The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats cannot win in 2020 merely by turning out the base

At the Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa, smoke rises from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on the sixth day of Turkey's military operation against Kurdish forces. (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

The PRRI poll released Thursday has a message for Democrats: Be careful which candidate you nominate. Three numbers stand out: 33, 50 and 54.

To begin with, 33 percent of voters say their vote in 2020 depends on whom the Democrats nominate. Of these, 61 percent are moderate and 54 percent identify as independent, while the rest are more inclined to identify as Democrats (21 percent vs. 15 percent) than Republicans. They are also younger, more likely to be Hispanic and more likely to have an education of high school or less. Thirty percent voted for Hillary Clinton, 18 percent voted for President Trump. We also know candidates’ position on issues is the most important factor (43 percent) as opposed to leadership experience or style.

Depending on which states, these “it depends on who the Democrats pick” voters could be critical. Moderate candidates (e.g., former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar) might appeal to these voters, but a younger candidate (South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg) might excite them. One thing we know: These are not the college-educated white, super-progressive Democrats attracted to Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

In addition, there is a whole lot of soft Republican support. Fifty percent say they approve of Trump’s performance but that Trump could lose their support. This is quite different than the portrait of an immovable GOP base that one hears about. By contrast, only 15 percent of Democrats say they disapprove of Trump but that he could win them over. Weak Trump supporters include many college-educated voters (Trump draws only 36 percent of these) and female voters. In short, the right Democratic candidate could peel off some, albeit not a lot, of Republican support.

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Finally, 54 percent put terrorism in their top three issues, including 51 percent of independents. While Democrats have chosen to focus on the international repercussions of the pullout of troops from Syria, freeing thousands of Islamic State fighters should be of major concern to a majority of voters.

The New York Times reports, “Mr. Trump’s pullout has handed the Islamic State its biggest win in more than four years and greatly improved its prospects. With American forces rushing for the exits, in fact, American officials said last week that they were already losing their ability to collect critical intelligence about the group’s operations on the ground.” Democrats, remarkably, have not been stressing this. If they look at the disastrous policy decision and the salience of terrorism as an issue, they should be elevating this to one of their top issues.

Consider that Trump is now a hero — to terrorists. (“News of the American withdrawal set off jubilation among Islamic State supporters on social media and encrypted chat networks. It has lifted the morale of fighters in affiliates as far away as Libya and Nigeria.”) He has falsely claimed to have eradicated the Islamic State, but in the real world, “The group retains as many as 18,000 ‘members’ in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners, according to estimates cited in a recent Pentagon report. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, is still at large.”

In sum, Democrats do need to excite their base. However, with 33 percent of voters deciding their vote based on who Democrats nominate, 50 percent of Republicans willing to consider another candidate and 54 percent of voters worried about terrorism, Democrats would be wise to nominate someone credible on national security and not considered politically extreme. Democrats should choose very wisely.

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