The person who predicted what would happen in the 2016 election was not President Trump or Hillary Clinton or any of the myriad pundits jostling to be heard. It was, instead, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
Cruz argued that the route to victory for a Republican candidate was not to build cross-party appeal to win over moderates and independents. Instead, he argued, the party should nominate someone with hard-right bona fides who would inspire voters who were indifferent about the more-moderate Mitt Romney in 2012. Boost turnout on the pole, rely on party loyalty from everyone else and you win the election.
He was basically right. It's just that the person who mobilized the far right to turn out in droves wasn't Cruz, the Republican primary candidate with the best-established conservative record. Instead it was Trump, the guy who was unafraid to embrace even more extreme rhetoric if it worked with those voters.
Trump was aided in the general election by a Democratic electorate that itself didn’t rush to the polls. Clinton received slightly fewer votes in 2016 than Barack Obama had in 2012 even while besting Trump in the popular vote. Turnout among key Democratic constituencies dropped between the two elections. Clinton was not the candidate who inspired fervent enthusiasm from the most ideological members of her party — that success belonged to her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Clinton was also the second least-favorably viewed major party presidential candidate on record — bested only by Trump.
All of that context is worth remembering when considering reports like the one in the Washington Examiner on Thursday. It cites various Trumpworld people celebrating the focus in the still-young 2020 Democratic primary on what they position as “socialist” policies: Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, higher taxes on the rich.
"As the House Democrat caucus is increasingly dominated by extreme left members, and as Democratic presidential candidates work to outmaneuver each other in embracing socialist policies, the choice will become increasingly clear," Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told the Examiner.
Matt Schlapp, a conservative leader whose wife works for Trump, added, “The people who find reasons to be uncomfortable with the president but like the general thrust of his policies are scared as hell that Venezuela is trying to get into the White House.”
In broad strokes, the argument is that a push to a more ideological extreme aimed at mobilizing base voters will doom a presidential candidate running against a deeply unpopular opponent.
2016 Trump would be surprised to hear that.
Polling indicates that the density of liberals in the Democratic Party (51 percent) is lower than the density of conservatives among Republicans (nearly three-quarters). But the density of self-identified liberals in the Democratic Party has grown quickly over the past two decades, helping to power Sanders’s insurgent candidacy three years ago.
That growth also was powered by a bigger jump in white Democrats identifying as liberals than other groups. Thirty-three percent of black Democrats identify as liberal, compared with 54 percent of whites. A drop in turnout among black Democrats in 2016 was an obvious factor in that election.
There are a few reasons to think that a more-liberal candidate this year won’t necessarily turn off those voters. First, some of the more-liberal Democratic candidates are themselves black, like Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). But more important, the eventual Democratic nominee will be facing off against Trump, who is viewed strongly unfavorably by 70 percent of nonwhite voters, according to a recent Fox News poll.
On the Democratic side, one of the lessons of 2016 was that elections shouldn't be taken for granted, something that will likely be at the forefront in the consideration of party voters as the November election approaches. The 2018 election showed what a Democratic electorate showing up in force looks like.
The idea that even moderate Democrats would be turned off by a more ideological party platform that Trump’s team has dubbed as socialist itself seems misguided. Most Americans, including most Republicans, want to raise taxes on the rich. Most Americans support expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. Most Americans want to see more direct action on climate change. The devil’s in the details, which Democratic candidates are working through at the moment. But those aren’t the sorts of things that moderate Democrats are going to look at and say “no, thanks.” They are, instead, a redefined agenda of the sort that might give weary Democrats more energy about the election — the sort of thing Cruz figured would spur turnout.
What’s particularly interesting about the Examiner’s report on the new energy among Trump supporters, though, is that the primary argument about that enthusiasm isn’t that a more-liberal Democratic candidate will turn off Democrats. It’s that it will bring Republicans back into the fold. They interview Republican strategist Liz Mair who says that, in a close contest between Trump and Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in her state, she would back Trump, despite her long-standing opposition to him.
In other words, the pitch is that a very ideological Democrat (in the eyes of some Republicans) might spur Republicans who hate Trump to vote for him anyway. So, in other words, Trumpworld is excited that his own party will be slightly more loyal than it was in 2016, when he won 9 in 10 Republican votes. That’s a weird thing to celebrate.
Put more simply, they’re excited that a Democrat running on a more liberal platform might get a few people who would normally vote Republican to overlook their distaste for Trump.
Trump might now secure Cruz’s vote, but we’re not sure that’s what a president coasting to reelection would normally be bragging about.