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On the 2020 campaign trail, Mueller's report was an afterthought before he delivered it

Updated 4:41 PM ET, Mon March 25, 2019

(CNN) - As congressional Democrats zero in on Attorney General William Barr's four-page synopsis of Robert Mueller's report, the candidates vying to run against President Donald Trump next year and the voters desperate to unseat him are largely ignoring the spectacle that has dominated Washington's attention for years.

The details provided in the topline summary of the special counsel's inquiry have the White House crowing, Trump declaring total victory over his political enemies and Democrats across the board demanding more information.

A number of the candidates have called for Mueller's full findings to be made public.

"I don't want a summary of the report," Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said Sunday in San Francisco. "I want the whole damn report because nobody, especially this President, is above the law."

Yet even as candidates call for the report's release, the investigation's known conclusions include an affirmation for those Democrats running for president: A signal to carry on as they have focused on big policy proposals while sidelining discussion about Mueller and allegations of "collusion" in 2016.

On the campaign trail this year, Democrats have consistently framed Trump as the manifestation of a deeper rot in American politics, one that -- as former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke said this weekend in Las Vegas -- must be "settled at the ballot box in November of 2020."

The strategy is a response to voters, too, who have filled bustling rallies and town halls around the country -- and have rarely dwelled on suspicions about the Trump team's relationship with Russia. Instead, these voters prefer to grill candidates on their plans to expand health care, pass wholesale immigration revisions or combat rising economic inequality.

The dynamic began to take shape in the early stages of the 2018 midterms, when Democrats effectively sidelined Trump's daily dramas and campaigned instead on promises to preserve the most popular provisions of Obamacare while providing robust new oversight of the administration.

The Mueller investigation, for its part, was mostly used in 2018 as a parry by the candidates, who would defer questions on impeachment pending the results of his probe.

Even future 2020 candidates -- like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar -- made the case last year that focusing too much on Trump and Mueller could spell doom for her party.

"We're not going to see (continued success) if we spend our whole time bemoaning the fact that he's there," Klobuchar said at a liberal gathering in Washington last May. "He's there. And we have to present an alternative."

In polling, the Russia investigation consistently came up as one of the least important issues for voters during the past cycle.

A minority (48%) of likely voters told CNN in November 2018 that the "investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election" was extremely or very important to their vote -- the only one of nine issues tested by CNN that less than a majority said was extremely or very important. The top issues were health care and the economy, which 80% of voters said were extremely or very important to their vote.

CNN's poll was not alone in showing that the Russian investigation has been close to an afterthought. An October 2018 survey from Fox News found that "Robert Mueller's Russia investigation" was the least important of 10 issues raised to all likely voters. Among pure independents (those with no allegiance to either party), just 35% of likely voters said it would be extremely or very important to their vote for Congress.

Democratic candidates internalized that message in 2018 and their strategy paid off.

The party won its House majority on the strength of historic gains in swing districts around the country, and last year's results have guided the presidential primary frontrunners as they engage with a base that views the next election with existential anxiety. It also has given candidates a clear idea that lashing out at Trump, or casting his 2016 victory as a misbegotten fluke, will not be enough to win the popular support need to score an Electoral College majority in 2020.

"The man in the White House is not the cause of what's broken, he's just the latest --  and most extreme --  symptom of what's gone wrong in America," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said as she kicked off her campaign last month, describing Trump as the "product of a rigged system that props up the rich and the powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else."

"Once he's gone," she warned, "we can't pretend that none of this never happened."

The message, common across the party's ideological divides, seems to match the mood of Democratic voters who have flocked en masse to campaign events around the country. Warren, who takes questions from the audience at nearly all of her events, rarely hears about Russia. A campaign official estimated that, of an estimated 200 questions Warren has fielded from voters since announcing her exploratory committee on New Year's Eve, only four have centered on Moscow's interference.

Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the grass-roots progressive group Indivisible, has been making a similar argument for the past two years, arguing that successfully confronting Trump -- and Trumpism -- requires a deeper consideration of the conditions that led to his election.

"If our democratic system was healthy and functional, Trump would never have made it into office in the first place," Greenberg said. "The way forward today is the same as it has been all along: Organize and build power to change that system."

Asked this weekend, before the summary of Mueller's report was released, whether Democrats risked banking too much on its findings, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that its conclusions -- whatever they revealed -- were unlikely to fundamentally alter most Americans' views of Trump.

"A lot of people have made up their mind about this President and a lot of people who voted for him already understand that he is not a character of great integrity. They voted the way they did to send a message," the Indiana mayor told CNN during a swing through South Carolina. Democrats ignore the "conditions that made this presidency possible" at their own peril, he added, saying that Trump having "come into cheating distance of the White House" should be alarm enough.

Buttigieg took a series of questions at his final event in South Carolina, less than 24 hours before Barr's letter was released. Not one focused on the investigation.

For both voters and candidates at this early stage of the Democratic primary, suggestions of criminality and corruption in the White House are baked into the conversation. So is the understanding, frequently articulated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, that impeachment proceedings would be a politically divisive Hail Mary that could harden Trump's support while siphoning off the energy driving Democratic voters.

The argument against focusing with blinkered intensity on the particulars of Russia's interference, at the expense of a broader understanding of why it succeeded, has been a running theme in multiple Democratic campaigns.

"The Russian government came into the house of the American family and manipulated us," California Sen. Kamala Harris said last August, months before she launched her campaign. "We must take this seriously in that context and understand that when we debate as we did in 2016, one of the most important debates that we have, which is who'll be the leader of our country, the Russians exploited our nation's discourse to play into our deepest fear."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made a point in 2017 and 2018 of targeting states Trump had won, has frequently argued -- on the stump and in interviews -- that Democrats' hopes of winning back the White House require a concerted effort to claw back at least some of his supporters.

"Trump told working people that he was going to be on their side. He is not on their side, and his record proves that quite clearly," Sanders said during a CNN town hall in February. "And we're going to make that very clear. And I think by the end of this campaign, I suspect that a number of people who voted for Donald Trump will understand that he is not their friend and that the agenda that we have, which is prepared to take on the billionaire class, is the agenda that they will support."

On Monday morning, Sanders was back on more familiar, and, in his view, more politically fertile ground, agitating for striking ride-share workers in Los Angeles.

"One job should be enough to make a decent living in America, especially for those working for multibillion-dollar companies," Sanders tweeted. "Drivers must be paid the wages they deserve."

And in an email to supporters, Harris touted "big news from this weekend."

The story? Her new plan to raise the salaries of American teachers after years of neglect.


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