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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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Still Waiting For the Next RFK

In connection with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, I offered these thoughts at New York:

Fifty years ago today, I awoke to a radio that was playing the famous recording from Mutual Broadcasting System reporter Andrew West, who was an eyewitness to Robert Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles:

“Senator Kennedy has been … Senator Kennedy has been shot! Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen! It is possible! He has … Not only Senator Kennedy! Oh my God! … I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently fired the shot! He still has the gun! The gun is pointed at me right this moment! Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the guy! Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Break it if you have to! Get the gun, Rafer [Johnson]! Hold him! We don’t want another Oswald!”

Moments before being fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy had said to the celebrating crowd at the Ambassador: “It’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!” That year as in most years, the California primary was the last on the schedule, and RFK was pointing toward the twilight struggle over delegates that would precede the national convention in late August.

It has been widely surmised in the years since, with the special intensity of a counterfactual myth that can neither proved nor disproved, that had Kennedy not been assassinated that night, he would have gone on to win the Democratic presidential nomination and then the presidency, sparing America and the world from years more of bloody conflict in Vietnam, and from the Nixon presidency with its polarization, corruption, and eventual disgrace.

In fact, our best guess from this distance (reinforced by serious examinations of the issue from RFK biographer Evan Thomas and historian of the 1968 election Michael A. Cohen) is that Kennedy’s odds of winning the nomination were slim by the time of his death. His antiwar rival Eugene McCarthy was in no mood to get out of his way, and the Johnson-Humphrey administration had an iron grip on delegates from many of the 33 states that did not hold primaries (and even some that did, but which did not bind delegates to primary results). Kennedy himself seemed to believe his only chance to win was by reconstructing his late brother’s alliances with old-school urban political bosses like Chicago’s Richard Daley, and it’s at best a wild conjecture that they would have defied LBJ and the unions that were so close to Humphrey to take a flyer on Bobby.

And even if Kennedy had won the nomination, he, like Humphrey, would have led into the general election a divided party that had done horribly into the 1966 midterms and had lost much of its white southern wing to George Wallace. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether RFK’s countercultural associations would have alienated fewer Democrats than Humphrey’s tardy establishment of an independent position on Vietnam. And there’s no telling what LBJ might have done to complicate life for the bitter rival he loathed and feared for so long.

Even RFK aide Jeff Greenfield, who wrote an alternative history account of a Robert F. Kennedy presidency, concedes that on this day 50 years ago the path to that actually happening was rocky and uncertain:

“’We were losing altitude,’ de facto campaign manager Fred Dutton reflected later, looking back at the political terrain Kennedy was facing. In fact, the day of the primary, Dutton was skeptical enough of our chances to suggest that RFK would take the vice-presidential slot if offered.”

There is a reason for the persistent myth of the world we lost to RFK’s assassin, that goes beyond loathing for LBJ or Humphrey or Nixon or the policies they embraced. And it involves more, I think, than just general Kennedy/Camelot nostalgia. For a whole generation of progressive political activists and journalists, there was a glimmer of something different in RFK than the more conventional politics of his brothers Jack and Ted — an ability to both put together a mind-bending coalition of minority and white-working-class voters that would blow up the racial politics the GOP was beginning to aggressively embrace by 1968 and to keep the fraying New Deal majority alive.

This coalition was glimpsed by some journalists watching Kennedy win African-American and Polish-American voters in Indiana, and others examining his California victory and its heavy reliance on a black-brown-and-white working-class support base that eschewed the McCarthy-loving suburbs. Without exit polls and other modern tools, it is difficult to discern how broad RFK’s 1968 voting coalition actually was. But the fact that Kennedy was later adopted as a patron saint for all sorts of left-of-center folk (both left-bent radicals and centrist “New Democrats”) who were tired of the old-time religion of interest-group liberalism suggests that he might have been onto something new. Indeed, in a critical 2000 book about the RFK myth, Ronald Steele suggested just that:

“He was the link between two competing visions: the welfare state world of the New Deal and the ‘middle way’ of latter-day New Democrats like Bill Clinton.”

Indeed, in the real world of politics without RFK, it has often been southern-bred centrists who have been been able to put together solid biracial coalitions that maintained minority enthusiasm and reached deep into the white working-class. No Kennedy coalitions were more mind-bending than that of Jimmy Carter in 1976, who had equally devoted support from African-Americans and former Wallace supporters — albeit only in his native South. Bill Clinton had some of the same appeal. But so too (mostly outside the South) did Barack Obama in 2008.

It may be significant or incidental that Carter lost a lot of his white working-class support in 1980 (after surviving an intraparty challenge from RFK’s brother) as did Obama in 2012. And then in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost in no small part because she did very poorly among white working-class voters while suffering from low turnout by minority voters as well. In terms of the enduring myth of RFK, HRC was the anti-Bobby, or at least the representative of a party that was struggling with both its New Deal and more recent constituencies.

And that’s partly why Bobby Kennedy remains so fascinating a character. In trying to build a multiracial coalition that includes a robust share of the still-very-large white working class, there remains the ancient formula of the social-Democratic Left: a class-based appeal that eschews all cultural or identity issues and simply pounds away at the need to defend and extend the universal benefit programs, progressive taxes, and anti-corporate regulations and trade policies that presumably all poorer folks support or ought to support. It seemed to work pretty well for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, and in all honesty, it has never really been tried by the national Democratic Party since the days of the actual New Deal.

But for progressives who, for one reason or another, don’t think white working-class losses or lagging minority turnout are the product of too little “populist” agitation or too much talk about the racial or cultural issues that voters seem to care greatly about, there is a persistent craving for something less formulaic and more poetic. Is it possible to develop a message that transcends group tensions by a higher appeal to common values and aspirations that cannot be captured by tax or benefit distribution tables or the lashing of a common corporate foe? Fifty years after the fact, the abiding myth of Bobby Kennedy is a testament to that abiding hope.


RFK’s Legacy for Today’s Democrats

One of the reasons that it’s hard not to romanticize RFK and his legacy, is that he was a hell of a romantic figure. In addition to the Kennedy mistique, being a great-looking guy and poster-boy for family men, he had a compelling a story. He was known as a “ruthless” political operative, who worked for, ugh, Joe McCarthy and crusaded against labor rackettering. But he also ran his brother’s successful presidential campaign and was JFK’s most trusted advisor, who played a critical role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Like JFK, he had wit and eloquence to burn, though not as much charm or warmth. By most accounts, RFK was a damn good Attorney General and U.S. Senator.

The assassination of his brother, who was also his closest friend, was a soul-shattering experience that seemed to make RFK more vulnerable and humane. He turned his attention toward healing his family, while navigating the complex politics of the era. But many who knew RFK say that he had a transformative experience in the Spring of 1967, when he visited Marks, Mississippi at the urging of NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney, Marian Wright, who felt strongly that Kennedy needed to see first hand the kind of brutal poverty Black Americans were experiencing in the Mississippi Delta. She was right. Kennedy spent some quality time with the impoverished families and their children and was said to be deeply affected. Public service was always a Kennedy family tradition. But when Kennedy left Marks, he became more determined than ever to become a leader who could help alleviate human suffering. From then on, his was a powerful voice for the disadvantaged and downtrodden, especially African and Hispanic Americans.

But Kennedy also could connect with white blue-collar Americans in ways that few of his fellow Democrats could match. As Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow of the Century Foundation, explains in his outstanding essay on “The Inclusive Populism of Robert F. Kennedy“:

This report makes three central points. First, it outlines the evidence suggesting Kennedy achieved a remarkable political coalition in time of strong political antagonism. Although contemporary witnesses to the campaign believed Kennedy’s appeal to be strong, some historians have subsequently questioned RFK’s ability to attract working-class whites. This report seeks to debunk the debunkers, drawing upon polling data and precinct results in key states to suggest Kennedy had powerful appeal with working-class blacks and whites alike.

…In the end, he was able to communicate that he cared about both groups in a way that few politicians can today by respecting both their interests and their legitimate values. Unlike right-wing urban populists, he was inclusive of minority populations, and unlike today’s liberalism, Kennedy placed a priority on being inclusive of working-class whites. In short, he was a liberal without the elitism and a populist without the racism.

…as he began his 1968 campaign, RFK faced a major political dilemma. The New Deal Coalition of working-class whites and blacks, which had supported progressive candidates for more than three decades, was in tatters, rent apart by racial strife and resentment. Should he try to bring these groups back together, or instead seek a new coalition of highly-educated whites and minority voters?

If the challenge was daunting, Kennedy had a plan. Whereas progressives typically told working-class Americans they will look out for their interests, and conservatives typically told these voters they support their values, Kennedy would emphasize connection to both their economic interests and their legitimate values.28 Kennedy would underline common class interests as progressives traditionally did. But he would do more, and suggest that he respected working-class values of hard work and respect for the law. He was not going to backtrack on his commitment to civil rights or his commitment to pursuing peace in Vietnam. But he would augment the pursuit of racial justice and peace with a commitment to toughness—on crime, on welfare, and on national security. This message was reinforced by a personal history of strength that was meant to give working-class whites and blacks the sense that he respected their American values as well as their interests.

…Kennedy told journalist Jack Newfield, “You know, I’ve come to the conclusion that poverty is closer to the root of the problem than color. I think there has to be a new kind of coalition to keep the Democratic party going, and to keep the country together. . . . Negroes, blue-collar whites, and the kids. . . . We have to convince the Negroes and the poor whites that they have common interests.

During the campaign, RFK continually pounded away at the ability of rich people to escape taxes by exploiting loopholes. He offered “A Program for a Sound Economy,” which the Wall Street Journal denounced in an editorial entitled, “Soak the Rich.”31 Lewis Kaden, who was primarily responsible for the proposal, says it was in the classic populist tradition “of attacking big corporation and rich individuals who weren’t paying their fair share of taxes.”32Recognizing that tax reform was a complicated issue, he tried to cut through the fog by calling for a minimum 20 percent income tax for those who earned over $50,000 (in 1968, a considerable sum) in order “to prevent the wealthy from continuing to escape taxation completely.”33 RFK speechwriter Jeff Greenfield recalled in an interview that on the stump, Kennedy was not afraid to name names. “He would constantly cite” oil tycoon H. L. Hunt. Kennedy “would use statistics of 200 people who made $200,000 a year or more and paid no taxes. . . He kept coming back to those 200 people . . . and then he’d say: ‘One year Hunt paid $102. I guess he was feeling generous.’ If you think about it, there is no better populist issue than that issue.

Progressives frequently hit issues of economic inequality in campaigns, but RFK’s message was particularly strong, which earned him the enmity of business leaders. A survey conducted by Fortune magazine found Kennedy was the most unpopular presidential candidate among business leaders since Franklin D. Roosevelt. “While President Kennedy was never a great favorite among businessmen,” a March 1968 Fortune article noted, “the suspicion with which he was regarded is nothing compared to the anger aroused by his younger brother.” The survey of business leaders found that “mention of the name Bobby Kennedy produced an almost unanimous chorus of condemnation . . . there is agreement that Kennedy is the one public figure who could produce an almost united front of business opposition.”…

Kahlenberg goes on to write about RFK’s positions on tricky social issues, like “law and order,” always paring his policies with statements of compassion for those who were suffering and experiencing hardship. Kahlenberg notes further, that in the Indiana campaign,

Journalist Jules Witcover wrote of the motorcade: “In the history of American political campaigning, certainly in primary elections, Kennedy’s final day in the Indiana campaign must be recorded among the most incredible.” He continued: “What set the motorcade apart, and what made it significant for Kennedy the candidate, was the unbroken display of adulation and support as he moved from Negro neighborhood to blue collar ethnic back to Negro again, over and over and over.”82 Robert Coles told Kennedy, “There is something going on here that has to do with real class politics.”

On May 7, primary election day, journalists were struck by the remarkable coalition Kennedy seemed to have assembled. On the one hand, RFK did extremely well with black voters, winning 86 percent of their votes against McCarthy and Humphrey stand-in Roger Branigin.84 “What was surprising,” political analysts Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote, “was his record among the backlash ethnic voters that gave George Wallace his remarkable vote in Indiana four years ago….While Negro precincts were delivering around 90 per cent for Kennedy, he was running 2 to 1 ahead in some Polish precincts.”

Kahlenberg goes into considerable detail regarding RFK’s vote percentages in the primaries and debunking the view that Kennedy didn’t perform well with white blue collar workers. Among Kahlenberg’s conclusions, he notes

If a class-based, multi-racial progressive coalition is possible, necessary and desirable, what kind of policies could progressives pursue to begin the effort to recreate the Kennedy coalition? The balance of this report outlines four ideas: (1) Stay committed to progressive principles of inclusion for marginalized groups; (2) consistently emphasize common class interests; (3) signal the inclusion of working-class whites by extending civil rights remedies to class inequality; and (4) respect the legitimate values of working-class people.

In his closing paragraph, Kahlenberg frames the challenge facing Democrats:

If the campaign of Robert Kennedy fifty years ago showed that the progressive coalition of working-class whites and minorities is possible, the election of Donald Trump showed that efforts to renew the progressive coalition are vitally necessary. Trump has governed as Kennedy’s segregationist opposite George Wallace might have, absent Wallace’s leavening of liberal economic policy. We have seen the disaster that transpires when progressives ignore or condescend to white-working class voters and allow a demagogue to fill the vacuum. A half century after Robert Kennedy’s remarkable campaign, his approach deserves a second look. As Kennedy himself often said: “We can do better.”

As we commemorate the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy, Kahlenberg’s reflections offer hope that RFK’s example remains instructive a half-century later. Democrats should give Kahlenberg’s article a thoughtful read.


Exclusive: ‘Top Secret’ 2018 GOP Ad Strategy Now Exposed

The following article by TDS contributing editor Andrew Levison, author of The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support and other books and articles focusing on the working-class in American politics, is cross-posted from a TDS e-blast:

Well, OK, it’s not exactly top secret.

What actually is available is a new book that on the surface appears to be an in-depth sociological portrait of Trump voters in a wide range of Rust belt cities, small towns and rural areas. It presents the conclusion that, contrary to popular stereotypes, these folks are really all just basically decent Americans–heartland populists who voted for Trump out of a mixture of patriotism, legitimate economic grievance, defense of traditional values and anger at condescending coastal elites.

At first glance the book, The Great Revolt–Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, looks like a substantial and indeed an impressive piece of ethnographic research. One of the authors, a professional journalist, is described as having traveled 27,000 miles across the upper Midwest in order to interview over 300 people. The book includes 23 extended profiles of individuals, each one presented in substantially greater depth than the usual journalistic dispatches that one encounters in articles in newspapers and magazines.

But there’s something about these profiles that’s just a little bit odd. Not a single one of the 23 subjects who are profiled expresses even the most microscopic iota of prejudice or bigotry toward any group–not African Americans, not Latinos, not Muslims, not GLBT individuals. In the book they and the over 300 interviewed people that they represent are all described as being just decent, hard-working, “salt of the earth” Americans–Norman Rockwell illustrations come to life. Most of the people interviewed, in fact, are either Obama-Trump voters or independents and not one is a firm Rush Limbaugh ideological conservative.

Since the book clearly gives the reader the impression that it is presenting a representative group of “typical” Trump voters, and not a carefully selected subgroup of tolerant, non-racist Trump supporters, this is, to put it mildly, more than a tad improbable. Interviewing over 300 “typical” Trump supporters without encountering a single racially prejudiced individual is statistically about as likely as interviewing 300 attendees at the annual National Book Awards ceremony and not finding a single English major or interviewing 300 people at a Grateful Dead concert and not finding anyone who had ever smoked marijuana.

But when the book is viewed, not as sociology, but as a market research document prepared for the major GOP advertising agencies, it suddenly becomes both extremely interesting and profoundly important for Democratic candidates to study and understand.

When a major business corporation like Ford or Apple begins to plan a massive ad campaign for a new product like their latest model car or home entertainment system the company’s ad agency usually starts by doing a substantial amount of focus group and interview research in order to prepare a series of “target customer profiles”— detailed descriptions of the intended audience. These profiles are designed to guide ad copywriters about how to talk to them. These documents typically analyze how the people in the target audience see themselves and how they want to be seen by others, about what things they value and care about in their lives and about their trials and disappointments in the past and their dreams and hopes for the future. The goal of these documents is not to create a totally objective psychological profile but rather a picture of how these customers like to think about themselves and how to use this information to sell them goods.

Seen this way, the book suddenly makes sense. It is organized into seven categories that the authors call “archetypes” but the labels they attach to these categories clearly locate them in the familiar world of market research and market segmentation e.g. “Red Blooded and Blue Collared,” “Rotary Reliables,” “Rough Rebounders.” These are the typical kinds of names that ad agencies give to defined submarkets within an overall target audience, groups that they intend to individually target with special ads and other messaging.

As a result, what the book actually provides is seven detailed customer marketing profiles–guides for how a GOP candidate should craft his or her ads to appeal to the non-racist sector of Trump voters who will not vote for Trumpist candidates in 2018 simply because such candidates offer an explicitly racist or conservative ideological platform.

The truth is that there actually are a substantial number of decent and basically tolerant people in blue collar and red state America and it is they, not the die-hard bigots and right wingers who will provide the critical margin of victory in many of the elections next November. That is why it is so vitally important for GOP candidates to have in-depth market research to effectively communicate with them.

It is therefore no accident that the book has been touted by Trump himself and has blurbs from Rush Limbaugh and Tom Cotton. It is, in reality, a detailed marketing handbook that the ad writers for GOP candidates will use to craft their appeals to the non-racist sector of rural, small town, suburban and white working class voters.

But critically, in order to do this the book cannot avoid also being an extremely useful “advance guide for Democratic candidates” about what they should expect next fall – a preview of how their opponents will craft their TV, radio, direct mail and internet messaging, what topics they will try to avoid and what kinds of narratives they will try to emphasize. It indicates the likely techniques GOP ads and messaging will use to appeal to this pivotal group of voters.

With this information in hand, democratic candidates can begin even now to plan their responses to ads that won’t appear until September. This is very valuable advance political intelligence.

As a result, the ironic consequence is that even if the analysis that the book presents actually had been stamped “Top Secret” and carefully locked away in an ad agencies’ secure storage area instead of being published, it would have been worth it for Democratic strategists to launch a “mission impossible” type covert operation to sneak in and steal it. Instead they only need to tolerate the minor annoyance of having to buy a book that is specifically designed to assist their opponents.


Teixeira: Why the Social Safety Net Will Expand, Not Shrink

The following post by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

With the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia last week, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that, despite all the fulminations of conservatives about shrinking government, it’s damn hard to actually shrink the safety net because, well–people like it!

James Hohmann of the Washington Post noted after the VA expansion: “It’s another nail in the coffin for efforts to repeal Obamacare and a fresh reminder of how difficult it is to scale back any entitlement once it’s created. Many Republicans, in purple and red states alike, concluded that Congress is unlikely to get rid of the law, so they’ve become less willing to take political heat for leaving billions in federal money on the table.”

Noah Smith of Bloomberg has a bigger picture piece on positive trends in the social safety net, which I think many people on the left are not cognizant of or downplay:

U.S. government transfers have been increasing over time. The U.S. system of taxation and spending has become more progressive during the past two decades. Per-capita government transfers were about $8,567 a person in 2016, up from about $5,371 at the turn of the century (adjusted for inflation) — an increase of 60 percent.

The increasing generosity of the U.S. safety net in the 21st century began under President George W. Bush. Although mostly remembered for the war in Iraq, Bush in many ways fulfilled his promise to be a compassionate conservative. Major expansions of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, were carried out in 2002 and 2008. Bush’s Medicare reform added prescription-drug benefits to the government’s premier health-care program. And Bush’s so-called housing-first policy reduced homelessness dramatically during his second term. Overall, real per-capita government transfers increased by about 38 percent during the eight years of the Bush administration.

Under President Barack Obama the pace of welfare expansion slowed a bit, probably as a result of the Great Recession. But it didn’t stop. Food stamps continued to expand, extended unemployment insurance helped many during the recession, and homelessness kept declining. Obama also implemented a number of tax credits for low-income families and passed the Affordable Care Act, which subsidizes health insurance.

After 16 years of expansions in the safety net under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, the U.S. has a much more robust welfare state than people seem to realize. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, using the U.S. Census Bureau’s new comprehensive poverty measure, estimates that government transfers have driven child poverty to a record low. Thanks mostly to government aid, the number of American children in poverty has fallen from more than one in four in the early 1990s to about one in seven today.

Furthermore, I expect safety net and other needed government programs to expand further in the future. Consider:

In all advanced societies, the state, as measured by spending as a share of GDP over time, has grown larger over time, albeit in an irregular rather than steady pattern. But the end result is clear. In the US, for example, government spending was only 7 percent of GDP at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, it is around 37 percent. Of course, the percentage is higher in most other industrialized countries, reaching around 60 percent in the prosperous Nordic countries of Denmark and Sweden. Indeed, the US could add 10 percentage points to the GDP share of government spending and still be only in the middle of the pack of today’s advanced countries.

Such a development might strike some as radically infeasible because Americans famously are not fond of big government and, depending on how survey questions are asked, declare their lack of interest in a general expansion of government’s role. But such a view misunderstands the dominant ideology in America, which combines what political scientists Christopher Ellis and James Stimson refer to as “symbolic conservatism” (honoring tradition, distrusting novelty, embracing the conservative label) with “operational liberalism” (wanting government to do more and spend more in a wide variety of areas).

In their definitive book, Ideology in America, they characterize symbolic conservatism as “fundamentally different from culturally conservative politics as defined by the religious right. It is respect for basic values: hard work, striving, caution, prudence, family, tradition, God, citizenship and the American flag….[I]t is the mainstream culture….It is woven into the fabric of how ordinary Americans live their lives.”

And on operational liberalism they note, “Social Security is…no exception. Most Americans like most government programs. Most of the time, on average, we want government to do more and spend more. It is no accident we have created the programs of the welfare state. They were created—and are sustained—by massive public support.”

So there would appear to be no insuperable ideological obstacle to a substantially expanded role for government in 21st century America. Indeed, such an expansion is fully in accord with Americans’ durable commitment to operational liberalism.

Of course these expanded government programs will not happen all at once. Far from it. Like the programs of the past, they will be phased in gradually over time, in fits and starts, frequently in inefficient and suboptimal forms. That’s the messy business of politics in a democracy.

But happen they will and once enacted they will be hard to get rid of; instead, just as in the past, the programs will be modified, improved and even expanded. The reason is simple: people like programs that make their lives better and are far more likely to respond to program defects by demanding they be fixed than by demanding programs be eliminated.


Greenberg: To Gain White Working-Class Votes, Democrats Must Project a Vision and Message Beyond Trump-Bashing

The following article by Eleanor Clift is cross-posted from The Daily Beast:

Macomb County, Michigan is where Democrats go for the hard truths to save their party. The working-class suburb of Detroit sent Bill Clinton to the White House and delivered two solid wins for Barack Obama before turning on the Democrats and giving Donald Trump 54 percent of its votes.

Globalization stole many good-paying jobs from Macomb, leaving fertile ground for Trump’s anti-trade message. Democrat Debbie Dingell, who represents the Detroit area — as her husband did before her, and his father before him – recalled to the Daily Beast how she confronted Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

“I told her in no uncertain terms, if you leave Michigan and people here don’t know you’re opposed to the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), and will be opposed to it when you’re president – You can just forget it,” Dingell said.

She meant forget being president, which is what happened. Dingell still gets exercised over how her frantic calls for action then were ignored. “Anybody I talked to, I said it was a problem,” she recalled. “It was clearly a problem in Michigan. I was told not to worry, everything was fine.”

Democrats were so confident the “blue wall” would hold that Clinton made just one trip to Michigan that August, telling workers at Futuramic Tool & Engineering in suburban Detroit that she was against TPP, and would be as president. It wasn’t reassuring, not with President Obama openly lobbying for the trade deal, telling naysayers it would get done in the lame duck Congress after the election.

“Obama wanted it as a legacy issue, and that left her (Clinton) clearly muddled and jumbled,”  Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told the Daily Beast. “Trade was a major factor in Trump’s victory, and she was perceived to be ambivalent. She was so concerned with not appearing to have any distance from Obama on the economy.”

According to Greenberg, Obama called into the platform committee before the Democratic Convention to change the wording to be less critical of TPP. Dingell was “apoplectic about TPP and Clinton not being clear,” says Greenberg, as was his wife, Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. The two women conveyed their anger to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, apparently to no avail.
“I hate to be Debbie Downer again, but you can’t take this for granted,” says Dingell, sounding the alarm ahead of the November midterm elections for Democrats to up their game. “You don’t know how many people will stay home out of general disgust or think their vote doesn’t matter.”

Greenberg shares her angst about Macomb. He has made a career out of monitoring attitudes in the working-class suburb. The insights he gleaned more than 25 years ago paved the way for Bill Clinton to reorient the Democratic Party more to the center, allowing a Democrat to win the White House after 12 years in the wilderness.

The veteran pollster says Democrats don’t yet have a winning economic message that speaks to the real struggles people are having. Rising health care premiums top the list, he says. “I can’t tell you how powerful the health care issue is. People are in tears about the cost of health care, and they blame the Republicans.” The salience of the health care issue is a key takeaway from focus groups Greenberg conducted in March in Macomb with Trump voters and Detroit area base voters. He found that white college-graduate women “seemed as much a base, anti-Trump group as the African Americans.”

Greenberg sees Macomb as a bellwether for the country. In 2008, these working-class voters supported Obama, making a judgment about him that transcended race, “that he wouldn’t just work for his own folks, he would work for everybody.”

They voted for Obama because of economic self-interest, and they voted for Trump for the same reason. Working-class men in Macomb support Trump by two to one, and many have paid a high price for their vote in their own family. The politicized, polarized civil war in the country is in the family, says Greenberg, with older voters blaming the mainstream media’s “fake news” for their millennial children failing to understand what Trump is trying to do.

Greenberg coined the phrase Rising American Electorate to describe the Obama coalition of single women, minorities and young people. But he questions whether these evolving demographics are enough to return Democrats to power. “I’m not a big fan of the assumption that it will automatically translate into victory,” he said. “All these groups are struggling economically, and they’re desperate for an economic message that recognizes how much they’re struggling.

“Clean up corrupt government is not enough for them. Identity politics are not enough,” he says. Asked what he thinks of the Democrats’ new slogan, Better Deal, he replies, “Not a fan of it.”

The 1992 election that propelled Bill Clinton to the White House was famously staked on the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid.” Greenberg still thinks that has to be the bedrock message even with another month of positive job numbers released last Friday. People believe the economy is growing and more jobs are available, “but that has not diminished their frustration and insecurities about their stagnant pay in the face of rising costs,” Greenberg writes in his latest report on “Macomb and America’s New Political Moment.” Anti-Trump voters are consolidated and motivated, “and increasingly intent to vote,” Greenberg concludes. “They are seeking out tools and information to win arguments” and to convince themselves that Democrats have a vision that is about more than just reflexively resisting Trump.

It is a time unlike any other in recent history when the stakes are so elevated that both sides speak about a virtual civil war in the country, and in their own families.

Anti-Trump voters are consolidated and motivated, “and are increasingly intent to vote,” Greenberg says. “They are seeking out tools and information to win arguments,” and to convince themselves that Democrats learned from the last election and have a vision for the economy, and for the country, that is about more than Trump.


Political Strategy Notes

Vivian Yee explains why “Democrats Hope an Asian Influx Will Help Turn Orange County Blue” at The New York Times: “Though they have gravitated toward the left ever since the 1990s, they are fractured. According to a national survey of Asian-Americans conducted after the 2016 election, Indian- and Korean-Americans tack progressive, Chinese- and Vietnamese-Americans more conservative. While Asians registered as Republicans in Orange County outnumber Asian Democrats, more than one-third of Asian voters identify as independents…And though they tend to hold liberal views on issues like gun control, climate change and public spending, the political causes that some Asian-Americans have rallied around in recent years have veered conservative. Organizing on the social media platform WeChat, Chinese immigrants mobilized in 2014 to kill legislation that would have resurrected affirmative action at California universities…Even so, many Asians oppose the Trump administration’s makeover of the immigration system, and their votes evince a broader discomfort with the president. Orange County Asians re-elected their Republican congressional representatives, yet tilted toward Mrs. Clinton in 2016.”

So how can it be that the nation’s largest, most progressive state has a “weak bench” of Democratic House candidates? Ronald Brownstein probes the question at The Atlantic, and citing , “a long-term failure by California Democrats to invest in building a network of credible local elected officials…Particularly in Orange County, the epicenter of the competition for House seats in the state, Democrats are confronting what could be called a “resume gap”….While Republicans are fielding an array of candidates who are current or former elected officials, Democrats are relying entirely on first-time contenders who entered their races without any elected experience, existing political networks, or name identification in their districts. That’s making it tougher for any of the Democratic candidates to consolidate support within their party…The lack of experienced candidates “without question poses a big problem to the Democrats,” said Michael Moodian, a political scientist at Chapman College in the city of Orange. “The reason is that for decades the Orange County Republican Party has done a much better job than the Democrats at establishing a farm team of candidates.”

Dems have been warned: “State Websites Are Hackable — And That Could Compromise Election Security,” writes Clare Malone at FiveThirtyEight.com. “After receiving a tip from a small cyber firm called Appsecuri, FiveThirtyEight has confirmed that two states, Alabama and Nevada, had vulnerabilities that left them open to potential compromises of their state web presences….With five months to go until the midterm elections, the subpar preparation of state websites and election systems remains a concern for cybersecurity experts… Officials from both states said the flaws did not have the potential to allow the posting of erroneous vote counts to official pages. But outside experts suggested that there’s still reason to be concerned…“A lot of these vulnerabilities are easily classified as a cosmetic error until someone thinks through how they can be used for other purposes,” said Harri Hursti, a cybersecurity expert with a focus in election security. A hacker’s attack may seem minor now, but it could grow into a bigger, more urgent problem come Election Day.”

Attention all Democratic candidates and campaign workers in states and communities with substantial Puerto Rican populations: Read Alvin Chang’s Vox post, “How the media ignored Puerto Rico, in one chart,” which notes “This week, we learned that Hurricane Maria may be the deadliest natural disaster on US soil in the past 100 years, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study found that most of the estimated 4,600 deaths were because of delayed medical care…But on cable news, the top story by a wide margin was ABC canceling Roseanne after a racist tweet from its star, Roseanne Barr. In the New York Times, Roseanne was on the front page and Puerto Rico was on A13…This was yet another example of the media putting the Puerto Rico story on the back burner — something it’s been doing for a long time now. We analyzed the amount of airtime the major cable news networks devoted to Puerto Rico and found that after the first month, coverage has been virtually nonexistent.” The twin targets of negligent Republicans and twisted media priorities are begging to be blasted, and Democrats should not hesitate to bring it.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Sunshine State. As Stephanie Griffith reports in “As Puerto Ricans’ numbers grow in Florida, Hurricane Maria becomes pivotal campaign issue: “We’re a highly motivated vote, because Trump and the Republican Congress failed Puerto Rico” at ThinkProgress: “The Pew Research Center found that the number of Puerto Ricans in Florida has increased from around half a million in 2000 to more than a million in 2014...“We’re a highly motivated vote, because Trump and the Republican Congress failed the island,” U.S. Representative Darren Soto (D-FL) told ThinkProgress in an interview at his office on Capitol Hill…Soto said the Orlando community had already seen an influx of thousands of people each month fleeing a brutal recession on the island. The hurricane only accelerated the exodus…“In a state where the last several presidential and gubernatorial elections have been decided by less than one point, any changes can make a big difference. This is a state where Obama won twice by one point and Trump won by one point,” the Democrat said.”

The next time your crazy conservative uncle starts railing against “big government” meddling in health care, you can quote from “It Saves Lives. It Can Save Money. So Why Aren’t We Spending More on Public Health? Funding for health campaigns is surprisingly low when you consider they’re often so valuable that they pay for themselves” by Aaron E. Carroll and Austin Frakt at The Upshot. For example, Carroll and Frakt note that “A 2017 systematic review published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health looked at studies that calculated the return on investment for public health interventions. The researchers identified 52 studies that looked at interventions at a local or national level…Health protection interventions, which would include vaccinations, have saved $34 for every $1 spent on them, according to the review. But not every vaccine has a positive return. For example, in years for which the flu vaccine is a poor match for the actual influenza types that are circulating, the return on investment can be as low as -21, meaning that it costs $21 to save $1…In years for which the vaccine matches the disease well, the return on investment can be as high as 174. Such a high return occurs because of all the disease and death prevented.”

In his review article, “Ratfucked Again,” at The New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky illuminates the political opportunity — and dangers — provided by the upcoming census and the role of the midterm elections in the outcome: “…As the next census approaches, state executive mansions and legislatures are at least as important, as liberals have belatedly come to realize. The Democrats actually have two election cycles to see how much ground they can regain here, as new district lines won’t be drawn until after the 2020 election results are in. The party that wins the right to draw the legislative maps of the 2020s will have enormous power to shape future Congresses and state legislatures—to determine, for example, whether districts are drawn in such a way that Republicans need only worry about winning conservative votes and Democrats liberal ones, or in a way that might push candidates toward the center; and whether districts comply with the Voting Rights Act, in a decade when much demographic change is expected, enough to perhaps turn the crucial state of Texas at least purple, if not blue. Much is at stake.”

“This coming Tuesday nearly 100 women will be on the ballot in congressional primaries…Women make up 23 percent of nonincumbents running for congressional seats in 2018 compared to 16 percent in the previous two cycles. In addition, nearly 80 percent of those women have been Democrats…Among all women nonincumbent candidates who have run so far, 47.55 percent have either won their race outright or advanced to a runoff. Only 23 percent of male candidates have kept up, as the table below indicates. — From “The pink wave makes herstory: Women candidates in the 2018 midterm elections” by Elaine Kamarck, Alexander R. Podkul, and Nicholas W. Zeppos at Brookings.

Check out Roll Call’s handy, color-coded, roll-over 2018 Election Guide, featuring projected outcome data on every congressional district, U.S. Senate seat and Governorship.


Don’t Hold Your Breath for Any Immigration Deal

After reading a lot about new movement in Congress towards immigration legislation, I thought it was time for a reality check, which I wrote for New York.

In the House, an all-conference GOP confab on June 7 could well determine whether a variation on the hard-line Goodlatte legislation, a Democratic bill backed by a handful of Republican “moderates,” or some yet-to-be-identified compromise bill that virtually all Republicans can support — or some combo platter of alternatives — will make it to the floor. That’s pretty remarkable given the lower chamber’s record as a graveyard for immigration legislation in this century.

Meanwhile the Senate, where four separa”te immigration bills went down to defeat in February, is informally talking about the subject, if only because the House might toss a bill in their direction — or the federal courts might reach some action-forcing resolution of the legal challenges surrounding the president’s revocation of the DACA program protecting Dreamers last fall. But it’s quite the heavy lift, as Politico reports:

“In recent weeks, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) has been taking the lead on talking to [Sen. James] Lankford and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), two more junior GOP senators who are widely viewed as bellwethers of Republican support for immigration reform. While senators say that the staples of any immigration deal are protections for Dreamers and money for border security, negotiations have broadened to include the expiring protected status for hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants.

In the past a narrower DACA-for-border-security deal was considered most likely to get something done on immigration policy. Now new issues — and new complications — have been introduced. That is probably not a good thing. And meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has cut to the chase:

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he will not commit another week of the Senate’s time to immigration after the February exercise, but he added the Senate might take legislation if the president is supportive and it can pass the House.”

McConnell might as well have said “If I had some ham, I’d make a ham sandwich, if I had some bread.”

The problems the House is having on this subject are well known. So too is the likelihood that Trump will use a veto threat to head off any legislation that isn’t quite similar to his own proposal. Just last week he made it clear that he wouldn’t sign the kind of Democratic-backed bill that would likely come out of the House if the discharge petition House GOP moderates are threatening to consummate triggers a series of immigration votes:

“President Donald Trump said Wednesday he will veto any immigration legislation that emerges from Congress that does not include funding for a border wall and improved border security measures, a warning shot at moderate House Republicans pushing GOP leadership for a vote on immigration proposals.

“’Unless it includes a wall, and I mean a wall, a real wall, and unless it includes very strong border security, there’ll be no approvals from me. Because I have to either approve it or not,’ the president said in a Fox News interview that was taped Wednesday and aired Thursday morning. ‘There are bills going through. I’m watching one or two of them. We’ll see what happens, but I can tell you there is a mood right now for border security.'”

This was a pointed reminder that at the end of the long, twisting road which in theory leads to an immigration deal in Congress, Trump will be there with his chief immigration adviser Stephen Miller handing him a veto pen.

And that could sap the already limited interest in Congress in cutting an almost impossible deal.

The two most-likely scenarios in the House are passage of a Democratic bill with the support of the GOP “moderates” who want relief for Dreamers, or passage of some modified version of the Goodlatte bill with tweaks to attract some more votes. It is extremely unlikely either of those approaches would survive a Senate filibuster.

The Trump factor makes it all immensely more difficult. His own position has hardened during the course of his presidency, with his increasingly adamant demands for what he is calling a “real wall” at the border and his more recent but equally strident support for legal immigration restrictions — both reportedly at the behest of Miller. What makes the administration’s position especially problematic is that all these quasi-nativist provisions are combined with what many actual nativists despise as “amnesty” — a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

It’s no real surprise that Trump’s proposal, offered by Chuck Grassley, got only 39 of the required 60 votes. And it may have been designed that way.

In a fascinating new profile of Stephen Miller, McKay Coppins suggests that at the heart of Trump’s approach to the immigration issue is Miller’s lack of interest in actually accomplishing anything as opposed to outraging liberals and firing up Trump’s base:

“When Miller found out one afternoon in January that Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin were coming to the White House to pitch Trump on a bipartisan bill, he reportedly moved to stack the Oval Office with hawkish conservatives in hopes of swaying the president. By the time Graham and Durbin arrived, Trump was in an uncompromising mood: angry, dug in, and ranting about immigrants from ‘shithole countries.’ As Trump uttered those soon-to-leak words, which would poison the talks on Capitol Hill, Miller stood on the periphery. ‘He doesn’t have to command rooms to be effective,’ one senior Democratic Senate aide said, ‘because he does his thing behind the scenes.'”

This was the same dynamic, says Coppins, that led to Trump’s unnecessarily provocative travel ban, in which Miller played an equally prominent role:

“One of his first acts on the job was to work with then–chief strategist Steve Bannon in crafting an executive order that banned travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. The hastily written order contained no guidance on implementation, and soon after Trump signed it—on a Friday afternoon one week into his presidency—airports across the country were plunged into chaos. Hundreds of travelers were detained, civil-rights lawyers descended, and protesters swarmed. To many, the televised disarray was proof of failure. But according to Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration’s first year, Fire and Fury, the architects of the ban were tickled by the hysteria; Bannon (who was Wolff’s main source) boasted that they’d chosen to enact the disruptive measure on a weekend ‘so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.’ They counted the anger on display as a political win.”

So don’t bet the farm on the success of any immigration legislation this year. To Team Trump, failure and the anger it generates may also be greeted as a political win.


VA Embrace of Medicaid Expansion: A Big Win for ACA — and Democrats

It appears that Trump’s labored efforts to proclaim the death of Obamacare have proven highly premature. As Jennifer Rubin writes in her column, “What Virginia’s expansion of Medicaid means,”  in the Washington Post,

This is a victory for the Affordable Care Act, no question. Obamacare made Medicaid expansion possible and, whatever you think of the efforts by the administration and Congress to chip away at the ACA, an expansion of this size suggests President Barack Obama’s health-care legacy is on firmer footing than Democrats feared when they lost the White House, as well as their majorities in the House and Senate.

As Ed Kilgore noted at New York magazine,

For a health-care law that Donald Trump has been declaring “dead” or “dying” since 2013, Obamacare seems to have a lot of life in it yet, no thanks to his administration. Obama himself is probably sharing a bit of the good feelings among Democrats in Virginia.

For Democrats, Virginia’s Medicaid embrace is a big win, with far-reaching implications. As Rubin explains, “Achieving Medicaid coverage for 400,000 additional people is a mammoth victory for Democrats in a state that has been trending blue for years, but now seems firmly in that party’s column. The vote holds multiple lessons for both parties.”

And looking ahead to the months leading up to the midterm elections, Rubin observes,

This will be a big issue in November when multiple states (Utah, Idaho, Nebraska) will vote on Medicaid expansion, which delights Democrats. Democrats are returning to their bread-and-butter issues (e.g., wage stagnation, lack of access to health care) as they remind voters which party defended the ACA, and which party voted to eliminate it without an adequate replacement. The Medicaid issue will help the Democratic Party turn out its base, which is already pumped up to cast a symbolic vote against Trump.

…The Medicaid issue affects nearly every state and federal race. Democrats will argue that Republicans “want to take away health care” while Republicans will be forced to defend their votes and take a stance on expansion. That’s a problem given how popular Medicaid expansion has become. (“A poll conducted late last year by Public Opinion Strategies and the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association found 83 percent of the state’s residents supported the expansion, including a majority of self-identified Republicans. . . . Polls show that two thirds of Utah voters support the Medicaid expansion in their state. So it’s unlikely to be close,” The Post report continued.) Meanwhile, Maine’s controversial Republican Gov. Paul LePage is being sued for failure to expand Medicaid after a state referendum approving it passed with 59 percent of the vote.

In addition, Rubin writes,

Virginia will be the 33rd state (along with the District of Columbia) to approve Medicaid expansion. Medicaid expansion appears here to stay, and despite the best efforts of the GOP House and right-wing pundits, has widespread, bipartisan support in every geographic region, with the exception of the Southeast (which includes some of the poorest states) and the Great Plains (although Nebraska and Idaho could join Virginia). “In a nutshell, Medicaid is the absolute star of the Trump presidency despite every effort on their part,” said Andy Slavitt, the former head of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who served during the Obama administration. “By the end of his term, you could see five more states expand. And there is a tipping point for the hold out states at that point. The irony of course is that this is a far more Democratic idea than exchanges, a Republican idea [originating at the Heritage Foundation].”

Don’t be surprised if the political fallout provokes an infantile tantrum on the part of Trump and a doubling down on dubious, spiteful executive orders to further weaken Obamacare. There may also be some grumbling on the left about the Virginia tweaks requiring either work or volunteer service and cost-sharing. All in all, however, it’s a great victory, not only for Virginia Democrats and Obamacare, but down the road, for millions of Americans who currently lack affordable health care.


Political Strategy Notes

Democrats have tried with very limited success to make U.S. Supreme Court picks a pivotal issue in presidential elections. Perhaps Dems could do better with some targeted messaging about the importance of the far more numerous lower court picks. Conservative writer Hugh Hewitt, quoted in David Smith’s article, “How Donald Trump is weaponising the courts for political ends” at The Guardian puts the scope of the stakes in perspective: “By 2019, Trump judges will be participating in more than 15,000 decisions every year, and almost all those decisions will be the law of the land. There will be no fewer than 400 crucial case votes and dozens of signed opinions, each year, every year for most of the Trump judges.” Further, adds Smith, “With just over a year in office, Donald Trump has already appointed 21 of America’s 167 current circuit judges and intends to fill an additional 20 or more vacancies by the end of the year. He is far outpacing Barack Obama, whose 21st circuit court nominee was approved 33 months into his presidency amid gridlock in Congress. Seventeen of Trump’s nominees for district courts, most of whom replaced Democratic appointees, have also been approved by the Republican-controlled Senate…Trump’s judicial picks are profoundly shaped by the Federalist Society, a group of conservatives and libertarians who favour an “originalist” interpretation of the constitution, and the Heritage Foundation, a Washington thinktank where Newt Gingrich is a regular speaker and where Margaret Thatcher is lionised.”

“Although it is tempting for conservatives to assume that single-payer health care would be a nonstarter for most Americans, the idea polls pretty well,” concedes conservative David Thornton at The Resurgent. “A March 2018 poll from the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation found 59 percent of Americans like the idea of Medicare-for-all. When the national health plan was made a voluntary option, the share of those in favor increased to 75 percent, including 64 percent of Republicans…Perhaps ominously for Republicans running against the idea, 74 percent of independents favored the idea of an optional national health insurance plan. The big question is how voters in swing House and Senate districts will view the idea.”

“From the rumored 2020 presidential challengers in the Senate to midterm candidates up and down the ballot, in both red and blue states and districts, the future of health care in America is shaping up as perhaps the central policy concern of 2018. The contours of the candidates’ messages might vary and, for many, the particulars of the path forward — how far, how fast — remain an open question. But there is little question, for Democrats in this cycle, which way is up…Capitol Hill, despite being home to a pair of Republican majorities, has become a stage for Democrats who, in less than two years, have rolled out at least five significant proposals for big ticket expansions of government-backed health care. That the legislation is dead on arrival in Trump’s Washington is beside the point. These are statements of intent and appeals to current and future voters…On the trail this year, candidates have swung at the issue from all angles. A scan of ads from congressional hopefuls reveals a diverse suite of tactics buttressed by a clear strategic decision to hammer Republicans over their efforts to gut Obamacare and either cut or complicate funding for programs like Medicaid.” — From “It’s health care, stupid! Democrats dig in as midterms ramp up” by Gregory Krieg and David Wright, at CNN Politics.

NYT’s Abby Goodnough reports some really good news, “After Years of Trying, Virginia Finally Will Expand Medicaid,” noting that: “Virginia’s Republican-controlled Senate voted on Wednesday to open Medicaid to an additional 400,000 low-income adults next year, making it all but certain that the state will join 32 others that have already expanded the public health insurance program under the Affordable Care Act…Republican lawmakers in the state had blocked Medicaid expansion for four straight years, but a number of them dropped their opposition after their party almost lost the House of Delegates in elections last fall and voters named health care as a top issue…Efforts to expand the program are actually gaining steam in some other Republican states. With midterm elections approaching, advocates in Idaho and Nebraska are trying to get Medicaid expansion initiatives on their ballots. Their state legislatures have repeatedly refused to expand the program. Utah’s measure officially qualified for the ballot on Tuesday, and officials in Idaho are determining whether supporters have gathered enough signatures for their question to qualify.” Virginia will soon be the poster state for showing how voting for Democratic Governors and state legislators can save lives.

Here’s a messaging tip from Sen. Sherrod Brown, quoted in Seth Masket’s “What Democratic candidates’ priorities say about the party’s direction” at Vox: “Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio talked about the need to listen to workers in places like, well, Ohio. Donald Trump won in places outside of urban areas that, according to Brown, he just had no place winning. Brown explained that what Democrats need to do to win back those voters is to talk about “the dignity of work.” He said even using terms like “the Rust Belt” to describe this region is offensive to this dignity: “It diminishes what we are, and it diminishes what we do.”

In her article, “Millennials take on Trump in the midterms: Younger candidates are flooding Democratic congressional primaries — and winning” at Politico, Elena Schneider writes, “At least 20 millennial Democratic candidates are running in battleground districts, a leap over previous cycles that could remake the party’s generational divide. “I don’t recall a cycle with anything close to this number of younger candidates in recent times,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant who served as the deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Notably, younger candidates who actually have a good shot at winning – raising money, running professional campaigns.” And not a minute too soon for those who are concerned about the aging universe of Democratic office-holders. “Currently, the average age of a member of 115th Congress — nearly 58 years old in the House and nearly 62 years old in the Senate — is among the oldest of any Congress in recent history, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. The youngest member of Congress, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), will turn 34 in July.”

Juan Williams shares some revealing polling stats in his post, “Midterms will be referendum on Trump” at The Hill: “With less than six months to go to the midterm elections, Republicans think they have Democrats in an impeachment trap…Seventy percent of Democrats in recent polling from Quinnipiac University say they will vote for a midterm candidate who plans to impeach President Trump. But 84 percent of Republicans say they’re ready to oppose any candidate planning on impeachment…And overall, the Quinnipiac polling shows 55 percent of voters don’t want Democrats to begin impeachment proceedings…An April NPR/PBS/Marist survey found 47 percent voters would “definitely” vote against a candidate who campaigned on impeaching Trump while 42 percent said they would “definitely” vote for the candidate who ran on impeachment…Unless Trump fires the special prosecutor, talk of impeachment remains a sideshow. It is not going to decide the outcome in November…Trump is too big. The election will be a referendum on him.

Politicians of both parties are getting pretty creative in doing end-runs around the traditional media obstacle course, writes Sydney Ember in “Never Mind the News Media: Politicians Test Direct-to-Voter Messaging” at The New York Times: “Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, both running this year, have started podcasts, with humanizing names like “Canarycast” and “Plaidcast.”…Representative Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat making a long-shot bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, is streaming his entire campaign live on Facebook. And many other politicians are now routinely Instagramming and Facebooking, tweeting and Snapchatting…These media methods have obvious appeal: Politicians can appear accessible but remain insulated from the press. They are also not altogether new. President Trump eschewed traditional television advertising during the 2016 campaign and can now overshadow even his own party’s message at the drop of a tweet. And many politicians have long made a practice of ducking reporters.” Ember notes also that Sen. Elizabeth Warren also deployed a little media jiu-jitsu when, “last year, after she was blocked from reading a letter from Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor, she live-streamed herself reading the letter instead,” and got great coverage.

In his ‘post-Memorial Day’ update on Democratic 2018 prospects, Kyle Kondik offers this assessment of Democratic chances in Governors races: “Republicans hold a 33-16-1 edge over the Democrats in state governorships. Of the 36 governorships on the ballot this year, Republicans are defending 26 and the Democrats are only defending nine, or the exact opposite of the level of party exposure in the Senate. An independent, Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska, is also on the ballot…Because of the level of exposure for Republicans in the governorships, it would be shocking if the Democrats didn’t net at least some governorships. Our current ratings show them favored to pick up three: Illinois, Maine, and New Mexico. Alaska is a Toss-up and probably represents the Republicans’ best chance to pick up a governorship. There are six other Toss-ups, all of which are open seats: Democrats are defending Colorado, Connecticut, and Minnesota, while Republicans are defending Florida, Michigan, and Nevada. We have previously suggested that the winner of this year’s gubernatorial elections probably will be the party that wins a majority of these five big states that appear competitive: Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Republicans currently hold all but Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf (D) remains a favorite over the newly-minted Republican nominee, state Sen. Scott Wagner.”


New Pollster Ratings Are Illuminating–But Better Rely on Averages

When Nate Silver released FiveThirtyEight‘s revised pollster ratings for the first time in two years, I was all over it at New York:

The letter grades Silver and his people assign to particular polling outlets is mostly based on accuracy over time, with adjustments for methodological quality and transparency. The database for the ratings “includes all polls in the final 21 days of gubernatorial and congressional elections since 1998 and presidential primaries and general elections since 2000. It also includes polling of special elections for these offices.” That’s a lot of data.

There’s a short list of outlets that earned an A-plus rating. Some are well-known nationally: Monmouth, ABC/Washington Post, and Selzer and Co. A few others limit their work to particular states or regions, such as Colorado-based Ciruli Associates and the Northwest-focused Elway Research. There’s one other, sadly, that has closed its doors (California-based Field Research). The longer list of “A” pollsters includes some very familiar names: Survey USA, Marist, Siena, Fox News, PPIC, and Marquette Law School.

At the other end of the spectrum, one very prominent online-polling outfit, Survey Monkey, gets a D-minus rating. An enormous number of pollsters do no better than C-plus, including a lot of smaller, state-based enterprises, but also nationally renowned and prolific sources of data like Zogby Interactive, Trafalgar Group, Rasmussen Reports, and Opinion Savvy.

Having a high rating is no guarantee of infallibility, of course. One of Silver’s A-plus pollsters, Ann Selzer, who has a long-established reputation for accuracy, missed the order of finish in her final 2016 Iowa Caucus poll of Republicans (she had Trump rather than Cruz winning), which was shocking at the time. And being inaccurate doesn’t mean an outlet’s data is useless: Survey Monkey may have a bad rating from FiveThirtyEight, but its vast sample sizes can provide valuable information on non-horse-race matters, and trend lines in even dubious polls can have some predictive significance. Polls can be misleading if you aren’t careful, but the answer to poor data is more and better data, not throwing it all out and relying on intuition, anecdotes, or academic models.

And as Nate Silver makes clear in the article accompanying his new ratings, the recent rap on polls — much of it attributable to a misunderstanding of what happened in 2016, with Donald Trump piling on with ignorant or malicious takes on the polls ever since — is largely a crock:

“Over the past two years — meaning in the 2016 general election and then in the various gubernatorial elections and special elections that have taken place in 2017 and 2018 — the accuracy of polls has been pretty much average by historical standards….

“The media narrative that polling accuracy has taken a nosedive is mostly bullshit, in other words. Polls were never as good as the media assumed they were before 2016 — and they aren’t nearly as bad as the media seems to assume they are now. In reality, not that much has changed.”

Some basic limitations of polling remain as important as ever: primary (and special election) polling is very difficult to do, and state polling is almost always less accurate than national polling. It’s also worth remembering that getting the winner right is no indicator of quality: some national polls that picked Trump to win in 2016 were not especially close on the actual popular vote totals, while some that picked Clinton to win were spot on (because she did in fact win the popular vote by more than 2 percent).

In the end it’s smart to pay more attention to the aggregate polling averages (most notably those maintained by FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics) than to any one or two or three individual polls, and to avoid the temptation to hype polls showing one’s own “team” doing well while filtering out adverse findings — particularly if “your” poll is conducted by a firm with a poor reputation and “their” poll is gold-standard. When all else fails, you can just wait for actual elections and go with that. But even then, polls help us understand the “why” as well as the “what.” And that matters, too.