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A Recession and the Fight for the Democratic Nomination

AWalter Head
August 16, 2019

The possibility of a global economic slowdown and/or U.S. recession has lots of folks speculating on what it would mean for President Trump's reelection prospects. Conventional wisdom assumes it would be a political death-blow to the President. Already struggling with anemic job approval ratings in what has been a solid economic environment, those job ratings would certainly plunge into the cellar if the economy sputters. 

My colleague Charlie Cook isn't so sure that this would happen. He suggests that our growing partisanship over these last few years, (Democrats and Republicans stick by their party no matter the political, economic or social environment) "limit how much a good economy can help or a bad economy can hurt a president."

While the focus thus far has been on what an economic downturn would mean for next November's election, I'm curious about how it could affect the fight for the Democratic nomination. At a time of economic uncertainty or tumult, will Democratic voters be more attracted to candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who argue for big, fundamental change to economic institutions? Or will Vice President Joe Biden's more modest, incremental change be more appealing?

To help me think through this, I reached out to some of the smartest Democratic strategists I know. None of them are currently working for a presidential candidate. 

"[I] gotta speculate that Democratic primary voters already inclined to think like Warren (and Sanders, et al.) see it as an affirmation of her case for 'big structural change.' But the larger contingent of primary voters may find that approach ill-timed, ill-advised or too risky," one longtime Democratic consultant emailed to me. "And that plays to Biden's more modest and incremental approach (plus, a dose of primary-voter logic that, "Hey, Obama steered us calmly through the last recession, so maybe Biden's the right guy to navigate this one...)"

It was long ago now, but in 1992 Clinton exploited the Bush recession and anemic economy with a big theme ("Putting People First"), but with mostly incremental proposals (job training and lifetime learning opportunities, trade adjustment assistance, a middle-class tax cut, etc.).  

The political trick in a recession is to meet voters where they are on the pain and lay blame with the incumbent. Warren is one to say larger forces are to blame, while Biden is far more apt to argue it's Trump's fault. That latter case may be more compelling right now, in part because Trump's fingerprints are all over a lot of the declining economic indicators (erratic trade policy and destructive tariffs, the tax cuts skyrocketing the federal deficit)."

Another Democrat I talked with this week, told me that the "biggest loser out of a [possible] recession would be the riskier candidates like Pete Buttigieg." At a time of economic crisis, said this Democratic strategist, voters are looking for someone with experience that the "37-year-old mayor of South Bend" doesn't have. 

This strategist also argued that Sanders is also unlikely to benefit from an environment where an economic crisis is all-consuming. "Bernie knows how to take stuff down, but not to rebuild it."

Ultimately, this person said, "in a weird way it could help both Biden and Warren, since both have 'competence' on the issue. Biden is 'the guy who as Vice President has experience rebuilding the economy' while Warren is 'the economic wonk.'  

Two other Democratic strategists I contacted agreed that Biden and Warren were the most likely beneficiaries of a campaign that was centered on a struggling economy.   

For Warren, said one strategist, "it makes her signature issue a much bigger deal which is good news for her. In times of recession, the public rarely has mental space for any other issue. It gives her a much larger platform and cause to say "see…this system is a failure and I have been telling the truth this whole time."  Biden, meanwhile, "can claim the mantle of having helped pull America out of the last recession with Obama. It gives him a new rationale and one that highlights the other key element of his appeal — his deep connection to the wildly popular President Obama."   

However, warned this strategist, a weakened economy will greatly weaken Trump, which could mean that currently "marginal Democratic candidates will poll ahead of him in general election matchups." That hurts Biden more than anyone else, this Democrat argued,  "because part of his appeal is his consistent ability to outpoll Trump. If seven people are in that boat rather than Biden alone, it undermines a core argument for him."  

In politics, the winning candidate is almost always the one that fits the mood of the moment. If 2020 is consumed with talk of a possible recession, the candidate who voters feel is best suited to address it will have the upper hand. In many ways, Warren is well positioned for that moment. She has made the economy — specifically a critique of the current economic structure in this country — the centerpiece of her campaign and her career. She conducted groundbreaking work on personal bankruptcy. During the financial crisis, she was appointed Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.   

Not long after the markets closed on Thursday, Warren tweeted: "The warning signs for another recession are flashing. We need to pay attention and act now, while we still have time to avert a downturn."  

Biden, of course, can point to his tenure as Vice President during the financial crisis. In 2012, Biden was fond of telling voters that he and Obama should be re-elected because "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."  

But, while both have significant experience in dealing with financial crisis, they have very different approaches to governing. And it's that difference that could make a big difference in who Democratic voters choose to face President Trump.