For Democrats in 2020, winning isn't everything — it's the only thing

In hyperbolic, hyper-partisan America, some Democrats fear the country as they know it will disappear if Donald Trump is re-elected; some Republicans fear civil war if he isn't.

Iowa, New Hampshire could be decisive in search for Democratic nominee

Democratic front-runners Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden. Democrats believe they can win in November — and they also believe they must win. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters, Monica Almeida/Reuters, Bastiaan Slabbers/Reuters)

If electability is the test, then here's a statistic Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar might have found handy in their argument for a female nominee at Tuesday night's Democratic debate: the last two white men to win the party's presidential nomination — Al Gore in 2000  and John Kerry in 2004 — both lost in the subsequent general election. 

The most Gore/Kerry-like candidate in this Democratic primary happens to be the front-runner, former vice-president Joe Biden. So the beauty of the argument, at least for Warren and Klobuchar, is that they wouldn't even have to mention his name while they tried to vaporize his perceived advantage.

It speaks to how all-important the ability to win is in this primary season, which kicks off with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in a couple of weeks.

And no, primaries aren't always like that. 

When their short-term prospects have looked dismal, both parties have indulged in passionate soul-searching primaries about what they will stand for in the long run. (See the Democrats and Jesse Jackson against Ronald Reagan in 1984 or the Republicans and Pat Buchanan against Bill Clinton in 1996.)

But winning is definitely what this primary is about. That's partly because Democrats believe they can win in November and partly because they believe they must win.

In hyperbolic, hyper-partisan America, some Democrats fear the country as they know it will disappear if Donald Trump is re-elected; some Republicans fear civil war if he isn't. To borrow the football line, in 2020, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. 

WATCH | 'The only people on this stage who have won every single election they've been in are the women' — Elizabeth Warren makes her electability argument:

Sen. Bernie Sanders denied at a Democratic presidential debate Tuesday evening in Des Moines, Iowa, he told Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a private 2018 meeting that a woman couldn't win the presidency. 'I didn't say it.' On the debate stage, Warren argued the real danger for Democrats 'is picking a candidate who can't pull our party together.' 2:55

Biden popular with African-American voters

So for all the talk of health care, income inequality and left versus further left, it's no wonder the struggle for the soul of the Democratic party is, for many Democrats at this moment, a struggle that can wait until after they've rid the White House of Trump.

And how is that project going anyway? It looks like it might come down to how the African-American vote, crucial to winning the nomination, is already sizing up.

Thus far, two of the three African-American candidates, senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, have dropped out of the race before the first ballot is cast, and no one can see a credible path forward for the third: former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. He hasn't qualified for a debate and isn't likely to.

African-American voters generally like Biden. A recent poll showed Biden with 48 per cent support among African Americans, and a commanding 28-point lead over his nearest rival, Bernie Sanders. 

The withdrawal of Senators Cory Booker, left, and Kamala Harris, from the nomination race has left only one African American candidate: former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who has yet to qualify for a debate. (Tom Williams/Reuters)

Wild card

There's a wild card who political observers agree they can't see winning but almost superstitiously won't count out: three-term mayor of New York and multibillionaire Michael Bloomberg.  

He's eschewed the usual conventions of the Democratic primary process — can't be bothered with Iowa and New Hampshire, for example — and his views align with only a small proportion of voters who are socially liberal and economically conservative. 

But he is throwing piles of cash into television advertising in states that come later in the primary schedule, and campaigning on his spectacularly successful record in business and at least somewhat successful record as mayor.  

Three-term mayor of New York and multibillionaire Michael Bloomberg could be a wild card in the Democratic race. His views align with only a small proportion of voters who are socially liberal and economically conservative, but he has a record of success in business and politics. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

As for the rest, Iowa and New Hampshire will winnow down the field. Biden will continue on to the first big state for African-Americans: South Carolina. Sanders, as we learned in 2016, never quits. For Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg, the end will come when the money runs out.

This is not the field Democrats imagined a year ago. With its pale complexion — all the realistic contenders are white — and surfeit of billionaires (two), it's probably not the look they were going for. 

1st impeached president to contest

Conventional wisdom gives Trump the advantage in November thanks to a relatively strong economy and the prestige of incumbency in the Oval Office. A significant majority of Americans tell pollsters they believe he'll win, even though a significant majority also says they hope he doesn't.

One of the lessons of the 2016 election — perhaps the most important lesson — is to confront conventional wisdom with rational skepticism. 

Trump has never been above 45 per cent public approval in either of the most respected polling averages — and — and usually he's closer to 42-43 per cent. No U.S. president with that bad a polling record has ever been re-elected. 

WATCH | The Democrats who will present the impeachment case at the Senate trial speak to media:

Led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrats unveiled their impeachment team and justified the process that lies ahead 1:29

Plus, in the exclusive category of impeached presidents — Trump is now the third in U.S. history — he'll be the first to contest for re-election. Trump understands impeachment is not something he can brag about. And though he will use it to play the victim to his base, his base is not big enough to re-elect him.  

So, maybe the question for the 2020 election is this: Will it look more like the one in 2016 or the one in 2018?

In 2016, a relative handful of votes in key states — 77,000 in all — gave Trump the White House in an electoral college victory even though he lost the popular vote. 

In 2018, a massive turnout of Democrats, stirred up by Trump to vote against him, overwhelmed Republicans at the polls and won the party the House of Representatives in the biggest midterms landslide since 1974.

Ilhan Omar was one of the Democrats elected to the House of Representatives in the party's sweep of the midterm elections in November 2018. (Eric Miller/Reuters)

Based on Trump's approval record over three years, it would be an astonishing turnaround if he were to win the popular vote in November. If he doesn't, but wins the presidency in the electoral college again anyway, that will be the sixth time in history that's happened, the third time in this century a Republican president has done it and the second time that president is Trump. George W. Bush did it in 2000.

Which brings us back to Warren, Klobuchar and that thing about the last couple of white men to lead the party. The reason Bush won the 2000 election was that it came down to a recount in Florida. And the reason that happened was that Gore fumbled the ball in his own end zone and lost the vote in his home state, Tennessee.

Another point for Warren and Klobuchar to remember when they're making the case for giving the ball to a woman this time.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was one of just 6 candidates — and one of just two women — who qualified for Tuesday's first Democratic presidential primary debate of 2020. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

About the Author

Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.