How to lose an election

Dr Patrick Carvalho
2 October, 2019

Although at very early stages, the Democratic Party’s process to choose its presidential nominee has thrown up three leading figures, two completely opposite policy platforms, and one likely outcome.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders represent the progressive winds of change in the Democratic Party, proposing policies that, if implemented, would radically change long-standing institutions in America.

On the other side, former Vice President Joe Biden is the fatigued resistance force upholding the decades-long party establishment mantra of incrementalism and solidarity with individual responsibility.

The end result is a (further) loss for democracy, for America – and for the rest of us.

The contenders

The 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination process kicked off with a series of televised debates in recent months, with a couple of dozen contenders vying for the right to challenge President Trump.

In the fourth debate, scheduled for 15 October and featuring the top 12 qualified candidates, all eyes will be on Biden, Sanders and Warren, who together attract around two-thirds of Democratic voter preferences for the nomination.

The 76-year-old Biden started strong with a measured centre-left message, invoking his working-class roots and decades of political experience. The Senator for Delaware from 1973 to 2009 and Vice President under Barack Obama from 2009 to 2016, “Middle Class Joe” is a household name attempting to win back the blue-collar workers who turned to Trump in the last election.

But after reaching over 40 percent of support from Democratic registered voters in early May, latest polls show Biden plateauing at 25 percent. A gaffe-prone character – from plagiarism that once cost him the 1988 presidential nomination to recent accusations of inappropriately touching women – Biden has not been able to sustain the early campaign momentum.

Importantly, as the progressive wing of the Democratic Party advances to become the new mainstream, Biden’s strengths have turned into a liability. Amid the crescendo of identity politics and social justice, it is increasingly hard for Democrats to nominate an “old, white man with strong links to the political establishment” to fight the “social and economic oppressions of an old-boys-club patriarchy”.

In the current woke environment, 78-year-old Sanders’ chances are better. The longest serving independent senator in US congressional history might be white and old, but so colourful and avant garde are his ideas to fix America that he epitomises the progressive movement.

A runner-up nominee in the 2016 elections, Sanders started the current campaign at a strong second place, earning him more than 20 percent of the registered voter’s preferences. However, his open and loud support for democratic socialism has been capping his chances to secure the nomination, pushing him away from more traditional party constituencies.

A more viable progressive nominee would be Warren. The second-time senator is a rising star, running neck and neck with Sanders for the second place in polls. (A fresh poll in the key state of Iowa places Warren ahead of both Biden and Sanders for the first time, and so do online betting houses.)

Warren has the progressive credentials without the socialist stigma, appealing to both the Bernie-curious and the more moderate: “I am a capitalist who believes in fair markets with rules”, she guarantees. If elected, the 69-year-old former Harvard law professor would be the first female president of the United States.


Extreme positions typically run rife in presidential primaries. The game is to secure the nomination by attracting the party’s hardcore voters while moderating the discourse in the general election campaign to win the hearts and votes of the wider American people. But this time is different.

The Democratic Party’s left-turn runs so deep that Biden is having trouble defending Obama’s legacy, and is actually costing him political capital.

Instead of the usual one-off sentences and easy to backtrack pledges, leading candidates such as Sanders and Warren are coming out with fully-fledged policy proposals that would knock out the status quo if implemented.

Take for example the now-mainstream signature policies of Democratic candidates in three key areas.

First, on income inequality, the recurring progressive mantra in the Democratic Party is “Every billionaire is a policy mistake”, a sharp contrast to America’s long-standing “self-made man” aspirations. Steep progressive taxes are being proposed, including an American-first wealth tax.

Warren has proposed a 2-percent tax on fortunes worth more than $50 million, and a 3 percent tax on fortunes worth more than $1 billion. Sanders’ wealth tax plan will raise the proposed tax rate up to 8 percent on fortunes above $10 billion.

Second, on climate change, cleaning up the environment is a high priority among Democrat contenders. Several of them, including Sanders, Warren and Biden, support the Green New Deal, which pledges trillions of dollars to achieve 100 percent clean energy targets by as early as 2030. That includes curbing – or even banning –  shale oil production, which represents two-thirds of America’s current oil output.

Lastly, on health care, there is Medicare-for-All, a government-funded, cradle-to-grave insurance coverage for all American residents. Originally proposed by Sanders – and largely backed by top Democratic contenders such as Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Cory Booker – the plan aims to essentially get rid of the private health insurance market, a true American institution that caters to more than half the population.

The man to beat

To win the White House, Democrats could point out how President Trump is an uncouth, egotistical, compulsive truth-bender, contemptuous of rules-based institutions, and potentially dangerous. Except by now few would disagree, even his supporters – and it would hardly be a game-changing strategy for 2020.

The nascent impeachment calls for Trump’s interactions with Ukraine is a case in point. Despite damning evidence of wrongdoing, it is (very) unlikely the Republican-controlled Senate would produce a two-thirds vote required for conviction. If anything, Trump would use the stillbirth process to rally his base over “another fake news, political witch hunt”.

The truth is Donald Trump is sitting on a sweet spot to win the next presidential election. History shows that incumbent presidents have a usual leg-up in re-election cycles. Particularly when the economy is so far booming, boasting ultra-low unemployment rates, bullish stock markets, and a record ten-year-old income growth streak.

Further, there are mainly two types of Trump voters: those who adore him and everything he does no matter what (aka the “deplorables” according to Hillary Clinton), and those who are solely concerned with a single policy issue (e.g. Supreme Court nominations, abortion, the right to bear firearms, low taxes, less business regulations), and therefore completely disregarding everything else.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, are damned if they nominate Sanders or Warren, which will most certainly alienate middle-America voters – and damned if they don’t, as nominating the business-as-usual Biden will likely fail to energise core Democratic constituencies to go out and vote.

This is the sad state of affairs for America – and for the rest of us. Many are the domestic and international challenges that require a resolute, functional and sensible Leader of the Free World.

America does not need a revolution. An incremental evolution would do just fine.


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