Can Boring Win in 2020?
Seth Masket is director of the Center on American Politics and a professor in the Department of Political Science. He has taught at the University of Denver since 2004. Masket's areas of research and expertise focuses on American political parties at the local, state and national level. Masket has published two books and has a weekly on-line column with Pacific Standard and is a founder and regular contributor to Vox.com's Mischiefs of Faction blog.
“I know how to win the 2020 presidential election,” said Yascha Mounk in a recent podcast with Ezra Klein. “You need a candidate who can credibly promise to the American people, ‘You vote for me, you can forget about politics for four years. ... I promise you there’s not going to be any weird scandals. You can just switch off for four years.’ I think they would win in a landslide.”
Setting aside whether a tuned-out electorate is really desirable (although certainly understandable), is this a plausible path to victory? Might the antidote to Donald Trump’s high-drama presidency be a dull, competent candidate who allows voters to just ignore politics for a while?
I was thinking about this while attending the recent Center for American Progress Ideas Conference. This conference serves a number of functions, one of which is to showcase various potential Democratic presidential candidates. Depending on how we determine who’s actually running at this stage, roughly 10 potential candidates (including Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Sherrod Brown) were in attendance for this event, honing their stump speeches and testing messages among the relatively liberal and wonky audience.
One of these speakers was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. I should note that de Blasio is not generally included in the list of 2020 presidential candidates and is not doing many of the things such a candidate would generally be doing. Nonetheless, he did speak at CAP, and in a crowded field of candidates with no obvious frontrunner, the mayor of New York City has national name recognition and access to funds that make him a contender.
Unlike the speeches of several other candidates, de Blasio’s actually contained ideas. In particular, he spoke at length about community policing, an approach to law enforcement that involves extensive on-foot, localized patrolling so that officers get to know the residents of their neighborhood and vice versa. This isn’t really a new idea — President Clinton discussed it extensively as a component of the 1994 crime bill, and even then it was acknowledged as being a return to an earlier form of policing. But de Blasio nonetheless diligently explained the role it can play in reducing crime, helping a wide range of communities, and reducing some of the disparities in criminal enforcement.
And it was … dull. It made me sleepy. Now, I don’t mean this as a criticism of de Blasio. His talk was well argued and delivered, and it was based on actual policy substance. And while he’s not a confirmed presidential candidate, community policing is not a bad issue for a liberal candidate from a liberal city to champion in an effort to appeal to a broader swath of voters.
Quiet, competent governance may well be what most Americans want. Even quite a few Republicans who are largely happy with Trump’s policy agenda would prefer to work toward that agenda without the constant barrage of tweets, scandals, insults, norm violations, conflicts of interests, and crimes, perhaps even if it meant shaving a bit off that agenda.
But just how well does quiet competence sell? Trump is many things, but dull is not one of them. Is it possible that the American electorate has grown addicted to the constant stimulus and would find it hard to rally behind a candidate who generates less adrenaline? Put another way, if a candidate is dull, is that a net plus or a net minus for a campaign?
There’s a good chance it doesn’t matter much at all. Ronald Reagan, for example, was probably a more exciting character than Walter Mondale in 1984, but that election’s lopsided outcome was more easily explained by the 7 percent economic growth that year.
More likely, voters will attach themselves to a candidate based on their own partisan leanings and various aspects of the political environment, and then they’ll rationalize that choice based on candidate qualities. Most Republicans will vote for Trump in 2020, even if his opponent seems to better embody the emotional and professional stability they say they want, and they’ll say that the other candidate’s dullness was part of the reason for their choice. Democrats would largely vote for a dull Democrat because he or she is a Democrat, but they’ll claim that quiet competence was the reason.
Perhaps the more important question is what occurs in the invisible primary stage, when party elites consider the many potential candidates and their relative virtues and vices. Will they decide that quiet competence is what their party, and the country, needs? Will they think it’s better to be the opposite of Trump, or to try to find someone who evokes similar emotional responses?
Interviews I’ve been collecting as part of my book research suggest that many party activists are interested in competing with Trump’s emotionalism rather than avoiding it. That is, they want a candidate who can excite crowds, and some see insufficient emotional enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton as part of the reason for the party’s loss in 2016. But these conversations are far from complete.
Voters may well long for a quieter version of national governance that they could safely ignore for hours or even days at a time. However, whether they would actually vote for such a vision, or whether a party would even give them that chance, remains to be seen.