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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: The No Malarkey Express Comes to Vox!

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

Ezra Klein, co-founder and Grand Poobah of the very woke “explainer” site, Vox, has commendably admitted “It’s time for a fresh look at Uncle Joe” He notes that:

“Before Super Tuesday, the conventional wisdom was simple. Bernie Sanders was the turnout candidate, and Biden the uninspiring generic Democrat. You could see this in Sanders’s packed rallies, his die-hard social media brigades, his army of individual donors — and in Biden’s inability to match those markers of enthusiasm. If new voters flooded the primary, it would be proof that Sanders’s political revolution was brewing. But if the political revolution failed and turnout stagnated, Biden might slip through. What virtually no one predicted was Biden winning a high-turnout contest. But he did.

So what did the narrative get wrong? As someone who believed that narrative, what did I get wrong?”

What indeed. Of course, if Klein had been following the non-woke commentary here on my FB feed and blog, he might have wised up a bit earlier. But better late than never!

“[O]ver and over again, we’ve seen that voters just don’t care that much about malapropisms and meandering rhetorical styles…Journalists who’ve based their professional lives on clear, crisp, stylish communication find it shocking when candidates get lost in rhetorical mazes of their own construction. But both Bush and Trump won the presidency. And Ronald Reagan won reelection in a landslide, even though he couldn’t recall what city he was in during the first presidential debate and admitted to being “confused.”

Biden’s most visible weakness in day-to-day campaigning, in other words, is a weakness the media consistently overrates, at least when it comes to election outcomes.”


And even more important…..

“Lurking beneath the theory that high turnout would disadvantage Joe Biden is what we might call the “disappointed nonvoter thesis.” Scratch a political devotee and you’ll almost always find the same theory of turnout underpinning their plans: If only a candidate would say what I already think but louder. This reflects the disappointment that the very engaged have with their leaders: Practicing politicians have to appeal to mixed constituencies to win reelection or pass anything in Congress, and so they compromise their beliefs, sand down their edges, trim their ambitions.

The politically engaged perennially argue that the way to mobilize the nonvoters is to offer a clearer choice, rather than a muddled echo. Under this theory, Bernie Sanders is the clear turnout candidate, as his sharper and more ambitious agenda can mobilize nonvoters who don’t think either party speaks for them. Conversely, Biden is the business-as-usual choice.

In general, this strategy disappoints. The most famous “choice, not an echo” candidate, Barry Goldwater, lost in a landslide. And he’s the rule, not the exception. Political scientists have long found that more ideologically extreme candidates face an electoral penalty. There’s some evidence that the penalty is weakening, but as Matt Yglesias documents, it has not disappeared…..

One of the easiest and most common fallacies in politics is to imagine that one’s own political reactions are generalizable. But there’s no evidence that a more sharply ideological agenda and a more conflict-driven theory of politics will turn out nonvoters. That’s often what the most politically active voters find mobilizing, but the most politically engaged are, by definition, quite different than the least politically engaged, and so there’s no reason to believe that what the two groups want are the same.

The misperceptions here are likely compounded by Twitter, which has an outsize role in shaping how both media and political elites perceive politics but misrepresent the electorate. A February Pew study found that Democrats on Twitter were significantly more conflict-oriented than Democrats off Twitter, and perhaps for that reason, Democrats on Twitter were significantly more likely to support Sanders or Elizabeth Warren over Biden than Democrats off Twitter. This held true even when looking at Americans who leaned Democratic but weren’t registered to vote.”

Yep. I believe I’ve made these very points not just once but many times. It probably helps that I stay as far away from Twitter as I possibly can.

“In his new book Un-Trumping America, Pod Save America’s Dan Pfeiffer writes that “The biggest divide in the Democratic Party is not between left and center. It’s between those who believe once Trump is gone things will go back to normal and those who believe that our democracy is under a threat that goes beyond Trump.”

The Democratic debates have, for obvious reasons, featured Democratic candidates arguing with each other. Differentiating from each other means going beyond their shared differences with Trump. At almost every debate, the various candidates say that it’s not enough to simply beat Trump — you need a bigger agenda, a more inspiring vision. “We’re trying to transform this country, not win an election, not just beat Trump,” Sanders told Rachel Maddow.

Biden is the closest thing to a candidate who disagrees. His tagline is that he’ll “beat Trump like a drum.” He routinely gets criticized by liberals for saying things like “History will treat this administration’s time as an aberration,” or “This is not the Republican Party.” His answers trade heavily on nostalgia for the Obama administration, which is to say, for the pre-Trump status quo. It’s basically as close to the Democrats’ 2018 congressional strategy as a presidential campaign can run.

This annoys leftists who think the Obama administration was characterized by neoliberal half-measures and liberal analysts who think, like Pfeiffer does, that Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of America’s political crisis….But most Democrats seem to agree with Biden. As CNN noted, “Majorities of Democratic voters in every Super Tuesday state said they would prefer a nominee who can beat Trump over one with whom they agree on the issues.”

As I believe I’ve also said many times, job #1 in this election is to turn Trump disapproval into Democratic voters. Biden understood that better than his opponents so, in the end, the voters have rewarded him. And that’s no malarkey.

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