EDITOR'S NOTE: Crooks and Liars does NOT endorse candidates in the Democratic primaries, and supports the Democratic nominee once the nominating process is over. This post does not reflect any position of C&L or it's editors, and is a personal comment by a contributor only.
By Mike Lux
I am one of those old guard Democratic Party insiders you are always hearing about, probably not in too positive a way. I worked on Joe Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1987, and it wasn’t even my first presidential campaign (I worked for Mondale in the 1984 cycle.) I worked on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns and in the Clinton White House. I’ve worked at the DNC and in both Democratic presidential transitions of my adult lifetime, as well as on a half dozen presidential campaigns.
Now don't get me wrong: I was on the progressive end of the Clinton administration, and didn't support the deregulation of Wall Street, a lot of the trade deals pushed by both Clinton and Obama, and some of the other measures supported by more centrist Democrats. And after the 2008 financial collapse, the more I understood about how corrupt some of the business practices of the financial industry were which had led to the collapse, and how close some Democrats were to those companies, the more it troubled me. For that reason, I have been allied with politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Jeff Merkley on policy debates for some time.
But I remain a political pragmatist. I am very worried about the appeal Donald Trump has to the working class Midwesterners I grew up with; I take seriously the damage attacks of socialism could do Democrats in 2020. While I believe our number one priority in terms of winning elections is turning out Democratic base voters, I also think that it is incredibly important to win over swing voters. My number one priority by far is a candidate who has the best chance to beat Trump.
And I have been torn this year as to who to support, and have taken my time in coming to a decision. I was planning to support Sherrod Brown early on when he was thinking about running because, while he still had the kind of strong progressive voting record and populist message I believed in, his proven appeal to working class Midwesterners was just what I was looking for in a candidate. There’s a lot I like about Bernie, and I give him enormous credit for doing as much as anyone in the last 50 years to revive the progressive movement. But as I noted above, I do deeply fear the unrelenting attacks on socialism would deny him the victory; I also fear greatly that he will be unable to unite the party, and I don’t think we win this election without a unified party. The risk with Bernie just seems too high to me.
As I have been thinking about who to support, though, I keep coming back to the lessons I have learned and that I wrote about last year in my book How To Democrat In The Age Of Trump: we Democratic insiders have messed up pretty badly multiple times over the past decade, and those mistakes gave us Donald Trump as president and Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. The decisions made by the Obama administration to go easy on the Wall Street bankers who had wrecked the economy, and their and Congress' failure to even bring up immigration reform, criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform, and a number of other important issues when Democrats were in charge of both the House and Senate, alienated both base and swing voters, causing massive losses in 2010 and beyond. And the memories of watching, from my vantage point inside the DNC in the last months of the general election in 2016, the Clinton campaign fail to invest enough in digital strategies instead of endless TV ads, fail to invest enough in turning out base voters, and fail to adopt a progressive populist economic message that would have won over far more Bernie voters and appealed to working class swing voters, haunted me mightily.
I don't want to go through another campaign where the party establishment ignores or misinterprets those painful lessons. I have become very wary of supporting another centrist establishment Democrat who relies primarily on TV and big donor fundraising.
In the end, I just decided to do my own poll of general election voters in the battleground states to satisfy my questions about whether Elizabeth Warren's progressive populist message would hurt her in a general election, as many of her opponents and many pundits are suggesting, or whether a more moderate message like Joe Biden's would work better. I took language on the economy, health care, and the overall rationale for change from Trump from both Warren and Biden and I compared them against each other. What I found was almost identical to what a recent Democracy Corps battleground state poll, found: both Biden and Warren defeat Trump by solid margins, and the Warren message/agenda actually plays better in many regards, and holds up better after attacks.
According to my poll, Warren's framing message on the economy does better both with Democratic base voters and with swing voters. Among 35-64 year old voters, Warren's economic message wins, while Biden's loses. Her message does 7 points better vs. Trump's economic message with white voters, and better in every age group except senior citizens. And Warren's economic message does better among the solidly middle class, among people both in the 50-100K and 100-150K range.
Warren's message on why we need to change from Donald Trump also beat Biden's among both base Democrats and moderate voters, doing worse only among the conservative voters we aren't very likely to get.
I also tested what many people are assuming will be Warren's biggest weakness, health care. It is true that her Medicare For All message did test worse than Biden's "add a public option to the ACA" message. But the differences weren't dramatic, and her support of Medicare For All (MFA) didn't hurt her winning margin against Trump. The DCorps polling further tested Warren's viability assuming an ugly Republican attack on MFA, and even that didn't cut her margin of support against the President.
The DCorps poll also showed that while Biden, as you would expect, currently picks up more moderate independents and Republicans than Warren, Warren does a far better job in consolidating Bernie voters behind her. One of the biggest reasons Hillary lost in 2016 was that more than 20% of Sanders voters defected- some not voting, some voting for Jill Stein, and some even voting for Trump's populist campaign. That mattered especially in Wisconsin and Michigan where Bernie had won in the primary.
In addition to the poll I did for myself and poring over the DCorps data, I took a look back at the swing vote data from 2016. As my partner Bob Creamer has pointed out, in terms of voting for president, almost 10% (9.8%) of the electorate changed what they did from 2012 to 2016. That includes the much discussed 3.6% who shifted from Obama to Trump, but it also includes the 1.9% who went from Romney to Clinton, the 0.7% who shifted from Obama to Jill Stein, and the 3.5% of Obama supporters who didn't vote at all. Many of these vote switchers were of course concentrated in PA, WI, and MI.
The Obama voters who didn't vote are more likely to vote this time: Trump being president motivated Democratic leaning voters to turn out in record numbers in the 2018 elections and will no doubt do the same when he is on the ballot. But these poorer and younger base voters will need to be courted with a strong progressive message to assure maximum turnout. The Romney/Clinton voters are ones we have to pay attention to, but given that most of them are well educated and women, they aren't likely to have been won over by Trump: the vast majority of them are pretty likely to support any Democratic candidate against Trump according to every indicator I have seen. When I look at the data from the two polls I talk about above, it seems obvious that the Warren message is much more likely than the Biden message to win over the Obama/Stein voters, but also more likely to win over working class Obama/Trump voters.
Beyond the polling data, there are two other issues worth raising in terms of the electability question.
The first relates to an email I got a couple of days ago from a person I have always thought of as one of the most successful and practical county chairs in the country, someone from North Carolina. He was talking about how hard it usually is to get volunteers to go out and knock on doors in August in North Carolina. He said that with a candidate who is motivating people a lot, you can still get people to do it in spite of the heat and humidity, but with someone like Biden, who people are fond of and comfortable with but not as excited about, they are not going to do those door knocks. The crowds she is drawing and the long selfie lines she is getting, along with the genuine excitement about her policy ideas, are showing Elizabeth can be the kind of candidate who generates doorknockers in August in NC and November in MI and WI.
The other thing I have been thinking about is who will most unite the party. Counterintuitive to my old friends in the Democratic center, I believe we are at a moment in history where Warren is the kind of candidate most likely to bring people together. I think the alienated outsider progressive folks feel too burned by the 2016 primary and the disappointments of the Obama years to enthusiastically get behind a centrist candidate. I also think Bernie has been such an outsider that the traditional party folks would have trouble getting behind him. The 2016 primary was the most bitter one we've had since at least the Carter-Kennedy battle, and those feelings will not easily go away. In contrast Elizabeth relates well enough to the insiders, yet has the progressive policy chops to bring along all but the most hard core of the Bernie people.
For all these reasons—my own polling, the DCorps polling, the review of the 2016 numbers, the enthusiasm question, and the party unity question—I am very confident in making the case that Elizabeth Warren has the best chance of all the primary candidates in beating Trump in November of 2020.
Finally, I want to share some history that should influence the path ahead for Democrats.The pattern of American history is long periods of conservative policies when little progress is made, generating enormous frustration about the status quo and demand for change. If progressives don't address those frustrations - if they fall back on "business as usual" - the consequence is likely to be the kind of fierce backlash Democrats saw in 1994 and in Obama’s presidency, resulting in ugly demagogues like Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump gaining power. But if Democrats respond to that frustration by thinking big and achieving what I called in my first book (The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came To Be) Big Change Moments, the result can be a generation of progressive change. The dreadful period before the Civil War, the Robber Baron Gilded Age of the late 1800s, the "return to normalcy" before the Great Depression, and the McCarthyism and general conservatism of the 1950s were all followed by periods of major progressive change and reform.
Working class Americans have been feeling a growing sense of desperation for years now. When everything went back to "normal" after the financial collapse and Great Recession that followed, Wall Street bankers got bonuses instead of jail time while millions of regular people lost their homes and savings. If Democrats don't make some big changes and truly deliver for working families after Trump, voters will reject us all over again, this time picking someone smarter and more disciplined than Trump but just as terrible policy-wise. Healing the country will take more than having a decent person be president and comforting people after all the pain: it will take the big structural change Elizabeth has been talking about on the campaign trail.
For all these reasons, this old time party insider, this ex-staffer for Joe Biden and Bill and Hillary Clinton, is supporting Elizabeth Warren for president. May she save us from Trump and lead us into a new progressive era.