Challenge for 2020 Democrats: How to rise above the pack

Why We Wrote This

In the “ideas primary,” presidential candidates are vying to show voters they have the right stuff. But there are other ways to stand out – charisma, toughness, compassion. And the ability to bring in the bucks.

Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., center, talks with owner Tim Williamson at Cater's Drug Store in Selma, Ala., on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.

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It’s early in the 2020 presidential race, and the Democratic field is crowded. Very crowded. How does a candidate stand out? Some are flooding the zone with well-articulated policy ideas (Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker). Some are showing their fundraising prowess (Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders). And some could position themselves as tough enough to take on President Donald Trump (Joe Biden, if he runs).

Democratic voters are witnessing the most diverse presidential field in American history. The result is already a robust debate about what it means to be a Democrat today as the candidates unveil policies to address inequalities in U.S. health care, income, and gender and race relations, as well as caring for our planet. But pitching policy proposals hardly guarantees success. The path to political defeat is paved with 10-point plans. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

Plus, it’s early. “A lot of people are going out to see the candidates because they don’t know” what it will take to beat Mr. Trump, says Kathy Sullivan, the Democratic National Committeewoman for New Hampshire. “It could be toughness. It could be hope and change. It could be, is this person unifying? It could be all of the above.”

Elizabeth Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, is on a tear, teeing up one policy proposal after another.

In recent weeks, Senator Warren has proposed a “wealth tax,” the breakup of Big Tech, universal child care, a housing plan, and an end to the Electoral College. She can speak at length on universal health care and the Green New Deal and has authored sweeping ethics legislation. She’s also on board to study reparations for the descendants of slaves.

Within the crowded Democratic presidential field, Ms. Warren has carved out a niche as her party’s’ “issues candidate” – at least for the sheer volume of her proposals and her ability to articulate them. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has also won praise for “meaty policy talk.” But it hardly guarantees success. The path to political defeat is paved with 10-point plans. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

“Issues are the natural language of politics, but they’re not really as important as people think,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “It’s rare that people vote for an agenda or a set of plans. They vote for people. And the most important way to distinguish yourself is as a person, by forging some kind of emotional connection with voters.”

That’s how President Donald Trump succeeded: by connecting with voters, Mr. Mellman says. “I mean, he had an idea or two, like a wall,” he says, playing down the import of President Trump’s “America First” message on immigration and trade. “But he certainly didn’t have detailed policy proposals.”

The historically large Democratic field – 16 candidates and counting – has fostered a robust debate about what it means to be a Democrat today and what type of candidate is best equipped to unseat Mr. Trump. 

The party’s activist base has moved leftward, as Democratic primary voters and candidates more readily entertain policies that would expand government’s role in Americans’ lives than even four years ago. The goal, they say, is to address inequality and save the planet. But moderate Democrats have also built up clout in the party after they won GOP-held House seats in suburban districts across the country last November – a key part of the Democratic takeover of the House.

The end of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation, which found no collusion and was inconclusive on possible obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump, will also test the candidates. Each must decide how much focus to place on the aftermath, including congressional Democrats’ push for release of Mr. Mueller’s full report. 

On the issues, ideology could well matter eventually, as Democrats sort through their choices. For now, though, the most immediate challenge for each Democratic candidate today is to distinguish oneself enough to keep the fundraising dollars coming and qualify for the first debates in June.

Establishing distinction

Being distinctive can take many forms. Race, gender, experience, and yes, policy positions, can help. But charisma – specifically the ability to make voters feel you care – can go a long way. See Bill Clinton in 1992 and his “I feel your pain” moment and candidate Barack Obama’s aspirational mantra of “hope and change.” Today, matching charisma with social media skill and fundraising chops could be a winning formula.

The secondary role of policy views shows up in voter surveys. The latest Morning Consult poll asking Democrats to rank their first and second choices for president finds that supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden (polling first, though still not a candidate) most often pick Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as their second choice and vice versa. Yet the two men represent quite different points on the political spectrum. Senator Sanders, who has held elective office as an independent since 1981, is a self-described democratic socialist, and Mr. Biden is more mainstream progressive.

So early in the cycle, this poll reflects name recognition more than anything, says Kathy Sullivan, the Democratic National Committeewoman for New Hampshire.

“But also,” she says, “I think people accept that most Democrats have a minimum threshold of acceptability on the issues.”

Moreover, Ms. Sullivan says, the highest priority for Democrats is to nominate whoever would have the best shot at defeating Mr. Trump. The process of figuring that out is still just beginning.

Opportunities abound for breakout moments. Pete Buttigieg, the 30-something, married gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, did so well in a recent CNN town hall that he received a wave of online donations and is on track to qualify for the Democratic primary debates that begin in June. A candidate must log donations from at least 65,000 people and 200 unique donors in 20 states, which Mr. Buttigieg has done, but candidates must also meet a threshold in polls to qualify.

Some Democrats say they’re donating small amounts to multiple candidates because they want to see them tested on the debate stage.

The debates themselves present a major opportunity to shine. But they also hold potential peril. For established, older candidates like Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden (if he runs), the newer faces that will surround them have the potential to upstage them. For former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, already a phenom for record-breaking fundraising – $6.1 million – in his first 24 hours as a candidate, the debates will be a test of policy chops.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says she was “a huge fan” of Mr. O’Rourke’s when he ran against Sen. Ted Cruz last year and almost beat him in solid-red Texas. “But you should know some of the basics,” Ms. Lake says of Mr. O’Rourke as a presidential candidate. “You have to offer an alternative to Donald Trump.”

Still, as with Mr. Trump and President Obama, the camera loves Mr. O’Rourke, and the modern-day “celebrification” of politics is hard to fight. “Beto-mania” has also sparked a “Beto-backlash,” particularly from some Democratic women, who complain that none of the six women in the race got nearly the media attention Mr. O’Rourke did when he announced. But then neither did the other male candidates.

PHOTOS: AP; GRAPHIC: Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Avoiding the albatross

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang is staking his candidacy on one big idea: “universal basic income” for every American adult. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is all about climate change. He’s also the only sitting governor in the race so far, alongside one former governor, John Hickenlooper of Colorado. Gov. Steve Bullock – a popular Democrat in red Montana – also may jump in.

Time was when governors were considered top prospects for president. But the election of Mr. Obama showed how to win the top job as a senator, despite thin executive experience, and the election of Mr. Trump showed that even a background in politics isn’t necessary.

And so a Democratic field featuring six senators, other current and former elected officials, and a couple of nonpoliticians is alive with cries for attention. It is also by far the most diverse presidential field in American history, when accounting for race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, and life experience.  

“So how do you distinguish yourself, really, from this pack?” asks veteran Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “And more important, how do you distinguish yourself in such a way that, as a Democrat, you don’t put an albatross around the party’s neck?”

This is where ideology and policy views could become increasingly important. If the Democrats nominate someone who is easily tagged as a “socialist,” that gives Mr. Trump a major opening. It is an argument he is already making, as he sees Sanders poll well and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a member of Democratic Socialists of America, command outsize attention for her ideas.

Iowa kicks off the Democratic nomination process with party caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020. Mr. Fenn points to a recent poll out of Iowa that found more than half of likely caucusgoers would be satisfied with a presidential candidate who wants the United States to be more “socialist.”

“That might play among Iowa caucusgoers, but not around the country, folks,” Mr. Fenn says.

In New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary follows the Iowa caucuses, the battle to break out is fierce. Chris Galdieri, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, has seen many of the candidates up close.

“[Governor] Inslee is trying to break out on the strength of an issue, climate change,” says Professor Galdieri, who saw the governor address college students. “They really responded to it. He has some potential there as a sleeper candidate.”

Ms. Warren’s distinction, he says, is not just in laying out policies, but also in explaining how to make them happen. “Contrast that with others who might sound more aspirational, but there’s no follow-up,” Mr. Galdieri says.

Then there’s the question of toughness. Mr. Trump won in 2016 in part because he came across as a fighter, analysts say. Mr. Biden, if he runs, might try the same tack. He has suggested in the past that he would “beat up” Mr. Trump if they were in high school and he heard him making lewd comments about women.

“A lot of people are going out to see the candidates because they don’t know” what it will take to beat Mr. Trump, says Ms. Sullivan, the Democratic committeewoman in New Hampshire. “It could be toughness. It could be hope and change. It could be, is this person unifying? It could be all of the above.”

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