Biden is Beatable - but, so is Bernie (Part I)

Democratic primary voters shouldn't rely on hypothetical general election match-ups to determine who's "electable"

Unai Montes-Irueste | Guest Contributor | @unaimi

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Recent polling of head-to-head matchups show both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders beating Donald Trump by the widest margins. But since Michael Dukakis did not beat George HW Bush by 17 points, and Mitt Romney lost the swing states polling said he’d win, and it took seven months to write the polling post mortem on the 2016 election, Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire Primary, South Carolina Primary, Nevada Caucus, and Super Tuesday voters should avoid relying on these poll results alone when deciding who is the most “electable.”

Joe Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972. Regardless of what we personally like or don’t like about him personally, and regardless of where we see eye-to-eye politically and where we disagree, the data tell us, as Jonathan Rauch wrote …

no one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency.

If Joe Biden is the Democratic Party nominee this year, he will be running to replace an impeached POTUS with a 53% disapproval rating, who lost the Popular Vote by the widest margin of any Electoral College winner in US history. Current polls show Joe Biden leading Donald Trump. But I’m here to tell you that Joe Biden is easier to beat in a General Election than most of the Democrats currently trailing him in the early Primary and Caucus states.

Joe Biden considered running for President in 1980 and 1984. He ran in 1988, but had to end his campaign after three months because of a stump speech plagiarism scandal. He explored running in 2004. And when he ran in 2008, he dropped out after finishing in fifth place in the Iowa Caucus (the first contest in the nation). Yet despite his past failures as a candidate, Biden leads national polls. Lili Loofbourow offers a compelling reason why ….

People are tired. They’re tired of reacting; they’re tired of change; they’re absolutely sick of engaging, emotionally and practically. They don’t want to be glued to the news anymore. They want to be able to safely tune out…

Trump’s presidency has, for many Democrats, been an unending emergency… With a government unable or unwilling to check or balance itself, the public has had to go into overdrive and react nonstop… The electorate wants to ignore the news without fear that the government is committing fresh atrocities in their name… for them, Biden is the obvious candidate.

Obama used to describe his politics in terms of Hope and Change; to plenty of people now, the message that might resonate is closer to Hope and Rest.

Warren and Sanders argue, rightly, that there is no time to waste if climate change is to be addressed. They may have energy and anger and (in my view) truth on their side, but to much of the voting public, it may be downright reassuring to have a candidate who refuses to participate in politics on those gladiatorial terms. They just want someone to take charge and give them permission to tune out…

There is some power, after all, in not needing to react. In not tweeting out your thoughts. In not having to rush to defend yourself when unseemly attacks come your way… Indeed, ‘Sleepy Joe Biden’ might not be the insult Trump thinks it is. We might be in a moment when many Americans just want to go back to sleep.

Loofbourow’s argument isn’t flippant, it’s based on data. A sizable and often decisive percentage of eligible voters reject political engagement. For instance, 59% of Americans said they were “already worn out” by 2016 election coverage four months before Election Day. More concretely, national voter turnout has never been higher than 58.2% since 1972. And it’s been as low as 49%. In other words, the winner of the 2020 General Election will not be elected by a majority of eligible voters. Three-quarters of adults did not support Trump in 2016. But by refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton, or by finding themselves unable to because of voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and other forms of suppression and disenfranchisement, nonvoters in swing states helped Trump win once.

And they are the ticket to his reelection.

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The voter ID laws and voter roll purges and other forms of voter suppression and disenfranchisement that impacted the outcome of the 2016, will still be in place in 2020. This poses a tremendous threat to any Democratic Party nominee, not just Biden. But Biden is especially vulnerable to a Trump reelection strategy that relies on driving down the participation of constituencies critical to the success of the Democratic base on Election Day.

Trump’s path to victory is subjecting Biden to “death by a 1,000 cuts.” In 2016, he spent $44 million on Facebook ads in just five months. Not only did he totally eclipse Hillary Clinton’s overall spending on Facebook ads, but he got more bang for his buck. And again, it’s important to note that this is just Facebook spending. We’re not taking into account the hundreds of millions of dollars that went into other ads that folks consumed via social media, online, via apps, through the radio, on television, etc. There is a reason why if you Google “enthusiasm gap” and “Hillary Clinton” you get nearly two million results. Barack Obama’s vote total in 2012 when he was reelected in 2012 was 65,915,795. Hillary Clinton’s vote total in 2016 was 65,853,514. A difference of of only 62,281 votes is strong evidence that the narrative of an “enthusiasm gap” (advanced by 24-hour cable news and clickbait headline journalism) came from Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. His $5 billion in free earned media, allowed him to shift traditional campaign spending toward unprecedented digital media buys-including the treasure trove that went toward ads tailored to influence the 87 million Facebook users targeted by Cambridge Analytica.

Although it is not often written about, it is very important to note that ads are not designed only to convince you to vote for someone. They are frequently designed to dissuade you from voting all together. To bring this full circle, Donald Trump can win reelection in 2020 by running the exact same playbook that Richard Nixon ran in 1972. After all, as Jeet Heer wrote …

[Nixon’s] Southern Strategy was the original sin that made Donald Trump possible.

To be clear, the Southern Strategy and its appeals to White men and White women to vote for “Tricky Dick,” was only part of Nixon’s overall plan for reelection. Nixon lost the House in 1970 because the Democratic Party turned out a historic number of midterm voters. In fact, 1970’s record turnout was not matched until the 2018 midterms. To win reelection in 1972, Nixon had to lower the turnout number. This meant limiting the participation of voters of color through voter suppression and disenfranchisement. And it meant using the “combined effect” of every intra-Democratic Party division, and potentially problematic press story to drain away support from his rival.

Even though Nixon’s approval rating was about the same headed into Election Day as it was when he got trounced in the 1970 midterms in which the Democratic Party set a turnout record, he won reelection in 1972. As Thomas Berger wrote …

Watergate or no Watergate, Nixon would have won.

Nixon’s death by a 1,000 cuts strategy to defeat George McGovern succeeded: Voter turnout declined 5.5% between 1968 and 1972. It wasn’t just the Southern Strategy that delivered victory. It was the bet that if wider margins of eligible voters felt frustrated and disillusioned with politics and politicians, writ large, enough mid- to low-propensity voters would abstain from the polls to allow Nixon’s “Silent Majority” faithful to deliver victory. It was a gamble. But as Joshua Alvarez wrote …

Nixon was absolutely right.

This is Trump’s playbook: Trump will do in 2020 what Nixon did in 1972 to win.

Don’t get me wrong. He believes he can grow his base. There are nonvoters and infrequent voters in key states who sat out 2016 that he has been targeting for over a year: 75,000 in Florida’s panhandle alone. But Trump knows that the path to reelection is guerrilla warfare. In addition to relying on voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and other forms of suppression and disenfranchisement, Trump will seek to depress the number of men and women of color, and Democratic-leaning White women willing to cast ballots for Joe Biden if he is the nominee. (Sadly, this is the very same strategy he will use against Bernie Sanders if he is the nominee).

As Timothy Noah reminded us in his two-part essay about the 2008 election: Barack Obama did not win the majority of the White vote. In fact, no Democratic Party POTUS has won the White vote since 1964. Obama lost it in 2008 and 2012. Bill Clinton lost it in 1992 and 1996. Jimmy Carter lost it in 1976. And to be clear, the GOP won the presidency in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004, and 2016 because of it. Democratic candidates rely on the over-performance of voters of color, and then work to get close as possible to a 50–50 split among White women (or win a majority of White women voters as Bill Clinton did in 1996).

originally featured in Unai Montes-Irueste’s Facebook notes on 1.31.20. More on Unai

(… Part II is scheduled for tomorrow’s BEnote)

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