When I watch the Democratic Party’s presidential debates, I do it through the lens of electability. I don’t mean that I evaluate the individual candidates in terms of how electable I believe they are relative to each other, but more that I look at the presentation as a whole. How does the party come off? Is what they’re selling going to play in the Philadelphia suburbs? Is it going to play in the more rural parts of Pennsylvania where Donald Trump rolled up an insurmountable lead on Hillary Clinton?
In suburban Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I live, the single biggest employer is Vanguard, a major financial services company. The third biggest employer is the international medical device-maker Siemens. Pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson and Endo are also in the top 50, along with three different hospital systems and a couple of other health care companies.
It’s a problem that the financial services, pharmaceutical, and health care industries come under such strong attack in these debates because many see it as a personal insult and others simply see it as a threat to their livelihood. I know this firsthand because I live with the people who work in these industries and I hear how they respond. It’s these people who were nodding along with the centrists in Tuesday’s debate as they engaged in a cage match with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Suburban Democrats in this area are still tax averse, which means they are receptive to the message that the more liberal candidates are engaging in fairy tale promises on how they’ll finance their proposals. And, while the suburbs are now incredibly diverse, they were still established in a time of white flight from the city and have a legacy of being among the most persistently Republican-controlled counties in the country. It’s fair to say that the white population here has become tolerant and accepting of non-white immigrants, but the changes are certainly causing some anxiety and discomfort for a lot of people. The president’s racism is a huge loser overall here, but when he trashes a city like Baltimore it also resonates with a lot of folks who are terrified of the violence in Philadelphia. The Democrats’ positions on decriminalizing the border and offering reparations for slavery are probably huge losers in the suburbs, too.
As for the rural areas of the state, these policies are positively toxic. The offer of free college and college loan forgiveness are so out of touch that former Senator Rick Santorum was positively gleeful during the post-debate coverage on CNN, and I had to reluctantly agree with him.
The Democrats are doing their damnedest to lose suburban support with some of their more extreme health care and immigration rhetoric, and some nominees would add to that the demonization of anyone who works in the insurance, pharmaceutical or financial services industries. Trump may very well do even better in rural areas than he did in 2016 when his shocking victory was almost entirely explained by his unanticipated strength there. To offset that, the Democrats need to more than match him in the suburbs, and they seem to be hellbent on playing with fire with that crucial slice of the electorate.
Remember, too, that the Democrat can run up much bigger numbers in places like Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco without it helping in the Electoral College at all. The battle will be won or lost outside of Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Columbus, Cleveland, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Tampa, and Orlando.
Trump knows what he needs to do to win again even while getting crushed in the popular vote. But he can’t do it alone. His strategy is losing him too much suburban support. The Democrats should not do things that hand that support right back to him.
That fear did not dissipate after what I witnessed Tuesday night.
I thought the best moment of the debate came when Elizabeth Warren grew exasperated at criticism from her right and stated, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for the president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for. I don’t get it.”
Overall, I think she manages to do a much better job than Bernie Sanders in presenting her ideas in ways that are broadly palatable in both the suburbs and in more rural areas. But even she engaged in some rhetoric that is going to greatly assist Donald Trump in making a second run at Pennsylvania.
I continue to believe that Trump has lost Pennsylvania and probably any realistic chance of being reelected. But the Democrats are making me very nervous because their message isn’t tailored to winning here, at all. Joe Biden, who is almost an honorary senator in Pennsylvania, is pretty much bullet-proof in the Keystone State, so these alternative candidates need to show they won’t put a sure thing at risk by pandering to voters who won’t decide the election while Trump stays laser-focused on just the voters who will.
His message is designed to polarize the electorate racially and drive his numbers in all-white counties through the roof, while bludgeoning the Democrats in the suburbs for their “socialism” and disrespect. It worked once before and it probably won’t work again. But it could.
I don’t know why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president and then risks an easy win. All the Democrats need to do is occupy the center because Trump has abandoned it. And, yet, they seem to prefer to make this a white-knuckle affair.
I personally agree with much of the more troublesome rhetoric and political positions on the merits, but they’re not suited for the politics of the moment.