The Democratic primary has inspired the usual spirited-bordering-on-homicidal intraparty debate about how the party can best win the approval of voters. The debate covers both ideology and tone. Bernie Sanders gets worked up and wants to raise taxes to fund universal health care and free college; Elizabeth Warren believes the most important thing is to fight the power of lobbyists and corporate executives with a firm resolve; Pete Buttigieg has thrown out some relatively forward-looking goals but wants to be cheerful and nonconfrontational about reaching them; Joe Biden wants to fight, but the goal of the fight is to achieve a kind of nostalgic (and mythical) 1950s unity around the rejection of Donald Trump.
Each candidate and their supporters have theories as to why their approach is the most likely to motivate the most support, whether it’s by winning back the Rust Belt or appealing to alienated younger people who might not otherwise vote. The public is ready to get fully behind someone, they argue, if only the right someone can reach out in the right way.
The Monmouth University poll released Wednesday is a good reminder that all such plans will be equally ineffective. These are national favorability ratings:
Ha ha! Warren does “best,” but Americans still, on the whole, don’t like her. Biden, the unity guy who purportedly commands the respect of the rural Pennsylvania muffler repair specialists who got Trump over the hump last time, is even less-well-liked. Sanders, the populist, is unpopular. Buttigieg has lower name recognition, but his negative split indicates that if he keeps on trucking he can someday be as despised as the rest of them. Slate sends its condolences to Kamala Harris.
If you look at RealClearPolitics aggregates rather than just going by this single poll, the three leading Democrats, despite being about equally underwater, are less underwater than Trump. So it’s not that they can’t win, but they probably can’t win by a lot, in part because Trump put the finishing touch on the post-1960s realignment of the two major parties into coherent halves of the ideological spectrum by making anti-immigrant sentiment a more salient part of political identity and winning white-working-class onetime Democrats to the GOP.
Functionally, this means there is no single nation available to be unified. A significant number of voters get their news from the alternate epistemological universe of Fox News and viral Facebook stories, and in that world the Democratic nominee, regardless of who it is, will be covered as someone who wants to dismantle American society because of their personal contempt for the kind of people who watch Fox. (The nominee will also be rumored to have a loathsome and terminal disease, and will be connected to an international conspiracy laid out on a chart in which multiple arrows point to a picture of George Soros.) Dems won the national midterm vote by 8 points, but that was with the luxury of being able to run different candidates in different places. If winning presidential elections were as easy as nominating the middle-of-the-road candidate with the longest résumé and promising to “protect Medicare and Social Security,” Hillary Clinton would be president. If there were enough untapped democratic socialist sentiment to swamp Washington in a landslide political revolution, Bernie Sanders would be doing better in the primary vis-à-vis Joe Biden.
Democrats can win the presidential election. Then the Democratic president will probably settle at a low approval rating that will either rise above 50 when he or she is reluctantly reelected in 2024, or never rise above 50 at all, in which case there will be a Donald Trump Jr. administration. And most people will hate him too.