Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Haunting

The 2020 Dems are being chased by the ghosts of Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.
January 28, 2020
The Haunting

A couple political ghost stories for you:

An elderly firebrand with a cult of celebrity launches a campaign driven by utter disdain for the very party for which he wants to be the standard bearer. In fact, he isn’t even a member of the party at all. He lacks all the traditional markers of candidate success: endorsements, support among the party’s big donors, popularity with the mainstream press—but he monopolizes the Freak Show.

His supporters come from pockets of the country (and the internet) that have been rejected or mocked by many of these status makers. They are angry at those who have shunned them: at the elites, the big corporations, politicians. Often it seems as though they are angry about their own lives. They have a devil-may-care attitude about civility and political discourse and norms, a macabre humor about the whole political charade, and a strain of misogyny within their ranks.

Their movement creates new types of political celebrities who would be totally unrecognizable to your average news consumer but have hundreds of thousands of rabid online followers.

Throughout the campaign there is a growing sense that this campaign is stronger than people initially thought possible. But still, the smart set who frequent cable TV panels and give paid speeches tamp down the concern that the candidate might actually win. 

“The campaign shows the deep frustrations in the country, but his support has a ceiling,” they say. Or: “Once the field narrows he’ll be passed by more mainstream candidates.” Or: “The party never nominates someone so far out on the fringe.”

These poobahs are certain that in the off chance the candidate does win the primary, he is toast in the general.

But as the New Year turns over, polls show big leads in the early primary states. And a divided opposition is more focused on jockeying among themselves to be the main “alternative” than on taking out the populist guerilla campaign. The enthusiasm surrounding the insurgent is palpable and he draws massive crowds motivated to overturn a corrupt establishment.

Spooky, right?

Another tale:

An ex-politician returns to battle for another run at the White House. He’s statesman-like, if gaffe prone. He’s well-known among party regulars and his popularity with them elevates him to the top of the polls. His performance on the trail is shaky at times, but passable, and his support remains steady in the year leading up to the Iowa caucuses while other, flashier opponents rise and fall. Despite some of his deficiencies as a candidate, he benefits from a clear contrast message with an unpopular incumbent president. He leads in endorsements and other traditional markers of candidate strength that some think are from a bygone era.

Throughout the campaign there is a growing sense that the party may be moving away from him, that his support will crack. In his prior runs at the White House he was more in the center of the party’s ideological spectrum, but this time he’s teetering off the moderate edge. Stray comments reveal him to be severely out-of-step with the nomenclature of the base. The energy that was channeled by the new grassroots movements that powered the party’s landslide midterm victory isn’t really palpable in his campaign.

As the New Year turns over, he sees two main threats to his nomination, both of whom are running to what would have once been thought of as the extreme end of the party. So the safe money stays on him staving them off in a campaign that ends up being closer than it might’ve been.

Feeling haunted yet?

The question then, is which of these Republican ghosts of Caucus past is the Democrats’ ghost of Caucus future?

Any comparison of this nature is going to have limits, of course. The animating elements behind the Trump, Sanders, Biden, and Romney campaigns are different. The quality of their primary opponents is different. The electorates they are trying to appeal to are different. Their personal character traits are . . . what is the superlative of different? The differentest?

But having been on the front lines of the 2012 and ’16 Republican primary campaigns, I can say with confidence that the parallels between the two parties facing populist insurrection exacerbated by a democratized media landscape and manifesting itself in the presidential candidates are very real. The question is how the chips fall and whether the Democrats in 2020 are ripe for an outsider to take the mantle. Or whether the traditional front-runner will keep a grasp on the previous generation’s Democratic coalition for one last cycle.

When determining which alternate future will manifest in our timeline the relevant questions are: (1) Has the Democratic party permanently changed to the point where the populist democratic socialists have the majority? (2) What factors in this particular horse race will break to favor one future over the other?

Let’s take the second question first.

Grand historical trends are sometimes the result of underlying dialectics. But sometimes they’re actually quite contingent, being driven by circumstance. The winner of a party primary is just as often the beneficiary of a fortuitous string of events as they are The Right Man For The Moment™.

In Romney’s case, he had good fortune to end up with two main rivals—Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum—who split the forces most opposed to his rise (those would be populist Republicans and social conservatives). Had, say, Chris Christie entered the 2012 campaign—remember, he flirted with the idea openly—it’s not hard to imagine that the final three candidates would have been Romney, Christie, and Gingrich. And if the primary had shaken out like that, it’s very possible that it would’ve been Newt winding up with plurality support and giving Republicans their populist moment four years ahead of schedule.

Trump had similar good fortune in 2016, drawing rivals who determined that beating up each other to become the last man standing against a buffoonish, obviously-not-viable reality star would be a better strategy than actually trying to defeat said buffoon from the start. Whoops.

Biden and Sanders are hoping to be similarly lucky in their enemies. And as it stands today you could see how each of them might float down their ghostly GOP doppelganger’s path if the chips fall the right way.

A week out from the Iowa caucuses, Biden’s position and path to victory is indistinguishable from Romneys in 2012. His RealClear Politics polling averages give him 22 percent in Iowa and 29 percent nationally. At the equivalent time in 2012, Mitt was at 22 percent in Iowa and 25 percent nationally. The candidate who seemed like Biden’s most formidable challenger from an ideological, demographic, and fundraising perspective, Kamala Harris rose and fell in July, long before the votes could be cast. For Romney, that challenger was Rick Perry and his stock chart mirrored Kamala’s, oopsing his way out of contention in September.

What remained for Mitt were two fringe characters who ran hard to his right and were boosted by loyal ideologues and conservative media.

Santorum and Newt were weaker candidates than Warren and Sanders, both from the perspective of traditional measurables (fundraising/endorsements) and intangibles (candidate skills/credibility with elites and gatekeepers).

But their potential to derail Romney was much stronger than people remember in hindsight. And if you add in Ron Paul’s vote share—which we now know wasn’t libertarian so much as proto-Trumpian—those three finished with about 45 percent of the popular vote. Which tracks with what you might expect from Sanders and Warren in a prolonged, multi-candidate battle.

Romney eventually won out, but it was a close-run thing.

So let’s look at the other parallel.

Sanders’ current position in the polls is not quite as strong as Trump’s was at the same time in 2016. But if you dispense with the averages and look at the recent polling data, Red Bernie’s numbers are starting to look downright Orange. This past weekend the New York Times/Siena poll showed him carrying a 7 point lead into Iowa while NBC’s poll had him up by 5 in New Hampshire with the trendline pointing up in both places. If he can ride a late surge to big victories in two of the early primary states, he would find himself in a Trumpian poll position, while the remaining surviving candidates (Warren? Pete? Amy? Biden? Bloomberg?) fight among themselves until it’s too late to stop him.

Jonathan Martin reported on how this “2016 redux” is playing out in Iowa as the non-Bernie candidates fracture the non-socialist vote. He quotes Amy Kloubachar summing up the prisoner’s dilemma: “Why would I get out while [Bloomberg’s] still in?”

Obama’s 2008 Iowa spokesman Tommy Vietor put it this way:

That tweet could literally have been from a 2016 GOP primary time capsule if you change “Bernie” to “Trump.”

In the end, whether it’s the Sanders or Biden future may depend on which of the other candidates have the stubbornness to stay around long enough to become a problem.

That is, unless, the competing tides of electability or energy don’t wash away chance.

Regardless of how this nominating contest turns out, one thing is certain: The Democratic party is changing and the old guard is being thrown out in favor of politicians more in line with the populist and progressive grassroots. The question is no longer if it will happen but whether it happens by Memorial Day 2020.

Having lived through a similar takeover, I promise you that all the signs are there.

Establishment figures making deep concessions to politicians that they loathe but are afraid to alienate. Weakening party institutions slowly being subverted by populist insurgents. Retreating to the last island bastion of arguing about electability. Been there, done that, got the GOP autopsy t-shirt.

You don’t have to believe me—the polls of young voters tells the same story. In survey after survey, Bernie dominates the opposition among voters 18 to 29. He was the canary in the coal mine in 2016. Now he’s positioned to be the standard bearer.

But he hasn’t taken over yet and the fight within the party is still real and spectacular.

As Biden attempts to fend off the Bernie hordes, he has two powerful defenses at his disposal: Equally profound loathing of the current president of the United States and love for his predecessor among the Democratic electorate. The possibility of the kooky Bernie Bros driving the party off the cliff is a concern in the minds of many Democrats. Just as Republicans feared putting up some of our more colorful contenders against Obama (Nine! Nine! Nine!) some DSA-curious Democrats are cautious about taking such a risk at this moment. “I love Bernie, but…” is a common refrain on the campaign trail and polls show that Democrats care more about beating Trump than policy issues, with Biden handily beating Bernie on the electability question.

And despite what you may have heard, the tales of the Obama-ified Democratic party’s total demise might be a bit premature. The former president is still insanely popular within the party—much more so than George W. Bush was during the 2012 campaign. Remember that Bush was not invited to speak at the convention that year—a snub that is hard to imagine any Democratic nominee doing to Obama. In fact a recent Harvard/Harris poll measuring the Democratic party’s factions found that a plurality of voters still describe themselves as “Obama Democrats,” four times more than the popular labels of the online left like progressive or Democratic Socialist. That’s a big advantage for Biden. In 2016, when Trump took over, these populist antibodies had all but disappeared from the GOP.

Does this signal that we are still four or eight years away from Democratic nominee AOC? Are the institutional sea walls still holding off the rising populist tides? Or is it time for everyone to grab their mops and buckets?

The answer is still incorporeal, but it can be found somewhere in the last two GOP contests. So for now you can choose your own adventure.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.