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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

July 11: If Biden “Steps Aside” and Harris Steps Up, There Should Be No Falloff in Support

At New York I discussed and tried to resolve one source of anxiety about a potential alternative ticket:

One very central dynamic in the recent saga of Democratic anxiety over Joe Biden’s chances against Donald Trump, given the weaknesses he displayed in his first 2024 debate, has been the role of his understudy, Vice-President Kamala Harris. My colleague Gabriel Debenedetti explained the problem nearly two years ago as the “Kamala Harris conundrum”:

“Top party donors have privately worried to close Obama allies that they’re skeptical of Harris’s prospects as a presidential candidate, citing the implosion of her 2020 campaign and her struggles as VP. Jockeying from other potential competitors, like frenemy Gavin Newsom, suggests that few would defer to her if Biden retired. Yet Harris’s strength among the party’s most influential voters nonetheless puts her in clear pole position.”

The perception that Harris is too unpopular to pick up the party banner if Biden dropped it, but too well-positioned to be pushed aside without huge collateral damage, was a major part of the mindset of political observers when evaluating Democratic options after the debate. But now fresher evidence of Harris’s public standing shows she’s just as viable as many of the candidates floated in fantasy scenarios about an “open convention,” “mini-primary,” or smoke-filled room that would sweep away both parts of the Biden-Harris ticket.

For a good while now, Harris’s job-approval numbers have been converging with Biden’s after trailing them initially. These indicate dismal popularity among voters generally, but not in a way that makes her an unacceptable replacement candidate should she be pressed into service in an emergency. As of now, her job-approval ratio in the FiveThirtyEight averages is 37.1 percent approve to 51.2 percent disapprove. Biden’s is 37.4 percent approve to 56.8 percent disapprove. In the favorability ratios tracked by RealClearPolitics, Harris is at 38.3 favorable to 54.6 percent unfavorable, while Biden is at 39.4 percent favorable to 56.9 percent unfavorable. There’s just not a great deal of difference other than slightly lower disapproval/unfavorable numbers for the veep.

On the crucial measurement of viability as a general-election candidate against Trump, there wasn’t much credible polling prior to the post-debate crisis. An Emerson survey in February 2024 showed Harris trailing Trump by 3 percent (43 percent to 46 percent), which was a better showing than Gavin Newsom (down ten points, 36 percent to 46 percent) or Gretchen Whitmer (down 12 points, 33 percent to 45 percent).

After the debate, though, there was a sudden cascade of polling matching Democratic alternatives against Trump, and while Harris’s strength varied, she consistently did as well as or better than the fantasy alternatives. The first cookie on the plate was a one-day June 28 survey from Data for Progress, which showed virtually indistinguishable polling against Trump by Biden, Harris, Cory BookerPete ButtigiegAmy KlobucharGavin NewsomJ.B. PritzkerJosh Shapiro, and Gretchen Whitmer. All of them trailed Trump by 2 to 3 percent among likely voters.

Then two national polls released on July 2 showed Harris doing better than other feasible Biden alternatives. Reuters/Ipsos (which showed Biden and Trump tied) had Harris within a point of Trump, while Newsom trailed by three points, Andy Beshear by four, Whitmer by five, and Pritzker by six points. Similarly, CNN showed Harris trailing Trump by just two points; Pete Buttigieg trailing by four points; and Gavin Newsom and Gretchen Whitmer trailing him by five points.

Emerson came back with a new poll on July 9 that wasn’t as sunny as some for Democrats generally (every tested name trailed Trump, with Biden down by three points). But again, Harris (down by six points) did better than Newsom (down eight points); Buttigieg and Whitmer (down ten points); and Shapiro (down 12 points).

There’s been some talk that Harris might help Democrats with base constituencies that are sour about Biden. There’s not much publicly available evidence testing that hypothesis, though the crosstabs in the latest CNN poll do show Harris doing modestly better than Biden among people of color, voters under the age of 35, and women.

The bottom line is that one element of the “Kamala Harris conundrum” needs to be reconsidered. There should be no real drop-off in support if Biden (against current expectations) steps aside in favor of his vice-president (the only really feasible “replacement” scenario at this point). She probably has a higher ceiling of support than Biden as well, but in any event, she would have a fresh opportunity to make a strong first or second impression on many Americans who otherwise know little about her.

July 1: Let’s Stop the Magical Thinking About an Open Convention

As a veteran of six Democratic National Conventions who is familiar with many more, I had to object to some of the loose talk about the likelihood and desirability of an “open convention” in August, and wrote about it at New York:

Sometimes in politics, a perfectly justified maneuver falls to the wayside because there’s no way to execute it. Justified or not, the scheme to replace Joe Biden and Kamala Harris with a wholly new Democratic ticket will fail because no one is in a position to make it happen.

My esteemed colleague Jonathan Chait makes a solid, if not incontestable, case that there are stronger options than a 2024 Biden-Harris ticket, or a replacement of the president by his vice-president, for what has now become a desperate fight to keep Donald Trump out of the White House. He argues that the reluctance of Democrats to toss the incumbents and start over represents a sort of failure of nerve induced by Biden’s stubborn selfishness and Harris’s weaponization of identity politics:

“At the moment, according to one post-debate poll, only 27 percent of Americans believe Joe Biden has the mental and cognitive health to serve as president. This poses an almost-insurmountable obstacle to his election, even with Trump’s manifest unfitness. Biden is losing, and he has already squandered what his own campaign considered his best chance to change the race.

“Again, even with all her limitations, Harris is probably a stronger candidate now than Biden. I also think there are better options than Harris.”

Democrats, Chait believes, can seize the opportunity presented by Biden’s debate debacle to make a fresh start, if only they show “the collective willpower to make political choices in the clearheaded interest of their party and their country.”

I have mixed feelings about my colleague’s assessment of the political situation. But about this I have little doubt: At this late date, there is simply no instrument for canceling or reversing all the decisions the Democratic Party has made over the past four years–or indeed, over the past five months. There is no way to muster the collective judgment of Democratic voters about an ideal 2024 ticket. The primaries are long past; every single potential Biden or Harris rival has already bent the knee to the reelection effort; the soon-to-arrive convention’s only conceivable managers are in the White House or in the Biden campaign; and, even if there was agreement among Democratic elites and rank-and-file party activists that “Joe must go and take Kamala with him,” there is no consensus on replacements. Chait likes the idea of a Whitmer-Booker ticket; dozens of other ideas would arise if the party was somehow forced to upend primary voters and pledged delegates and start anew. Who, specifically, will forge the consensus? Nobody comes to mind. How, mechanically, would it be imposed? It’s very hard to envision it occurring without magic far more fanciful than Biden and/or Harris picking up a few points to beat Trump in November.

Let’s be clear: There’s no template for what the would-be deposers of Biden and Harris are suggesting. The last major-party convention in which there was any doubt about the outcome was the Republican confab of 1976, which was in turn the product of two candidates slugging in out to a draw in the primaries. Both were battle tested and could claim a popular mandate. The last multi-ballot convention was the Democratic gathering of 1952, which produced a landslide losing ticket. You have to go back to the Republican convention of 1940 — 84 years ago, long before the era of universal primaries and caucuses — to find a convention that suddenly chose a dark-horse nominee because he seemed a better bet than the career politicians he shoved aside. That nominee lost too. And the last truly wide-open convention was exactly 100 years ago, when Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate a candidate who won a booming 28.8 percent in the general election. Open conventions always sound like fun to political pundits. They are a disaster for political parties, particularly parties in mid-panic.

As it happens, the timetable for blowing up a settled nomination is particularly poor right now. Because of an Ohio ballot deadline, the Democratic National Committee has already decided to hold a “virtual roll call” for the presidential and vice-presidential nominations more than a full week before the convention begins. The idea, of course, was a pro-forma ratification that at most might represent a campaign infomercial. Is it now to become a deliberative and likely multi-ballot process that delegates enter with no idea of the outcome? That sounds like true chaos. And the only thing that could make it worse is an endless series of behind-the-scenes meetings where Democrats — which Democrats? Delegates? Delegation leaders? Party pooh-bahs? Donors? Interest-group leaders? The Clintons? The Obamas? — struggle to agree on a ticket.

Yes, there are reasons to worry about Biden’s capabilities as a candidate going forward and reasons to fear that Kamala Harris isn’t an ideal presidential candidate either. But the evidence is very mixed. If in a week or so that evidence turns unambiguously dark, the extremely efficient course for Democrats is the one Republicans chose in 1974 when congressional leaders of unimpeachable loyalty to Richard Nixon went to him and convinced him to throw in the towel. Another colleague of mine, Gabriel Debenedetti, says that the 46th president may not want to listen. But it’s the best bet for changing the ticket and eliminating the immediate source of panic. Indeed, it would be an important and appropriate consolation prize for Biden that as he “stepped aside” he would name a successor. The party could unite around this candidate and be spared the impossible chore of letting the ticket be chosen by pollsters for the benefit of politicians who did not enter a single primary. That successor will very likely be Kamala Harris, and she’s not ideal. But ideal presidential candidates do not fall from the sky or ascend via a landslide in the commentariat.

June 28: A Decision Biden Alone Can Make

After watching with concern the Biden-Trump debate in Atlanta, I offered some thoughts at New York about the path forward:

After the debate debacle in Atlanta on June 27, the well-known hand-wringing tendencies of the Democratic Party are in very plain view. That’s particularly true in the left-of-center pundit class, where full-blown panic has erupted over the terrible sight and sound of Joe Biden struggling to debate Donald Trump. We still don’t know the extent to which American voters share the horrified perceptions of Democratic elites; those not accustomed to Trump’s own routine incoherence may have thought the debate was closer to a draw than a rout. It will probably be a week or two before we can properly contextualize Biden’s bad night.

But one thing should be very clear: Democrats are not going to dump the 46th president when they gather in Chicago for the Democratic National Convention on August 19 (actually, the balloting is likely to happen earlier and virtually). Yes, removing the presumptive nominee against his will is technically possible. Unlike the GOP, the party itself doesn’t enforce delegate pledges to back the candidate under whose banner they were selected, though 14 states do have laws binding delegates to one extent or another. The real problem is that the political damage to Democrats inflicted by Biden’s debate performance is but a shadow of what would happen if a sitting president were dragged kicking and screaming off the ticket. There would be some delegates legally obligated to vote for him anyway (though the convention itself could adopt rules that might supersede state laws binding delegates). Others delegates would stick with Biden as an act of loyalty. So you’d have a convention and a party deeply divided, to the delight of the opposition. Democrats would be fools to invite that catastrophe instead of carrying on in the sure knowledge that nearly half of the electorate really doesn’t want a second Trump administration. The “dump Biden” scenario just isn’t happening.

But Biden himself could withdraw as a candidate, instantly removing any legal obstacles to the selection of a different nominee (state laws binding delegates generally release them when their candidate’s tent folds) and mitigating the political damage significantly. And even as Democratic elected officials and party leaders publicly renew their vows of support for Biden, as they must, you have to figure private discussions are underway to determine if this proud and sometimes stubborn man will indeed step aside. He surely understands that he’s now given vivid life to widespread fears that he’s too old for another term in the White House. Reversing that impression will be very difficult, particularly since Trump is unlikely to give him a chance to redeem himself in a second debate. What was already a tough uphill slog of a campaign for reelection has now become a steep and perilous climb in which the incumbent, not his calamitous predecessor, will be the focus of constant malicious scrutiny.

Biden could reset the contest with one clear statement repeating his determination to keep Trump out of the White House and passing the torch to a successor. And, yes, he’d have to name a successor, lest the Chicago convention become a riotous playground for political egos, making a general-election campaign impossible to plan, finance, and execute. Sure, the punditocracy will clamor for the spectacle of an “open convention,” but it would represent political malpractice of the highest order. If he does “step aside,” Biden must help his vice-president “step up” with the backing of a united party. Any other option at this late date would smack of desperation and would divide Democrats even more bitterly than an effort to “dump” the incumbent.

The president chose Kamala Harris as his running mate in the full knowledge that an emergency requiring her elevation was an ever-present possibility. An imminent return to power by the 45th president is enough of an emergency to justify an extreme measure of self-sacrifice by the one man who stands in the way of that calamity.

Biden and those who advise him should, of course, carefully assess the damage wrought by the debate during the next few days. Perhaps the pundits are overreacting, and the Biden-Trump race will settle back into its familiar status as a barn burner that either candidate can win. There’s only a small window of opportunity for a presidential game-changing decision to flip the board and improve the odds of victory. It could be the most momentous decision of Joe Biden’s long and distinguished life.


June 21: Why It’s Critical to Prevent a Republican Trifecta

Democrats are obviously focused on defeating Donald Trump in November. But if they don’t, hanging onto the Senate will be tough, and the consequences of allowing a Republican trifecta are very significant, as I explained at New York:

Donald Trump’s circle of advisers is developing an elaborate and menacing set of policies that might be imposed by executive order in a second Trump presidency. It’s clear MAGA-land is eager to expand presidential powers to and beyond Nixonian levels with or without any permission slips from Congress. But all things being equal, Trump and his cronies would prefer a compliant Congress that gives them the maximum legal authority to kick ass and take names. That will first require Republican control of Congress, which is a pretty good bet if Trump wins the presidential race (the GOP is narrowly favored to retain control of the House and more strongly favored to flip the Senate).

If Republicans do win a trifecta (as they did in 2016, and as Democrats did in 2020), they will unlock the magic of “budget reconciliation” as a way to package and (with luck and skill) enact much of what Trump and his congressional allies can agree on in one huge bill.

Reconciliation is a device created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 and was first used extensively by Ronald Reagan in 1981. It creates a path around the filibuster powers that normally give the Senate minority (so long as it commands 40 votes) a veto on controversial legislation and the leverage to compel compromises on “must-have” bills. It also speeds up the timetable for congressional consideration of its contents and can cover a broad swath of subjects so long as they have a direct impact on spending and revenue levels. It’s how Republicans enacted the Trump tax cuts of 2017 and how Democrats enacted both the American Rescue Plan of 2021 (a.k.a. Biden’s stimulus package) and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (originally dubbed “Build Back Better”).

Reconciliation was also the vehicle for the last big Republican legislative failure: the bid in 2017 to repeal and replace Obamacare, which failed twice in the Senate because the GOP could not nail down its own lawmakers or flip any Democrats. That was a bitter source of disappointment; prior to the 2016 elections, then–House Speaker Paul Ryan referred to reconciliation as a “bazooka in my pocket” that would destroy the institutional obstacles to his much-desired demolition of key elements of the welfare state.

Now Ryan’s successor, Mike Johnson, is thinking about how to avoid the 2017 failure and make maximum use of the “bazooka” that is now in his pocket, as the Washington Times reported:

“House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Republicans met Wednesday to begin discussions on a policy agenda they can muscle through Congress next year if their party has full control in Washington.

“Central to the developing GOP agenda is renewing a significant chunk of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that is set to expire in 2025. But Mr. Johnson is urging Republicans to think bigger than extending those tax breaks and look at a wider swath of policy areas that could be packed into a Senate filibuster-proof budget reconciliation package.

“Budget reconciliation is how Republicans and former President Donald Trump passed their 2017 tax law. But after watching Democrats use it to pass much broader legislation under President Biden — the 2021 coronavirus relief law known as the American Rescue Plan and the 2022 climate and tax law called the Inflation Reduction Act — Republicans want to do more if they control Congress and the White House.

“’The main idea is let’s think big,’ said Sen. Kevin Cramer, North Dakota Republican.”

To put it another way, while it’s unclear whether Republicans would prefer to handle tax cuts and spending cuts in the same reconciliation bill, using the device to pay for the former via the latter goes without saying. And in terms of spending cuts, when Republicans talk about thinking big, that’s likely to involve a meat ax aimed at domestic programs, including those safety-net programs (consider Medicaid and Obamacare subsidies a permanent GOP target) that aren’t placed explicitly off-limits by Trump.

It’s clear today’s Republicans believe their 2017 predecessors blew a prime opportunity to make drastic changes in how the federal government operates, perhaps because so few of them actually thought Trump would win. This time around, they’re thinking ahead. So should Democrats. And the best way to deny a right-wing policy coup is to prevent a GOP trifecta.

June 20: Biden Rather Than Trump Could Have an Electoral College Advantage in 2024

Looking into the reasons for Republican triumphalism and Democratic pessimism in the 2024 presidential contest, I identified and challenged one factor at New York:

Beneath all the noise about Trump riding high is some actual empirical evidence that’s he’s improving on his 2020 performance. That’s most obvious in national popular-vote estimates: Trump lost by 4.5 percent in 2020 and is leading, albeit modestly, in 2024 national polls. But it’s also evident in particular states where he didn’t do well at all last time around. Lately, there’s a lot of buzz about Trump being competitive in supposedly deep-blue Virginia, as The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Whether Virginia backs Donald Trump or Joe Biden shouldn’t even be a discussion.

“The state hasn’t backed a Republican for president since George W. Bush in 2004.

“But early polls showing Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, cutting into the Democratic president’s lead have served as a wake-up call for Virginia Democrats, who acknowledge headwinds with voters dissatisfied with Biden’s leadership. Republicans say that if Virginia is even remotely on the table for Trump, Biden is in serious trouble in traditional battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”

Underlying this Republican excitement are two polls, one from Fox News in June and another from Roanoke College in May, showing Trump and Biden tied in the Old Dominion. While that’s hardly a big dataset, it is indeed eyebrow-raising: In 2020, all but one public poll of Virginia taken after May showed Biden with a double-digit lead, and he ultimately won by 10 percent. Virginia was also carried by Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 and by Hillary Clinton in 2016. So it’s a blue state turning purple, and some would say that has big implications for the rest of the country!

Unfortunately for this take, short-term trends in particular states don’t always mean a lot. I’m old enough to remember that before Obama won Virginia in 2008, the state went Republican for 11 straight presidential elections. It was the only state of the former Confederacy to go against Jimmy Carter twice. Big-time national losers George H.W. Bush (in 1992) and Bob Dole (in 1996) won there. Biden’s double-digit win in 2020, moreover, reflected a fairly sudden Democratic surge: Obama won the state by less than his national popular-vote margin in 2008 and by exactly his national margin in 2012; Clinton won Virginia by a hardly overwhelming 5 percent.

Obviously, if Trump actually wins Virginia, it would be a big deal, putting 13 precious electoral votes he’s never won before into his column. But a tightened margin in any given state really just means the favored party will have to decide whether to put resources there that had been earmarked for states previously thought of as battlegrounds. If there’s a national shift, it’s likely to be reflect in national polls, and there Trump’s lead doesn’t look like the stuff of landslides (0.8 percent in the current RealClearPolitics averages of head-to-head polls).

The reality is that we may not know what the 2024 battleground landscape will ultimately look like until a lot closer to Election Day. Don’t forget that the identity of the closest states can and does change. Florida was the ultimate battleground state of all time in 2000; now it’s considered reliably red. That’s even truer of Iowa and Ohio; the latter is where the 2004 presidential election was decided, and the former was dead even in 2000 and 2004 before lurching toward Democrats in the two Obama elections and then massively toward Trump in 2016 and 2020. And it’s not just newly red states that have changed complexions: In living memory, New York, California, and Hawaii were presidential battleground states.

Is there a theory as to why Trump might be doing significantly better in Virginia without it necessarily signaling a big national lead? Yes, actually. National polls are showing Trump making gains among young and non-white non-college-educated voters, and Biden making gains among white college-educated voters. This may shift each candidate’s vote share in various states without flipping them, as Sean Trende recently noted:

“One doesn’t have to be gifted with a particularly vigorous imagination to see what could happen here: Trump has substantial improvements among non-white voters, driving gains in some red areas (like Texas) and flipping some important swing states. He also makes gains in some blue states like Virginia, New Mexico, California, and New York, but is unable to flip them because the hole with educated whites is just too deep. Then, in relatively white Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan, very little changes.”

So the widespread assumption of a built-in Republican advantage in the Electoral College may actually be outmoded. You can’t look at Trump’s small lead in national polls and assume this means he’s far ahead in the race for EVs that really matters, as Trende points out:

“The result could easily be Trump winning the popular vote, but Biden eking out a narrow 270-268 Electoral Vote victory … It’s a really narrow road to victory for the former president right now, but it is also a perfectly plausible path.”

So perhaps MAGA folk should hold off on the premature victory celebrations, in Virginia and elsewhere. The shape of the election is still developing.

June 13: If Biden Somehow “Stands Aside,” Harris Will Stand Up

I have no authority to shut down idle pundit speculation about something weird happening at the Democratic National Convention in August (or even later in the election cycle), but would prefer a little deference to reality, as I noted at New York:

One of the more tedious phenomena of this election year has been the chronic pundit talk of Joe Biden “stepping aside” as presidential nominee and Democrats replacing him with Gretchen Whitmer or Gavin Newsom or some other sort of fantasy candidate. One of many reasons this scenario made little sense is that should something happen to convince the president to abruptly end his reelection campaign, he’s already chosen a stand-in who is very close by: his vice-president, Kamala Harris.

Obviously, anyone willing to overlook Biden’s clear determination to stick it out this year can imagine Harris “stepping aside” — or being shoved aside — as well. But there’s really no evidence that the Democrats who would make this decision (the Biden-Harris loyalists who serve as convention delegates or on the Democratic National Committee) feel this way at all. And now there’s evidence that rank-and-file Democrats have the veep’s back.

While a new Politico–Morning Consult poll with data about Harris shows that she shares her boss’s general election vulnerability, Democrats remain bullish on her. Seventy-four percent think she’d make a good president. By a 59 percent to 31 percent margin, they think she could win a 2024 general election. She’s stronger than Biden among the Black and Latino voters that have been stressing Democrats in recent years. And in terms of early 2028 preferences among Democrats, she’s far ahead of the competition (Harris is at 41 percent; Pete Buttigieg is at 15 percent; Newsom is at 14 percent; Whitmer is at 5 percent). Harris is already the principal voice of her administration and her party on the GOP threat to abortion rights, which will very likely become a more prominent issue as November approaches. She’s not going anywhere.

None of this means that Democrats would want Harris to replace Biden, or that they might not harbor fears about Harris facing Trump. Bigots would definitely be mobilized by the prospect of a half-Black, half–Asian American woman (and one with a Jewish husband!) in the White House. But the idea that Democrats are ready to abandon her or Biden simply has no basis in verifiable fact.

If, for some unforeseeable reason, Biden is incapacitated or decides to pack it in before November, Kamala Harris, for better or for worse, will be the Democratic candidate, period, full stop. Barring any clear evidence to the contrary, it’s time to forget about the fantasy tickets.


June 12: Why Kennedy Is Likely to Fade

I’ve been wondering for a while about the wildly varying poll numbers for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and the more I learn the more I think his standing will soon fade, as I explained at New York:

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. needs just one more really strong poll showing to meet part of CNN’s criteria for participation in its June 27 presidential debate. The network stipulates that participants secure at least 15 percent in four national surveys no later than June 20 from a specific list of approved pollsters, and Kennedy has three (a Quinnipiac poll and a CNN poll in April, and a Marquette Law School poll in May). He may still fail to make the stage because CNN also requires that participants be on the ballot in states representing at least 270 electoral votes, and the Kennedy campaign is in a fight it may not win over how ballot access is confirmed. But still, the idea that Kennedy is polling as well as any non-major-party candidate since Ross Perot is a good advertisement for his viability.

There are, however, two reasons Kennedy’s standing in the race may be significantly overstated by the best of his polls. The first is a matter of history and, well, common sense: as Election Day nears, voters begin to focus on the most viable options and become less likely to “waste their votes” on candidates with slim odds of actually winning. So even the strongest of non-major-party presidential candidates in living memory — Perot in 1992 and 1996, John Anderson in 1980, and George Wallace in 1968 — all lost ground by late summer of the election year and finished well below their peak in polls. It’s one key reason RFK Jr. is frantic to get into a debate with the Democratic and Republican nominees (as Perot, the strongest indie candidate ever, did in 1992); he needs a game-changing development to forestall the otherwise inevitable late-cycle swoon.

But there’s another reason that polls showing Kennedy in the mid-to-high teens could overstate his actual support: They are counterbalanced by other polls showing him performing much more poorly. Indeed, all three June polls testing five major- and minor-party candidates (Biden, Trump, Kennedy, Cornel West, and Jill Stein) place RFK Jr. a lot lower: 6 percent at Emerson, 4 percent at Yahoo News, and 3 percent at Economist/YouGov.

Why are there such wild gyrations in Kennedy’s standing in the polls? There’s no infallible answer, but the New York Times’ Ruth Igielnik offered a persuasive explanation last month: Question order in presidential polls has a big effect on non-major-party candidates:

“[M]any reputable pollsters ask both versions of the question: one that poses a simple head-to-head contest between major-party candidates, and one that includes third-party candidates who may be on the ballot.

“And which question gets asked first is where the difference comes in. …

“Our experiment worked like this: All respondents were shown both the long and short questions, but half were shown the full list first, and the other half were first shown the two-way race.

“Among those who saw the long list first, Mr. Kennedy garnered 7 percent of the vote.

“But among those respondents who encountered the head-to-head contest before seeing the full list, Mr. Kennedy’s support shot up six percentage points to 13 percent.”

That’s a very big difference. What explains it?

“[I]t is at least partly related to a phenomenon that pollsters call expressive responding. This is when people might use a survey response to show their frustration or express a particular feeling that’s not exactly what is being asked.

“In this case, many respondents seem to be using the second question to convey frustration with the choices for president in the first question, whether or not their answers reflect their full views.”

As you probably know, frustration “with the choices for president” is famously high this year. Igielnik goes on to show that most of the recent polls showing Kennedy with double-digit support are those that ask first about the head-to-head Biden-Trump contest before including the other candidates in a second question, while those that present the full list of candidates right off the bat tend to show much lower support for the conspiracy theorist with the famous name.

When voters actually vote, of course, they are going to see the full list of candidates without first encountering some frustrating presentation of the major-party choices alone. So the odds are good that Kennedy will underperform his best polls. Indeed, putting together the two factors we’ve discussed, it’s not surprising to learn that RFK Jr.’s standing in the RealClearPolitics polling averages has steadily drifted downward from nearly 17 percent last November to 13 percent as recently as March to 8.6 percent today. Defying history by making a serious run at Biden and Trump will take a lot of doing for Kennedy and isn’t a very good bet.

June 7: Democrats: Don’t Count on “Game-Changers” to Produce Victory in November

Examining the evidence we have so far about the impact of Trump’s criminal conviction, I’m becoming worried that Democrats are assuming too much about Trump’s vulnerabilities, so I wrote a warning at New York:

For months now, many political observers have stared at polls that show Donald Trump with a modest lead over Joe Biden and have placed a mental thumb on the scales for the incumbent due to “Trump’s legal problems.” This was particularly common (and justifiable) back when it looked as though Trump could be on trial for multiple criminal charges in different cases before Election Day. And even when it turned out the (arguably) weakest case against him was the only one that would reach fruition before November, the available evidence and plain logic suggested that being officially branded as a “convicted criminal” could knock Trump’s candidacy off-balance in a serious way.

Anyone holding their breath to see if a guilty verdict in the Trump hush-money trial would impact the election can now exhale. While it’s possible to look at the data and see a glass that is half-empty or half-full, the overall indication is that Trump’s conviction has not changed the race. And on balance, that’s good for the 45th president.

Yes, the “story” that emerged from a Manhattan courtroom on May 30 has concluding chapters yet to come, particularly on July 11 when Judge Juan Merchan has scheduled a sentencing hearing for Trump. And we can anticipate hundreds of millions of dollars in paid messages from the Biden campaign reminding voters the president’s opponent is a felon. But in a way, that’s a partial victory for Trump since it reinforces his campaign’s argument that his indictment, trial, and conviction in the hush-money case were a piece of partisan jobbery and not a legitimate criminal proceeding at all. Ideally, the Biden campaign would have liked the conviction to speak for itself without any goosing from a White House that stands accused (without a bit of documentation) of orchestrating the entire prosecution.

In other words, facts aside, Trump’s conviction and his overall status as a man perpetually on the wrong side of the law are being perceived through partisan lenses, which in turn will tend to encourage unaffiliated voters to discount them. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but it’s reality.

What this means more broadly is that Trump may once again defy expectations based on the available precedents. This has happened an awful lot in the man’s relatively short but eventful career in elected politics, beginning with the moment when many of us were certain that career was about to abruptly end — when he blithely disrespected the very sacred cow of America’s favorite POW war hero, John McCain, and paid no price for it.

You can argue all day about why Trump seems to be “Teflon Don” or even conclude that it’s not about him but about his feckless opponents in both parties or about an atmosphere of partisan polarization (to which he has definitely and self-servingly contributed) that nothing can penetrate. But whatever it is, we’re in a presidential contest that appears to be all but impervious to the kinds of things that used to be called game changers.” It’s time to accept at least as a rebuttable presumption that the game isn’t changing. And that has implications for future events like the presidential debates, the two major-party conventions, and the cut-and-thrust of the campaign competition as the November election grows nigh.

That doesn’t mean Trump’s going to win, to be clear. “Convicted criminal” or not, he remains relatively very unpopular: He’s incapable of moderating his savage and vengeful message, and this year’s turnout dynamics could make Biden’s base of support more reliable. And Trump’s polling lead, even though it has induced regular panic in some Democratic ranks, has never been more than a few ticks away from vanishing altogether. But no one should expect Trump to self-destruct or persuadable voters to wake up some morning and realize what a terrible man he is.

If, late on Election Night, Trump appears on TVs and computer screens as the president-elect of the United States, as he did to the horror of Blue America in 2016 — or worse yet, if he loses and claims victory anyway as he did in 2020 — no one should be that surprised. We’ve been here before.

June 5: Republicans Aren’t Asking Trump to “Step Aside,” Are They?

In the wake of Trump’s criminal conviction, a rather obvious contrast between the two parties occurred to me that Democrats ought to think about. I wrote about it at New York.

One of the most notable aspects of the 2024 presidential contest has been how often voices have been raised in the left-of-center commentariat calling on Democrats to abort Joe Biden’s reelection campaign before it’s too late. In February, the New York Times’ Ezra Klein created an enormous buzz with a podcast episode suggesting that Biden “step aside” and let his party choose a more electable (and non-octogenarian) nominee. My colleague Jonathan Chait has discussed this possibility as well. And the idea was raised again quite recently by polling-maven-turned-pundit Nate Silver.

I’m on record as raining on this particular parade for multiple reasons, including the overreaction to marginally adverse polls it represents, the extremely unlikely Biden self-defenestration it would require, and the lack of any Democratic consensus on a “replacement” nominee. But if it’s odd how many Democrats have proved ready to panic and consider previously unimaginable survival strategies after a few bad polls, it’s downright weird that there is no such talk in Republican ranks after that party’s presumptive presidential nominee was found guilty of 34 felony criminal charges. Might that prove to be a problem in November? And if so, might Republicans, who frequently complain that the nation cannot survive another four years of Joe Biden as president, do well to choose someone from their own “bench” who has somehow managed never to be indicted for and convicted of a crime?

The very idea of Trump “stepping aside” or being pushed aside is laughable, of course. Whatever else he is, the 45th president is convinced he’s the most indispensable man in American — and perhaps world — history. After a hostile takeover in 2016 he has imposed an iron grip on the Republican Party that has clearly tightened after Trump demolished a large field of rivals this year. Nonetheless, the fact that these rivals even ran for president betrays the existence, however weak and attenuated, of an undercurrent of doubt about the wisdom of a third straight Trump nomination. But no one in GOP circles — absolutely no one — is articulating it now that there is a major objective reason for worry. Indeed, Team Trump’s savage reaction to prize Senate candidate Larry Hogan’s mild re-verdict suggestion of respect for the legal process that led to it shows how little grumbling will be tolerated. The two major parties couldn’t be much farther apart in this respect.

It is true there is one legitimate reason Republicans might not consider reconsidering Trump even if he and his supporters would allow it: Unlike Democratic delegates who are loosely bound to the candidate under whose banner they were chosen, Republican Trump delegates are formally and in some states legally bound to back the former president unless he explicitly releases them. A convention revolt against Trump (again, a laughable proposition) would require an overwhelming consensus of the party leaders Trump himself has chosen. So there’s not much point in talking about it, particularly since that would call down upon the doubters thunderbolts from Mar-a-Lago.

But in the end, the difference between Democrats and Republican in dealing with the problems facing their flawed 2024 presidential nominees is that unlike Trump himself, Republicans don’t seem to value winning above all else. Yes, he is a formidable politician with great strengths harnessed to great weaknesses, and yes, there’s no evidence yet the verdict in Manhattan is significantly eroding his consistent lead over Biden in most polls. But Republicans should rightly fear that day after day and week after week of Team Biden branding Trump as a convicted felon will eventually have an effect. Without question, years and years of data show Trump is as unpopular a politician as Biden, and if he did somehow “step aside,” Republicans could easily find a nominee better able to dispatch the unpopular incumbent. Republicans do not, moreover, have the kind of succession problem facing Democrats in the form of a sitting vice-president who is as unpopular as her boss.

Republicans are in unshakable solidarity with Donald Trump despite his criminal record because they truly don’t see an alternative path. And that’s true even if they privately fear he will lead them to defeat, and after that, to another denial of defeat that could end in another attempted insurrection or at a minimum in horrific civil discord. For all their famed irresolution, proneness to panic, and “bed-wetting” tendencies, Democrats still belong to a party where free speech is possible. If their nominee was convicted of multiple felonies, at least some Democrats would be looking actively and publicly for a replacement. But Republicans belong to a cult of personality where any hint of rebellion is punished ruthlessly. And that’s the party that will take power with Trump if he manages to get back into the White House.

May 31: Campaigning Against a Criminal: What To Expect From Trump Now

Now that Trump has been convicted of multiple crimes, the 2024 presidential campaign could change. I thought about how the former president would handle things, and wrote about it at New York:

Donald Trump’s most important consolation after a Manhattan jury found him guilty of 34 criminal counts is that he has anticipated this moment for a long time. He was indicted 14 months ago with subsequent criminal indictments following in Florida, in Atlanta, and in Washington. Ever since, he has been running for president as a man under criminal indictment, and coping with that fact has been central to his strategy and message. Indeed, it became clear a long time ago that Trump’s endless preoccupation with his failed 2020 stolen-election fables, a backward-facing stance that initially baffled political observers, was actually a way of conditioning voters to view his future treatment by the justice system skeptically, if not with great hostility.

During this year’s Republican nominating contest, this strategy worked brilliantly, not only insulating Trump from criticism from his rivals about his misconduct in the cases that led to his serial indictments but actually making his alleged criminality a badge of honor. His increasingly shrill attacks on the prosecutors he faced helped boost him to an easy win in the primaries as the hero of conservatives angry at the Democrats and liberal elites seeking to hold him accountable. Now that he has been found guilty in a case brought by a Democratic prosecutor in a dark-blue constituency, to the delight of those liberal elites, Trump can be expected to keep on with the same chest-thumping professions of innocence and victimization (and promises of vengeance) with the Republican Party that has already nominated him dragooned willingly into joining his crusade for vindication.

There’s no particular reason to doubt that Trump’s ongoing call for loyalty will continue to work with a Republican base that very badly wants to respond to it favorably. Pre-verdict polls have consistently shown that a significant share of Republicans would “reconsider” their support for Trump if he were convicted of any crime. But “reconsidering” isn’t the same as “abandoning.” As a May 5 AP-Ipsos poll showed, most of these voters will likely wind up right back in his camp with any encouragement at all (only 4 percent of Trump supporters said they’d drop their allegiance to him after a conviction, and that may be overstating the reaction given past experience with moments when Republicans seemed to be jettisoning the 45th president — but didn’t).

But even if Trump can confidently count on his base of supporters to stay loyal — indeed, perhaps even cling to him more fiercely than ever as the victim of a “witch hunt” — he must still deal with possible fallout among the small but potentially decisive sliver of swing voters that is open to voting for him but might seriously reconsider voting for a felon. He will need something different from tribal loyalty fed by conspiracy theories to seal the deal in November. For these voters, the key may be to double down on every line of attack on Joe Biden as a feckless incompetent and an active danger to the peace and prosperity of America. Conservative Christian activist Rod Dreher may have identified precisely the right precedent for what the Trump campaign will try to do to assuage concerns over his conviction, in tweeting a copy of an old Louisiana bumper sticker that read, “Vote for the Crook: It’s Important,” and commenting: “I had this bumper sticker on my Louisiana car in 1991, urging my fellow voters to vote for sleazy Edwin Edwards over ex-KKK leader David Duke. After Trump’s felony convictions, I say it’s time to bring it back for the fall election.”

Yes, supporters of the ethically challenged Edwin Edwards frontally attacked concerns he was corrupt by minimizing the significance of his corner-cutting as compared to the dire consequences of letting David Duke become chief executive of Louisiana, and what had been a close “race from hell” turned into an Edwards landslide. Nobody will ever mistake Joe Biden for David Duke, but the basic idea of suggesting that a little criminality is better than bad leadership could be fruitfully adapted by the Trump campaign. Trump’s sentencing (scheduled for mid-July) by Judge Merchan could create some serious logistical problems for him, restricting his movements while reminding voters he’s on the wrong side of the law. But he is just lucky that the clock has probably run out for any further criminal convictions prior to Election Day that might make the verdict in Manhattan harder to overlook.

Even if this strategy does not work for Trump and he loses in November, the consequences of the guilty verdict will continue, and not just for the convict. If there was any doubt that Trump will deny and reject an election loss even more vociferously than he did in 2020, it should vanish now. Not only is he deeply invested in the claim that his legal peril represents “election interference” by Democrats, but he also needs the kind of get-out-of-jail card a return to the White House might offer.