They can’t ignore Donald Trump forever.
With the exception of a few tweets and barbed asides, the Democratic presidential candidates have spent the opening weeks of the 2020 campaign avoiding talking much about the man they aim to unseat, instead casting their own campaigns as forward-looking and positive.
But at a moment when the Democratic base is united in its determination—and desperation—to defeat Trump, some voters and activists are also looking for tactical details on how, exactly, these candidates plan to win in a one-on-one battle with the president.
“I do believe that as we work through this process, they will have to offer the strategy on the Electoral College,” said South Carolina Democratic state Sen. Marlon Kimpson.
“They don’t just want you to articulate how you’re doing it,” added Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa.“They want you to be standing up and doing it in real time.”
It’s not that Democrats expect their candidates to respond to every incendiary remark from Trump, a strategy that failed his Republican and Democratic rivals in 2016. But in a sprawling presidential field in which the contenders generally agree on policy, painting a clear picture of how they would beat Trump will be necessary to lock down critical endorsements and to help voters unpack what “electability” means in their own minds.
In practice, that could mean anything from offering memorable pushback to a Trump policy, to sketching out a path to victory in the general election, according to national Democrats and early-state activists.
But one thing that’s clear: the candidates will, eventually, have to talk about Trump on the trail.
“Chief among the criteria Iowans are looking for is a winner, somebody who can demonstrate they can take on Donald Trump,” said Matt Paul, who ran Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Iowa caucus operation. “They’re going to take their time in deciding who that is. It’s going to drive these candidates and their advisers bananas because they’re going to see these very sought-after endorsers out there, they’re going to take their sweet time kicking the tires on candidates.”
Asked if candidates would have to offer specifics on how they would beat Trump, Paul, who is advising former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (though not exclusively), replied, “yeah, they are.”
Kimpson, the South Carolina state senator, stressed that at this early juncture, candidates are rightfully focused on introducing themselves and their messages. But he expects that as the campaign goes on, general election viability will become a greater concern among some voters.
“It just is a vital variable in someone’s electability, the strategy to get to the magic number and beat the current president,” he said.
That’s something some Democratic contenders have already previewed. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, for example, have talked at length about their records of success in the Midwest, where Trump was largely victorious in 2016.
“You think of Pennsylvania, you think of Michigan, you think of Ohio, Wisconsin, and yes, you think of Iowa, and you say, ‘well, gee, it would be beneficial if someone has some credibility in those particular states,’” said Kurt Meyer, the chairman of the Tri-County Democrats in Iowa, characterizing some voters’ criteria.
With the Iowa caucuses still a year away, many Democrats don’t expect candidates to discuss general election plans just yet. But they do expect that the most electable contenders will deliver strong performances on the primary campaign trail.
“It’s interesting for Amy Klobuchar to say, ‘Oh, I can win the Midwest.’ OK, great, but you’re also going to want to see how do they do in debates, how do they do in town halls, how do they handle criticism,” said Judy Reardon, a veteran New Hampshire Democratic strategist. “It’s one thing to have the candidate tell you how she thinks she’s going to be able to do it, but for me, I’ll make my judgment based on how I see them performing.”
Other Democrats are looking for evidence that candidates could emerge from a fight with Trump unscathed, something nobody was able to do in 2016, as he effectively branded one opponent after the next with dismissive nicknames.
“They’ve got to be able to see your ability to do the battle with Trump,” said Morgan Jackson, a longtime North Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “At the end of the day, they want somebody who’s going to beat Donald Trump. They need to hear your case of how you can do that. There’s a lot of hope, passion, excitement, ideas, that’s part of that. There’s also a direct compare and contrast you’ve got to be able to make.”
“They will absolutely have to take the wood to Trump,” he added. “I think you’ll see them all do it.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has already attempted that in the 2020 race, with mixed results. Last fall, she released a controversial DNA analysis as Trump criticized her past mentions of Native American ancestry, but she drew criticism from Cherokee Nation leaders who called her efforts insensitive, and she apologized.
And in Iowa Sunday, Warren suggested Trump could be imprisoned by 2020 due to the investigations he faces. But she also insisted that day that “our job as we start rolling into the next election is not just to respond on a daily basis.”
“It’s to talk about what we understand is broken in this country, talk about what needs to be done to change it and talk about how we’re going to do that, because that is not only how we win, it’s how we make the change we need to make,” Warren said.
Klobuchar, meanwhile, engaged with Trump on climate change over the weekend on his favorite medium: Twitter.
But no one has set a better example for how to take him on, said Bagniewski of Polk County, than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who earned praise on the left for standing her ground in government shutdown negotiations with Trump, sparking what he called a “Pelosi renaissance.”
“You’ve got to be able to take it and then throw it right back. It’s one thing to take it, make fun of it – but to be able to throw it right back at him, it’s an art. It’s a science,” he said. Pelosi is “kind of the model for how to deal with him, in that you can burn him right back without getting in the mud.”