Independents Will Rule 2020...Again.

The 2020 race to take down Trump is officially underway. The early Democratic field is canvassing Iowa trotting out an undifferentiated mix of liberal policies, mostly inspired by the progressive resistance and the provocative (and highly effective) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  

They won’t win. Well, they won’t beat Trump.

If Dems want to retake the White House, they will have to get to the open minded, middle of the road undecideds that put him there. The same way Obama did. And Bush and Bill Clinton before him.  

Yes, we think we live in a Fox and MSNBC nation, but the truth is that the hardened wings can’t be moved and don’t swing elections.  Presidential elections have been decided by narrow margins for decades so the swing voter makes the call. And, every four years, the difference for those undecideds has been finding someone willing to disrupt their own hard core base. The press follows the activists on both sides and Twitter echoes their orthodox views and outrage, but the middle sides with the one most impure.  As proof, 6 million people who voted for Obama switched to Trump.  It is impossible for a Democrat now to see Trump as undermining the hardened GOP, but as a candidate he massively disrupted GOP orthodoxy and was viewed as much more moderate than Hillary.

Poll after poll shows a large and mushy center at our politics. Many of these folks lean to a party but the truth is they are motivated mostly by distaste of the other side.  So, the politician that shows the most leadership taking on the core of their party draws independent appeal. Clinton: the new Democrat.  Bush: the compassionate conservative. Obama: the post-racial uniter of purple America. Trump: the secular anti-globalist. The words they used told the electorate they could lead and push change even inside their own rigid tents.  And the middle looking for a breakout of our decades-long red-blue warfare loves it.

Trump remains a powerful wildcard in this regard despite being much more conservative in office than in campaigning.  Back then, he challenged GOP orthodoxy by fighting free trade, mass immigration and the overreaching foreign policy of the neo-cons.  Since, he signed the crime bill. That’s about it on the moderate side. But, he looks open to dealing for DACA. And he is sticking hard to fighting China despite the GOP free trade hard liners telling him to deal quickly.  

The Dems better not count on his bad character or Mueller to bail them out.  Neither will. Even his core supporters know his style is reckless and unbecoming (only 1/3 viewed him as honest in 2016), but they take the whole package: a rebel pushing new boundaries. My guess is he will push to the center in the coming years and Ann Coulter will get more upset—an important signal to the independents.  If left facing an true progressive, he will be hard to beat.

Who is up for it on the left?  Well, the key question as a candidate is: who are you willing to offend on your own side?  How can you show independence in a way that signals the potential to pull us all together?

Who will challenge the politically correct identity politics that consumes the left?  Who will push for a real education revolution not just speak of more spending? Who will push for an energy explosion built on new tech not just a call for energy conservation and austerity?  Who will develop an optimistic plan for a rapidly changing world not just fight for the return of a world gone by? Who will not just propose new taxes but demand they are spent effectively? Who will fight not just for redistribution but build meaningful plans for the struggling?  

Right now, there is little evidence of any the current Dem field will do it. They all sing from the same playbook: Medicare for all, free college and new major taxes on the rich.

The progressive base assumes Trump will be easy to beat.  I get it (and hope they are right!). But, their purity tests will be their undoing. Being against everything Trump and Republican is a sacred touchstone for the earliest backers and party leaders. And so the current candidates are getting boxed in as they lay out their progressive plans. Could a new entrant like a Beto or a Bloomberg thrive despite their less than sterling progressive credentials? Can someone, anyone, muster a Sister Souljah moment? Without one, I think they are toast.

All signs point to independents looking for reasons not to vote for Trump. But the lessons of the past are clear - winning candidates transcend their parties. Who has the courage to do it?

P.S. A true independent like Howard Schultz does not fit the bill.  Pissing off everyone is no way to get elected. The key is winning the party core while giving the middle reasons for hope.  However, if he gains traction he could force major Democrats to moderate and hence be more competitive long term.