On Tuesday, Joe Biden and his juggernaut left Bernie Sanders’ dream in tatters. The former vice-president swept primaries in Arizona, Florida and Illinois. Fact: Sanders looks a lot less appealing without Hillary Clinton to kick around.
Come November, the story may be a blue ocean, not just a blue wave. Presidents who preside over recessions or worse are generally not returned to office. And their party gets punished – just ask Herbert Hoover. A Democratic Senate is actually possible.
Enter David Plouffe and his campaign primer, A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump. Plouffe managed Barack Obama’s first presidential run, then served in his White House. He also did a stint at Uber and partnered with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. He is sharp and prescient, but not clairvoyant.
In 2016, Plouffe predicted a Clinton win and derided liberal doubters as “bedwetters”. His worst-case scenario awarded the Democrats 324 electoral votes. Things didn’t work out as planned.
Looking to avoid another debacle, Plouffe delivers a dense, nuts-and-bolts book, chock-full of advice. Written before the first nominating contest and the global pandemic, it is a mixture of enthusiasm and partially outdated realism.
Plouffe is no longer dismissive of Trump and his political skill set. As for Clinton’s loss, Plouffe observes, the “killers” were the “discrepancies” on the margins, in the swing states, and Clinton’s own errors.
“Three strikes, and you know what happened next,” writes Obama’s counselor. Plouffe contends that a significant pool of “undecided and persuadable and might-vote citizens” will probably control the next election’s outcome.
Citizen’s Guide offers a useful description of the “gettable” electorate: first-time voters, Obama/Trump voters, past-Trump voters who are “open to an alternative” and voters who did not previously vote for him but who are now open to that possibility. Likewise, Plouffe is mindful of political identification serving as social glue and identity.
As he frames things: “If November comes and persuadable voters testify” that Trump drives them “crazy with tweets”, view him as a “terrible person”, but conclude that the president has been “OK on the economy and the Democrats want to turn us into a socialist country”, Trump will probably return to power.
To be sure, the economy is no longer fine: Black Plague 2.0 is never a good look. First-time jobless claims have soared, major investment houses have proclaimed a global recession. Reality is stripping Trump’s theatrics bare.
Yet Trump was never simply a candidate. He led a movement. How all this affects his support is an open question. Breaking up is hard to do.
Understandably, Plouffe takes heart from the midterms which saw the Democrats recapture the House of Representatives. That was about Democrats building on their traditional base of liberal voters, minorities and graduate degree holders, making inroads with suburbanites and white women and ginning up those who go to the polls less frequently.
Michigan and Pennsylvania, which went for Trump, are again leaning Democratic. Arizona, which last voted blue in 1996, may be fertile territory for Biden. If these three states were to flip on election day and everywhere else remained frozen in time, the president would be out of a job. When Tulsi Gabbard drops out of the race, it’s a sign that the public hungers for political comfort food.
Joe Biden speaks about Covid-19, known as the coronavirus, in Wilmington, Delaware. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
From the looks of the recent primaries, 2018 may be a limited harbinger of what comes next. For example, turnout in the Virginia primary broke records as 1.3 million people voted, a marked increase from a previous high of about 986,000 in 2008. Even amid the coronavirus outbreak, more than 1.7 million Florida Democrats cast ballots in the primary, exceeding 2016. On the other hand, participation in Illinois dropped markedly.
Looking ahead, voting by mail may emerge as the rule, not the exception. Disease and social distancing are altering how we live and vote. Our country and democracy are in transition.
Plouffe has publicly acknowledged Biden’s vulnerability with younger voters. On that score, his concerns are to a point well-placed.
Biden won less than 40% of Illinois Democrats under the age of 45 even as he took nearly three-in-five older voters. Michigan told a similar story. But Sanders was no pied piper. Although he won younger voters, the Vermont senator did not electrify them. In all fairness, elections are an older person’s game.
Plouffe offers no foolproof method for energizing young Americans. The environment is a major concern for this bloc, but issues don’t axiomatically translate into votes. Just a hunch: survival in the face of a plague may take priority.
Unfortunately, Plouffe can come close to broad-brushing Trump supporters as irredeemably deplorable. Specifically, he urges volunteers to “record the hilarious moment when an ignorant Trump supporter slows down his car as he passes by your group on the street and yells out, ‘Finding illegal votes for your candidate, I see!’”
Some sentiments are best left unspoken.
With the US having gone from everything is awesome to a state of national emergency in a matter of weeks, we could all use a bit less bile. Demonstrative competence and compassion stand to go a long way in troubled times. Biden’s speeches on coronavirus and last Tuesday were presidential. They struck the right tone and mix for the presumptive nominee.
America has traveled back in time. Edgar Alan Poe’s mid-19th-century short story, Masque of the Red Death, is no longer mere fiction. Live campaign events and door-knocking are relics of a simpler time. Don’t expect to see a Trump rally anytime soon. His daily briefings are a tragic substitute. Against this backdrop, Citizen’s Guide cannot begin to tell us the whole story – nor can we expect it to.