Democratic adviser on 2020: 'We could blow this'

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Joe Trippi (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Joe Trippi is mostly confident that Democrats will do the right thing in 2020.

He’s not overly worried that the massive field — headed toward 20 candidates — will mix with a proportional primary and a restless grassroots to spark a civil war in the party that extends all the way through their convention. The 62-year old Democratic consultant believes his party will produce a nominee to run against President Trump on a hopeful, uniting message.

But, he allowed, “We could blow this.”

“We’re a party that’s totally capable of making the path easier for [Trump], particularly if we fall into the traps he tends to set,” Trippi said in an interview on the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game.”

But, Trippi said, he thinks two things will keep Democrats away from a fractious internal battle. Primary voters, he said, will be pragmatic and clear-eyed because of how badly they want to beat Trump. And second, the field will naturally get smaller after the first few primaries. Trippi said even some Democratic campaigns are underestimating the way the Iowa caucuses will cull the field by starving many candidates of attention and resources as media coverage zooms in on a handful of frontrunners.

“I know what the rumble is out of that place,” Tripp said of Iowa. “Some of these people think, ‘Hey, I can take fifth in Iowa, but I’ll still be around. ... My first win might be in South Carolina.’”

“I think a lot of these teams are underestimating just how strong the impulse will be” among the media and voters to cut the field down after Iowa and New Hampshire, the second primary contest, he said. “It’s kind of a law of gravity. The press and all of us cannot follow 18 people. ... We can’t do it.”

Trippi, 62, rose to fame in the Democratic Party in 2004, when he took Vermont Gov. Howard Dean from renegade to frontrunner status in that year’s presidential primary, until Dean screamed his way out of the race after losing in Iowa. Most recently, he was a senior adviser to Sen. Doug Jones during his shocking 2017 win in Alabama, becoming the first Democratic senator from the state in 20 years.

Trippi has worked in some capacity, usually as a senior adviser, on six of the last 10 presidential campaigns, going back to his first in 1980.

During the Jones campaign, Trippi said, he saw that “there were three groups in the Republican Party that are seriously considering voting for a Democrat for the first time in their life” — suburban women, younger voters, and the college educated.

Because of that openness, Trippi said, he thinks the Democratic nominee in 2020 can take cues from Jones’s approach in Alabama. “I do not think this is ideological, I think it's tone,” Trippi said.

“In other words, there was something about Doug Jones tone that wasn't angry, wasn't, ‘You guys don't get what I'm talking about, so it's my way or the highway,’” Trippi said. “Also it’s, ‘Hey, we need to start listening to each other and find some common ground.’”

If the Democratic nominee gets into a “mud fight” with Trump, a contest of “who can be angrier and who can be meaner and who can be tougher on the other side,” Trippi said, then traditional Republican voters who might detest Trump will likely revert to their tribal identity.

But Trippi said he “definitely” thinks Democrats will nominate a more positive candidate who strikes a welcoming tone to all voters.

“Every cycle starts out where the purity on the left and the idealism tends to take hold and those players always do very well in the beginning and then as we start moving closer to the vote, to actual votes being cast, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Super Tuesday and beyond, there's a certain pragmatism in our party that starts to take hold, particularly in years where there's a Republican president seeking reelection,” he said.

Accordingly, Trippi didn’t sound too impressed with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy. “He's interesting, but I think in the end, I don't see —” Trippi stopped himself from going too far, and changed directions. “It's way too early to know whether they're connecting beyond their initial surge, right? One of the things I think that people don't realize is how easy it is to raise 10 million dollars now,” Trippi said, referring to O’Rourke’s $9.4 million fundraising total during his first three weeks as a candidate.

On Sen. Bernie Sanders, Trippi was more circumspect. “Not that Bernie's a divider, I just think his style ... has some anger in it,” Trippi said. “If he can somehow be more of a happy warrior, I mean a warrior, but sort of a happier warrior … I think there's a little bit of the angry guy ... saying, ‘Get off my lawn,’ that hurts him in that fight. I think he's doing better at that. I do. I think he's doing better.”

There is one person Trippi said many were underestimating. “There are a lot of people discounting [former vice president] Joe Biden when they shouldn't be,” he said. He then added: “There are a lot of people discounting Beto or Bernie Sanders when they shouldn't be.”

But Trippi went into detail on how a Biden candidacy would change the dynamics of the race. “The minute Joe Biden gets in the race he's got 100 press people covering him,” he said. “That means every day there's coverage of that. ... Who else gets that? Does Bernie get it? Maybe. Does Beto get it? Maybe. Does [Sen. Kamala] Harris get it?”

“I'm not sure [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren does now,” he said of that scenario.

The one thing Trippi was certain of? That the next 12 to 18 months is going to be a wild ride.

“I do think none of the candidates — save Bernie and Biden, if he gets in — have a clue what they've gotten themselves into, and I think that most of their teams don't know what they've gotten themselves into because we don't have 18 national campaign managers,” Trippi said. “They will after this.”

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