washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

May 28: Trump’s Ego Makes for a Dangerous Convention

In pondering the president’s demands for a filled-up convention venue in August, I came up with some unsettling explanations at New York:

Back when run-first, conservative strategies were still the vogue in college football, coaches often quoted Texas legend Darrell Royal in saying that when you throw a forward pass, three things can happen (a completion, an incompletion, or an interception) — and two of them are bad.

You could say the same of the live, in-person national political convention Donald Trump seems determined to hold in Charlotte (or, he threatens, some other city and state where the local yokels don’t interfere with his grandiose plans). It’s possible the coronavirus pandemic will have abated enough that he’ll be able to hold the traditional convention he wants by August without large negative consequences. That’s the best-case scenario, to be sure.

But as Michael Kruse notes, anything less than that could be really problematic:

“[M]aybe more than everybody else, the optics-obsessed former reality television star is aware of the potential damage of the image of a half-full, semi-silent arena—a looming totem to the insufficiencies of his administration’s response to the still spreading coronavirus.”

In other words, a live, indoor convention under the social-distancing regime most experts think will still be in order for large gatherings even if they are allowed might be counterproductive, no matter how many colorful MAGA masks are distributed throughout a necessarily reduced and muffled audience.

But that scenario is infinitely less perilous than one in which Trump and Republicans defy the experts and hold an old-school convention in which Trump fans in a packed and sweaty throng toss thousands of droplets into the air as they cheer their warrior-king at every juncture.

So why is Trump taking this kind of risk? Is it simply an extension of the Republican craze for “reopening” or the tendency of conservatives to believe that precautions against a pandemic are cowardly and un-American (not at all a majority opinion among rank-and-file voters)? Or is it something deeper?

Kruse thinks it’s a personal thing with Trump that dates back to his experience with the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans that nominated then-Vice-President George H.W. Bush. At that event, he was squired onto the convention floor in its final moments by lobbyist Laurance Gay, at the request of Roger Stone, and achieved a galvanic moment:

“’So we went down there, and the speeches were made,’ Gay recalled, and Bush capped his remarks by placing his hand on his heart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and then Barbara Bush joined him on the podium, and the rest of his family, and their families, and Dan Quayle, his pick for vice president, and his family, ‘and there’s 25 people out there, and with that, the band strikes up, the confetti starts to fall, the balloons are rising and falling,’ 150,000 of them, red, white and blue, and there were 15-plus minutes of sustained, ecstatic sound.

“And in the middle of this scene, Trump said something, not quite to Gay, who was immediately to his left, but loud enough for him to hear.

“’This is what I want.'”

With himself, not Poppy Bush, as the object of all that intense affection, of course. This particular itch was at least partially scratched in Cleveland in 2016:

“In 2016 in Cleveland, of course, he became the Republican nominee, and that stage—his stage—featured the big bright white letters of his name bracketed by panels of gold and a backdrop of American flags, while his hour-and-15-minute-long remarks were defined by language that was dystopian and dark—’violence in our streets,’ ‘chaos in our communities,’ ‘damage and devastation.’ But when he was finished, he was feted the way Bush had been feted; out came his wife and his family and the VP-to-be and his family, and up went the noise of the crowd, and down came the balloons, all that red, white and blue, and Trump pointed and made a face like an O. ‘That,’ biographer Michael D’Antonio told me this week, ‘must have been an orgasmic moment for him.'”

And that, mind you, was at a convention where his control was somewhat limited, as shown by Ted Cruz’s prime-time speech in which the former Trump rival dissed his conquerer by refusing to endorse him. Given the president’s famous affection for military hoopla and his limitless ego, you can only imagine the kind of idolatrous display of fealty he might expect at a point where his party — including Cruz and many other previous detractors — is entirely in thrall to him.

Ultimately, the direction of the pandemic will determine whether Trump even has the option of pursuing convention folly, and the consequences if he does and guesses wrong. He might be able to mitigate the risk a bit by moving outdoors (that’s where Obama accepted his nomination in Denver in 2008); there is a large NASCAR racetrack nearby, which would be a good cultural fit. But it’s possible the man just can’t shake an addiction to tightly packed throngs of the sort that make him long for the resumption of MAGA rallies.


Trump’s Ego Makes for a Dangerous Convention

In pondering the president’s demands for a filled-up convention venue in August, I came up with some unsettling explanations at New York:

Back when run-first, conservative strategies were still the vogue in college football, coaches often quoted Texas legend Darrell Royal in saying that when you throw a forward pass, three things can happen (a completion, an incompletion, or an interception) — and two of them are bad.

You could say the same of the live, in-person national political convention Donald Trump seems determined to hold in Charlotte (or, he threatens, some other city and state where the local yokels don’t interfere with his grandiose plans). It’s possible the coronavirus pandemic will have abated enough that he’ll be able to hold the traditional convention he wants by August without large negative consequences. That’s the best-case scenario, to be sure.

But as Michael Kruse notes, anything less than that could be really problematic:

“[M]aybe more than everybody else, the optics-obsessed former reality television star is aware of the potential damage of the image of a half-full, semi-silent arena—a looming totem to the insufficiencies of his administration’s response to the still spreading coronavirus.”

In other words, a live, indoor convention under the social-distancing regime most experts think will still be in order for large gatherings even if they are allowed might be counterproductive, no matter how many colorful MAGA masks are distributed throughout a necessarily reduced and muffled audience.

But that scenario is infinitely less perilous than one in which Trump and Republicans defy the experts and hold an old-school convention in which Trump fans in a packed and sweaty throng toss thousands of droplets into the air as they cheer their warrior-king at every juncture.

So why is Trump taking this kind of risk? Is it simply an extension of the Republican craze for “reopening” or the tendency of conservatives to believe that precautions against a pandemic are cowardly and un-American (not at all a majority opinion among rank-and-file voters)? Or is it something deeper?

Kruse thinks it’s a personal thing with Trump that dates back to his experience with the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans that nominated then-Vice-President George H.W. Bush. At that event, he was squired onto the convention floor in its final moments by lobbyist Laurance Gay, at the request of Roger Stone, and achieved a galvanic moment:

“’So we went down there, and the speeches were made,’ Gay recalled, and Bush capped his remarks by placing his hand on his heart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and then Barbara Bush joined him on the podium, and the rest of his family, and their families, and Dan Quayle, his pick for vice president, and his family, ‘and there’s 25 people out there, and with that, the band strikes up, the confetti starts to fall, the balloons are rising and falling,’ 150,000 of them, red, white and blue, and there were 15-plus minutes of sustained, ecstatic sound.

“And in the middle of this scene, Trump said something, not quite to Gay, who was immediately to his left, but loud enough for him to hear.

“’This is what I want.'”

With himself, not Poppy Bush, as the object of all that intense affection, of course. This particular itch was at least partially scratched in Cleveland in 2016:

“In 2016 in Cleveland, of course, he became the Republican nominee, and that stage—his stage—featured the big bright white letters of his name bracketed by panels of gold and a backdrop of American flags, while his hour-and-15-minute-long remarks were defined by language that was dystopian and dark—’violence in our streets,’ ‘chaos in our communities,’ ‘damage and devastation.’ But when he was finished, he was feted the way Bush had been feted; out came his wife and his family and the VP-to-be and his family, and up went the noise of the crowd, and down came the balloons, all that red, white and blue, and Trump pointed and made a face like an O. ‘That,’ biographer Michael D’Antonio told me this week, ‘must have been an orgasmic moment for him.'”

And that, mind you, was at a convention where his control was somewhat limited, as shown by Ted Cruz’s prime-time speech in which the former Trump rival dissed his conquerer by refusing to endorse him. Given the president’s famous affection for military hoopla and his limitless ego, you can only imagine the kind of idolatrous display of fealty he might expect at a point where his party — including Cruz and many other previous detractors — is entirely in thrall to him.

Ultimately, the direction of the pandemic will determine whether Trump even has the option of pursuing convention folly, and the consequences if he does and guesses wrong. He might be able to mitigate the risk a bit by moving outdoors (that’s where Obama accepted his nomination in Denver in 2008); there is a large NASCAR racetrack nearby, which would be a good cultural fit. But it’s possible the man just can’t shake an addiction to tightly packed throngs of the sort that make him long for the resumption of MAGA rallies.


May 27: Trump Preparing Challenge to an Election Loss

In watching Trump’s bizarre messaging on voting by mail, it hit me that he wasn’t really trying to influence election laws, and I wrote it up at New York:

Trump is now regularly claiming that voting by mail is inherently illegitimate, except for grudging exceptions for people who can’t make it to the polls. So, presumably, states that allow for no-excuse voting by mail in November are holding “substantially fraudulent” elections, to use his description for such procedures.  That’s 34 states who do so by law (including battleground states Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), 11 more that so far are waiving excuse requirements this pandemic year (including New Hampshire), and another that may be forced to do so by a lawsuit (Texas).

A group of 30 political scientists who recently met to look at scary post-election scenarios explained exactly how a vote-by-mail contest might play out, as Louis Jacobson noted at Cook Political Report:

“On Election Night, the Republicans have the lead in a key battleground state, but that lead is erased due to late-counted ballots favoring the Democrats. The participants looked at a scenario where this happened in Michigan. This state already has a modestly high level of mail balloting and expects to have significantly more this fall due to the pandemic. (Notice how these scenarios all revolve around the critical battleground states?)

“President Donald Trump could tweet that the initial count was sufficient and that mail ballots — an election method he’s already inveighed against repeatedly — are illegitimate and thus shouldn’t be counted.

“In Michigan, Democrats occupy the offices of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general, but the GOP controls both legislative chambers. Michigan Republicans could back Trump’s position and decide to submit their own slate of (Republican) electors, bucking the slate that is officially certified by the Democratic officeholders.”

If that seems implausible to you, remember how House Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy proclaimed in 2018 there was something fishy in late-counted mail and provisional ballots that enabled Democrats to overtake Republicans after Election Night in California House districts. There were no formal challenges because, (a) there was not a scintilla of evidence anything improper was going on (young and minority voters who lean Democratic are more likely than others to send in mail ballots late or to cast ballots deemed provisional because of some superficial flaw, and Democrats simply took greater advantage of changes in election procedures), and (b) the GOP lost the House by far more seats than those flipped in California.

In a close presidential election where one or two states may well determine the outcome in the Electoral College, crying “fraud” could have much more serious consequences. And yes, a Republican-controlled state legislature might claim for itself the right to name electors in a “disputed” popular-vote scenario; that very nearly happened in Florida in 2000 until the U.S. Supreme Court decided to intervene and award the presidency to George W. Bush.

Slow counts aside, other disputes involving voting by mail could trigger chaos, as in another scenario discussed by Jacobson’s political scientists:

“The participants discussed an example involving Philadelphia voters who, due to coronavirus-related delays, received their absentee ballots late. In this scenario, a state court has allowed these voters to vote by using an existing federal absentee ballot that is typically used by overseas servicemembers. The court allowed them to submit these ballots by the deadline for overseas voters, one week after the election.

“In the scenario, the GOP has challenged this state court decision in federal court, citing a lack of due process and arguing that it unfairly changed the rules of an election in the middle. The Democratic Party countered that the remedy imposed by the state court was justified because it was based on equal protection. In other words, both parties pointed to credible constitutional arguments for their case.”

And if Pennsylvania happens to be the tiebreaker in the Electoral College, you could again have the spectacle of the U.S. Supreme Court deciding a presidential election — all based on the kind of fact situation that led that same Supreme Court to order the disallowance of late mail ballots cast in Wisconsin during its primary earlier this year.

In a fair and rational world, we’d decide the presidency in a national popular-vote election under uniform national procedures and with Congress making available resources for efficient voting and counting and for the prevention and detection of actual fraud, such as it is. Trump and his party, however, not only support maintenance of the Electoral College forever but support and oppose state election decisions strictly based on who might benefit. It creates the situation where any relatively close election will be contested by those who have been told it has already been “rigged.” Even if chaos does not ensue, confidence in democracy will be seriously undermined, paving the way for God knows what.


Trump Preparing Challenge to an Election Loss

In watching Trump’s bizarre messaging on voting by mail, it hit me that he wasn’t really trying to influence election laws, and I wrote it up at New York:

Trump is now regularly claiming that voting by mail is inherently illegitimate, except for grudging exceptions for people who can’t make it to the polls. So, presumably, states that allow for no-excuse voting by mail in November are holding “substantially fraudulent” elections, to use his description for such procedures.  That’s 34 states who do so by law (including battleground states Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), 11 more that so far are waiving excuse requirements this pandemic year (including New Hampshire), and another that may be forced to do so by a lawsuit (Texas).

A group of 30 political scientists who recently met to look at scary post-election scenarios explained exactly how a vote-by-mail contest might play out, as Louis Jacobson noted at Cook Political Report:

“On Election Night, the Republicans have the lead in a key battleground state, but that lead is erased due to late-counted ballots favoring the Democrats. The participants looked at a scenario where this happened in Michigan. This state already has a modestly high level of mail balloting and expects to have significantly more this fall due to the pandemic. (Notice how these scenarios all revolve around the critical battleground states?)

“President Donald Trump could tweet that the initial count was sufficient and that mail ballots — an election method he’s already inveighed against repeatedly — are illegitimate and thus shouldn’t be counted.

“In Michigan, Democrats occupy the offices of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general, but the GOP controls both legislative chambers. Michigan Republicans could back Trump’s position and decide to submit their own slate of (Republican) electors, bucking the slate that is officially certified by the Democratic officeholders.”

If that seems implausible to you, remember how House Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy proclaimed in 2018 there was something fishy in late-counted mail and provisional ballots that enabled Democrats to overtake Republicans after Election Night in California House districts. There were no formal challenges because, (a) there was not a scintilla of evidence anything improper was going on (young and minority voters who lean Democratic are more likely than others to send in mail ballots late or to cast ballots deemed provisional because of some superficial flaw, and Democrats simply took greater advantage of changes in election procedures), and (b) the GOP lost the House by far more seats than those flipped in California.

In a close presidential election where one or two states may well determine the outcome in the Electoral College, crying “fraud” could have much more serious consequences. And yes, a Republican-controlled state legislature might claim for itself the right to name electors in a “disputed” popular-vote scenario; that very nearly happened in Florida in 2000 until the U.S. Supreme Court decided to intervene and award the presidency to George W. Bush.

Slow counts aside, other disputes involving voting by mail could trigger chaos, as in another scenario discussed by Jacobson’s political scientists:

“The participants discussed an example involving Philadelphia voters who, due to coronavirus-related delays, received their absentee ballots late. In this scenario, a state court has allowed these voters to vote by using an existing federal absentee ballot that is typically used by overseas servicemembers. The court allowed them to submit these ballots by the deadline for overseas voters, one week after the election.

“In the scenario, the GOP has challenged this state court decision in federal court, citing a lack of due process and arguing that it unfairly changed the rules of an election in the middle. The Democratic Party countered that the remedy imposed by the state court was justified because it was based on equal protection. In other words, both parties pointed to credible constitutional arguments for their case.”

And if Pennsylvania happens to be the tiebreaker in the Electoral College, you could again have the spectacle of the U.S. Supreme Court deciding a presidential election — all based on the kind of fact situation that led that same Supreme Court to order the disallowance of late mail ballots cast in Wisconsin during its primary earlier this year.

In a fair and rational world, we’d decide the presidency in a national popular-vote election under uniform national procedures and with Congress making available resources for efficient voting and counting and for the prevention and detection of actual fraud, such as it is. Trump and his party, however, not only support maintenance of the Electoral College forever but support and oppose state election decisions strictly based on who might benefit. It creates the situation where any relatively close election will be contested by those who have been told it has already been “rigged.” Even if chaos does not ensue, confidence in democracy will be seriously undermined, paving the way for God knows what.


May 21: Trump’s Final 2020 Message May Be: POTUS Interruptus

The more I look at how Trump is adjusting to the coronavirus crisis, the more I think he may have a truly perverse reelection message. I outlined one strong possibility at New York:

As you’d expect from any president with a low-to-mediocre job-approval rating, Donald Trump has been working to keep his reelection bid from becoming a referendum election based on judgments about his record. Instead, he hopes to make 2020 a comparative election by promoting fears about the opposition. The coronavirus pandemic has obviously complicated this effort by creating the sort of horrific living conditions that are fundamentally incompatible with any upbeat reelection message. “You never had it so good eight months ago” isn’t a very compelling slogan, even if you buy the premise that the pre-pandemic economy was near ideal and that Trump was responsible for producing it.

But that may be the underlying idea of Trump’s reelection pitch, as an AP report suggests:

“Aiming to energize his base less than six months before he stands for reelection, the president has drawn a cultural link between the disaffected who voted for him four years ago and those who want to quickly restart the nation’s economy. Amplified by conservative media commentators, Trump has leaned into the pandemic’s partisan divide and urged states to reopen regardless of whether they meet the benchmarks set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“’They want to get out there, and they want to get back,’ Trump said recently of those agitating to restart the nation’s economy. ‘That’s what they want. They want their country back, and they’re getting it back.’”

If that sounds a lot like Trump’s 2016 rhetoric, it’s no mistake. Since the pandemic and its economic effects have ruined his presidency, he’s able to put himself right out there with the “reopening” activists as someone fighting government on behalf of the “forgotten Americans,” notably small business owners and white wage earners in areas with relatively low COVID-19 infection rates. Yes, he’s running as an “outsider” again, which, if effective, is the best way to avoid a referendum election. And it helps that his opponent has been regularly employed at high levels of the federal government since 1973.

Earlier this week, the president’s son Eric offered a more demented take on this Trumpian grievance over COVID-19, as my colleague Matt Steib observed earlier this week:

“Speaking with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, Eric Trump said that Democrats were using shutdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19 as an attempt to take away ‘Donald Trump’s greatest tool, which is being able to go into an arena and fill it with 50,000 people every single time. You watch, they’ll milk it every single day between now and November 3. And guess what, after November 3, coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear and everybody will be able to reopen.'”

The idea that COVID-19 — engineered by China and made worse by Democrats — has sabotaged the most successful presidency since George Washington’s seems to be at the core of everything Trump has been saying lately. So he cannot possibly be held accountable for any of the suffering Americans are experiencing. After all, he’s suffering too, and is mourning for “his” lost economic boom. And he’s fighting the same smug elites that are telling Americans to wear masks and keep their businesses and churches closed and just suck it up until they’re told they can have their country back.

It’s an audacious message if he sticks to it, but one that has the advantage of letting Trump run on a portion of his record while attributing the more recent disasters to the same old enemies he’s been fighting for so long.


Trump’s Final 2020 Message May Be: POTUS Interruptus

The more I look at how Trump is adjusting to the coronavirus crisis, the more I think he may have a truly perverse reelection message. I outlined one strong possibility at New York:

As you’d expect from any president with a low-to-mediocre job-approval rating, Donald Trump has been working to keep his reelection bid from becoming a referendum election based on judgments about his record. Instead, he hopes to make 2020 a comparative election by promoting fears about the opposition. The coronavirus pandemic has obviously complicated this effort by creating the sort of horrific living conditions that are fundamentally incompatible with any upbeat reelection message. “You never had it so good eight months ago” isn’t a very compelling slogan, even if you buy the premise that the pre-pandemic economy was near ideal and that Trump was responsible for producing it.

But that may be the underlying idea of Trump’s reelection pitch, as an AP report suggests:

“Aiming to energize his base less than six months before he stands for reelection, the president has drawn a cultural link between the disaffected who voted for him four years ago and those who want to quickly restart the nation’s economy. Amplified by conservative media commentators, Trump has leaned into the pandemic’s partisan divide and urged states to reopen regardless of whether they meet the benchmarks set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“’They want to get out there, and they want to get back,’ Trump said recently of those agitating to restart the nation’s economy. ‘That’s what they want. They want their country back, and they’re getting it back.’”

If that sounds a lot like Trump’s 2016 rhetoric, it’s no mistake. Since the pandemic and its economic effects have ruined his presidency, he’s able to put himself right out there with the “reopening” activists as someone fighting government on behalf of the “forgotten Americans,” notably small business owners and white wage earners in areas with relatively low COVID-19 infection rates. Yes, he’s running as an “outsider” again, which, if effective, is the best way to avoid a referendum election. And it helps that his opponent has been regularly employed at high levels of the federal government since 1973.

Earlier this week, the president’s son Eric offered a more demented take on this Trumpian grievance over COVID-19, as my colleague Matt Steib observed earlier this week:

“Speaking with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, Eric Trump said that Democrats were using shutdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19 as an attempt to take away ‘Donald Trump’s greatest tool, which is being able to go into an arena and fill it with 50,000 people every single time. You watch, they’ll milk it every single day between now and November 3. And guess what, after November 3, coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear and everybody will be able to reopen.'”

The idea that COVID-19 — engineered by China and made worse by Democrats — has sabotaged the most successful presidency since George Washington’s seems to be at the core of everything Trump has been saying lately. So he cannot possibly be held accountable for any of the suffering Americans are experiencing. After all, he’s suffering too, and is mourning for “his” lost economic boom. And he’s fighting the same smug elites that are telling Americans to wear masks and keep their businesses and churches closed and just suck it up until they’re told they can have their country back.

It’s an audacious message if he sticks to it, but one that has the advantage of letting Trump run on a portion of his record while attributing the more recent disasters to the same old enemies he’s been fighting for so long.


May 20: My Angry Rap About the “Enthusiasm Gap”

At New York this week, I unloaded on one of my pet peeves:

Those of us who get paid to write about politics inevitably have some meme or theory or habit of speech we hear regularly offered that makes us a bit crazy. For me it is the “enthusiasm gap,” which is touted every two years to claim that one party or the other or one candidate or the other is in a superior position because their supporters are psyched out of their skulls. Here’s the 2020 version presented on Trump’s behalf at the Washington Examiner by Kimberly Ross:

“At the end of March, an ABC News-Washington Post poll revealed that ’74 percent of those supporting Biden are doing so enthusiastically, compared to 86 percent of Trump supporters.’ And an April Emerson College poll showed that Republican voters are far more excited about voting for Trump than Democratic voters are for Biden.

“The simple fact is that regardless of messaging, Biden can’t elicit as much passion as his opponent, the unapologetic and charismatic president….

“Democrats may have an enthusiasm problem, but frankly, they don’t have much time left to fix it.”

Before getting to the root problem with this point of view, I’d note that those promoting it often don’t offer exactly convincing evidence even if you accept their premise. Here’s another big data point from Ross:

“According to a recent Rasmussen poll released Thursday [May 14], the gap in party energy between the two candidates is rather wide. When it comes to Republicans, 70% believe Trump should be the nominee compared to 23% who believe another should take his place. Another 7% are undecided. On the Democratic side, 54% believe Biden should be the nominee relative to 28% who would prefer someone else. A whopping 18% of likely Democratic voters remain unsure.”

You don’t have to be an especially acute observer of political news to be aware that Trump had no significant opposition for his party’s nomination (to the point where states were canceling presidential primaries long before COVID-19 showed up), while Biden had to fight through more than 20 opponents and still hasn’t clinched a majority of delegates. Of course Trump has more “energy” if that’s how you define it.

“[T]here are a couple of problems with this assumption, namely (1) ‘enthusiasm’ does not reward the base voter with additional trips to the ballot box, and (2) there are quite a few factors other than “enthusiasm” that affect turnout rates.

“On this first point, the reality is that the voters most likely to vary in levels of ‘enthusiasm’ are those most likely to vote — and most partisan in their leanings — in the first place. Short of a rare self-conscious revolt, the party is going to get their votes, even if the voters have mixed feelings about it. ‘Enthusiasm,’ unless it’s infectious…is quite frankly a wasted quality from a strictly electoral point of view. It may excite partisan journalists to sense their voters are snake-dancing to the polls (recall all those excited conservative columns in late October 2012 about the size of Romney rallies in places like Pennsylvania), but it doesn’t necessarily add to the length of the snake.”

That is, an unexcited Biden vote counts exactly as much as an excited Trump vote. Yes, enthusiasm matters up to the point that it exists sufficiently to get the voter to the polls. But unenthusiastic voters trudge to presidential elections every year – the bar for whether one will cast a vote for a candidate is considerably lower than whether someone will profess to be enthusiastic about said candidate in a poll .

In downballot or even presidential nomination races, “enthusiasm” is valuable in producing campaign contributions and volunteer signups. “Enthusiasm” is legal tender in the Iowa Caucuses, but not so much in a presidential general election in which money is largely not that significant and both candidates have near-universal name ID and vast armies of partisans at their disposal.

Now you can make a case that enthusiasm can become contagious via social media or interest- and identity-group organizing, which makes it a vote-multiplier if not a vote-originator. But you cannot measure the quantity or quality of such efforts by asking big samples of voters whether they are excited or kinda meh about their preferred candidate. One reason campaigns exist is to maximize the electoral payoff for inputs like partisanship, strong issue-commitments, and perceived identification with a candidate. “Enthusiasm” is nothing more than a raw material for campaign practitioners.

So let’s please hear a lot less about it, at least until we are on the brink of the election and can begin to make a real-time assessment of the obstacles to voting for those who favor Trump or Biden–whether it’s the coronavirus, or voter-suppression efforts, or a relative lack of “enthusiasm.”


My Angry Rap About the “Enthusiasm Gap”

At New York this week, I unloaded on one of my pet peeves:

Those of us who get paid to write about politics inevitably have some meme or theory or habit of speech we hear regularly offered that makes us a bit crazy. For me it is the “enthusiasm gap,” which is touted every two years to claim that one party or the other or one candidate or the other is in a superior position because their supporters are psyched out of their skulls. Here’s the 2020 version presented on Trump’s behalf at the Washington Examiner by Kimberly Ross:

“At the end of March, an ABC News-Washington Post poll revealed that ’74 percent of those supporting Biden are doing so enthusiastically, compared to 86 percent of Trump supporters.’ And an April Emerson College poll showed that Republican voters are far more excited about voting for Trump than Democratic voters are for Biden.

“The simple fact is that regardless of messaging, Biden can’t elicit as much passion as his opponent, the unapologetic and charismatic president….

“Democrats may have an enthusiasm problem, but frankly, they don’t have much time left to fix it.”

Before getting to the root problem with this point of view, I’d note that those promoting it often don’t offer exactly convincing evidence even if you accept their premise. Here’s another big data point from Ross:

“According to a recent Rasmussen poll released Thursday [May 14], the gap in party energy between the two candidates is rather wide. When it comes to Republicans, 70% believe Trump should be the nominee compared to 23% who believe another should take his place. Another 7% are undecided. On the Democratic side, 54% believe Biden should be the nominee relative to 28% who would prefer someone else. A whopping 18% of likely Democratic voters remain unsure.”

You don’t have to be an especially acute observer of political news to be aware that Trump had no significant opposition for his party’s nomination (to the point where states were canceling presidential primaries long before COVID-19 showed up), while Biden had to fight through more than 20 opponents and still hasn’t clinched a majority of delegates. Of course Trump has more “energy” if that’s how you define it.

“[T]here are a couple of problems with this assumption, namely (1) ‘enthusiasm’ does not reward the base voter with additional trips to the ballot box, and (2) there are quite a few factors other than “enthusiasm” that affect turnout rates.

“On this first point, the reality is that the voters most likely to vary in levels of ‘enthusiasm’ are those most likely to vote — and most partisan in their leanings — in the first place. Short of a rare self-conscious revolt, the party is going to get their votes, even if the voters have mixed feelings about it. ‘Enthusiasm,’ unless it’s infectious…is quite frankly a wasted quality from a strictly electoral point of view. It may excite partisan journalists to sense their voters are snake-dancing to the polls (recall all those excited conservative columns in late October 2012 about the size of Romney rallies in places like Pennsylvania), but it doesn’t necessarily add to the length of the snake.”

That is, an unexcited Biden vote counts exactly as much as an excited Trump vote. Yes, enthusiasm matters up to the point that it exists sufficiently to get the voter to the polls. But unenthusiastic voters trudge to presidential elections every year – the bar for whether one will cast a vote for a candidate is considerably lower than whether someone will profess to be enthusiastic about said candidate in a poll .

In downballot or even presidential nomination races, “enthusiasm” is valuable in producing campaign contributions and volunteer signups. “Enthusiasm” is legal tender in the Iowa Caucuses, but not so much in a presidential general election in which money is largely not that significant and both candidates have near-universal name ID and vast armies of partisans at their disposal.

Now you can make a case that enthusiasm can become contagious via social media or interest- and identity-group organizing, which makes it a vote-multiplier if not a vote-originator. But you cannot measure the quantity or quality of such efforts by asking big samples of voters whether they are excited or kinda meh about their preferred candidate. One reason campaigns exist is to maximize the electoral payoff for inputs like partisanship, strong issue-commitments, and perceived identification with a candidate. “Enthusiasm” is nothing more than a raw material for campaign practitioners.

So let’s please hear a lot less about it, at least until we are on the brink of the election and can begin to make a real-time assessment of the obstacles to voting for those who favor Trump or Biden–whether it’s the coronavirus, or voter-suppression efforts, or a relative lack of “enthusiasm.”


May 14: Major-Party Unity Means Less Oxygen for Minor Parties

In a continuing effort to show that 2020 is not just another 2016, I wrote about minor-party candidates at New York:

To put it mildly, the 2020 presidential contest is being haunted by what happened in 2016. For one thing, it helps explain the widespread belief that Donald Trump will win despite considerable evidence inimical to his cause, whether that belief is based on mistrust of polls, or observation of the enthusiasm of his base, or the suspicion that he sold his soul to the Infernal Lord Satan in exchange for earthly power.

There is one particular element of the 2016 experience, however, that may be less compelling than others looking ahead to November: the strength of minor political parties, which had a boffo year last time around. As I noted recently, there are multiple reasons for expecting a considerably diminished showing by the Greens, the Libertarians, and other minor parties in November, ranging from less-well-known presidential candidates to the impact of the coronavirus on ballot access in states where numerous petitions must be gathered. Justin Amash’s recently announced Libertarian candidacy could boost that party’s vote a bit, particularly in his home state of Michigan. But as Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman argue in a new analysis at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, there’s another big reason we can expect minor-party voting to decline: The major parties are significantly more united than they were in 2016:

“[T]he top election on this list [of strong third-party performances]— 1912 — is the cleanest example of a divided party leading to the rise of a big third party vote. Theodore Roosevelt, upset with the performance of his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, tried to win the GOP nomination. He was rebuffed, so he created his own party and ran for president. The Republican vote splintered, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency easily despite getting only 42% of the vote.

“But we can also see this phenomenon in some of these other elections.

“George Wallace, the conservative, segregationist Democrat who ran third party in 1968, ran strongest in the South, the conservative region that had once formed the backbone of the Democratic Party but was in the midst of breaking away from its ancestral party over the party’s leftward evolution on civil rights and other issues.”

The biggest third-party showings preceded major-party splits or transitions, including Wallace’s (four years later the once-solid Democratic South had become solidly Republican in voting to reelect Richard Nixon). And there was quite a bit of noisy intraparty opposition to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton four years ago. In the current race, that has mostly subsided:

“This naturally removes some of the oxygen for third party candidates, and the lack of major intraparty strife makes this election, to us, more reminiscent of 2004 and 2012, when George W. Bush and Barack Obama won second terms in competitive elections that featured very low levels of third party voting. Indeed, in 2012, Florida was the only state were neither major party candidate took a majority of the vote — by 2016, there were 14 states where both major candidates polled under 50%.”

There’s another factor that may strengthen party unity while discouraging “protest votes.” Just about everyone expects a close election, and those who thought Clinton had it in the bag in 2016 and voted third-party (or stayed home) may be particularly immune to minor-party siren songs. The above-mentioned Democrats who are still shocked by what happened four years ago may put on the party harness and never even consider taking it off:

“This time, even though Trump generally trails nationally and in at least some of the most important swing states, he still is favored by betting markets, and he usually does better in polls asking people who they believe will win as opposed to those that ask who voters are supporting. Democrats, burned by expectations in 2016, likely will remain guarded no matter what the polls say.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty going into this election, much of it associated with how little we know about the trajectory of the coronavirus, the economic damage it has wrought, and how COVID-19 will affect voter turnout. But the odds are higher than ever that any “swing” vote late in the game will be oscillating between the Donkey and Elephant brands.


Major-Party Unity Means Less Oxygen for Minor Parties

In a continuing effort to show that 2020 is not just another 2016, I wrote about minor-party candidates at New York:

To put it mildly, the 2020 presidential contest is being haunted by what happened in 2016. For one thing, it helps explain the widespread belief that Donald Trump will win despite considerable evidence inimical to his cause, whether that belief is based on mistrust of polls, or observation of the enthusiasm of his base, or the suspicion that he sold his soul to the Infernal Lord Satan in exchange for earthly power.

There is one particular element of the 2016 experience, however, that may be less compelling than others looking ahead to November: the strength of minor political parties, which had a boffo year last time around. As I noted recently, there are multiple reasons for expecting a considerably diminished showing by the Greens, the Libertarians, and other minor parties in November, ranging from less-well-known presidential candidates to the impact of the coronavirus on ballot access in states where numerous petitions must be gathered. Justin Amash’s recently announced Libertarian candidacy could boost that party’s vote a bit, particularly in his home state of Michigan. But as Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman argue in a new analysis at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, there’s another big reason we can expect minor-party voting to decline: The major parties are significantly more united than they were in 2016:

“[T]he top election on this list [of strong third-party performances]— 1912 — is the cleanest example of a divided party leading to the rise of a big third party vote. Theodore Roosevelt, upset with the performance of his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, tried to win the GOP nomination. He was rebuffed, so he created his own party and ran for president. The Republican vote splintered, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency easily despite getting only 42% of the vote.

“But we can also see this phenomenon in some of these other elections.

“George Wallace, the conservative, segregationist Democrat who ran third party in 1968, ran strongest in the South, the conservative region that had once formed the backbone of the Democratic Party but was in the midst of breaking away from its ancestral party over the party’s leftward evolution on civil rights and other issues.”

The biggest third-party showings preceded major-party splits or transitions, including Wallace’s (four years later the once-solid Democratic South had become solidly Republican in voting to reelect Richard Nixon). And there was quite a bit of noisy intraparty opposition to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton four years ago. In the current race, that has mostly subsided:

“This naturally removes some of the oxygen for third party candidates, and the lack of major intraparty strife makes this election, to us, more reminiscent of 2004 and 2012, when George W. Bush and Barack Obama won second terms in competitive elections that featured very low levels of third party voting. Indeed, in 2012, Florida was the only state were neither major party candidate took a majority of the vote — by 2016, there were 14 states where both major candidates polled under 50%.”

There’s another factor that may strengthen party unity while discouraging “protest votes.” Just about everyone expects a close election, and those who thought Clinton had it in the bag in 2016 and voted third-party (or stayed home) may be particularly immune to minor-party siren songs. The above-mentioned Democrats who are still shocked by what happened four years ago may put on the party harness and never even consider taking it off:

“This time, even though Trump generally trails nationally and in at least some of the most important swing states, he still is favored by betting markets, and he usually does better in polls asking people who they believe will win as opposed to those that ask who voters are supporting. Democrats, burned by expectations in 2016, likely will remain guarded no matter what the polls say.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty going into this election, much of it associated with how little we know about the trajectory of the coronavirus, the economic damage it has wrought, and how COVID-19 will affect voter turnout. But the odds are higher than ever that any “swing” vote late in the game will be oscillating between the Donkey and Elephant brands.