washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

July 31: Trump’s Ultimate Strategy on Voting By Mail

An ominous series of strategic moves from Donald Trump began to dawn on me, and I wrote about it for New York:

The president is getting a lot of much-deserved negative attention for his weird little tweet  suggesting that the 2020 election should be delayed — up to and including a co-founder of the Federalist Society saying that it was “fascistic” and merited a new impeachment proceeding. But considering how rapidly the idea is being repudiated by everyone in both parties, it’s likely Trump was simply adding fuel to the fire of his relentless campaign to stigmatize voting by mail, which he continued in an afternoon press conference. And it’s increasingly apparent that he has a two-pronged strategy in doing this, based on the strong likelihood that even if all the experts mock his claims about voting by mail, Republican voters will listen, setting up a strange dual election in which one party’s voters disproportionately show up on Election Day while the others disproportionately vote by mail.

One reason he might want to do this is highlighted by David Wasserman in a column warning that mail ballots are always more likely to be invalidated than in-person ballots, with the disparity skyrocketing this year:

“The real danger is a perfect catastrophe of administrative overload, postal delays and voter error that could lead to millions of absentee ballots not counting. And this year, unlike the past, those ballots are likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic … An extensive study by Charles Stewart III, director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, estimates the true number of uncounted mail ballots in 2016 was … 1.4 million — 4 percent of all mail ballots cast.

“’Voting by mail is twice as involved administratively than voting in person,” Stewart said. “If problems arise in mail voting, it’s twice as hard to correct them than it is in person. And first-time voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected.’”

And that’s in a normal year, when you don’t have the number of people trying to vote by mail — many of them in states totally unaccustomed to this phenomenon — spiked by fears of contracting a deadly virus, and/or by inadequate in-person voting infrastructure in their neighborhoods (especially minority neighborhoods). As Wasserman observes, the record of states handling mail ballots in this year’s primaries has been ominous:

“[I]n pandemic-era primaries, rejection rates have been even higher, as ill-equipped and understaffed election offices strain to meet surging demand for mail ballots from voters inexperienced with casting them.

“In Wisconsin, over 9,000 requested ballots were never mailed to voters and 23,000 absentees (more than 2 percent) were rejected. In Kentucky’s Fayette County, the state’s second largest, 8 percent of absentees were tossed out. And in parts of New York City, upward of 20 percent of absentees have been flagged as invalid.”

If big majorities of these mail ballots are being cast by Democrats, then Democrats will lose votes they would otherwise harvest. And in a close election, that could be decisive, or at least muddy the waters.

And speaking of muddy waters, there appears to be a second prong of Trump’s strategy, which I have written about before:

“In most states, Election Day results are reported first (and in all states they are counted before late-arriving mail ballots and provisional ballots, both of which already tend to skew Democratic). So if Republicans are disproportionately voting in person and Democrats are disproportionately voting by mail, misleading early returns may show Trump and other Republicans doing much better than they will eventually do, enabling Trump to claim fraud when those evil mail ballots turn it all around for Biden and his Democrats.

“Anyone doubting this is a plausible scenario needs to look back to 2018, when Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy made specious claims of voter fraud when late-arriving mail ballots predictably shifted the results in key House races in California. It could have been a dress rehearsal for what might happen this November.”

And it’s with this scenario in mind that an even later tweet by Trump today should be viewed, in which he said: “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months or even years later!”

After having this message beaten into their brains by Trump for weeks on end, MAGA folk — and for that matter, election officials in Republican-controlled states and counties — will be very inclined to view mail-ballot-dominated later returns as fraudulent, just as POTUS keeps saying they are. I don’t know exactly what Trump will do with the toxic atmosphere he might create with Election Night claims of total victory based on relatively small fractions of the ultimate vote. Maybe it would spawn litigation, or violence in the streets, or even schemes for Republican legislatures to begin naming electors since the popular vote is “disputed.”

Either way, by hook or by crook, a partisan split in methods of voting may give Trump an unearned advantage he’ll really need in November.

Now that they have the whip hand in coronavirus stimulus negotiations in Washington, it would be a good time for congressional Democrats to make the new funds ($3.6 billion) for election assistance a must-have priority. Perhaps more competent election administration can cut down on the number of mail ballots invalidated on minor technical grounds. And surely improving the sense that we are holding a fully legitimate election that maximizes the opportunity to vote will help silence those from the White House on down who will seize on uncertainties to cry havoc.


Trump’s Ultimate Strategy on Voting By Mail

An ominous series of strategic moves from Donald Trump began to dawn on me, and I wrote about it for New York:

The president is getting a lot of much-deserved negative attention for his weird little tweet  suggesting that the 2020 election should be delayed — up to and including a co-founder of the Federalist Society saying that it was “fascistic” and merited a new impeachment proceeding. But considering how rapidly the idea is being repudiated by everyone in both parties, it’s likely Trump was simply adding fuel to the fire of his relentless campaign to stigmatize voting by mail, which he continued in an afternoon press conference. And it’s increasingly apparent that he has a two-pronged strategy in doing this, based on the strong likelihood that even if all the experts mock his claims about voting by mail, Republican voters will listen, setting up a strange dual election in which one party’s voters disproportionately show up on Election Day while the others disproportionately vote by mail.

One reason he might want to do this is highlighted by David Wasserman in a column warning that mail ballots are always more likely to be invalidated than in-person ballots, with the disparity skyrocketing this year:

“The real danger is a perfect catastrophe of administrative overload, postal delays and voter error that could lead to millions of absentee ballots not counting. And this year, unlike the past, those ballots are likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic … An extensive study by Charles Stewart III, director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, estimates the true number of uncounted mail ballots in 2016 was … 1.4 million — 4 percent of all mail ballots cast.

“’Voting by mail is twice as involved administratively than voting in person,” Stewart said. “If problems arise in mail voting, it’s twice as hard to correct them than it is in person. And first-time voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected.’”

And that’s in a normal year, when you don’t have the number of people trying to vote by mail — many of them in states totally unaccustomed to this phenomenon — spiked by fears of contracting a deadly virus, and/or by inadequate in-person voting infrastructure in their neighborhoods (especially minority neighborhoods). As Wasserman observes, the record of states handling mail ballots in this year’s primaries has been ominous:

“[I]n pandemic-era primaries, rejection rates have been even higher, as ill-equipped and understaffed election offices strain to meet surging demand for mail ballots from voters inexperienced with casting them.

“In Wisconsin, over 9,000 requested ballots were never mailed to voters and 23,000 absentees (more than 2 percent) were rejected. In Kentucky’s Fayette County, the state’s second largest, 8 percent of absentees were tossed out. And in parts of New York City, upward of 20 percent of absentees have been flagged as invalid.”

If big majorities of these mail ballots are being cast by Democrats, then Democrats will lose votes they would otherwise harvest. And in a close election, that could be decisive, or at least muddy the waters.

And speaking of muddy waters, there appears to be a second prong of Trump’s strategy, which I have written about before:

“In most states, Election Day results are reported first (and in all states they are counted before late-arriving mail ballots and provisional ballots, both of which already tend to skew Democratic). So if Republicans are disproportionately voting in person and Democrats are disproportionately voting by mail, misleading early returns may show Trump and other Republicans doing much better than they will eventually do, enabling Trump to claim fraud when those evil mail ballots turn it all around for Biden and his Democrats.

“Anyone doubting this is a plausible scenario needs to look back to 2018, when Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy made specious claims of voter fraud when late-arriving mail ballots predictably shifted the results in key House races in California. It could have been a dress rehearsal for what might happen this November.”

And it’s with this scenario in mind that an even later tweet by Trump today should be viewed, in which he said: “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months or even years later!”

After having this message beaten into their brains by Trump for weeks on end, MAGA folk — and for that matter, election officials in Republican-controlled states and counties — will be very inclined to view mail-ballot-dominated later returns as fraudulent, just as POTUS keeps saying they are. I don’t know exactly what Trump will do with the toxic atmosphere he might create with Election Night claims of total victory based on relatively small fractions of the ultimate vote. Maybe it would spawn litigation, or violence in the streets, or even schemes for Republican legislatures to begin naming electors since the popular vote is “disputed.”

Either way, by hook or by crook, a partisan split in methods of voting may give Trump an unearned advantage he’ll really need in November.

Now that they have the whip hand in coronavirus stimulus negotiations in Washington, it would be a good time for congressional Democrats to make the new funds ($3.6 billion) for election assistance a must-have priority. Perhaps more competent election administration can cut down on the number of mail ballots invalidated on minor technical grounds. And surely improving the sense that we are holding a fully legitimate election that maximizes the opportunity to vote will help silence those from the White House on down who will seize on uncertainties to cry havoc.


July 29: The Evolution of the Veep Reveal

With Joe Biden indicating he will announce his choice of running-mate next week, I decided to do a brief reminder at New York of how this “reveal” has evolved over time.

Until pretty recently, the veep preference of the nominee was traditionally announced, and more often than not actually determined, at the convention itself. In part that was because the identity of the presidential nominee wasn’t always nailed down heading into the convention, making a running mate announcement more than a little presumptuous. Additionally, the veep selection often represented a plum appointment that might prove helpful either in winning the nomination or uniting a splintered party. The ultimate non-presumptuous gesture was made by Adlai Stevenson in 1956, when he allowed the the Democratic convention to name his running mate in open balloting for the gig. After three ballots the convention chose Tennessee populist Estes Kefauver over a young senator named John F. Kennedy (with the father of a future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Albert Gore Sr., finishing third, and yet another future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, running fourth).

Equally unpredictable veep selections took place at conventions for less indifferent reasons. In 1968, Richard Nixon picked Spiro T. Agnew as an inoffensive choice after better-known options were vetoed by party factions he consulted. He did not, of course, know that Agnew would eventually resign in disgrace during his second vice-presidential term as part of a plea bargain, when he was caught taking bribes dating back to his first public office as Baltimore County Executive. In 1972, George McGovern was turned down by multiple pols before he turned to Senator Tom Eagleton — later dropped from the ticket for undisclosed health problems and drunk-driving citations (after, unfortunately, McGovern said he was “1,000 percent” behind the Missourian).

The Eagleton fiasco helped produce today’s very careful process of extensive vetting of potential running mates. That happened in tandem with a presidential nominating process dominated by primaries, which robbed conventions of most of their deliberative nature and also made possible pre-convention running mate announcements. According to data assembled by Nathaniel Rakich, the last veep announcement at a convention was in 1988 when Poppy Bush (himself announced at the 1980 convention as Reagan’s running mate after wild speculation about a Reagan-Ford ticket) chose Dan Quayle. Since then, all but two veep reveals occurred within a week of the convention, at which the choice would be formally ratified (including Obama’s naming of Biden just three days before the 2008 convention). The exceptions were John Kerry’s announcement of John Edwards as his partner 20 days before the 2004 Democratic convention and Mitt Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan 16 days before 2012’s RNC. With the 2020 Democratic convention beginning on August 17, Biden will soon be within the historical window for going public with his choice.

Occasionally the timing of veep announcements has had a secondary purpose. In 2008, John McCain’s surprise announcement of Sarah Palin occurred the day after the Democratic convention nominated Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The idea was to “step on” news from the Democrats and shorten and flatten any convention “bounce.” It worked to some extent. Hillary Clinton tried the same thing by announcing Tim Kaine as her running mate in 2016 the day after the RNC ended. It did not work as Trump still got a good bounce. With the Republicans going second this year and Trump not expected to dump Mike Pence, no preemptive announcement is in the cards for 2020.

Biden, of course, has reduced the mystery of his veep preference considerably by announcing in advance that he will choose a woman — who will be the first woman selected as a Democratic running mate since Fritz Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro (that was announced four days before the 1984 Democratic convention). The fact that this year’s confab will be largely virtual, however, places a premium on Biden’s veep reveal, which may provide the only Democratic drama before Uncle Joe’s acceptance speech on August 20. Presumably, social-distancing requirements in Milwaukee will prevent the traditional clasped-hands gesture uniting the new ticket mates. Perhaps if Democrats win, a handshake or even a chaste hug will be possible before they are inaugurated next January.


The Evolution of the Veep Reveal

With Joe Biden indicating he will announce his choice of running-mate next week, I decided to do a brief reminder at New York of how this “reveal” has evolved over time.

Until pretty recently, the veep preference of the nominee was traditionally announced, and more often than not actually determined, at the convention itself. In part that was because the identity of the presidential nominee wasn’t always nailed down heading into the convention, making a running mate announcement more than a little presumptuous. Additionally, the veep selection often represented a plum appointment that might prove helpful either in winning the nomination or uniting a splintered party. The ultimate non-presumptuous gesture was made by Adlai Stevenson in 1956, when he allowed the the Democratic convention to name his running mate in open balloting for the gig. After three ballots the convention chose Tennessee populist Estes Kefauver over a young senator named John F. Kennedy (with the father of a future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Albert Gore Sr., finishing third, and yet another future vice-presidential and presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, running fourth).

Equally unpredictable veep selections took place at conventions for less indifferent reasons. In 1968, Richard Nixon picked Spiro T. Agnew as an inoffensive choice after better-known options were vetoed by party factions he consulted. He did not, of course, know that Agnew would eventually resign in disgrace during his second vice-presidential term as part of a plea bargain, when he was caught taking bribes dating back to his first public office as Baltimore County Executive. In 1972, George McGovern was turned down by multiple pols before he turned to Senator Tom Eagleton — later dropped from the ticket for undisclosed health problems and drunk-driving citations (after, unfortunately, McGovern said he was “1,000 percent” behind the Missourian).

The Eagleton fiasco helped produce today’s very careful process of extensive vetting of potential running mates. That happened in tandem with a presidential nominating process dominated by primaries, which robbed conventions of most of their deliberative nature and also made possible pre-convention running mate announcements. According to data assembled by Nathaniel Rakich, the last veep announcement at a convention was in 1988 when Poppy Bush (himself announced at the 1980 convention as Reagan’s running mate after wild speculation about a Reagan-Ford ticket) chose Dan Quayle. Since then, all but two veep reveals occurred within a week of the convention, at which the choice would be formally ratified (including Obama’s naming of Biden just three days before the 2008 convention). The exceptions were John Kerry’s announcement of John Edwards as his partner 20 days before the 2004 Democratic convention and Mitt Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan 16 days before 2012’s RNC. With the 2020 Democratic convention beginning on August 17, Biden will soon be within the historical window for going public with his choice.

Occasionally the timing of veep announcements has had a secondary purpose. In 2008, John McCain’s surprise announcement of Sarah Palin occurred the day after the Democratic convention nominated Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The idea was to “step on” news from the Democrats and shorten and flatten any convention “bounce.” It worked to some extent. Hillary Clinton tried the same thing by announcing Tim Kaine as her running mate in 2016 the day after the RNC ended. It did not work as Trump still got a good bounce. With the Republicans going second this year and Trump not expected to dump Mike Pence, no preemptive announcement is in the cards for 2020.

Biden, of course, has reduced the mystery of his veep preference considerably by announcing in advance that he will choose a woman — who will be the first woman selected as a Democratic running mate since Fritz Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro (that was announced four days before the 1984 Democratic convention). The fact that this year’s confab will be largely virtual, however, places a premium on Biden’s veep reveal, which may provide the only Democratic drama before Uncle Joe’s acceptance speech on August 20. Presumably, social-distancing requirements in Milwaukee will prevent the traditional clasped-hands gesture uniting the new ticket mates. Perhaps if Democrats win, a handshake or even a chaste hug will be possible before they are inaugurated next January.


July 23: No, the GOP Isn’t Moving to the Center

After another writer poured cold water on an absurd idea concerning the trajectory of the Republican Party, I amplified at New York:

With the president’s reelection prospects looking poor lately, there’s naturally an upsurge in speculation about his party’s future leadership. If he loses non-catastrophically, you might expect a struggle for the soul of the GOP between the conservative wing of the party that was dominant before Trump and various representatives of the authoritarian-populist twist on conservatism Trump represents.

But a lot of the chatter about post-Trump Republicanism dwells on two pols who would not have been considered serious national party leaders before 2016 and who most definitely do not espouse Trumpism without Trump. Those would be northeastern governors Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Baker had to publicly rule out a 2020 primary challenge to Trump to kill rumors that it might happen, and Hogan confesses he considered entering the race himself. Both men typically make the lists of 2024 presidential prospects.

What they have in common is a record of winning elections and reelections in heavily Democratic states and an ability to get national attention for distinguishing their views from those of a president who is toxically unpopular in those same states. As McKay Coppins notes in a deeply skeptical column on Hogan’s presidential prospects, that makes these moderate heretics vastly more popular among political writers than among Republican voters:

“[H]e’s routinely introduced as a prospective 2024 candidate. And as a popular blue-state governor with a pragmatic streak, Hogan is catnip for a certain kind of centrist pundit who has long fantasized about the heroic moderate riding in on a white horse to deliver the GOP from barbarism.

“But figures like Hogan have a history of attracting more column inches than votes in Republican presidential primaries. (See: John Kasich, Jon Huntsman, assorted other Jo(h)ns.)”

For the moment, and perhaps for good, pols like Hogan and Baker who have criticized Trump on multiple issues have in effect traded any possibility of national party significance for popularity back home. It works because the GOP in their states is so weak they will themselves trade orthodoxy for the rare opportunity to win statewide races (though it’s worth noting that Baker has lost control of his state party, and some speculate he may choose to run for a third gubernatorial term as an independent). And the self-disqualification for national leadership these moderates have invited isn’t just a matter of criticizing Trump: They are both pro-choice, which is an absolute nonstarter when it comes to being taken seriously as a presidential candidate in today’s GOP. The party remains formally committed to a constitutional amendment banning all abortions forever from the moment of conception.

The real leadership options Republicans will face if Trump loses in November will probably come down to the hard-core conservatives (think 2016 candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, plus Nikki Haley), who accommodated themselves to MAGA over the past four years but represent an older conservative movement, or the designated Trump successors (e.g., Mike Pence, Donald Jr., or Tucker Carlson), or perhaps those who may represent a sort of protofascist extension of Trumpism (e.g., Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley). There remains, of course, the possibility that the 45th president himself will hang around in hopes of becoming the 47th. It’s infinitely more probable than the prospect of Hogan or Baker leading the Republican Party.


No, the GOP Isn’t Moving to the Center

After another writer poured cold water on an absurd idea concerning the trajectory of the Republican Party, I amplified at New York:

With the president’s reelection prospects looking poor lately, there’s naturally an upsurge in speculation about his party’s future leadership. If he loses non-catastrophically, you might expect a struggle for the soul of the GOP between the conservative wing of the party that was dominant before Trump and various representatives of the authoritarian-populist twist on conservatism Trump represents.

But a lot of the chatter about post-Trump Republicanism dwells on two pols who would not have been considered serious national party leaders before 2016 and who most definitely do not espouse Trumpism without Trump. Those would be northeastern governors Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Baker had to publicly rule out a 2020 primary challenge to Trump to kill rumors that it might happen, and Hogan confesses he considered entering the race himself. Both men typically make the lists of 2024 presidential prospects.

What they have in common is a record of winning elections and reelections in heavily Democratic states and an ability to get national attention for distinguishing their views from those of a president who is toxically unpopular in those same states. As McKay Coppins notes in a deeply skeptical column on Hogan’s presidential prospects, that makes these moderate heretics vastly more popular among political writers than among Republican voters:

“[H]e’s routinely introduced as a prospective 2024 candidate. And as a popular blue-state governor with a pragmatic streak, Hogan is catnip for a certain kind of centrist pundit who has long fantasized about the heroic moderate riding in on a white horse to deliver the GOP from barbarism.

“But figures like Hogan have a history of attracting more column inches than votes in Republican presidential primaries. (See: John Kasich, Jon Huntsman, assorted other Jo(h)ns.)”

For the moment, and perhaps for good, pols like Hogan and Baker who have criticized Trump on multiple issues have in effect traded any possibility of national party significance for popularity back home. It works because the GOP in their states is so weak they will themselves trade orthodoxy for the rare opportunity to win statewide races (though it’s worth noting that Baker has lost control of his state party, and some speculate he may choose to run for a third gubernatorial term as an independent). And the self-disqualification for national leadership these moderates have invited isn’t just a matter of criticizing Trump: They are both pro-choice, which is an absolute nonstarter when it comes to being taken seriously as a presidential candidate in today’s GOP. The party remains formally committed to a constitutional amendment banning all abortions forever from the moment of conception.

The real leadership options Republicans will face if Trump loses in November will probably come down to the hard-core conservatives (think 2016 candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, plus Nikki Haley), who accommodated themselves to MAGA over the past four years but represent an older conservative movement, or the designated Trump successors (e.g., Mike Pence, Donald Jr., or Tucker Carlson), or perhaps those who may represent a sort of protofascist extension of Trumpism (e.g., Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley). There remains, of course, the possibility that the 45th president himself will hang around in hopes of becoming the 47th. It’s infinitely more probable than the prospect of Hogan or Baker leading the Republican Party.

 


July 22: Trump on Wrong Track for Reelection

As part of my general coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign at New York, I noted Charlie Cook’s discussion of an important metric for presidents running for reelection:

If you want to know why Team Trump is so frantic to make the November election a “choice” rather than a “referendum,” Charlie Cook has a very good answer: Presidents running for reelection when voters are sour on the country’s direction tend to lose, sometimes badly. There’s a polling metric for that perception, generally known as right track/wrong track:

“[This is] an age-old poll question, usually worded something like: ‘Generally speaking, do you think that the country is headed in the right direction or is off on the wrong track?’ Ronald Reagan’s legendary pollster Richard Wirthlin popularized the metric, even calling it ‘the Dow Jones indicator of American politics.'”

It’s a particularly important number for presidents running for reelection. There have been six of those in the past 40 years. For the four who won, the “right track” number just prior to the election was at 47 percent (Reagan 1984), 39 percent (Clinton 1996), 41 percent (George W. Bush 2004) and 42 percent (Obama 2012). The two who lost had much poorer “right track” numbers: 20 percent (Carter 1980) and 17 percent (Poppy Bush 1992).

Guess which set of numbers is similar to today’s? Cook has the answer:

“In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, ‘right direction’ was a dismal 19 percent, compared to a ‘wrong track’ of 72 percent, for a net minus 53 points. These are numbers screaming for change, and unlike four years ago when Donald Trump was running against a party that had held the White House for eight years, he is seeking a contract renewal and representing the status quo. Joe Biden is the candidate of change, even if it is a change back toward normal. Indeed, a different Republican strategist summed up the mood of the electorate as hoping for someone to make their lives normal again.”

Getting voters to change their view of Biden sufficiently to make them forget about the terrible disappointments of the Trump administration — including its mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic — would be quite the heavy lift even if Trump were a sunny, likable fellow who just ran into a patch of bad luck and held some residual goodwill from a sizable majority of the public. He’s none of that, of course, and really needs a positive feeling about the direction of the country to offset deeply entrenched misgivings about his nasty, erratic, and mendacious personality.


Trump on Wrong Track for Reelection

As part of my general coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign at New York, I noted Charlie Cook’s discussion of an important metric for presidents running for reelection:

If you want to know why Team Trump is so frantic to make the November election a “choice” rather than a “referendum,” Charlie Cook has a very good answer: Presidents running for reelection when voters are sour on the country’s direction tend to lose, sometimes badly. There’s a polling metric for that perception, generally known as right track/wrong track:

“[This is] an age-old poll question, usually worded something like: ‘Generally speaking, do you think that the country is headed in the right direction or is off on the wrong track?’ Ronald Reagan’s legendary pollster Richard Wirthlin popularized the metric, even calling it ‘the Dow Jones indicator of American politics.'”

It’s a particularly important number for presidents running for reelection. There have been six of those in the past 40 years. For the four who won, the “right track” number just prior to the election was at 47 percent (Reagan 1984), 39 percent (Clinton 1996), 41 percent (George W. Bush 2004) and 42 percent (Obama 2012). The two who lost had much poorer “right track” numbers: 20 percent (Carter 1980) and 17 percent (Poppy Bush 1992).

Guess which set of numbers is similar to today’s? Cook has the answer:

“In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, ‘right direction’ was a dismal 19 percent, compared to a ‘wrong track’ of 72 percent, for a net minus 53 points. These are numbers screaming for change, and unlike four years ago when Donald Trump was running against a party that had held the White House for eight years, he is seeking a contract renewal and representing the status quo. Joe Biden is the candidate of change, even if it is a change back toward normal. Indeed, a different Republican strategist summed up the mood of the electorate as hoping for someone to make their lives normal again.”

Getting voters to change their view of Biden sufficiently to make them forget about the terrible disappointments of the Trump administration — including its mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic — would be quite the heavy lift even if Trump were a sunny, likable fellow who just ran into a patch of bad luck and held some residual goodwill from a sizable majority of the public. He’s none of that, of course, and really needs a positive feeling about the direction of the country to offset deeply entrenched misgivings about his nasty, erratic, and mendacious personality.


July 18: RIP John Lewis. His Struggle Will Survive Him.

On the sad news of the death of John Lewis, I’ll republish here the piece I wrote earlier this month for New York on a new documentary about his life.

On the eve of the 44th president’s inauguration in Washington, Georgia congressman John Lewis said, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

This was a remarkable comment from the man who was severely injured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 1965, a police riot that horrified the country and paved the way for adoption of the Voting Rights Act in July of that year. David Remnick’s 2010 Obama biography made Lewis’s quote a departure point; the new president represented the “Joshua generation” that had reached a post-racial promised land through the efforts of the “Moses generation” of civil-rights leaders like Lewis. By implication, that older generation could retire from the spotlight with dignity, its essential work having been completed.

Over a decade later, for John Lewis at least, that dignified retirement turned out to be an illusion. In a new documentary film by Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the veteran voting-rights champion views himself as facing the potential reversal of his life’s work via an open conservative crusade to restrict the franchise, led by Obama’s successor in the White House. Indeed, Obama himself is a relatively minor figure in the film, which skillfully alternates between footage and narrative of Lewis’s early life and his series of key contributions to the civil-rights and voting-rights movements of the 1960s, and his most recent efforts to fight voter suppression and the white identity politics of the contemporary right, notably in the 2018 midterm elections.

There’s an anecdote in the film in which a Lewis speechwriter asked him if he had ever spoken before a crowd as large as the one he addressed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (a speech for which I had the privilege of helping rehearse Lewis, the most decent politician I met in many years of convention service). He gently reminded her he had spoken to a throng of a quarter-million people during the March.

At every step of the way, Lewis was brutalized by police and civilian racist violence, earning him respect even from his enemies for his courage, without shaking his commitment to the principles of nonviolence he learned in Nashville. Porter’s film touches on the famous incidents in which Lewis was so intimately involved, including the Freedom Summer in Mississippi that led to the murder of civil-rights volunteers by Klansmen, another moment that helped rouse the conscience of the country.

Likely because the film wants to depict Lewis’s current political battles as something of a throwback to his civil-rights heyday, it doesn’t dwell much on his turn to more conventional political pursuits, other than a segment on the sadly bitter 1986 congressional election in which Lewis defeated his old friend and SNCC colleague (and later NAACP chairman) Julian Bond, and began his long career in the U.S. House.

But in the portions of the film devoted to his more recent campaign work we are shown the merger of Lewis’s social movement and party politics backgrounds. It’s made clear that the development that turned him from a well-deserved semi-retirement was the destruction of the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Right Act by the Supreme Court in 2013. The shocking nature of this reversal is illustrated by footage of George W. Bush proudly signing a bipartisan extension of the VRA in 2006.

By 2018, Lewis was barnstorming the country, pursuing the twin goals of a Democratic takeover of the House (in which he serves in the party leadership) and the battle to vindicate voting rights. A segment on midterm Election Night and the immediate aftermath shows his pride in the party’s victory (which also expanded the ranks of the Congressional Black Caucus), but also his dismay at the defeat of Stacey Abrams, in some respects his heir as a southern voting-rights champion, for the governorship of his own state after an aggressive campaign of voter suppression by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Toward the end of Porter’s film, he is given tributes by a number of young politicians of color (e.g., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Cory Booker) who stress both his legacy and his continued leadership. Now they, rather than Obama, seem to represent the end of the bridge in Selma. Stacey Abrams encapsulates the message by saying Lewis is a living reminder that “the past isn’t past.”

You get the sense watching Lewis in the more recent footage that like most people his age, he’s slowed down. His wife of 44 years, Lillian, passed away in 2012. There is no explicit reference to his diagnosis late last year of pancreatic cancer, though clearly his staff and friends are solicitous about his health. There’s no question the upshot of the film is that defeating Donald Trump in 2020 and reestablishing inalienable voting rights would represent the capstone of a very public life. Even if his body is now weak, his voice is the same, bred in the sermons of the Black church in Jim Crow Alabama, a voice of prophecy, determination, and charity. I’m sure John Lewis has his regrets like all of us, but his principles haven’t changed since his training in nonviolent social change in Nashville six decades ago.

The title of Porter’s film comes from a frequently repeated saying of Lewis’s, usually preceded by a reference to his 40 arrests over the years: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” It’s his fate to be placed in the position of still being a troublemaker at the age of 80. But for this singular man, it’s more appropriate than a quiet retirement.

May he rest in piece as others take up his struggle.


RIP John Lewis. His Struggle Will Survive Him.

On the sad news of the death of John Lewis, I’ll republish here the piece I wrote earlier this month for New York on a new documentary about his life.

On the eve of the 44th president’s inauguration in Washington, Georgia congressman John Lewis said, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

This was a remarkable comment from the man who was severely injured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 1965, a police riot that horrified the country and paved the way for adoption of the Voting Rights Act in July of that year. David Remnick’s 2010 Obama biography made Lewis’s quote a departure point; the new president represented the “Joshua generation” that had reached a post-racial promised land through the efforts of the “Moses generation” of civil-rights leaders like Lewis. By implication, that older generation could retire from the spotlight with dignity, its essential work having been completed.

Over a decade later, for John Lewis at least, that dignified retirement turned out to be an illusion. In a new documentary film by Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the veteran voting-rights champion views himself as facing the potential reversal of his life’s work via an open conservative crusade to restrict the franchise, led by Obama’s successor in the White House. Indeed, Obama himself is a relatively minor figure in the film, which skillfully alternates between footage and narrative of Lewis’s early life and his series of key contributions to the civil-rights and voting-rights movements of the 1960s, and his most recent efforts to fight voter suppression and the white identity politics of the contemporary right, notably in the 2018 midterm elections.

There’s an anecdote in the film in which a Lewis speechwriter asked him if he had ever spoken before a crowd as large as the one he addressed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (a speech for which I had the privilege of helping rehearse Lewis, the most decent politician I met in many years of convention service). He gently reminded her he had spoken to a throng of a quarter-million people during the March.

At every step of the way, Lewis was brutalized by police and civilian racist violence, earning him respect even from his enemies for his courage, without shaking his commitment to the principles of nonviolence he learned in Nashville. Porter’s film touches on the famous incidents in which Lewis was so intimately involved, including the Freedom Summer in Mississippi that led to the murder of civil-rights volunteers by Klansmen, another moment that helped rouse the conscience of the country.

Likely because the film wants to depict Lewis’s current political battles as something of a throwback to his civil-rights heyday, it doesn’t dwell much on his turn to more conventional political pursuits, other than a segment on the sadly bitter 1986 congressional election in which Lewis defeated his old friend and SNCC colleague (and later NAACP chairman) Julian Bond, and began his long career in the U.S. House.

But in the portions of the film devoted to his more recent campaign work we are shown the merger of Lewis’s social movement and party politics backgrounds. It’s made clear that the development that turned him from a well-deserved semi-retirement was the destruction of the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Right Act by the Supreme Court in 2013. The shocking nature of this reversal is illustrated by footage of George W. Bush proudly signing a bipartisan extension of the VRA in 2006.

By 2018, Lewis was barnstorming the country, pursuing the twin goals of a Democratic takeover of the House (in which he serves in the party leadership) and the battle to vindicate voting rights. A segment on midterm Election Night and the immediate aftermath shows his pride in the party’s victory (which also expanded the ranks of the Congressional Black Caucus), but also his dismay at the defeat of Stacey Abrams, in some respects his heir as a southern voting-rights champion, for the governorship of his own state after an aggressive campaign of voter suppression by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Toward the end of Porter’s film, he is given tributes by a number of young politicians of color (e.g., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Cory Booker) who stress both his legacy and his continued leadership. Now they, rather than Obama, seem to represent the end of the bridge in Selma. Stacey Abrams encapsulates the message by saying Lewis is a living reminder that “the past isn’t past.”

You get the sense watching Lewis in the more recent footage that like most people his age, he’s slowed down. His wife of 44 years, Lillian, passed away in 2012. There is no explicit reference to his diagnosis late last year of pancreatic cancer, though clearly his staff and friends are solicitous about his health. There’s no question the upshot of the film is that defeating Donald Trump in 2020 and reestablishing inalienable voting rights would represent the capstone of a very public life. Even if his body is now weak, his voice is the same, bred in the sermons of the Black church in Jim Crow Alabama, a voice of prophecy, determination, and charity. I’m sure John Lewis has his regrets like all of us, but his principles haven’t changed since his training in nonviolent social change in Nashville six decades ago.

The title of Porter’s film comes from a frequently repeated saying of Lewis’s, usually preceded by a reference to his 40 arrests over the years: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” It’s his fate to be placed in the position of still being a troublemaker at the age of 80. But for this singular man, it’s more appropriate than a quiet retirement.

May he rest in piece as others take up his struggle.