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As the Democratic debaters chase their base, Trump has a prime opening

Miami debates are more likely to resemble a bad morality play than an intelligent discussion of issues

When the 2020 Democratic hopefuls debate in Miami, their conundrum of connecting with the party’s anti-Trump base while not alienating middle-of-the-road voters will be on full display, Winston writes. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images file photo)
When the 2020 Democratic hopefuls debate in Miami, their conundrum of connecting with the party’s anti-Trump base while not alienating middle-of-the-road voters will be on full display, Winston writes. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — Hardball presidential politics, a little like Mother Nature, has an unforgiving way of winnowing a field and this go-round there is more to winnow than usual with 24 Democrats vying for their party’s nomination.

In the wild, it’s called survival of the fittest and that seems an apt description for today’s presidential primary process, regardless of party.

We’re a long way from knowing who will lead the Democratic ticket in 2020, but one thing we do know from past campaigns is that debates matter, as base voters warm and cool to candidates.

We all remember Rick Perry’s “Oops” moment in 2011 and Scott Walker’s early flat debate performances in the 2016 primary season on the GOP side.

On the flip side, we also remember Newt Gingrich’s rebound after the South Carolina debate in 2012 where he won by demonstrating his understanding of Palmetto State issues.

This same law of nature that eventually gave us Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be on full display in Miami starting Wednesday night when the Democratic contenders face off.

But many of these candidates have to do more than survive the debate. They need clear-cut success to kick their campaigns into higher gear. Of those who will be onstage Wednesday and Thursday, only seven are currently above 2 percent in national primary polls.

For the moment, most of the Democratic hopefuls seem stuck in the reality-free bubble of their base, where anything and everything Trump does (including a good economy) is evil and bad and probably directed by Vladimir Putin anyway.

The question is, will we see something different Wednesday night?

Millions are expected to tune in, giving the candidates an opportunity to reach voters, many for the first time. But how to reach them and what kind of political discourse will be most effective is the biggest question facing them all. 

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Where the voters are

Our April Winning the Issues survey found that, overall, when asked to describe how they felt about the current state of politics and issues in the country, voters said they were definitely frustrated (43 percent), interested (30 percent) and angry (28 percent).

Base conservatives and all Republicans are more interested (33 percent) than frustrated (30 percent) or angry (21 percent). But among the liberal Democratic base — the primary audience for the presidential debaters — two-thirds (64 percent) definitely felt frustrated and 45 percent said they were definitely angry, 9 points higher than Democrats as a whole.

To add to the complexity for the Democratic field, a far lower number of independents (27 percent) felt angry and said they “wanted to tune it all out.”

Many of these more centrist voters played a role in the Democrats’ takeover of the House in the 2018 midterms by flipping on Republicans.

The poll found 42 percent of independents were frustrated and only 22 percent interested in the election at this point.

And therein lies the conundrum facing every one of the candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination.

How do they connect with their angry and frustrated base to win them over in the primaries without turning off those middle-of-the-road voters who will likely determine the outcome of the general election?

I don’t envy them trying to hand out enough red meat and progressive promises to capture the imagination and support of the base without alienating the rest of the electorate, which has had its fill of harsh political discourse and can tell the difference between realistic proposals and partisan pandering.

Pew Research recently released an in-depth poll looking at people’s view of political discourse today that asked what is and isn’t appropriate in political debate.

The most egregious errors that were “never acceptable” were “deliberately misleading people about their opponent’s record” (81 percent) and saying something negative about their opponent’s personal appearance (73 percent). 

Folks were down on calling an opponent stupid — 62 percent said that was never acceptable. Forty-one percent felt that way about calling an opponent anti-American.

One number caught my eye when Pew asked whether it was acceptable to call an opponent’s policy positions evil. Thirty-five percent of respondents said it was never acceptable, putting this tactic much further down the scale of unacceptability.

Yet the use of the word evil and synonyms like it to lob attacks seems to be the lingua franca of both parties these days.

Everything Trump does is not just wrong but evil and immoral. Republicans aren’t immune from preachy negative attacks either, but I fear the debates we see Wednesday and Thursday are going to be closer to a bad morality play than an intelligent discussion of policy proposals and differences between the candidates and this president.

Trump’s edge

That’s a loss for both Democratic voters and the country, but it puts Trump at a strategic advantage.

While Democrats are likely to have a shrill, anti-Trump conversation with primary voters for the next eight months, the president has the opportunity to have a totally different and far more positive conversation with a broader group of voters — not just the Republican base but with independents, especially those in rural and suburban areas who voted for him in 2016 and then for Democrats two years later.

The Trump campaign has said its strategy is to focus on its base and bring in first-time voters.

I hope they can recruit enough new supporters to make up for the significant Republican losses with rural voters and with women in the midterms. Building a bigger tent is always a good idea.

But to win re-election, the president also needs to listen to those voters who switched, understand why they flipped and focus on their concerns and issues.

Equally important, he needs to listen and speak to the 20 percent who voted for him despite having an unfavorable view of him.

The Democratic debate period gives the Trump campaign a needed opening to reconnect with these voters with a positive economic message.

Whether Trump will use these months to reset his negatives and strengthen his re-election position by reaching out to voters in the big middle is up to him and his campaign.

Democrats will have a similar opportunity as they lead out with the first debates of the 2020 election.

Whether their debate is a brawl focused on personalities and past ideological indiscretions or a contest to see which candidate can offer more freebies or a serious discussion of issues will be up to the Democrats.

In either case, the debate season offers both sides the chance to make inroads with an electorate that is tired with what masquerades as political discourse these days. Both parties would benefit by upping the tone of their political debate.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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