The beloved humorist Will Rogers surely put it best.
“I am not a member of an organized political party,” he said. “I am a Democrat.”
That was almost a century ago, in 1930. The Cherokee cowboy, who began his vaudeville career as a trick roper, was seen as an apostle of the common man, although he was also syndicated in The New York Times.
Of course, back then, the big-tent Democratic Party included metropolitan labor unions and southern segregationists, so everything was quite different. Not to mention that two years later, Democrats elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt president, and then re-elected him three times.
Even so, what with upward of two dozen Democrats running for president in 2020, Rogers’ quip still rings true. (Twenty candidates have declared, but more are anticipated.)
So does a second shrewd observation by the Oklahoma sage: “Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they’d be Republicans.”
So, I don’t feel even a little bit guilty that for once in my life, I stand with the Democratic majority: I don’t have a favorite candidate.
When a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll asked self-identified Democratic voters an open-ended question about which primary election candidate they supported, 54% expressed no preference.
My sentiments exactly.
Among the minority of Democrats who stated a favorite, Joe Biden led with 13%, while Bernie Sanders had 9%. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke clustered in the mid-single digits. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Cory Booker each showed a faint pulse.
That’s not good news for any of the candidates, particularly Biden and Sanders, who have nearly universal name-recognition. (The poll was taken before the former vice president declared his candidacy.)
What’s more, contrary to a lot of talk about the youth vote, an online poll of college students shows Biden leading with 19%, Sanders with 15%, and Beto with 13.6%. Among the six women running, Harris and Warren each get 5.5%.
President Donald Trump himself ran third in the college poll with 14.7%, a measure of his weakness.
(Polls taken immediately after Biden announced show him with a strong plurality of support, but that may be a function of the news cycle.)
In short, the race for the Democratic nomination appears to be almost anybody’s to win or lose.
For most voters, ideological considerations appear secondary. Democrats are passionately pragmatic. Detailed positions on the issues are fine. But what the great majority say they want is somebody capable of defeating Trump.
In a word, a candidate who is “electable.”
Somebody who has the right combination of intellect and chutzpah to stand up to Trump’s coarse bullying without descending (quite) to his level. Somebody who can forcefully articulate Democratic values without sounding stuffy or condescending; somebody with strength and personal charisma that comes across clearly on television.
Because make no mistake: Before it’s anything else, an American presidential election is a TV show.
Indeed, Trump’s only real qualification to be president is his intuitive grasp of pro-wrestling style televised spectacle. The cable news networks that were supposedly biased against Trump actually did much to elect him: stationing camera crews on airport tarmacs waiting for his arrival as if he were the Pope.
What’s more, it’s all about ratings. So they’ll do it again in 2020.
So starting with the first round of debates in June, the Democratic primary campaign needs to be understood as an extended screen test. How does this candidate project to a crowd? How does he or she come across on TV?
Not that the opinions of we Pundit-Americans are particularly useful in making this determination.
Certainly not mine, anyway.
I’ll not soon forget watching the huge Democratic rally in Philadelphia the evening before the 2016 election. A parade of Democratic notables and entertainers got the crowd all worked up: Barack and Michelle Obama spoke. Bruce Springsteen led the throng in song. Then the balloons dropped, the confetti shot into the air, Hillary Clinton took the stage.
And the place died. The crowd went quiet. And that, I couldn’t help but notice.
Perhaps because I’d been familiar with her in the life-sized arena of Little Rock for so long, I’d simply never noticed that the Democratic candidate projected almost none of her husband’s personal charisma.
(To be perfectly honest, I’d never particularly registered that either. He was just Bill Clinton, a familiar figure. Back when he announced in 1991, I knew that he had an excellent chance to win — but because his candidacy split the south, not because he was a matinee idol. I’d be a terrible talent scout.)
The party’s 2020 nominee needs star quality.
And the only known way to measure “electability” is to hold elections.
Twenty candidates aren’t a sign of weakness, but one of strength and diversity. Let the winnowing begin.
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Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.” Email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.