The Perfect and the Good
The 2019 elections gave the Democrats further reason to feel optimistic about winning nationally in 2020. Powered by big urban turnouts and suburban voters recoiling at Trump, they claimed both houses of the Virginia legislature, eked out a win in the Kentucky governor’s race, and held on to the governor’s seat in Louisiana.
A lot of left-of-center folks are thinking that if the Democrats can win in Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana, they can win anywhere.
I want to agree. I’ve been saying all along that Trump’s win was a fluke and that (1) lightning isn’t likely to strike twice, (2) the Democrats’ path to victory in the three key states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) is relatively free of brambles, and (3) voters’ overall disapproval of Trump has remained steady since he became president and is unlikely to change in the next year.
But I’m also old enough (and have been wrong enough) to recognize that confirmation bias can be a lethal weakness. Earlier this month the New York Times ran a counter-factual article about the 2020 presidential election. I didn’t want to read it, so I didn’t. Until I realized that for my own good, I needed to.
The article was written by Nate Cohn, author of an earlier piece I considered worthless click-bait for anxious anti-Trumpers. (Apparently in his new book, Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, my favorite journalist Matt Taibbi argues that the Times is as guilty as Fox News of reporting on Trump in a manner intended to boost audience.) But in the new piece, Cohn works from data provided by New York Times Upshot/Siena College. Nate Silver’s annual pollster ratings came out recently, and Times Upshot/Siena earned an A+, meaning its results are as reliable as we are likely to get.
Although they fall within the margin of error, those results tell us that among likely voters in the three key swing states, Joe Biden is beating Trump; Bernie Sanders is behind in Pennsylvania, ahead in Michigan, and tied in Wisconsin; and Elizabeth Warren is losing in all three states.
I don’t mind when billionaires oppose Warren. But when a swing state’s persuadable voters turn against her, I mind. For all the infighting between the liberal and moderate wings of the Democratic party, nobody gets anything if the party’s standard bearer fails to beat Trump.
Cohn falls back on qualitative data to suggest that sexism may be responsible for the disparity. As one female Florida respondent told Times Upshot/Siena, “There’s just something about [Warren] that I just don’t like. I just don’t feel like she’s a genuine candidate. I find her body language to be very off-putting. She’s very cold. She’s basically a Hillary Clinton clone.” Whether or not that’s fair, I’ve heard the same sentiment from committed liberals in my own circle — more than one of them female.
Moreover, in a separate opinion piece, Timothy Egan infers from the poll that “the persuadable voters in these states, many of them working class, say political correctness has gotten out of control, and they prefer someone seeking common ground over someone with a militantly progressive agenda.” Egan may be betraying his own confirmation bias, but there’s no denying Warren has courted the social justice wing of the party, which is unpopular even among liberals. Ulp.
When I worked at slow-moving UC Berkeley, I had a reputation for getting things done. One reason was that I didn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. The California primary is in March, and Warren remains on the list of candidates I might vote for (the candidate I liked most, Jay Inslee, has dropped out). I agree with a lot of her ideas. But if it grows more apparent that she’s unlikely to defeat Trump, I won’t vote for her, because a choice between perfect disaster, uninspiring good, and authoritarian disaster is an obvious call.