'No one out there': could Democrats' lack of star power see Trump re-elected by default?

Questions over the party’s frontrunners have prompted late entrants with problems of their own: ‘They’re fumbling for a message’

Too old. Too young. Too white. Too leftwing. Anxiety over Democrats’ failure to find a standout candidate is raising fears that, despite astounding unpopularity and potential impeachment, Donald Trump could win re-election by default.

The Democratic primary’s top tier of candidates does not include a person of colour even in the biggest and most diverse field in history. The leader of national opinion polls turned 77 this week and delivered another stumbling debate performance while fending off questions about his son’s foreign business dealings.

The poll leader in Iowa, which will get the first say, is the 37-year-old mayor of a small city who in some surveys is polling close to zero with African American voters. Two more septuagenarians have seen their momentum stall amid criticism that their healthcare reforms are too radical and unaffordable.

And then there are two last-minute would-be saviours: an ageing billionaire from New York and a former east coast governor who this week cancelled a campaign event when only two people showed up.

Watching it all with glee are Trump and Republicans, hardly able to believe their luck that they might not have to win next year’s election so much as watch Democrats lose it, just as Hillary Clinton did by failing to motivate turnout in crucial states in 2016. This week’s debate in Atlanta showed that the party is struggling again to find a nominee as inspiring as Barack Obama.

“When I ask my students, is there anyone on that debate stage tonight who you see as being presidential, most of them say no, there’s no one out there,” said Monika McDermott, a political science professor, at Fordham University in New York. “And they’re political junkies so they know as much as any of us do.

“So I think that Democrats have a real problem here in that they have a bunch of candidates who appeal to different groups for different reasons but they don’t have a clear leader in the group, and that’s part of the problem.”

Joe Biden, the former vice-president who heads national polls, needed a big night in Atlanta but was widely panned, especially for some unfortunate word choices. Speaking about sexual violence, he said: “So we have to just change the culture, period. And keep punching at it and punching it and punching at it.”

And boasting about his support among African Americans, Biden listed “the only black African American woman who had ever been elected to the United States Senate” as one of his endorsers. The California senator Kamala Harris threw her hands in the air and said: “Nope. That’s not true. The other one is here.”

Pundits were withering. Lawrence O’Donnell, a host on the MSNBC network, described it as a “colossal gaffe … unlike any other I’ve seen in a debate performance because it’s literally about a person who’s standing on the stage who he in this moment has forgotten exists”. The Washington Post noted that Biden’s debate performances “are almost unfailingly shaky”.

This comes against a backdrop of Biden last month releasing a weak third-quarter fundraising report and falling behind in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, which votes second. The man who was at Obama’s side for eight years is, commentators say, on an irresistible slide.

‘The Democrats have a problem’

For those nervous about another electoral disaster for Democrats in 2020, the canaries in the coal mine are Deval Patrick, the former governor or Massachusetts, and Michael Bloomberg, the super-rich ex-mayor of New York, who either have entered or seem poised to enter the race at the last minute – a sure sign that Biden is perceived as weak and flagging.

Speaking at the New York Foreign Press Center on Friday, McDermott said: “Biden’s lack of leadership is what caused Deval Patrick and Bloomberg [to enter]. I don’t think those two will have any effect on the race ... But people are worried about Joe Biden, that he’s too old, that he’s been around long, not a fresh face, not very exciting to voters. So, yes, the Democrats have a problem.”

Bloomberg, 77, a former Republican, and Patrick, who governed Massachusetts, are also thought to be motivated by concerns that Senators Bernie Sanders, 78, and Elizabeth Warren, 70, progressives who want to eliminate private health insurance and introduce far reaching structural change, will be easy to demonise as dangerous socialists in a general election.

The former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick kicks off his campaign in California.
The former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick kicks off his campaign in California. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

But the rescue mission is failing to get off the launch pad. Bloomberg has filed federal papers declaring himself a candidate but is still hesitating about becoming the 18th in the field. His establishment credentials and vast wealth are also spectacularly out of step with a party eager to address America’s cavernous inequality.

Bloomberg has also issued an apology for a “stop and frisk” policy that targeted African American and Latino men during his 12-year tenure as mayor of New York. Charles Blow, a columnist at the New York Times, was not impressed. “This is a necessary apology, but a hard one to take, coming only now, as he considers a run for the Democratic nomination, a nomination that is nearly impossible to secure without the black vote,” he wrote. “It feels like the very definition of pandering.”

Patrick scrapped a campaign event at Morehouse College in Atlanta when hardly anyone turned up and a photo of row after row of empty chairs circulated on social media. As a brutally symbolic contrast with the fervent crowds at Trump rallies, it was hard to beat.

Instead, the man of the moment is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has leaped to the top of some polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and gave an assured performance in this week’s debate. But he is aiming to become the youngest (and first openly gay) president ever elected and a series of missteps on race – including using a stock photo taken in Kenya to promote his agenda for African Americans - have left many voters of colour deeply sceptical.

A day after the debate, Obama pleaded with Democratic donors to “chill out about the candidates, but gin up about the prospect of rallying behind” the eventual nominee. He perhaps senses a drawn-out primary process could leave the party badly divided while Trump, an incumbent buoyed by a strong economy and formidable fundraising, could cruise to victory next November just by being Trump.

Not even the impeachment inquiry, which this week heard evidence that he attempted to bribe Ukraine for his own political gain, appears likely to derail him. It has been used by his campaign to raise millions of dollars. Republicans and rightwing media remain loyal. “The bottom line: Trump’s rightwing media wall has held,” observed CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter.

Indeed, Trump is showing resilience in the polls. A survey of 801 registered voters by the Marquette Law School in the all-important state of Wisconsin over 13-17 November showed only the long shot Cory Booker beating Trump in a head-to-head match up (45% to 44%). The president led Biden 47% to 44%, Sanders 48% to 45%, Warren 48% to 43% and Buttigieg 47% to 39%.

John Zogby, a Democratic pollster, said: “In most polls nationwide and in the key states, the president is competitive against every one of the major candidates. The Democrats are still kind of fumbling for a message: it’s really not enough to be against Trump. Fifty-seven per cent say they will definitely not vote for Trump – but that doesn’t mean they will come out to vote.”

Zogby added: “Trump could very well win this, not only because he did the first time in an unconventional way, but because voters are very clear they want something worthwhile voting for against Trump; otherwise key groups will not show up to vote in sufficient numbers.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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