Opinion

Democrats may win their base with Trump — but lose independents

Partisan positions aren’t playing well beyond core supporters

As they ramp up their anti-Trump bona fides to win over base voters, Democrats have taken on extreme positions that won’t win over moderates and independents, Winston writes. Above, Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during Sen. Bernie Sanders’ event to introduce “Medicare for All” legislation in September 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — The Democratic presidential field hit a new watermark this week, reaching a record-setting 18 officially declared candidates. That’s enough for two baseball teams or three hockey teams. And there’s probably more candidates to come.

But why so many? Because, like Republican candidates in 2012, Democrats think that whoever wins their party’s nomination has a lock on the presidency in 2020. That’s what Mitt Romney’s team thought up to the moment he lost, not unlike the Clinton campaign’s overconfidence in the inevitability of her victory in 2016.

Time will tell how long this Democratic primary “team” sticks together in its mission to unseat President Donald Trump. At some point, individual ambition is bound to overcome party unity. But so far, other than the not-so-subtle attacks on front-runner Joe Biden (who hasn’t officially entered the race), Democrats have trained their harshest fire on the president as they pander to their base with radical ideas and over-the-top rhetoric.

Listening to their campaign stump speeches, however, makes one wonder what would happen to the Democratic team if Trump disappeared tomorrow — if he simply decided to head back to Trump Tower and spend his spare time playing golf at Mar-a-Lago.

I’m not at all suggesting that he would. What I am saying is that without Trump, the personality, the campaign focus would naturally have to move toward the Democrats’ issue agenda. I use the singular here because over the past few months as the field has grown, we’ve seen a “dying of the light” that separates the pack as the candidates embrace similar positions on most issues.

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Changing the rules

But how will these same issue positions fare outside a primary campaign aimed almost entirely at the base? A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the “process” issues that had been dominating Democrats’ campaign stops and media coverage. For the most part, the Democratic primary campaign has been a nonstop recitation of electoral and other grievances nailed to the doors of diners in New Hampshire and school gyms in Iowa.

We’ve been listening to the majority of the candidates complain about how unfair the Electoral College is, casting it as an antiquated system that obstructs the will of the American people — in other words, “we were robbed,” an argument so appealing to a base that still hasn’t recovered from the 2016 loss. And, apparently, it’s worth throwing more than 200 years of constitutionally conducted elections under the bus with little or no apparent thought for the consequences other than partisan advantage.

Their message to small states? You don’t matter. Their Electoral College policy prescription? Get rid of it.

The Democratic candidates also spent the month outraged over a system that allowed the duly elected Trump to nominate two Supreme Court justices, asserting that this situation, too, is somehow unfair to their party.

Their solution to restore fairness only a liberal court can deliver? Expand the number of justices, with one catch — only after Trump is out of office. Call me cynical, but if Democrats win the White House in 2020, I suspect this idea will never be heard from again, unless Trump gets to appoint another justice before his first term ends.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi weighed in on the presidential campaign discussion by advocating lowering the voting age to 16. Since younger voters have been leaning Democratic, they reckon, why not “capture” them, as Pelosi put it, when in high school?

The bottom-line message to their grievance-driven base is simple: If we can’t win under current rules, which are unjust, we’ll just change the rules.

Numbers don’t lie

So, how’s it going for them? If the numbers in the latest Winning the Issues survey (March 30-31) are correct, not so good. While the Democrats’ Electoral College argument gets the most support of the process issues, overall, voters oppose the idea, 41 percent to 37 percent.

Not surprisingly, Democrats favor the proposal, 49-27 percent, while liberal Democrats overwhelmingly support ending the Electoral College,  61-20 percent. Republicans are strongly opposed (28-54 percent), but most importantly, independents aren’t on board, with 32 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed to abolishing the Electoral College.

Conclusion: At this point, this is a winning issue only for Democratic base voters, not enough to win an election.

From a Republican perspective, if the Democrats want to relive 2016 by keeping the focus on Clinton’s loss and turning off independents and small-state voters in the process, by all means, go for it.

Issue-wise, it gets worse from here for the Democratic candidates. The proposals, espoused by many of them, to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court breaks even more badly, with voters opposed to packing the court, 49 percent to 24 percent. 

While Republicans don’t want to expand the number of justices (55 percent opposed, 20 percent in favor), independents are even more opposed (57-16 percent). Even the majority of Democrats can’t get behind this idea (37 percent opposed, 33 percent in favor). Only liberal Democrats favor more justices (36-33 percent).

Finally, the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 has managed to do something nothing or no one has been able to do in this toxic partisan atmosphere — gotten all sides to agree on an issue. People, overall, oppose giving younger teenagers the vote by an enormous margin, 74 percent to 16 percent. Eighty-six percent of Republicans, 73 percent of independents and 65 percent of Democrats all agree that this is an idea whose time has not come.

Eighty-four percent of seniors opposed extending suffrage to 16-year-olds. But even young voters, ages 18-34, felt similarly, with 58 percent opposed and 31 percent in favor. 

The lesson learned with these numbers is that you can’t win something with nothing. But the more substantive issues that Democrats have been focused on — like the Green New Deal and the capitalism vs. socialism debate — don’t look, at this point, like winning issues either.

Our March poll found voters’ views of the Green New Deal slipping from 28-36 percent favorable/unfavorable in February to 26-40 percent a month later.

As the Democratic field continues to grow, the ability of candidates to set themselves apart becomes increasingly difficult, especially when their positions on issues are so similar. So, instead, they’ve chosen to ramp up the anti-Trump rhetoric, becoming more and more shrill as they move further and further to the left.

While red meat may play well to base audiences driven by a visceral dislike of the current president, process issues and extreme positions on more traditional policy topics won’t win over the moderates and independents needed to build a majority coalition in 2020.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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