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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

July 19: If the “Big Four” Continue to Dominate the 2020 Field, It Could Mean an Early Conclusion–or a Contested Convention

It’s pretty generally recognized that four 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have separated themselves from the rest of the field. But not many observers are teasing out the implications if it continues, as I tried to do this week at New York:

[L]ess than a year before Democrats meet in Milwaukee to nominate a presidential candidate, the field’s two old white men have lost a significant amount of support, while two women (Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris) have gained significant strength. While everyone understands that Warren and Harris represent a threat to Biden and Sanders, it’s underappreciated how much all four candidates are now separated from the rest of the field.

Using the RealClearPolitics national polling averages as a yardstick, as recently as two months ago, Biden was at 38 percent and Sanders at 19 percent, with Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg clustered in the high single digits; O’Rourke and Booker were a few points behind them; and everyone else was struggling for oxygen. Now Biden (28 percent), Sanders (15 percent), Warren (ditto), and Harris (13 percent) are more closely bunched, with Buttigieg the next in sight at 5 percent. After a boffo second quarter in fundraising, Mayor Pete may have the resources to lift himself from the madding crowd the way Warren and Harris have done. And some other current bottom-feeder could rocket into contention with a big-time performance in the July 30 and 31 debates in Detroit (after that, the heightened requirements for participation in two rounds of autumn debates are likely to serve as an abattoir for struggling candidacies).

And as noted, there are scenarios under which each of these four candidates could put it all away early. Most obviously, despite his recent loss of support nationally, Biden remains in the lead in all four of the early states that vote in February. If he wins them all, he’d be extremely hard to stop. Sanders has one of the more consistent bases of support in the key early states, is showing signs of addressing his minority-voting weakness from 2016, and has plenty of money, so he could plausibly win Iowa and New Hampshire and roar into Super Tuesday with a head of steam. Warren has what is generally conceded to be the best Iowa organization, is rising rapidly in New Hampshire, and can compete with both Sanders and Biden in harvesting good will among a national constituency of admirers. And Harris, building on her first-debate success, has a very plausible Obama-esque strategy of wrecking Biden in South Carolina among the black voters he heavily relies upon, and then forging into front-runner status with a big win in her native California just a few days later.

But if all of these candidates fall just a bit short of their most ambitious goals, and fail to land the knockout punch when they need it, then we could be looking at a truly protracted battle in which no one rival has an indomitable advantage. That does not necessarily mean a contested convention would occur: candidates could try to achieve some breakthrough via unconventional coalitions, alliances among themselves, or early running-mate announcements (tried unsuccessfully by Republicans Ronald Reagan in 1976 and Ted Cruz in 2016, but still worth considering). Democrats do not strictly require pledged delegates to stick with their original candidates (particularly if that candidate has withdrawn), so things could change before delegates arrive in Milwaukee. And then, yes, a gridlocked convention could turn to suddenly re-enfranchised superdelegates, all 764 of them, to help make a decision after the first ballot ends.

If nobody’s made a big move by early March, it’s time to start thinking seriously about these wild convention scenarios — and about which candidate might best unify the Donkey Party. By this time next year, the fear of letting Trump win again will be so palpable that you will be able to weigh it on scales and grill it up for an anxious meal.


July 18: 2020 Frenzy Not a Guaranteed Net Turnout Generator for Democrats

Since the 2020 presidential election is looking to be wild and wooly and passionate, it’s important that Democrats are clear-eyed about the implications of abandoning swing voter persuasion altogether in the pursuit of base mobilization. I wrote about that this week at New York:

Of all the reasons Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, the most compelling (to me, at least) is that he sprang the upset because an awful lot of voters who didn’t really want the mogul to become president stayed home, voted for a minor-party candidate or even cast a “protest vote” for Trump on the theory that he could not possibly win. From that sound hypothesis has grown the somewhat more dubious postulate that in 2020, if turnout is high, the 45th president is toast. Part of the reason people instinctively believe this is that there are more Democratic than Republicans out there; in other words, an energized Democratic base is going to be larger than its GOP counterpart. But the more tangible rationale is probably a lot simpler: 2018 was a very high-turnout midterm, in which Democrats did well. So if turnout stays high, the donkeys will again romp, right?

Well, that’s plausible, but hardly a lead-pipe cinch, in part because 2018’s high turnout was in fact skewed positively toward Democrats, which may or may not happen again. Historically (and particularly in the previous two midterms in 2010 and 2014), midterm turnout patterns strongly favored Republicans because the older and whiter voters who leaned GOP were since time immemorial more likely to show up for non-presidential elections. In 2018, though, that pattern was turned on its head, as Louis Jacobson recently explained at the Cook Political Report:

“In four states (Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota) Democratic gubernatorial vote totals in 2018 were more than 10 percent higher than the party’s showing in the presidential year of 2016. In six more, vote totals increased, but by less than 10 percent (Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Mexico). And in 11 other states, Democratic votes for governor dropped by less than 10 percent from presidential levels (Alabama, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) …

“In three states, gubernatorial votes for the GOP nominee increased over Trump’s total by more than 10 percent (Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont). In four others, GOP votes increased but by less than 10 percent (Arizona, California, Hawaii and Oregon). And in five states, GOP candidates dropped from presidential-year vote totals by less than 10 percent (Connecticut, Georgia, New Mexico, Texas, and Wisconsin).

“All told, then, Republicans saw gains or modest losses in 2018 in 12 states. However, the strongest showings came in blue states where the party had broken with the Trump-era pattern by running a moderate candidate with crossover appeal. Subtracting those states leaves about nine states in which the GOP gubernatorial nominee overperformed Trump or didn’t see a big fall-off.”

The partisan gap in extremely high midterm turnout was even more notable, Jacobson found, in Senate races. In the most similar recent midterm, moreover, that in 2010, neither party beat presidential turnout levels in more than a few states.

So if Democrats can match those patterns in 2020, victory should be relatively easy. But another way to look at it is that Republicans may have a larger pool of presidential voters who stayed home in 2018 than do Democrats, which is unusual but hardly impossible. That is essentially what Nate Cohn found in a new analysis of what a high-turnout presidential election in 2020 might look like:

“The voters who turned out in 2016, but stayed home in 2018, were relatively favorable to Mr. Trump, and they’re presumably more likely to join the electorate than those who turned out in neither election. In a high-turnout election, these Trump supporters could turn out at a higher rate than the more Democratic group of voters who didn’t vote in either election, potentially shifting the electorate toward the president.”

Perhaps these midterm stay-at-homes are now alienated from Trump, and will either stay home again or flip to the Democratic candidate. But it’s not a sure thing, particularly if you look at the Electoral College map:

“The danger for Democrats is that higher turnout would do little to help them in the Electoral College if it did not improve their position in the crucial Midwestern battlegrounds. Higher turnout could even help the president there, where an outsize number of white working-class voters who back the president stayed home in 2018, potentially creating a larger split between the national vote and the Electoral College in 2020 than in 2016.”

The arguments over the identity of marginal voters and nonvoters could lead in various directions. But the one inescapable conclusion is that driving turnout upward by making the 2020 election a frenzied test of comparative “enthusiasm” is a dangerous game for Democrats, if it’s not supplemented by (1) a least some “swing voter” strategy, and (2) quieter turnout measures (e.g., voter registration drives, data-driven voter-targeting messages, or even traditional knock-and-drag GOTV efforts) that don’t run the risk of riling up both sides equally.

It’s certainly safe to say that Trump and his party are risking disaster by making every presidential utterance an outrage that at best excites his base as much as it infuriates Democrats. And since time immemorial, ideologues on both the left and the right have asserted as a matter of quasi-religious faith that some hidden majority favor their prescriptions, with tens of millions of citizens refusing to vote because the radicalism they crave has been withheld by Establishment centrists. In 2020, though, the stakes are higher than ever if Democrats are wrong about relying on the intensity of voter enthusiasm. It would be smart for them to have a backup plan.

 


July 12: Questioning the Governors-Run-Best Theory of Presidential Campaigns

This week Politico resurrected a time-worn theory that I decided to challenge at New York:

It was once common to assert that governors (or former governors) had a big leg up on other candidates for president — and there was plenty of empirical data to back that up. Of the 50 major-party presidential nominations awarded in the 20th century (from 1904 through 2000), 24 went to current or former governors, while only 13 went to current or former U.S. senators (and eight of those involved candidates who had served as vice-president). Famously, no sitting senator was elected president between Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy, and after JFK, it was another 48 years before Barack Obama broke the senatorial slump.

So at Politico, Natasha Korecki and Charlie Mahtesian wonder why the two sitting governors (Steve Bullock and Jay Inslee) and one former governor (John Hickenlooper) are not doing well in the vast 2020 Democratic field, and they have a hypothesis:

“While the steady stream of scandal and controversy surrounding the president is proving to be a boon to members of Congress running for the White House — giving some of them almost limitless opportunities for media exposure — it’s turning out to be a problem for the statehouse-based candidates.

“Lacking a nexus to the nation’s capital and the Trump administration story of the day, the governors are left standing on the outside looking in, news cycle after news cycle.”

And so we have a bumper crop of members of Congress — seven senators and four representatives, plus a former senator and two former representatives — running for the Democratic nomination in 2020, benefiting, the hypothesis suggests, from their proximity to the center ring of the Trump-driven circus in Washington:

It’s interesting to hear T-Mac of all people — a longtime national political money-hustler and former DNC chairman, who as governor was a short drive from Washington — complain that he was too distant from The Show in D.C. to get any attention. But beyond that, the It’s All About Trump hypothesis has some notable holes once you examine it.

Being a senator is a limited factor in the candidacies of those doing well so far in the 2020 competition. Yes, Joe Biden became a senator before half the electorate was born, but it’s his tenure as Barack Obama’s veep that is his main — arguably his only significant — political asset. Bernie Sanders made his bones as a surprisingly successful factional candidate for president in 2016. He’d probably be just as strong today had he resigned from the Senate then. Elizabeth Warren was a national progressive celebrity as an anti-corporate crusader before her election to the Senate. And Kamala Harris is a multiracial woman who served as attorney general in the country’s largest state.

All of these candidates would probably be getting more or less the same amount of media attention had they left the Senate before running for president. That may also be true of Cory Booker, who to this day is better known as a “reform” mayor of Newark than as a legislator. And in any event, Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, and Kirsten Gillibrand — not to mention all of the current and former House members — aren’t doing much better in the polls than the three governors. If being in the shadow of the Big Man in Washington is really crucial, moreover, how can one account for the relative success of Pete Buttigieg, mayor of a small city in Indiana, hardly a media epicenter?

Truth is the meme about governorships representing the high road to the White House had become a bit shopworn before Trump became president. On the Democratic side, the only current or former governor to launch a viable presidential campaign since Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 was Howard Dean, whose temporarily successful 2004 campaign had little or nothing to do with his record in Montpelier (there was a war going on, as you might remember, and all of HoDean’s rivals supported it). Clinton was a bit of a factional candidate himself, running as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and “a different kind of Democrat.”

And even among Republicans, who have had a deeper gubernatorial bench in recent years, governors with White House aspirations have had a mixed record and/or complicated backgrounds. Yes, in 2000 George W. Bush ran in part on his gubernatorial record in Texas, but he was also the scion of a national political dynasty. And yes, in 2012 Mitt Romney’s big credential was his one-term as governor of Massachusetts, but he spent the entire cycle running away from his record there. In 2016, nine current or former governors ran for the GOP nomination. Four of them, including two considered extremely viable initially (Scott Walker and Rick Perry) dropped out before voters started voting. Four others quit in February, including Jeb Bush, who executed one of the most spectacularly bad campaigns in political history.

So maybe it’s time to retire the governors-do-best theory for the time being. The current batch has problems other than distance from the Sun King’s glare of publicity. Inslee has chosen to run as a “movement” candidate whose distinction is the heaviest emphasis on an issue — climate change — that all the others are talking about as well. Hickenlooper has probably marginalized himself by attacking the current leftward drift in his party. And Bullock waited until very late — most would say too late — in the game to launch his candidacy. Perhaps down the road governors in both parties will make a comeback when it comes to national politics, particularly if chronic gridlock continues to paralyze the legislative process in Congress. But for now, it’s just another interesting gig that is subordinate to having the right identity, message, or ability to spin fundraising gold out of straw.


July 10: Examining Team Trump’s Attacks on Polling

Now and then it’s useful to take a cold, hard look at some of Team Trump’s constant wild assertions and baldfaced lies and deconstruct them. At New York, I did this with his and his campaign manager’s attacks on polling:

As part of his general effort to undermine confidence in any sort of information that suggests he is not the most brilliantly successful leader in recorded history, President Trump famously disparages public opinion research that tells him things he doesn’t want to hear. Polls (with the exception of those from Rasmussen Reports, which systematically produces pro-Republican, pro-Trump findings) are for him a species of Fake News, and the product of the Fake Media that often sponsors them. He is willing, in fact, to elevate all sorts of phony-baloney pseudo-research above professional polling, or simply misrepresent findings, as Philip Bump noted earlier this week:

“Tuesday morning dawned, and President Trump decided, for some reason, to re-litigate the 2016 presidential debates.

“’As most people are aware, according to the Polls, I won EVERY debate, including the three with Crooked Hillary Clinton,’ Trump said on Twitter …

“Trump insists, here in the year of our Lord 2019, that he won all three debates ‘according to the Polls.’ According to the Polls, Trump lost all three debates, by varying margins….

“The ‘polls’ to which Trump is referring are probably the same ones he cited after losing that first debate (which, remember, was in part a function of his faulty mic except also he won the debate). At the time, Trump pointed to useless online surveys like the one typically hosted at the Drudge Report or to little surveys posted on local news sites.”

When Trump can’t find the numbers he craves, from whatever shady source, he makes them up:

“In an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that aired on Monday night, Trump also claimed that approval polls showed him excelling — or at least they would if polls were fair.

“’A poll just came out today I’m at 54 or 55, and they do say you can add 10 to whatever poll I have, okay?’ Trump told Carlson.”

Actually, in the vast collection of approval rating polls compiled by RealClearPolitics — a site with strongly conservative ownership, by the way — Trump has never during his presidency achieved an approval rating as high as “54 or 55,” even from Rasmussen. And Trump’s “they do say you can add 10 to whatever poll I have” claim is a complete mystery. “They” in that assertion might as well be “I.”

All across the landscape of MAGA-land, of course, it’s considered axiomatic that adverse polls are “fake” or biased because they all missed the 2016 presidential results. Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, recently waxed adamant on the subject, declaring “[i]t was 100 percent wrong. Nobody got it right — not one public poll.”

Now technically speaking no poll — or prediction, or tarot-card prophecy — is going to get an election totally right, so it’s a matter of degree. Again using RCP averages, late 2016 general-election polls had Clinton leading Trump by 3.3 percent in the popular vote. She actually won by 2.1 percent. As Nate Silver pointed out in an exhaustive postmortem, the national polls did just fine, and the sparse state polling wasn’t all that far off either:

“Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state. Certainly, there were individual pollsters that had some explaining to do, especially in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Trump beat his polls by a larger amount. But the result was not some sort of massive outlier; on the contrary, the polls were pretty much as accurate as they’d been, on average, since 1968.”

Predictions of who would win in 2016 based on polls, history, various models, and coverage of the campaigns tended to be wrong for a lot of reasons, but the simplest was that Trump drew an improbable inside straight in losing the national popular vote by 2,868,000 votes and then winning every close state other than New Hampshire — notably winning Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by a combined 77,000 votes. Nobody predicted that because nobody could have predicted that. As veteran pollster and poll analyst Mark Blumenthal told me in a phone conversation this week: “Skepticism about the use of polls to forecast elections is warranted, particularly when it comes to state-by-state data that’s harder to come by. But that says little or nothing about the fundamental quality of polls.” And it’s no reason for calling them “fake” or “biased.”

The closest Team Trump has come to making anything like a substantive case about polling quality was in a dismissive mid-June remark from Brad Parscale to CBS News:

“’The country is too complex now just to call a couple hundred people and ask them what they think. There are so many ways and different people that are going to show up to vote now,’ Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign chief, told CBS News in an interview taped Tuesday.

“’And the reason why is it’s not 1962 anymore. It’s not a place where there’s only a few ways and decisions and every[one] lines up to vote like a good old American. Now there’s a lot of distractions from going to vote. The world’s changed.’”

Now this may have just been an impromptu word salad motivated by the need to spin the Trump campaign’s decision to fire three pollsters who had allegedly leaked data showing Trump doing badly against Joe Biden in a large number of battleground states. Parscale was also highly motivated to wave away an especially deadly general-election poll from Quinnipiacshowing Trump doing poorly in Florida, the state where he was about to hold his formal reelection launch rally. “None of these polls mean anything,” Parscale added. “It’s the biggest joke in politics. It’s the fakest thing. It’s the fakest thing.” Makes you wonder why his campaign kept two pollsters on the payroll while firing the leakers.

Giving Parscale the maximum benefit of the doubt, maybe he’s suggesting that polls miss the social media magic he supposedly deployed in 2016. He hinted at this in his remarks to CBS:

“The way turnout now works and the abilities that we have to turn out voters, the polling can’t understand that, and that’s why it was so wrong in 2016.”

Putting aside the fact — not the possibility, but the demonstrable fact — that the polling was not so wrong in 2016, is there something about turnout methods today that polling can’t capture? Has Parscale developed the dark arts of voter mobilization in a manner that eludes detection until the deed is done?

That’s extremely implausible. Yes, pollsters constantly struggle to estimate turnout; it’s the single hardest thing to do, though it’s harder in low-turnout midterms than in (relatively) high-turnout presidential elections. But if anything, they seem to be getting better at it, via a combination of objective data about established voting proclivities (via official voter files that campaigns have used for years, and that pollsters are increasingly using, too) and subjective data on voters’ enthusiasm for participation. Best we can tell, variable turnout patterns were not, in fact, crucial to Trump’s 2016 win, as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn noted after a good look at the final numbers:

“[T]urnout improved Mr. Trump’s standing by a modest margin compared with pre-election expectations. If the turnout had gone exactly as we thought it would, the election would have been extremely close. But by this measure, Mrs. Clinton still would have lost both Florida and Pennsylvania — albeit very narrowly.”

Could Parscale know something we don’t know about 2020 turnout? That’s not likely either. If there was any mistake about turnout patterns made by election analysts going into 2016, it was probably assuming they would closely resemble those of 2008 and 2012, in which African-American voting participation was elevated by Obama’s candidacy and presidency. Now nobody’s assuming black turnout will be higher in 2020 than in 2016, and all indications are that voter enthusiasm will be high among both party bases. If anything, the arrows are pointing in the direction of a Democratic turnout advantage for the simple reason that anti-Trump voters are not about to assume he’s toast, no matter what the polls and pundits are saying, given the 2016 shocker.

All in all, it’s likely that Parscale is emulating the signature Trump campaign knack for pure BS in pretending polls that don’t show the president cruising to total victory in all states are a “joke.” Or worse yet, he’s scamming the master scam artist himself and justifying his exalted role in Trump 2020 by depicting himself as a turnout sorcerer whom mere mortals — including the president — cannot comprehend. Either way, he’s literally incredible.


July 6: Can Trump Actually Run As a “Moderate” in 2020? No Way.

It’s true that it sometimes seems like many years since Donald Trump was elected president. But his 2016 campaign shouldn’t be that hard to remember, as I observed this week at New York:

The conventional wisdom about Donald Trump is that he took a steadily growing extremist strain in the Republican Party, put it into hyperdrive, and won the presidency by polarizing the country to an unprecedented extent, boosting right-wing turnout and by various means suppressing Democratic turnout. In a classic contrarian take, Vox’s Matt Yglesias suggests that CW is based on selective memory and post-ex-facto reinterpretations based on the kind of president Trump has become, because many people who voted for him in 2016 perceived him as “moderate.”

“[I]t’s not true that Trump ran and won as an ideological extremist. He paired extremely offensive rhetoric on racial issues with positioning on key economic policy topics that led him to be perceived by the electorate as a whole as the most moderate GOP nominee in generations. His campaign was almost paint-by-numbers pragmatic moderation. He ditched a couple of unpopular GOP positions that were much cherished by party elites, like cutting Medicare benefits, delivered victory, and is beloved by the rank and file for it.”

Yglesias cites Pew data from the summer of 2016 to make the point that Trump was perceived by voters as more moderate than Hillary Clinton, and Gallup data to show that Trump was perceived as more moderate than past Republican nominees Mitt Romney, John McCain, or either Bush. Yes, Trump also ran on crude racial and cultural appeals that more conventionally conservative Republicans tend to deploy more subtly. But that enables him to appeal to a relatively small but crucial subset of Democrats who are moderate to liberal on economic and fiscal issues while being conservative on matters of culture and racial resentment:

“Had Trump ran on a conventional Republican platform of cutting Social Security and Medicare, Democrats would have hammered him for it — just as they hammered Bush and McCain and Romney — and won the votes of many older non-college whites who are racist enough to like Trump but sufficiently non-racist to have voted for Democrats in the past.”

Yglesias goes on to use this 2016 reminder to push back against the common assumption that Trump’s example shows Democrats that the old moderation-wins tenets of political science are outdated. Indeed, he revisits the academic support for the proposition that all other things being equal, being perceived as a moderate significantly enhances the prospects for victory. And then he makes a familiar if pointed observation about the left-leaning direction of the 2020 Democratic primaries:

“Win or lose the election, there’s just no way Democrats are going to be able to implement the Section 1325 repeal many of them promised at last week’s debate. But if they lose the election over charges of being soft on border enforcement, then they can’t do anything at all for Dreamers, for humane treatment of asylum seekers, or for a path to citizenship for the long-settled undocumented population. Taking an unpopular stand or two in pursuit of progress is fine.

“But extremism, like anything else, is best in moderation and ought to be saved for moments where the stakes are really high. Trump’s success in politics, meanwhile, confirms rather than debunks the basic political value of trying to take popular positions on the issues.”

The 2020 Democratic nominee, however, is not going to be running against the 2016 version of Donald Trump. Yglesias acknowledges that Trump the president has been far more satisfying to the right wing of his party than Trump the candidate, but doesn’t quite factor that into his prescription for Democrats. And it’s hardly incidental to any sound analysis of 2020, if only because Trump’s strategy for reelection is focused on base mobilization to an extraordinary extent. As my colleague Jonathan Chait pointed out last year, Trump has consolidated his Republican support in no small part by abandoning many of the policy positions that made him look moderate to voters in 2016:

“In office, he has instead governed as an orthodox right-winger. This explains why Trump has lost so much of his nonconservative support. But it also helps explain the Republican Party’s willingness to defend him. Instead of keeping his popular promises that helped get him elected, Trump instead adopted the unpopular stances of the conservative movement, which has in turn embraced him.”

The odds are very high that Trump will not be perceived as a “moderate” by voters after the kind of savage campaign he is almost certainly going to run, which should help the Democratic nominee appear more “moderate” by comparison. Alternatively, after months and months of Republican efforts to brand the Democratic candidate as a “socialist,” there may be no candidate “moderate” enough to overcome the imputed red hue.

All in all, Democrats would be well advised to stop worrying about ideological labels and focus on selecting a candidate who (a) looks strong against Trump in actual, empirical terms, and (b) would likely give them the greatest policy bang for the buck as president.


July 3: Can Trump Make 2020 About Anything Other Than Himself?

Reading about Trump’s reelection strategy earlier this week, a fairly obvious problem with it came to mind, which I then wrote about at New York:

A lot of the analysis of the first round of Democratic presidential debates last week focused on the possible fodder the candidates and the subjects they debated might offer to the sinister general election opponent awaiting the eventual nominee in 2020. Here’s Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik, after observing some of the more controversial positions many of the debaters embraced:

“The next election may be similar to the last couple of elections featuring incumbent presidents: 2004 and 2012. The incumbents those years, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wanted the election to be a choice between them or their challengers; the challengers, John Kerry and Mitt Romney, respectively, wanted the election to be a referendum on the incumbent. Bush and Obama found enough cracks in their opponents that they avoided the kind of straight referendum that could have doomed either. Trump is clearly trying to make this election a choice, too; if it’s a referendum on him, he probably won’t win, given his middling approval ratings. It may be that the policies some of the Democrats support give Trump weapons to use as he tries to present the election as a choice.”

And here’s Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter:

“In a post-debate panel I moderated here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp made the case that to win re-election, Trump needs to make 2020 a choice election, not a referendum. And, every Democrat gave him the opening for making that contrast. He will attack the eventual nominee as weak on border security, in favor of giving away ‘free’ stuff to people here illegally. Additionally, in the case of Sen. Sanders, Warren, and Harris, supportive of taking away American’s ability to carry private insurance.

“Going forward, it will be important to watch how the Democrats answer the attacks and defend their positions. And to see how effectively Republicans will be at getting these attacks to stick. Can Republicans set the narrative about Democrats before the eventual nominee is able to do that him/herself?”

This all makes good sense. But then again, we all understand that Donald J. Trump is not a president like either of the immediate predecessors that Sabato and Kondik cited. Whatever else you think of them, Bush and Obama were (1) men with egos reasonably well under control, all things considered, and (2) politicians used to following the consensus opinions of their advisers. Trump would probably score near the bottom of U.S. presidents and perhaps U.S. human beings in these and other indicators of modesty.

It may be that Trump won the presidency in 2016, in large part, by making Hillary Clinton more unpopular than he was. But aside from the fact that he actually lost the popular vote, circumstances were very different: He wasn’t the president of the United States or the leader of the party of the president of the United States. Any negative referendum effect helped rather than hurt him; he won’t have the same presumption of not being the problem in 2020, particularly after years of daily public exposure to his depressing and tedious act. Perhaps a Joe Biden or a Bernie Sanders might have enough accumulated baggage to be included in the same discussion as Hillary Clinton in terms of unique vulnerability to demonization. But HRC was really set up as a punching bag by decades of incessant conservative and media contempt, and billions of dollars of investments in making her a figure rivaling Trump himself in unpopularity. And the odds are probably about even that someone other than these familiar political warhorses will win the Democratic nomination anyway.

For better and (mostly) worse, we are living in the Trump era, a period in which political life is dominated by one very strange and offensive man (even his fans love him for his offensiveness, precisely because of the effect he has on their own enemies) who probably can’t take the spotlight off himself even if he wanted to, which he manifestly does not.


June 29: Democrats Need a Plan B In Case Republicans Hang Onto the Senate

There’s been more talk than usual among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates about their “theory of change”–how they will implement their proposals. But there’s still a hole in the discussion, which I discussed at New York after the first night of candidate debates:

Like a lot of political obsessives, I came up with my own question I wanted to hear posed to the Democratic candidates debating on Wednesday and Thursday nights:

“One highly relevant question the 20 Democratic presidential candidates who are debating this week might be offered is this: Do you have a plan B for the agenda you will pursue if Republicans retain control of the Senate?”

Well, on the first debate night, to my shock, two moderators went there. First, Rachel Maddow asked Cory Booker this question:

“Senator Mitch McConnell says that his most consequential achievement as Senate majority leader was preventing President Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat. Having served with Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, do you believe they would confirm your court nominees?”

Booker hemmed and hawed and then said he was confident Democrats would win the Senate in 2020 (not a strong bet, actually), an assertion that Julián Castro had made earlier. Asked the same question by Maddow, Bill de Blasio was slightly more responsive:

“[T]here is a political solution that we have to come to grips with. If the Democratic Party would stop acting like the party of the elites and be the party of working people again, and go into states, including red states, to convince people we’re on their side, we can put pressure on their senators to actually have to vote for the nominees that are put forward.”

This suggests some sort of political transformation that is very unlikely in the wake of what is sure to be a bitter, closely fought election. It’s precisely the sort of argument Barack Obama made in 2008 about how he’d overcome Republican obstruction, and he struggled against McConnell even with an initial supermajority in the Senate.

Then Chuck Todd asked Elizabeth Warren a more direct and general question:

“It’s very plausible that you’ll be elected president with a Republican Senate. Do you have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell?”

Warren responded instantly: “I do.” But she really didn’t.

This often practical-minded senator, who by my account was the overall debate winner, gave it a good try, saying she’d call on her supporters to stay engaged and never stop fighting. The saturnine Mr. McConnell could not possibly care less….

Todd tried asking John Delaney about dealing with McConnell, and as usual he talked about bipartisanship, but didn’t have any insights for winning Republican votes in the Senate beyond calling for “ideas that work.” Todd went back to Booker, who managed to come up with the unicorn of an underwhelming bipartisan criminal-justice-reform bill in 2018 as though it offered some sort of template. Criminal-justice reform, of course, is a cause that developed a grassroots conservative constituency over a long period of time. If there’s some similar area where both parties are already poised to come together, I don’t know where it is.

Now the truth is, there are no easy answers to Maddow’s and Todd’s questions about McConnell. But there are plausible approaches: (1) You can aim at picking off one or two Republicans with the kind of public pressure that Warren (and Sanders and de Blasio) like to talk about, and hope for the best, following the example that saved the Affordable Care Act in 2017 when Republicans could not hold their own conference in line; (2) you can focus on executive actions — Amy Klobuchar should have busted into the discussion of a Republican Senate and drawn attention to her vast agenda of executive orders and agency policies she has already promised to implement during her first 100 days in office; or (3) you can promise to lead a holy crusade to retake the Senate in 2022 if Republicans obstruct the new president’s agenda and maybe build a durable Democratic governing majority.

But just promising to fight is not going to strike fear into Mitch McConnell’s dark, hardened heart. The candidates ought to think more deeply about this problem, because it could be more important than anything else the winner encounters.


June 28: SCOTUS Says Partisan Gerrymandering Not Their Problem

During the last week of the Supreme Court’s 2018-19 term, the Court’s conservative majority committed an act of injustice that will definitely make life harder for Democrats and for voters, as I explained at New York:

For a while, the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court would find partisan gerrymandering to be unconstitutional rested in the hands of Anthony Kennedy, a swing justice who seemed offended by the practice but could never quite find a method he liked to measure or remedy it. With his retirement last year, Court watchers figured the odds of the justices doing something about it had dropped significantly. Today they dropped to zero, as NPR’s Nina Totenberg succinctly explained:

“Prior to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy was the swing vote on this issue. He seemed open to limiting partisan redistricting if the Court was presented with a “manageable standard.” But with Kavanaugh on the Court, the search for that standard is over.”

Writing for the new 5-4 conservative majority on the Court in two combined cases (Ruccho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek), Chief Justice John Roberts argued that partisan gerrymandering, while offensive to traditional notions of democracy, was a “political issue” best left in the hands of political branches of the federal and state governments.

“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”

There wasn’t much doubt in the cases before the Court that Republican legislators in North Carolina and their Democratic counterparts in Maryland had drawn district lines purely and simply to maximize partisan outcomes. In North Carolina, in particular, GOP legislators openly spoke of their plans to screw over Democrats in congressional redistricting, in part to rebut (or perhaps simply disguise) racially invidious motives that would invite judicial intervention. And as Justice Elena Kagan emphasized in a scathing dissent joined by the Court’s other liberals (Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor), the majority admitted partisan gerrymandering was a travesty:

“[T]he majority concedes (really, how could it not?) that gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles.’ Ante, at 30 (quoting Arizona State Legislature, 576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 1)). And therefore what? That recognition would seem to demand a response. The majority offers two ideas that might qualify as such. One is that the political process can deal with the problem … The other is that political gerrymanders have always been with us.”

Indeed, Roberts suggested federal and state legislatures could police partisan gerrymandering more effectively than could federal courts, but Kagan put her finger on the emotional core of the conservatives’ argument: Political gerrymanders have always been with us. But the circumstances have entirely changed, she observed:

“Yes, partisan gerrymandering goes back to the Republic’s earliest days. (As does vociferous opposition to it.) But big data and modern technology — of just the kind that the mapmakers in North Carolina and Maryland used — make today’s gerrymandering altogether different from the crude linedrawing of the past. Old-time efforts, based on little more than guesses, sometimes led to so-called dummymanders — gerrymanders that went spectacularly wrong. Not likely in today’s world. Mapmakers now have access to more granular data about party preference and voting behavior than ever before. County-level voting data has given way to precinct-level or city-block-level data; and increasingly, mapmakers avail themselves of data sets providing wide ranging information about even individual voters.”

In view of the majority’s hard-line opposition to getting into the subject, the growing sophistication of partisan gerrymandering, and with it the ever-more-severe practical disenfranchisement it enables, isn’t going to matter any more in the future than it does right now. So what this decision does as a practical matter — beyond launching celebrations among the Republican lawmakers and lawbreakers who control a majority of the country’s state legislatures — is direct concern over gerrymandering into different channels.

The silver lining of the Supreme Court’s retreat from interest in partisan gerrymandering is that it has led the Court to defer to recent efforts to attack the practice on state constitutional grounds. That’s what happened last year when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a GOP-drafted congressional map and substituted its own: As Republicans everywhere howled, the U.S. Supreme Court shrugged and refused to review the case. Today’s decision obviously leaves open the avenue of state redistricting reforms (whether undertaken by legislatures or ballot initiative) that drastically limit politically motivated discretion in redistricting procedures. But the timing is inauspicious for slowly building momentum for redistricting reform with the decennial Census and the next round of map-drawing just around the corner.

No matter what happens at the state level (or in Congress, which could theoretically limited partisan gerrymandering in federal elections), the decision is deeply dissatisfying to anyone who believes justice should be the overriding motive of the Supreme Court in cases touching on the most fundamental rights. And that was the real travesty of Robert’s decision, as Kagan rightly pointed out:

“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.

“And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives. In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”

Anthony Kennedy should be ashamed of himself for taking a pass on the opportunity to deal with this problem before heading off to retirement.


June 21: The Problem With a Pure Base Mobilization Strategy

“Base versus Swing” has been an ancient strategic choice in politics, and it’s coming up again, as I discussed this week at New York.

In these days of intense partisan polarization, driven in no small part by an intensely polarizing president, it’s become commonplace to argue that the politics of persuasion don’t matter anymore, and that elections are won by “energizing” or “mobilizing” one’s own party base. And it’s true that with the number of swing voters dwindling, turnout strategies have become indispensable in any competitive election.

But there are limits to base-mobilization, as veteran political reporter Ron Brownstein notes in an observation on Trump’s incessant efforts to keep his troops in a hate frenzy:

“Trump’s unrelenting emphasis on stoking that base—both in his rhetoric and through his policies…[is] providing the fuel for Democrats to mobilize their own core constituencies, particularly young people and nonwhite voters.”

In other words, every vote you get by motivating core constituencies to turn out to vote via highly emotional messages is at least partly offset by the stimulus you provide for your opponent’s core constituencies. Meanwhile, even if there aren’t a lot of swing voters who are very likely to vote, every one you “flip” by persuasion gives you two net votes — one for you, one less for your opponent. Less than one versus two: It’s always worth the trouble to devote some attention to persuasion.

Brownstein goes on to discuss a second problem with Trump’s base-mobilization emphasis: it erodes the incentives for people who don’t much care for him nonetheless to pull the lever for him because they like his policies or their effects:

“Trump [is trying] to pump up his base by acting in exactly the manner that pushes away so many voters who are content with the economy but disenchanted with his behavior….

“[P]olling throughout Trump’s presidency has consistently shown that economic improvement hasn’t lifted him as much as earlier presidents. Across many of the key groups in the electorate, from young people to white college graduates, Trump’s job-approval rating consistently runs at least 25 points below the share of voters who hold positive views about either the national economy or their personal financial situation.

“The result is that Trump attracts much less support than his predecessors did—in terms of approval rating and potential support for reelection—among voters who say they are satisfied with the economy.”

Because — to put it mildly — rational persuasion isn’t the 45th president’s style, he will likely supplement his base-tending with savage attacks on his Democratic opponent aimed at making her or him equally unpleasant to swing voters. If 2016 was any guide, he’ll supplement this strategy with overt and covert efforts to suppress Democratic turnout (apparently a major focus of Trump’s social media strategy) by repeating intra-party Democratic complaints about the ultimate nominee. His Republican allies at the state level, of course, will seek to suppress Democratic turnout in more literal ways by planting mines along the path to the ballot box for young and minority voters.

Still, a “persuasion” prong of his strategy would improve Trump’s odds of victory. And Democrats, too, should keep in mind that a pure turnout battle could be perilous.


June 20: Roy Moore Could Be Doug Jones’ Best Senate Asset

While this site is devoted to helping Democrats plot strategy, it’s important to recognize that on occasion the quality of opposition can make the toughest contests easier. As I noted at New York, that could definitely be happening again in Alabama:

To the great joy of Alabama Democrats and aficionados of strange politics everywhere, former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore announced today that he will again run for the U.S. Senate in 2020. It’s hardly anything new for the 72-year-old theocrat and alleged mall creeper. This will be his sixth run for statewide office in Alabama, counting two successful races for the state bench (though the first time he was removedfrom office, and the second time suspended, as he regularly defied federal court orders related to his theocratic views), two unsuccessful gubernatorial bids, and then his 2017 Senate race in the special election to choose a replacement for then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In this last campaign, he managed to upset Donald Trump’s handpicked candidate in a primary and runoff, and then lost a shocker to Democrat Doug Jones, whom he now seeks to take on again. He is as ornery as ever, as the New York Times reports:

“His decision was an unsurprising act of overt defiance toward many of his party’s national leaders, including President Trump, who recently publicly warned him away from another Senate bid.

“Republican officials fear that Mr. Moore, were he to win the party’s nomination in March, risks their prospects of defeating the Democratic incumbent, Senator Doug Jones, and recapturing a seat they long controlled with ease …

“Before he made his announcement, Mr. Moore detailed his grievances against Republican officials in Washington, and he predicted that the campaign arm of Senate Republicans would run ‘a smear campaign’ against him.”

That’s hardly a paranoid statement, since Moore is broadly viewed as the Republican candidate most likely to help Jones to a full-term in this very red state. But Judge Roy is trying to turn that into a token of Christian martyrdom, as al.com reports:

“’Everyone in Alabama knows that last election in 2017 was fraudulent,’ Moore said. He added disinformation tactics will not be tolerated and will be punished. When asked if he believed the fraud came solely from Democrats, Moore said he thought there was also Republican collusion.”

It’s likely that at least some of the allegations of sexual misconduct that bedeviled him in 2017, which ranged from sexual assault to predatory behavior toward teenagers at the local mall, will return. But Moore is heartened by the ability of a certain Supreme Court Justice to overcome similar allegations, according to a recent fundraising missive:

“’It was no strange coincidence that only 10 months later these same false and scurrilous tactics would again be used in the midst of a very important Supreme Court nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Judge Kavanaugh would survive to be appointed to that high court.’”

In truth, Moore was considered an extreme and eccentric character even by Alabama’s tolerant standards — albeit one with a strong electoral base in the fever swamps of the Christian right — before the sexual allegations arose. The general feeling is that he made it to the general election against Jones in 2017 mostly because his major Trump-backed opponent, appointed incumbent Senator Luther Strange, was unusually weak, mostly because of suspicions of a corrupt deal with the disgraced governor, Robert Bentley, to get the job.

This time around, the Republican field facing Moore is less tainted, if not overpowering. The presumed GOP Establishment candidate is Congressman Bradley Byrne, who like everyone else in his party in the state, is a slavish Trump loyalist. Hard-core conservatives, including 2017 also-ran Congressman Mo Brooks, are backing state legislator Arnold Mooney. Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville will begin the race with name ID nearly as high as Moore’s in this gridiron-mad state. And the latest hot rumor was begun this week by Jones’s Republican Senate colleague Richard Shelby, as the Washington Post reported:

“Former attorney general Jeff Sessions has not ruled out running next year for his old Senate seat from Alabama, the state’s senior senator said Wednesday, as Republicans braced for the expected entrance into the race of Roy Moore, their failed 2017 candidate.

“’Sessions, I don’t think, has ruled it out,’ Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters. ‘I’ve talked to him about it. I think if he ran, he would be a formidable candidate. Formidable. I’ve not encouraged him to run, but he’s a friend, and if he ran, I think he’d probably clear the field.'”

Sessions has declined to comment on the speculation so far, which will only encourage it. He may be trying to figure out what his old boss the president, who said so many hateful things about him after holding him responsible for the Mueller investigation, might say about a Sessions political comeback.

Even Sessions probably won’t intimidate Roy Moore into withdrawing, though. He’s very much on a mission from God, and it’s an angry, vengeful God he worships. Moore’s out for blood, and he doesn’t much care if it’s red or blue.

For Democrats who really need to hang onto this seat to improve their odds of taking back the Senate in 2020, this is good news indeed.