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In the US, a polarised public is missing the point of primaries

Playing safe by voting for popular candidates may not secure a Democrat win in 2020

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Image Credit: Marc Nozell

You could be forgiven, writes Alexander Burns in the New York Times, for thinking the entire Democratic party wants to run against President Trump. The current primary crop now numbers 23 candidates: enough to fill four 2016 Tory leadership contests, with space for a Boris to clone himself for spares. With such diverse policy ideas, there’s a Democrat for everyone in 2020: a truth not reflected by the fact that all pundits seem to be able to talk about is which one has the best chance of beating President Trump. A polarised, desperate public is less concerned with who has the best ideas in the primary, but rather, who can win the eventual Presidential election.

It’s understandable, really. If you have a rabid goose in your house, you don’t quiz the people that come to remove it on their methods, you just hope that they can get the thing gone before it pisses off your jumpy roommate Iran.The issue with this theory is that policy differences between Democratic candidates are stark: asking which one has the greatest chance of winning against Trump is entirely the wrong question. Voters should be looking at policy proposals, not who has the greatest appeal in the rust belt, or who is the most popular with the over-65s.

That doesn’t seem to be happening. A recent Monmouth University poll quoted in the Economist found that Democrat voters prioritised removing Trump over their party’s position on policy. That’s a problem for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the role of primaries in ‘sounding out’ the party base. The long campaign is not just an assessment of candidates, but a referendum on the values which will go on to shape the Presidential election. By muddying the waters with demographic calculation or name recognition,You could be forgiven, writes Alexander Burns in the New York Times, for thinking the entire Democratic party wants to run against President Trump. The current primary crop now numbers 23 candidates: enough to fill four 2016 Tory leadership contests, with space for a Boris to clone himself for spares. With such diverse policy ideas, there’s a Democrat for everyone in 2020: a truth not reflected by the fact that all pundits seem to be able to talk about is which one has the best chance of beating President Trump. A polarised, desperate public is less concerned with who has the best ideas in the primary, but rather, who can win the eventual Presidential election. It’s understandable, really. If you have a rabid goose in your house, you don’t quiz the people that come to remove it on their methods, you just hope that they can get the thing gone before it pisses off your jumpy roommate Iran.The issue with this theory is that policy differences between Democratic candidates are stark: asking which one has the greatest chance of winning against Trump is entirely the wrong question. Voters should be looking at policy proposals, not who has the greatest appeal in the rust belt, or who is the most popular with the over-65s. That doesn’t seem to be happening. A recent Monmouth University poll quoted in the Economist found that Democrat voters prioritised removing Trump over their party’s position on policy. That’s a problem for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the role of primaries in ‘sounding out’ the party base. The long campaign is not just an assessment of candidates, but a referendum on the values which will go on to shape the Presidential election. By muddying the waters with demographic calculation or name recognition,, Democrats will inevitably send mixed messages to their leadership. The Democrats could learn a thing or two from the Republican primary: had Donald Trump been judged on ‘electibility’ rather than the aggressive immigration policies that eventually proved popular in swing states, America would be a very different place.

Of course, talking about electability also pushes out lesser-known candidates with interesting ideas. By choosing candidates based on name recognition, and broad political appeal, interesting alternatives get lost in the noise. Take Andrew Yang, an Asian-American former CEO. He’s the only Presidential hopeful that supports a universal basic income: a periodic cash payment for every American citizen, regardless of wealth. The idea is hugely popular with millennial and ethnic minority Democratic members, but has been unsuccessful thus far in picking up steam, largely because pundits and the media regard Bernie Sanders, the better-known socialist, to be a more impressive brand for the party nomination. A focus on winnability isn’t just pushing out good ideas, it’s ignoring fringe candidates in favour of ‘safer’ options. Voters need only to go back to 2008, when a Obama (himself an outsider and first-time Senator,) won the nomination, to understand how problematic that is.

In fact, these ideas could, possibly, help win the Presidency. Most candidates are now aligned on healthcare, immigration, and some version of the Green New Deal. but to win in 2020, candidates will have to present more radical ideas. The most exciting policy proposals are happening at the bottom of the race. Cory Brooker, for example, now proposes a new licensing system for all firearms, whilst Amy Klobuchar has developed a trade platform that echoes President Trump in its attempt to protect American business from exploitation. Both proposals could prove popular with the general electorate, but they’re being dismissed right now as over-ambitious.

‘Playing safe’ with candidate selection will not enable the Democratic party to win the general election. The eventual nominee will face a media-savvy opponent with a clear policy platform, and a half-decent economy. Policies like Medicare might be important, but they're unlikely to capture voter imagination, and don’t present an original vision for America. It’s ironic that by preferring better-known candidates over others with more interesting policy ideas, the Democratic party is sowing the seeds of a possible 2020 defeat.

2016 proved that anyone can win the Presidency, but critics aren’t acting like it, and polling reflects that. The current data on the primaries amounts to little more than name recognition: the one exception being Pete Buttigieg, who has been boosted heavily by successful interviews on late night shows, among other appearances. Debates may help to bring exposure to flagging candidates, but if the Democratic party doesn’t start a better conversation about policy soon, they risk ceding control of the American political narrative yet again to Donald Trump.

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