Political savant Rachel Bitecofer: Democrats face "major disadvantage" going with Biden

Rachel Bitecofer forecast the "blue wave." She says turnout favors the Democrats — but their messaging is awful

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 12, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Rachel Bitecofer, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Rachel Bitecofer, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

The 2020 Democratic presidential primary season slogs onward, toward what now seems an inevitable conclusion.   

Last week, Joe Biden's campaign was resuscitated on Super Tuesday. He routed Sen. Bernie Sanders by winning 10 out of 14 states, including Texas.

A week later there were presidential primaries in six states including the key battleground state of Michigan. Biden won Michigan relatively easily, along with Missouri, Idaho and Mississippi. Sanders won in North Dakota, with Washington state a virtual tie to this point. 

Most commentators now assume that Biden has a virtually insurmountable lead in the delegate count and view him as the Democratic Party's de facto presidential nominee. That nomination will be formalized at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee this coming July.

Writing about the Democratic primaries and the upcoming presidential election has brought great comfort to the mainstream news media. Instead of focusing on the Trump regime and American fascism, media commentators can turn their attention to public opinion polls, votes, and personalities. Like slipping on an old shoe, such horse-race coverage is familiar and safe. However, familiarity does not in fact make it good.

The worst examples of horse race journalism — which unfortunately describes most of it — does the public a great disservice in any number of ways.

It fails to provide the American people with the deeper context: The 2020 presidential election threatens to be a moment of tectonic social and political shift, in which the Age of Trump could become the new normal.

Too many voices in the mainstream news media continue to recycle narratives about American politics which are based on fundamentally incorrect assumptions about voting and other political behavior. The worst examples of horse-race journalism leave the American unprepared to properly understand and respond to the challenges being presented to them both by the Age of Trump and the myriad of social and political problems that made Trump's presidency, and his broader authoritarian movement, possible in the first place.

Rachel Bitecofer has become something of a phenomenon in political science by trying to push back these against false narratives. She is assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Her work has been featured by the Washington Post, Politico, the New Republic, and the New York Times. She has also been a guest on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," MSNBC, NPR, CNN and other major media outlets (and has been interviewed several times for Salon).

In this conversation, Bitecofer explains that, contrary to idealistic theories of folk democracy, the American voter is largely unsophisticated, knows few specifics about public policy and makes decisions based on emotions and partisanship. She also explains her theory that there are not many true "swing voters." Moreover, she argues that the Democratic Party is wasting time and energy trying to recruit "right-leaning" independents to support their candidates. Bitecofer also explains how the Democratic Party has failed at marketing and branding itself in a positive way — with the result being an extremist and dangerous Republican Party that has been able to misrepresent itself to the American people as being somehow "moderate" and "reasonable."

Bitcofer also warns that in this moment of populist discontent, Bernie Sanders may actually have a better chance than Joe Biden of defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. If she's right, this warning may have arrived too late. We spoke a few days before Super Tuesday.

You can also listen to my conversation with Rachel Bitecofer on my podcast The Truth Report or through the player embedded below.

Watching this horse-race coverage of the 2020 presidential season, what are some of the biggest errors you see from the news media and pundit class?

The biggest mistake is not understanding how inelastic vote choice has become given the levels of political polarization in this country. For example, even if Joe Biden has a 10-point lead in a general election poll right now, by Election Day it will be three points. Why? Because Trump is not campaigning against him yet. Campaign activity reinforces latent partisan attitudes among some independents.

In many ways that dynamic is predictable. No matter how bad Donald Trump is, 90% of Republicans are going to vote for him on Election Day. The other thing that frustrates me is the misperception of how the Democrats won the House of Representatives. People like Joe Scarborough and Tom Nichols and Jennifer Rubin and other reasonable Republicans — including Never Trumpers — have prominent media roles. The public sees them and then thinks, "There are these intelligent, college-educated professional Republicans who are disgusted by Trump and they've left the party. Therefore there must be many other people like them." However, the polling and other data shows that not to be true.

The data actually shows that by and large Republicans are still Republicans. And if anything, Republicans seem pretty happy about Donald Trump because their turnout in 2018 was through the roof. Republicans did not turn out for Democrats. The turnout for Democrats was also through the roof. The same was true of independents. Independents broke for the Democrats during the midterms. The data does not show that the Republicans also voted for Democrats. If that were the case the vote margins in favor of the Democratic candidates would have been much higher. Moreover, if it were a fact, then we'd be able to measure it.

We should remember that Republicans don't think about politics as a game where they must woo the opposition party's voters. What is so bizarre is that the Republicans have fewer supporters among the American people, yet it is the Democrats, who are more popular, that base their entire campaign apparatus, their strategy, their posturing, their messaging, on this idea that the way to win is to convince Republicans to vote for them.

The Republican Party functions like a religion. The Democrats are a coalition. Given that dynamic, why do the Democrats believe they can win back Republican voters?

Political consultants and strategists tell the Democratic Party's leaders that is how to win elections. Nancy Pelosi was actually told by these advisers that the Democrats won the midterms because the candidates were directed not to talk about Donald Trump. Such an approach makes little sense and is hard to reconcile with the data.

The Republicans are far more extreme than the Democrats. This has been true for several decades. How is this asymmetrical polarization playing out in the Age of Trump?

It is a well-documented fact that Republicans are more ideological and have moved further to the right. The data shows the power of asymmetric polarization. This asymmetry is present across political behavior, most notably voter turnout.

The American public is much more aligned with the Democratic Party's policy proposals. The American people want action on climate change. They want action on guns, they want health care reform, they want taxes to go up on the wealthy. The American people are far to the left of where the policymaking apparatus of the country is. We see this across many issues.

But there is another dimension to political values which has to be looked at where the Democrats are losing to the Republicans. When asked, voters tell us that they are "conservative." The research also tells us that America is a "center-right" country. Why is this? For at least 30 years, the Democrats have allowed the Republican Party to kill their brand.

Democrats have never responded with a positive version of their own brand. Instead, the Democrats present themselves as being "moderate." The Democrats should be saying, "Hey, this is why economic liberalism is better for you, white working class." Instead of presenting their values in a positive way and standing by them, in these swing states the Democratic candidates come out and say, "Well, I'm not like those other Democrats. I'm a fiscal conservative." In fact, the record of fiscal conservatism in America is not a good one.

One would think that it would be easy to run an aggressive attack-oriented offense against fiscal conservatism, but the Democrats do not do it. The Democrats are always in a defensive position. We are seeing this with Bernie Sanders. It isn't Sanders that is the risk against Trump in 2020 — it is the Democratic Party's reaction to him. Being on the defensive and not backing Bernie Sanders could put the Democrats at a disadvantage against Trump. The data doesn't lie.

The Republican Party has moved very far to the right. But in public opinion polls, there is a pattern where the average American says it is the Democrats and not the Republicans which are the extremist party. That is mind-boggling to me, especially when there is a Republican president in the person of Donald Trump who is attacking longstanding American norms and values.

There are all these commonly held assumptions about American politics that political scientists such as yourselves know to be incorrect. In that regard, what do we actually know about so-called swing voters?

Swing voters do in fact exist. However, the way that pundits describe and understand swing voters is incorrect. Pundits and other political professionals and observers have this narrative that swing voters are a third of the electorate, are well-read and follow every issue and event, and make clear rational decisions about candidates. Those observations and conclusions are totally wrong.

My own research and the political science literature show that, No. 1, most swing voters are leaners. Most independents lean towards the Republican or Democratic Party. Independents are basically closet partisans. They vote almost always with their own party. They have policy preferences that fall along party lines. In total, only 10 percent of the electorate are real swing voters.

The harsh truth is that most swing voters in America are not well informed or engaged. They are very susceptible to prevailing winds. For example, if the national mood is hostile to incumbents -- the people or party in power -- then independents are going to vote in a very predictable way. They are going to vote against the incumbent party most of the time because they are never happy with the status quo.

Swing voters tend to not know how politics really works. Someone like Trump comes along and says he is going to build a big wall and these swing voters and other low-information voters decide to vote for him because, in their minds, "Oh, this guy is promising to actually do something, compared to these other candidates." And then when Trump doesn't deliver, they are somehow surprised or disappointed. These types of voters do not understand how American politics and government actually work. Swing voters as a group are not glorified beacons of democracy. Instead, they make decisions based on the candidate who they understand and can relate to, not the merits of his or her policies.

It comes down to marketing. If you were to offer swing voters a choice between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, it is going to come down to how the two candidates are marketed. Republicans are really good at marketing. Democrats are really bad at marketing. If Bernie Sanders were the presidential nominee, what will matter is whether the Democrats figure out they have to go on the offense against Trump.

Trump knows how to speak to his voters. The Democrats' messaging, especially in 2016, was horrible. That slogan, "When they go low, we go high" was abysmal. I can tell you what "Make America Great Again" means. I reject the message. But it is simple and compelling. Trump and his marketers know how to speak to and win over unsophisticated, low-information and not very intelligent voters.

Donald Trump is basically doing what Democrats are incapable of. Donald Trump understands that the American voter is disengaged, disinterested, thinks about images and stories and not about policy in a serious way, and is highly subject to emotion. Donald Trump and his team feed that dynamic. Whereas the Democratic candidates and leaders keep having — or at least they think they are having — big, deep policy discussions with each other. They think everyone's like them. That is just not the case. If you were to stop random people on the street and ask them to name even the most prominent details of Trump's Ukraine scandal, they would not know any of them.

Why are so many members of the chattering class invested in narratives about American politics which simply are not true?

Most of them are moderates, and they confuse what they want with what the public wants and believes. They are also very obsessed with politics. Anyone in the news media and also on Twitter who talks about politics professionally or obsessively is way outside the bell curve in terms of information, access and political interest. This makes them the worst people to offer analyses about how politics works in the world outside their bubble.

At the end of the day, what matters is large amounts of data about how large numbers of Americans actually behave in terms of their political decision-making. Just because you want Republicans to be disaffected and embarrassed about Donald Trump and you can find such people on TV and Twitter and in your own personal network does not mean writ large that the Republican Party is unhappy with Donald Trump. Too many pundits and their peers reject that fact.

What do we know about turnout?

Ultimately, turnout is going to be better than it was in 2016. There are states preparing for 70% turnout rates on Election Day.

But are we going to see fatigue set in, where the opposition has burned for so long it could burn out in the end — which is what happened in the United Kingdom with Brexit. The long primary season and having too many Democratic presidential primary candidates could impact turnout too. But we've seen nothing in the data to suggest there is not going to be the historic turnout that we've been expecting. Fundraising has been through the roof for the Democratic candidates and for all the down-ticket races. But if the Democrats pick a candidate they cannot coalesce around, then that is going to have a major impact on the election. 

How does Donald Trump's unique presidency and the cult-like support factor into your analyses?

No matter what Donald Trump does, no matter how many other scandals he gets involved in, the Republican Senate cannot go against the man, Because in polling, if you ask Republican voters, "Do you like Congress, your senator, or Trump better?" Trump beats those Republican senators by 20 points. He owns Republican voters. Trump is going to get somewhere around 47% to 48% of the vote. The only variables are the margins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Will the 2020 election be a repeat of 2016? That is the key question.

What are enthusiastic supporters of Bernie Sanders overlooking in their devotion to him? And what of Sanders' detractors? What are they also not taking into full account in terms of his candidacy?

The people who are all in for Bernie Sanders are rejecting a basic fact about American politics. Many voters, especially those independents and swing voters, are very susceptible to negative campaigns. Bernie is a weakness in that regard because he's going to be supported by a party that is inept at messaging.

Those who oppose Bernie Sanders and think he could doom the party are overlooking how Bernie Sanders is the one presidential primary candidate who can negate Donald Trump's populist advantage in terms of messaging. It is probably a major disadvantage to go into the general election with a Washington establishment candidate such as Joe Biden. Obama-to-Trump voters are going to support Trump in that contest with Biden. It is an almost automatic choice for them. But if the Democrats go with Bernie Sanders, they have a real opportunity to win those voters and the election because of the populist messaging possibilities.

What do Donald Trump and his advisers and handlers see when they look at the 2020 presidential map?

They see a math problem. Donald Trump is a plurality president. He won the White House on a plurality vote, which is unusual. That outcome took place because of a fractured electorate caused by third-party candidates. Trump will have to recreate that scenario because he is so unpopular.  

Donald Trump's approval ratings in states where he should be really popular are in fact very low. That is very revealing. The Republicans known that the best way to win is to get the members of the Democratic Party's coalition to fight with one another. The best way for Trump and his Republicans to do this if by using misinformation and other forms of propaganda.

If the Democratic Party's coalition and others who want Trump out of office all stay united and vote for whoever the Democratic nominee is, then it is basically mathematically impossible for Trump to win a second term.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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