Exit Stage Center: Lack of Traction for Moderate Dem Candidates Signals Voters are Looking for Vision in 2020
As the Democratic debate stage narrowed to ten, the losers were largely moderate candidates who struggled to attract a base. While in years past the plethora of white, establishment male candidates would have been the traditional choice, in 2019 they formed a coterie of largely indistinguishable faces and voices. Moderates have consistently under performed in the debates. Voters just aren’t buying what they are selling.
Setting aside Steyer (who suffered from his late entry into the field) and Gabbard (who struggled to meet the 2% polling threshold in recognized national polls), the eight remaining candidates struggled to differentiate themselves from Biden or gain traction against more exciting candidates like Sanders, Warren, and Harris. While Marianne Williamson was always positioned as a long shot candidate, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Tim Ryan, Joe Sestak, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bill de Blasio all failed to meet thresholds for both fundraising and polling. And while some are more liberal than the others (de Blasio significantly, Gillibrand certainly and Sestak who self describes as a progressive moderate arguably so), the reality is that 2019 is shaping up to be a contest of stark values without a lot of interest in the middle. And that is a good thing since the cost of those moderate positions when it comes to defending a private health insurance market, or women’s reproductive rights , are just too high.
Already, a significant portion of the Democratic field has embraced some variation of Medicare for All (though with differences), and ideas that were unthinkable even four years ago have emerged as almost foregone conclusions. Not only are progressive ideas (free college tuition, sentencing reform, paid family leave) polling well enough to make their way into the national policy conversation, but they are becoming central planks in the the platforms of nearly all of the most viable candidates. Remember that Clinton famously declared that Single Payer “will never, ever come to pass,” and yet the loudest detractors on Medicare for All have largely failed to gain traction or dropped out of the 2020 race.
It’s worth nothing that while Biden leads the unofficial DNC polling average with 37% of likely voters, support for Sanders and Warren together represents 41%. Add in Harris, who even though she has tried to position her campaign as more moderate than those of Sanders and Warren is considerably more progressive than Biden at 17%, and the Democratic electorate looks primed for another change candidate. In 2020 its voters want vision and bold promises, and as such moderates are as flailing and as out of touch as the 1%, which is coincidentally what most of them are polling at or under.
None of this appears to put the party at odds with the general electorate, who it should be pointed out has chosen the non-traditional candidate in every single Presidential race since 2000. When it comes to open seats, voters chose Bush over Gore, Obama over McCain, and Trump over Clinton. The more cautionary tales is that this pattern holds even for challengers taking on unpopular incumbents (including those considered grossly incompetent such as Bush)or who the opposing party perceives as having overreached (Obama). That shouldn’t be dismissed as just incumbent advantage: Kerry, presented as the responsible alternative to Bush who had lied the country into the Iraq war, lost while Democratic challengers picked up House and Senate seats; Romney when he campaigned against Obama and what Republicans perceived as “too much change” in the form of the Affordable Care Act lost even as Republicans and the Tea Party won seats in Congress and the Senate.
While Trump is one of the most scandal plagued and incompetent Presidents in the modern era (if not ever) the American public has made clear its distaste for the careful candidate. Now that the Democratic stage has been cleared, it’s time to narrow down and bring those choices into stark relief.