washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

April 3: Why Democrats Postponed the Convention But Didn’t Make it “Virtual”–Yet

Sometimes big political decisions are made that seem a little odd until you explore the internal logic. That’s how I assessed the big news this week about the 2020 Democratic National Convention at New York:

Here are several explanations for the decision to move the date instead of bagging the whole atavistic event in favor of a long-distance show for TV and social media.

1. Because they could

Yes, the postponement of the Olympic Games might make it seem strange to go ahead with a different (if vastly smaller and less complex) high-profile live event. But it also opened up new scheduling territory. The original July dates for the DNC were based on giving a wide berth to the Games. Now Democrats can snuggle right up to the August 24 start date for the Republican Convention without trying to draw eyeballs away from the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. And if the pandemic (and the fear of big gatherings) somehow fades by then, they can go ahead and party like it’s 2019.

2. They don’t want to give the GOP an advantage

Even as Democrats talked about going virtual, Republicans were insisting none of their plans had changed: “No way I’m going to cancel the convention,” Trump has told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “We’re going to have the convention, it’s going to be incredible.”

Conventions have traditionally been worth a significant bounce for each party’s presidential candidates. They typically canceled each other out, but the possibility of Republicans having their big four-day live TV show after Democrats had bagged or curtailed their own did not seem advisable to those planning the Milwaukee event. If, of course, Republicans do look at the epidemiological evidence and radically modify their plans for Charlotte, Democrats will do the same in a Milwaukee Minute.

3. A lot of local money depends on a live convention

National political conventions are massive undertakings by the host city, which in turn expect massive benefits from the many thousands (an estimated 50,000, initially) of people who attend the event and eat and drink and pay premium rates for lodging and transportation. Now that Milwaukee, like every other American city, is facing a deep and immediate recession, a huge live convention in August seems perfectly timed in terms of a much-hoped-for rebound, as local leaders tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called the decision ‘absolutely the right move’ by the organizers and the Democratic National Committee.

“’It underscores the commitment that they have made to Milwaukee,’ he said. ‘It underscores the commitment they have made to Wisconsin and it is my hope that by having it in August it will be a much needed shot in the arm for our restaurants, hotels and other businesses.’”

Sharply cutting back on the in-person aspects of the convention before it’s absolutely necessary would be a bummer for the host city, and that in turn could cast a pall over the residual events.

4. Nobody wants to offend Wisconsin

And speaking of palls cast, Democrats haven’t for a moment forgotten why they picked Milwaukee for their convention in the first place: the belief that Wisconsin will be one of the key states — and perhaps the key state — that will determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Scrubbing the party’s big party there would likely be a buzzkill for Wisconsin Democrats and could even alienate swing voters:

“Part of the narrative that comes out of a convention also involves the host city and state. A potential casualty if there is a virtual convention would be the visibility Milwaukee and Wisconsin stand to gain from the convention and the political message Democrats want to send by choosing Wisconsin — that the party is laser-focused on a part of the country it neglected in the last presidential race.”

Being literally afraid to set foot in Milwaukee would not be a good look for Democrats, even if it’s for public-health reasons everyone can understand.

5. It’s Joe’s party now

It’s no coincidence, of course, that the decision to postpone the convention (without changing its nature — so far at least) came almost immediately after Joe Biden began urging that course of action. Perhaps his DNC friends were whispering to him to move in that direction, but in any event, as the presumptive presidential nominee, Uncle Joe is on the brink of assuming complete command of convention planning. It’s essentially a turnkey operation ready to bow before the imperial will of the candidate whose name will be uttered a thousand times once the opening gavel drops.

Delaying the convention also gives Biden’s people more time to impose control over the proceedings, which is handy since the coronavirus has also greatly postponed the moment when he officially clinches the nomination.

6. The convention can always “go virtual” later

Postponing the convention may simply mean kicking the can down the road a month in making the fateful decision to sadden nostalgic Democrats and the population of Milwaukee by “going virtual” with significant elements of the convention — or just scaling everything back. I’d be shocked if contingency planning for a very different kind of convention isn’t quietly under way (probably among Republicans as well), even as the DNC trumpets sound the charge toward an event just like the ones that made Joe Biden the vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and 2012. So don’t be surprised, if it turns out to be just too risky to kick it old school in Milwaukee on August 17, that the Democratic Party will have a fully developed plan B before the first balloon order is canceled.


Why Democrats Postponed the Convention But Didn’t Make It “Virtual”–Yet

Sometimes big political decisions are made that seem a little odd until you explore the internal logic. That’s how I assessed the big news this week about the 2020 Democratic National Convention at New York:

Here are several explanations for the decision to move the date instead of bagging the whole atavistic event in favor of a long-distance show for TV and social media.

1. Because they could

Yes, the postponement of the Olympic Games might make it seem strange to go ahead with a different (if vastly smaller and less complex) high-profile live event. But it also opened up new scheduling territory. The original July dates for the DNC were based on giving a wide berth to the Games. Now Democrats can snuggle right up to the August 24 start date for the Republican Convention without trying to draw eyeballs away from the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. And if the pandemic (and the fear of big gatherings) somehow fades by then, they can go ahead and party like it’s 2019.

2. They don’t want to give the GOP an advantage

Even as Democrats talked about going virtual, Republicans were insisting none of their plans had changed: “No way I’m going to cancel the convention,” Trump has told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “We’re going to have the convention, it’s going to be incredible.”

Conventions have traditionally been worth a significant bounce for each party’s presidential candidates. They typically canceled each other out, but the possibility of Republicans having their big four-day live TV show after Democrats had bagged or curtailed their own did not seem advisable to those planning the Milwaukee event. If, of course, Republicans do look at the epidemiological evidence and radically modify their plans for Charlotte, Democrats will do the same in a Milwaukee Minute.

3. A lot of local money depends on a live convention

National political conventions are massive undertakings by the host city, which in turn expect massive benefits from the many thousands (an estimated 50,000, initially) of people who attend the event and eat and drink and pay premium rates for lodging and transportation. Now that Milwaukee, like every other American city, is facing a deep and immediate recession, a huge live convention in August seems perfectly timed in terms of a much-hoped-for rebound, as local leaders tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called the decision ‘absolutely the right move’ by the organizers and the Democratic National Committee.

“’It underscores the commitment that they have made to Milwaukee,’ he said. ‘It underscores the commitment they have made to Wisconsin and it is my hope that by having it in August it will be a much needed shot in the arm for our restaurants, hotels and other businesses.’”

Sharply cutting back on the in-person aspects of the convention before it’s absolutely necessary would be a bummer for the host city, and that in turn could cast a pall over the residual events.

4. Nobody wants to offend Wisconsin

And speaking of palls cast, Democrats haven’t for a moment forgotten why they picked Milwaukee for their convention in the first place: the belief that Wisconsin will be one of the key states — and perhaps the key state — that will determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Scrubbing the party’s big party there would likely be a buzzkill for Wisconsin Democrats and could even alienate swing voters:

“Part of the narrative that comes out of a convention also involves the host city and state. A potential casualty if there is a virtual convention would be the visibility Milwaukee and Wisconsin stand to gain from the convention and the political message Democrats want to send by choosing Wisconsin — that the party is laser-focused on a part of the country it neglected in the last presidential race.”

Being literally afraid to set foot in Milwaukee would not be a good look for Democrats, even if it’s for public-health reasons everyone can understand.

5. It’s Joe’s party now

It’s no coincidence, of course, that the decision to postpone the convention (without changing its nature — so far at least) came almost immediately after Joe Biden began urging that course of action. Perhaps his DNC friends were whispering to him to move in that direction, but in any event, as the presumptive presidential nominee, Uncle Joe is on the brink of assuming complete command of convention planning. It’s essentially a turnkey operation ready to bow before the imperial will of the candidate whose name will be uttered a thousand times once the opening gavel drops.

Delaying the convention also gives Biden’s people more time to impose control over the proceedings, which is handy since the coronavirus has also greatly postponed the moment when he officially clinches the nomination.

6. The convention can always “go virtual” later

Postponing the convention may simply mean kicking the can down the road a month in making the fateful decision to sadden nostalgic Democrats and the population of Milwaukee by “going virtual” with significant elements of the convention — or just scaling everything back. I’d be shocked if contingency planning for a very different kind of convention isn’t quietly under way (probably among Republicans as well), even as the DNC trumpets sound the charge toward an event just like the ones that made Joe Biden the vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and 2012. So don’t be surprised, if it turns out to be just too risky to kick it old school in Milwaukee on August 17, that the Democratic Party will have a fully developed plan B before the first balloon order is canceled.


April 1: 2020 Congressional Landscape Tilting Blue

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, political life goes on, and so this week I wrote about the House and Senate landscape at New York:

At FiveThirtyEight, Nathaniel Rakich has conducted an overview of Senate races, and concludes that Democrats have a marginally better — though still limited — chance of picking up the three or four (depending on who controls the tie-breaking vice-presidential vote) net seats needed for control in 2021:

“The most competitive Senate races remain unchanged from late last year — there haven’t been any significant developments in Colorado or Maine, for example, that have dislodged them from their too-close-to-call status. Instead, the biggest Senate news of the last couple months came in the longer-shot Democratic pick-up opportunity of Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock’s entry has shaken up the race. Bullock was considered to be the only Democrat who could put this red state in play, and his announcement caused nonpartisan handicappers to move the race from ‘Solid Republican’ to ‘Lean Republican.'”

The November special election for a Republican-held Senate seat in Georgia is another potential Democratic pickup opportunity, given the potentially vicious GOP intraparty maneuvering involving Doug Collins and recently appointed senator, Kelly Loeffler. And as Rakich notes, in Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly is beginning to look like a slight favorite against another appointed senator, Martha McSally.

If the Senate landscape is looking slightly bluer but still tinged red, COVID-19 has more decisively affected House races, as Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman explains:

“As the COVID-19 outbreak forces more states to delay spring primary and runoff dates, it’s had another, more subtle effect: it’s all but frozen the House recruitment process in place and curtailed fundraising, benefiting incumbents and candidates who had already built large war chests and disadvantaging recent entrants. On the whole, that boosts Democrats, the party on defense this cycle.

“Republicans need a net gain of 18 seats to win the majority back. But of the 30 House Democrats who represent districts President Trump carried in 2016, 11 still didn’t have a GOP challenger with more than $200,000 in the bank at the beginning of 2020. In fact, the median Democrat in these 30 seats ended 2019 with $1.8 million on hand to just $247,000 for the median leading Republican challenger.

“Amid self-quarantines and massive 401k losses, it’s going to be next to impossible for the parties to convince fence-sitting would-be candidates to jump into races and spend most of the year asking for money. That’s bad news for Republicans, who still have a few glaring recruitment holes.”

In his own ratings, Wasserman has moved four freshman Democrats — Laura Underwood of Illinois, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Antonio Delgado of New York, and Ben McAdams of Utah — from toss-up races to Lean D.

Most obviously, we are in the kind of insane cycle where everything could change between now and November, with the most politically important variables (themselves significantly affected by public-health and economic developments) being Donald Trump’s job approval rating and the capacity of the states to pull off a competent general election with something approaching the high turnout everyone expected before COVID-19 arrived. At this point we don’t even know for sure that the presidential nominees will be healthy as the campaign gets geared up. But it will matter a lot which party controls Congress next year, and whether either has the kind of trifecta that can make governing much easier as the country — God willing — moves beyond the current crisis.


2020 Congressional Landscape Tilting Blue

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, political life goes on, and so this week I wrote about the House and Senate landscape at New York:

At FiveThirtyEight, Nathaniel Rakich has conducted an overview of Senate races, and concludes that Democrats have a marginally better — though still limited — chance of picking up the three or four (depending on who controls the tie-breaking vice-presidential vote) net seats needed for control in 2021:

“The most competitive Senate races remain unchanged from late last year — there haven’t been any significant developments in Colorado or Maine, for example, that have dislodged them from their too-close-to-call status. Instead, the biggest Senate news of the last couple months came in the longer-shot Democratic pick-up opportunity of Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock’s entry has shaken up the race. Bullock was considered to be the only Democrat who could put this red state in play, and his announcement caused nonpartisan handicappers to move the race from ‘Solid Republican’ to ‘Lean Republican.'”

The November special election for a Republican-held Senate seat in Georgia is another potential Democratic pickup opportunity, given the potentially vicious GOP intraparty maneuvering involving Doug Collins and recently appointed senator, Kelly Loeffler. And as Rakich notes, in Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly is beginning to look like a slight favorite against another appointed senator, Martha McSally.

If the Senate landscape is looking slightly bluer but still tinged red, COVID-19 has more decisively affected House races, as Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman explains:

“As the COVID-19 outbreak forces more states to delay spring primary and runoff dates, it’s had another, more subtle effect: it’s all but frozen the House recruitment process in place and curtailed fundraising, benefiting incumbents and candidates who had already built large war chests and disadvantaging recent entrants. On the whole, that boosts Democrats, the party on defense this cycle.

“Republicans need a net gain of 18 seats to win the majority back. But of the 30 House Democrats who represent districts President Trump carried in 2016, 11 still didn’t have a GOP challenger with more than $200,000 in the bank at the beginning of 2020. In fact, the median Democrat in these 30 seats ended 2019 with $1.8 million on hand to just $247,000 for the median leading Republican challenger.

“Amid self-quarantines and massive 401k losses, it’s going to be next to impossible for the parties to convince fence-sitting would-be candidates to jump into races and spend most of the year asking for money. That’s bad news for Republicans, who still have a few glaring recruitment holes.”

In his own ratings, Wasserman has moved four freshman Democrats — Laura Underwood of Illinois, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Antonio Delgado of New York, and Ben McAdams of Utah — from toss-up races to Lean D.

Most obviously, we are in the kind of insane cycle where everything could change between now and November, with the most politically important variables (themselves significantly affected by public-health and economic developments) being Donald Trump’s job approval rating and the capacity of the states to pull off a competent general election with something approaching the high turnout everyone expected before COVID-19 arrived. At this point we don’t even know for sure that the presidential nominees will be healthy as the campaign gets geared up. But it will matter a lot which party controls Congress next year, and whether either has the kind of trifecta that can make governing much easier as the country — God willing — moves beyond the current crisis.


March 27: Crucial General Election State Struggling With Its Primary

As we head slowly and erratically towards November, I remain alert to any news about general election battleground states, so I wrote about perhaps the most crucial one at New York:

Of all the states struggling to hold elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it might make sense to pay special attention to Wisconsin, which is plowing ahead with an April 7 presidential and local government primary despite all sorts of legal and logistical problems. This is the state, after all, that many analysts think could decide the presidential contest in November. And if COVID-19 still haunts voters in the fall, Wisconsin’s past heavy reliance on in-person voting (only 6 percent of ballots were cast by mail in the 2018 midterms there) could make it a source of massive controversy if turnout patterns are strange.

Wisconsin is one of the 24 states that don’t require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot by mail, but do require that voters proactively request one. Heading toward April 7, an unprecedented number of voters are doing just that, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“As of March 16, 134,556 absentee ballots had been requested statewide. By March 19, that grew to 315,429. By March 23, it grew to 482,321. As of Thursday, the total was 699,431.”

That’s compared to 170,000 mail ballots cast in 2018. And it’s impossible at this point to tell how this will affect the shape of the electorate or the speed and fairness of vote counting:

“[T]his shift poses all sorts of questions and problems. It is potentially overloading a system never designed for mail voting. It is likely to overwhelm all the local election clerks who must process and eventually count these ballots.

“Turnout will undoubtedly be depressed by the fact that people can’t and won’t vote en masse at the polls on election day. That raises fairness issues because some types of voters may be less likely to vote by mail (younger voters, lower-income voters) than others.”

And even though the decision to move ahead with this primary was bipartisan (Democratic governor Tony Evers and the legislature’s Republican leadership), there are multiple fears the situation could distort the outcome:

As you may remember, Wisconsin has for a decade been ground zero for partisan polarization. And the primary is already the subject of at least four lawsuits seeking to modify or delay or postpone the event:

“[T]he Democratic National Committee sued last week to try to extend absentee voting. That resulted in an order that reinstated online voter registration until March 30 …

“One of the new lawsuits, led by voter mobilization group Souls to the Polls, seeks to put off the election for weeks or months. It’s in line with a lawsuit Green Bay’s clerk filed this week to postpone the election …

“[Souls to the Polls] argued problems conducting the election would fall hardest on minorities and would result in violations of the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act.”

On top of everything else, a sudden shift to voting by mail could significantly slow down the vote count and publication of results. Maybe that’s no biggie on April 7, but if the presidential general election comes down to Wisconsin and the count takes days, you can imagine the wild conspiracy theories that will take wing.


Crucial General Election State Struggling With Its Primary

As we head slowly and erratically towards November, I remain alert to any news about general election battleground states, so I wrote about perhaps the most crucial one at New York:

Of all the states struggling to hold elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it might make sense to pay special attention to Wisconsin, which is plowing ahead with an April 7 presidential and local government primary despite all sorts of legal and logistical problems. This is the state, after all, that many analysts think could decide the presidential contest in November. And if COVID-19 still haunts voters in the fall, Wisconsin’s past heavy reliance on in-person voting (only 6 percent of ballots were cast by mail in the 2018 midterms there) could make it a source of massive controversy if turnout patterns are strange.

Wisconsin is one of the 24 states that don’t require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot by mail, but do require that voters proactively request one. Heading toward April 7, an unprecedented number of voters are doing just that, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“As of March 16, 134,556 absentee ballots had been requested statewide. By March 19, that grew to 315,429. By March 23, it grew to 482,321. As of Thursday, the total was 699,431.”

That’s compared to 170,000 mail ballots cast in 2018. And it’s impossible at this point to tell how this will affect the shape of the electorate or the speed and fairness of vote counting:

“[T]his shift poses all sorts of questions and problems. It is potentially overloading a system never designed for mail voting. It is likely to overwhelm all the local election clerks who must process and eventually count these ballots.

“Turnout will undoubtedly be depressed by the fact that people can’t and won’t vote en masse at the polls on election day. That raises fairness issues because some types of voters may be less likely to vote by mail (younger voters, lower-income voters) than others.”

And even though the decision to move ahead with this primary was bipartisan (Democratic governor Tony Evers and the legislature’s Republican leadership), there are multiple fears the situation could distort the outcome:

As you may remember, Wisconsin has for a decade been ground zero for partisan polarization. And the primary is already the subject of at least four lawsuits seeking to modify or delay or postpone the event:

“[T]he Democratic National Committee sued last week to try to extend absentee voting. That resulted in an order that reinstated online voter registration until March 30 …

“One of the new lawsuits, led by voter mobilization group Souls to the Polls, seeks to put off the election for weeks or months. It’s in line with a lawsuit Green Bay’s clerk filed this week to postpone the election …

“[Souls to the Polls] argued problems conducting the election would fall hardest on minorities and would result in violations of the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act.”

On top of everything else, a sudden shift to voting by mail could significantly slow down the vote count and publication of results. Maybe that’s no biggie on April 7, but if the presidential general election comes down to Wisconsin and the count takes days, you can imagine the wild conspiracy theories that will take wing.


March 26: Coronavirus and Trump’s Reelection Prospects

There’s been a lot of speculation about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Trump’s popularity, so I tried to analyze the evidence at New York:

[T]railing the progression of the coronavirus pandemic is a low fever of speculation about the impact of this terrible development on the 2020 elections, and most particularly, on the fate of the ever-erratic president who is purporting to lead this country through the crisis.

Trump critics watch him and see someone who was in deep and destructive denial about COVID-19 until very recently, and then briefly cleaned up his act before again chafing at the restraints of responsibility and seeking to buck up the markets and get the economy rolling, whether the rapid spread of the disease has been curtailed or not.

But according to the available evidence, a narrow majority of Americans currently approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. So the question inevitably arises: Could this horrid experience, along with the economic pain it will inflict, actually help Trump get reelected in November?

There’s general agreement that his reelection prospects now depend on what happens next as much as on what happened the first three years of his presidency, though deeply entrenched and intensely partisan perceptions of him still shape day-to-day reactions to Trump’s behavior. The best indicator of where he stands with the public overall remains his job approval ratings, and while they are higher than the average for his tenure as a whole, they remain under his de facto ceiling of the mid-40s, and are as sluggish as ever right now. According to RealClearPolitics, his approval ratings are currently averaging 44.5 percent, down from a high of 46.3 percent on February 20, before the U.S. outbreak began. FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, which are adjusted for partisan bias and weighted for accuracy, put Trump’s approval at 44.0 percent, down from a high of 44.6 percent on February 18.

Possibly, but as political scientist David Hopkins notes, the “rallying effect” that often benefits leaders in times of crisis doesn’t always last that long:

“[C]itizens close psychological ranks around their national leaders in a moment of uncertainty and fear; they evaluate these figures on different criteria than they did before the crisis erupted; and the normally critical opposition party (sometimes) mutes its attacks on the incumbent. Both French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte have enjoyed spikes in popularity during the current coronavirus outbreak, despite (especially in Italy’s case) substantial national dislocation and tragedy.

“But these popularity bumps fade with time. Either the crisis is soon resolved and citizens turn their attention to other things, or it is not, in which case they start to grow impatient with the effectiveness of their leader. The 2020 general election is still far enough away that even if Trump were to benefit from the rally effect in the short term, it wouldn’t be a very reliable signal of his popularity more than seven months in the future.”

The connection between reelection prospects for incumbent presidents and the state of the economy is stronger and more persistent than such “rallying effects,” as Newsweek recently observed:

“Since 1900, only one president has won re-election with a recession occurring sometime in the last two years of their first term: William McKinley.

“Since then, the four presidents who ran for a second term during such an economic downturn—William Taft in 1912, Herber Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992—were unsuccessful.

“The only person to defy the trend was Democrat Harry Truman in 1948. But the recession that year only started in November, the same month that Americans went to the polls to vote.”

It’s no wonder Trump is frantic to turn the economy around quickly and take credit for a resurgence. But as Alan Abramowitz observes, all economic impressions are not equal when it comes to presidential elections:

“Some forecasters are predicting a major recession with the economy shrinking by 5% or more in the second quarter of 2020. That’s significant because, in many election forecasting models, including my own ‘time for change’ model, economic growth in the second quarter is a key predictor of the election results. Models like mine use second quarter GDP growth to measure the state of the economy because GDP is a broad measure of economic activity and the performance of the economy in the second quarter seems to shape opinions of the economy in the fall. So it’s possible that even if the economy recovers later in the year, the most electorally-salient perceptions will nonetheless be formed in the spring and summer.

It’s true, of course, that this particular economic downturn, attributable to a pandemic that no one is going to blame on Trump, is different than most. And that means how he handles it could be crucial, and as conservative polling analyst Jay Cost suggests, how he explains it could matter as well:

“He has to make sense of this virus for the American people. What lessons must we learn from its emergence? What does it say about our current place in the world? What do we need to do to fix it?

“This president is the best person to tell a compelling story about this disease. Virtually alone among top politicians, he has been a skeptic of globalization. He has resisted the impulse to let America float along in the currents of the world. He has to make that argument to the people once again.”

As I put it more bluntly recently, there’s a potential take on this calamity that plays right into Trump’s MAGA wheelhouse, at least within his own base of core supporters:

“[E]ven if (or, more likely, when) the virus spreads beyond the big metropolitan areas, there’s a chance it will simply reinforce small-town and rural hostility to the culturally alien influence of big-city folk aligned with foreigners, given the more cosmopolitan (demographically and economically as well) nature of Urban America.”

It may be no mistake that Trump is emphasizing the foreign origins of what he calls the “Chinese virus,” or is criticizing Democrats for not helping him seal the borders or in other ways anticipate the pandemic.

The bottom line is that we cannot anticipate at this point what the current crisis means for the 2020 presidential election. But strong winds are blowing in different directions from moment to moment.


Coronavirus and Trump’s Reelection Prospects

There’s been a lot of speculation about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Trump’s popularity, so I tried to analyze the evidence at New York:

[T]railing the progression of the coronavirus pandemic is a low fever of speculation about the impact of this terrible development on the 2020 elections, and most particularly, on the fate of the ever-erratic president who is purporting to lead this country through the crisis.

Trump critics watch him and see someone who was in deep and destructive denial about COVID-19 until very recently, and then briefly cleaned up his act before again chafing at the restraints of responsibility and seeking to buck up the markets and get the economy rolling, whether the rapid spread of the disease has been curtailed or not.

But according to the available evidence, a narrow majority of Americans currently approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. So the question inevitably arises: Could this horrid experience, along with the economic pain it will inflict, actually help Trump get reelected in November?

There’s general agreement that his reelection prospects now depend on what happens next as much as on what happened the first three years of his presidency, though deeply entrenched and intensely partisan perceptions of him still shape day-to-day reactions to Trump’s behavior. The best indicator of where he stands with the public overall remains his job approval ratings, and while they are higher than the average for his tenure as a whole, they remain under his de facto ceiling of the mid-40s, and are as sluggish as ever right now. According to RealClearPolitics, his approval ratings are currently averaging 44.5 percent, down from a high of 46.3 percent on February 20, before the U.S. outbreak began. FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, which are adjusted for partisan bias and weighted for accuracy, put Trump’s approval at 44.0 percent, down from a high of 44.6 percent on February 18.

Possibly, but as political scientist David Hopkins notes, the “rallying effect” that often benefits leaders in times of crisis doesn’t always last that long:

“[C]itizens close psychological ranks around their national leaders in a moment of uncertainty and fear; they evaluate these figures on different criteria than they did before the crisis erupted; and the normally critical opposition party (sometimes) mutes its attacks on the incumbent. Both French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte have enjoyed spikes in popularity during the current coronavirus outbreak, despite (especially in Italy’s case) substantial national dislocation and tragedy.

“But these popularity bumps fade with time. Either the crisis is soon resolved and citizens turn their attention to other things, or it is not, in which case they start to grow impatient with the effectiveness of their leader. The 2020 general election is still far enough away that even if Trump were to benefit from the rally effect in the short term, it wouldn’t be a very reliable signal of his popularity more than seven months in the future.”

The connection between reelection prospects for incumbent presidents and the state of the economy is stronger and more persistent than such “rallying effects,” as Newsweek recently observed:

“Since 1900, only one president has won re-election with a recession occurring sometime in the last two years of their first term: William McKinley.

“Since then, the four presidents who ran for a second term during such an economic downturn—William Taft in 1912, Herber Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992—were unsuccessful.

“The only person to defy the trend was Democrat Harry Truman in 1948. But the recession that year only started in November, the same month that Americans went to the polls to vote.”

It’s no wonder Trump is frantic to turn the economy around quickly and take credit for a resurgence. But as Alan Abramowitz observes, all economic impressions are not equal when it comes to presidential elections:

“Some forecasters are predicting a major recession with the economy shrinking by 5% or more in the second quarter of 2020. That’s significant because, in many election forecasting models, including my own ‘time for change’ model, economic growth in the second quarter is a key predictor of the election results. Models like mine use second quarter GDP growth to measure the state of the economy because GDP is a broad measure of economic activity and the performance of the economy in the second quarter seems to shape opinions of the economy in the fall. So it’s possible that even if the economy recovers later in the year, the most electorally-salient perceptions will nonetheless be formed in the spring and summer.

It’s true, of course, that this particular economic downturn, attributable to a pandemic that no one is going to blame on Trump, is different than most. And that means how he handles it could be crucial, and as conservative polling analyst Jay Cost suggests, how he explains it could matter as well:

“He has to make sense of this virus for the American people. What lessons must we learn from its emergence? What does it say about our current place in the world? What do we need to do to fix it?

“This president is the best person to tell a compelling story about this disease. Virtually alone among top politicians, he has been a skeptic of globalization. He has resisted the impulse to let America float along in the currents of the world. He has to make that argument to the people once again.”

As I put it more bluntly recently, there’s a potential take on this calamity that plays right into Trump’s MAGA wheelhouse, at least within his own base of core supporters:

“[E]ven if (or, more likely, when) the virus spreads beyond the big metropolitan areas, there’s a chance it will simply reinforce small-town and rural hostility to the culturally alien influence of big-city folk aligned with foreigners, given the more cosmopolitan (demographically and economically as well) nature of Urban America.”

It may be no mistake that Trump is emphasizing the foreign origins of what he calls the “Chinese virus,” or is criticizing Democrats for not helping him seal the borders or in other ways anticipate the pandemic.

The bottom line is that we cannot anticipate at this point what the current crisis means for the 2020 presidential election. But strong winds are blowing in different directions from moment to moment.


March 18: Towards Universal Voting-By-Mail

As the COVID-19 pandemic roils primary elections around the country, it’s time to worry about the possibility that conditions won’t improve enough to enable a normal general election in November. I wrote about what we can do about that at New York:

[A]s the timeline for getting through the coronavirus pandemic continues to stretch out, buying some time may not be enough to avoid serious disruptions of elections this year. Yes, the two major-party presidential contests may soon effectively end, but there are a host of Senate, House, gubernatorial, and state legislative primaries with significant implications that are scheduled to occur in the spring and summer. And if we are unlucky — or even if fears last far beyond the actual likelihood of COVID-19 infection — this crisis could greatly affect participating in what most people consider the most consequential general election in many years.

The obvious way to separate elections from the fear of coronavirus is to encourage remote voting — usually by mail, but “mail” ballots can also sometimes be placed in drop boxes or even picked up by intermediaries. But moving in that direction nationally is easier said than done, since many states actively discourage this mechanism, and others accept or promote it in widely varying degrees. And in case you haven’t gotten the memo, states and localities run even “federal” elections in this country, with the Constitution and the federal government regulating them around the edges. There is no “national election system,” so big changes like the one we may need this year will probably have to be enacted on a state-by-state basis.

States That Discourage Voting by Mail

Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia

Fully 16 states limit remote voting to “absentee ballots” that must be requested by the voter along with an affadavit offering an excuse (typically some unavoidable absence from one’s residence on election day) for not being able to vote in person. Seven of those states waive the “excuse” requirement for voters over a certain age (usually 65). Some of the states that discourage voting by mail do offer early voting in-person (e.g., Texas and beginning this year, New York), which is sometimes viewed as the functional equivalent, but obviously is no substitute during a pandemic.

It will vary state by state as to whether a relaxation or abolition of restrictions on voting by mail can be accomplished by some sort of executive action or will require legislation. But an awful lot of states are holding special legislative sessions to deal with various aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, and they should have an opportunity to liberalize voting rules, even if it’s a temporary measure.

States That Allow No-Excuse Voting by Mail, But Don’t Make It That Easy

Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming

Of the 33 states that do allow voting by mail without some excuse, 23 require that voters proactively request a mail ballot. Of those, 9 require separate applications for each election (12 allow for annual applications covering election in a calendar year). Often political parties or advocacy groups are involved — sometimes heavily — in facilitating mail-ballot requests, though in states with in-person early voting that may become the favored nontraditional turnout strategy for particular groups (that’s particularly true of minority voting advocates in the South, for example).

Again, moving toward a system in which voting by mail becomes the rule rather than an exception may require legislation in many states.

States That Encourage Voting by Mail With Permanent Registration

Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, and New Jersey

Five states plus the District of Columbia allow voters to register as permanent voters-by-mail who will automatically receive mail ballots so long as they keep voting regularly. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of voting by mail (and total turnout) has gone up in these jurisdictions.

Permanent voting by mail typically requires state legislation.

All Voting-by-Mail States

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington

In five states all or virtually all voting is done remotely, generally with an option to mail in ballots or drop them off at voting centers or in special drop boxes (some counties in California have also moved to universal voting by mail). Every registered voter gets a mail ballot for every election without having to request it. In the 2018 general election these states averaged turnout 10 percent higher than the country as a whole.

Moving to all voting by mail does not eliminate all COVID-19 anxieties. Prior to Washington’s March 10 primary, voters and election officials fretted about possible contamination of licked envelopes and stamps, and in the future, poorly staffed postal systems (already an issue in certain rural and tribal areas) could be a problem as well.

Measures Needed to Make All-Mail-Ballot Elections Fair

States that are already (or are, like California, moving toward) all-mail elections are beginning to take measures to make that method of voting equally accessible to all voters in ways that are often controversial, particularly to Republicans who tend to think of voting as a privilege rather than a right.

Allow proxies to deliver mail ballots
To deal with voters who have limited access to postal services and/or are elderly or disabled, California allows sealed and signed mail ballots to be delivered to election officials by anyone authorized to do so by voters themselves. This practice has been invidiously called “ballot harvesting” by Republicans in California and elsewhere, as though it somehow represents or enables a fraudulent practice. But opening, much less filling out or altering, mail ballots remains a felony in California, so the practice is really no different than asking a neighbor to drop a mail ballot off at the post office. That won’t cut much ice in Republican-governed states absent a real determination to make voting by mail work.

Set the mail-in ballot deadline for Election Day
Another by-product of voting by mail that may cause bipartisan heartburn is the issue of when mail ballots must be returned. ColoradoHawaii, and Oregon require that mail ballots be received by close of business on Election Day to count, though again, those states make a real effort to provide plenty of drop-off locations. But Utah counts any mail ballot postmarked by the day before the election, and California and Washington count those postmarked on or before Election Day. These latter practices make sense from a fairness point of view: Why should by-mail voters have to anticipate Election Day any more than traditional in–person–on–Election Day voters? But accepting mail ballots — which have to be individually opened and signatures authenticated — so late inevitably slows down the counting and reporting of results. If the whole country moved in that direction, could Americans, the news media, and the two major parties psychologically handle not knowing the results for days after November 3? Is there any remote chance Donald J. Trump would fail to fire off tweets every 15 minutes alleging without a shred of evidence that the godless socialistic Democrat Party was stealing the election with millions of illegal votes from homicidal Mexicans? It’s a real concern.

Perhaps more to the point, getting from today’s system to universal voting by mail — again, even if it’s temporary — could be very difficult. Oregon senator Ron Wyden has introduced legislation to give the transition a real legal and financial boost, as the Washington Post reported:

“Sen. Ron Wyden (D) is proposing $500 million of federal funding to help states prepare for possible voting disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Wyden’s bill also would give Americans the option to vote by mail in case of a widespread emergency …

“Wyden’s bill would give all Americans the right to vote by mail if 25 percent of states declared an emergency related to the coronavirus outbreak. The bill also would require state and local officials to prepare for possible coronavirus disruptions and to offer prepaid envelopes with self-sealing flaps to minimize the risk of contagion from voters’ licking envelopes.”

The single biggest obstacle to a big push like Wyden’s toward voting by mail is the recent resistance of the GOP to all expansions of the franchise via more convenient registration and voting. Even if Republicans go along with the general drift, they may gnaw at the margins of a universal voting-by-mail system to make it hard to access for voters deemed hostile to their party. But there is one thing about the coronavirus crisis that may jolt Republicans nationally and in the states to change their tune about “convenience” voting measures: The very high likelihood that older voters, who tilt toward the GOP (Trump carried seniors by seven points in 2016), will be most reluctant to risk their health (and in many cases, their lives) by voting in person during the primaries and perhaps in November. For once, Republicans may have a partisan interest in making it easier for everyone to vote. Lawmakers should take advantage of that opportunity.


Towards Universal Voting-By-Mail

As the COVID-19 pandemic roils primary elections around the country, it’s time to worry about the possibility that conditions won’t improve enough to enable a normal general election in November. I wrote about what we can do about that at New York:

[A]s the timeline for getting through the coronavirus pandemic continues to stretch out, buying some time may not be enough to avoid serious disruptions of elections this year. Yes, the two major-party presidential contests may soon effectively end, but there are a host of Senate, House, gubernatorial, and state legislative primaries with significant implications that are scheduled to occur in the spring and summer. And if we are unlucky — or even if fears last far beyond the actual likelihood of COVID-19 infection — this crisis could greatly affect participating in what most people consider the most consequential general election in many years.

The obvious way to separate elections from the fear of coronavirus is to encourage remote voting — usually by mail, but “mail” ballots can also sometimes be placed in drop boxes or even picked up by intermediaries. But moving in that direction nationally is easier said than done, since many states actively discourage this mechanism, and others accept or promote it in widely varying degrees. And in case you haven’t gotten the memo, states and localities run even “federal” elections in this country, with the Constitution and the federal government regulating them around the edges. There is no “national election system,” so big changes like the one we may need this year will probably have to be enacted on a state-by-state basis.

States That Discourage Voting by Mail

Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia

Fully 16 states limit remote voting to “absentee ballots” that must be requested by the voter along with an affadavit offering an excuse (typically some unavoidable absence from one’s residence on election day) for not being able to vote in person. Seven of those states waive the “excuse” requirement for voters over a certain age (usually 65). Some of the states that discourage voting by mail do offer early voting in-person (e.g., Texas and beginning this year, New York), which is sometimes viewed as the functional equivalent, but obviously is no substitute during a pandemic.

It will vary state by state as to whether a relaxation or abolition of restrictions on voting by mail can be accomplished by some sort of executive action or will require legislation. But an awful lot of states are holding special legislative sessions to deal with various aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, and they should have an opportunity to liberalize voting rules, even if it’s a temporary measure.

States That Allow No-Excuse Voting by Mail, But Don’t Make It That Easy

Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming

Of the 33 states that do allow voting by mail without some excuse, 23 require that voters proactively request a mail ballot. Of those, 9 require separate applications for each election (12 allow for annual applications covering election in a calendar year). Often political parties or advocacy groups are involved — sometimes heavily — in facilitating mail-ballot requests, though in states with in-person early voting that may become the favored nontraditional turnout strategy for particular groups (that’s particularly true of minority voting advocates in the South, for example).

Again, moving toward a system in which voting by mail becomes the rule rather than an exception may require legislation in many states.

States That Encourage Voting by Mail With Permanent Registration

Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, and New Jersey

Five states plus the District of Columbia allow voters to register as permanent voters-by-mail who will automatically receive mail ballots so long as they keep voting regularly. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of voting by mail (and total turnout) has gone up in these jurisdictions.

Permanent voting by mail typically requires state legislation.

All Voting-by-Mail States

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington

In five states all or virtually all voting is done remotely, generally with an option to mail in ballots or drop them off at voting centers or in special drop boxes (some counties in California have also moved to universal voting by mail). Every registered voter gets a mail ballot for every election without having to request it. In the 2018 general election these states averaged turnout 10 percent higher than the country as a whole.

Moving to all voting by mail does not eliminate all COVID-19 anxieties. Prior to Washington’s March 10 primary, voters and election officials fretted about possible contamination of licked envelopes and stamps, and in the future, poorly staffed postal systems (already an issue in certain rural and tribal areas) could be a problem as well.

Measures Needed to Make All-Mail-Ballot Elections Fair

States that are already (or are, like California, moving toward) all-mail elections are beginning to take measures to make that method of voting equally accessible to all voters in ways that are often controversial, particularly to Republicans who tend to think of voting as a privilege rather than a right.

Allow proxies to deliver mail ballots
To deal with voters who have limited access to postal services and/or are elderly or disabled, California allows sealed and signed mail ballots to be delivered to election officials by anyone authorized to do so by voters themselves. This practice has been invidiously called “ballot harvesting” by Republicans in California and elsewhere, as though it somehow represents or enables a fraudulent practice. But opening, much less filling out or altering, mail ballots remains a felony in California, so the practice is really no different than asking a neighbor to drop a mail ballot off at the post office. That won’t cut much ice in Republican-governed states absent a real determination to make voting by mail work.

Set the mail-in ballot deadline for Election Day
Another by-product of voting by mail that may cause bipartisan heartburn is the issue of when mail ballots must be returned. ColoradoHawaii, and Oregon require that mail ballots be received by close of business on Election Day to count, though again, those states make a real effort to provide plenty of drop-off locations. But Utah counts any mail ballot postmarked by the day before the election, and California and Washington count those postmarked on or before Election Day. These latter practices make sense from a fairness point of view: Why should by-mail voters have to anticipate Election Day any more than traditional in–person–on–Election Day voters? But accepting mail ballots — which have to be individually opened and signatures authenticated — so late inevitably slows down the counting and reporting of results. If the whole country moved in that direction, could Americans, the news media, and the two major parties psychologically handle not knowing the results for days after November 3? Is there any remote chance Donald J. Trump would fail to fire off tweets every 15 minutes alleging without a shred of evidence that the godless socialistic Democrat Party was stealing the election with millions of illegal votes from homicidal Mexicans? It’s a real concern.

Perhaps more to the point, getting from today’s system to universal voting by mail — again, even if it’s temporary — could be very difficult. Oregon senator Ron Wyden has introduced legislation to give the transition a real legal and financial boost, as the Washington Post reported:

“Sen. Ron Wyden (D) is proposing $500 million of federal funding to help states prepare for possible voting disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Wyden’s bill also would give Americans the option to vote by mail in case of a widespread emergency …

“Wyden’s bill would give all Americans the right to vote by mail if 25 percent of states declared an emergency related to the coronavirus outbreak. The bill also would require state and local officials to prepare for possible coronavirus disruptions and to offer prepaid envelopes with self-sealing flaps to minimize the risk of contagion from voters’ licking envelopes.”

The single biggest obstacle to a big push like Wyden’s toward voting by mail is the recent resistance of the GOP to all expansions of the franchise via more convenient registration and voting. Even if Republicans go along with the general drift, they may gnaw at the margins of a universal voting-by-mail system to make it hard to access for voters deemed hostile to their party. But there is one thing about the coronavirus crisis that may jolt Republicans nationally and in the states to change their tune about “convenience” voting measures: The very high likelihood that older voters, who tilt toward the GOP (Trump carried seniors by seven points in 2016), will be most reluctant to risk their health (and in many cases, their lives) by voting in person during the primaries and perhaps in November. For once, Republicans may have a partisan interest in making it easier for everyone to vote. Lawmakers should take advantage of that opportunity.