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What Will Democrats Demand Of Their 2020 Nominee?

In this week’s politics chat, we take stock of how the Democratic Party has changed since President Trump won the White House. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): What do Democrats want? There’s been a ton of attention on the Trump administration revolving around his first 100 days, but we’ve also learned a bit about what the Democratic Party will look like in the Trump era. Ron Brownstein at The Atlantic did a nice job of summarizing the issue:

Though Trump’s agenda has unified Democrats in near-term opposition, clear fault lines have quickly emerged about the party’s long-term strategy to regain power. On one side are those — largely affiliated with Senator Bernie Sanders — arguing for a biting message of economic populism, which is intended largely to recapture working-class white voters that stampeded to Trump in 2016. On the other are party strategists who want Democrats to offer a more centrist economic message, aimed primarily at reassuring white-collar suburbanites drawn to the party mostly around cultural issues.

So, which wing is ascendant? And how has that changed in the last few years and since Trump was elected?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I think what we’re really asking here is: Did 2016 actually change the Democratic universe? Are the prerequisites the same?

micah: Yeah, that’s better. Are there new litmus tests? Or, what are the litmus tests?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I read a piece asking if the Democratic candidate in 2020 needed to be in favor of single payer. That may be a good clarifying question.

micah: What do people think?

perry: Bernie Sanders is for that, of course. I saw Cory Booker asked about that recently and he gave a somewhat meandering answer. (His office told Vox that “Medicare for all is one of those ideas that must be considered.”

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): If I had to guess, I’d think the 2020 nominee might support some type of supercharged public option. Not quite Medicare for all, but Medicare for anyone who wants it.

clare.malone: I’m with Nate on the public option.

micah: Side note: Does Booker really have a chance? With populist and anti-establishment winds blowing strong in the Democratic Party, isn’t Booker an odd fit for 2020?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): He has as much of a shot as Donald Trump had of winning the Republican nomination at this point. 😉

natesilver: Yeah, there are some candidates I have trouble seeing a constituency for. Booker. Andrew Cuomo. But ya never know.

clare.malone: Booker is a no.

harry: There will likely be room to run to the left on health care in 2020, but it’s not clear how far to the left.

perry: Just help me understand, on the Booker thing.

Who is more Barack Obama-like than Booker? Why is he such a bad candidate?

clare.malone: Booker got tons of campaign cash from Wall Street. That’s a whole line of attack ads right there.

micah: What Clare said. Obama was more of an “outsider” and wasn’t connected to Wall Street at the hip.

clare.malone: Booker is a technocrat.

natesilver: Getting into subjective territory here, but I think he comes across as less authentic than Obama.

micah: What are some other good clarifying litmus tests?

natesilver: A $15 minimum wage?

perry: I think if a Mark Warner-style candidate gets in, maybe he opposes that. But yes, a $15 minimum wage feels like a litmus test that the winner will have to pass.

natesilver: I’m interested in the minimum wage, in part, because by the time we get to 2020, we’ll actually have quite a bit of data on how well the much higher minimum wages that some states and cities have implemented are working.

clare.malone: #data

natesilver: #journalism

micah: #fakenews

harry: Well, Hillary Clinton didn’t want a $15 minimum wage — or, at least she didn’t fight for it. I mean $12 is probably a litmus test, but $15? I’m less sure.

clare.malone: She eventually bumped it up during the general, right?

micah: She fudged it a bit more, I think?

harry: She obfuscated.

clare.malone: Here it is:

Hillary believes the minimum wage should be a living wage, and she will work to get to a $15 minimum wage over time, with appropriate variations for regions with a higher cost of living.”

perry: The platform had $15. So it may be hard to back away from that. Unless the data, as Nate said, showed it doesn’t work.

natesilver: One other dynamic … in 2016, it was pretty clear that Democrats were not going to retake the House. So, to some extent, Clinton’s opinion on a $15 minimum wage was purely theoretical. By 2020, they might have a chance at the House — and the Senate — which could change the incentives a bit when the policies you advocate for could actually become law.

harry: I don’t think platforms are that important, but it’s probably an issue you don’t want to be further right on than the rest of the field. The minimum wage is generally very popular, no matter the state.

natesilver: Yeah. The minimum wage is one of the most popular parts of the leftist economic platform. So it’s a pretty safe thing for centrist Democrats to throw out there as a bone to the left.

perry: There will be Black Lives Matter and immigration litmus tests. I don’t quite know the questions yet.

clare.malone: See, I think Black Lives Matter is the most complicated one because Democrats really do see that as a premier issue, but the people who voted for Trump often see it as an “anti-police” issue.

natesilver: What if the murder rate — which is one of the measures we’re tracking to gauge Trump’s success — rises quite a bit while he’s in office?

micah: So what’s the Democratic nominee’s position on BLM?

clare.malone: Pro. But maybe not front and center. I’d imagine the Democratic nominee focusing on racial economic injustice — loan discrimination, pay discrimination, etc.

harry: If you want to win delegates in the South, you have to be seen as pro racial justice. I guess the question is what the focus will be, as Clare said.

perry: So BLM. I think this is where candidates matter. Booker, Kamala Harris — if they run for president — I assume can’t be 100 percent pro BLM. I think a black candidate has to be somewhat more careful on those issues, although I could be wrong. I think all the other candidates will be pushed to be pretty 100 percent in line with BLM-style positions: greater scrutiny of cops, sharp language around racial inequality, speaking bluntly about police incidents where people of color are injured or killed.

It’s likely that some candidate who is not white will run. And their positioning on racial issues is likely different than a white person’s would be.

clare.malone: Harris is interesting for sure.

natesilver: Someone ought to mention here that Sanders had a real tough time picking up black voters. I can’t speak to all the issues there, but there does seem to be some tension between the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and the African-American base.

clare.malone: I think that’s why Keith Ellison is out there so much, Nate.

perry: Booker, Harris, I just think that dynamic is part of the issue. The last two Democratic nominees won in part by overwhelmingly winning the black vote.

harry: One reason Sanders had trouble picking up black voters is because he ran down the Democratic Party brand. We’re talking so much about outsiders, but African-American Democrats aren’t liberal as much as they are Democratic.

natesilver: Buy, sell or hold: There’s a 40 percent chance that the nominee of the Democratic Party in 2020 will be a heterosexual white man.

micah: Sell.

clare.malone: Buy.

harry: I’m going to hold.

micah: I guess I’m selling the white, male, straight Democratic candidates currently in the 2020 pool, but buying the structural forces that will push in that direction?

clare.malone: Ummm. OK, so you’re wavering?

natesilver: I mean, you’re getting Joe Biden and Sanders there. Aren’t they worth almost 40 percent by themselves?

micah: No. There’s gonna be 200 candidates.

perry: Hold. I think there will be demand for a white heterosexual man. But the people who currently look like the strongest potential candidates aren’t white, heterosexual men. (Think Elizabeth Warren.)

natesilver: Worth thinking about: It may be more politically palatable for a heterosexual white man to hold “radical” policy positions than someone who isn’t those things.

perry: Yes, yes, what Nate said. Booker and Harris can’t run around talking about socialism. Neither could Obama.

micah: Perry, stop being nice. Nate was just repeating what you had already said.

clare.malone: Guys (heh), never underestimate the institutional preference for a straight, white man.

That’s all I’m saying in general here.

micah: That’s what I meant by “structural forces.”

clare.malone: There was a piece last week about how Theo Epstein was the second coming, for God’s sake.

He saved baseball, he could save America!

micah: Haha.

perry: lol.

micah: Back to BLM …

I have no idea if this was true, but I always got the feeling that the Sanders campaign had polling showing that his supporters, who were overwhelmingly white, would be turned off by a more direct stance on racial justice. He certainly behaved that way.

And that could be a problem for a populist Democratic candidate in 2020. Racial vs. economic justice is often falsely portrayed as an either/or, but maybe there is some tension there?

perry: Hmm, Sanders had white supporters. But he had older, rural people and young, urban people. I think the latter are fine with racial stuff, though maybe the former aren’t.

natesilver: Micah, are you asking what percent of the Democratic base is racist?

micah: Basically.

perry: I don’t think racist is the right term. But I do think that full-throated BLM support is not a great place to be in if you are trying to win voters who chose Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

natesilver: We actually looked at that in 2014 and found that about 20 percent of white Democrats exhibited significant degrees of anti-black racism.

That number may have fallen a tick because some of those voters have left the Democratic Party since then.

perry: But Sanders lost. If I’m trying to win the Democratic primary, I would first try to figure out if I could win 1. the upper-income white liberals who want to be perceived as progressive on racial issues, 2. blacks, 3. Latinos.

clare.malone: I think you’re just trying to win college-educated whites. I agree with the other two.

natesilver: With Democrats using a proportional allocation method for delegates — and with fewer superdelegates in 2020 than in 2016 — you could wind up with a pretty high risk of a BrOkErEd CoNvEnTiOn if you have tons of candidates running.

micah: Oh god.

natesilver: 🚨


harry: I believe the correct term is “contested convention.” Thank you.

micah: Let’s talk abortion litmus tests. Obviously the Democratic nominee in 2020 will be pro-choice, but let’s tackle the “Could they campaign for a pro-life Democrat?” question.

perry: Maybe I’m overly fixated on identity, but I think Elizabeth Warren can campaign for a pro-life candidate. I think Biden, a Catholic, can. I would not recommend that anyone else do that.

Sanders did it, and that is in part why I doubt he will be the Democratic presidential nominee, even if he runs in 2020.

clare.malone: Hmmm. I dunno! I think that’s the interesting open question. (Open in Clare Malone’s world, at least.)

harry: Why would any Democratic candidate do that? What’s the upside to saying they would campaign with a pro-life Democrat?

micah: The House, Harry?

perry: Also, to show you’re a big-tent party, which I think Biden believes.

clare.malone: ^^^

harry: I meant for winning the Democratic nomination for president.

natesilver: Yeah, the point is that the more prerequisites the party puts in place for the Democratic nominee, the smaller the tent.

micah: Oh, but Harry makes a fair point.

harry: I totally get why Democrats should be willing to campaign for pro-life candidates. But, per a February Quinnipiac poll, just 10 percent of Democrats said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Hence, the momentum within the party is clearly not on the anti-abortion side.

natesilver: Yeah, opinions on abortion have become a lot more partisan over the long run. Back in the 1970s — right after Roe v. Wade — it really wasn’t a partisan issue at all (there was almost no split between Democratic and GOP opinion on it).

clare.malone: But I don’t think it makes you a bad pol to take a chance on the other side. It does mean you’re a risk-taker, because institutions (like the Democratic Party) often take a long time to change.

natesilver: But one of those things is that Democrats feel like they’ve “won” the culture wars, and so there’s no longer a trade-off between taking left-wing positions on cultural issues and electability. And the other is that there’s been something of a revival of left-wing economic positions since the financial crisis. Plus, you’ve had more partisan sorting take place overall.

clare.malone: Do Democrats feel like they’ve won? I would say a lot of women are pointing out that you’ve got an uphill battle with choice stuff still. See: the last abortion clinic in Kentucky perhaps closing as just one example.

micah: That war has definitely not been won.

harry: Democrats have won the culture war when it comes to same-sex marriage.

Abortion is a whole other question.

natesilver: I think gay marriage and gay rights loom pretty large in the Democratic mindset, yeah.

perry: One more big litmus test we didn’t hit: Can you be a former Democratic president and take big speaking fees from banks and financial services companies.

clare.malone: OMG, why did Obama take that fee?

micah: Or, to make it more general: Isn’t a certain distance from Wall Street and banks a new litmus test?

clare.malone: That is a new NO-NO for the populist Democratic Party. Like, actually, why did he?

micah: Obama?

clare.malone: The Obamas’ book advance is reportedly something like $65 million.

micah: 💰💰💰

natesilver: 🕶 🕶

micah: He’s not running for anything?

clare.malone: Yeah, but $400K is a relative drop in the bucket with that book deal.

harry: To be fair, I’d stop drinking diet soda for a year for $65 million. Maybe for a month for $400K.

natesilver: Maybe he’s like, “Fuck these fuckers, I was president for eight years and made incredible sacrifices for the job and now I’m a private citizen.”

clare.malone: But i think he plans to be an active ex-president, once an acceptable amount of time has passed (who the hell knows what that amount of time is).

micah: But if you’re advising Joe Biden and he comes to you and says “Hey, Wells Fargo is offering me $75,000 to come speak at some corporate retreat,” you freak out, yes?

perry: So I think there are more litmus tests, to answer Clare’s question. I think you have to be 1. more populist, like being for some kind of super-public option on health care, 2. pretty strongly pro-choice in almost every way, 3. pretty supportive of BLM views. But. But. I thought you would need to be pro-immigration to win the GOP nomination in 2016 and certainly the presidency. So readers, if you got this far, ignore everything I’ve said.

harry: We haven’t said it because perhaps it’s obvious: I think you’re going to need to be very anti-Trump.

natesilver: No, that’s important. And to some extent, Trump’s extremely high levels of unpopularity among the Democratic base will help to patch over the party’s differences.

clare.malone: But that Trump stuff seems a given — no one’s saying, “Joe Manchin for president!”

natesilver: You could get into territory where there’s some shaky grounds for impeachment, and one question the nominee is asked is whether they think Trump should be impeached.

perry: That is a good litmus test question.

clare.malone: Maxine Waters-style.

natesilver: How does the Democratic candidate react when the “lock him up” chants begin at one of their rallies?

clare.malone: Do what people used to do and address it head on as not something that’s acceptable or normal to do in a liberal democracy — call for the jailing of your opponent.

natesilver: But what if Democrats want more of a brawler?

clare.malone: Nate, you can be a brawler and not call for the jailing of your opponent.

Also, you don’t get locked up if you’re impeached. Let’s be precise.

harry: One thing we’ll have to see is how popular Trump is come 2019.

natesilver: I’m just trying to roll things forward here. It seems to all of us like there may be a lot of litmus tests that the serious 2020 candidates need to pass. And there are probably also going to be a lot of candidates.

So if that’s the case, temperament and personality might matter a lot. As well as “identity,” construed in various ways. In that sense, it might be like 2008 when Clinton, John Edwards and Obama didn’t really have major policy differences but nonetheless had pretty clear and distinct constituencies.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.