Simplistic theories won’t beat Trump

What the pundits and prognosticators get wrong about choosing a Democratic nominee

THE DRIVING FORCE in the Democratic presidential contest is the near-obsession of many voters with choosing a candidate who can beat Donald Trump. Nearly two-thirds of voters (63 percent) in this week’s New Hampshire Democratic primary said voting for a candidate who can beat Trump is more important than voting for a candidate they agreed with on the major issues. Bernie Sanders dominated with the “issues” voters (39 percent to Pete Buttigieg’s 21 percent), but he received the votes of only 21 percent of “viability” voters. The other top four candidates each did better with the viability voters than with issues voters. 

This hyper-focus on candidate viability has stoked two competing narratives that claim to show the best path to victory: boosting turnout among nontraditional Democratic-leaning voters or winning swing voters who occupy the political middle ground. The problem is neither argument gets it completely right. What’s more, the debate is fueling the faulty idea that viability is an either-or proposition of dueling theories when history shows both of them are actually part of most winning campaign narratives.

If a substantial number of Democratic voters are trying to evaluate who has the best chance of defeating Trump and voting accordingly, it matters whether they’re doing it right. That exercise isn’t as simple as it’s been made out to be.

There are two popular narratives about Democratic Party viability. The popular moderate narrative suggests that 1) voters are mostly on an ideological spectrum, 2) voters on either side of the spectrum will certainly vote for the nominee on their side, 3) therefore all that matters is appealing to moderate or “swing” voters as they will determine the winner, and thus 4) we ought to nominate a moderate so we don’t alienate swing voters with someone too liberal.

The popular liberal narrative suggests 1) voters are on mostly an ideological spectrum, 2) but there is basically no middle anymore because we’re so divided, 3) therefore all that matters is turnout, and thus 4) we ought to nominate a progressive champion and double down on bold progressive policy issues to inspire turnout.

Not one element of either narrative is quite right. The conclusions certainly make their proponents feel good, but that’s mostly confirmation bias. Moderates and liberals alike get to say, “my preferences aren’t just my preferences, but are also the obvious best path to victory in November.”

Let’s consider the four parts of each argument in turn.

1) First off, the ideological spectrum is one of many factors that affect voting behavior, but the ideological spectrum does not follow neatly along the same lines as voting propensity. Some nontraditional voters on the Democratic side may be progressive but ideology is not usually their main concern (which a big reason they don’t vote as consistently as more ideologically driven voters).

Consistent voters and nontraditional voters may factor different things entirely. Having lost confidence in government, for example, has little to do with ideology. Not trusting the Washington, DC establishment doesn’t either. Nor does the belief that voting can’t change anything. Nor does the idea of just wanting everyone to get along, or even just believing you must change things slowly.

It should only take a cursory glance at the swings, second choices, and realignments among the voters considering Democrats in the primary to make this point obvious. If ideology were the only factor for voters, there would be far more consistency in the overlap of primary support between ideologically similar candidates. In fact, however, there is only a small amount.

2) To the extent that the ideological spectrum matters (and it certainly matters some), it is true that most voters on either side will vote for their party’s nominee. There is a middle, however, and there are some swing voters. The size of that group varies, depending both on how you define it and on what election you’re looking at. For example: Obama vs. Romney had a very small number of swing voters, but Clinton vs. Trump had many more.

Understanding how many swing voters there are and their defining characteristics for a given election is critical when assessing a candidate’s chances to win them over or strategizing to do so. Everything a campaign does affects things on the margins, whether it is swing voters or nontraditional voters on either side.

3) Neither the statement “turnout determines the results” nor “swing voters decide the election” is helpful. More nuanced questions such as “how many swing voters are there and what are they considering” and “how many people might vote and what would motivate them” are the questions that form the foundation of campaign strategy. Both are important and neither should be sacrificed to the other. 

And they don’t need to be. Winning Democratic candidates who inspire turnout also tend to do substantially better with swing voters than the Democrats who lose in similar but lower turnout elections. Additionally, while there tends to be more elasticity on the Democratic side – that is, greater swings in turnout – there is still quite a bit on the other side too and that should not be taken out of the equation.

4) Proclaiming we ought nominate the candidate who best fits either of those simplistic theories – Buttigieg, Joe Biden, or Amy Klobuchar for the moderates, Sanders or Elizabeth Warren for the liberals – doesn’t help us. The theory we choose usually offers more insight into our own preferences than into the nuances of campaign strategy. Rigid ideological or demographic determinism arguments don’t allow us to ask critical questions, especially when we categorically dismiss a variable because we don’t want to consider the effects a nominee or their message might have on it.

There are three big variables at play that, taken together, will determine the likelihood of Democratic success in November: The two factors being mistakenly pitted against each other — the number of swing voters we might be able to win and the number of nontraditional but likely Democratic voters that we might be able to might turn out — plus the number nontraditional but likely Republican voters that might turn out in response to what we do. The ideal Democratic candidate would inspire voters to turn out, capture a reasonable share of swing voters, and not excessively motivate the other side. To accomplish enough of each of those to win requires thinking beyond a simplistic ideological spectrum.

Hillary Clinton had trouble four years ago with all three of these groups. The swing voters (most of whom disliked both candidates) disproportionately went to Trump, and she did less well with moderates than other candidates who won presidential elections. Democratic turnout, especially among African-American voters, was lower in 2016 than previous cycles. And Clinton was strongly disliked by nontraditional Republican leaning voters, though not for ideological reasons.

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran a moderate campaign against George H.W. Bush and was less objectionable to the other side. Turnout was inspired by the desire to end a recession and 12 years of Reagan/Bush, and he capitalized on the national frustration. He was also, notably, not of DC and he was running against a candidate who absolutely was.

Successful Democratic candidates have been effective by avoiding the false choice of either motivating turnout or appealing to swing voters. They have done both, and that is where the shortcomings of simplistic theorizing and overemphasis on ideology hinder our analysis.

When liberal candidates think only about motivating the base by being rigidly ideological, they can squander efforts to affect the other moving pieces – attracting swing voters especially. The critique of liberal candidates as being “my way or the highway” is perceived as credible to many Democratic “viability” voters not only because of their ideological concerns, but also because of its perceived rigidity.

If turnout is, in fact, generated by the same kinds of qualities that win over moderate/swing voters, we must dig deeper into what those qualities are. It may well be that a liberal candidate (even a “democratic socialist”) might have more of those qualities than a centrist who is more connected to the DC establishment, not perceived as trustworthy on the issues of importance, not trusted to push for real reforms, or simply viewed as an elitist.

If ideology is not the driving force in voters’ decision-making, the viability critique itself may be better applied to traits more applicable to some of the moderate candidates. Bill Clinton and Obama were similar ideologically to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, but were far less “DC establishment” than either. This is what the Buttigieg campaign is relying on in their viability case, and his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire suggest it is working.

While viability is more complicated than either moderates or liberals are suggesting, the perceived lack of viability is hurting Sanders the most. He would be wise to strengthen his turnout claims and at the same time demonstrate he is not relying solely on turnout to win. He should take steps to show he has the qualities to attract swing voters and not mobilize historic turnout on the other side. Indeed, he should address those points head on, because his viability claim has clearly not been as compelling to primary voters as those of other candidates.

Meet the Author
Voters’ deep concerns about viability are well justified, but they should think carefully about how they assess them. Their assessments can be significantly influenced by how the candidates talk about viability and demonstrate it. If their theories of viability seem wanting, candidates should accept the responsibility to strengthen them. It is just too important to risk allowing a simplistic theory or wrong understanding of voting behavior to lead us down the wrong path.

Dan Cohen is a longtime Democratic strategist who works in Massachusetts and in the Chicago area.