Beating an Inside Straight

I’m mostly inured to Trump’s provocations, but last week’s Two Minutes Hate against “The Squad” — left-wing Congresswomen of color Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar — got to me. It’s more proof, as if more were needed, that he’s toxic to democracy.

That said, I’m with Pelosi on impeachment. Even though Trump has likely committed high crimes and misdemeanors as that phrase has been historically interpreted, the Senate will never convict him, and after a failed impeachment there will be no leverage over him. As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum puts it, Trump will think, “What will they do — impeach me? They already dropped the atom bomb and it went fzzzzt.” Trump will defy Congress, the courts, and popular opinion with impunity, instead of with the modicum of caution he does now, and will cross into an outright monarch.

So he must be decisively defeated in 2020.

Many pundits (see, for instance, this dubious piece of work in the New York Times) argue that Trump has the edge in 2020. But they need a close race — or the illusion thereof — to boost their audience, so they overlook or minimize some important facts: that Trump lost the popular vote 2016; that he hasn’t gained popularity since and shows no inclination to seek support beyond his base; and that the 2018 election, largely a referendum on his presidency, proved calamitous for his party.

As Republican pollster Whit Ayres put it, “He managed to draw an inside straight in 2016, and won three critical Rust Belt states. If that’s the strategy for 2020, the question is whether you can draw an inside straight two hands in a row.”

Hillary Clinton lost those three Rust Belt states — Pennsylvania (44,292), Michigan (10,704), and Wisconsin (22,748) — by a combined 77,744 votes. She out-polled Trump handily (2,946,262 votes) in the rest of the country.*

For the Democrats’ next presidential candidate to beat Trump, he or she will need to hold the states Clinton won (paying extra attention to New Hampshire, Minnesota, Nevada, and Maine because Trump came close to winning them) and focus on reclaiming Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

It’s eminently doable.

Pennsylvania. In 2012, Philadelphia gave Barack Obama a 492,339 vote advantage over Mitt Romney. In 2016, Clinton beat Trump by 475,277 votes in Philly — a drop-off of 17,000. Just by matching Obama in Philadelphia, the Democrat in 2020 erases nearly 40% of Trump’s margin in Pennsylvania. The remaining 27,000 votes can be picked up from the suburbs; in the 2018 election, Democratic House candidates received some 250,000 more votes than their Republican opponents.

Michigan. Just get out the vote in Detroit. In 2012, Obama beat Romney by 385,032 votes in Wayne County (the bulk of which is Detroit). In 2016, Clinton beat Trump by 290,451, a drop-off of nearly 95,000. Getting even half that margin back would be enough.

Wisconsin. In 2012, Obama won Milwaukee by 177,514 votes. Clinton won Milwaukee by 162,752. Matching Obama would leave the 2020 Democratic candidate needing just 8,000 votes, not hard considering that in 2018 chastened Wisconsinites threw out a highly partisan Republican governor and comfortably re-elected a liberal Democratic senator (Tammy Baldwin).

There is a theme here: the Democrats need a candidate who can inspire voters in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee the way Obama did and Clinton didn’t. They will need relentless get-out-the-vote drives in those cities.

I hear your objection: that won’t be enough because Trump’s blatant racism is energizing his base and will increase turnout for him. There has been a tiny rise in Trump’s popularity since he slandered The Squad. But the Times’s Jamelle Bouie succinctly refutes the larger anxiety:

Trump rallied his base in the weeks before the 2018 elections using a similar strategy of racist demagogy. He held events in pivotal states like Wisconsin, fanning fear around the migrant “caravan” and blasting figures like congresswoman Maxine Waters of California as representative of the entire Democratic Party. It didn’t work.

Trump also had a good economy in 2018. That didn’t work for him either.

Of course Trump can pull an inside straight again, or some unanticipated event could change public opinion about his presidency, or my analysis can be wrong. Still, if the Democrats can set aside their purity tests and work like mad to beat Trump regardless of the nominee, they just might save our imperfect yet indispensable democracy.

*Voter data gathered from uselectionatlas.org.

None of this would have surprised Orwell.