It’s the height of summer, and Iowans will cast the first votes in the presidential election in the snows of winter. But in the ranks of political punditry, the forecasts for 2020 are already dire and cloaked in certitude.
The prevailing belief is that Democrats are courting disaster by veering left, spurning sober moderation and obsessing over the plight of groups divorced from the American mainstream. Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle fears Democrats are signing “an electoral suicide pact.” They could push working-class folks, suburban women and anxious independents into the small hands of Donald Trump.
The conventional wisdom rests on some undeniable facts. in the past few years, the Democratic party has gotten more liberal and more attentive to the concerns of women, racial and religious minorities and LGBTQ people. Some candidates have expressed views that would not win cheers at the average Rotary Club luncheon.
Republicans think they got an early Christmas gift when everyone on the second debate stage raised a hand for extending health insurance to undocumented immigrants. The “Medicare for All” contagion may not infect centrist voters who fear tax increases and loss of private coverage. Kamala Harris’ resurrection of the issue of mandatory busing to integrate schools may hurt Joe Biden, the candidate considered most likely to pull blue-collar whites away from Trump.
But at this point, neither high anxiety among Democrats nor premature celebration from Republicans is in order. Some important realities should be kept in mind, such as:
— It’s early — very early. In August 2011, Rick Perry was the highest-polling Republican candidate, and Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll. At this point in 2007, the GOP front-runners were Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. In July 2003, Howard Dean bestrode the Democratic field like a colossus.
Maybe Harris will triumph by making Biden look like Bull Connor. Maybe Elizabeth Warren will climb to the nomination on a stack of policy plans. Maybe Bernie Sanders will win by shouting everyone down. Or maybe they’ll all turn out to be meteors rather than stars.
— Moderate voters are not potted plants. Biden is still atop the polls, the seasoned veteran of two winning national campaigns as Barack Obama’s running mate. The other day, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin offered a list of things Biden must do to win. The object of her free advice has won seven Senate elections; Rubin has not. We should not overlook the possibility that Biden knows what he’s doing.
— Policies, even eyebrow-raising ones, are overrated. Ideology counts for a lot more with party die-hards than with swing voters. Candidate Trump took positions more extreme than the Democrats have, calling for a ban on Muslim arrivals, endorsing the torture of suspected terrorists, vowing to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and threatening to punish women who get abortions. Plenty of Americans voted for him despite those positions, not because of them.
Democrats may get the benefit of many doubts in 2020 because Trump and his party decry every position Democrats take, no matter how temperate, as a symptom of fanatical, America-hating radicalism. The boy who cried wolf eventually ensured that he would not be believed, making it easy for the wolf to eat him.
— Trump is incurably unpopular. From the day he took office to the present, more people have disapproved of his performance than have approved of it. A May Quinnipiac poll found that 54% of Americans say they “definitely” won’t vote for him.
Nationally, Democrats outpolled Republicans in the 2018 House elections by 8.6 million votes. The GOP insists Democrats are out of touch with the average American, but they’ve won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. The Electoral College won’t always come to Republicans’ rescue.
A strong economy is normally a huge asset for an incumbent. But during the longest expansion in American history, with most people agreeing that the economy is doing well, most think the country is on the wrong track. A good economy may not buoy Trump, and any setback could sink him.
Republicans would like to believe that the Democrats’ gross defects and crazy opinions will doom them in 2020. But they may learn from this election what many Americans learned in the last one, and have often been reminded since: Your worst nightmare can come true.