Forget Medicare-for-all, the wealth tax and reparations for slavery. What Democrats want most is to beat President Trump. To that end, they obsess over whether energizing progressives or persuading swing voters is more important; how the electorate would react to a woman or person of color running against Trump; and whether a candidate who is too young or too old presents a risk. At some point in these conversations, someone usually steps in to say Democrats don’t need to worry: The primary is a Darwinian process. Whoever survives is, by definition, the most electable candidate.
But primary voters often pick candidates with glaring, foreseeable general-election weaknesses over stronger contenders. And in 2020, Democrats are in danger of doing just that. Their top three candidates have real problems. And their potential best performers are stuck in the second tier.
It’s not hard to find examples of parties failing to nominate their most viable candidates. In 2016, both parties blew it.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump deprived his opponents of media oxygen by generating scandals, championed immigration restrictionism and won against a divided field by playing to his blue-collar white base. But his primary strengths were general-election liabilities. Trump generated controversy on a near-daily basis, lost debates and ended up being the least popular candidate in the history of presidential elections. Though Trump won the 2016 election, it wasn’t pretty. He lost the popular vote despite drawing an unpopular opponent and having the deus ex machina of the Comey letterswing late polls in his favor. The 2016 election shouldn’t have been tough for the Republicans, but Trump barely squeaked by. A more conventional politician — such as Marco Rubio, who got more votes in Florida than Trumpon Election Day 2016, or Scott Walker, who won in Wisconsin three times — likely would have assembled a larger coalition and actually won the popular vote.
Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination parallels Trump’s. She used her organizational strength, support from Democratic party leaders and early polling lead to scare off other plausible and potentially more electable candidates such as Kirsten Gillibrand, Deval Patrick and Amy Klobuchar, and win as the experienced insider in a contest with insurgent Bernie Sanders.
But the political muscle that allowed her to clear the field was also a problem. Trump portrayed her as a creature of “the swamp.” And she was dogged, fairly or unfairly, by ethical questions about her email servers and other controversies. She ended the election as the second-most unpopular presidential candidate in history and failed to carry the swing states she needed to secure the presidency. Democrats are working with a stronger field than they had in 2016 — there was only one or two truly plausible presidents in that group (Clinton and Sanders), and there are at least half a dozen this time around. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods.