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Mohamed ElMeshad

US Democrats should have learned from 2016 not to shun 'fringe' candidates

'General sentiment is still primed for a change of pace' writes ElMeshad [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 November, 2019

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Comment: Fielding another centrist candidate in 2020 will lose the Democrats the election, as it did in 2016, writes Mohammed ElMeshad.
US presidential election campaigning always starts way too early, and many of the electoral storylines that emerge almost a year before the vote may have become completely irrelevant by November 2020.

But tonight, the stage is set for the fifth Democratic debate, this time in Atlanta, Georgia, and it's a good opportunity for Democrats to find a narrative that will still serve them in a year's time. One place to start is the lessons learned from the last presidential election, given that unexpected outcomes remain very possible, and the electorate's appetite for more profound change persists.

The result of the 2016 election went down in the history books as having delivered a monumental surprise for many. Every step of the Trump campaign seemed to run counter to what establishment political pundits thought about both American politics and society. Until the closing stages of the campaign, he was seen more as a "fringe" candidate who lacked the crossover appeal to win a general election.

Needless to say, they were wrong.

On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton was being heavily pushed by the centrist Democratic establishment as the only candidate with policies that could appeal to a large enough portion of the electorate to win.

The other Democratic primary candidates were treated as an afterthought, especially Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, Sanders was also hitting a nerve with voters, also using populist rhetoric, albeit with wildly different intellectual underpinnings.

On a basic level, populism appeals to the concerns of ordinary people, especially in the context of a ruling elite that is perceived to be disconnected, dispassionate, or otherwise corrupt.

Setting policies and ideology aside, one reason both Trump and Sanders surged in popularity at the same time, was due to a growing sentiment among Americans dissatisfied with their lot, and thirsting for a political revolution of sorts.

In 2016, Democrats paid the price by losing the election to a reality TV star and real estate mogul

In covering the final stages of the 2016 elections, many supporters I met at Trump's rallies expressed a desire to see someone change the status quo as their main motivation.

A few of them told me that they may have considered voting for Sanders, had he won the Democratic nomination. Many of the pre-election polls that had Trump beating Clinton also noted that Sanders would have given Trump a more competitive head-to-head challenge, winning in many of these polls.

Within the Democratic party, the picture was very different. Establishment Democrats and their supporters in the public sphere and the media worked to consciously sideline the Vermont Senator. His ability to run a campaign solely on small donor contributions - raising around $230 million - while rejecting big donations meant two things. 

First, on the plus side, his campaign received a historic number of individual donations. And second, people or groups representing powerful organisations could not buy him, and so they often worked against him.

One of his flagship policy concerns was to combat the destructive role of money in politics. That, along with his penchant for making policy positions independently, rather than towing the party line, made him a liability for a Democratic Party establishment that frankly couldn't come to terms with the idea of Sanders as a viable candidate.

Read more: The presidential candidates open to leveraging US support for Israel

In 2016, Democrats paid the price by losing the election to a reality TV star and real estate mogul who leap frogged to the position of the most powerful man on earth. 

Now in 2019, there is a palpable sense of deja vu as the Democratic establishment appears hell bent on pushing another familiar and "safe pair of hands" in Joe Biden. The former vice president, is indeed a popular figure and one that might appeal to centrist voters, but once again, he offers more of the same.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are once again making significant headway, by tapping into a general sentiment that is still primed for a change of pace.

Warren especially has picked off where Bernie left off in 2016. Despite polling numbers that have surged at times, her candidacy still gets downplayed in the media and her electability is consistently questioned by potential hurdles to implementing her policies.

Warren's proposals for national healthcare that is accessible to all, or helping to eradicate student debt have been attacked by a slew of very prominent Democrats. They have spoken of the impracticality of her proposals and have clearly taken a position against Warren and Sanders, claiming them to represent an extreme Left - despite the fact that similar policies ensuring the provision of these basic services is de rigueur in many developed nations.

Now in 2019, there is a palpable sense of deja vu as the Democratic establishment appears hell bent on pushing another familiar and 'safe pair of hands' in Joe Biden

Should the Democratic establishment continue to look for a centrist candidate who is palatable to the upper echelons of the Party hierarchy and donors, they will lose again in 2020.

This coming loss will be even more devastating than 2016.

If Donald Trump survives impeachment, and all the other scandals in which he is currently embroiled, a more divided social and political scene than any other time in recent history, and the lack of any convincing alternative will likely return him to power for another four years. 


Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He has worked extensively in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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