Will Democrats Pick a Candidate Who Can Win?

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

California can be held at least partly responsible on several counts for the party supremacy battle which is likely to break out across the nation as a growing field of contestants throw their hats in the ring for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Prior elections have revealed some troublesome ideological fissures that could prevent California Democrats from coalescing around an acceptable candidate.

The split between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders backers in 2016 is a good example. Sanders it will be recalled garnered 45.7% in the state’s primary—in June that year—against Clinton’s 53.4%.

Perhaps equally revealing was her strong showing in California’s 2008 primary when she out-polled Barack Obama by a significant percentage in a further sign that the state can be very friendly to women candidates.

Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer had already made that clear.

Clinton’s wins as well as her ultimate defeat opened the gates for the unprecedented number of women who will be running this year including the state’s newest U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris.

The Democratic Party appears ready to once again choose a woman nominee. But who might it be and what are the characteristics Californians and the nation will be looking for?

This time however women challengers will abound and they will be compelled to find ways of outdoing one another without so imperiling each other’s chances that a viable candidate cannot emerge.

It is pitting at least four very smart and successful women of equal caliber against one another vying for a trophy which no woman has ever won and eventually the gloves are bound to come off.

Put a bombastic and badly wounded (if not by then criminally accused) president into the mix and this is likely to be one of the most tumultuous presidential campaigns ever.

It also unleashes a separate but undeniable competition between males and females with its own subplots now that Sen. Bernie Sanders has entered the race with New Jersey’s Sen. Corey Booker having declared and Vice President Joe Biden expected to follow shortly.

They could also be joined by East Bay Rep. Eric Swalwell who is already chasing potential donors and getting lots of television time expounding on the inquiries into presidential wrongdoing.

Fund raising is a crucial element in the early stages of any campaign, and California is well known as the ATM to presidential hopefuls.

On the day she announced, Harris raised more than $1 million across the nation in on-line donations, easily besting Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who reported a mere $300,000.

Biden already has many millions stashed away from prior campaigns with lots of chits he can still call in and ample numbers of California supporters.

If Californians continue to open their pockets to Harris as the home-state favorite she automatically becomes a formidable candidate.

But this plethora of talent which makes wealthy and vote-rich California even more enticing now that the presidential primary has been moved up to March could also expose the ideological rifts that threaten the unity vital to winning the election.

With its left-leaning tendencies California is a proving ground for itself, but not necessarily for much of the nation.

At least one woman candidate—Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota—-is touting her more centrist mid-western values which could be appealing to many Democrats and Independents who were less enthusiastic about the party’s previous woman nominee.

This suggests that, while the winner in the Golden State with the nation’s largest voting bloc and the biggest cache of electoral votes will have an edge going into the remaining primaries, the real battle for the nomination might only begin here.

When the GOP fielded 17 candidates in 2016, the internecine but rather subdued warfare that broke out did nothing to damage Trump’s prospects and in fact it brightened them to the point where his nomination became a forgone conclusion.

Democrats are by nature less prone to rally early around a single candidate and their diversity and willingness to squabble makes choosing even more difficult.

This can enthrall the party’s activists who are generally the most numerous primary participants but it can also weaken an eventual nominee—woman or man–who could emerge badly tarnished.

The early primaries (and California will now be one of them) are critical introductions for promising candidates, but they can also be very unkind if the results do not meet expectations.

With so many credible Democrats in the race, a strong showing here will be important on so-called “Super Tuesday” March 3.

But seven other major states, including Texas, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Virginia will also be holding primaries that day—and mediocre numbers in those places could dim the luster of a California victory.

A candidate who does well in this bluest of all states will say much about her or his fortunes going forward—or perhaps little at all.

Sen. Harris has stormed out of the gates with visible momentum that could catapult her into front-runner status in the early going but Sanders, who is a self-described Socialist Democrat—a tag that still carries negative connotations—seems poised to capitalize on the progressive wave he did much to unleash.

It captured much of the youth vote and many of his ideas such as universal health care, free college tuition and reversing economic inequality are now being promoted by most of the leading Democrat candidates. And he received more vote than Clinton in Michigan and Wisconsin—two crucial states she lost if the results were not manipulated.

The trick for frontrunners is maintaining that status during the long slog of the primary campaign which can have many twists and turns and unpredictable results as Clinton learned.

And peaking too early can be fatal as candidates in both parties have often discovered.

History is replete with frontrunners both Democrats and Republicans who lost: Howard Baker (R), John Glenn (D), Gary Hart (D), Bob Dole (R), Joe Lieberman (D), John Edwards (D), Rudy Giuliani (R), Mitt Romney (R). Jeb Bush (R).

Regardless of gender, the Democrat who catches fire across the most regions and voter sectors will be the one to beat.

In the race ahead Democrats enter unchartered territory with an imposing field of women and men taking on a wily and unscrupulous opponent who despite profound character defects has demonstrated his vote-getting ability.

The principal challenge for frustrated Democrats will be settling on a candidate who can win. As losers throughout history have taught us, that can be a very elusive quest.

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