There’s lots of good news for the Democrats these days.
Opposition to President Trump is surging. In the latest Washington Post poll, 58% support the start of impeachment proceedings and 49% favor removing Trump from office — including almost 1 in 5 Republicans. In a Monmouth poll, 57% say it’s time for “someone else” to be president; Quinnipiac reports that 54% will “definitely not” support Trump’s reelection.
But the eventual outcome is far from certain. Politics always comes down to a choice between two actual candidates. And the leading Democrats would all carry sizeable burdens into the battle against Trump, a ruthless and relentless campaigner completely capable of energizing his supporters while eviscerating his opponents.
Since World War II, the Democrats have elected only four presidents not already in office: Kennedy, Carter, Clinton and Obama. All fit a clear profile: They were young (an average age of 47), and they hit a political sweet spot, combining moderate policies with inspiring personalities.
No one in the vast field of Democratic candidates fits that winning formula, at least not yet. Someone could still fill that void before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, or emerge a surprise winner from the early primaries, but clearly one of the oldest adages in politics could come back to bite the Democrats: You can’t beat Somebody with Nobody.
Trump has plenty of problems of his own. He has totally failed to expand his core base of support, which hovers around 37%, and has not even tried very hard. In a CNN survey, only 36% said he “deserves” a second term, while 3 in 5 said no, a figure that jumps to two-thirds among women voters.
At the heart of Trump’s problem is his seriously flawed and erratic character. Ron Brownstein in The Atlantic concludes that about 10% of Trump voters from 2016 like his economic policies but loathe his personality, and that the president faces “significant headwinds” in winning back those supporters next year. In the Post poll, 3 out of 5 voters say Trump does not uphold “adequate standards for ethics in government.”
Can Democrats take advantage of these gaping weaknesses? The answer is a resounding “maybe.” The three leading contenders for the nomination — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — are all in their 70s, and Sanders’ recent heart attack highlights the risk of an aging nominee. (Of course, Trump is 73.) More seriously, Biden has been a deeply disappointing candidate. He checks the moderate box, but evokes little of the excitement or energy that’s essential for a winning campaign. In short, he resembles the wrong Clinton: too much Hillary, not enough Bill.
Alan Feirer, the Democratic chairman in Iowa’s Madison County, told the Post that Biden is “a known quantity (who) appeals to middle-class voters” and then added: “But boy, he’s old. That shouldn’t be a problem, and you don’t like to say it, but he isn’t as compelling verbally. ... There is starting to be a real fear that he cannot hold his own in the debate against Donald Trump.”
That fear was reflected in Biden’s faltering fundraising performance in the third quarter, raising only $15 million — fourth among Democratic candidates. The vacuum created by Biden’s vulnerability has been filled mainly by Warren, who outraised Biden by almost $10 million and has caught him in some national polls.
She might be inspiring, but she is far from moderate, and that’s why a Warren candidacy petrifies many Democrats. As a Harvard law professor, she is the perfect foil for Trump’s constant harangues against snobbish coastal elites. And as a doctrinaire liberal, she espouses policies — from a Green New Deal to abolishing private health insurance — that can drive away moderate, blue-collar Democrats, especially in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. These states gave Trump his victory in 2016 and could prove pivotal again next year.
Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council near Pittsburgh, told the Associated Press, “This country is still made up of a very strong middle-of-the-road voice.” And he fears the leftward lurch of the Democrats, led by Warren and Sanders. “Speaking strictly from a western Pennsylvania point of view, I find it to be troubling ... I really do,” he said.
Someone has to capture the White House next year. But right now, all the leading possibilities have far more liabilities than assets, and no one can be counted the favorite.
(Steven Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)