Who can actually beat Trump?

A reader from Colorado asks the million dollar question.

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Donald Trump joins Dan Bishop on stage for a rally in North Carolina. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Q: Who do you think is going to be the best Democratic primary candidate to de-throne Trump? I feel like there are a lot of left and far-left candidates and to me, I see a powerhouse President/Vice President duo to take out Trump rather than a single figure to get behind. (i.e. Buttigieg & Yang — One being versed in foreign/military policy and the other being versed in tech/finance).

- Eric, Denver, CO

Tangle: This is the million dollar question. Who can beat Trump? It’s tough to glean a ton from the polls right now for a few reasons. 1) It’s so early on in the race that most of the country is not yet paying attention. If you’re reading this newsletter, you’re probably ahead of a majority of voters that will show up in 2020 (Congrats! Keep reading). At this point in the 2016 Republican primary, a bunch of candidates you probably don’t even remember seemed like surefire leaders. 2) A lot will happen between now and November of next year. Scandals, economic downturns or surges, new conflicts, public gaffes, etc. Someone like Elizabeth Warren, who seems like a surefire top candidate, could see her whole campaign go up in flames with a bad enough scandal. 3) Trump still hasn’t gotten a chance to center his ire on one candidate. One of the president’s biggest advantages in 2020 will be the fact he has the biggest megaphone and dominates free media. Whenever he knows who his opponent is, they will have to withstand months of coordinated attacks from him and his allies. I can imagine someone like Bernie Sanders holding up well against those attacks. It’s tougher for me to see a Cory Booker or Andrew Yang surviving them.

With all that mind, I’ll try to answer your question. A lot of this is conjecture, tied loosely to polling and based a lot on my instincts watching this race and seeing these candidates in person, on television and how they conduct themselves on social media.

First, I think it requires a bit of framing about 2016. One thing that’s often lost about the 2016 election is that it was people who fundamentally disliked Trump that elected him. Yes, you can read that sentence again: it was people who fundamentally disliked Trump that elected him. A lot of voters in the 2016 election were left choosing between two candidates they basically despised. Trump won the election because the majority of those voters, the in-betweeners, broke in his favor. Steve Kornacki of MSNBC, one of the most evenhanded pollsters on the planet, recently put it like this: voters chose the “detonate” button (Trump) instead of picking the establishment candidate who had years of baggage (Clinton). That’s something worth considering when you think about who Democrats should be sending to take down Trump in 2020.

Of course, the obvious answer is actually the establishment candidate, which makes this all the more confusing: Joe Biden. Every poll across the spectrum shows Biden blowing Trump out of the water, and despite his absurd list of gaffes Biden is polling better against Trump in the last few weeks than he has at anytime yet (remember what I was saying about how few people are actually paying attention right now?). The issue with Biden, of course, is that he is loathed by so many young left-wing voters I think he is a legitimate risk to stymie turnout. As crazy as that sounds, it leaves the Democrats walking a very thin tight rope.

So… who has far-left credentials that would invigorate young voters, suburban women, enough Democratic street credit to pull in moderates, and enough anti-establishment flavor to convert some people who voted for Trump in 2016? Well, nobody, really.

But the closest bet in my book is Bernie Sanders. I have a hard time imagining any registered Democrats abstaining from a vote, casting a ballot for a third party candidate or voting for Trump because they were scared off by Sanders. Of course, despite technically being an independent, Sanders’ far-left policies would end any chance of moderate Republicans or independents casting a ballot for Trump’s opponent. But at this point, I sincerely doubt there will be many Republicans voting for a Democrat anyway — if they hate Trump, they will probably just not vote (unless Biden is on the ticket) or write in a Republican they like. Bernie has also run into issues with the two of the most important kinds of voters in 2020: suburban women and the intersectional feminist types who would much prefer Warren or Kamala Harris. All that being accounted for, Sanders is running a much younger, more diverse campaign this time around. He has a diverse staff full of people of color and women who I believe are connecting at the grassroots level where he’s had blind spots in the past. Another part of my thought process here is that when the going gets tough, Sanders will do a lot better against the oppo research and scare tactics than Warren. She’s already been hit hard by her misleading claims of Native American ancestry, and most Americans still don’t even know she used to be a Republican. Sanders, on the other hand, and for better or for worse, has been unbelievably consistent in his views over the years. It’s going to be hard for Trump to punch a hole in his credibility because voters will trust his record. It’ll be even tougher for Trump to embarrass him during debates because Sanders comes off as relatable and laid back on stage. Finally, it’ll be tough to stave off the Sanders supporters. That’s because — much like Trump, and unlike the other Democratic candidates — Sanders has a big, fervently loyal, unabashedly proud base already formed. That’ll be a big advantage for his ground game.

As for creating a winning ticket, things get a bit tougher. I think the “dream team” for Democrats would actually be Warren-Buttigieg, as I don’t think any ticket will beat Trump without a woman on it. I also think Warren would rather be in the Senate than a Vice President, so I imagine she’s only in this to be the top of the ticket (same goes for Sanders). To play a bit of identity politics, Elizabeth Warren would bring in all the far-left economic policies, cover ground with women and establishment Democrats, and certainly turn out the vote in America’s biggest cities and amongst the most educated voters. Mayor Pete brings in military, LGBTQ and rust belt credentials. He’s a small-town guy with a very affable way about him, and I could see him exciting a lot of moderates who want something to grasp onto that isn’t Trump or Democratic socialism. Their combination has one major blindspot, which is women of color — an important voting bloc who are still looking for a candidate that speaks to their needs. But just because they’re struggling with that group now doesn’t mean they will be in a year. Also, Trump isn’t just underwater with black voters, he’s drowning.

So I’m not sure it matters much who he runs against so long as it isn’t someone who is really disliked by black voters in America. Without elaborating too much on my reasoning, since this is already getting quite long, here would be my top 5 “beat Trump” candidates and tickets, if I had to bet based on how things are today.

As president:

  1. Bernie Sanders

  2. Joe Biden

  3. Elizabeth Warren

  4. Andrew Yang

  5. Pete Buttigieg

As President-Vice President

  1. Warren-Buttigieg

  2. Sanders-Warren

  3. Biden-Warren

  4. Warren-Yang

  5. Sanders-Harris


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