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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

November 18: This is Not a Pure Democracy, Folks. Small Places Have Big Power.

Like a lot of Democrats who have been mulling the 2016 election results, I am torn between signs of hope and signs of distress. But there is one basic problem Democrats must come to grips with: the implications of geography in a system where small states have enormous influence. I discussed this at New York:

In a deep dive into the 2016 presidential election returns, however, Ron Brownstein hears the distant echo of another presidential election — one dominated by a traditionalist reaction to changing times: 1920.

“This election … carved a divide between cities and non-metropolitan areas as stark as American politics has produced since the years just before and after 1920. That year marked a turning point: It was the first time the Census recorded that more people lived in urban than non-urban areas. That tangible sense of shifting influence triggered a series of political and social conflicts between big cities teeming with immigrants, many of them Catholic, and small towns and rural communities that remained far more homogeneously, white, native-born, and Protestant.

“In an extended tussle over the country’s direction, forces grounded outside of the largest cities overcame urban resistance to impose Prohibition in 1919 and severely limit new immigration in 1924. The same fear of “a chaotically pluralistic society,” as one historian put it, fueled a resurgence of religious fundamentalism and a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.”

But the urbanization trend that so divided Americans in 1920 has now largely triumphed. So the latest reaction to the latest era of cultural and economic change is not nearly as powerful. In 1920, Warren Harding defeated James Cox by the largest popular-vote percentage margin (26 percent) since Monroe’s Era of Good Feelings. In 2016 the candidate of nativism, protectionism, and cultural reaction lost the popular vote.

In a twist of irony, though, urbanization has left incredible large swaths of the country behind, and in this election at least, in the camp of resistance to change. As Brownstein points out, Hillary Clinton appears to have won no more than 420 of the nation’s 3,100 counties (her husband won more than 1,500 20 years ago). “Her” counties include 88 of the nation’s 100 largest. But looking at a map of “red” and “blue” counties, it looks like Donald Trump’s country with a few strips and islands of some alien incursion.

If square mileage could vote (and it sort of can via the Senate, the Electoral College, and the various powers of state governments), the presidential election would have been even more lopsided than the one in 1920. As it is, a plurality of Americans look out across the heartland and see wonderful places to visit — in many cases to visit the hometowns of their own pasts — but not to live in and vote.

The point is, if it is not clear already, that winning a plurality or even a majority of the national popular vote in a presidential election does not matter much if the consolidated power of Republicans voting in small places gives them disproportionate control over not only a majority of the states but much of the federal government. We all know that this isn’t a pure democracy, but we are really remote from democracy today.


November 16: Tea Party of the Left to Punish Traitors Probably Won’t Work

The anti-Trump ferment in so many parts of the country is beginning to generate some serious and sustained activity–including one intra-Democratic-Party disciplinary movement that I’m skeptical of, as I noted at New York:

[A]ccording to Politico, restive progressives have a very particular and entirely understandable goal that has nothing to do with the campaign that just ended:

“’Our big goal is to support primary challenges against those Democrats who negotiate with Donald Trump,’ said the organizer, Waleed Shahid, a veteran of Bernie Sanders’ campaign who is working for a group called AllofUs, launched in September.”

The first question that must be asked about this agenda is whether Trump and his people need or even want Democrats on the other side of a negotiating table. With a solid majority in the House and a two-vote majority in the Senate (buttressed by the absence of the potentially troublesome heretic Mark Kirk of Illinois), it may not be necessary. If Trump and congressional Republican leaders can come to agreement on a budget reconciliation bill to achieve most of their common goals, from a big upper-end tax cut and more money for the Pentagon to the decimation of low-income programs and the disabling of Obamacare, then they probably will not need a single Democratic vote. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are about the only Republican senators Mitch McConnell would need to worry about, and with Mike Pence breaking tie votes in the Senate, they really don’t matter any more than the Democrats. Yes, all other things being equal, Republicans would prefer securing some Democratic votes for a Trump Supreme Court nominee and an Obamacare replacement plan in order to avoid the messy process of eliminating the Senate filibuster altogether. But it’s not mandatory, and it’s likely that Republicans, fearing midterm House losses in 2018, will want to rush through as much simon-pure conservative legislation as quickly as possible, without screwing around too much with the powerless Democrats.

But it is also possible that Donald Trump personally would like to be able to claim some bipartisan support. The way his cabinet is beginning to shape up, his idea of bipartisanship will probably be the old gibe “Let’s compromise — do it my way.” If down the road Trump has a truly decisive break with congressional Republicans, though, all bets are off. At that point, even the lefty-est of lefty Democrats might support some tactical maneuvering to split the GOP.

So for the time being you have to figure the threat of primarying “traitorous” Democrats is mainly hypothetical and prophylactic. But then the secondary question comes up: Which wavering Democrats are going to be intimidated by a “tea party of the left”?

The obvious targets for either a bipartisan Trump outreach or for disciplinary efforts by progressives are the Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018 who represent states carried by Trump. There are ten of them: Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Bill Nelson (Florida), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), and Jon Tester (Montana). You might imagine some of these states are not reliably Republican in the future, but the flip back to the Democrats won’t be automatic, either, in a midterm election when the turnout dynamics have recently favored Republicans.

Now, Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin and probably Debbie Stabenow are not the sort of Democrats who will be hankering for a way to show Trump voters they’re not all bad, and Bob Casey has his own appeal to white working-class voters that doesn’t necessarily depend on bipartisanship. But the rest of these vulnerable Democratic senators could waver.

And if they do, what exactly is “the tea party of the left” going to do about it? Joe Manchin, for one, would probably pay for left-bent protests against his “centrist” heresies in West Virginia, and would definitely welcome a progressive primary opponent to triangulate against. Heitkamp’s state went for Trump by 36 points; Tester’s, McCaskill’s, and Donnelly’s by 20 points or slightly less. Does anyone think a candidate more progressive or partisan than any of these worthies has a prayer of carrying their states in the immediate future?

At some point, would-be members of a “tea party of the left” need to come to grips with the fact that the “tea party of the right” had more geographical material to work with. Trump carried 30 states. So long as every state has two senators, and particularly if the recent trend toward straight-ticket voting persists, it will be difficult for Democrats to control the Senate. Similarly, it will be difficult for Democrats to control a majority of state governments, and that in turn gives Republicans the upper hand in House redistricting. Given that reality, is the biggest problem Democrats face really spinelessness or friendliness with Wall Street? Or is it the absence of candidates and a message that can broaden not just the Democratic popular vote coalition, but its geographical reach?

In the meantime, Democrats should not be surprised if endangered politicians in Trump country choose to “negotiate” instead of defiantly thumbing their noses at their wayward constituents. A national movement of resistance to Donald Trump and all his works may well be the only moral course of action for progressives. But there will be no-shows on the battlefield when the trumpet sounds.


November 11: A Eulogy for the Clinton Era

Like Democrats everywhere, I’ve been suffering through a difficult week. But as a long-time supporter of the Clinton project in Democratic politics, and of the Obama presidency that sustained and extended it in important way, I thought it was time to mark its likely end. And so I did so at New York:

The contrast in the bookend images of the beginning and end of the Clinton presidential campaigns could not be much starker. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign broke a Republican Electoral College lock, and he took office as the leader of “different kind of Democratic Party” — one more in sync with both centrist impulses among white voters. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign broke a Democratic presidential winning streak — though it did maintain a winning streak in the national popular vote.

In 1992, Bill Clinton led a so-called New Democratic movement that represented successful congressional and state and local elected officials impatient with the national party’s fecklessness. In 2016, Hillary Clinton represented a final toehold of Democratic power in Washington, even as the Donkey Party’s strength out in the states reached a low ebb.

The contrasts go on and on. In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first (and, up until now, last) Democratic presidential candidate since 1980 to carry the white working class; his campaign spent a lot of time looking at how to appeal to the “Reagan Democrats” in places like Macomb County, Michigan. On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was largely done in by a historically poor performance in this same demographic, especially in states like Michigan (she lost Macomb County by more than 10 points).

In 1992, Bill Clinton was the leader of a young, insurgent, policy-oriented branch of his party challenging the “paleoliberals” who were still living in a social democratic wayback machine and the identity politicians who had forgotten how to construct a broadly appealing message. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the representative of older forces in her party; she left younger voters cold in the primaries — running against a septuagenarian social democrat, no less — and lukewarm in the general election. Her main emotional appeal revolved around her identity as a woman.

In 1992, Bill Clinton was very much on the offensive. In 2016, his wife was largely on the defensive from the beginning to the end of the whole campaign.

This story of decline is not just about the Clintons, of course. Even though he defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, the Obama administration is usually — quite rightly, I would say — viewed as a continuation of the Clinton tradition in policy and politics. Indeed, the familiar observation that Hillary Clinton was running for “Obama’s third term” this year could quite easily yield to a broader characterization that she was running for a fifth term for the Clinton-Obama brand of center-left politics.

You could certainly see this in her campaign and her government-in-waiting: crammed with the best and brightest of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns and the Clinton and Obama administrations. When the good ship Hillary sank on the evening of November 8, an enormous amount of talent and accumulated experience went into the vasty deep along with her presidential aspirations….

For all of Hillary Clinton’s vast policy chops, and the array of advisers she had at her command, she drifted away from quite a few of the old Clinton family themes. This phenomenon is almost universally attributed to political opportunism — she repudiated the TPP and emphasized a lot of old left-labor policy prescriptions, it was broadly assumed, first to preempt Bernie Sanders’s appeal and then to keep Trump from outflanking Democrats on the “populist” front. But beneath all of the politics was a much more fundamental problem: The whole conception of the relationship between activist government and the private sector the Clinton tradition had maintained just was not credible anymore.

Central to the entire Clintonian New Democratic movement (of which I was a loyal foot soldier for a long time) was the belief that the best way to achieve progressive policy goals was by harnessing and redirecting the wealth that a less-regulated and more-innovative private sector alone could generate. That seemed to work during the late 1990s and sporadically even later. But the economic collapse at the end of the Bush administration and the struggle to head off growing inequality throughout the Obama administration has made the create-then-redistribute model for Democratic economic policy less and less satisfying, while creating a backlash among those who view any Democratic cheerleading for the private sector — especially the financial community — as a de facto act of betrayal signaling a high probability of personal corruption.

As Neil Irwin noted in an especially insightful recent column, even within Hillary Clinton’s policy apparatus there was a steady trend toward abandoning the old Clintonian model and instead focusing on a predistributive economic model that sought to shift wealth from the top to the middle and bottom of the income brackets by capturing more of it for the “masses” at the very beginning — via instruments ranging from high minimum wages and employer mandates to aggressive antitrust action and strong support for collective bargaining. This very different policy emphasis, and with it a more hostile attitude toward the corporate sector, was not just a matter of “shifting to the left” to head off Bernie Sanders; it was an acknowledgement that the old Clinton (and to a large extent Obama) economic strategy had failed substantively and politically.

One way to look at it is that old-school labor-oriented liberalism has finally won its very extended argument with centrists and is ready to reassume leadership of the Democratic Party under the banner of Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown. Another way to look at it is that neither wing of the party has some magic formula. And that problem extends beyond economic policy, too. Faced with the aggressively reactionary cultural thematics of the Trump campaign, progressive “populists” often fell into their old habit of condescendingly telling white working-class voters their most fondly cherished beliefs were just neurotic symptoms of their “real” economic class grievances. And as Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate gaffe about the “deplorables” showed, centrists often had little to say to cultural traditionalists other than “Please, hurry up and die off.”

For a very long time, the Clinton/Obama style of policy and politics represented the best politically feasible vehicle progressives had devised for managing an era of enormous economic and cultural change without alienating a majority of the electorate or forgetting the big prize of a fairer and more diverse country. It all seems to be falling apart at the moment, but Democrats really do need to move beyond a choice between the best thinking from the recent or the distant past.

That’s worth remembering before Democrats undertake another “struggle for the soul of the party.”


November 10: Overconfidence Tilted the Pre-Election Projections

In the wake of what happened on November 8, Democrats have two questions: (1) How did it happen? and (2) Why did we not realize it was going to happen?

The first question will take a long time to answer. But I took a shot at answering the second at New York right after the results came in:

When something as surprising as Donald Trump’s election to the presidency happens, it is natural to blame the non-messenger: the polls that by-and-large predicted a Clinton victory somewhere in the neighborhood of Barack Obama’s in 2012. And because so much political analysis is based largely or entirely on polls, the entire commentariat — or at least the part that was not overtly cheerleading for Trump — was off, too….

It will take a while to sort through the debris and figure out how so much data and so much smart analysis got it all wrong. But the beginning point has to be that the final popular-vote margin is not going to be that far off from the final polling averages.

Hillary Clinton now leads in the national popular vote. With a lot of mail ballots still drifting in from heavily pro-Clinton states like California and Washington (where mail ballots postmarked by Election Day still count), she is almost certain to wind up winning the popular vote by about one percent. The final Real Clear Politics polling average had Clinton ahead by 3.3 percent. At HuffPost, the average Clinton lead was 4.6 percent. So they were off by roughly 2 to 3 percent. That is a fairly normal polling error, as Nate Silver pointed out prophetically before the votes started coming in:

“The track record of polling in American presidential elections is pretty good but a long way from perfect, and errors in the range of 3 percentage points have been somewhat common in the historical record. Of note, for instance, is that Obama beat his national polling average by nearly 3 points in 2012, although state polls did a better job of pegging his position. In 2000, Al Gore was behind by about 3 points in the final national polling average but won the popular vote. In 1996, Bill Clinton was ahead in national polls by about 12 points, but won by 8.5.

“In three of the last five presidential elections, in other words, there was a polling error the size of which would approximately wipe out Clinton’s popular vote lead — or alternatively, if the error were in her favor, turn a solid victory into a near-landslide margin of 6 to 8 percentage points. There’s also some chance of a larger error still. In 1980, Ronald Reagan led in final national polls by slightly less than Clinton does now, but wound up winning the popular vote by almost 10 percentage points.”

The bigger polling error, if there was one, was at the state level. Even there, though, there is in some cases less than meets the eye. In Pennsylvania, the state that put Trump over the top, the final Real Clear Politics polling average showed Clinton leading by 1.9 percent. Trump won by 1.1 percent. Once again, that’s a 3 point error. In Florida, the RCP average had Trump up by 0.2 percent. He won by 1.4 percent. That’s a 1.2 percent error. North Carolina? Trump led the polling average by one percent, and won the state by 3.8 percent. Are we seeing a pattern here?

There were a couple of true shockers: Wisconsin, where Clinton led in the polling average by 6.5 percent, only to lose by a point. But there was not a whole lot of polling there for the abundantly good reason that few observers (and until the very end, even the Trump campaign) thought the state was competitive. And even more lightly polled “shocker state” was Michigan, where actually, Clinton’s lead in the polling average was only 3.4 percent, and Trump is currently ahead by a hair.

So why do so many political observers (and well-informed voters) have the sense this morning that we were taken by surprise because the “polls were wrong”? I think there are three key factors.

First, a lot of people were convinced by early voting data that Clinton was going to win states like Florida and North Carolina, making a Trump win impossible. Actually Democrats did not take much of a lead out of early voting in either state, making it entirely feasible for Republicans to “catch up” on November 8. Nevada, by contrast, was a state where (a) Democrats did take a sizable lead in early voting, and (b) early voting was an extremely high percentage of total turnout. Sure enough, Clinton won. But a lot of people over-interpreted early voting in some places, and several of the Rust Belt states that represented Trump’s breakthrough did not offer much in the way of early voting. Early news sticks though.

Second, there was a tendency to mentally add a point or two to Clinton’s poll numbers because of her big advantage in paid media and field operations. Actually, Trump closed the advantage in paid media right at the end, and Clinton did very little advertising in several of the “firewall states” that ultimately did her in. As for the vaunted Clinton get-out-the-vote machine — well, we may have to wait for more information on how that went down. It is entirely possible that the combination of RNC and state GOP resources, plus the galvanizing effect of Trump’s monster rallies, all but eliminated the supposed Clinton advantage. Or maybe she would have lost more decisively without all those field offices. It is too early to tell.

In the end, of course, the real reason Trump’s win came as a shock is because so very many people — Republicans as well as Democrats — simply could not envision the man winning a presidential election. It is still a bit difficult to absorb how he got from where he was to where he is now; like a carnival barker wandering into the Met and delivering a brilliant performance as Iago in Verdi’s Otello. Let’s don’t blame the polls for our struggle to understand the Trump phenomenon.


November 4: How Clinton Can Close the Deal

Hillary Clinton does not need my advice to get from here to Election Night and more than likely a victory celebration. But if only to counter some of the bad advice she has been offered, I went ahead with some analysis of her situation at New York:

All signs point to the tightening of a presidential race dominated by Hillary Clinton for most of the general election campaign. National trends aside, there are polls showing Donald Trump surging in such Clinton “firewall” states as Colorado and New Hampshire, creating a clear path to victory for him if he gets a few late breaks. Any thought of coasting to victory, much less winning by a landslide, has probably disappeared from the minds of Team Clinton members. And although what happens down ballot could crucially affect the ability of a Clinton administration to accomplish much of its agenda, it is also time for the presidential campaign to forget about helping Democratic Senate and House candidates. Job One is to get Clinton into the White House, and that job has not yet been accomplished.

So what can and should Hillary for America do at this late stage to secure victory?

The first thing to understand is that most of the decisions a presidential campaign can make have already been made, sometimes months ago. Paid ad time in the battleground states has all been bought up. And although the residents of such states may feel like they are under attack from both sides when they turn on the tube or the radio these last few days, the truth is that the time for Clinton to make gains based on what was once an overwhelming advantage in paid media is over. In most places, Trump is now entirely competitive on the airwaves; indeed, in some “Clinton firewall” states she’s rushing to play catch-up after letting Trump “waste” his money in states once thought to be beyond his reach. Few voters in a competitive presidential general election are going to be persuaded at this point, though carefully targeted ads could send some micro-messages to certain constituencies to boost turnout. If there is any ad time left in the battleground states on Spanish-language or African-American-interest radio or cable stations, her campaign should buy it instantly.

Although in-person early voting will reach a crescendo in some states this weekend, that, too, is a die that has largely already been cast. Plans for get-out-the-vote drives next Tuesday must now take priority over everything else. Obama campaign veterans like to say that turnout operations are like a field-goal unit in football; they only become crucial to victory in close “games.” Well, it’s late in the fourth quarter and it is no longer clear Clinton has the touchdown advantage she had as recently as last week. So the field-goal unit needs to be ready.

That means above all that the Clinton campaign and its allies should deploy whatever discretionary resources they have — and there should be plenty of money left, even after all the ads available have been bought — with a very clear sense of the path to 270 electoral votes. Yes, it would be wonderful for a Democrat to win Arizona or Georgia, but at the moment the bigger concern should be about states Clinton cannot afford to lose, alongside a final big effort in Florida, the must-win state for Trump with a rich prize of 29 electoral votes that could offset the loss of several “Clinton firewall” states.

Everything the Clinton campaign does should be be driven by turnout considerations. This is where surrogates can be crucial. One of Clinton’s big headaches right now involves reports from early-voting states of relatively low turnout among African-Americans. Since she leads Trump about 20-to-1 (or more) in African-American communities, the problem is precisely the kind that can be addressed by an intensive “knock and drag” get-out-the-vote effort. Every dollar and hour spent among black voters, giving them the motive and the means to vote, are priceless. The Obamas should be deployed with that project in mind. And both they and Clinton herself need to pound home the message that everything Barack Obama was able to accomplish, and everything he hoped to accomplish but could not thanks to Republican opposition, is on the line on Tuesday. This is valuable not just in terms of the black vote, but also in motivating millennials to abandon their flirtation with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein and vote for a candidate who can win.

Some political observers, like most sportscasters, irrationally value “momentum,” and thus would caution Team Clinton against admitting that Trump is closing the gap. I do not agree. Fear of a Donald Trump presidency is so palpable in broad swaths of the electorate — especially among minority voters and college-educated women — that it has become a precious strategic asset for Hillary Clinton, which she should exploit aggressively. Every left-leaning marginal voter should, in every form of campaign communications available, be made to feel a personal responsibility for a Trump presidency if she or he does not vote. And minority voters in particular should be encouraged to view potential Republican vote-suppression measures on November 8 as creating an imperative to vote rather than an excuse to stay home.

It is too late, by the way, for Clinton to deal with emails or the perfidy of the FBI or perceptions of her relative level of honesty and trustworthiness. There will be plenty of time for that after Election Day, if it matters anymore. I wrote this very morning that Clinton will probably face impeachment proceedings if she wins alongside a congressional Republican majority. That should not matter either, and it probably won’t to the very tough-minded Democratic nominee. Anything would be preferable to going down in history as the major-party candidate who lost to Donald Trump, imperiling the republic in ways that we are just now beginning to fully envision. Awareness of the burden of history should permeate every moment spent by Clinton and her vast army of paid and unpaid campaign operatives for the next 100 hours.


November 2: If Trump Had Some Ham, He Could Make a Ham Sandwich, If He Had Some Bread

Donald Trump and Mike Pence made back to back speeches in Pennsylvania this week touting their determination to repeal and replace Obamacare. It was all smoke and mirrors, as I discussed at New York.

[D]uring a rally with Mike Pence in Pennsylvania, he offered a real head-scratcher: “I will ask Congress to convene a special session so we can repeal and replace, and it will be such an honor for me, for you and for everybody in this country because Obamacare has to be replaced,” Trump said. “It’s a catastrophe.”

Sounds dramatic, eh? But a moment’s scrutiny should tell you the “special session” stuff makes no sense at all.

The next Congress will convene on January 3, 2017, 17 days before the next president is inaugurated. If it is inclined to repeal and replace Obamacare, it won’t need any special session for that. Indeed, the most likely scenario for that to happen, if and only if Republicans control both houses of Congress, is in a budget reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered in the Senate and benefits from streamlined procedures generally. It won’t happen overnight, but it certainly can be accommodated by the normal congressional schedule.

Perhaps Trump is talking about not waiting until next January, so urgent is the task of repealing and replacing Obamacare. But there’s no need for a special session after the election; Congress is already scheduled to reconvene in November for a continuation of the current session in order to deal with the appropriations can that has been kicked down the road, and perhaps some other items.

But even if a special session was needed, Trump would have no power to call one for the obvious reason that he would not be president until January 20, 2017. Is he talking about asking Obama to call a “special session” (which isn’t needed) to repeal the 44th president’s signature achievement and enact a yet-to-be-specified GOP replacement plan? (In case you hadn’t guessed it, Trump and Pence did not offer a specific replacement plan in their Pennsylvania speeches today.) That’s probably not going to work.

I’ve since heard some commentators suggest Trump was just trying to signify to conservative doubters that he would kill Obamacare no matter what. Once you get to a fact-free Oz, of course, anything’s possible. But facts have a way of spoiling the best imaginary plans.


October 27: Trump Proving Campaigns Do Matter

As a victory for Hillary Clinton becomes more likely, and a big victory more probable, observers are beginning to wonder if Donald Trump is refuting the common political science principle that at the presidential level “fundamentals” matter more than candidates or campaigns. I discussed this possibility at New York:

Donald Trump’s campaign is throwing political scientists (along with journalists, Republican politicians, and many voters) for something of a loop.

This problem began back during the primaries with Trump’s success in the teeth of near-universal opposition from Republican elected officials and many other ideological and constituency-group elites with influence over the GOP. That was not really supposed to happen, according to the reigning political science wisdom, as expressed in the highly influential 2008 book, The Party Decides, which suggested early elected-official endorsements were a much better guide to a reliable prediction of who would win the nomination contest than early polls.

After Donald Trump won the nomination despite badly losing the endorsement contest, Andrew Prokop of Vox offered a good retroactive qualifier for the academic consensus:

“When The Party Decides was written, it offered valuable pushback against the conventional wisdom that parties had lost all their influence on the nomination process. And its focus on endorsements is a helpful alternative to early polls that have frequently been wrong. But in the time since, ‘the party decides’ has become the new conventional wisdom among some wonky pundits — despite the small number of modern contests and the many messy exceptions, especially in recent years.”

And so, future editions of The Party Decides will have to contextualize what happened this year, which will probably reduce the authors’ self-confidence about predicting future contests.

But Trump is also in the process of disrupting certain political-science theories about general elections: not by winning, as he did during the primaries, but by losing more soundly than anyone expected. Hillary Clinton currently leads Donald Trump by six points in RealClearPolitics’ polling averages, and a lot of observers think her lead could balloon because of the dynamics of the final debate and her significant advantages in paid advertising, voter targeting, and get-out-the-vote investments.

If Clinton does win by six or more points, it will cast some doubt on political scientists’ prediction models, many of which depend on data points recorded much earlier in the cycle (i.e., they won’t change). Here’s how Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball summarized the academic-prediction literature in mid-September:

“Averaging all the forecasts together shows a two-party vote of Clinton 50.5% and Trump 49.5%. Obviously, that’s very close, and taken together these models produced a very similar prediction in 2012 (Obama 50.2%, Romney 49.8%). That undersold Obama, who won with 52.0% of the two-party vote.”

The forecasts could very easily “undersell” Clinton by quite a bit more.

As Nate Silver suggests, that will have some troubling implications for political scientists who tend to believe “fundamentals” — especially economic indicators — matter a lot more than the noisy stuff that happens in the political world:

“If Clinton wins by a clear margin, it will help to resolve a longstanding debate among political scientists and historians, since it will suggest that campaigns and candidates do matter and that elections aren’t always determined by economic conditions, which would predict a much closer outcome than the one we’re likely to see. Furthermore, Clinton’s win will have come by rather conventional means. Her big surges in the polls came following the conventions and the debates. She got the largest convention bounce of any candidate since at least 2000, and she won the debates by a clearer margin than any previous candidate in the six elections in which there were three debates that CNN polled.”

It is possible, however, that Trump will ultimately be regarded as an exception that proves various rules rather than a newly normal phenomenon. Here’s how political scientist Alan Abramowitz, whose own model predicted a Trump victory, contextualized this election:

“As Abramowitz explains it, the assumptions upon which the model is built are unsound: ‘First, that both major parties will nominate mainstream candidates capable of unifying their parties and, second, that the candidates will conduct equally effective campaigns so that the overall outcome will closely reflect the ‘fundamentals’ incorporated in the model.'”

Trump is nothing if not outside the mainstream. He clearly has not unified his party. And his campaign has ignored many of the minimum expectations for competent national political campaigns.

In other words, it’s possible we may never see the likes of Trump again — or so hope many political scientists.


October 26: After the Election, Paul Ryan’s Career Will Take a Turn for the Worse

There is a lot of uncertainty still surrounding election day and its aftermath. But one politician whose future looks bad no matter what happens is House Speaker Paul Ryan. I discussed his downward trajectory at New York earlier this week:

There is a small but quite real chance that a Trump-led Republican meltdown will award Democrats control of the House, leaving Ryan with one of America’s worst jobs, House Minority Leader.

But at least that disaster would leave Ryan with a lot of spare time on his hands. The more likely but equally hellish outcome would be a significantly reduced GOP majority in the House, leaving Ryan at the mercy of surly backbenchers and vengeful Trumpites. Norm Ornstein explains what that might mean for Ryan’s immediate future:

“Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark Meadows (who led the charge to oust John Boehner) said recently, ‘A lot of people who believe so desperately that we need to put Donald Trump in the White House – they question the loyalty of the Speaker.’ Meadows and his allies are trying to delay the Caucus vote, scheduled for the week after the election, to mobilize opposition to Ryan. They might confront Ryan after the election and before the Republican Conference votes to choose its candidate for Speaker, demanding concessions that would include cutting discretionary spending even more sharply, returning to the use of the debt ceiling as a hostage to force the new President Clinton to capitulate to their demands, and refusing to cooperate with her on any area of public policy—a set of demands Ryan could not accept without destroying his capacity to lead, along with deepening governmental dysfunction beyond its current sorry state.”

In other words, a weakened Ryan might be right back in the same impossible position John Boehner occupied in much of Barack Obama’s second term, with the added problem of a GOP divided not just over legislative strategy and tactics, but over the recently concluded presidential election and the path forward for the entire party.

If, as appears increasingly likely, Republicans lose control of the Senate while losing the White House for the third consecutive time, Ryan would become the subject and object of all of the angst in the GOP over its not-very-effective leadership. Perhaps that would enhance his already-massive Beltway prestige, but probably at a terrible cost in the party and the country at large. He is already significantly less popular with rank-and-file Republicans than Trump. Becoming a one-man choke point obstructing everything Hillary Clinton tries to do will definitely damage his general popularity. But he won’t be in any better position than Boehner in trying to impose the GOP’s will on the White House. To the extent that the entire Trump phenomenon was partly caused by Republican “base” frustration with GOP fecklessness in the fight to destroy Obama, it will not go away during another phase of divided government, even if Trump himself goes away, which is extremely unlikely. Like Boehner, Ryan will probably have to rely on Democratic votes now and then to keep the country (or at least the federal government) functioning. Like Boehner, he will earn burning hatred from many of his fellow Republicans each time he does so.

Ornstein thinks Ryan might look at the terrible situation he is in and decide to make a strategic retreat to preserve his political future, and perhaps his sanity:

“He could say, ‘I stepped into the breach reluctantly to save the party and the country and become Speaker. Now I want to step back and take the role where I can do the most good: chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.’ Or, to preserve his future role in politics, he could decide it is a good time to leave the House to spend more time with his young family.”

It doesn’t say much for the health of the Republican Party that the leader most likely to be left standing on November 9 — a pol, moreover, who has already been on a national ticket and has been lionized in the national media to the point of embarrassment — might well pack up the U-Haul and head back to Wisconsin. But that may be the most rational course of action for Paul Ryan, who would benefit from an environment where his endlessly discussed potential does not perpetually and conspicuously stop short of actual accomplishment. Becoming mayor of Janesville might be a good call.

How the mighty may soon be fallen!


October 21: Clinton-Haters On Top in GOP

You have probably heard a lot lately about the growing tensions between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans–especially Speaker Paul Ryan–and the likely post-election battle for control of the GOP. I tried to make some pertinent points at New York about how this does and does not matter:

As noted conservative-watcher Robert Costa of the Washington Post reported today, all sorts of bad blood is in the water between Trump loyalists and Establishment Republicans led by Speaker Paul Ryan:

“The axis of furious conservative activists and hard-right media that spawned Trump’s nationalist and conspiratorial campaign is determined to complete its hostile takeover of the GOP, win or lose …

“The first post-election target for the grievance movement is likely to be House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has drawn Trump’s wrath for not supporting him more fully. Trump’s backers, both inside the House Republican caucus and out, are already talking about a takedown.”

Specifically, says Costa, Sean Hannity, probably in a panic over the horror so many Republicans were privately if not publicly expressing about Trump’s debate performance, was talking after the debate about finding a challenger to Ryan as Speaker. The calculation is probably that Republicans will maintain control of the House with a sharply reduced majority, making Ryan very vulnerable to a combination of Democrats and conservative back-benchers who want to deny him the gavel. Meanwhile, Trump is steaming toward Election Day more and more dependent on the views of people like his Ryan-hating campaign chairman, Stephen Bannon.

Now you can go back and forth about which faction of the GOP holds the whip hand. In Costa’s account a staffer for independent conservative president candidate Evan McMullin contemptuously remarked: “Ryan is going to have to crack the whip and instill some discipline to remind these guys that they don’t run the party.” Trouble is, polls keep showing that Ryan’s less popular with rank-and-file Republicans than Trump.

Until the “struggle for the soul of the GOP” sorts itself out, though, there is one thing it guarantees: No one will dare take the chance of getting outflanked with the party “base” by even vaguely hinting at a willingness to cooperate with a President Hillary Clinton. Going “bipartisan” in conjunction with the hated (and presumably election-stealing) Clinton is the one thing that would guarantee a successful revolt against Ryan (or Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, if he still has a majority). Indeed, the only way congressional Republican leaders could possibly have the intra-party leeway to play pretty with Clinton is if they lose their majorities altogether — in which case Democrats probably won’t want or need their help even if it against all expectation happens.

So to play this all out a bit, would Democrats have a betting favorite in a battle between Trump and anti-Trump factions after November 8? They’d probably prefer a Trump ascendancy, if only because a deeply divided and half-crazed GOP might offer the governing party the rare opportunity of winning a midterm election. Other than that, they may just get out the popcorn and watch as Republicans rip each other apart.

To put it more colloquially: you could put a pro-Trump and an anti-Trump Republicans in a barrel and roll it down the hill, and there would almost certainly be a Hillary-hater on top all the way down.


October 19: Obama & Holder Aim at 2020

If you’ve been wondering about Barack Obama’s post-White House plans lately, here’s some good news for you. At New York earlier this week, I discussed the importance and difficultly of the project to which he has made a commitment.

[Obama is] signaling that he will make a new Democratic redistricting project headed up by former Attorney General Eric Holder “the main focus of his political activity once he leaves office.”

Holder’s group, dubbed the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, aims at reversing or at least mitigating the Republican state-level advantage the GOP won in 2010. Republicans used that edge to protect incumbents and open up new opportunities via the decennial reapportionment and redistricting process.

At the moment, Republicans hold “trifectas” — the unified control of the governorship and both legislative branches that gives them total control over redistricting for the U.S. House and state legislatures — in 23 states. There are only seven Democratic “trifectas,” with partisan control being divided in the other 20 states. Democrats can make some inroads among legislatures this November if the national ticket is doing well. Unfortunately for them, they already hold eight of the 12 governorship up this year. Two more are up in 2017. Then come the all-important 2018 elections, with most legislators and 36 governorships (including 24 controlled by Republicans) at stake. And then the parties will have one more bite at the apple in 2020 before the deal goes down for another decade.

Without question, Democrats are playing catch-up on redistricting. The new NDRC is designed to take a big leap:

“The NDRC plans to hold regular meetings of Democratic groups and allies, building collaborative strategies on recruitment, ad spending, get out the vote and other efforts to maximize resources and impact. House campaigns would then work with state senate and assembly campaigns, unions, progressive organizations and others in high opportunity areas, hoping to push up their numbers as much as possible ahead of the 2020 census.”

Democrats are fortunate the final big round of state elections before redistricting are in a presidential year, when turnout patterns are relatively favorable. Last time around, in 2010, a big Republican midterm-turnout advantage emerged, which recurred in 2014; it is mostly caused by the close current alignment of the two parties with groups that do (older white people) and do not (young and minority voters) tend to participate proportionately in non-presidential elections.

Trouble is, 2018 is probably the single most crucial election in determining the balance of power in the states going into redistricting. And aside from the pro-Republican midterm-turnout pattern, the odds are that we will be halfway through a third consecutive Democratic presidential term. This is typically a bad year for the White House party. And assuming the GOP comes out of a post-Trump “struggle for the soul of the party” intact, 2018 could be the “revenge” year for Republican base voters furious about one of its maximum demon figures succeeding the other as president.

Holder and Obama are exactly right: If Democrats want to go into redistricting at something other than a serious disadvantage, they’d better get cooking right now.