WASHINGTON, DC—Three weeks from the launch of primary season that will choose the Democratic candidate for U.S. president, the ballot question has been well-established: Who can beat Donald Trump?
The question is clear; the answer less so, though the available options are becoming clearer.
A candidate’s electability is always a concern, but this year it has taken on a new urgency for the party — and for many disaffected Republicans offering advice and support to their rivals — surpassing the considerations of policy and character that so often dominate debates. A poll conducted by Ipsos for the website FiveThirtyEight published this week shows two-thirds of primary voters say “ability to beat Donald Trump” is more important a consideration for them than shared stances on issues.
The field of candidates has narrowed considerably in the past month, leaving five contenders with a shot at winning, who represent two different strategies for beating Trump.
One train of thought is that you promise a return to normal with minimal drama. The thinking is that Trump, despite the feverish support of a substantial following, is unpopular. More than 50 per cent of the population disapproves of him, consistently.
The job of the candidate, then, is to not do anything that would scare away centrist swing voters and disaffected Republicans.
Joe Biden, the former vice-president who has led polls consistently (if not commandingly) since the start of the campaign, is the standard-bearer for this position: he has promised a return to bipartisanship and civility and the “normal” that prevailed in Washington throughout his long career in politics.
Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has strong support in the two earliest states to vote, offers much the same message in a fresh-faced package.
Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and ninth-richest person in the United States who is not contesting the earliest states at all, is also pitching a moderate position, alongside a heap of his own money to spend on the election (more on that later).
In the other corner are the fighters. Those who think that the best way to beat Trump is to fire up the Democratic base and inspire new voters (especially young ones) with a strong progressive alternative to both Trumpism and to politics as usual. Socialized medicine and more taxes on the rich, for instance.
Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont and self-proclaimed socialist who ran against Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2016 has re-emerged as the candidate to beat on this side. He has a young and devoted legion of followers who donate lots of money in small increments. Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts who prides herself on having a detailed “plan for everything” and on taking endless selfies with her rally attendees, is jockeying with Sanders.
The rest of the candidates are more or less out of the running — Amy Klobuchar gets more love from the press predicting her imminent ascension than from polls of voters; Andrew Yang exudes likable competence and ideas but hasn’t fired up enough people; and Tom Steyer, another billionaire philanthropist in the race, seems unlikely to break through. Upsets are possible, but one involving these candidates seems less probable with every day that passes.
It seems likely that the field will winnow out further over the coming weeks to one candidate representing each of these approaches. The party will then decide between them.
Biden’s strength in primary polling has so far been in Nevada and (especially) South Carolina, which vote after Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has less support. A strong showing by Biden in the two earlier states could give him the appearance of inevitability.
But more than for Biden, the paths of Sanders to some extent, and those of Warren and Buttigieg in particular, likely depend on strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, which could give them the bump associated with winners and set them up as the Biden alternative going into delegate-rich “Super Tuesday” on March 3, when 15 primaries and caucuses will be held on the same day.
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That’s also when Bloomberg’s long-shot hopes enter the picture: he has spent heavily ($200 million on advertising so far) in the Super Tuesday states and in general-election battlegrounds, betting on becoming a clarifying alternative if the race remains scrambled at that point. He’s said he will spend as much as $1 billion of his own money to defeat Trump — and adds he’s willing to spend that money no matter who wins the Democratic nomination.
That may be part of one answer to how to beat Trump. The rest of the answer is still up for debate, and will go a long way to determining who is the right person to try to do it.
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