I’m still upset at a friend in North Carolina who voted for Jill Stein. My fellow Democrat assumed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Ex-Clinton aide: Dems should make 2020 'about integrity' Trump mounts Rust Belt defense MORE had the 2016 presidential election wrapped up.
Well, President Trump beat Clinton in North Carolina by 3.6 percentage points. And he failed, albeit narrowly, to crack 50 percent of all votes cast. In such close elections, votes that peel off to minor candidates can be crucial.
It is true that Russian internet trolls backed Stein to drain support from Clinton and help Trump win, according to studies on Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. One popular Russian slogan was “Grow a Spine and Vote Jill Stein.”
But according to my pal in North Carolina, the Russians had nothing to do with her vote. Here is her explanation:
She voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic primary. Once he lost, she felt Clinton represented “establishment” politics. So she went with Stein.
That brings me to 2019.
Democrats are about three months away from their first debate among the 15 or so candidates for their 2020 nomination.
Last week, TV star Samantha Bee blasted the large field of Democrats in a monologue.
“There you have it! 16 candidates, 15 will lose while one, let’s be honest, will also probably lose and we’ll be stuck with this toilet monster for another four years,” Bee said referring to Trump. “So tonight, I’m announcing that I too am running…far away because this campaign is already exhausting and it makes me want to hide in a hole.”
Bee is giving voice to fears that a brutal, expensive primary will divide the party and give Trump a second term.
Bee is not alone in her anxiety over a potentially splintered Democratic Party.
The activist, intellectual base of the Democrats remains divided between “liberals and leftists,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine last week.
“And leftists themselves are divided,” in Chait’s view, “between those who [see a difference between Democrats and Republicans] and those who see the Democratic Party as essentially corrupt, capitalist and generally unworthy of support.”
Similarly, Jared Bernstein, an economist who worked for Vice President Biden in the Obama administration, wrote last month that the large field of Democrats is risky.
His specific concern is having reporters and voters lose sight of the fact that Democrats of all stripes agree on the need for better health care, dealing with climate change and ending tax breaks for the rich.
“The most important insight about this dynamic, one that risks getting buried if the Democrats aren’t careful, is that you would need a high-powered electron microscope to see the difference among the Democrats, compared with the difference between them and the Republicans,” Bernstein wrote in The Washington Post.
And he pointed to the high level of unity among Democrats on the need to prevent four more years of Trump’s “culture of lies and corruption” in the White House.
All this worry about the coming free-for-all fight over the nomination comes at a bright political moment for Democrats.
Fifty-seven percent of voters say they definitely will not vote for Trump, according to a January poll by NPR-Marist. That includes 62 percent of independent voters who say they won’t give the president a second term. Trump beat Clinton among independents in 2016.
And even among self-identified Trump supporters only three-quarters say they definitely want him back in the Oval Office, according to the poll.
Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of all credible polls showed Trump’s popularity rating underwater by more than 10 points as of Saturday. It indicated only 41.9 percent approve of how he is handling his job while 52.9 percent disapprove.
Then there is money.
On the first day of his announcement last month, Sanders raised $5.9 million from more than 220,000 donors.
Last week, former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) hauled in $6.1 million from more than 128,000 donors.
Even more evidence of enthusiasm for the candidates can be seen in the high number of donors. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), for example, had 38,000 donors within 24 hours of launching her candidacy. Pete Buttigieg (D), a little-known Midwestern mayor, says he already has more than 65,000 donors.
Last fall’s midterm elections also provided good news. With Democrats controlling the House, they now have the power to investigate decades of Trump’s questionable business deals and ties to Russia.
And there is more good news.
An Emerson College poll published last week found that Biden, the Democrats’ frontrunner for the nomination, would trounce Trump by 10 percentage points if the election were held today. The same poll found Harris, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also beating Trump by narrower margins.
The Democrats just need to get out of their own way and keep in mind that incumbents, even Trump, have a built-in advantage with the White House as a stage for their every move.
The key for Democrats is to remember William F. Buckley Jr.’s rule for Republican primary voters.
Pick the most conservative (or in this case the most liberal) candidate who can win.
Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.