In the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, a punch-drunk Republican party, having twice gotten its clock cleaned by the Democrats and Barack Obama, performed something of an autopsy on the Romney campaign. The result was a 100-page report titled the “Growth and Opportunity Project.” The report detailed demographic changes in the American political landscape and the need for Republican candidates to speak to a swath of the electorate that they failed to reach in 2012 — primarily women and minority voters. Following this 2013 report, indications pointed to a more inclusive Republican message in 2016.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Donald Trump took the “Growth and Opportunity” report, doused it with lighter fluid and rode the wave all the way to the nomination. Trump’s campaign featured the most derogatory, tone-deaf messaging — if you can even call it that — to women and minorities that we’ve seen, at least in my lifetime. Trump’s greatest hits of off-the-wall, cringeworthy and downright loathsome comments included suggesting women be punished for having an abortion, labeling Mexicans who crossed the border “rapists” and calling for the now-infamous Muslim ban.
Given Trump’s victory in 2016, it may seem wise, or at least not politically suicidal, to take a small-tent, ideologically narrow strategy. And indeed, it appears that Democrats have chosen to ignore the lessons of 2016 and double down on the cultural identity politics that got Donald Trump elected in the first place.
Unfortunately for those of us who want to beat Trump in 2020, it’s not working. One year ago today, the betting markets — our best, if imperfect indicator of Trump’s chances of being reelected — had his chances of winning at 32 percent. On the day of the first Democratic debate, it was 40 percent. Today that number is 58 percent and Trump is enjoying some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency.
Perhaps even more alarming is the timing of this surge of support for Trump. Over the last few months, like most of the last three years, every network not named Fox News has pummeled Trump with a barrage of negative media, the most recent being coverage of Trump’s impeachment in the House and trial in the Senate. If there was ever a time for Trump’s poll numbers to take a hit, it’s now. Instead, they’re higher than ever.
But the Democrats’ problems extend far beyond Trump’s approval rating. Net-Democratic Party identification (percent Dem or Dem-leaning minus percent Rep or Rep-leaning) is down 10 percent since October. Republican Party favorability is up to 51 percent, a jump of eight points since September and the highest rating since 2005. Conversely, Democratic Party favorability dropped three points since September; it is now at 45 percent.
Clearly, since the primary campaign began, Democrats’ chances of retaking the White House in 2020 have markedly decreased. And it’s primarily because they have done nothing to address the failures of the 2016 race. Instead of speaking to working-class voters who overwhelmingly went for Trump in 2016, they’ve made the gap wider than ever. So, for those of us who want to get Trump out of the White House as soon as possible, it’s time to sound the alarms.
The focus of the Democratic primary thus far has been debating a series of far-left policies and casting those who disagree with them as being in some way morally inferior, uncaring or behind-the-times. Rather than simply swapping out the current president for a steady hand to guide the already humming economy, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has been talking about structural change — how the current society is a system of oppression and must be destroyed. Rather than addressing the issues that working-class voters actually care about, progressive Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders are trying to counter “Make America Great Again” with “actually, America was never really that great to begin with.” Let’s just say that the latter is harder to print on a hat.
But even more alarming is that this far-left faction, their aggressive (to put it mildly) supporters and the media have forced every other Democrat to play defense. Rather than engage in a discussion of the merits of their own plans, every issue has been framed in the binary: for Medicare for All or against it, for the Green New Deal or against it. Moderate candidates have spent more time defending their opposition to these plans than actually articulating their own. Consequently, many of those candidates decided early on that moving to the left was a far easier strategy than constantly fighting off the ad hominem attacks of keyboard-wielding Bernie Bros.
All of this has benefitted President Trump — who, I’m sure, sits gleefully in front of the television as he watches Sanders rail against every industry known to man: Wall Street, pharma, gun manufacturers, the fossil fuel industry, defense, Big Tech — the list goes on. Is this the kind of big-tent, tolerant politics-of-addition that liberals have long claimed to embody? These kinds of lines may play well on college campuses — but where the Dems actually need to secure support, particularly in the suburbs of the post-industrial Midwest, they fall on deaf ears.
Sanders is currently second in delegates and has overtaken the faltering Joe Biden in national polls. But, if Bernie is the Democratic nominee, he’s in for an uphill battle against Trump, who would welcome an opportunity to run against the self-proclaimed socialist. Trump may be a political neophyte, but even he knows what apparently Sanders does not — which is that once you say America is “a racist society, top to bottom,” people in middle America no longer care about your 12-point plan to fix the health care system or your position on criminal justice reform. Trump is banking on running against a woke, tear-it-all-down Democrat. And, honestly, it’s looking like a good bet.
Andrew Reed ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.