The word a couple of weeks ago was that DC GOPers were less than thrilled at CA Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegar’s redistricting reform ballot initiative, on grounds that the current system nationally is helping keep Republicans in charge, and they’d just as soon leave things as they are.Well, the odds of letting sleeping dogs lie on this subject just went way down, as Republican legislators in my poor home state of Georgia started a re-redistricting of Congressional Districts aimed at zapping a couple of Democratic incumbents. Their model, of course, is the Great Texas Power Grab of 2003, the re-redistricting engineered by Tom DeLay which ultimately produced a net gain of five House seats for the GOP, reversing what would have otherwise been a loss of seats in 2004 (Republicans in Colorado tried the same stunt, but were overruled by the courts citing a state constitutional provision limiting redistricting to once a decade). But in a way, the Georgia gambit is worse. In Texas, the fig-leaf justifications for the Power Grab were that (a) the Dem majority in the House delegation did not reflect recent partisan results in statewide elections, and (b) the map they were throwing out was drawn by judges, not legislators. In Georgia, (a) the current 7-6 GOP advantage in House districts is a pretty fair reflection of recent election results, and (b) the map they are throwing out was duly drawn by the legislature, signed by the Governor, pre-cleared by the Bush Justice Department, and upheld by the courts. In other words, the Georgia Republicans are undertaking this outrage, well, because they can. The new GOPer map is apparently aimed at snuffing two white Democratic House members, Jim Marshall, who represents a central-west central GA district, and John Barrow, who just beat a Republican incumbent to represent the Athens-Augusta-Savannah district. They aren’t going after the state’s four African-American House Members (John Lewis, Cynthia McKinney, David Scott, and Sanford Bishop) because that would raise an unmistakable Voting Right Act issue. But in any event, the GA Power Grab may wind up biting the national GOP in the butt. News of the latest Power Grab led (according to the subscription-only Roll Call newspaper) House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer to put in a few phone calls to Democrats in the three states where their party has taken over total control of the executive and legislative branches since the regular redistricting cycle prior to 2002: Illinois, New Mexico, and Louisiana. Illinois is a potentially ripe target for a retaliatory re-redistricting, since GOPers hold nine seats, and because the new chairman of the DCCC, Rahm Emanuel, is from that state. Moreover, one of the Illinois Republicans who could find himself in sudden trouble is a guy named Dennis Hastert. Personally, I hate all this re-redistricting crap, and the whole system of partisan and incumbent-protection gerrymandering that has reduced the People’s House of Congress to a vast rotten borough where politicians choose voters rather than the other way around. But if Republicans continue to game the system, they can’t complain if Democrats retaliate where they can, and maybe the whole spectacle can build support for a truly national drive for comprehensive redistricting reform. Maybe those Georgia Republican jokers will smell the coffee and call off the dogs before their own party’s House speaker finds himself hunted as well.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Staring at the polls and recent precedents, I offered some blunt thoughts at New York on exactly how popular Biden needs to be in 2024:
There’s abundant evidence that if it were held today, a general election rematch of Joe Biden and Donald Trump would show the 46th president in serious trouble. He’s trailing Trump in national and most battleground-state polls, his job-approval rating is at or below 40 percent, his 2020 electoral base is very shaky, and the public mood, particularly on the economy, is decidedly sour.
The standard response of Biden loyalists to the bad recent polling news is to say “The election is a year away!,” as though public-opinion data this far out is useless. But it’s only useless if Biden turns things around, and while there’s plenty of time for that to happen, there has to be a clear sense of what he needs to secure victory and how to go about meeting those needs. Vox’s Andrew Prokop provides a good summary of possible explanations for Biden’s current position:
“One theory: Biden is blowing it — the polls are a clear warning sign that the president has unique flaws as a candidate, and another Democrat would likely be doing better.
“A second theory: Biden’s facing a tough environment — voters have decided they don’t like the economy or the state of the world, and, fairly or not, he’s taking the brunt of it.
“And a third theory: Biden’s bad numbers will get better — voters aren’t even paying much attention yet, and as the campaign gears up, the president will bounce back.”
The first theory, in my opinion, is irrelevant; Biden isn’t going to change his mind about running for reelection, and it’s simply too late for any other Democrat to push him aside. And the second and third theories really point to the same conclusion: The president is currently too unpopular to win in 2024 and needs to find a way to change the dynamics of a general-election contest with Trump.
There’s not much question that Biden needs to improve his popularity at least modestly. There is only one president in living memory with job-approval ratings anything like Biden’s going into his reelection year who actually won; that would be Harry Truman in 1948, and there’s a reason his successful reelection is regarded as one of the great upsets in American political history. There are others, including Barack Obama, who looked pretty toasty at this point in a first term and still won reelection but who managed to boost their popularity before Election Day (Obama boosted his job-approval rating, per Gallup, from 42 percent at the end of November 2011 to 52 percent when voters went to the polls 11 months later).
Given the current state of partisan polarization, it’s unlikely Biden can get majority job approval next year even with the most fortunate set of circumstances. But the good news for him is that he probably doesn’t have to. Job-approval ratings are crucial indicators in a normal presidential reelection cycle that is basically a referendum on the incumbent’s record. Assuming Trump is the Republican nominee, 2024 will not be a normal reelection cycle for three reasons.
First, this would be the exceedingly rare election matching two candidates with presidential records to defend, making it inherently a comparative election (it has happened only once, in 1888, when President Benjamin Harrison faced former president Grover Cleveland). In some respects (most crucially, perceptions of the economy), the comparison might favor Trump. In many others (e.g., Trump’s two impeachments and insurrectionary actions feeding his current legal peril), the comparison will likely favor Biden.
Second, Trump is universally known and remains one of the most controversial figures in American political history. It’s not as though he will have an opportunity to remold his persona or repudiate words and actions that make him simply unacceptable to very nearly half the electorate. Trump’s favorability ratio (40 percent to 55 percent, per RealClearPolitics polling averages) is identical to Biden’s.
And third, Trump seems determined to double down on the very traits that make him so controversial. His second-term plans are straightforwardly authoritarian, and his rhetoric of dehumanizing and threatening revenge against vast swaths of Americans is getting notably and regularly harsher.
So Biden won’t have to try very hard to make 2024 a comparative — rather than a self-referendum — election. And his strategic goal is simply to make himself more popular than his unpopular opponent while winning at least a draw among the significant number of voters who don’t particularly like either candidate.
This last part won’t be easy. Trump won solidly in both 2016 and 2020 among voters who said they didn’t like either major-party candidate (the saving grace for Biden was that there weren’t that many of them in 2020; there will probably be an awful lot of them next November). So inevitably, the campaign will need to ensure that every persuadable voter has a clear and vivid understanding of Trump’s astounding character flaws and extremist tendencies. What will make this process even trickier is the availability of robust independent and minor-party candidates who could win a lot of voters disgusted by a Biden-Trump rock fight.
So the formula for a Biden reelection is to do everything possible to boost his job-approval ratings up into the mid-40s or so and then go after Trump with all the abundant ammunition the 45th president has provided him. The more popular Biden becomes, the more he can go back to the “normalcy” messaging that worked (albeit narrowly) in 2020.
If the economy goes south or overseas wars spread or another pandemic appears, not even the specter of an unleashed and vengeful authoritarian in the White House will likely save Biden; the same could be true if Uncle Joe suffers a health crisis or public lapses in his powers of communication. But there’s no reason he cannot win reelection with some luck and skill — and with the extraordinary decision of the opposition party to insist on nominating Trump for a third time. Yes, the 45th president has some political strengths of his own, but he would uniquely help Biden overcome the difficulty of leading a profoundly unhappy nation.