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Democrats, Please Take Whatever Precautions Are Necessary To Prevent This Terrible Disaster

All of this has happened before.
April 13, 2019
Democrats, Please Take Whatever Precautions Are Necessary To Prevent This Terrible Disaster
(Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages)

Dear Democrats,

I’m a Republican and I’m here to help.

I want to help because we live in the same country and while our politics may diverge, our future is inextricably bound together.

And like a frantic Marty McFly trying to help Doc Brown, I need to warn you about that future.

I mean, sure, I don’t know the future. But your Democratic present is looking an awful lot like our Republican past. I’m worried there’s something taking shape in front of you that you can’t quite see. Or maybe you do see it, and aren’t as alarmed by it as I am.

Either way, it’s my firm belief that if you don’t do something to change course, America is going to be forced to choose between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2020.

And that’s no kind of choice at all.

Remember 2015? It was an exciting year for Republicans. There were 16 candidates running for president and a slight majority of them looked (at the time) like pretty good options. I remember spending a lot of time trying to decide which candidate in that distinguished pack would earn my vote. It was the rare election where Republicans weren’t going to have to choose between lesser evils. Whoever I voted for was going to be pretty solid. Maybe even great!

I liked Jeb(!) Bush a lot, but I was kind of over dynastic politics. Marco Rubio definitely looked like the future of the party, but was it his time? It was good to see Carly, Walker, and Rand in the mix, they had some interesting ideas. I wished Chris Christie hadn’t done that thing with shutting down the bridge. I knew that I probably agreed with him the most on substance, but it was a dick move and I knew we could do better. Rick Perry? He was meh, but still pretty okay. I could live him in a pinch. And sure, John Kasich was a bit cranky, but moderate midwestern governors are my jam. I kept wondering if I could bring myself to vote for Ted Cruz if it came down to him and Hillary.

So many great options! I couldn’t wait for those debates!

Sure, we were going to have to suffer through the usual culture warriors like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson. There’s always a market for that in a Republican primary. And then there was this clown Donald Trump who had that NBC show I’d never watched and was once married to that woman with the accent who does the cameo in First Wives Club. What a joke. Ignore.

In March of 2015 an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 74 percent of Republican primary voters couldn’t see themselves supporting Donald Trump. That was the highest number among all the candidates. By a lot. Only 23 percent of primary voters could even theoretically imagine themselves supporting him.

But there was something lurking beneath those numbers that we couldn’t see. Something emotional, but also mathematical. Something that only happens in a large field of candidates.

The same poll showed that 56 percent of Republican primary voters could see themselves voting for Marco Rubio; 53 percent could see themselves voting for Scott Walker; and 49 percent could see themselves voting for Jeb Bush. But it turned out that while those three candidates had much broader levels of support in the Republican electorate, they were generally sharing the same potential voters.

When the summer of 2015 hit and all the candidates had officially announced, Republican primary voters had to start choosing. Suddenly the votes were splintered among the candidates.

By late July there were only three candidates polling in the double digits. There was Scott Walker with 15 percent. And Jeb Bush with 14 percent. And Donald Trump with 19 percent. And it turned out that this was a deeply committed, very pissed off 19 percent. Because while Walker voters were open to voting for Bush and Bush voters were open to voting for Rubio, the Trump voters wanted no part of anything except MOAR TRUMP.

You know how this story ends. But in retrospect you can see where everything went wrong. And therein lies the cautionary tale for you, my Democratic friends.

In late September, despite having been at the top of the pack only a couple months earlier, Scott Walker dropped out of the race. He’d had a couple lousy debate performances and some other missteps. Here’s what he said when he dropped out:

Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field. . . . I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner. This is fundamentally important to the future of the party and, more importantly, to the future of our country.

And that was the moment when Donald Trump won the nomination. Because instead of heeding Walker’s call, most of the candidates stayed in and decided to battle each other for the supremacy of their respective lanes. They were so concerned with winning the “moderate” lane, or the “evangelical” lane that they didn’t bother to look at who was winning the actual race. They ignored Trump, who was consistently polling in first place, all alone in his “burn it all down” lane.

Or worse: Some of them—especially Ted Cruz—actively hugged Trump as tight as they could in the hopes of winning over Trump’s burn-it-all-down voters. As if anyone was going to win a bidding war with Donald Trump over chaos and disruption.

You may remember that in February of 2016 the big story was how Chris Christie shivved Marco Rubio in the final debate before the New Hampshire vote. Christie was, in theory, trying to get Rubio out of his “lane.” It didn’t work, of course. A few days later, Governor Christie dropped out, still a distant third in his lane. But the attack worked: Rubio faltered in New Hampshire and then bled out over the next month before eventually succumbing to his injuries in Florida.

And then, before you could say “please clap,” it was all over.

So I ask you, Democrats: Do you like Kamala Harris? Do you kind of dig Mayor Pete? Are you begging for Beto or Biden? Is Elizabeth Warren the policy revolutionary you’ve been waiting for? Would you take a binder to the head to see Klobochar get the nom? Does your heart swell for Swallwell? (No judgment. You do you.)

With the exception of Joe Biden—who isn’t even officially in the race yet—every one of those Democrats is consistently polling in the single digits.

And then there’s the roughly 20 percent of voters who are feeling the Bern and have donated over $18 million to the Sanders campaign in the last 6 weeks from 525,000 donors. Look at that number again. Now understand that at this point in 2007, Barack Obama—who was very much a movement—only had 104,000 individual donors.

And this, my friends, is the crux of my warning:




I know what you’re thinking. It’s early. Someone in the field will break out. Joe Biden is leading Sanders in every poll by 10 points and he’s eventually going to get in and take care of everything.

Maybe. But maybe not. Heed the lesson of Trump: Bernie Sanders voters are committed, devoted, and pissed, just like Trump’s were (and still are). And they aren’t going anywhere.

It gets worse: Bernie is already more palatable to Democratic voters than Trump was at this stage. Look at the ranked-choice polling and you see that for people whose first choice is Biden, Beto, Warren, and even Klobuchar, their second choice is . . . Bernie.

Bernie doesn’t do so well with Harris and Booker supporters. And maybe, in the end, African-American voters could save the Democratic party. But right now, Bernie has a rock-solid base and is poised to consolidate.

Now maybe you’re going to tell yourselves that Donald Trump is such a bad candidate that it doesn’t matter who you run against him. The general election matchup polling gives you some support there: Biden is far and away the strongest against Trump. But Bernie isn’t the weakest. If you give these hypothetical polls any credence, Bernie looks like a pretty generic Democrat.

Maybe you think Trump is so weak that it doesn’t matter who you nominate.

Again I say: Do you even remember 2016?

Donald Trump is dying to run against a bonafide socialist.

Why is that? Because the 40 seats Democrats picked up in 2018 were almost entirely due to the party running moderates in competitive districts where Dems were able to cannibalize right-leaning independents who disliked Donald Trump.

Give those voters a choice between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and maybe they stay home or maybe they flip back to voting Republican. Either way: Not good.

Incidentally, this is also the precise scenario in which we’re most likely to see the ascendency of Howard Schultz or some other independent candidate who can appeal to an underserved political middle.

(Side note: This is why I believe, more than anything, we need a Republican primary challenger to Trump.)

If I had a flux capacitor and considerably more influence I’d go back to those moments after Scott Walker dropped out and urge everyone under 10 percent to get out and throw their support behind others polling in top 3 or 4 positions.

The only thing I can do now is sound the alarm to Democrats. In a crowded field Bernie’s intractable 20 percent can quickly lead to plurality victories in early states and before you know it he’ll be too hard to attack because all of the second-tier candidates will be angling for cabinet positions in the Sanders administration. The only solution is for Democratic candidates to have the self-awareness to see that if they haven’t caught fire a few months before Iowa and New Hampshire, then it’s probably not going to happen. They need to get out early and throw their support behind a responsible candidate who can beat Bernie in a primary and Trump in a general.

And they need to stop trying to hug Bernie in the hopes of winning over his base. No matter how progressive you are, you’re never going to win a bidding war with Bernie Sanders on the subject of socialism.

Most Americans don’t want to choose between a socialist party and a nativist party. But if Bernie isn’t stopped early and no Republican challenges Trump for the nomination, that’s the binary choice we’ll be facing.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.