Democratic voters have become pundits in this primary, constantly worrying about who they think can beat Donald Trump and who they think everyone else thinks can beat Donald Trump. In last night’s debate, the candidates became pundits too. Two and a half years after Election Night 2016, and with a year and a half until Election Night 2020, Democrats are still clearly, desperately, viscerally afraid none of them will win.
“Anybody who thinks that he will be easy to beat isn’t actually out there talking to folks about the challenges of the country, the challenges of wanting to believe government can work for them,” Montana Governor Steve Bullock told me after the debate, his first since announcing his campaign in May. “Absolutely we should be worried about beating Donald Trump.”
The trauma is especially intense here, in the state that gave Trump his smallest margin of victory in 2016 and helped deliver him the election. The president took the state with fewer votes than George W. Bush received when he lost Michigan in 2004, but it was enough to put a giant crack in the Democrats’ blue wall. Three years ago, the Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell was among those who warned Hillary Clinton’s campaign that the state was vulnerable, and she later wrote that Democrats called her “nuts” for predicting her state could go red. Ahead of last night’s debate, her colleague Elissa Slotkin, who in 2018 flipped a Republican district north of Detroit, told a local television reporter that she worries national Democrats don’t understand a key dynamic in 2020: Her party won the House because candidates like her, in swing districts, “had a broad-based economic agenda, and they weren’t chasing each other left.”
The Democrats onstage spent last night largely on defense, with the moderators often framing their questions in terms of left and right: Why were candidates swerving so far to the left on a particular issue? On another, why were they so moderate? All of the candidates seemed to be on guard for the unexpected question that forces them into a tricky spot.
“Folks were better prepared tonight not to have soundbites about ending your private insurance so that we can open the borders,” one Democratic operative texted me partway through the night, referring to two controversial moments in the last debates, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would decriminalize border crossings or give undocumented immigrants health care. “But the front runners are still taking positions that are literally unbelievable to average voters,” added the operative, who isn’t affiliated with any of the campaigns and who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to provide a frank assessment. (Another operative, who’s also unaffiliated and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me that however worried the Democrats onstage seemed to be about beating Trump, they may not be worried enough.)