What the 2020 Democratic Primary Campaign Will Really Be About

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand campaigns at the Pierce Street Coffee Works Cafe in Sioux City, Iowa. 

In 2016, many Democratic voters were less than thrilled with the spectrum of choices they were offered in the presidential primaries. Hillary Clinton was the seemingly inevitable nominee and most of the big Democratic names decided to sit out the race, so voters were left with her, Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Bernie Sanders. Indeed, the fact that Bernie emerged as the only real alternative to Clinton was a key part of his candidacy becoming the phenomenon, especially among young people, that it was.

But 2020 will be the opposite: an enormous collection of candidates almost too large to fully assess. Last week Kirsten Gillibrand announced her candidacy, which by my count makes six official candidates and 14 others who are considering running. As voters dutifully pore over their records and proposals (I'm only half-kidding) to see who is the most appealing, there is one seldom-mentioned factor that could determine the Democratic nominee.

Presidential politics, as too many otherwise smart people fail to understand, is far more about identity than it is about issues, at least as we who are immersed in it think about "issues." Successful presidential candidates are those attuned not only to who they are, but how they make voters feel about themselves.

That isn't to say that voters don't care about the economy or foreign policy or health care. But those issues inevitably become fuel for an ongoing conversation about identity, both the identity of the candidates and the identity of the voters.

To understand what I mean, let's start by looking back at Barack Obama's 2008 candidacy. Obama was unusually skilled and charismatic, but he also understood how his own identity and the identity of a changing Democratic coalition could intersect. He was everything Democratic voters wanted to see themselves as, or at the very least the kind of guy they'd like to be friends with: young, educated, thoughtful, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, multiracial. Even older Democrats just liked the idea that this was what a Democrat looked like, not some awkward, stuffy technocrat like Dukakis, Gore, or Kerry, but the coolest guy in the room.

What was so brilliant about Obama's candidacy, however, was not just what he told Democratic voters about himself but what he told them about themselves.

A key part of it, I'm convinced, came from an understanding of the progression of American history. A half-century after television reached into nearly every American home and became the window through which we understand the world, Obama told voters that they need not be merely spectators anymore. Like their parents and grandparents who participated in historic events (World War II, the tumult of the 1960s) instead of just watching them on the tube, they could shape the world.

If you look back at the speech Obama gave after winning the Iowa caucus—the key turning point of the primary campaign—you'll be struck by how many times he repeats the word "you."

On this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do ... you came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents, to stand up and say that we are one nation. ... You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that's consumed Washington. ... I know you didn't do this for me. You did this—you did this because you believed so deeply in the most American of ideas—that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.

And he told his supporters not only that they were powerful, but that they were making history, and one day they would look back and marvel at their own accomplishment:

This was the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was inevitable.

This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long; when we rallied people of all parties and ages to a common cause; when we finally gave Americans who have never participated in politics a reason to stand up and to do so.

This was the moment when we finally beat back the policies of fear and doubts and cynicism, the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up. This was the moment.

So when you gave Obama your support, you made a statement about yourself. You were not a cynic and not a spectator (even if you were only spectating). You were hopeful and faithful, you had power and ability, and you were making history. It was intoxicating.

And eight years later, Donald Trump ran a campaign that was just as attuned to the identity of his supporters. In his case it was not hope and optimism but fear and resentment, but it was just as powerful. And as we endure a government shutdown over his hope to build a wall on the southern border, it's important to understand what the wall—and his promise that Mexico would pay for it—symbolized.

For his supporters Trump became a vehicle to unleash their true selves. He told them they no longer had to be polite to people they despised, that in fact politeness was an oppressive force they had permission to cast off. The time had come to tell those people—immigrants, minorities, women—exactly what you thought of them. And if you felt like your prospects were constrained and your dignity had been eroded, Trump offered a way to get it back. We'd kick out all the immigrants, build a wall, then force Mexico to pay for their own humiliation. Their disgrace would give you your power back. Trump could make you stand tall, and the contempt in which he was held by "the establishment" only made them love him more. What better feeling was there than owning the libs, than seeing the horror on some liberal wuss' face when you donned your MAGA hat? That too was intoxicating.

So an appreciation for how your candidacy makes voters feel about themselves can be used for good or ill, to lift up what's best in people or to reach down and grab what's worst in them. It's far too early to tell which Democratic candidate will have the most powerful effect on voters' own identity. But the one who succeeds will probably be the one who has the most compelling answer to that challenge.

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