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Pitching to the left

Democratic candidates for president try to appeal to an ideological audience that pays attention to early campaigns, but will that hurt the candidates in the longer term?

Pitching to the left

From left: Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren participate in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN on July 30. (Paul Sancya/AP)

One of the more awkward moments at a recent Christian conference in Atlanta came when an announcer enthusiastically introduced Elizabeth Warren as the senator “from the great state of New Hampshire.” 

Warren is from Massachusetts.

The senator is also a frontrunner in the early stages of the Democratic presidential primary race, but the mistake is understandable: With more than a dozen Democratic candidates in the 2020 field, it’s easy to confuse the details. 

Warren bounded onto the stage at the August candidate forum sponsored by the Black Church PAC, but she didn’t correct the announcer’s error. Instead, she raised her hands and proclaimed, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice!”

A day later, another awkward dynamic unfolded at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Hartsville, S.C., where Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg was giving his own stump speech: In a packed fellowship hall at the historic black church, the overflowing crowd was overwhelmingly white. 

That’s especially problematic in an early primary state where black voters are crucial for Democratic hopefuls. 

Buttigieg didn’t mention crowd composition, but he quickly mentioned faith. “It’s time to assert once and for all that God doesn’t belong to a political party,” he declared. Buttigieg, who is gay and Episcopalian, talks openly about his religious beliefs, and he told the crowd he would run a campaign based on values: “And those values are going to take us in a pretty progressive direction.”

Even some Democrats might call that an understatement. Indeed, the early stages of the Democratic presidential primary have been marked by candidates making hard turns to the hard left on some big policy questions. 

That might be a way to advance in a primary, but it could leave the Democratic nominee in an awkward position next fall: Will the same positions that woo hard-core supporters in a primary race win swing voters in a general election? Do those positions gel with most Democratic voters? 

And as some Democratic candidates emphasize faith, what does that mean for religious voters who don’t agree with them on certain core issues? Will candidates calling for toleration offer toleration themselves?

The starting gates are just opening in the 2020 contest—and anything could happen—but the Democratic candidates mounting a challenge to President Donald Trump are on their marks, they’re set—and they’re already going. 


DURING THE FIRST LAP of a presidential primary race, an early test of a candidate’s views on thorny issues often comes via televised moments that some must dread—a debate moderator’s command to “raise your hand” if you support a certain position.

It doesn’t leave much room for nuance.

The moment came quickly on the second night of the Democratic primary debates in June. (With so many candidates, the debates spanned two separate nights on prime-time television.) 

The night before, a candidate near the back of the pack had vaulted to front-page attention with an eye-popping proposal: Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro called for decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States.

The next evening, NBC debate moderator José Díaz-Balart told the second round of candidates, “Raise your hand if you think it should be a civil offense, rather than a crime, to cross the border without documentation.”

Eight out of the 10 candidates raised their hands. 

But in that moment, current Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden crystallized the primary dilemma with a gesture of his own: The former vice president raised his finger instead of his hand, asking the moderator for a chance to explain his hesitation.

By mid-August, more than a dozen candidates had supported decriminalizing illegal border crossings, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.—the two candidates ranking just behind Biden in national polls. 

Several second-tier candidates joined them, including Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Pete Buttigieg (the mayor of South Bend, Ind.). Texan Beto O’Rourke was among only a few candidates opposing the move. 

In a later interview with CNN, Biden clarified he believes migrants seeking asylum should have an opportunity to present their cases, but he stood by his opposition to dropping the current criminal statute against illegal entry. 

The whole flash point befuddled at least one Democrat with some experience in national politics: Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told Vice News in late August that decriminalizing illegal entry would be a problem for Democrats in a general election. “People want a fair immigration system,” he said. “They don’t want an open-door invitation for everybody to come at once.” 

Reid, who retired in 2017, also expressed frustration over a slate of Democratic candidates pushing Medicare for All—a proposal he thinks won’t pass Congress. Still, Sanders and Warren are among the candidates endorsing a plan that would abolish private health insurance. Biden opposes the move (he favors keeping the Affordable Care Act) and has become an outlier on a position once considered unworkable by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Other Democratic candidates taking more centrist or moderate positions on hot-button issues haven’t broken out of the pack yet in substantial ways, though their views might be more in line with more voters. 

In July, an NPR/PBS/Marist poll found that American voters oppose decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States, 66-27 percent. Two-thirds of Democratic voters favor a healthcare plan that might include a public option but that doesn’t eliminate private insurance, according to a CBS poll in July. 

Also notable: Some political observers have noticed some Democratic candidates spend more time attacking Biden and his ties to some Obama-era policies than making their case against President Trump. 

It makes sense that Biden’s opponents would try to knock off a frontrunner, but Tim Miller, the former communications director for Jeb Bush, offered his analysis to Politico after the July Democratic debate: “It’s mind-boggling that there would be several candidates taking shots at Barack Obama when he’s broadly popular, Trump isn’t, and the whole point of this enterprise is beating Trump.” 

So why the hard-left turns? 

Henry Olsen, a political analyst and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, notes that in the early stages of a Democratic primary, moderate or independent voters aren’t typically the ones paying the closest attention. 

Party activists and more liberal party members tend to follow campaigns, donate money, and volunteer time earlier in the process: “So they [the candidates] are leaning left in a logical way because you have to build a base before you build a majority.” 

That gives Biden some leeway to position himself as a moderate who could woo critical swing voters in a general election, but the former vice president already has shown the power of the leftward pull during the primary. 

A major example: While Biden has long supported legalized abortion, he also supported the Hyde Amendment for decades. The legislative provision bars the use of federal funds to pay directly for abortions in most cases. As late as May, Biden’s campaign confirmed he still supported the ban. But after withering criticism from his Democratic opponents, Biden caved. He said he now opposes Hyde. None of the Democratic candidates embrace a pro-life position.

Kristen Day of Democrats for Life of America expressed her group’s “extreme disappointment” at Biden’s move: “With all the major candidates fighting to be the most extreme on abortion, there is a wide-open lane for a candidate to bring an alternative position.” 

Jim WatsonAFP/Getty Images

From left: Cory Booker, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris speak on July 31 during the other Democratic primary debate. (Jim WatsonAFP/Getty Images)

DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES might avoid that wide-open lane in the primary race, but some are veering onto another part of the track: They’re talking about religion.

In some cases, it hasn’t been a major push: Kamala Harris has talked about attending both a Hindu temple and a Baptist church when she was growing up. (Her husband is Jewish.)

Bernie Sanders has long said he’s not actively religious, but he has referenced his Jewish background and the need to fight white nationalism. 

Biden has discussed his Catholicism and says it helped him through his son’s death. Julián Castro has also talked about his Catholic background. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., says Christian faith helped her deal with her father’s addiction. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was the first Hindu ever elected to Congress in 2012. 

Others speak about religion more often on the campaign trail: When addressing church crowds, Elizabeth Warren talks about her background in the United Methodist Church, and she’s invoked Matthew 25 when talking about policies to help the poor. 

Cory Booker’s campaign has hired a South Carolina pastor to reach out to churches in the early primary state, and he delivered an August address at Mother Emanuel AME—the Charleston church that endured a mass shooting and nine deaths at the hand of white supremacist Dylann Roof. 

Booker seems at ease talking to church audiences, but he has also sometimes used Scripture for unsettling ends. Last summer he decried Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, warning how the justice would rule on “a woman’s right to control her own body.” 

The senator invoked Psalm 23 to condemn approving a presumably pro-life and conservative appointment to the high court: “We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”

New Age guru Marianne Williamson has cast the election in spiritual terms, speaking less about specific policy plans and more about how the “wonkiness” of other candidates won’t deal with “the dark psychic force” she says Trump has brought to the country. Williamson says “only love can cast that out.” 

Some have laughed off Williamson’s unusual candidacy, but Google searches about the candidate soared during the debate. Even if Williamson (who has been polling at less than 1 percent) doesn’t make it much farther in the race, she’s likely piqued the interest of plenty of Americans concerned about a divisive and ugly moment in American politics. 

Meanwhile, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the first candidate to hire a faith outreach director for his campaign. Some pundits were surprised when Buttigieg’s campaign announced it had hired a Unitarian Universalist for the job: Shawna Foster said her job would be to reach out to all faith groups. 

Buttigieg has spoken openly about his same-sex marriage and his membership in an Episcopal church. He rejects historic, Biblical teaching about homosexuality, and he’s attacked Vice President Mike Pence for his traditional views on sexuality. 

“That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg told a group at an LGBTQ Victory Fund event. “That if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me—your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

Buttigieg’s quarrel goes beyond theological debates to how religious Americans should be able to practice their theological convictions in public spaces. Indeed, all the major Democratic candidates have endorsed the Equality Act, a measure that has passed the House but likely won’t gain traction in the Senate—unless the Senate unexpectedly flips to Democratic control next year.

The bill would essentially prohibit any form of perceived LGBTQ discrimination in public spaces and doesn’t include any religious exceptions. Religious freedom advocates say such a measure could threaten Christian colleges, adoption agencies, and perhaps other religious institutions seeking to operate according to Biblical convictions. 

Michael Wear, an evangelical and the faith outreach director for President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012, says the Equality Act and the issues surrounding it raise major questions the Democratic candidates must face: “What is their vision for how religious groups hold onto historical traditional sexual ethic? What is their vision for how they fit into society?”

Broadly speaking, Wear says the Equality Act “suggests that LGBT rights should win out every time ... and that’s just not a responsible approach.”


FOR NOW, political analyst Henry Olsen emphasizes that, despite months of activity, the real action in the primary race is only beginning. 

The candidates will spend months parsing through dozens of issues that haven’t gained as much attention yet, and potentially clashing with the president they hope to get a chance to run against next year. 

Olsen says the poll positions of candidates could shift in lots of unexpected ways as more voters begin to pay attention and the race moves beyond the “spring training phase,” when only the most devoted fans follow the teams closely. Now it’s time to start watching the regular season, but “there’s just a lot of time to come,” he says. “Loads of time.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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  • VISTA48
    Posted: Thu, 08/22/2019 05:09 pm

    There is not a single issue that Democrat candidates (all 126 of them) and I agree on. Their plans, when they can articulate them, appear to be designed to perpetuate chaos. I have never been much of an extremist, and I find it distasteful that they are all so willing to label people that they do not know. Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he has not impugned the character of the American public. His barbs are reserved for individuals with power, position and microphones.

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Tue, 09/03/2019 05:38 am

    Making "any form of perceived LGBTQ discrimination in public spaces" illegal means that truth will be illegal.  Those who smirk and wag fingers at the church's treatment of Galileo are now making science illegal when it doesn't fit their agenda.  In their spare time they are overturning history, statues and our institutions.  No one objects, except Trump.  How he is still standing is miraculous.