The Democratic Party’s struggle for its future policy direction is evident this election season. The primary results in Iowa and New Hampshire, narrow first- and second-place finishes for Senator Bernie Sanders (a progressive) and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg (a moderate), were just two indicators. During Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas, the split became even more obvious.
The six candidates onstage clashed on ideology (socialism and capitalism, progressivism and centrism) as well as policy (healthcare, climate change, fossil fuels, criminal justice, China). Buttigieg made plain the stakes for Democrats, saying, “We’ve got to wake up as a party.”
If a Democratic candidate is elected to be the United States’ 47th president on November 3rd, it will be despite this unresolved intra-party struggle.
One lesson the Democratic Party has taken from the 2018 midterm elections is that running candidates across the ideological spectrum is a winning formula. It is easy to see how they came to this conclusion following the 2016 presidential and 2018 Congressional election experiences: In 2016, the favored candidate status of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deterred other aspirants from entering the Democratic primary ahead of a general election she went on to lose to Republican Donald Trump. In 2018, progressive and moderate centrist candidates, both first-timers and incumbents, ran and Democrats retook leadership in the House of Representatives with a 235-seat majority.
But what if this conclusion was noise and not the signal?
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) set the rules for the 2020 election based on the theory that by allowing an inclusive field (more than two dozen candidates entered the presidential race) the campaign processes, including debates, caucuses and primaries, would ultimately identify the most robust, representative candidate to go up against Donald Trump. Perhaps, and somewhat ironically, the 2016 Republican primary process, which involved a wide field culled by Trump’s unexpected success, informed the DNC’s reforms. And while very nice as a hypothesis of Bayesian updating, what has unfolded instead is a scattershot four-way — at times even five-way — race.
In the midst of this party divide, whoever ends up being the Democratic nominee will likely not represent the views of some meaningful proportion of the Democratic base. While healthcare remains the top issue across the Democratic electorate, there are those (candidates and voters) who want a single-payer option for all without a private insurance option and those who want to expand healthcare access while maintaining private insurers. Likewise, on foreign policy, there are those who link US trade policy with protecting American workers and who would therefore continue to use tariffs as a key trade policy, as well as those critical of Trump’s reliance on tariffs.
Compare that with the current state of the Republican Party. Trump’s approval with Republicans is in the high 80s, sometimes even low 90s, and after all but one Republican Senator voted to acquit him in the Senate impeachment trial, the party is undeniably Trump’s. A sure sign is the historic turnout for Trump in his essentially uncontested Iowa and New Hampshire primaries.
Their own divisions pose a number of risks, then, for Democrats heading into November’s general election. The first one relates to vulnerabilities arising out of the primary process itself. If the fractures emerging from Iowa and New Hampshire persist, the likelihood of a quick wrap-up of the Democratic primary by April reduces, and the possibility of a contested Democratic convention in July increases (even if from a low base). While exciting television and Twitter fodder, a lengthy primary positions Democrats to go into the fall facing questions of party disunity behind the eventual nominee.
Although complicated to demonstrate empirically, some work has been done to understand whether the protracted 2016 Democratic primary and Sanders’ slow support for Democratic nominee Clinton in 2016 played a part in her defeat and Trump’s electoral success. A delayed general election campaign for the eventual Democratic nominee in 2020 almost certainly advantages President Trump’s money machine, which reportedly has more than twice as much on hand as then-President Barack Obama had going into his 2012 re-election. Further, unlike 2016, which was an open-seat election for the presidency, in 2020 Trump will have a demonstrated incumbent advantage.
The Democratic Party’s secession battle also raise risks around general election turnout. If Sanders is the party’s nominee, Biden or Buttigieg’s constituency may not come out to vote for him. More worrisome for Democrats, if Sanders is the party’s nominee then centrist voters, including those representing the finance industry, may peel off and vote for Trump, who has overseen economic expansion and record unemployment rates following the 2017 tax overhaul and various deregulations.
Alternatively, if Biden, Buttigieg or former mayor Michael Bloomberg becomes the nominee, Sanders’ many loyal supporters are likely to feel their policy priorities are not represented. And if those voters stay home because the Democratic nominee is not promising a political revolution, evidence suggests that depressed turnout levels may favour Republicans.
A third political peril relates to the business of legislating after the election. If despite the potential pitfalls a Democratic candidate manoeuvres and manages to build a winning coalition on November 3, they will face the reality of legislative politics, which over the last 10 years have been defined by policy gridlock. Obama managed to get Obamacare through both Democratic-majority Congressional chambers, but presided over split-controlled chambers for the remainder of his term. Similarly, Trump’s major legislative accomplishment — the 2017 tax overhaul — was a result of Republican control in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
A Democratic president will have to make progress on his or her agenda given not only the typical Republican-Democrat divide in Congress, but also facing potential raw divisions within the Democratic Party itself. In such a scenario, a Democratic administration may be tempted to take an expansive view of the president’s authority as we have seen under Trump, including relying on executive actions (tariffs and sanctions) on foreign policy.
The Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, beginning July 13, and the party platform crafted over those four days present an essential opportunity to resolve the party’s divisions before November. If left unchecked, the party might find that its ex ante strategy for the 2020 Democratic primary ends in Trump’s re-election.
Dr Lindsay Newman is a Yale and NYU graduate who works as a senior research fellow in the US and Americas program at Chatham House
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