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As election season kicks off, Democrats look to an ever-widening field to heal their Trump trauma

With almost too many candidates to pick from, the Democratic base is obsessed with electability.

US Senator and possible 2020 presidential candidate Sherrod Brown (D-OH) speaks at a house party as his wife Connie Schultz (L) looks on during a campaign stop on February 1, 2019 in Waterloo, Iowa. (JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)
US Senator and possible 2020 presidential candidate Sherrod Brown (D-OH) speaks at a house party as his wife Connie Schultz (L) looks on during a campaign stop on February 1, 2019 in Waterloo, Iowa. (JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND, OH — Everett Prewitt, a 76-year-old real estate consultant and novelist, pushed aside the remains of his oatmeal-and-coffee breakfast at a suburban diner, the better to clear some space on the table to freely express his thoughts at the dawn of a new presidential campaign season.

“I’m a Democrat and I will vote for a Democrat next year,” Prewitt said, punctuating his declaration of party affiliation with finger-pounding emphasis in the spot of his morning meal.

It’s early into the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating season, a year before the first primary votes will be cast and over 20 months before the presidential election. But Prewitt wishes the election could be held much sooner.

“I’m ready to go to the polls now because it’s time for him to go,” Prewitt said, with a mock-gruff smile, refusing to call the president by name. “You know who I’m talking about. That man in the White House. We got to get him out.” 

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So, if he’s ready and willing to vote as soon as possible, which candidate does Prewitt favor to replace President Donald Trump?

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice now turning much softer and forlorn. “I wish I could say and be excited, but it’s too early for me to know. I just need to watch them all before I can make up my mind.”

What Prewitt is experiencing, that urgent need to cast a ballot coupled with a fretful reticence to decide who should be the beneficiary of his vote, is a good microcosm of the challenging political landscape that Democratic candidates face as they turn their attention to next year’s campaign season. A robust and varied line-up of presidential contenders have already begun to elbow each other for premiere positioning, even as a small army of undecided aspirants stand on the sidelines pondering whether they should join the fray.

Everett Prewitt of Cleveland, Ohio, is certain about voting for a Democrat in 2020, but less  secure in his choice of a candidate. (Think Progress photo by Sam Fulwood III_
Everett Prewitt of Cleveland, Ohio, is certain about voting for a Democrat in 2020, but less secure in his choice of a candidate. (Think Progress photo by Sam Fulwood III_

There is a smorgasbord of issues, identities, and ideologies, all jostling for attention, and each member of the growing roster of candidates, on any given day, might offer something that appeals to one or another faction within the party. But it’s an open question as to whether any one of them holds enough appeal to unite the variegated interests of all Democrats. All of which is making it difficult, if not impossible, for Democratic voters in this early stage to rally behind one candidate.

Well, that’s what a long, arduous, and competitive primary race is all about.

“The things that Democrats are addressing are things that are genuine concerns to people,” David Axelrod, who was Barack Obama’s chief strategist in 2008 and 2012, said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “I suspect the full complement of candidates will have a range of approaches to that. I wouldn’t make judgments in the moment about whether the debate is heading in the wrong direction.”

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Trump wasn’t even halfway though his first term before a broad, diverse, and aggressive array of Democratic challengers made it clear that they intended to take him on. As of this writing, ten Democrats have officially jumped into the race: Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand of New York, ex-San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and the relatively little-known, former tech executive Andrew Yang. They’ve been joined by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

And still more big-name candidates are waiting in the wings. Democratic voters want to see if, as expected, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is an Independent but ran for the Democratic nomination in 2016, will formally to announce campaigns in the coming days.

Already, one Democrat has entered and exited the campaign. Former West Virginia state Sen. Richard Ojeda, a retired Army veteran, announced on Veterans Day that he was running and gave up his seat in the legislature, only to realize he couldn’t muster enough support, or money, to effectively run. So, last month, after two months of floundering, he suspended his campaign.

While the campaign is in its earliest of days, all this jockeying is revelatory. There’s a real lack of consensus right now about what it means to be a Democrat in 2020, and no one seems to have a clear answer on the best way to rally Democratic voters so as to successfully challenge Trump.

Sure, at the most superficial level, it’s possible to sort the Democrats into some broad camps. An activist-minded, left-leaning, and aggressively progressive wing is emerging, and that cohort is finding candidates like Warren ready to take up the mantle — along with Sanders. Then, there are more traditional, centrist candidates representing the consensus from previous periods of Democratic rule — should Biden run, he’d likely present himself as a restoration of the Obama White House.

Then, too, unlike ever before, there’s a greater awareness among Democrats of identity politics, and what a representative from a modern, liberal party should look like. Here in the early stages, four of the announced candidates are women (Warren, Harris, Klobuchar and Gabbard), two are African American (Harris and Booker); one is Latino (Castro) and one is Asian American (Yang).

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But these demarcations blur the more you learn about these Democrats. Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, for example, steps into the fray steeped in working-class, Rust Belt traditions — but he’s offered up some considerable skepticism, here at the outset of the campaign, of some of the more populist solutions offered up by the party’s liberal wing. Meanwhile, Booker and Gillibrand, whose own political careers started closer to the middle of the road, have latched on to some of the more ambitious policies that Democrats have proposed.

Just as you think you have the field pegged, in other words, the landscape shifts. And this staggering diversity of personalities and issues — in all their mix and match combinations — makes it challenging for voters in these early months to throw their full-throated support behind any one of them.

And on top of that, it’s too early to guess how any of them will square up against Trump, Prewitt said.

“I hate to say this, but they’re all over the lot,” he said. “There’s no reason for me to have to decide right now. The time will come and I’ll be ready then.”

A recent Monmouth University poll found that 56 percent of surveyed Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters prefer “someone who would be a strong candidate against Trump, even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues.” A third of those surveyed said they prefer a Democratic nominee who is aligned with their views on issues, even if that person would have a hard time beating Trump, suggesting electability is more salient a quality than political purity.

This is a new phenomenon among Democratic voters, and, as the Washington Post’s Ben Terris observes, the trauma of Trump’s election is the cause. These electability-obsessed voters, Terris says, are suffering from an acute case of “pundititis”: A “virus affecting the nervous system of Democratic voters that was born out of the 2016 elections,” that makes it harder for Democratic voters “to fall in love with candidates, instead worrying about what theoretical swing voters may feel.”

Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a news release announcing the poll findings that such a view is, indeed, a break from past voter behavior. “In prior elections, voters from both parties consistently prioritized shared values over electability when selecting a nominee,” Murray said. “It looks like Democrats may be willing to flip that equation in 2020 because of their desire to defeat Trump. This is something to pay close attention to when primary voters really start tuning into the campaign.”

But in Ohio, which is widely viewed as a make-or-break, swing-voting state, many Democrats have already begun to pay close attention, even if they’ve not fallen in love with any one of the candidates.

Tessa Xuan, a 27-year-old nonprofit strategic consultant in Cleveland, ventured out last month into a bitterly cold and snowy night to witness a political rally for Brown, who kicked off a listening tour to assess his presidential campaign potential. “I haven’t committed to anyone yet,” she said. “I’d like to see what the ticket looks like and who the candidates might be.”

Xuan said she voted in 2016 for Sanders in the Ohio primary and for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election. “I’m here tonight because I am engaged and the Democrats are the one chance at fighting what Trump is doing to the country,” Xuan said. “I think it’s great there are so many candidates running and debating the issues. It’s not divisive, it’s a positive for all of us to hear what they have to say.”

Cliff Wire, a 54-year-old IT programmer, said he came to the Brown rally at a distribution center’s warehouse, but wasn’t on any candidate’s bandwagon — yet. “Of course, I’m going to vote for the best candidate who isn’t Trump,” Wire said, adding that he’s a registered Independent voter. “Nobody is really running for president yet, even though several candidates have announced. It’s too early for that.”

Wire said when the campaigns get serious, it’s almost certain that he will align himself with the eventual Democratic nominee. “At the moment, it might seem the Republicans are more united,” Wire said, straining to be heard over the din of rock music in the cavernous warehouse. “But they’re very monolithic and the Democrats are more pluralistic. That’s what’s better for the nation.”

But those electability-obsessed Democratic voters are out there, watching and waiting for the time when they can cast a ballot. Kimberly Bellino, a 49-year-old nurse who lives in South Euclid, Ohio, said that identifying that one candidate uniquely capable of beating Trump is the only thing that matters. She has her eye on the one Democrat that she believes can go toe-to-toe with the president.

“I really like Joe Biden,” she said, pausing over her lunch at a strip mall on a recent day off from work. “It will take someone who can talk back to Trump and I just want to hear him say ‘malarkey’ to Trump every day of the campaign.”