If I may step atop my soapbox and become a pundit, ever so briefly: As someone who’s been following the 2020 presidential primary race closer than most, I’ve heard a good deal of fretting lately from the mainstream media about a permanent schism in the Democratic Party, between progressive and moderate voters, that could derail the party’s chances in November.
Perhaps I’m not spending enough time on Twitter, or absorbing my news through cable-TV shout-fests, but I’m just not seeing the evidence for it. The desire to remove Donald Trump from office is such a transcendent motivator that the policy and tonal differences causing such rancor today will be an afterthought in November. My worry has been that the media, in all of its bloodlust, will genuinely create the problem it has invented, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy that pits Democrats against each other all the way through the general election.
I breathed a much-needed sigh of relief early in revered analyst Amy Walter’s abundantly informative and accessible talk at Festival of the Arts Boca Thursday night, when she seemed to allay this concern. She specifically mentioned breathless cable news anchors as being part of a perception problem. While it seems like we’re experiencing “complete and utter chaos,” where “the ground is shifting constantly at our feet,” the situation is actually “stable” and “much less volatile than it looks from the granular view.”
For the next 45 minutes or so, Walter, the national editor of the Cook Political Report and a regular contributor to PBS NewsHour, supported her case like a true political wonk: with objective data. A numbers cruncher with an infectious sense of humor and a bright, Rachel Maddowesque demeanor, Walter admitted that she had planned a different lecture prior to Super Tuesday, when Joe Biden unexpectedly regained his front-runner status. But she astutely pointed out that President Trump—with his “high floor” of base supporters and “low ceiling” of voters outside that base—will be the “issue” that decides the race, more so than any issue Democrats are presently debating.
She offered praise for the president’s ability to maintain steady poll numbers, which, while never eclipsing 50 percent, have allowed him to survive a historic impeachment without losing any quantifiable measure of voters. The recent stock market plunges notwithstanding, the president has in his favor a robust economy that is at a 20-year high. But, Walter added, a great economy may not be enough to support his re-election. Everything will come down to the same three states he narrowly won in 2016 to secure an Electoral College victory—Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If Dems win back these three states, they can lose the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Arizona and still win the electoral vote. Looking at these states’ unique demographics, Walter broke down the numbers even further to this pithy conclusion: It’s impossible to see how Trump wins if he doesn’t win Florida, and it’s impossible to see how the Democrat wins if he loses Pennsylvania.
I’ll remember these takeaways come November, but they were far from the only observations that rang true from Walter’s lecture. I’m particularly fond of this one: Of all the 2020 Democratic candidates, “Bernie Sanders was the only one running to win; all the others were running not to lose.” She spoke about Michael Bloomberg’s profligate rise and fall, adding that even her 13-year-old son couldn’t avoid seeing the former mayor’s ads on YouTube. (Quoting her boy: “I just want him to go away so I can watch my videos!”) And she compared Joe Biden to the Cheesecake Factory: a casual restaurant with enough choices to keep everybody satisfied, but leaving nobody with the feeling that “Oh my God, that was amazing.”
She said that we should look to next week’s primary in Michigan as “do or die” for the Sanders campaign, but that in general it would be “unwise to think that there won’t be another seismic shift” in the race for the nomination. When it comes down to November, she summarized, we certainly should not expect the country as a whole to come together. “We won’t all get along, and buy the world a Coke,” she said. It will be “a close race fought on the margins, with states divided by one, two, three points.”
Ultimately, though, we need to stick with our system, “as imperfect as it may be.” Much like previous Festival of the Arts speakers—like Richard Haass, Jon Meacham, Fareed Zakaria and Doris Kearns Goodwin—Walter succeeded in walking me off certain ledges, and bringing the clarity of a macro view to a news cycle full of micro disruptions. Onward and upward.