The poohbahs currently populating the establishment media landscape these days have one consistent message about the state of the race for the Democratic nomination— be very afraid of anyone with a bold idea. If Democrats really want to win, they say, the party needs to nominate an inoffensive moderate (think Pete Buttegieg or Joe Biden) who will garner the votes of the suburban housewives who the Wall Street wing of the Democratic party see as their key to defeating Donald Trump.
It’s the same predictable thinking that gave us Presidents Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton.
Here’s the reality of our politics today. The electorate is in constant change and it’s becoming more diverse and more progressive all the time. And that’s not just me saying that— it’s the American people themselves, who regularly express broad support for very progressive economic policies. Numerous recent polls show approximately two-thirds of Americans, including even a plurality of Republicans, support higher taxes on both the income and the overall wealth of the top One Percent. Any thinking American knows that the vast hoarding of the nation’s wealth, by a handful of individuals, hurts our economy and our political process.
Similar percentages of Americans say they support making public colleges, universities, or vocational schools tuition-free. Most of us recognize that the educational level that might have allowed a typical American to successfully pursue the American Dream in the 1950s or 1960s is no longer enough and that society benefits when we make it possible for as many of our people to achieve their best in life.
New polling by the New York Times found that 58 percent of Americans, including nearly 70 percent of independents, favor a Medicare for All approach to health insurance. That’s because Americans recognize that our current system costs too much and leaves too many people behind.
While so-called “moderates” in the media or the Democratic party complain that candidates like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren are espousing policies outside the mainstream, the data suggest exactly the opposite. Americans don’t just want change, they’re desperate for it, which is why the candidate who promises change is most often the winner. Just ask Donald Trump.
Recent public polling consistently demonstrates that six-in-ten Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. Barely one-third say they’re satisfied. How so many in the media and the Democratic Party can translate all these data into a nationwide desire for the continuation of the status quo is beyond me. To them, the only issue is President Trump’s fitness for office, as if they’re prepared to run Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign all over again.
I would tell Democrats to forget about the suburban housewives. Many of them are going to vote Democrat no matter who is the nominee. What Democrats need to worry about is turnout, particularly among those groups of voters who stayed home in 2016— mostly the young and minorities. Donald Trump didn’t win in 2016. Hillary Clinton lost, because too many likely Democratic voters simply stayed home. And that didn’t just impact the presidential race. It affected races up and down the ballot.
Democratic-leaning Americans form the majority of the electorate, and when they turn out, Democrats win and win big. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama, who ran on hope and change, won by wide margins thanks to higher-than-average turnout among that segment of the electorate that is traditionally the most difficult to motivate—the young. Post-election analyses found that voters age 18-29, who broke for Obama 67-30 over Romney in 2012, made the difference in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. And those young voters went on to elect Democrats elsewhere on the ballot.
Among the Democratic candidates currently vying for the nomination, Sanders and Warren have consistently drawn not only the most support among the 18-29 year-old demographic, but also the most enthusiastic support. By contrast, a recent poll from Iowa had Joe Biden drawing support from just two percent of voters under age 30. Take away the senior citizens and Joe Biden isn’t even in the race.
One thing we know about older voters is that they’ll turn out to vote regardless of who is on the ballot. They might need a ride to the polls, but they don’t need to be inspired. It’s not the same with young voters, or with some minority groups, who often need a little extra incentive.
And there’s one other factor that plays to the enormous advantage of the most progressive candidates, particularly Sanders— and that’s the financial resources to run their campaigns. While the status quo candidates, like Biden and Buttigieg, have been forced to rely on big money contributors, Sanders has assembled a base of small dollar donors unlike anything seen before in politics. Sure, the average donation to Sanders may be less than twenty bucks, but when the Sanders campaign recently announced they had topped four million individual donations, it marked a milestone that few thought could ever be achieved, much less months before primary voting had even gotten underway. Earlier this year, when the New York Times produced a color-coded map (Sanders was given the color blue) showing the breadth of financial support candidates were receiving from across the country, they had to produce a second map without Sanders, because the first one was almost entirely blue, as Sander’s broad base of support nationwide simply overwhelmed every other candidate.
You don’t hear much about Sanders these days, at least from the establishment media. And that’s because he’s actually doing very well in the race since he recovered from his minor heart attack at the end of September. The latest polling has him leading in New Hampshire and in California, which votes this year on Super Tuesday in early March. Sander’s financial resources are unmatched by any of the candidates in the race.
And in head-to-head matchups with Trump, Sanders invariably finishes within a point or two of Biden. The latest national poll, from Nov. 27, had Sanders leading Trump nationally by 12 points, with Biden leading by 13. None of the other Democrats tops a seven-point margin over Trump.
And while Biden, the human gaffe machine, scares most Democrats every time he opens his mouth, there has never been a candidate in my memory with the message discipline of Bernie Sanders. He may not be as eloquent as some, but Americans like what he has to say.
In the end, it comes down to an enthusiasm gap for Biden. When Sanders held a rally before Thanksgiving in Council Bluffs, Iowa, he had 2,400 people turn out. Biden attracted 150 to his rally in the same town just over a week later. The same trends heralded disappointing Democratic turnout in 2016. Democrats should not fail to heed those same omens heading into 2020.