6 ways the primary fight is toughening up Democrats for the fall general election

The Nevada debate and caucuses have done little to still Democrats’ teeth-gnashing over their chances of defeating President Trump in November. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens proclaimed that “Democrats are in trouble,” while Democratic strategist Scott Arceneaux lamented that a protracted primary fight hurts the nominee’s chances at reaching voters necessary to defeat Trump.

Although some Democrats want a quick, orderly selection of the party’s nominee, as political communication scholar Roderick Hart reminds us, campaigns, especially messy ones, are good for us. Democrats, instead of horribilizing the 2020 nomination fight, should embrace it. The campaign is: 

  1. Expanding communication networks that may improve Democrats’ general election chances. Older voters may dismiss social media platforms such as TikTok or the use of memes as messaging vehicles, but just as Donald Trump demonstrated in 2016 with Twitter, these channels reach new audiences. Although the Democratic candidates for president have largely ignored TikTok, their supporters, especially Gen Z members, use it widely. Michael Bloomberg’s rise in the polls, in part, can be credited to his campaign hiring Instagram meme producers to push out content through that and other platforms.
  2. Honing messages that can be effective in the fall campaign. Michael Bloomberg may not win the Democratic nomination, but his campaign ads have demonstrated what the party and its nominee should do in the fall campaign. The Bloomberg campaign uses the dual-track approach in which he has ads out attacking the president at the same time he has ads promoting his agenda. One of Bloomberg’s most effective ads juxtaposes Trump’s most divisive statements against images of previous presidents most uplifting statements. Bloomberg has also been effective in promoting his political agenda by producing ads featuring real Americans speaking about, for example, their health care worries.
  3. Forcing Democrats to reflect on their core principles and moral direction. Former Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace often said “there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats.” This year’s nomination fight among candidates as ideologically diverse as Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden has forced the Democratic Party and its supporters into an important and healthy conversation about what it believes the federal government ought to be and how civil liberties and rights should apply to its citizens and others.
  4. Expanding the leadership pool. Nominations considered to be wide-open with large fields have produced new leadership within the party. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were relatively unknown before winning their respective nominations. They not only were new faces for their party, but they brought many new people into leadership positions in their administrations and the party itself. Although candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klochuchar (D-Minn.) are officeholders, they are new to many Democratic voters and may be forces within the party beyond 2020. Pete Buttigieg, even if he does not win the nomination, has impressed many on the national scene despite being young and lacking Washington experience. 
  5. Enfranchising new voters. A large, diverse group of candidates enlarges the pool of voters for the fall campaign. In 2008, the Obama coalition, developed during the nomination fight, brought new voters to the polls in the general election. This year, particularly with candidates like Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang, there is excitement within voter groups, like young people, who may be what the Democratic nominee needs to win the general election.
  6. Widening the policy agenda. Although issues like single-payer health insurance and a wealth tax are not new issues for Democratic policy wonks, issues such as these and others are what many Americans now consider as key issues for determining their votes in the nominating process and general election. Even as compared to the 2016 presidential election, in which Hillary Clinton was roundly criticized for not talking more about issues, it is unlikely that the 2020 Democratic nominee won’t be defined by a range of new policy issues.

With major contests coming up in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday, it is possible that the Democratic nomination race may be all but over by March 4. However, if the large field goes forward and the fight to reach 1,991 delegates remains intense, the Democratic Party may ultimately emerge from the long and loud fight with a stronger and more cohesive policy agenda, a bigger pool of voters, a more robust social media strategy and a deeper bench of fresh leadership. While it might be painful right now, the lessons learned in the primary fight will strengthen the Democratic Party for the general election.

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