Can the Democrats win the 2020 election

The upcoming 2020 election looks like it may be the most important American election ever. If Trump and the Republicans win this election, those of us who are hoping to ameliorate climate change may be out of luck. So, the question, Can the Democrats win the 2020 election is very important.

Robert Kuttner is one of the most prominent political scientists in America. I have read a number of his books, or at least parts of them, and loved them all. In his recent book The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy, he says that the 2020 election is essential to American Democracy.

Kutter says that “In 2020, a Democrat needs to win, and to win a mandate, in order to rescue America from a Republican Party that has been willing to destroy democracy itself in order to realize its ideological and partisan goals. At stake is nothing less than the survival of American democracy.”

Dillon Lake and Colorado in the winter.  Scenes like this seem a long way from worrying about can the Democrats win the 2020 election
Dillon Lake and Colorado in the winter

Kuttner goes on to say that the democrats can only win the 2020 election if they are radical economic progressives.  The radical part means no moderation toward Republicans.   We need a radical attack on Republicans.  No more Obama “meet-you-half-way” moderation.

The economic part  of radical economic progressives means that Democrats need to realize that most of the white working class has been left behind economically for the last fifty years. In addition, says Kuttner, the working class has shown that they pay attention to and vote for politicians who are dedicated to helping them economically. They tend to vote for those politicians who, over the long term, have genuinely try to help them.  Even Democrats. He has a lot of evidence for this belief.

Kuttner says this has to begin with the realization that the working class really is suffering economically. There have been many recently who have said this is simply not true. Just look at the low unemployment numbers they say. But Kuttner says the working class has not done well for the last 40 years. And I think he is correct here.

Forest Pool in the Collegiate Range of Colorado.  Scenes like this seem a long way from worrying about can the Democrats win the 2020 election
Forest Pool in the Collegiate Range of Colorado

Kuttner says that for the last 40 years ordinary Americans have suffered serious economic losses , and their children are going to face even worse prospects.   Making real strides to fix this is what will win the election he says. He says that the reason the working class is so angry is that while the rest of America got rich, they were left out.  

Kuttner goes on to point out that:

 “Most people are painfully aware that the rules of the game have been turned savagely against working families in the past several decades. Gone are the days when one breadwinner could earn a middle-class standard of living, when a week’s pay roughly equaled the monthly mortgage payment on a home in a decent school district, when the standard job came with good health and pension benefits and the assumption of lifetime employment, and when young people who didn’t have wealthy parents could attend university without incurring crippling debt.”

“For the last four decades, ordinary Americans have been suffering sickening slides in their economic prospects, and their children face worse. The elements of a decent middle-class life are further and further out of reach—reliable jobs, decent pensions, secure medical care, affordable housing, and college that doesn’t require a lifetime of debt. Recent Democratic presidents did not take that reality seriously. This is the soil in which Trumpism grew.”

Kuttner says there is a lot of evidence that when Democrats appeal to practical, everyday pocket-book issues they win.  He says that Democrats who sincerely work for economic progress for the working class get votes, a lot of votes.

“I am not contending that progressive economics all by itself can offset the appeals of racism. Unless Democrats abandon support for civil rights, which they must not do, they will never win the votes of hard-core racists. 

But hard-core racists are far from a majority of Americans.

Many Democratic officeholders managed to win in unlikely states and districts by stressing pocketbook and class issues. 

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio won reelection to his third term in 2018 by a margin of 6 points, in a year when every other Democrat running statewide in Ohio lost. Brown is as liberal as any Democrat on issues of civil rights and gender rights. He was the lead Senate sponsor of a resolution to designate June as LGBT month. 

But socially conservative, working-class Ohioans have long excused Brown for his avant-garde social views because he has been their steadfast economic champion. Brown got the votes of about 45 percent of non-college-educated white voters (the usual definition of the white working class), and made up the ground elsewhere. 

His ticket-mate, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, lost the white working-class vote by 22 points, and the election. 

Brown is not alone. In Montana, Senator Jon Tester, another economic progressive, was narrowly reelected in a state that had voted for Trump by 23 points in 2016. 

Dozens of House candidates flipped Republican seats deep in Trump country, by emphasizing health care, drug pricing, expansion of Social Security, and better wages.”

However, all of what Kutter is saying in this vein seems a bit  optimistic to me. I’m not sure that his ideas about what Republicans want is the correct answer to the question, Can the Democrats win the 2020 election.

Indian Paint Brush in New Mexico.
Indian Paint Brush in New Mexico

For instance, Elizabeth Warren is the perfect example of Kuttner’s radical economic progressive.  She is both radical and progressive in the fixes she wants to do in America. And she has been serious about improving the economic situation of the middle and the working classes of America for many years. At least since her days of advocating for consumer rights. And actually long before this, when she began telling the story of how, when she was a girl, her father had a heart attack and was out of work for several years. She says her family would never have made it if not for the fact that her mother could get a well paying job in the 1950s and earn enough on her own to support the entire family.

According to Kuttner, the white working class should be happy to vote for her. But there are not. Warren is hated as a rich, snooty liberal by most of the North Shore (the Atlantic Coast between Boston and NH which is mostly a white working class bastion and right in Warren’s own backyard.)

Slickrock Paintbrush in Arches National Park
Slickrock Paintbrush in Arches National Park

David Leonhardt, in a October 29th New York Times article points out that Elizabeth Warren has never done well on the North Shore.

“Boston’s North Shore seems as if it should be prime Elizabeth Warren territory. It is home to working-class towns, and it’s a short drive from Warren’s own house.

But ever since she entered electoral politics in 2012, she has struggled on the North Shore. When she defeated Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent senator, that year, she lost in places like Haverhill, Peabody, Saugus and Methuen. Last year, when Warren won re-election easily, she performed worse in those towns than Maura Healey, the Democratic attorney general, who was also on the ballot.

As Warren has risen to the top of the presidential primary field, her North Shore struggles underscore the biggest question about her campaign: If she were the nominee, could she win back working-class voters who swung to Donald Trump in 2016?”

There are real reasons for concern. In her 2012 and 2018 Senate races, Warren struggled in other blue-collar parts of Massachusetts, like the areas around Springfield and Worcester. And in most state polls asking voters to choose between Trump and potential Democratic nominees, Warren looks considerably weaker than Joe Biden.”

And then there is the fact that new polls published on Nov 5, 2019 show that Warren will likely do quite poorly in the key battleground states. 

Mount Rainier in Washington
Mount Rainier in Washington

Below is how various Democrats are projected to do against Trump in the six battleground states that were most closely contested in the 2016 election.  

How Trump fares among registered voters 

Michigan (n=501)EvenSanders +2Trump +6
Pennsylvania (661)Biden +3Sanders +1Even
Wisconsin (651)Biden +3Sanders +2Even
Florida (650)Biden +2Trump +1Trump +4
Arizona (652)Biden +5Trump +1Warren +2
North Carolina (651)Trump +2Trump +3Trump +3

The above chart is based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of 3,766 registered voters from Oct. 13 to Oct. 26. (I’ve seen another version of this chart where Warren does even worse. But this version seems most accurate.)

When you look at the above results more closely, you see that these results are triggered by a small sliver of swing voters.

As Nate Cohen shows In a New York Times article on November 5, 2019,  it turns out that this small sliver of potentially persuadable swing voters are moderate conservatives and they tend to like Democrats only when they are moderates, not radical progressives.  And so they tend to reject Elizabeth Warren.  

It looks to me like Kuttner is wrong about conservatives liking radical Democrats like Warren better than moderate Democrats like Biden.

Glacier National Park in Montana.  Scenes like this seem a long way from worrying about can the Democrats win the 2020 election
Glacier National Park in Montana

Below is the way Cohen explains how just a very few swing voters may tip the election.

“These potentially persuadable voters are divided on major issues like single-payer health care, immigration and taxes. But they are fairly clear about what they would like from a Democrat. They prefer, by 82 percent to 11 percent, one who promises to find common ground over one who promises to fight for a progressive agenda; and they prefer a moderate over a liberal, 75 percent to 19 percent.”

“Over all, 40 percent describe themselves as conservative, compared with 16 percent who say they’re liberal. Forty percent are moderate.”

“Mr. Trump leads Ms. Warren, 49 percent to 27 percent, among this broadly defined group of persuadable voters, slightly improving on his margin over Mrs. Clinton. He holds a narrow 43-37 edge over Mr. Biden, a slight improvement for the president over the Republican performance in the midterm election but far from matching his tallies in 2016.”

This does not look even a little bit good for Warren.  True, the election is still a year away. Warren may be able to convince white, working class voters that she really will be their champion in matters of the pocket book.  But that 41% who have favored Trump all through his first term have never wavered in their support for Trump. It is unlikely many of these voters will switch to Warren.

Towers of the Virgin after a spring show storm in Utah
Towers of the Virgin after a spring show storm in Utah

I’ve been strongly in favor of Warren ever since the was first elected to the senate.  I still think she is much more competent than any of the other Democratic contenders.  And I think that if she were elected she would be the best person we have to fix a broken America.  But first she has to be elected.  And at this point that does not look very likely. 

I’ve been thinking that maybe we progressive Democrats need to be a little less idealistic.  At this point, I think it has to be anyone but Trump.

But what if Trump wins this election?  Could it be that four more years of Trump and the Republicans will convince enough people that changes must be made and they will give up on the Republicans?  I would like to believe this, but I am afraid it is more likely that four more years will just enable the Republicans to entrench themselves so solidly in the courts and in government institutions that they will be impossible to remove.

So, what’s the answer to my original question, Can the Democrats win the 2020 election. Maybe, but it won’t be easy. And at this point, it doesn’t look like Elizabeth Warren can win. And the odds for Joe Biden don’t look good either. Perhaps we should try to nominate a more moderate Democrat rather than a radical. It looks to me like Robert Kuttner’s call for a radical progressive is not the correct call.

This goes against everything I have thought all through Trump’s presidency. But I’m afraid that it may be the correct view. But we’ll see as we get closer to the election.

At this point, I have to say that I am very, very fearful of how this election may turn out and of what the future of America may look like.  


Here is more information about the questions posed in this article

One Year From Election, Trump Trails Biden but Leads Warren in Battlegrounds

Opinion | Elizabeth Warren’s Working-Class Problem

A Sliver of the Electorate Could Decide 2020. Here’s What These Voters Want.

The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy, by Robert Kuttner

American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper by Jacob S. Hacker

A Thousand Small Sanities: the Moral Adventure of Liberalism by Adam Gopnik

Portland Head Light in Maine
Portland Head Light in Maine
Wildflowers and the Tetons in Wyoming.  Scenes like this seem a long way from worrying about can the Democrats win the 2020 election
Wildflowers and the Tetons in Wyoming

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