After Super Tuesday: Democrats Heeding Lessons of 2018

Democrats must mobilize the party base, while focusing on adding cross-over anti-Trump rural and suburban independents and moderate Republicans.

March 2, 2020

Credit: Christos Georghiou - Shutterstock.com

The Democrats’ lessons from the 2018 mid-term elections is clear. Moderate candidates won and progressive candidates lost.

The question for the 2020 presidential race is to what extent Democratic primary voters are heeding this lesson.

Mobilizing anti-Trump voters

Democrats often take comfort in the fact that Donald Trump is unpopular with a majority of American voters. But that is not the battleground on which the election is fought. That battleground is the Electoral College.

Democrats should remember that Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 28 years (in 2004).

The reality of the Electoral College is that U.S presidential elections are determined in a handful of states whose voters are narrowly split between Democrats and Republicans — so-called “swing” states.

How narrow? Well, in 2016, Donald Trump won the Electoral College and therefore the presidency in outpolling Clinton by a combined 78,000 votes of the 13.5 million votes cast in three key states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

And those same three states — along with Arizona (where Trump won by 91,000 votes) and Minnesota (where Clinton won by 45,000 votes) — are highly likely to decide the 2020 election.

Third-party ballots

Trump won those three swing states despite their voters viewing him unfavorably. A key factor in his victory was a huge pool of more than 750,000 anti-Trump voters in those states who entered the ballot box disliking both Clinton and Trump.

Some left their presidential ballots blank, but over 650,000 threw away their vote on third-party candidates certain to lose in the U.S. “winner take all” electoral system.

In Michigan, for example, 88,000 presidential ballots were left blank and a further 275,000 voted for third-party candidates. That happened in a state that Clinton lost by just 10,700.

Recall that Hillary Clinton’s losing margin in the three Midwest swing states was just 78,000, a figure dwarfed by those 750,000 wasted votes. Including Arizona (190,000 third-party votes) and Minnesota (254,000 third-party voters), nearly 1.2 million anti-Trump voters in the five swing states wasted their ballots.

At 7%, the share of all U.S. voters who wasted their presidential votes in 2016 with blank or third-party ballots jumped three-fold compared to 2012, reflecting the unpopularity of both Trump and Clinton.

Some of them were progressives, supporting the Green Party. But most were independents or Republicans who voted for the perennial candidate Gary Johnson, a moderate Republican and former New Mexico governor.

The 2018 election saw Trump voters switching

By the nationwide U.S. Congressional elections in November 2018, Trump’s character had hardened attitudes and his policies had besmirched the entire Republican Party.

That caused the largest turnout for a non-presidential election in 100 years with vote totals for Democrats jumping nearly 50%. And 89% of this Democratic gain were voters switching from Trump.

The most significant components of that gain was a resurgence by rural independents and white voters turning to democrats.

Important for 2020, the reversal was heavy statewide in the upper Midwest – in the swing states of Minnesota where Senator Amy Klobuchar led the Democratic ballot, and Wisconsin led by Senator Tammy Baldwin.

In 2018, Democrats also gained nationwide in the suburbs, adding to their traditional narrow margin there. Demographically, notable shifts occurred toward Democrats among women, white voters (especially youths, millennials and those with college educations), and Asian Americans.

Presumably these switchers included some or many of those 1.2 million indecisive voters in the swing states plus Arizona and Minnesota.

The Electoral College lessons for 2020

The lessons for Democrats from 2018 are to mobilize the party base, while focusing on adding cross-over anti-Trump rural and suburban independents and moderate Republicans.

Applying those principles in 2020 means avoiding a problematic Democratic candidate in order to prevent another wave of anti-Trump voters wasting their ballots in the swing states.

That is not encouraging for the weakest candidate, Pete Buttigieg, the only Democrat already losing to Trump among registered voters – which is why Trump ignores him while criticizing Klobuchar, Bloomberg and Biden.

And it’s especially not encouraging for Bernie Sanders, since all progressive candidates lost in swing Congressional districts in 2018.

Unlike other Democrats, he does little better than Trump among college educated women. Indeed, that may account for the Trump campaign and Russia aiding his campaign and dismay among Democratic office holders, especially in swing districts and newly elected ones.

Failing to inspire

Moreover, Sanders has failed to expand turnout or inspire new swathes of young or new voters. He also is among those most vulnerable to Trump/Russian mischaracterizations designed to induce a replay of the 2016 surge in undecided voters wasting votes.

Garnering only one-third of primary voters this year leaves Sanders vulnerable to a moderate primary competitor. Those best able to avoid squandering the lesson of 2018 and realizing the potential of anti-Trump rural and suburban independents and Republicans are Biden and Klobuchar.

In particular, her appeal to rural voters with a track record of flipping Trump voters back to democrats is why she’s dominated newspaper endorsement.

The other moderate, Michael Bloomberg, faces more of a challenge to be selected by the Democrats. However, he would attract independents and Republicans in the vital swing states.

Disgruntled Sanders voters

A special challenge for any moderate nominee is to minimize defections among disgruntled Sanders supporters. Some 75% of his primary voters in 2016 subsequently supported Clinton. But 12% voted for Trump with a huge impact in the three swing states.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, 117,000 of Sanders’ 2016 primary voters switched to Trump — or nearly three times larger than his winning margin of 44,300 votes. 48,000 switched to Trump in Michigan where he won by 10,700 votes. And 51,300 switched in Wisconsin, where he won by 22,750 votes.

The other portion (13%) of Sanders voters rejected both Trump and Clinton. Nearly all of them became part of the 750,000 or so voters in the three key swing states in the Midwest who left their presidential ballots blank or voted third-party.

Conclusion

In terms of substance, what is most important to the success of a moderate Democrat in the swing states is crafting an agenda featuring middle class economics.

This includes parental leave, child care, higher minimum wages, trade and labor reforms, issues of concern to women, education and health care shortcomings and skills upgrading as well as rural issues like broadband expansion.

Above all, a compelling contrast must be sustained between Trump and an empathetic Democratic opponent of proven electoral success. This candidate must appeal to rural and suburban independents and Republicans repelled by Trump’s divisive and polarizing character.

Takeaways

US presidential elections are determined in a handful of states whose voters are narrowly split between Democrats and Republicans -- so-called “swing” states.

Donald Trump is unpopular with a majority of American voters, but that’s irrelevant because of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is skewered in favor of less populated states. In 2016, for instance, Hillary Clinton received 3.4 million (2.1%) more votes than Trump.

Garnering only one-third of primary voters this year leaves Sanders vulnerable to a moderate primary competitor.

Democrats must mobilize the party base, while focusing on adding cross-over anti-Trump independents and moderate Republicans.