Jay Inslee, other single-issue 2020 candidates struggle to gain foothold in race
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s quest to save the Earth could kill his presidential campaign.
The Democrat has kept a laser-like focus on combating climate change, but so far it hasn’t earned him any separation in a 2020 presidential field filled with other candidates who share his goals, if not his singular passion.
Most of the candidates not polling at the top of the race are searching for ways to stand out, but being a single-issue candidate does not appear to be working.
“I think it’s hard for single-issue candidates to break through just because there are so many issues that are motivating caucus goers,” said David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register political reporter who covered the Iowa caucuses for decades. “If there is one single issue, it’s electability and even then a lot of activists say the party should be motivated by other things and that electability can be elusive.”
Though he would likely object to the single-issue label, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, another 2020 Democratic hopeful, has been defined in the public’s mind by his plan to create a universal basic income.
The idea has sparked debates and some admiration in online chat forums, but it hasn’t catapulted the 44-year-old New York City businessman into the thick of the race. Like Mr. Inslee, he polls in the afterthought category within the 2020 field.
History generally has not been kind to single-issue candidates.
Then-Rep. Tom Tancredo spent years traveling Iowa arguing for the need for a Republican nominee to be tough on illegal immigration in the run-up to the 2008 presidential contest. But when Mr. Tancredo took the leap himself, announcing he would be the standard-bearer for the issue, he failed to gain traction.
He withdrew from the race before a single vote was counted in the Iowa caucuses.
Candidates associated with a big issue can break out as George McGovern did in 1972, riding the anti-war movement to victory in the Democratic primary before losing in a landslide to Richard Nixon in the general election.
Dennis Goldford, political science chair at Drake University, said the hurdles are built into the American political system, where the political parties are coalitions with folks who span ideologies and interests.
“Single-issue candidates can articulate and raise awareness of a particular issue, but they have difficulty actually assembling the necessary coalition,” Mr. Goldford said.
One example from the 2016 campaign was opioid addiction. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made combatting the epidemic a centerpiece of his campaign as he stumped in New Hampshire, which was particularly hard-hit.
Mr. Christie’s campaign failed, but fellow GOP candidate Donald Trump added it to his own list of ideas. Now as president, Mr. Trump has signed the most sweeping anti-opioid abuse legislation in history.
So far, it’s not clear what the sleeper issue might be in 2020.
A Monmouth University Poll released last week showed the top issues for adults were all standard ones: health care, taxes, paying everyday bills, job security, the economy and immigration.
Climate change ranked seventh, tied with education costs, civil rights and crime.
Mr. Inslee nonetheless is making the case that the 2020 election should be a referendum on the “dark cloud of climate change” that hangs over the nation because it is connected to a host of other pressing issues including the economy, health care and national security.
On Friday he rolled out a “100% Clean Energy for America Plan” that calls for all the nation’s coal mines to be shuttered within a decade, requires commercial and residential building to meet a “Zero-Carbon Building Standard,” and promotes a national switch to electric vehicles.
“We know this, America is not a nation of half-measures, we did not go halfway to the moon, we did not defeat half of fascism. When we face a challenge we defeat it,” the governor said.
He may be the most passionate, but Mr. Yepsen said his problem is that “all the other candidates are talking about climate change too.”
“He doesn’t own the issue,” Mr. Yepsen said.
Indeed, six senators running for Democrats’ nomination have signed onto the Green New Deal, the utopian liberal plan to uproot the nation’s energy sector and create a new social safety net while producing a more environmentally friendly society.
Mr. Inslee, though, is trying to be gatekeeper.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke recently rolled out what he called a bold and ambitious plan to combat climate change through $5 trillion in new spending aimed at cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030.
Mr. Inslee criticized Mr. O’Rourke for being late to the issue, complaining that “we will not defeat climate change with empty rhetoric.”