The United States is just one year away from the vote that will determine the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from 2021 to 2024. The big question remains: Which one of the droves of Democratic candidates will be put forth to challenge the President? And the bigger question: Will the nominee be able to garner enough support to send Trump back to his tower?
While Trump’s approval ratings are low at only 40.7%, most Republicans are towing the party line and say he is doing an acceptable job. This, in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, the recent and ongoing impeachment hearings, of which 49% of Americans support while 43% oppose, according to a FiveThirtyEight poll. Questions of high crimes aside, Trump is a formidable candidate with an extremely loyal following who will probably be tough to beat in the coming year.
Ahead of the primaries in New Hampshire and Iowa in early February 2020, it is still anyone’s guess who will emerge as the victorious candidate, and who will simply cling on for the ride.
Seven Democratic candidates have already dropped out of the race, but the field is still extremely crowded with 19 official candidates vying for attention and donor dollars. Trump is leading in fundraising with $165.6 million; Bernie Sanders is second with $73.7 million; Elizabeth Warren is third with $60 million. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, in fourth, continues to build momentum. Surprisingly, Vice President Joe Biden is trailing in sixth place with just $36.7 million – a dismal figure for a candidate who already has national name recognition, indicating a weak support base.
Perhaps being a household name will not bode well in the coming months for both Biden and Sanders. Politicians have an expiration date and while the two are clear frontrunners in the national polls, along with Warren, they are struggling to convey a certain freshness.
“Once you have been in politics too long then you are part of the problem,” Andrew Smith, Director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and Professor of Practice in the Department of Political Science, said. “Democrats are looking for someone who can run on the change message, and it is hard to run on the change message when you have been in politics since the 1970s.”
Activists, who tend to vote in the all-important early-state primaries, are starting to back Warren more. Then you have Cory Booker and Pete Buttigeig who may be coming off as stiff in the debates, but who experts say are great in person. That face to face charisma is likely to serve them well in the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries, where they can talk to voters, get those media soundbites and, in theory, be catapulted to the national stage when it matters.
“Buttigieg is the best candidate on the stump I have seen in 20 years,” Smith said. “He is really good as a candidate and he has money – which means the press is going to pay attention to him.”
Experts are also still looking at Amy Klobuchar as a contender, but they question how she would fare in the inevitable one-on-one debates with Trump. Kamala Harris, who appeared promising in the summer months, will have a hard time coming back from her decline in popularity.
A candidate’s ability to defeat Trump’s unique brand of politics is particularly top of mind for primary voters this time around. “Winnability” is perhaps even taking a front seat to where candidates land on issues. Let’s remember that what got Trump elected was not the content of what he said, or the issues he said he supported, but it was voters’ belief that he seemed real, Patrick Pierce, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana, said.
“Trump won on integrity – when he uttered those issue positions – he did not look like he was waffling or being measured,” Pierce said. “It’s the way candidates articulate issues that communicates personal characteristics, and that is what folks are paying attention to.”
While most people are not steeped in local and national politics on a daily basis, they are well-practiced in reading people. Hence, these visceral feelings are what drive general elections.
As usual, the upcoming election will also be heavily influenced through publicity stunts and attempts to defame character, which are already happening. Buckle your seatbelts, because if Democrats want to use the impeachment to help steer moderate voters away from Trump, then they are likely to draw out the process as long as possible and bring in witness after witness to testify.
“There is really no way for Trump to make this impeachment positive for him,” Pierce said.
Smith agreed. “The rule of politics is, if you are explaining, you are losing. Trump is doing a lot of explaining, but he is also doing a lot of lashing out and attacking, which is a good strategy.”
As odd as it might seem, Trump-opposers might hope for an economic downturn, which would likely bode well for anyone trying to defeat the sitting president.
Finally, Smith highlighted the ongoing simmering pot of the Mueller investigation which could prove a lifeline for Trump’s “Washington outsider” narrative. Attorney General William Barr has called for a criminal investigation into the origins of the investigation. Critics say this positions the Department of Justice as a political tool for Trump. Either way, it does not look good.
Ultimately, no matter who Trump’s opponent is, this is shaping up to be a fast-paced, conniving race between the two parties. At the same time, voter confidence in media and government are at an all-time low. Where will people get their news? How will they know what is true? Do they care?
These are all frightening questions with potentially even more frightening answers.