One of the points I made in my book, The Optimistic Leftist, was that “the political dynamic unleashed by right populism will actually contribute to its own demise”. No one paid much attention at this time, since everyone was busy panicking about Trump. But perhaps I wasn’t so crazy, given the way things have been unfolding lately.
Along these lines, I was very interested to see this piece on Bloomberg from columnist Karl W. Smith. Smith is not a conventional leftist; he is rather a “liberaltarian” who is a fellow at the Niskanen Center, the split-off from hard-libertarian Cato Institute. Here’s some of what Smith had to say:
“Trump’s election was supposed to have heralded a political realignment in America. The Republican Party, long associated with the interests of business and more affluent Americans, would now be fueled by the white working class and a powerful nativist sentiment. In the Democratic Party, the interests of organized labor and the working class were giving way to those of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the cosmopolitan elite. The new partisan divisions would be based not on class but on openness to globalism.
To be blunt about it: This didn’t happen. (To be fair, some were skeptical at the time.) Instead, the entire country is shifting in a more populist direction, and Democrats are dominating the policy debate.
Exhibit A is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her off-the-cuff mention of a 70 percent tax rate, which has sparked a national discussion. Polls show that it’s popular not only with Democrats but with a plurality of Republicans. Celebrated left-wing economists argue that high tax rates are necessary to prevent the U.S. from slipping into an oligarchy, a message that is likely to resonate strongly among anti-globalist Trump supporters.
Likewise, Ocasio-Cortez has forced elites on both sides to at least grapple with the economic tenets of modern monetary theory. MMT, as it is known, suggests that a government with its own currency does not need to raise taxes in order to increase spending. So far MMT has faced strong pushback from elites of the left and right. But its basic contention, that deficit spending isn’t as bad as you have been led to believe, is gaining support.
These two propositions — that the government should check the power of private-sector billionaires and should spend freely to alleviate social ills — form the core of the classic leftist platform. And these positions are becoming more influential, not less, in the Democratic Party….
If their nominee in 2020 is someone like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown, then I predict a rapid shift. Democrats would win back many of the white working class voters they lost and cruise to victory. Centrist pro-business Democrats would be sidelined, and the only resistance to the president’s tax and spending priorities would be from Senate Republicans. That would just drive more populists out of the Republican Party and into the Democratic Party, which would enter a period of almost complete electoral dominance.
If, on the other hand, Democrats nominate a more centrist candidate, such as Kamala Harris or Cory Booker, then the uneasy status quo would remain…..
In the long run, however, the end result in both cases would be largely the same. America is moving leftward. And that shift infuses the left of the Democratic Party with an energy that is unmatched anywhere else along the political spectrum.”
Donald Trump’s blatant and vicious appeal to pure prejudice regarding immigrants and immigration has led many progressives and Democrats to respond in an equally categorical way, describing all objections to immigration as simply a smokescreen for racism.
Since opinion polls have consistently shown that most Americans are not bitterly anti-immigrant and do not support draconian measures like mass deportation, this reaction does not immediately seem to present a major problem for Democrats in 2020.
But, in fact, it does. While most Americans do not share Trump’s visceral loathing of Latin Americans and actually support a range of positive measures such as providing a path to citizenship for long time, law-abiding undocumented immigrants, a very substantial group also supports the demand that America regain control of the southern border and prevent further “illegal” immigration.
Simply dismissing all these voters as racists who do not deserve any response other than condemnation is a profound mistake–one that will endanger Democratic hopes of winning the presidency in 2020 and almost certainly place the Senate entirely out of reach. Democrats need to provide a reasonable response to the concerns that do exist, particularly among working class Americans.
Attention is a limited resource in politics, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., commands a lot of it. She has almost 2.4 million Twitter followers, and media outlets breathlessly cover her statements and policy proposals as well as feckless attempts by Republicans to throw her off her game.
For a lot of Democrats in Washington, this is disruptive. Normally, a freshman member of Congress would command little if any public attention and would quietly sit in the back benches, slowly building seniority over time with the hopes of one day running a powerful committee.
Huertas notes AOC ‘s unique appeal to millennials, who “grew up with a political system that has proven incapable of addressing student debt, income inequality, or climate change. We aren’t waiting for change; we don’t have the time. And there are more of us voting every single year.” Further,
That’s why it’s a mistake for Democrats to try to “rein in” the party’s biggest rising star, as this Politico article put it. Instead, the party should be looking to Ocasio-Cortez for guidance on how to effectively speak to working people, collaborate with activists, and beat Republicans soundly in 2020 and beyond.
Huertas cites an article on Politico, dissing NY-14’s new congresswoman for being popular on Twitter, and argues that “This idea is so backward. Twitter stars can be great legislators, and having nearly 2.4 million Twitter followers is a very effective way to get out the message about legislation.”
Activists, like Ocasio-Cortez and John Lewis, who have a genuine grass-roots connection to their constituents, have an advantage in educating them and mobilizing volunteers. Huertas adds, for example,
Ocasio-Cortez’s advocacy for a Green New Deal is a great example of combing inside and outside influence from activists to advance an agenda. Several progressive House candidates campaigned on a Green New Deal last year, but the topic received little interest during the campaign. It only grabbed public attention after Ocasio-Cortez joined Sunrise Movement protesters in Nancy Pelosi’s office who were demanding a special committee create a Green New Deal…Did the Sunrise Movement and other Green New Deal advocates get exactly what they wanted right away? No, definitely not. But now the Green New Deal is a new standard for what serious climate policy looks like, and presidential candidates are starting to line up behind them.
AOC’s experience knocking on doors as a Bernie Sanders campaigner and her participation in the Standing Rock protests also served her well. It’s not a bad thing for elected officials to have had significant face time with grass-roots activists. “The simple truth,” says Huertas, “is that there is nothing preventing a lawmaker from actively working with protesters, dissidents, and activists to achieve serious political change. In fact, doing so is smart politics.”
Huertas argues that some of Ocasio-Cortez’s critics are more judgemental about women of color than they are about male office-holders, ignoring the reality that “A big reason Ocasio-Cortez resonates is that millennials actually have members of Congress who represent our generational interests now: eliminating student loan debt, income inequality, gun violence, and climate change…pundits and columnists should be asking themselves how they can market their own ideas more effectively. Because there is a zero-percent chance any leftist politician is going to take their free advice and hand the spotlight back to them.”
In addition, “In many midterm races, the youth vote was decisive as young people broke two-to-one for Democrats. Splits like that are a once in a generation opportunity to build lasting power,” as this chart illustrates:
Ocasio-Cortez “dunks on right-wingers who make stupid arguments with abandon,” notes Huertas. “While other Democrats ignore them or respond in somber, serious tones, Ocasio-Cortez rejects the premise that bad faith arguments should be taken seriously” — and boldly discredited.
This has created an incredible attention cycle online. Every time a prominent Republican takes the bait and attacks Ocasio-Cortez, they simply empower her more by giving her the opportunity to spend a few minutes composing a trenchant tweet, which then gets covered with short posts on dozens of media outlets.
When Republicans tried to bash Ocasio-Cortez for advocating higher taxes for the wealthy, “Instead of taking this argument seriously or posting charts and graphs, Ocasio-Cortez responded by debunking a powerful GOP legislator, questioning his knowledge about policy, and then pointing out why the GOP routinely lies about tax rates.”
It’s about getting engaged with adversaries, being confident and unafraid to confront them with well-informed refutations of their flawed defenses. She understands that “Politicians hate talking about their most unpopular policy positions, such as low taxes for wealthy people,” and denies them any wiggle room. Also, notes Huertas,
Calling out bad faith arguments has also extended to what Republicans call “working the refs.” In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, that means taking on fact-checkers who have rewarded her with four Pinocchios/Pants on Fire ratings for relatively mild errors. For instance, what’s worse: denying the scientific reality of climate change or not precisely representing budget figures from a media story about Pentagon accounting? How about scapegoating immigrants with hateful, dishonest rhetoric or talking about people who aren’t unemployed but are working multiple jobs to keep ahead of the cost of living?
tenIf you’re a fact-checker, it’s perhaps not something you’ve thought about because that’s a value-laden, moral question. But in challenging fact-checkers over what they choose to scrutinize, Ocasio-Cortez has exposed how an overly precise focus on facts can obscure the deeper moral questions at the heart of politics…When debates are broken, challenge the premise of the debate. Don’t obscure the real-world impact policy has. Confront it.
In addition, AOC “has helped foster more debate about the ways “how do you pay for it” rhetoric is selectively deployed for health, education, and environmental protection but not military spending, tax cuts, and other deficit drivers” — a good, and often overlooked point that adds needed perspective on spending debates that can help Democrats.
Huertas highlights the difference in communication styles between traditional liberal Democrats and Ocasio Cortez:
…Prominent Democratic Twitter users like Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Ted Lieu, both D-Cal., and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tend to strike a more serious tone and often point out their political opponents’ hypocrisy. These arguments have a lot of reach, but Donald Trump and other Republicans can’t really be hypocrisy shamed any more, so these messages don’t quite have the same reach or impact they had a few years ago.
They’ll also dabble in memes, leetspeak, and slang, but playing along with internet culture is distinct from being born into it, and as a younger person, Ocasio-Cortez’s use of these tropes resonates, is consistent with her bio, and is stickier for audiences.
Finding one’s online voice is different for every politician, but emulating Ocasio-Cortez in this regard means finding novel, deeply personal ways to talk about the news of the day and a progressive policy agenda. That means effective communicators don’t just play along with how social media works. They embody it. Finding ways to be authentic online is incredibly hard, especially for politicians, but that’s the difference between being good on social media and being great.
Huertas distills her debate strategy as, “When debates are broken, challenge the premise of the debate. Don’t obscure the real world impact policy has. Confront it. And speak to people’s moral values and the type of world we want to live in.”
No doubt the nit-pickers will continue to needle Ocasio-Cortez at every opportunity. But there is zero chance that they are going to distract the new Rep from NY-14. Democrats would do well to study and emulate her energetic engagement and refusal to give them the last word.
In his conclusion, Huertas advises Dems to “Embrace that change, including change from the outside, and don’t be afraid to compromise with the next generation.” Good advice, right on time.
That would perhaps be a better headline than the Post headline on the web which says: “Trump voters now blame him for the government shutdown“. That sounds like all of them and of course that’s not true. But the fact that outlets like the Post are starting to run stories not about how Trump voters are still rock solid for their man but rather about how some of them are getting fed up is a good thing.
The article while anecdotal is still worth reading, especially since it’s written from Macomb County in Michigan, a storied locus of white working class discontent with the Democrats going back decades. As the article notes, while Trump carried the county by 12 points in 2016, Democratic Senate and governor candidates carried the county in 2018. Perhaps something is going on there and, by extension, in other similar areas in the Midwest.
The article also correctly points out that Democrats would be unwise to simply count on fed up-ness with Trump to close the deal with wavering Trump voters, especially when it comes to the immigration issue.
“The 2020 Democratic presidential primary contest is expected to include a heavy dose of debate over how to balance attempts to win back white working-class voters — those who live here as well as in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which Trump also won — with the energy around ascendant women and minorities.
Those attempts will also draw into question whether Democrats can find a way to articulate an immigration plan in areas like this, where the issue resonates. Trump’s insistence on building a border wall has hardened Democrats, whose most prominent policy now is to stop the wall. They rarely tout their own views on border security, but that issue remains important to many voters in industrial states….
“People do want immigration managed,” said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has been studying Macomb County voters since the 1980s. “Trump makes it hard because he’s so outrageous. You don’t want to give him an inch. But immigration is still an important issue, and Democrats will have to speak to it.”
A similar point is made by Francis Wilkinson in a recent Bloomberg piece. You might summarize his article as saying “Democrats won’t always have the Wall to kick around” Wilkinson points out:
“[W]hen the shutdown, and the symbolic skirmish behind it, ends, the immigration debate will not. And it’s unclear how much progress Democrats will have made persuading distracted voters to embrace a realistic and humane alternative to Trump’s fantasy and aggression….
[W]ill Americans who have been encouraged to imagine an impregnable curtain of steel be better able to imagine the legal and topographical fiascos that would ensue from trying to build it? Or the handmade wooden ladder that would be used to vault over it? What about a comprehensive alternative that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented and tighter controls on borders and employment?
There’s no way to make progress on such arguments if the Democratic line is simply that the wall is, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, ‘immoral.'”
Exactly. Time for the Democrats to get to it if they really want to win back wavering Trump voters in 2020.
The latest CNN poll finds him tanking among white noncollege voters, the very folks who tend to be his staunchest supporters and who–in Trump’s theory, if we can dignify his bizarre mix of gut instinct and reality show street smarts by the word “theory”–were supposed to be utterly delighted to have him shut down the government to get the border wall.
It doesn’t seem to be working:
“During the longest government shutdown in US history, President Donald Trump has been losing support among those who may be his strongest supporters — white Americans who don’t have college degrees.
Among this group, only 45% said they approved of the job Trump is doing as President, according to a recent CNN poll conducted by SSRS. That is the lowest level of support among this subgroup by 1 percentage point in CNN’s surveys and a dip from a poll conducted in early December, before the partial shutdown, when 54% of whites without college degrees approved of his job as President and 39% disapproved.
The dip is notable since among whites who hold college degrees, Trump’s ratings are largely unchanged in the last month and remain sharply negative — 64% disapprove and 32% approve.”
As always, I’d like to see more data on this trend but these are certainly very interesting–and potentially important–findings.
Even after success in 2018, many progressives remain convinced that winning over people who voted for Donald Trump is impossible and that trying is a waste of time…Data, however, tells a different story. According to 2018 exit polls, more than 3.5 million, or 8 percent of people who voted for Trump in 2016 voted for a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House this year.
This probably understates the real number—exit polls have had methodological challenges and many people who defected from Trump are unwilling to admit that they voted for him in the first place. But it’s clear that persuasion is alive and well in American politics.
Radloff, Hagner and Castleman add that they conducted “experiments that allowed us to see which voters actually changed their minds when presented with certain information. Then we scaled that analysis and created statistical models for the national electorate.”
They found that “Nationally, we could move 1-out-of-every-30 voters to change their congressional vote with a single message reminding them of Congress’s power to be a check on Trump…There were an almost equal number of people that moved to the Democrat as there were that moved to the Republican upon hearing anti-Trump messages.” Further,
We also found that using a different message reminding voters about healthcare issues and the GOP’s plan to cut protections for people with pre-existing conditions worked even better. Hearing that message just once, we could move 1-out-of-every-20 voters to change their congressional vote. And, unlike the Trump message, almost all of the movement was towards the Democrat, with very little backlash.
Healthcare, rather than opposition to Trump, proved pivotal for the 2018 blue wave, which won the Democrats a net 40 seats and control of the House. Our methods didn’t just tell us what message worked best, but what voters to target. Despite the backlash, we could identify a universe (almost 20-percent of the country) that still moved Democratic with the Trump message at a staggering rate of six times greater than that of the average voter.
This enabled us to help specific campaigns talk to the right voters, using the right message, and through the right medium. For healthcare messaging, we could identify groups of voters in which 1 out of every 5 we talked to would vote for the Democratic candidate instead.
The authors explain the methodology they used and conclude that “when we have conversations with Republican voters about issues they care about, we can still convince many of them to join us.”
It appears that Democrats can convince ‘some,’ if not ‘many’ targeted Republican voters, to vote for Democratic candidates with the right message. And in close races, ‘some’ may prove to be just ‘enough.’
As you may recall, Jon Tester’s re-election in Montana did not exactly seem like a sure thing. This was a state that Hillary Clinton lost by 20 points in 2016.
In the end, Tester pulled out his re-election by 3.5 points over Republican Matt Rosendale. How’d he do it?
Catalist recently dropped a detailed synthetic analysis of the 2018 Montana Senate election–one of their invaluable series they are posting on Medium–along with comparable time series data going back to 2008. These data make clear the basis of Tester’s victory.
As summarized in the Medium piece, Tester triumphed by:
* “In an environment of lagging Republican enthusiasm, converting a significant share of the Republicans who did vote, along with many Independent voters, to support him
* Maximizing his support among more traditional elements of the Democratic coalition, including young voters, single voters, and those in urban areas
* Mitigating historical deficits among more challenging audiences, including voters without a college degree and voters in rural communities”
Repeating a pattern we’ve seen in a number of other states, Tester actually got a bigger pro-Democratic swing (relative to 2016) among white noncollege voters than among white college voters and a bigger swing among rural than among non-rural voters. Given the demographic composition of Montana, where rural and especially white noncollege voters dominate, that’s pretty darn important!
These data can be fruitfully perused along with Andy Levison’s essay on the three notions Democrats must discard to be successful in 2020 (previous posted).
We don’t know when the government shutdown over Trump’s border wall will end. But one thing we do know: unless the political dynamic around the shutdown changes dramatically, Trump is probably hurting his bid for re-election.
Consider the facts, as laid out in two recent pieces by Nate Cohn for the New York Times and by Ron Brownstein for the Atlantic.
“There has been little polling since the government shutdown began last month, but what there is indicates that voters oppose a border wall, blame the president for the shutdown, believe the shutdown will have adverse consequences and don’t believe the government should be shut down over the wall.
The wall has consistently been unpopular, with voters opposed by around a 20-point margin over months of national surveys. That makes it even less popular than the president himself….
It’s hard to see how the issue can be used to help him win re-election. Midterm exit poll data, election results, voter file data and pre-election polls indicate that the president’s approval rating is below 50 percent in states worth at least 317 electoral votes (270 are needed to win)….
Data from the Fox News Voter Analysis of the midterms, a new competitor to the traditional exit polls, indicated that a majority of voters opposed the wall in states worth nearly 400 electoral votes, including in several states where the president’s approval rating was above water in the poll, like Ohio and Florida….[T]he wall [also] isn’t popular in Michigan..Pennsylvania [or Wisconsin], important battleground states…
Tying the [wall] to an unpopular shutdown seems particularly unlikely to help and, historically, voters tend to drift against the policy preferences of the president’s party…. [T]here is not much reason to think that the base, alone, is enough for the president to win re-election in a one-on-one race against a viable Democratic candidate. This could change. It has before. But with the midterms over, this is now the central political challenge facing the president. By that measure, it’s hard to see where a shutdown over the wall fits in.”
Brownstein finds it equally difficult to see anything but a negative payoff for Trump in the wall-shutdown dynamic. He notes particularly the way in which this dynamic tends to push wall opponents, a significant number of whom actually Trump in 2016, away from the GOP or third party voting and towards the Democrats.
“After two years of arguing for the wall as president, Trump has shown no ability to expand its popularity. In 10 national polls conducted during his presidency, Quinnipiac University has never found support for the wall higher than 43 percent….
]T]here’s evidence that the voters hostile to the wall, and to many other aspects of Trump’s tenure, are less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt now than they were in 2016….Trump’s position among wall opponents has eroded dramatically….
In the  exit poll, 18 percent of the college-educated whites who opposed the wall voted for Trump anyway, according to figures provided by Edison Research. But now, far fewer express support for Trump in general. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, just 3 percent of these voters approved of Trump’s job performance, according to data provided by Quinnipiac. Ninety-two percent disapproved.
Likewise, just over one-fourth of non-college-educated whites who opposed the wall still voted for Trump in 2016. But in the latest Quinnipiac survey, only 9 percent of these whites approved of Trump’s performance, while 83 percent disapproved. In all, fully 88 percent of Americans who oppose the wall say they disapprove of Trump’s performance as president.
Approval ratings correlate closely with the reelection vote for incumbent presidents….Trump’s relentless effort to cement the loyalty and stoke the outrage of his strongest supporters, compounded by his volatile behavior in office, is building a wall between him and the ambivalent voters who provided him critical support in 2016 (or at least withheld it from Clinton by splintering to third-party candidates)…..
Trump’s monomania on the border wall shows that he remains fixated on the priorities and resentments of his core coalition. But even a 30-foot barrier probably wouldn’t protect him in 2020 if he allows the waves of discontent to continue rising among the majority of Americans who don’t consider themselves part of that ardent club.”
If you like, go back and overlay these data on the Cook electoral college ratings I posted about yesterday. It’s not a pretty picture for Mr. Trump. Getting to 270 in 2020 was never going to be easy for him. He’s now making it even harder.
The public at large, including Democrats, Republicans and independents, agrees on many immigration reforms that amount to an alternative strategy. Bipartisan majorities favor current proposals in Congress that aim to prevent the hiring of undocumented workers, alongside proposals that would create more opportunities to hire immigrants legally.
,,,Overall, only 4 in 10 favor building a wall. Fewer than half our respondents were persuaded by the argument that a wall would prevent potential threats from coming into the country and would strengthen U.S. borders. Nearly two-thirds, including 4 in 10 Republicans, were persuaded by the counterargument: Because migrants can always find alternative routes to crossing the border, there are better methods for deterring illegal entry.
As for immigration policies that relate to labor issues, the poll finds:
By contrast, 72 percent favored a Republican-sponsored congressional proposal that would require employers to use the existing E-Verifysystem to ensure that they hire only people who have the legal right to work in the United States. Fully 83 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats supported the bill…At the same time, 8 in 10 respondents agreed that “many industries in the United States … need immigrant labor, which is why they currently hire millions of them. It would be much better if this process was done in a legal way.”
…A majority supported a proposed bill — 69 percent overall, including 73 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats — that would substantially increase the number of temporary work visas, called H-2B visas, for such industries as landscaping, construction, hotels and conservation, a bill that includes some caveats about ensuring that no Americans are available and that immigrants get paid as much as Americans do.
Most also want to increase the number of green cards to fill jobs that require a skill that is needed in the U.S. economy, as well — 54 percent overall, and 63 percent of Democrats — with similar caveats…
However, 55 percent of Democrats oppose paying guest farmworkers “less than is required now” and “eliminating the current requirement that they be given housing and transportation, while 69 percent of Republicans support the measures.
Kull notes that only 1 in 4 respondents want to get rid of the Green Card Lottery, and “only 4 in 10 Republicans, even though the Trump administration has called for eliminating it.” Further, “Asked to evaluate a number of such proposals, the most popular for both Republicans and Democrats is one that includes a path to citizenship. Overall, 70 percent find this proposal at least tolerable, including 67 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats.”
Kull concludes that “Rather, most Americans want to rationalize immigration, ensuring that the process occurs in a regulated, legal fashion and that people who come in can join the economy without hurting American workers.”
The 2020 election could be a very good one for the Democrats. The 2018 election exposed the vulnerabilities of Trump and the Trumpified GOP and Democrats made significant gains both inside and outside their core constituencies.
It’s a good setup but it’s a long way to the actual election. A lot could happen, not least strategic errors that could derail all the promise.
“There are three simplistic notions that Democrats should put aside in order to begin serious strategic planning for 2020.
That elections are in essence contests between “good guys” (i.e. progressive demographic groups) and “bad guys” (i.e. conservative demographic groups).
* That increasing turnout is a “magic bullet” for winning elections.
* That campaigns should always heavily prioritize investing money and resources in “the Democratic base”–not only because those groups “deserve” it but also because they produce the most votes for the money.
* Democratic candidates and grass-roots activists need to forcefully resist the temptation to think in this way because it profoundly distorts the important, genuinely strategic kind of planning that candidates and campaigns urgently need to do in order to build effective organizations in specific states and congressional districts for 2020.
Let’s face it, in the popular journalistic metaphor that describes some political strategies as either “playing checkers” or “playing chess,” these three notions must be seen as falling in the first category rather than the second.”
I agree with Levison. These three notions have got to go! For more detail on how and why these notions are so very, very wrong, I urge you to read the whole essay.
I’ve written about this issue before, but with the presidential field now forming, it’s time to get serious about it, as I argued at New York:
With Bernie Sanders’s announcement of a 2020 presidential candidacy, we know for sure that there will be at least one aspirant for the job who would turn 80 during his first term in office. He’s the second septuagenarian to enter the race, counting the 72-year-old incumbent, though Elizabeth Warren will turn 70 this summer. And the field could soon include another candidate who would have an 80-candle birthday cake in the White House, Joe Biden (a little over a year younger than Sanders).
Will our budding gerontocracy be an issue during the nominating or general election stages of the 2020 campaign?
[F]ans of Biden and Sanders tend to brush off questions about their heroes’ ages by denouncing ageism, touting their vigor as compared to the junk-food-loving and sedentary Trump, or pointing at each other (if Biden can run, so can Bernie, and vice versa). But it was an issue in the presidential campaigns of the two nonincumbent septuagenarian major-party nominees before Trump (Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008 — both younger than Biden and Sanders will be in 2020), whose other unusual features overshadowed his age. So it cannot just be waved away as somehow irrelevant.
Presumably the younger Democratic rivals of Biden and Sanders will bring up the age issue indirectly by drawing attention to their own relative youth and/or their appeal to younger voters (though it will be tough for any of them to do better among younger voters than Sanders did in 2016). But the most destructive way it could arise, especially in the general election campaign in which no vulnerability will go unexploited, would be via a negative health event or some incident suggesting a “senior moment” or some more serious cognitive issue.
Do Democrats really want to take that chance given the existential threat of a second Trump term? And conversely, could they find significant value in a situation where it’s Trump and Trump alone who is vulnerable to age-related voter concerns? Is that a potential advantage that should be casually tossed away?
These are certainly factors that ought to be taken into consideration along with current horse-race polling and other candidate assessments that don’t take terrifying if marginally likely possibilities into account. Democrats have the luxury in 2020 of a vast field of qualified candidates with platforms ranging across the ideological spectrum; it’s doubtful there’s any one candidate who is indispensable. Perhaps testing the upward limit of an intangible maximum age for running for president is worth the risk in order to beat Trump soundly or reward Biden or Sanders for past service. But dismissing the risk involved is plain foolish.