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Which Way To Go?

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May 7, 2019 9:22 a.m.

TPM Reader MK has a question …

With the Biden candidacy looking more and more like a real possibility, it’s striking me that we’re hearing more and more of the following argument: Dems need to appeal to moderate voters (i.e. suburban voters who helped swing the 2018 mid-terms) and whether or not the lefty Twitter army likes it, someone like Biden truly has a better chance at getting elected than someone who doesn’t try to address voters in the “middle.”

(Leaving aside policy and governing issues for the moment). The other argument, is that CW on this front has been historically, tragically wrong again and again yet it continues to be the dominant media narrative. Paul Waldman in the Post made this point most strongly and I’d love to hear what you think about it.

I’m very sympathetic to Waldman’s argument as I feel like I’ve seen this movie time and again. We kept being told about the importance of the suburban swing voter, but scant media attention is devoted to which candidate will turn out the Dem base most effectively, and isn’t that just as much the culpirt for Trump winning in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as anything? I’ve found the Times particularly egregious on this front, with seemingly countless front-page articles touting the fear of Dems moving too far to the left costing them in the general election but precious few pieces exploring the POV that not moving to the left enough will leave countless votes on the table for lack of motivating core constituencies.

I don’t really know whether Joe Biden is the most electable candidate. Current polls suggest he is. But I see no way to separate this out from the current state of name recognition and perceptions of his strength as a candidate which could simply be wrong. I also don’t find this base motivation argument either new or under-discussed. This binary choice discussion is one I feel I’ve heard in every cycle for the last two decades.

The only thing I can add is that I find the argument itself mainly wrongheaded. The key, always the key really, is that you need both. Winning candidates meld together arguments, aspirations, personal candidate histories in ways that manage to do both. Winning candidates virtually by definition do that. So any time we’re making strong arguments for one or the other I think we’re basically missing the point.

It’s probably also the case here that actual campaigns are simply far more complex than base versus moderate dichotomies. The 2018 and almost certainly the 2020 campaign will see a renewed battle over suburban voters who are historically swing voters or soft Republican voters but have shifted toward Democrats in 2016 and especially 2018. A good chunk of the new House majority is based on that.

It will also have battles over a portion of white working class voters who shifted from Obama to Trump in 2016 and to an extent shifted back in 2018. You will also have critical fights over turn out levels among core Democratic constituencies which will largely be about turnout levels but also about margins for each candidate. You have separate battle over turnout numbers among young voters (under 35), which is largely a turnout fight since that’s the most anti-Trump slice of the electorate. There are a bunch other key battle points in the electorate. Taken together they just can’t be reduced to base vs moderate.

In any case, my main point here is that any time you’re getting into a one or the other conversation you’ve basically missed the point. It’s always both and which candidates can effectively succeed on both fronts with one message. It is further important to note that this has always been and almost certainly will always be more the case for Democrats than Republicans. If there is one thing that is a continuous fact of Democratic party politics stretching back more than a century (over a period when the party has changed dramatically) it is that it is, far more than the GOP, a coalition party.

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