In an ordinary race, identity politics plays a big role in Democrats’ ticket-balancing calculations. This time, it already has, inasmuch as Biden has promised to choose a woman. There’s no shortage of names in circulation, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Gretchen Whitmer, Amy Klobuchar, and Stacey Abrams prominent among them.
But if the Democratic primaries proved anything, it was that 2020 would not be a paint-by-numbers election in which African Americans vote for black candidates, women vote for female candidates, and the young vote for next-generation candidates. Instead, the young gravitated to one old white man (though only weakly, compared with 2016), and African Americans and women gravitated to another old white man. The Pew Research Center recently found that only about 40 percent of Democrats are bothered that their nominee is an older white man.
Strikingly, among all demographic groups, black Democrats are the least identity-bound. Only 28 percent of African-Americans say they are bothered by having an older white man as the nominee—and the figure is barely higher among Hispanics. (College-educated whites under 50 are the real locus of liberal identity politics, as no one who has visited a university campus in recent years will be surprised to hear.)
In other words, 2020 will not be an identity-politics election for Democrats. Neither will it be an ideological election. In a forthcoming book on the Democrats post-2016, the University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket points out that a recurring pattern has been for parties to tilt toward their liberal or conservative wings in the next election after losing the presidency. Think Barry Goldwater in 1964, George McGovern in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988. Only after repeated drubbings do the parties’ bases drop their ideological demands in order to win.
This time, however, Democrats’ desperation to defeat Trump has accelerated the timetable. Opinion polls and his own interviews with Democratic activists find “that the focus on electability was both strong and unusual in this cycle,” Masket writes. “The 2020 contest was the first of the last four in which Democratic voters were prioritizing a candidate’s electability over agreeing with them on most issues. Thanks to negative partisanship generally, and attitudes toward Donald Trump specifically, Democrats were willing to surrender quite a bit to defeat Trump.” By selecting Biden, Democrats have sent a clear message: Revolution can wait.
The party’s energized base and laser-like focus on winning in 2020 give Biden room to nominate a running mate who is both white and moderate, in an effort to win over swing voters. But she needs to meet one all-important criterion.
Although the pandemic makes a blowout possible (in either direction), odds are that the election will be decided in a handful of battleground states, notably Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Within those states, the outcome will depend disproportionately on voters—particularly, though not only, college-educated women and suburbanites—who are disgusted with Trump but need to believe that Biden is a safe alternative. They need to know that Biden’s successor is ready to be commander in chief and has the experience and gravitas to govern. Trump will do everything possible to convince them otherwise.