The Thrill Is Gone? Dems Seem Bored with Their Presidential Candidates

(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

It’s a long way down from “Hope and Change” to “Succumb to the Inevitable,” but that’s the level of excitement generated by the 2020 Dem contenders. Sad!

Jonathan Easley writes for The Hill that “soft levels of support mark this year’s Democratic primary” and is the defining feature of this year’s frontrunners, “even after an intense focus on the race by the national media.” You can shine a light on Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, but it seems you can’t make any of them shine.

Maybe the problem isn’t the candidates, but the primary voters. Or at least that’s the message sent by both Easley’s report and in Russell Berman’s latest for The Atlantic. Both stories indicate that electability — “who can beat Trump” — is primary voters’ primary concern. But apparently, nobody can decide which candidate enjoys that indefinable quality.

Berman quotes Portsmouth, N.H., resident Elizabeth Keniston saying, “Whoever can beat Trump is most important. I want him in prison,” which makes it sound like she’s looking for a combination of a presidential winner and an FBI agent. In any case, she’s probably going to need somebody tougher than Slow Joe to put the manacles on Trump. Nevertheless, of Biden she said, “I like the other platforms better, but I think he’s the only one the middle of the country might vote for. I usually vote for the person I want. But this year I’m going to be more thoughtful. I look at polls.”

Berman adds:

Electability has long been a factor in the nomination battles of both parties, its significance varying from election to election. But the still-fresh shock of Trump’s 2016 victory and the desperation that many Democrats feel to get him out of office has elevated the concern to a higher priority than ever before, as I saw in interviews across New Hampshire. Electability has turned citizens such as Keniston, a 77-year-old nurse from nearby Stratham, New Hampshire, into amateur pundits themselves: They are basing their choice less on which candidate appeals the most to them than on which one they believe will appeal the most to others.

But is that wise? An aging nurse who believes Trump belongs in jail (support for impeachment, much less arrest, remains weak) might not exactly have her finger on the pulse of the nation. Or as Democratic pollster Chris Kofinis told Berman, “There’s a segment that thinks a centrist or a moderate is best to beat Trump. Others think you need someone from the left to rally the base. A third segment has no idea.”

What does all this voter confusion mean for the candidates themselves? Kamala Harris, once thought to be the youngish/intersectional/progressive alternative to Biden, now faces a “crossroads” in a campaign that has “lost steam” in recent weeks. Bernie Sanders, whose support seems to have softened since his electrifying (well, if you’re into that kind of thing) 2016 effort? He’s now punching down, as it were, at Harris, and also at Elizabeth Warren. Edward Hardy writes for The Independent that “the increase in attacks clearly reveals that Sanders and his campaign team are concerned” with softening poll numbers.

Warren, for her part, is the one Democrat showing some new strength, drawing larger crowds — but can she pass the electability test? Putting an older (and if we’re being honest, not terribly charismatic) woman up against Trump in 2020 would feel a bit like a repeat of 2016. Or as Steve Peoples wrote for the AP last Friday, “Just 9% of Democrats and those leaning Democratic think Warren has the best chance to win a general election.” That’s according to a new Quinnipiac poll, in which Dem voters believe by a wide margin — 49% of a huge field — that Biden has the best chance to win.

And yet…

Biden, who showed improved performance in the second round of debates, is also showing signs of fading. Pollster Doug Schoen reports that Biden’s “poll numbers have leveled off,” and in recent weeks he’s been more gaffe-prone than ever. Biden let loose that he prefers “truth over facts,” that he was still Vice President in 2018, claimed yesterday that “Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King Were Assassinated in the ’70s,” and last week confused Houston and Michigan for El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. How bad is it, really? Biden’s increasing dotage has become apparent enough that Dr. Neal Kassell, who operated on Biden’s brain 30 years ago, felt the need to tell POLITICO that the 76-year-old one-time brain-surgery recipient isn’t too old to be president. “He is every bit as sharp as he was 31 years ago. I haven’t seen any change,” Kassell said, although Biden’s uptick in gaffes do make one wonder.

If electability is the goal, then where is the money, the oil that fuels every campaign? The Daily Caller reported yesterday that DNC chair Tom Perez “will hold three fundraisers for American ex-patriots [sic] in Mexico, as Democrats struggle to keep pace with Republicans in fundraising.” Just make sure they’re all genuine Americans, Tom, because taking campaign funds from foreigners is wrong… and something Democrats would never, ever do. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

POLITICO revealed on Monday that Biden’s “online fundraising has tailed off, suggesting problems generating grassroots enthusiasm.” And just today, the Los Angeles Times headlined, “Bernie Sanders’ famed $27 donors are split in 2020’s sprawling Democratic field.” As for Warren, ongoing controversy forced her to apologize — in a sorry-not-sorry way — to Native American groups on Monday in Sioux City, Iowa, mostly to big yawns.

So who passes the electability test? I know it’s early, but if I had to put my money on just one candidate, it would have to be Donald Trump.