“You think a lot about people you encounter, and there are a number of them in our community who voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump and Mike Pence and me. And one thing you realize […] is that it means that voters are maybe not as neatly ideological as a lot of the commentary assumes.”
So said Pete Buttigieg—the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and one of the two-dozen Democrats running for president in 2020—making arguably the most succinct possible case for electing a so-called “moderate” as the party’s standard-bearer against Donald Trump in the election next November.
Needless to say (but why not?), the question of what kind of Democrat ought to represent America’s loyal opposition in 2019 and beyond is the singular point of contention that primary voters will—and should—be debating over the next year and change. Broadly-speaking, the eventual nominee could come from three possible spots on the ideological spectrum—the center, the left, or the far left—and a great deal depends on whether the Democrats’ perception of the country’s overall political bent matches the reality thereof.
Before we go any further, allow me to disclose loudly and clearly that, barring highly-unforeseen circumstances, I will be voting for the Democratic nominee on November 3, 2020, whoever he or she happens to be. With Trump as the incumbent, I would happily and unreservedly support any of the possible alternatives without a shadow of a second thought. Elections are about choices, and lesser-of-two-evils is the name of the game.
One presumes, of course, that a certain percentage of the electorate—somewhere between 40 and 45 percent, say—is on precisely the same wavelength as I am, and can be counted upon to reflexively line up behind the Democratic nominee, come hell or high water—a near-perfect reflection, ironically enough, of the #MAGA rubes who will stick with the president even if/when he murders somebody on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight.
In truth, when you add up every voter who, for all intents and purposes, has already made up his or her mind—i.e., will definitely vote for Trump or will definitely vote for his main challenger—you would be lucky to have more than 10 percent of the electorate leftover.
And yet, as ever, that 10 percent (or whatever) is precisely where the whole damn thing will be decided. Indeed, while it’s true that every presidential election in our lifetimes has come down to the comparatively miniscule slice of the public known as “swing voters,” the singularly polarizing nature of the Trump era has shrunk America’s protean middle to little more than a sliver, thereby increasing the power and influence of every member therein, for better and for worse.
All of which is to affirm Pete Buttigieg’s implicit argument about how to win the 2020 election: By making yourself appealing to the widest cross-section of the public as possible. That begins with assuming that every genuinely undecided voter is persuadable, and acting accordingly.
Practically, this would certainly include venturing into enemy territory—Fox News—to make the case for why you’d be a leader for all Americans, not just those who watch MSNBC. (Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have smartly done this already, while Elizabeth Warren has foolishly, and loudly, refused.) As well, it would require not smearing half the electorate as a bunch of freeloaders (á la Mitt Romney) or a “basket of deplorables” (á la Hillary Clinton).
In truth, it would entail little more than taking the American people seriously and treating them, more or less, like adults.
When Buttigieg reminds us about a certain, non-trivial chunk of our fellow citizens who voted for Obama in 2012 only to switch to Trump in 2016—and who, presumably, could swing back in the future—we are forced to reckon with the possibility that these folks’ political loyalties are a function of something other than racial resentment or any sort of coherent philosophy about the role of government in a free society.
Maybe, unlike us, they don’t spend 12 hours a day watching the news break on basic cable and Twitter, absorbing every last detail about life inside the beltway. Maybe they lead busy, apolitical lives and haven’t given much thought lately to Robert Mueller or Roe v. Wade.
Maybe their tastes in presidents are more instinctual and elemental than weighing one set of policy proposals against another. Maybe they voted for Obama because he promised them better healthcare, and for Trump because he promised them…better healthcare.
At the risk of reductionism and oversimplicity, maybe the secret to winning an election is vowing to give people what they want and not calling them idiots more often than is strictly necessary.
Would this necessitate misrepresenting, watering down or otherwise compromising your core moral and political values? Only if you believe those values aren’t worth defending to a possibly skeptical audience. And if that’s the case, why in holy hell should anyone vote for you in the first place?