The Democrats’ Visceral Fear of Losing to Donald Trump

Their trauma is especially clear in Michigan, the host state of the second round of primary debates.

Leah Millis / Rebecca Cook / Reuters / The Atlantic

DETROIT—Marianne Williamson is an unusual presence in the presidential race: her inscrutable accent, her talk of a “false god” and the political power of love, and her ability to translate her career in self-help into enough support to make the debates twice over.

Yet it was Williamson—not any of the professional Democrats onstage—who last night was able to cut through a long back-and-forth about health-care policy that perhaps no insurance adjuster, let alone the average voter, could make sense of.

“I have some concerns,” she said, referencing other candidates’ support for Medicare for All. “I do have concerns about what the Republicans would say. And that’s not just a Republican talking point. I do have concerns that it will be difficult. I have concerns that it will make it harder to win, and I have a concern that it’ll make it harder to govern.”

These worries—about what Republicans would say, about what Donald Trump would say—were a common theme throughout the night. Over and over, Democrats laid bare their worries about losing. Former Representative John Delaney of Maryland invoked the massive losses of George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota griped that “we are more worried about winning an argument than winning an election.” At one point, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, looked around the stage and said, “We need the kind of vision that’s going to win.”

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.)

On the face of it, beating Trump might not seem so far off. Recent poll numbers show Trump trailing or tied with Democrats in Ohio and Texas, as well as in bluer swing states he’d need to once again win the Electoral College. But he’s in Democrats’ heads. He’s in all their heads—fueling their stress that the division he’s sown is going to prove genius with voters.

The radical left has destroyed your party read one of the signs at a pro-Trump protest outside the Fox Theatre here, where the debates are being held. Capitalism isn’t working read another sign, carried by one of the leftist demonstrators who was stationed nearby.

Ben Wikler drove down to Detroit to watch the debate from the back of an overly air-conditioned tent across the street from the theater, where other reporters and I were parked. Wikler is the new Democratic Party chair in Wisconsin, which Trump won in 2016 by nearly 23,000 votes, just 12,000 more than his margin in Michigan.

“Democrats should expect an excruciatingly close, unbelievably hard-fought election that requires every possible hour and dollar and iota of energy,” Wikler told me after the debate wrapped up. “Even if the polling looks spectacular.”