US presidential campaign 2020: The Democratic conundrum

The late Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere once said to me that it was unfair that only Americans get to vote for the president of the United States because the world has so much riding on whom that person might be.

The Democratic Party is involved in a doozy of a campaign to determine who will be the party standard bearer in the battle against US President Donald  Trump. 

With the recent primary election in South Carolina, the race has really become interesting. Senator Bernie Sanders won big in Nevada, barely won in New Hampshire, and barely lost in Iowa. For vice-president Joe Biden had a big-time win in South Carolina on Saturday. As the Democrats cruise, or careen, to a decision point, they have several very serious considerations in deciding who is best able to defeat Trump and enable them to regain the Senate and hold on to the House of Representatives.

All of the candidates still standing have strengths and weaknesses. Let me start with the current frontrunner, Sanders. In terms of weaknesses, he’s a socialist and there has to be concern that, despite having won in New Hampshire, this year 75% of those voting there picked someone else than Sanders. This compares to 2016, when he won the state with 60% of the vote. 

What are the implications of that differential in terms of being able to carry the state in November and what does it mean for the Democratic senator running for re-election? His strengths are more obvious than his weaknesses. He has an enthusiastic core group of supporters and has done an amazing job of building a fundraising network that has made him formidable during the primaries and would enable him to be competitive in the general election.

Then there’s Biden, former president Barack Obama’s vice-president for eight years. At the onset of the primary season that status alone catapulted him to the top of every poll as the presumptive nominee. A series of lacklustre debate performances and a string of loses took the starch out of his sails, to put it mildly. Then came his bombshell blowout in South Carolina. It’s now game on.

Given how they’ve finished to date, coupled with a lack of funds, it seems that both senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren have run out of steam and are done. Although neither has indicated an intention to leave the race at this point, it would be no surprise if either, or both, dropped out right before or after Super Tuesday.

The last candidate with a chance is Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and owner of the Bloomberg family of companies. His strengths are a record of accomplishment as a politician, businessman, and philanthropist. He’s billionaire who has already spent more that $400-million of his own money on this race — and is prepared to spend even more. 

One of his three major weaknesses is that he chose to run an unconventional campaign by skipping the early primaries, which alienated some folks in the Democratic party. Related to this, by entering the race late he hasn’t had the opportunity to sharpen his game against campaign combatants that are now in mid-season form. Finally, he’s taken hits on a couple of major policy issues (policing policies while mayor of New York and gender-based workplace concerns) that have kept him on the defensive. In addition, the fact that he’s a billionaire is a turnoff to some voters.

Those are the players. So, what are the political considerations that Democrats are going to have to sort through as they attempt to decide who the best standard bearer might be? 

Although political pundits and commentators have made a big deal out of who might best do battle with Trump on the debate stage, that is a secondary issue, at best. Beating Trump is, ultimately, not about whether one can score more style points or who is the most eloquent during the debates. Trump lost every debate to Hillary Clinton. 

Having said that, any candidate has to make the case as to why they are “the one”. This election is going to come down to who is the most qualified and capable leader. To determine which candidate best fits that bill comes down to three factors: determining which candidate measures up best in terms of the strategic challenges that must be addressed in the general election, evaluating which candidate has the required the experience and skillset to carry the day, and being honest about who in the field is clearly lacking. 

The 2020 presidential election is not about making a wish and blowing out the candles. It’s not rocket science: it’s arithmetic. In 2016, Trump won 30 states; Clinton won 20. Trump flipped six states Obama carried. To win the next election Democrats have to have a candidate who can win, at least, those states back. Reflipping those states would give the Democrats only a 26-24 state margin, which means they have no margin for error. 

In 2016, as stated above, Sanders won 60% of the vote in New Hampshire. In 2020, 75% of the people of New Hampshire voted for somebody else. He had more than enough money to be competitive. The problem is that not as many folks were buying what he’s selling. What Sanders is selling is a far left as one can be on the political spectrum in the US. In liberal Massachusetts, there is a Republican governor. Warren couldn’t run as far left as she has run for the Democratic nomination and win a gubernatorial election in her own state. As Democrats get deeper into the primary process, history should be a guide. 

In the 1972 presidential election, McGovern vs Richard Nixon, George McGovern was a better person, but he got creamed. But, even Richard Nixon respected the Constitution enough to resign when he was caught cheating. Trump doesn’t believe the Constitution is worth the paper it’s written on. We’ve got a Senate majority leader who cares only about power, and nothing about the American people. That, in a nutshell, is what’s at stake in the upcoming election.

In addition to the question of who can win back those six states Democrats lost in 2016, the next most urgent question is which of the current candidates could go to places such as Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and North Carolina to help win back the Senate. Or, who could help hold Democratic Senate seats in Alabama, New Mexico, and New Hampshire. Democrats didn’t win back the House with the kind of far-left ideas some have espoused during the current campaign; it’s safe to assume such ideas are not going to position the Democrats to win back the White House or Senate in 2020. 

The riddle Democratic voters and leaders must solve is both simple and complex. Who among the current crop of candidates has real responses to real problems and the experience and track record to defeat Trump and lead the country? We should have a pretty good answer to what Democrats are thinking by the ides of March.

Charles R Stith served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Tanzania and is the nonexecutive chairman of the African Presidential Leadership Center

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Charles R Stith
Charles Stith was former president Bill Clinton’s envoy to Tanzania and is currently the nonexecutive board chair of the African Presidential Leadership Centre, a Johannesburg-based NGO

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