For Americans horrified by the daily utterances from the White House, the 2020 presidential campaign offers a faint glimmer of hope. But, this hope is tempered by a string of recent Democratic political failures. In 2014, Democrats suffered significant losses in both houses of Congress. In 2016, the Republicans retained control of the House and the Senate and saw their candidate win the presidency. Following the Presidential election, Democrat Jon Ossoff lost the special election in Georgia’s Sixth congressional district by a significant margin, despite false hopes that he would be elected in a wealthy, conservative district. Ossoff’s campaign reflects the continuous challenges the party still faces, despite an unpopular Trump presidency, and must prompt Democrats to reflect on how 2020 should and could be different.
The Democratic Party has already begun to informally consider several candidates for president. Kamala Harris, the junior Senator from California, has experience both in the federal government and in the role of Attorney General of California. Democratic leaders have also shown interest in Kirsten Gillibrand, the Senator from New York, who serves alongside Chuck Schumer. Elizabeth Warren, a leader of the party’s left wing, is frequently mentioned by grassroots elements in the party. However, before focusing on the particular politicians that the Democrats should field in 2020, the party needs to give serious thought to the message its candidate will convey.
In the last election, the Democratic Party was stymied on the campaign trail because it did not forcefully address rapidly growing economic inequality. Democrats must emphasize their commitment to limit Wall Street malfeasance and financial manipulation while providing economic opportunity to those left behind in the global marketplace. Americans’ distrust of Wall Street and the big banks is no secret. FiveThirtyEight reports that from 2006 to 2016, Americans’ faith in the banking system fell roughly 20 percentage points, from 49 percent to 27 percent. Hillary Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street elites contributed to her unpopularity and, eventually, her loss in 2016. The exorbitant speaking fees she received from investment banks undermined her credibility as an advocate for reigning in the excesses of the industry. It is apparent that wealthy interests exercised enormous leverage in the Clinton camp, particularly on her stances with respect to financial regulation and corporate reform. With economic inequality growing and working-class households suffering, Clinton, who lacks a direct message for Wall Street and any evident will to pursue policy reform proposals like the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, did not gain traction with many working-class voters.
There are similarities between Clinton’s and Gillibrand’s connections to Wall Street. Between 2011 and 2012, Gillibrand was the top recipient of political donations from Goldman Sachs, outpacing all other members of Congress in office during those years. From 2009 to 2013, JPMorgan Chase was her second largest corporate donor. Three of her top ten corporate backers since 2005 have been major investment firms, demonstrating her campaign funds’ reliance on Wall Street banks. As a result, Gillibrand’s relationship with Wall Street interests will make it easy for her to be painted as the Hillary Clinton of 2020, at least on the issues of financial regulation and campaign finance reform.
She began her political career as an ostensible “Blue-Dog” conservative. To secure a spot in the Senate after Clinton’s departure in 2009, Gillibrand realigned her views on gun control, immigration, and financial austerity—a shift to the left that would prove critical in her Senate victory. However, since being elected, she has been a reliable centrist Democrat on economic issues, with significant Wall Street ties and a business-friendly voting record. While welcome, her progressive stance on social issues like paid family leave has seemed like an exception to, rather than a reflection of, her record on economic issues and willingness to break from mainstream Democratic politics. During her time in Senate, Gillibrand has demonstrated a resistance to tackling economic reform. She argued to delay the “Volcker Rule,” a proposal in the Dodd-Frank legislation that would help curb the type of speculative trading by the big banks that played a central role in the financial crisis beginning in 2007. In addition, she endorsed a proposal to delay implementation of another provision in Dodd-Frank that aimed to better regulate derivative trading.
Victory in 2020 will be unattainable for the Democrats if they are unable to understand the fundamental reason for their losses last November and unwilling to cater their political platform towards the needs of an alienated voter base that is prepared to embrace a populist message. Bernie Sanders maintained his own social democratic vision by running as a Democrat in 2016. While he struggled in many key states during the primaries, his ambitions were far more aligned with those of the disgruntled Democratic voters in swing states—the very demographic that may determine the next election’s outcome. Breaking up the big banks, making college affordable, and equalizing economic opportunity were central themes during Sanders’ campaign. He also emphasized the need to dismantle a political system that has been corrupted by Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and continues to undermine fair and free elections. His efforts were not fruitless. Sanders won just shy of 44 percent of the popular vote. Of course, the more pertinent question is how Sanders would have performed in the general election had he been successful in the primary races.
While many believe that examining this hypothetical scenario is pointless, it may produce meaningful insights. Trump’s success was substantially achieved through his narrow victories in the rust belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Together, these states provided 46 electoral votes. In each state, however, Trump won by an incredibly slim margin. (In Michigan, he won by just three-tenths of a percent). Political polling and interviews with voters in these states suggest that Sanders may have been able to bridge the gap with alienated working-class voters and secure key electoral votes. In the Democratic primary, he did just that, by winning states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Disaffected Trump voters had contempt for the political establishment, which they believed Clinton represented. Her Wall Street ties and inability to relate to the needs of the average voter undermined her popularity in the region. Sanders, with a categorically different and diametrically opposite populist message from Trump, may have been able to appeal to these disaffected voters in a way that Clinton simply could not. Non-college educated white people, who comprised a large segment of the voting population in these states, sought refuge in a candidate who promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington and get rid of political elites. Unfortunately, their options were limited. Favorable/unfavorable poll results from rust belt states, released several months after Trump’s inauguration, found that Sanders’ favorability ratings were far above Trump’s, and separately revealed that Trump was viewed as considerably more unfavorable than Sanders. These findings contribute to a persisting view that Sanders may have been a stronger candidate in 2016. The point here is not to chastise those that voted for Clinton because they saw her as a more rational candidate but to highlight the ability of a Sanders-type populist message to resonate with a major part of the American voter base.
More important than what might have happened in 2016, though, is what needs to happen in 2020. If Democrats hope to win, they must acknowledge that their brand of centrist politics was not effective and accept the place of a progressive agenda in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. This agenda must be spearheaded by a credible messenger. For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren, senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and close political ally of Sanders, may prove to be a far more effective candidate than another centrist. Through a grassroots donor system similar to the one developed by Sanders, she can compete without participating in the delegitimized current campaign finance system. Warren, with a well-documented history of opposing financial misconduct on Wall Street and attacking corporate greed, can capture the swing working-class Democratic voter base in a unique and inspiring manner. If it is not Warren, it could be another progressive with a similarly solid but perhaps less well-known record, such as Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. What remains unclear is whether the party will be willing to give such a candidate a chance.
Ben Stagoff-Belfort is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at email@example.com.