Published 13th October 2020

Americans just want to make politics boring again: Alex Tureman

In 2016, the Democratic Party's voter base fell apart. In 2020, it is held together by the belief that Donald Trump can still win.

Australian Financial Review | October 13, 2020

There’s a reason why Donald Trump has been on the attack against Joe Biden – he knows Biden can win.

There’s no two ways about it. Middle-of-the-road suburban Americans, especially women, want off the Trump train. They have chaos fatigue. They want decency. They want to make politics boring again.

Since January, Biden has consistently led President Trump in hypothetical head-to-head polls by eight points, give or take a few. This race has been incredibly steady in unsteady times. Today, according to the RealClearPolitics averages, Biden sits at plus 9.7 nationally and plus 4.5 in the all-important battleground states. Too close for comfort, but a lead nonetheless.

Through a Democratic primary with nearly 30 candidates, impeachment, the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 210,000 American lives lost to the virus, shutdowns and an economic cratering, 20 per cent unemployment, societal unrest, a mess of a debate, and Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis … the former vice-president has led by about eight points the entire time. It’s remarkable.

An argument can be made that many voters made up their minds a long time ago.

We saw this in the 2018 mid-term elections when Democrats took back the House of Representatives and won nine governorships on the backs of moderate Democratic candidates.

While figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez captured headlines as the new face of progressivism, the candidates who ultimately led to a Democratic majority in the House were moderates.

Candidates such as Conor Lamb, who won the Pennsylvania 18th congressional district in a 2018 special election. In 2016, Donald Trump won the Pennsylvania 18th by 19 points over Hillary Clinton. In 2018, just 1½ years a later, Lamb squeezed in with a win in what would undoubtedly be described as “Trump country”. But why?

It became clear in March as more diverse states started voting in the primaries that Biden was building a broad coalition.

Lamb proved to be the silver bullet for the Democratic Party in the race. Had the Democrats run a left-wing liberal, they would have been trounced. But Lamb was conservative and populist enough to win, as a Democrat, on Trump’s turf.

He supported strengthening Obamacare, but also appealed to cultural conservatives by saying he supports a women’s right to choose even though he personally opposes abortion. He supported natural gas exploration, a critical Pennsylvania industry. He supported background checks to buy guns, but also defended the right to bear arms.

These are not positions that are in line with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, but they are positions that paved the way for a Democratic majority in the House.

Like Australia, the US is a coalition-based political system, but unlike Australia there are only two parties. Within those two parties are a dizzying array of factions.

Politics is a game of addition. In 2016, Trump won by building a fervent base and convincing a majority of soft Republicans and swing independents to take a shot on him. He built a winning coalition while diminishing Hillary Clinton’s attempt to do the same.

Since 2016, Trump has made no effort to appeal to those swing independents. He didn’t build upon his base. The economy was Trump’s saving grace in 2018, but that did not help the Republicans to hold the House. Democrats played the 2018 cycle well, but it wasn’t far-left candidates who won swing seats. It was moderates like Lamb.

In the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, there were far-left candidates like Sanders, next-generation party leaders like Pete Buttigieg, business figures like Michael Bloomberg and New Democrats like Michael Bennet. But who ultimately proved victorious? Biden.

Arguments against picking Biden

There was a litany of arguments about why Biden wasn’t the right pick. He’s too old. He’s too conservative. He’s too optimistic that he’ll be able to work with Republicans. He doesn’t appeal to younger voters. And on and on …

But it became clear in March, as more diverse states like South Carolina, Michigan, Texas and Virginia started voting, that Biden was building a broad coalition. That big tent could prove to be a winning formula for him when the dust settles in November.

The one thing that unites Democrats of every ilk is antipathy towards Trump. It’s the primary driving factor behind the coalition. Democratic voters throughout the primary season consistently said the most important factor for them in picking a candidate was the challenger’s ability to beat Trump.

In 2016, the Democratic coalition splintered off because of third-party candidates, negative sentiments among soft Democrats and independents towards Clinton, and apathy driven by the electorate thinking Trump could never win.

All of those things are gone in 2020. There are no credible third-party candidates. Most voters like Biden: as of this week, his favourables are higher than his unfavourables. And it’s perfectly clear to Democrats that Trump could (and may) win again. These three drivers are helping Biden’s candidacy.

Additionally, Biden is no Sanders. He is not radical, and that’s in plain view as Trump has discarded that line of attack in favour of a line that’s equally hard to believe but plays better with the base: that Biden is a puppet. That hasn’t stuck either, and since Biden won the Democratic nomination Trump’s usually killer put-down strategy has been more of a “see what sticks” strategy. And nothing has stuck.

Lastly, time is running out to define Biden. Americans are already voting. Biden is not a liberal. He won’t hike up taxes on the middle and working classes. He won’t defund the police. He won’t take your guns. He won’t eliminate private healthcare.

In 2018, Democrats won because they appealed to the middle electorate that was over the President’s antics. In 2020, when the world is even more disorienting, many suburban Americans are exhausted from and disappointed in their country’s leader. A lot of Americans are yearning for a sense of normalcy. They want someone who will listen to the other side, even if that person doesn’t agree with them.

So with three weeks on the clock, it’s easy to see why Donald Trump believes this is Joe Biden’s race to lose.

Published by the Australian Financial Review.

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