Things are not going swimmingly for the Democrats right now.
President Trump was acquitted in his impeachment trial, and he gave a State of the Union address that made Democrats feel like the hapless Japanese military as they watched Godzilla stroll through downtown Tokyo. His polling is up to historic highs (though in fairness, Trump’s approval rating is historically low for a president’s historic highs), and the economy is roaring.
Meanwhile, the only thing that could have made the Iowa caucuses more disastrous would have been an outbreak of the coronavirus. The Democratic candidate the White House fears the most — Joe Biden — appears to be tanking, and the candidate the White House most wants to run against — Bernie Sanders — appears to be pulling out in front.
What’s going on?
I have a theory. Or rather, I’m persuaded by a theory I picked up from University of Denver professor of political science Seth Masket, author of the forthcoming book Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016–2020. The Democrats can’t figure out what to do next because they still haven’t figured out what really went wrong the last time.
Every four years, one of the parties loses the presidential race. As the party pooh-bahs and political pundits play the blame game, a rough consensus quickly emerges about why the party nominee lost. Sometimes the most self-serving explanation wins out: It was all the candidate’s fault. The election was winnable, and our ideas are great, but our nominee just couldn’t make the sale.
But sometimes the postmortem is coldly empirical and data-driven.