The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last is the latest conservative commentator to take up a line that is increasingly popular amongst the Never Trump right: If the Democrats don’t pivot toward the center they’re going to lose in 2020. The argument is relatively straightforward: The Democrats are running against an exceptionally weak incumbent in 2020.
Therefore, they can practically assure themselves of victory by running a fairly vanilla center-left campaign and avoiding self-inflicted wounds, such as campaigning hard on policies that are unpopular with many Americans. In short: More Biden and Mayor Pete, Less Bernie and Warren
While there is a plausibility to this analysis, it is mistaken for at least two reasons.
First, as you might recall, the Democrats have won every popular presidential vote save one since 1992—and the one defeat came in 2004 against a popular incumbent while running an uninspiring opponent. Even in 2004, President Bush’s margin of victory in the popular vote was basically identical to Hillary Clinton’s popular vote triumph in 2016—hardly a resounding triumph, that.
The Republicans have, of course, won two presidential elections while losing the popular vote. But this requires winning a number of vital swing states by relatively slender margins. This is precisely what happened in 2016 when around 800,000 voters in four rust belt states swung the election.
Thus the Democratic margin for error is larger than the GOP’s—and even if Biden or Buttigieg might win by a larger margin in the electoral college, as long as the Dems clear 270 the relative margin of victory isn’t that important barring the still unlikely event of a Democrat takeover in the Senate.
That is the boring, nuts-and-bolts reason that I am skeptical that a Warren or Sanders candidacy would go so far left that it costs the Democrats the election; certainly it could cost them votes, but the Dems have more votes to spare than does the GOP.
The more fundamental reason is also the more interesting. Consider: In 2004 31% of Americans supported redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. Only 13 years later, in 2017, that number had doubled. This transformation of public opinion is one of the defining facts of our political era. And for the young Democrats who have been part of that transformation (and the older Democrats who enjoy broad support amongst the party’s young left) the experience of this transformation is instructive: Political persuasion is still possible.
It is easy to think that American political opinions are fixed. After all, recent years have seen major presidential candidates in both parties give up on persuasion. Whether it is Mitt Romney’s 47% remarks in 2012, Hillary Clinton’s “baskets of deplorables” comment in 2016, or… well, the entirety of the Trump campaign, our recent history is full of stories in which both parties have assumed that the path to victory is not found via persuasion, but via running sufficiently militant campaigns that can animate the entrenched base and motivate them to vote. Thus the common wisdom on both sides has been that getting out the vote amongst one’s base is the surest path to victory.
But amongst many younger Democrats there is belief that persuasion can still occur. They have already seen it happen on gay marriage. Warren and Sanders are both particularly primed to believe in the possibility of persuasion for other reasons.
Sanders has been an immovable, old-school leftist for the entirety of his career—a dinosaur who experienced an improbable rebirth in 2016 despite the mainstream of the Democratic party opposing his campaign and many practically laughing at it in its earliest days. Warren, meanwhile, is a teacher who spent most of her career watching people engage evidence and adjust their thinking accordingly inside her classroom. She has also experienced a fairly radical transformation in her own political thought over the years. Recall that prior to her work on bankruptcies in America Warren was, by all accounts, fairly conservative.
Even in the past several months we have seen a clash between the old and new guard of the Democratic Party in which the evidence seems to vindicate the Warren-Sanders wing of the party. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, adhering to the center-left moderation that the Never Trump contingent counsels, has been resistant to calls to impeach President Trump. The young left, meanwhile, argued that an impeachment investigation would give Democrats the best opportunity to make the case for removing Trump from office by concentrating the argument around a single focal point.
Since the Democrats have united around the call for impeachment polls show support for removal of the president trending upward. On September 7, polls on impeaching Trump were split 52-39 against. Those numbers held consistently even for several days after the Ukraine whistleblower story broke. But once the Democrats united around the call for impeachment, we saw a sharp increase in support: On October 14, the split was 50-44 in favor and support has generally stayed in that range ever since.
The spike hasn’t been limited to Democrats finally becoming more resolved either. Republican support for impeachment had hovered around 9% for most of the past year. But by mid October it had spiked to 15%, though it has dipped in the last two weeks. Independent support, meanwhile, had stood at 33% for much of the year but has been in the mid to high 40s for much of the past several weeks.
The lesson: The young left of the Democratic Party has a clear set of political ideals they believe in. They are willing to argue for those ideals. They believe that they can persuade people who do not yet agree with them.
Thus the choice to run a genuinely left wing campaign on the part of both Warren and Sanders may not be as much of a risk as some critics think. It may merely be in keeping with their belief that persuasion is still possible even in 2019—and on the evidence so far there’s a good case to be made that they are right.