in 2020 will not be the same people who voted in 1972, or 1980, or 1992, or even exactly the same as 2016. The voters who turn out in 2020 will have different concerns and perspectives from earlier voters. The experts always seem to be a few election cycles behind in their judgments of what voters want.

The rest of us passionate partisans tend to suffer tunnel vision. We know what we like. We know what our friends like. We know what the people we bump into on social media like. This is not, however, a representative sampling of the electorate.

There is palpable hysteria on the part of the Democratic establishment right now that Bernie Sanders might run away with the early primaires. They are certain, of course, that Sanders cannot beat Trump. This certitude is based partly on their lingering dislike of Sanders for having challenged Hillary Clinton in 2016 combined with the ghost of the mostly mis-remembered election of 1972.

George McGovern allegedly taught us that “extremists” can’t win. The problem with that assessment is that McGovern was not at all extreme. His alleged extremism was the excuse Democrats manufactured in their heads to explain the debacle of 1972. As Ed Kilgore documents here, what really hurt McGovern was an amateurish general election campaign (e.g., the Tom Eagleton fiasco) combined with a lack of support from Democratic party stakeholders who would have preferred someone else.

The ex post facto mythology of the McGovern campaign represented it as a takeover by a wild-eyed bunch of radicals determined to purge the Democratic Party of the “Establishment” elements (including the labor movement) that had sustained it for so long. As noted above, the white southern wing of the party had already seceded (at the presidential level, anyway). Also as noted above, McGovern and his supporters weren’t repudiating LBJ’s War in Vietnam; by then it was definitely Nixon’s War.

What did happen was a widespread abandonment of the Democratic presidential nominee, led by a labor movement (or at least by the leadership of the AFL-CIO) that was still loyal to Johnson and Humphrey and didn’t feel its interests would be particularly compromised if Nixon won reelection. Political historian Rick Perlstein reminds us that McGovern wasn’t the aggressor in intraparty strife:

Humphrey himself, backed by [AFL-CIO president George] Meany, ran a stupendously vicious primary campaign against McGovern in the late innings. Edmund Muskie, Scoop Jackson, and Humphrey even cast aspersions against McGovern on “Meet the Press” segments during the convention. Others were more casual — like the Catholic Missouri senator, one of the few up and comers associated with the regulars’ old order, who gave a blind quote to Evans and Novak at the height of the primary season, when McGovern looked to be clinching the nomination: “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot. Once Middle America — Catholic Middle America, in particular — finds this out, he’s dead.”

For the record: Timothy Noah wrote back in 2012 that a famous smear leveled at McGovern — that he was the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” — had come from none other than Senator Tom Eagleton (D-Missouri), whom McGovern had dropped from the ticket because of concerns over Eagleton’s mental health. In this case, the “amnesty” was for men who had dodged the Vietnam war draft, a position that McGovern did support and which would come to pass anyway before the decade of the 1970s was over. McGovern also wanted to decriminalize marijuana but not acid or other illegal drugs. His position on abortion in 1972 — which was prior to the Roe v. Wade decision — was that it was a state matter.

In other words, in 1972 McGovern was smeared as a leftist extremist by both the Nixon campaign and large parts of the Democratic Party establishment, who organized a “stop McGovern” campaign during the primaries. And the Dem establishment let their own nominee twist in the wind during the famously disorganized 1972 Democratic National Convention (McGovern didn’t give his acceptance speech until 3 a.m.) and throughout the clumsy campaign thereafter. And when McGovern lost, the excuse was that he was just too extreme, not that the establishment had failed to support him.  If the Democratic coalition of the time had united behind him, it may have been a very different election. See also What Democrats Still Don’t Get About George McGovern by Joshua Mound.

So, in 1972, the Democratic Party establishment created a self-fulfilling prophecy — they said McGovern couldn’t win, and then they made sure he didn’t. I am concerned that something like this happening to Bernie Sanders and possibly could happen to Elizabeth Warren also, if she starts winning a lot of delegates.

At Washington Monthly, David Atkins writes that Your Theory of Electability is Probably Wrong. Both the centrists and the progressives are putting forward theories of how to beat Trump that have no empircal support. Joe Biden claims he can win the votes of blue collar Trump voters, but we don’t know that’s true. The Sanders side says he will get new young voters and some of the non-voters of 2016 to the polls, but we don’t know that’s true. We won’t know until the election. Until then, it’s all theories.

As both Atkins and Rosenthal point out, several of the Dem candidates beat Trump in head to head polling.  That polling might be wrong, but it doesn’t show us that any one Democrat is far and away stronger against Trump than the others.

This is for people who keep howling that Trump will call Sanders a socialist. Trump is calling every Democrat a socialist these days. If Joe Biden is the nominee, Trump will have the MAGA-heads believing Biden is a socialist. You can count on it. Further, Atkins writes,

Sanders’ opponents like to claim that he isn’t vetted and hasn’t sustained attacks from Republicans that will drive down his numbers. But this is utterly unproven: the sting of attacking “socialism” has weakened to almost non-existent as Republicans have cried wolf about it for decades, and as fewer and fewer voters in the electorate are persuaded by Cold War scare rhetoric in the face of rising inequality and basic costs of living. If the centrist wing of the party had real dirt on Sanders they would be using it by now. And besides, the exact same argument was used in 2008 to claim that Barack Obama would be destroyed in a general election over Reverend Wright and other supposed radicalism. It didn’t happen.

The same goes for Warren. No, we do not know that a woman can’t beat Trump just because Hillary Clinton failed in 2016. “Her opponents like to claim that the attacks over her claiming Native American ancestry, or her positions on Medicare for All, will doom her in a general election,” Atkins writes. “Yet she continues to defeat Trump in general election polling as usual.”

Atkins continues,

The boring reality is that the country is more polarized than it has ever been, and becoming more so. The boring reality is that a realignment is taking shape in which the exurban professional class and white working class increasingly vote for their prejudices over their economics but are declining in numbers, while educated suburbanites, young people and people of color rapidly align with the Democratic Party, on behalf of both moderate and leftist candidates depending in large part on the district. The bluer and more urban the districts, the [more] leftist the viable candidates. A hard-charging progressive like Ocasio-Cortez is more aligned with this coalition in the Bronx than an older establishment incumbent like Joe Crowley, while Democrats of left-center-left ideological alignment perform well in the most purple districts. But even a bisexual Medicare-for-All supporting millennial can win in frontline districts.

Can we exorcise the ghost of 1972 already?

My heartfelt suggestion is that everybody chill a bit. Forget electability; vote for the candidate you most want to be president. Let the primary results show us which candidates have the chops to beat Trump. Because right now, nobody knows.

13 thoughts on “You Don’t Know Who Can or Cannot Beat Trump

  1. Thank you, maha,  for this much needed reminder and advice!

    OT:  Did anyone see Adam Schiff's closing statement today?  It was a real "stem-winding" "barn-burner!"

    His "Midnight in Washington" was the best speech since prime Obama!

    Sadly, I don't think it'll change a thing.

    Authoritarianism with King Donald, coming soon to a TV tomorrow, with his State of the Dis-union speech!


  2. I think sometime that the way one talks about things is totally underestimated.  The right word or the right phrase is essential a lot of the time.  The phrase "beat Donald Trump" I have listened to way to many times in the last half hour of watching some evening news.  Such a silly phrase.  A three word combination that lends your brain to grind it's cognitive cogs.  

    Does that phrase mean beat him in logic?, compassion?, empathy.? electoral votes or popular votes?  Or could it mean balance Trump with someone who is the perfect Anti-Trump?  The best person to beat an anti-social president might then be the more social (socialist) one. How about class, do you go for a guy that can go toe to toe in wealth, well we know who is buying up the airwaves and running up the demand for ad spots.  

    They throw that three word phrase at you like everyone knows what it means.  In reality it is like an ink blot.  You see or abstract some image from it but really you are just seeing a mirror image which says a little bit about you but nothing about the image.  So to think better, we must substitute another phrase.

    I suggest the phrase:  Which candidate would you go to the mat with fighting against Trump?  or Which candidate do you see with supporters that will go to the mat fighting  Trump?  I prefer the later, because my mat skills have declined with age.  I wish I could pick that vision but I know that I no longer have the magical power of youth.  I think both work but I envy those who can chose the first one.  


  3. OT, California has radically expanded how people can vote. Rather than limiting people to one day and one location, you have ten days to vote at a large number of "vote centers" in your county. All registered voters are now mailed a paper ballot, so you can mail-in if you'd rather do that, instead. I've been getting lots of stuff in the mail from the county, explaining how it works, so they're doing a great job at outreach,explaining the changes.

    No doubt this is in response to Republican voter suppression, but it’s just a fantastic idea anyway.

  4. NPR has not had a speaker I have heard who had anything good to say about Bernie. Today they were doing the "Who has exploitable weaknesses?" thing.  Well, of course they spent more time on why Bernie did than the other candidates.  The Democrats need to find a way to pull Bernie's supporters into the party. Those people are more committed to actual democracy for the people rather than corporatism.  If Bernie is not the nominee, it won't do to have that happen by backroom dealing.  My heartfelt desire is to see Mayor Pete debate Trump. I would have to get a DVR because I know I'd miss stuff on the first viewing while laughing and high-fiving. Warren has been my long-term choice, though Bernie is next to her.  Odd, maybe, but I think they would accomplish some of the same things.  Klobuchar and Biden seem too unready for real change, but the appeal of the "norm" is real to so many people. I don't have much faith in the McConnell Senate being any different.  Yang is likeable and a thoughtful theoretician, though I think he has too much theory that assumes rational behavior on the part of the populace.  I have no real idea where we are headed, but I know I'd vote for ANY of them over Trump. We need not to eat our own, no matter how well-seasoned they are by the talking heads.  I want to hear them stand on the moral high ground and speak about why the 401k is not a moral stance. I also want them not to be afraid to call out deplorable behavior.  If there is no moral indignation against what has gone on, we are lost.  Bloomberg? We already have some moderate Republicans among the candidates. Well, you have to be 70 to think that, I suppose.  This is all just rambling, but how can i know what I think till I say it?



  5. OT, again:

    Rush Limbaugh has late-stage lung cancer. 

    You can judge him if you want.

    I'll let Dog decide.

  6. Ummmm.. shall we go back in time four years for the "electability' lesson? Donald Trump was in no way considered "electable'. certainly not when there was a Bush in the race. OK. Go back twelve years. The "electable" nominee on the Democratic side was HRC. Nobody with dark skin was going to be "electable." (Until he started winning primaries.) If Obama won the nomination, it would be a disaster because of the latent racism which guaranteed his loss in the general. 

    I agree completely with Maha's conclusions but you don't have to go back to McGovern to disprove "electability." It's a myth invented by the manipulators.  IMO, the donor class does NOT want the masses to rebel against the masters of the universe. The system is rigged so the plutocrats get more and we get less and that's how both parties (management) want it to stay. 

    I like Liz but Bernie is ascending. Either one is on the right wavelength as advocates for the common man. The key is turnout by young people which Bernie excels at. An inoffensive 'moderate' won't keep the cultists from turning out for Trump but young people will be offended and underwhelmed by Biden. 

  7. Krugman's piece in the NYT today exposes the cult nature of Trumpism with masterful style.  The zombie idea, proven wrong, becomes dogma truth in the Republican party,  It is a must read.  Here is a tease:

    What recent events make clear, however, is that zombie ideas haven’t eaten just Republicans’ brains. They have also eaten the party’s soul.

    Think about what is now required for a Republican politician to be considered a party member in good standing. He or she must pledge allegiance to policy doctrines that are demonstrably false; he or she must, in effect, reject the very idea of paying attention to evidence.

    The candidate I want is the best zombie killer out there.  We are fighting a cult who's politically correct is the dissemination of out and out lies.  Zombie ideas which cannot be supported by evidence.

  8. I tend to be pessimisstic about electability. However best advise is vote for who likes you, not who you like.

    If we could just get the tape of trump dissing his magats and sycophants. So they could see what he thinks of them.

    • There is no hope for the magats and sycophants. Once they fall under Trump's sway they're hopelessly enamored with him. Look at Jeff Sessions plea for public acceptance after he was thoroughly pummeled by Trump's belittling verbal humiliations…"And not a cross word". It's sorta like this..

  9. Eloquently written and right on all counts, Maha.

    The assumption of "party leaders", meaning big donors and power players, is Sanders will be the candidate most easily attacked. That seems too convenient for the sake of their own status.

    Bernie calls himself a socialist, and a video of his 1988 trip to Russia shows him sitting beneath a portrait of Lenin. Expect clips in Trump campaign ads along with more hard blowing that Bernie's a commie.

    But what does it mean? Republicans already call Democrats do-nothing socialist, radical leftists who want to ruin the economy. Name calling doesn't need logic or truth. Joe Biden, the establishment favorite, has a long legislative history with some ugly features. All the other candidates have obvious weak points too, including Bloomberg.

    Trump's failings are obvious, serious and many. It's going to be far easier for Republicans to go on the attack than to defend him. It doesn't matter who the candidate is. They still have an advantage in the electoral college. All they have to do is get enough of us discouraged or fighting among ourselves to kill anything close to democracy, maybe for generations.


  10. My concern is Bernie is 80yo and he recently had a heart attack.  How serious it was I don't know but I do know running for president is very stressful not to mention the job if he was elected.  I am 80yo and all I want to do is sit in my rocking chair and read.  But maybe I'm just the lazy type.  Here in Washington state we have the caucus process instead of a primary.  I hate the process so I won't be voting.  At this point I don't know who I like but my position is anybody but Trump.  I''m not even sure I can get through the SOTU speech tonight without getting sick.

  11. Trump is going to need to get more people to vote for him than he did last time. That is not going to happen: he has alienated too many of his first time voters, and the Hillary-hater contingent is gone. That is not to say they will vote for the Democrat, but they will not vote for him.

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