I watched the last democratic debate on Wednesday night and one of the subjects brought up over and over by every candidate was “we need to choose a candidate who can beat Donald Trump,” with each making their own case for why they’re that person. The way each candidate talked was in line with how most liberals I know (or follow on Twitter) seem to view this upcoming election, as a very difficult one against a candidate who is uniquely hard to defeat. It’s easy to understand why they feel this way: we all got cocky last election thinking Trump had no chance, he seemed immune to scandals or deficiencies that would sink other candidates, and of course, he won and is now an incumbent. But increasingly I think people fundamentally misunderstand what happened last election and as a result are underrating the chances of the democratic nominee, regardless of who it is.
My belief in this is primarily rooted in one idea: that Hillary Clinton was possibly the worst presidential candidate in American history. This has nothing to do with my own beliefs or feelings about her but is instead a conclusion that I think can be reached by clearly looking at facts. Clinton had never shown a particular knack for winning elections and was essentially gifted the Democratic nomination because it was “her turn.” The first sign she might not be a great candidate was when relative unknown Bernie Sanders put a huge dent in her campaign. Hillary had spent years in the public eye being a polarizing political figure, and whether it’s fair or not, people just don’t really like Hillary, as evidenced by her consistently low favorability ratings.
Despite Hillary being uniquely bad, Trump’s victory required a wide confluence of fortunate events. Hillary was a heavy favorite in the days leading up to the election until the infamous Comey letter gradually swung the odds until Trump was (if I remember correctly) about 30-40 percent to win on Election Day according to FiveThirtyEight. Even with the letter (and Russia and sexism if you want to fold in those factors), Trump won by very narrowly defeating Clinton in three swing states while losing the popular vote, and my guess is if you simulated that Election Day a million times he probably wins less than 50 percent of the time.
In addition to that evidence, there’s just the reality that all of us witnessed Trump bumble his way through the campaign, beat a clown car of incompetent Republican frontrunners in the GOP primary, run into a constant string of scandals, and get crushed in every debate by a not particularly great debater. Of course, he has a base of people who like him and Republicans who will put up with him, but that isn’t enough people to turn him into an electoral powerhouse. Now running as an incumbent, he doesn’t have that “let’s burn this whole system down” angle supporting him, but instead will be forced to defend the status quo of his own presidency, which rates as highly unpopular in every poll, putting him in the same company as past incumbent losers like Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Every potential democratic nominee (except for Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg, who objectively suck) will likely be favored over Trump in a general election. People my age don’t really like Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar much, but they’re each skilled politicians who know how to win elections and are generally liked. Bernie Sanders, the current frontrunner, has consistently high favorability ratings, is pretty much scandal-free (outside of media-created pseudo-scandals like “Bernie Bros” and concern over his age), and has an enthusiastic base with a message that emotionally resonates with a wide range of people. Elizabeth Warren could potentially unite those two sides of the party, winning over some of the less extreme Bernie supporters while also appealing to moderates and independents. Regardless of your own leanings, it seems really obvious to me that these choices are far better than Hillary Clinton, who was widely hated and only created enthusiasm among those weird people on Twitter who thought she was Daenarys Targaryen or something.
And note that this is coming from me, someone who is cynical to a fault and has essentially no faith in humanity to ever do the right thing. I’m fully aware that the majority of voters just pick who they like most in a very lizard-brained way. That’s part of why I think one of the popular democratic nominees, especially someone like Sanders who has likability and authenticity, is likely to win over a widely despised incumbent. Basically, I don’t think Trump is an effective campaigner just because he barely won one election against a horrible candidate, and this time he will face a much stronger candidate in a far less favorable context. This doesn’t mean it will literally be an easy campaign or that he can’t possibly win again, but other than PTSD or Russia conspiracy theories, there is no real reason for liberals to be so scared of this guy. Right now, the biggest thing liberals need to overcome is their own defeatist mentality.