The next Iowa caucuses are a mere 25 months away, so naturally Democrats (and we in the news media) are already thinking about the presidential election. “The invisible primary is already under way, and the jockeying is about to get intense,” reports NBC News.
“Elizabeth Warren has spent the past year making a series of below-the-radar moves that would put her in prime position to run for president in 2020 if she decides to,” adds Politico, noting that Warren has amassed a huge war chest, is building an organization that could be converted to a national campaign, and is traversing the country solidifying connections to key Democratic activists and politicians.
Yes, it’s a little ridiculous for anyone to be thinking about this stuff so early. But before Democrats get caught up in deciding which of the couple dozen likely candidates they’re attracted to, it wouldn’t hurt to do a little meta-deciding, by which I mean deciding how they want to decide.
To begin, they should prepare themselves for this: they’re going to get a lot of lectures in the news media about how they shouldn’t let their rage at President Trump take over the primary process. We’ll be hearing this from “centrist” commentators, of course, but also from concern trolls on the right and even some liberals sincerely worried that Democrats will be led down the path to defeat if they’re guided only by their anger.
We’ll hear that this year, too, with regard to the midterm elections. Democrats need a positive vision! They can’t just criticize the president! Voters want to know what they’ll do instead!
To be clear, I’m not saying Democratic candidates shouldn’t have a policy vision. They should, and they will. They’re Democrats — they love nothing more than putting together meaty position papers detailing all the policy changes they’ll make if they get the chance. That’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.
But if Democratic voters wind up asking themselves, “Which candidate really gets my juices flowing when she starts railing against Trump?” when they’re choosing among their many options, that’s actually an excellent criterion to pick their next standard-bearer.
They’ll want to know who has the combination of experience, intelligence and judgment to perform well in the job, of course. But often, voters get persuaded to focus on a a fundamentally flawed conception of “electability,” which is at its core an assessment not of which candidate you like but of which candidate you think other people will like. And that assessment is usually wrong.
Just look at our recent elections. Over and over, the candidates who were assumed to be electable lost, and the ones who were dismissed as unelectable early in the primary campaign ended up winning. That’s because we often think of electability in bloodless terms, assuming that the electable candidate is someone with a record of at least some ideological moderation or entries on his CV that the other side might find appealing. That’s what gets you candidates like John Kerry and Mitt Romney.
But in recent elections, when primary voters have gone with their hearts, they’ve won. In 2008, some in the Democratic Party found the idea of nominating a guy who had been in the Senate for only a few years and whose middle name was “Hussein” to be suicidal. Bill Clinton famously called Barack Obama’s campaign a “fairy tale,” meaning it was moving but ultimately false. Primary voters chose Obama because he was the one they loved, and he won a resounding victory that November. Something similar happened with Donald Trump: he sure as heck wasn’t the electable candidate, but he was the one who excited the Republican base. And we know how that turned out.
We live in a profoundly partisan era, one in which opportunities to convert voters from one side to the other are slim. Mobilization — getting your own voters excited and motivated to work and turn out on Election Day — matters much more. So Democrats need to pick someone who will excite Democrats, not someone who they think might appeal to a few Republicans.
That could mean many things, but let’s be realistic: In 2020, it’s going to mean someone who offers the most powerful critique of Trump. It doesn’t have to be the angriest or the loudest, but it will be the one that gets Democrats cheering.
The dynamic is going to be the same in 2018. Midterm elections are even more determined by turnout than presidential elections are, and if Democrats manage to take back one or or both houses in November, it will be because their voters were angry and riled up, just as they were in 2006 and as Republican voters were in 2010 and 2014.
In 2020, Democrats are going to have more choices for president than they could possibly want, and more time to evaluate them than they could possibly need. The more emotional the primaries become, and the more that anger at Trump is the dominant emotion at play, the more they’ll be scolded about how they should put all that aside and make a mature and affirmative choice. It’s one piece of advice they should plan on ignoring.