Thursday, February 27, 2020

BTRTN: Four Theories of the Presidential Race: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Tom steps back to look at various competing theories on who the Democrats should nominate and how they will fare in November as a consequence.

As Democrats ponder the potential candidacy of Bernie Sanders in November, feeling either euphoria or despair (depending on your “lane”), it may be an opportune time to review various “theories of the race.”  No matter where you stand within the Democratic Party, you should be able to find comfort in at least one of these theories, if you buy it.

By the time the Democratic convention in July is over, Democrats will be wedded to the candidate of our collective choice.  In the matrimonial spirit, I thus offer you four distinct theories -- something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.


The traditional way of viewing a presidential election is that it is a “race for the middle.”  In this construct, candidates win their party’s nomination by appealing to primary voters and caucus attendees, so these tend to be the more passionate members of the party, the more liberal and conservative members.  But the trick, in this traditional scenario, is to avoid committing themselves to specific, more “extreme” policy positions that might be a turn-off to those “swing voters” who must be wooed and won to win the general election.
This view certainly seems to have the weight of presidential election history on its side.  John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are all pragmatic “centrists” at heart, but each had their own appeal that enabled them to walk the line between the party faithful and those fickle swing voters.  JFK, Clinton and Obama were all gifted, inspirational figures, while Carter, in the post-Watergate trauma, wore his religion as a badge of honor to capture the moral high ground over Gerald Ford, who committed the unpardonable sin of pardoning the evil Richard Nixon.  The more extreme nominees, George McGovern and Walter Mondale, were crushed.  

The GOP has its own version of this theory, with George H.W. Bush a true moderate, while Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both wrapped their conservative personas in a warm, appealing glow, be it through Reagan’s sunny optimism (“Morning in America”) in the wake of Carter’s “malaise” (as the media dubbed it, not him) or Bush 43’s “compassionate conservatism.”  While viewed as “conservatives” in their time, they clearly pitched their general election messaging well beyond the base.

This seems to be the construct that is most concerning to moderate Democrats today.  Bernie Sanders is the epitome of extremism in the Democratic Party, the self-proclaimed “Democratic socialist” who would raise taxes and spend trillions on his “revolution.”  Sanders’ policies, the theory goes, cannot possible win the middle and thus the Dems are doomed – especially since the group that backs him the most fervently, the youth vote, are notoriously indifferent to actually voting. 

Thus, goes the thinking, if Bernie is Plan A according to the primary and caucus results to date, the party better evolve to “Plan B” -- any of Biden, Bloomberg or Buttigieg – in a hurry for the best chance of winning the middle and beating Trump.

But the next theory believes this is all a bunch of dated hogwash in these polarized times.  Let’s call it “Something New.”


The brand new theory here is perhaps most associated with political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, who is gaining visibility for her complete rejection of the old model.  Her research indicates that there are no swing voters.  And furthermore, it doesn’t really matter who the candidates are either.

What matters are the structural/contextual conditions that determine whether Republicans or Democrats are more likely to show up at the polls in greater numbers.  There is no real “switching” going on, indeed no actual “swing voters.”  And the candidates themselves are irrelevant; the key is that in some years more Democrats go to the polls, and other years more Republicans.  It does not matter who is running, it matters who is voting.  And Bitecofer’s view is that the Democrats’ turnout is likely to exceed that of the GOP in 2020.

The contextual condition at play here, according to Bitecofer, is the near complete polarization of our electorate.  We are more defined now by who we oppose rather than who we support.  And Democrats oppose Donald J. Trump far more than they admire any particular Democratic candidate.

When Trump was elected, the Democrats went crazy.  Indivisible (and other) groups were formed, and many outraged Dems became engaged in the staples of campaign volunteerism, canvassing, phone banking and the like, for the first time.  They viewed every subsequent election as a referendum on Trump.

And look at the track record: the Dems flipped 41 House seats from red to blue in 2018, and flipped deep red Alabama in the Senate as well.  In almost every special election in the House since 2016, they reduced the GOP margin of victory in deep red districts by roughly 20 points on average versus 2016.  This pattern has been repeated in local elections, such as the flipping of Virginia’s state legislature, New York’s state senate, and the famed Delaware County Council in Pennsylvania, which had been in GOP hands since the Civil War.  There was not just a “blue wave” in 2018 – there has been blue wave after blue wave after blue wave since 2016.

Past is prologue.  Democrats still hate Trump with a passion. Trump continues to feed the Dems’ rage machine daily, with the purge of “dis-loyalists,” the pardoning of famous white collar criminals, the interference in the Stone and Flynn cases, just to name a few actions.  The Democratic volunteers that fueled the midterm success have not been sated nor has Trump outrage waned.  They want to take him down, more than ever:  “it’s up to us.”  Trump’s base is rabid too, but their man is in power, so they are more content, and content people (in Bitcofer’s view) will not come out quite the same way as outraged people.

So in this view, Dems, don’t despair about Bernie.  It doesn’t matter.  The Dems will win regardless of who they nominate because they are the more motivated party, motivated by their desire to defeat Trump, no matter who is at the top of the ticket.

So turnout is the key.  That is also true of the next theory, but for a different reason.


This next theory is essentially the Sanders worldview.  And, oddly, the Bernie Bros have borrowed this theory largely from Donald J. Trump.

Trump, they argue, never “tacked to the middle” in 2016; he flipped the traditional theory completely on its head.  He completely doubled down on the base in the general election, ignoring the middle entirely, and pulled off the win.  Trump fired up Americans who felt neglected by Democratic elites, and they came out for him.  They were so taken with Trump that they held their noses and looked past at his many sins, including even the "Access Hollywood" video, the near-epitome of a disqualifying event for old school pols.

Bernie, is, essentially, the Trump of the Left.  His message that “the system is rigged” by billionaires, requiring a “revolution,” has captivated his followers, including many young people who have typically not engaged in the political process and don’t go to the polls.  The theory argues that the Dems need an inspiring candidate to get that vote out.  Like Trump, Sanders speaks in an angry tone, draws large crowds, and has a massive army of volunteers.  Like Trump, Sanders is a party outsider – in fact, he goes one step further: while Trump has been a back-and-forth member of the GOP, Sanders is not even a member of the Democratic Party.  And like Trump’s red-hatted followers, Sanders’ army can be nasty -- especially to the supporters of other Democrats.

So while this theory is also turnout-based, it is utterly candidate dependent.  In this view, Bernie will prevail.  He will never tack to the middle in the general election, he will maintain the ideological purity of his message, he will be himself – and he will inspire the massive turnout needed to win in November.  Indeed, in this theory, Bernie must be the nominee for the Dems to win.

But there is a fourth, quite traditional view – and this one is in Trump’s favor.  And it will make the Democrats sing the blues.


This theory is really the amalgamation of conventional wisdom around a common theme.    

·        “The incumbent wins.”  Well, that is true.  Since FDR, only two incumbents have failed to win a second term:  Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.  They were both done in by a sagging U.S.  economy.  The economy now may not be a world-beater (at 2% GDP growth), but with a 3.6% unemployment rate, it is not going to derail Trump. 

·        “Peace and prosperity.”  This is a corollary to the first point, since it covers the economy, but adds on the alliterative companion of peace.  Trump has nearly triggered several major conflagrations (notably with North Korea and Iraq) and has certainly exacerbated tensions in the tinder box of the Middle East, but thus far he has yet to stumble into war.

·         “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Ah, James Carville's wise dictum, another bit of wisdom at play here.

Put them all together – variations on a theme – and this theory augurs well for Trump.  As the incumbent with a good economic story and no major war underway, he will be tough to beat.


So where does this review leave us?  Each theory has some holes, of course.  The traditional theory does a poor job of explaining Trump’s expectations-defying win in 2016.  The new theory seems to imply Jeb Bush could have won for the GOP in 2016, but it's hard to imagine Jeb motivating the same turnout as Trump – turnout cannot possibly be completely independent of the candidate, can it?  The third theory, in which Bernie is the new Trump, is betting that a rampant youth vote will overcome not only “losing the middle” but also Sanders potentially turning off moderate Democrats who might not work at all for him, and just might even stay home.  And the fourth theory, that it’s all about peace and prosperity, ignores Trump’s current low job approval rating, a function of his divisive style, lack of ethics, lack of ability and threat to our democracy.

But each of these theories has at least a modicum of merit along with the holes.  Which is the best?  I go for “all of the above.”  I cannot comfortably hang my hat on any one of them. 

The 2016 election did indeed throw much conventional wisdom out the window.  I doubt that Trump can be simply dismissed as an election aberration, born of 39,000 misguided voters, but nor do I conclude we are in a new paradigm. And we are not going to know the answer in time for November.

I do believe the Democrats would be better off with a less extreme candidate than Sanders, and probably Warren as well, although she is just a bit more pragmatic than Bernie.

But it is absurd to say Bernie cannot win.  Of course he can win.  Trump won, and Bernie has little to no personal baggage.  Swing state polls have him beating Trump by the same margin as Biden or Bloomberg. 

The most important point?  Democrats, please stop the handwringing.  The enemy is us – letting our despair get in the way of the job that must be done.  Whatever theory strikes a chord with you is irrelevant.  Under any theory, voting, and getting out the vote is essential.  Democrats have to back the party candidate, regardless of who it is, and work hard to get them elected.  That is the one thing we can control in this race: our own personal behavior.


  1. Good piece Tom. How does the Corona Virus play into all of this? Not impressed with how the TA has been handling it thus far contrary to Joe Scarborough's views this morning

    1. It is certainly a huge threat to Trump. That's why he is wishing and hoping it away. It is also why he has make Pence the czar, the ultimate loyalist who will not say alarming things. But it could all blow up if this mushrooms into a pandemic -- hurting Trump both as a manager (see: Bush/Katrina) and as an economic steward (GDP hits and continued Dow Jones erosion into correction land). It's a big gamble he took by not getting ahead of this and saying all those stupidly optimistic things based on zero evidence.

  2. Dear God, please let Bitecofer be right. (An actual prayer!). Plus, maybe it's because I am a Minnesotan, but I am still over here not understanding why Amy is not a/the frontrunner. I get she's not exciting, but she's smart and a centrist.

    1. Biden and Bloomberg are better known, Pete is smoother and Amy is not that exciting. Amy starting doing better in December, after a few strong debate performance, but it took her too long to find her groove, and by then it was too little, too late.

  3. Bush 41 lost as the nation considered a fourth term for the Republicans.

    Jimmy Carter is the sole example of a party being denied a second term in a row. Since 1900, I think that makes 1 loss and 11 wins. The alternation allowing at least 8 years of party control: TR & Taft; then Wilson; Harding, Coolidge, Hoover; FDR & Truman; Eisenhower; JFK/LBJ; Nixon/Ford; [**Carter**]; Reagan/Bush; Clinton; Bush 43; Obama.

    Looking about, different theories suggest various actions leading to election success. My guess -- it is a mesh of Democratic candidate & the type of campaign he (or she) runs versus the Republican opponent & the type of campaign he runs. Plus external events.

    I'm not excited about Sanders as front-runner and possible candidate -- but if he wins, there must be huge effort to GOTV of of women, younger voters, and those who are economically marginal -- all who want substantial change. I'm not excited about Biden -- but if he wins the nomination, there needs to be a strong effort to find those who want "normal" in their lives. I'm highly skeptical of Bloomberg as candidate, but if he wins, there needs to be a huge focus on making the campaign about competency, and finding voters who want a clearer decision process and more transparent decision making. And so on....

    We know Trump is going to run on fear and hatred of "the other," "Americanism" of the 1950s and 60s, and "success." There are lots of paths to contest those claims -- we need to find one and coalesce in order to make the campaign work.


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