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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Seniors Against Trump

Who Are the Key Voters Turning Against Trump?

They’re senior voters, and they could be Joe Biden’s secret weapon.

By Ruy Teixeira in The New York Times
Read the Article.

Stan Greenberg in The American Prospect

The Tea Party’s Last Stand

The legions that swept over the Republican Party in 2010 aren’t ascendant today—and they’ve scared a lot of other Republicans away.


Read the Article.

Democrats – Get Ready for the Inevitable Republican Counterattack

It’s coming, and we should be prepared.
By Andrew Levison

Read the Strategy Memo.

Seniors Against Trump

Key Voters Turning Against Trump?

They’re senior voters, and they could be Joe Biden’s secret weapon.

By Ruy Teixeira in The New York Times
Read the Article.

Stan Greenberg in The American Prospect

Tea Party’s Last Stand

The legions that swept over the Republican Party in 2010 aren’t ascendant today—and they’ve scared a lot of other Republicans away.


Read the Article.

The Daily Strategist

October 24, 2020

In the Final Debate, Trump Remained Trump

After watching the second and final presidential debate, I registered my thoughts at New York:

Donald Trump went into the final debate of the 2020 campaign needing a clear win and even more than that, needing to defend his record as president in clear, comprehensible language. His signal mistake in the first debate, I argued at the time, was to lapse into the right-wing code language of Fox News/Breitbart conspiracy theories, which almost certainly sounded like gibberish to the low-information undecided voters whose support is his only hope of victory.

In the Nashville debate, Trump started off doing exactly what he needed to do: defending his record on handling COVID-19 in complete sentences, with a bit of counter-punching against Biden’s criticisms (though the former veep’s “He said people are learning to live with it … they’re learning to die with it” line was unanswerable, and Trump’s pandemic record is tough to defend).

In the middle section of the debate, Trump began overriding moderator Kristen Welker regularly. Then on the very dangerous topic of children being separated from their parents at the border, Trump just lost it, shouting repeatedly “Who built the cages, Joe!” I know a fair amount about immigration, and if I had no idea what the president was alluding to, how would an undecided voter who hasn’t made Stephen Miller his guru on these issues?

Towards the end of the debate, Trump found his bearings and hit Biden hard on crime policy, just as the Democrat was beginning to lose steam and some of his own coherence. But he may have spoiled the effect (if any) on Black voters with his bizarre repeated insistence that “I am the least racist person in this room.” Was he suggesting the Black moderator is racist? Or appealing to the white racists who think that it’s Black people who are the racists? Again, you could almost hear the cheers in a room full of people who are already wearing MAGA hats.

The ultimate moment of speaking in code for Trump was in his attack on Biden’s environmental proposals, which he triumphantly described – twice – as “AOC plus three!” I get the reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman who is every conservative’s favorite demon-figure these days, but “plus three?” Is that a reference to the other members of the so-called “squad?” I don’t know, and neither did most viewers who aren’t already deep in the tank for the president.

The bottom line is that Trump had an unmistakable and unavoidable mission in this debate, which went beyond “not setting himself on fire,” as one commentator put it, and wasn’t accomplished even if he did score more points against Biden than Biden scored against him (which I don’t think he did). It was Trump’s last chance to make a case that his record entitles him to a second term, at a time when it’s really too late to make this a “choice” election where sowing doubts about his opponent will suffice. By this standard, Trump started out strong, but in the end he just could not help being himself.

CNN Poll: Biden Beats Trump in Last Presidential Debate

Jennfier Agiesta writes at CNN Politics that ” according to a CNN Instant Poll of debate watchers. Overall, 53% of voters who watched the debate said that Biden won the matchup, while 39% said that President Donald Trump did.” In addition,

Viewers once again said that Biden’s criticisms of Trump were largely fair (73% said they were fair, 26% unfair), and they split over whether Trump’s attacks on Biden were fair (50% said yes, 49% no)…That’s a more positive outcome for Trump. In a CNN Instant Poll after the first presidential debate, just 28% said they thought the President had won the debate, and 67% called his criticism of Biden unfair.

All told, though, the debate did not do much to move impressions of either candidate. Favorable views of Biden before the debate stood at 55%, and they held steady at 56% in post-debate interviews. Likewise, Trump’s numbers held steady, with 42% saying they had a favorable view of the President in interviews conducted before Thursday’s debate and 41% saying the same afterward.

More debate watchers, though, said Trump’s performance raised concerns about how he would handle the presidency (55%) than did Biden’s (41%).

Thursday’s debate watchers preferred Trump over Biden on the economy (56% say they think Trump would better handle it vs. 44% who say Biden would), and divided about evenly between the two on foreign policy (50% prefer Biden, 48% Trump). Biden held a wide edge as more trusted to handle the coronavirus (57% Biden to 41% Trump), climate change (67% Biden to 29% Trump) and racial inequality in the US (62% Biden to 35% Trump).

In terms of demographic breakdown, Agiesta notes:

Women were more likely than men to say that Biden did the better job in the debate (60% of women said Biden won, 35% Trump, while among men, 47% said Biden won, 44% said Trump did). Independents also largely felt Biden won (55% Biden to 36% Trump), as did moderates (56% Biden to 37% Trump) and White voters with college degrees (64% Biden to 29% Trump). Among those 65 and older — a group backing Biden in greater numbers than they did Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to most polls — the verdict was a split decision, with 46% saying Biden won, 43% Trump and 10% saying they both did equally well. Younger voters broadly saw Biden as the winner, 66%, to 27% for Trump among those under age 45.

The poll of 585 voters has a m.o.e. of 5.7 percentage points.

Political Strategy Notes

In “States of Play – Florida,” Mathew Isbell writes at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, “While it is a swing state, expect Florida to vote to the right of the national popular vote…Biden is likely to underperform Hillary Clinton in Miami-Dade, but outshine her in working class communities and suburbs…How Florida’s seniors judge Trump on COVID will likely decide the state…Democrats are likely to start the night with a big lead thanks to vote by mail being reported first, and the march will be on to see if the Republicans can close the gap…It is important for all watching that it isn’t just about who wins a county — but what the margin looks like. A bad Miami-Dade margin could be fatal for Biden. Meanwhile, if Trump is losing big in places like Pinellas or Seminole, he will be in bad shape…We should expect some of these counties to move independent of each other due to their unique demographics…Election night in Florida can be akin to a roller coaster as one county delivers good news and another bad news regardless of which side you are on.”

“In the past couple of weeks, key battleground states like Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have received a lot of attention because Republicans have seen a spike in voter registration numbers. This is oftencited as a counterpoint to Joe Biden’s sizable lead over President Trump in the polls, as all these Republican registrations must be a sign of support for Trump that the polls are missing, right?,” Geoffrey Skelley writes in “Why A Surge In Republican Voter Registration Might Not Mean A Surge In Trump Support” at FiveThirtyEight…But the problem is party registration numbers can be a hard way to get a read on what’s happening in the election. Like early voting numbers, there are all kinds of pitfalls in how you should think about this data. Here are three of the biggest problems:…A voter’s party registration is a strong indicator of who they’ll support, but it’s not a guarantee. In fact, many voters registered with one party have actually been voting for the other party in recent elections but haven’t necessarily switched their registration to reflect the party they actually support…The election calendar also influences party registration trends, as key dates and campaign events drive interest in participation. For instance, a presidential primary or the registration deadline ahead of the general election can spark a flood of registrations. But sometimes this can create a disproportionate number of registrations from one party…most independents lean toward one party, but their preferences are still masked at the voter registration level. This is especially tricky in battleground states such as Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania that have seen major upticks in the share of voters who have registered with no party affiliation.”

Regarding tonight’s presidential candidate debate, The Nation’s John Nichols suggests, “Biden, Use This Debate to Prosecute Trump’s Covid Crimes,” and argues, “Tonight is the Democratic candidate’s chance to indict the president and the Republican senators who let Americans suffer and die…Biden should be specific, naming the cities, counties, and regions where Covid-19 is surging and killing Americans. He should detail the disproportionate damage this virus has done to people of color, the elderly, low-income Americans, frontline workers, and the vulnerable millions who lack adequate access to health care…Trump has attacked governorswho have tried to contain it while he mocked public health orders, peddled snake-oil “cures” and promoted “reopening” schemes even after he was warned that doing so would allow the disease to spread…Biden cannot allow himself to be distracted. There is too much at stake. Tonight, he can close the case not just against a president who deliberately endangered the nation he swore to protect but also against the Republican senators—like Joni Ernst in Iowa, Steve Daines in Montana, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Martha McSally in Arizona, Susan Collins in Maine, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, David Perdue in Georgia, John Cornyn in Texas, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, and, yes, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky—who refused to hold the president accountable back when these crises might have been averted.”

At CNN Politics, Chris Cillizza reports that “Trump is being dominated by former Vice President Joe Biden in ad spending in the vast majority of swing states…Calculations made by CNN’s David Wright reveal that Biden’s campaign has spent far more than Trump’s on ads in Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado and New Hampshire…And in some of those places it’s not even close. Biden has spent $98 million to Trump’s $69 million on ads in Florida. In Pennsylvania, it’s a whopping $33 million gap; $61 million for Biden to $28 million for Trump…Trump’s campaign has outspent Biden’s in only four competitive states: Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas. At the start of the 2020 campaign, few politicos — of either party — would have predicted that Trump would be in any serious trouble in any of that quartet of states, all of which he won by 5 points or more in 2016. And yet, polling in all four states now suggests Biden and Trump are running neck and neck.”

Barrett Hearings Weren’t the Base Energizer Republicans Expected

After the Barrett confirmation hearings came to a close, I observed at New York that they hadn’t generated the excitement many Republicans anticipated:

You’d think getting a third Federalist Society–vetted Supreme Court nominee in a single presidential term would be enough good fortune for Republicans. But when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died there was immediate speculation in the GOP ranks that a good, vicious confirmation fight for a new conservative justice would be just what the doctor ordered for Republican prospects in November. Here’s one of many such prophecies, as reported by the Associated Press:

“Four years ago, the allure of conservative Supreme Court appointments helped persuade skeptical Republicans to support Donald Trump for president. Two years ago, a contentious clash over Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh for the court was credited with bolstering GOP gains in the Senate in an otherwise bad midterm election.

“GOP leaders are optimistic they can pull it off. In the turbulent Trump era, nothing has motivated the Republican Party’s disparate factions to come home quite like the prospect of a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court.”

Here’s another, from the Washington Post at about the same time:

“’Trump needs to fire up conservatives for the election. That’s the goal,’ said Mike Davis, a Republican consultant who helped lead the Senate confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018. ‘That is a big deal for conservatives and will motivate them.'”

Now before proceeding into an examination of how that’s working out for the GOP, I’ll pause to examine the dubious premise that Mitch McConnell won it all for Trump in 2016 by keeping Merrick Garland far from the Supreme Court, and that in 2018 the Brett Kavanaugh fight produced a big upset victory for Republican senators.

Yes, 2016 exit polls showed that among the 21 percent of voters who claimed Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their candidate choice, Trump won by a comfortable but hardly staggering 56-41 margin. And there’s no question that by naming a list of Supreme Court prospects and creating a process for the strict ideological vetting of judicial nominees, Trump built trust with conservatives — especially white Evangelical conservatives — who wound up supporting him overwhelmingly. But it’s really unclear the non-hearings and the non-confirmation of Garland made the shape of the Supreme Court significantly more vital to Trump supporters than a Court with Garland on it might have.

The myth of the Kavanaugh battle saving the Republican Senate in 2018, which is an article of faith for many GOP pols, is even more dubious. Exit polls that year showed voters opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation by a 47-43 margin, and more impressively, favoring continuation of Roe v. Wade’s constitutional right to choose abortion — by all accounts the driving motivation of conservative SCOTUS mania — by a 66-25 margins. As I pointed out at the time, the real reason Republican held onto the Senate and even made gains was an insanely favorable landscape, with 26 Democratic as opposed to just nine Republican seats at risk:

“In the Senate, Republicans picked up two net seats by winning Democratic-held seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota [all states carried by Trump in 2016], while losing seats they held in Arizona [ditto] and Nevada …

“Democrats won 22 of the 34 Senate races decided so far [ultimately 22 of 35 after a Mississippi runoff]. And while California complicates the Senate popular-vote picture (because its top-two primary system produced a two-Democrat general election for the Senate), by any measure more people voted for Democrats than Republicans in Senate races. FiveThirtyEight calculates that 27 of 33 Democratic candidates (excluding Mississippi and two-Democrats California) over-performed the partisan lean of their states. So it’s a bit strange to treat the Senate shift as a GOP “mandate” on par with what happened in the House.”

Even if you do buy the dubious theory that a Supreme Court confirmation war is a guaranteed net base energizer for the GOP, the confirmation hearings of Barrett, which finished last week, were decidedly lacking in drama as compared to the Kavanaugh saga two years ago. The most obvious reason, of course, is that no one has come forward to accuse Barrett of sexual assault, inspiring Me Too activists and generating total fury among conservative men led by those on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The lower temperature is also attributable to the Democratic strategy for coping with her, as I explained earlier:

“Barrett’s background has served as both shield and sword for her proponents in a way that Kavanaugh’s did not. Even before President Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court, Republicans cleverly alleged that Democrats would expose anti-Catholic (or even anti-Christian) animus in an examination of her worldview.

“Republicans claim, unfairly, that the opposing party already did this during the 2017 hearings that preceded Barrett’s confirmation to the Seventh Circuit, so in recent days Democrats have given her belief system a wide berth.”

Instead Democrats have focused on the impact of a more conservative Court on the Affordable Care Act, a regular messaging preoccupation of theirs and not something likely to provoke potential Trump voters to snake-dance to the polls in a state of hate-filled exaltation.

Yes, getting extra air time chairing the Barrett hearings and defending her on the Senate floor could help lift Lindsey Graham to an unimpressive win over the very impressive Jaime Harrison in South Carolina. But as an all-purpose base-arouser, it’s likely to be overshadowed by the president shouting at suburban women to “please like me!” because he “saved” their neighborhoods from Black and brown and poor people.

Perhaps Democrats unhappy with the handling of the Barrett hearings by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats should see a silver lining: If you snooze, they lose.

How Bloomberg May End Up a 2020 Hero for Dems

At Politico, Mark Caputo and David Siders write,

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s $100 million investment in Florida to defeat Donald Trump is recasting the presidential contest in the president’s must-win state, forcing his campaign to spend big to shore up his position and freeing up Democratic cash to expand the electoral map elsewhere.

Bloomberg’s massive advertising and ground-game spending, which began roughly a month ago, has thrown Trump into a defensive crouch across the arc of Sunbelt states. As a result, the president‘s campaign has scaled back its TV ad buys in crucial Northern swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — a vacuum being filled by a constellation of outside political groups backing Joe Biden.

“It’s forced the Trump campaign to retrench in Florida. You can see it in the spending habits, in television and digital. They’re investing more at the expense of places they need to win,” said Steve Schale, who leads the pro-Biden Unite the Country super PAC.

More specifically, Caputo and Siders note,

Schale said his group and the other major Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, have been able to focus their dollars in other parts of the country, particularly the Upper Midwest. Democratic super PACs, meanwhile, have been able to focus more attention on Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia — once-reliably red states where the president has also had to commit additional resources for the past month, in addition to Florida.

This is not just Democratic wishful thinking.

David Johnson, former Florida GOP executive director, said the Bloomberg money has had a clear effect on forcing Trump to withdraw to his core states, instead of competing across a wider national map.

“This is not your 2016 election, so abso-freaking-lutley the Trump team knows they have to maintain something closer to parity in [gross rating] points and spots in the home stretch,” Johnson said. “You best not be massively outspent in Florida the last two weeks and expect to perform well on Election Day, where Republicans have to turnout in vastly larger numbers to win.”

Bloomberg took a lot of hard hits during the presidential debates. But, if Democrats win Florida’s electoral votes, or even lose FL closely but win the election, Bloomberg will have made a tremendous contribution to ending the Trump nightmare and perhaps even saving countless lives that would be lost because of Trump’s continuing mismanagement of the pandemic. In either event, he will have earned the gratitude of his country.

Teixeira: America’s Electoral Future – The Coming Generational Transformation

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

It’s out! The new States of Change report on the potential effects of generational change on future elections. And they’re huge! This should put a smile on your face.

In this report, we show that incorporating generational cohorts into one’s analysis has a potentially substantial impact on the political landscape of future elections. We do this using four scenarios:

* No generational effects. This simulation assumes voting and turnout patterns from the 2016 presidential race remain the same in future elections for all demographic groups defined by race, age, education, gender and state. The only thing that changes is the size of these various groups among eligible voters. Such a scenario takes no account of the changing generational composition of the electorate and serves as a baseline for judging the impact of incorporating generational preferences.

* Full generational effects. This simulation assumes that generational political preferences will remain the same in future elections. Put simply, instead of assuming that younger voters vote exactly like older groups as they age, this scenario assumes that each generational cohort will continue to vote in future elections like they did in the 2016 presidential election. Like the first scenario, this scenario also accounts for changes in the underlying composition of the electorate by race, education, gender, and state. Age-related turnout rates for various groups are held constant at the levels assumed in the age-based simulation.

* Generation effects decline with age. This simulation assumes that generational political preferences will carry forward into future elections, as in the second simulation, but also assumes that generations will become more conservative as they age. Like the first two scenario, this scenario also accounts for changes in the underlying composition of the electorate and holds the age-related turnout rates of groups constant over time.

* Post-Millennial generations more conservative. This simulation assumes that generational political preferences will fully carry forward into future elections but assumes that Gen Z and the as-yet unnamed generation following them will be more conservative than the Millennial generation. As in our other scenarios, this scenario also accounts for changes in the underlying composition of electorate and holds the age-related turnout rates for various groups constant going forward into future elections.

There are two key findings from these scenarios.

First, the underlying demographic changes our country is likely to experience over the next several elections generally favor the Democratic party. The projected growth of groups by race, age, education, gender and state tends to be more robust among Democratic-leaning groups, creating a consistent and growing headwind for the Republican party. This will require the GOP to improve their performance among key demographic groups, election after election, just to keep their vote share competitive as illustrated by our first, age-based simulation that includes no generational effects. That simulation finds Michigan and Pennsylvania moving Democratic in 2020, with later elections in the 2020s adding Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia, and North Carolina to the Democratic column.

Second, incorporating generational cohorts into this analysis dramatically accelerates the rate at which America’s political terrain could potentially shift, as shown by our second, generation-based, scenario. That scenario finds Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Arizona moving Democratic in 2020, with later elections in the decade adding Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Ohio to the Democratic tally.

Even under scenarios where cohorts grow more conservative as they age or younger generations are substantially more conservative, these changes are still far faster than with simulations that consider only age groups and ignore the way generational changes can reshape the electorate.”

Political Strategy Notes

At CNN Politics, Harry Enten notes, “If former Vice President Joe Biden is to win this election, his best chance probably runs through the Great Lakes…Were Biden to hold the Clinton states (and polls indicate that he probably will), he needs to find an extra 38 electoral votes…Those extra 38 electoral votes are likely to come from the six closest states Trump won in 2016: Arizona (11 electoral votes), Florida (29 electoral votes), Michigan (16 electoral votes), North Carolina (15 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes) and Wisconsin (10 electoral votes)…Now, look at the polling aggregates in each of those contests…Michigan: Biden +8 points…Wisconsin: Biden +8 points…Pennsylvania: Biden +7 points…Nebraska’s 2nd District: Biden +7 points…Arizona: Biden +4 points…Florida: Biden +4 points…Noth Carolina: Biden +3 points…What you see here is a pretty clear divide between the Great Lake and Sun Belt states. Biden has advantages of 7 points to 8 points in the Great Lakes, while his leads are 3 to 4 points in the Sun Belt…The key in these poll numbers is that Biden doesn’t actually need Arizona, Florida or North Carolina to win. Just by winning in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and holding the Clinton states, Biden gets to 278 electoral votes…Not surprisingly, statistical models suggest that Pennsylvania is the state most likely to determine the Electoral College winner in 2020.”

Polling data have indicated for months that Democrats have intended to vote earlier at much higher rates than Republicans, who were reacting to President Trump’s near-constant false claims that voting by mail would lead to widespread fraud,” Miles Parks writes at npr.org. “We’re now getting evidence from actual voting behavior that confirms those polls. Democrats have cast about 53% of the early votes, according to predictive analysis by the data firm TargetSmart, which uses voter data beyond party registration to project turnout trends. That’s compared with 36% by Republicans…The early voters also tend to trend older. Voters 50 or older make up more than 70% of the votes cast, according to the TargetSmart analysis. Hundreds of thousands more young people have voted at this point in October, compared with the 2016 election, but they still make up a lower share of the overall total than they did then…Notably, African American voters make up a larger share of early voters than in 2016. More than six times as many African American voters have voted early this year than had at the same point in the last presidential election, according to TargetSmart.”

New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall has a list of things Democrats ought to be worrying about, including: “David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report. wrote on Oct. 1 that voter registration patterns over a longer period in key battleground states show that “Republicans have swamped Democrats in adding new voters to the rolls, a dramatic GOP improvement over 2016.”…Four of the six states Trump won by fewer than five points in 2016 allow voters to register by party: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In recent months, there have been substantially more Republicans added to the rolls than Democrats in each of them except for Arizona…Wasserman’s data:

Florida, since the state’s March primary, added 195,652 Republicans and 98,362 Democrats.

Pennsylvania, since June, Republicans plus 135,619, Democrats up 57,985.

North Carolina, since March, Republicans up 83,785 to Democrats 38,137.

In Arizona, the exception, “Democrats out-registered Republicans 31,139 to 29,667” in recent months.”

From “Democrats Don’t Need To Win Georgia, Iowa, Ohio Or Texas — But They Could” by Perry Bacon, Jr. at FiveThirtyEight: “Just eight years ago, it would have been weird to put Iowa and Ohio in the same electoral category as Georgia and Texas. In the 2012 election, President Obama won Iowa by 6 percentage points and Ohio by 3 pointswhile losing Georgia by 8 and Texas by 16…But in the early stages of the Trump era, Georgia and Texas got a bit more blue, while Iowa and Ohio got more red. (Exactly why these shifts happened at the same time is complicated, so let’s leave that aside for the moment.) In 2016 and 2018, these four states voted similarly — about 11 points, give or take, to the right of the country overall. That gave Trump fairly comfortable wins in all four states in 2016 — when Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by just 2 points — but Republicans barely won in several key statewide races in these four states in 2018, when Democrats won the national U.S. House vote by about 9 points…Fast-forward to 2020, which is looking about as blue as 2018 — and perhaps even more so — and all four states look competitive. You can see that in the latest polls. Morning Consult surveys released this week showed President Trump with just a 2-point lead in Georgia and Texas, and a 3-point lead in Ohio. A CBS News/YouGov poll had Biden and Trump tied in Iowa. Those are just a few polls, obviously, but they largely match the FiveThirtyEight polling averages in each of these states…Biden doesn’t need to carry these states — he can win a comfortable Electoral College victory without carrying them. Trump does need them, however — but he also needs bluer states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to win reelection. Similarly, Democrats can win a Senate majoritywithout carrying any of the four Senate seats up for grabs in these states (none in Ohio but two in Georgia).”

Is the Democratic South Returning in 2020?

It occurred to me this week that 2020 represents the half-century anniversary of a real political breakthrough in the South, so I wrote about it at New York:

[A]s we approach a momentous election, something’s happening that some of us old southern-bred progressives weren’t sure we’d live to see: Large swaths of the South are competitive in both presidential and Senate races. This development is typified by my home state of Georgia, where there are two red-hot Senate races, two red-hot suburban House races, and better than a puncher’s chance that Joe Biden will win the state’s 16 electoral votes.

It brings back memories. Fifty years ago this autumn, a wave of new, non-racist southern Democratic governors was elected and was widely proclaimed to represent a New South. There was Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, who soundly defeated the old race-baiter Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary before dispatching Republican incumbent Winthrop Rockefeller. There was Floridian Reuben Askew, who demolished conservative Republican incumbent Claude Kirk. In South Carolina, John West defeated party-switching Republican segregationist Albert Watson. And in Georgia, former state legislator Jimmy Carter defeated Republican journalist Hal Suit and almost immediately began repudiating the vestiges of segregation.

It was an exciting moment in southern politics. Black voters, gradually emancipated politically by the Voting Rights Act, joined forces with some northern transplants and urbanizing white voters to bury the racist southern Democratic Party of the Jim Crow era. (Aside from Alabama, where George Wallace reclaimed his hold on the state Democratic Party after he lost it temporarily when his wife and designated successor, Lurleen Wallace, died.)

The emergence of non-racist white southern Democrats leading a new biracial coalition initiated a long process wherein conservative white southerners drifted toward the GOP. For a very long time, Republicans held the advantage in this exchange. But for a brief moment after 1970, things were looking up for a biracial Democratic coalition.

This moment of hope peaked in Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, when the Georgia governor defeated Wallace in most southern primaries and then gained his endorsement, subsequently putting together a mind-bending coalition of Black and conservative white voters united by regional pride (between Andrew and Lyndon Johnson, no president was elected from a state that had been part of the Confederacy). Carter won every state of the former Confederacy (producing huge swings compared with Hubert Humphrey’s performance in 1968 and George McGovern’s in 1972) except Virginia; he won the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri as well as southern-inflected areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania that helped keep those states in the Democratic column. Carter also became a sort of figure of emancipation and political awakening among his fellow white Evangelical Christians — the same group that gave Donald Trump more than 80 percent of their votes in 2016.

Until now, the two Carter elections have been the high-water mark of post-civil-rights-era Democratic performance in the South, with a faint echo in 1992 when Bill Clinton won his own state of Arkansas, plus Georgia, Louisiana, and running mate Al Gore’s Tennessee. When the Carter coalition fell in 1980, it fell hard. Southern Democrats held on at the state and local levels for a good while, even into the current century in some places, but the handwriting was on the wall. Republicans won every state of the former Confederacy in the 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections. Beginning in 1992 and 1994, Republicans began a brisk conquest of southern congressional seats, in part by packing Black voters into gerrymandered House districts that left other districts vulnerable to GOP gains among white voters. A rapidly shrinking cohort of white moderate-to-conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats held out, although voting more and more often with Republicans in Congress, even as some gave up and switched parties.

Residual racism, of course, was an abiding wellspring for this trend. Indeed, beginning in the 1990s there was much talk of the “southernization” of the Republican Party as the migration of racially motivated hard-core conservatives into the GOP introduced an ideologically rigid, even savage tone into the councils of the Party of Lincoln.

Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century and well into the 21st, the arithmetic for Republican domination of the South was to roll up huge margins among white voters in suburban and rural areas that offset the growth of the Black voting population of urban areas, increasingly supplemented with northern transplants and “knowledge workers.” The omega point for this trend was the midterm election of 2014, when, for a brief moment, Republicans controlled every state legislative chamber, every governorship, and all but one Senate seat in the former Confederacy.

But underneath the surface, this demographic arithmetic has been steadily reversing itself as minority voting participation blossomed and college-educated white voters began spurning Republicans. Virginia flipped first; the sole southern state to spurn Carter has gone Democratic in three straight presidential contests and isn’t even competitive in 2020. North Carolina followed, going Democratic in 2008 for the first time since 1976, and has remained competitive, as has Florida, the ultimate national battleground state.

Carter’s own Georgia, with a steadily rising Black, Latino, and Asian voting population centered in Atlanta and its increasingly diverse suburbs, is widely expected to be the next southeastern state to “turn blue.” In 2018, Democrats picked up one House seat and nearly won another in the north Atlanta suburbs, which were a Republican stronghold until very recently. Their gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, came within an eyelash of winning back the statehouse that Democrats had last won in 1998.

Like Georgia, Texas is a state where Democrats made startling urban and suburban gains in 2018 and seem to be approaching a demographic tipping point. They flipped two House seats despite a heavily gerrymandered district map and improved their vote share almost everywhere, while Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke broke fundraising records and threw a serious scare into Ted Cruz. And that midterm election built on the gains of 2016, when Hillary Clinton reduced Barack Obama’s 15-point margin of defeat in 2012 to less than nine points.

Even in South Carolina, where the South’s conservative Republican revolution really began when the segregationist senator Strom Thurmond joined the GOP in 1964, the same coalition of Black and upscale white suburban voters is beginning to make serious inroads into Republican rule. This year, Democrat Jaime Harrison, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in U.S. political history, is running even in the polls with veteran Republican senator Lindsey Graham. No Democrat has won a Senate or gubernatorial race in the Palmetto State since 1998. It also appears that Biden may well win the highest percentage of the presidential vote there than any Democrat since — you guessed it — Jimmy Carter.

It’s important to understand, however, that the future Democratic coalition in the South is different from the one Republicans defeated a generation ago. From Carter’s day until very recently, the southern Democratic formula for success was to run moderate-to-conservative white candidates with residual appeal among rural white voters and count on monolithic Black support to lift them to victory over suburban-based Republican candidates. It created some understandable unhappiness among Black Democrats who were often taken for granted and were hardly ever represented in major offices. It also sustained a southern wing of the Democratic Party, the Blue Dogs, that was often out of sync ideologically with the national party and was unreliable in national elections and in Congress.

In Georgia, the last gasp of the old Blue Dog approach to Democratic politics was breathed in 2014 when two scions of legendary white Democrats headed the ticket: Michelle Nunn (daughter of Sam, the former senator) for Senate, and Carter’s own grandson Jason for governor. Both ran traditional centrist campaigns, and both lost. They were outpaced in 2018 by Abrams, a Black progressive lawmaker from Atlanta, who represented a new formula for southern Democratic politics: a truly multiracial and more ideologically progressive coalition that’s good news for Democrats both regionally and nationally. Similarly, in Florida, forthright Black progressive Andrew Gillum upset still another centrist white Democratic scion, Gwen Graham, in the 2018 primary and posted the best gubernatorial performance of any Democrat since 1994. In 2020, South Carolina’s Harrison fits the same mold, as do white Democrats like Senate candidate MJ Hegar in Texas — perhaps somewhat moderate by national standards but not the southern Democrats of yore who ran away from the national party and often aped conservative talking points.

So are Democrats on the brink of becoming a new, more racially equitable and progressive version of the successful Democrats of Jimmy Carter’s New South era? There are headwinds, to be sure. As Perry Bacon Jr. astutely observed in an analysis of the South Carolina Senate race, getting to 50 percent for southern Democrats is a lot harder than getting to 45 percent:

“White voters in the South tend to be consistently Republican. That is, they don’t really swing between the two parties as they do in a state like Iowa, where Biden could do 6 to 9 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. At FiveThirtyEight, we call this phenomenon “elasticity” — basically, how many voters in a state are persuadable vs. always vote for one party or the other. And South Carolina is one of the most inelastic states.”

That’s true of southern-bred white voters across the region, or at least those whose politics are unleavened by the influence of academic centers, tech companies, or Yankee-transplant friends and neighbors. And there are pockets of the South where the math just doesn’t add up for Democrats, either because there aren’t enough minority voters to serve as a party base (Tennessee) or because of conservative economic and cultural patterns that have inhibited the growth of a progressive white voting bloc (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi).

Still, you have to guess, as Jimmy Carter turned 96 this month, that he probably feels more comfortable with his region’s politics than at any time since at least the 1990s. The impossible task he performed of uniting the South around a Democratic candidacy despite vast differences of opinion on just about everything was a onetime proposition. It was born of a regional inferiority complex and the impressive, if forgotten, political skills of a man mostly admired for his post-political, postpresidential accomplishments in diplomacy and philanthropy. But the future southern Democratic Party is now being built on the more solid ground of policies and values that unite an increasingly diverse population with their counterparts in other parts of the country — led by politicians who are no longer whistling Dixie.

Democrats Consider Options on High Court Expansion

In “There Is Only One Solution to the Amy Coney Barrett Debacle: Yes, Democrats must expand the courts. Here’s why, and here’s how,” Elie Mystal writes at The Nation:

…There’s not a single Democratic law or program that a court controlled 6-3 by conservative justices cannot frustrate or block. A Republican-appointed court will smack down voting rights legislation, gun reformlegislation, climate change protections, LGBTQ rights, and abortion rights. It will nullify the Affordable Care Act and block the merest whiff of a public option or Medicare for All. Republicans wanted the court as a hedge against their waning popular support, and now they have it.

The obvious—and only—solution to this Republican power grab is for Democrats to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court.

…We cannot go on like this. We cannot continue to exist in a polity in which the death of an octogenarian begets a generation-defining game of tug-of-war. We cannot endure under a legal system in which the death of one or two people opens the door to wild changes in our laws or the devastation of the rights of people living under them.

Mystal envisions a dramatic expansion of the Supreme Court far beyond what most Democrats are currently pondering, if they win the presidency and a Senate majority:

The way to free ourselves from the random wheel of death is to have more justices on the court. Ginsburg’s passing would have had significantly less impact on the fate of women’s rights if she had been but one of 19 people instead of nine. By the same logic, it wouldn’t have made sense for Republicans to block Garland’s appointment if it would have changed just one seat on a court of, say, 29 individuals. Every Supreme Court justice would still be important but not nearly as important as each one is now.

It would be a tough sell, even with Democrats. But reducing the power of individual justices by increasing the size of the court makes sense, as Mystal explains:

Moreover, a much larger court would likely lead to more moderate opinions (if not more moderate judges, since those don’t really exist). That’s because Supreme Court opinions have to be agreed to by a majority of the court…Trying to get a majority of your colleagues to agree with you on a 29-person court is just a different beast from trying to get your four archconservative buddies to sign on to your ruling. Decisions made for the benefit of more people tend to be watered down. That’s basically how Olive Garden stays in business.

Mystal envisions including some Republicans in the larger court expansion, to get some “buy-in” from Republican senators. Mystal’s large expansion proposal may make more sense as a longer-term strategy — it would require a major effort to educate the public, since many people seem to believe that expanding the court is a radical idea, despite historical facts to the contrary. However, if Dems win both the white house and a senate majority, they will have to move quickly to reduce the damage a 6-3 Republican court would do their policies. They could start with a smaller  expansion, from 9 to 13, and then use their leverage to create a larger court with Republican representation and buy-in.

Former congressman and MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough has a Washington Post column, “There’s nothing more originalist than packing the court,” which clarifies the history of Supreme Court expansion in light of Judge Barrett’s likely confirmation. As Scarborough notes,

As Amy Coney Barrett said in Senate testimony this week, the Constitution has “the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it.” Even before every state ratified America’s founding charter, George Washington signed a bill that placed just six justices on the Supreme Court. The second president, John Adams, reduced that number to five. Thomas Jefferson increased that number to seven. And the man who inspired the term “Jacksonian Democracy” added two more justices in 1837.

…Abraham Lincoln confirmed his opponents’ worst suspicions when he moved against the Supreme Court by signing the Judiciary Act of 1862, adding a 10th justice to the court. Following his assassination, Republicans in Congress reduced that number to seven in an effort to thwart Lincoln’s Democratic successor. Republicans then added two justices after winning back the White House in 1869.

…Given such a powerful legacy, originalists, Republican politicians and right-wing bloggers would never dare suggest that adjusting the Supreme Court’s size was anything other than constitutional and consistent with the republic’s oldest traditions. To do so would condemn as un-American the Father of our Country, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the first president to live in the White House.

At The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner urges Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to get out front on Supreme Court expansion:

Joe Biden has been getting pummeled by Republicans, both for the demands of many Democrats to expand the Supreme Court, and for ducking the question of whether he supports the idea. He can blunt these attacks by facing the issue head-on.

Expanding the Court is a legitimate idea because Republicans have been engaging in court-packing for decades. For starters, they have imposed extreme ideological litmus tests on their own court appointees, and shamelessly delayed or blocked Democratic appointments.

…Today’s Republicans have so politicized the Court that its very legitimacy is in question. Biden needs to say that he has not ruled out expanding the Court, and that he will begin a process of consultation with scholars and jurists to consider several alternatives, including fixed terms for justices, mandatory retirement ages, and a larger Court.

The political reality is that Biden does not yet have a consensus on how to proceed even among Democrats. With the likelihood of a closely divided Senate, he will need to build support for whatever reform project can command backing both among scholars and the citizenry and in Congress.

Kuttner concludes, “It’s time for Biden to make a virtue of necessity, and address the issue of court expansion in a principled and candid fashion. Candor is in rare supply these days. Voters appreciate it in a political leader when they see it.”

Political Strategy Notes

Alan I. Abramowitz writes at Sabato’s Crystal Ball: “Over the past three decades, U.S. Senate elections have become increasingly nationalized. Presidential coattails have always been a factor in Senate elections, but the connection between presidential and Senate elections is much closer now than in the past. This trend reflects rising partisan polarization and straight-ticket voting. Thus, in 2016, for the first time in modern history, the candidate of the winning presidential candidate in the state won every Senate contest…There is every reason to expect that the 2020 Senate elections will continue this trend. The overwhelming majority of voters have strong opinions about President Trump, and Republican and Democratic Senate candidates are generally emphasizing their support or opposition to the president and his policies in their campaigns. We expect to find a very close connection between the 2020 presidential and Senate elections, and we expect this connection to become stronger over time. Therefore, it should be possible to use polling data on the presidential contest to predict the outcome of the U.S. Senate election even in states for which little or no polling data is available on the Senate contest…Senate elections have become increasingly tied to presidential voting results. This shows up in this year’s polling, as the margins for states’ presidential and Senate races are closely linked…An analysis of these polling data suggest that Democrats are likely to achieve a net gain of between one and eight seats with the most likely result a net gain of five seats, enough to give them a small Senate majority.”

In his Washington Post column, “How Joe Biden — yes, Joe Biden — could revolutionize American politics,” E. J. Dionne, Jr. writes, “Joe Biden may be running a safe and centrist campaign, but beneath the methodical calm is a genuinely innovative ideological appeal. The former vice president is updating and bringing back the long-dormant Democratic tradition of labor liberalism…He is doing so rhetorically and with union hall visits, but also through an agenda that seeks to spark economic growth through substantial public investments…Steve Rosenthal, a union strategist with access to labor polling, said Biden was “running a solid 10 points ahead of where Hillary Clinton was in union households nationally,” and even better in swing states…He would build infrastructure, fight climate change, raise wages, guarantee health insurance coverage and expand child-care and pre-K programs…And he is creating the sort of multiracial electoral coalition that has always been the only workable path to progressive governance…Understanding how the pieces of Biden’s strategy interact is the best way to square two seemingly contradictory facts: That Biden is running as a moderate, and that he has put forward the most progressive platform a Democrat has offered in years.”

Nathaniel Rakich explains why “Why Rejected Ballots Could Be A Big Problem In 2020” at FiveThirtyEight: “Mail-ballot rejections don’t disenfranchise all voters equally, though. Voters of color and young voters, who also tend to have less experience voting by mail, are more likely to have their votes go uncounted. In North Carolina, Black voters’ mail ballots are already being rejected at a higher rate than white voters’ ballots. A similar trend was identified in Florida and Georgia in the 2018 midterms. And in Florida in 2016 and 2018, voters age 21 and younger had a rejection rate more than eight times greater than voters over age 65…It’s possible, though, that the problem of rejected mail ballots is overstated. People often find themselves unable to vote in in-person elections as well — just in ways that are harder to measure. For example, some people may want to vote but lack the proper identification to do so; others may not be able to find their polling place on Election Day. And even among people who do make it to the polls, some may be deterred by long lines, and others may be turned away because of problems with their voter registration (e.g., it was out of date, or the voter was purged from the rolls). Stewart’s Survey of the Performance of American Elections estimates that about 955,000 votes were “lost” in one of these four ways in the 2016 general election.”

From “Should we restructure the Supreme Court?” by Russell Wheeler at Brookings: “Is anything sacrosanct about a nine-seat Supreme Court?”…The Constitution specifies no size for the Supreme Court, which has varied from five to 10 justices, depending on the number of judicial circuits…Blame rising partisan polarization for the broken process. But Republicans should bear extra responsibility for their unprecedented stonewalling of President Obama’s judicial nominees after Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015. GOP senators took hostage Justice Scalia’s vacated seat and have used verbal contortions to justify confirming a nominee for any 2020 vacancy that might occur…Pack-the-court proposals that would normally seem bizarre are understandable in today’s partisan climate. If the federal judiciary becomes a 21st-century version of the 1930s judiciary that thwarted a popular push for change, they may even become necessary.”