washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

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

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

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

1. Because they could

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Nobody wants to offend Wisconsin

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

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

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

5. It’s Joe’s party now

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

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

6. The convention can always “go virtual” later

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

April 1: 2020 Congressional Landscape Tilting Blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 27: Crucial General Election State Struggling With Its Primary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 26: Coronavirus and Trump’s Reelection Prospects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 18: Towards Universal Voting-By-Mail

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

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

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

States That Discourage Voting by Mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

States That Encourage Voting by Mail With Permanent Registration

Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, and New Jersey

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

Permanent voting by mail typically requires state legislation.

All Voting-by-Mail States

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington

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

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

Measures Needed to Make All-Mail-Ballot Elections Fair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 11: Is a Virtual Convention On the Way This Summer?

One of the many coronavirus-related topics under discussion this week is the potential effect of the crisis on the national political conventions, which I discussed at New York:

[I]n place of the fantasy of the first multi-ballot convention since 1952, we’re contemplating the unprecedented nightmare of a convention that cannot be held at all, at least in the sense of a physical gathering of delegates celebrating the coronation of a nominee and the launch of a general election campaign.

The two developments are related in a way. Joe Biden’s sudden progress toward becoming the presumptive nominee means that an authority structure for planning the July convention scheduled for Milwaukee should soon take shape, beyond the powers already exercised by the Democratic National Committee. And as the COVID-19 cases and the public health consequences proliferate, there’s already serious talk about how to hold a virtual convention. After all, if America is about to enter a regimen of “social distancing” for an indefinite period of time, packing thousands of people into a Milwaukee arena for a political convention in July won’t exactly set a good example, even if public health authorities somehow allow it.

report from the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein last week suggested that contingency discussions are well underway:

“[A]s coronavirus has spread and travel restrictions seem likely to be intensified, top officials are wondering whether attendees will or should make it.

“The result could be a convention that is not just sparsely attended but one where the act of formally nominating a presidential candidate is thrown into disorder …

“According to several top officials, the DNC’s charter and bylaws leave little ambiguity when it comes to the requirement that delegates be physically on site in order to cast their votes. Under Section 11, it states that ‘Voting by proxy shall not be permitted at the National Convention. Voting by proxy shall otherwise be permitted in Democratic Party affairs only as provided in the Bylaws of the Democratic Party.'”

Fortunately, national political conventions are masters of their own rules, so voting by proxy (or remotely) can be legitimized. But however they cast ballots, delegates do still have to be formally elected at the state level, and that process could be undermined by COVID-19 as well:

“’It is serious. The question for state chairs is, look, we all have to put on conventions coming up. Most of the delegates to the national convention are elected at [state] conventions. What happens if state parties have to cancel these events where delegates are elected?’ said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and a Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee. ‘If things continue to evolve, It could dramatically alter the contest and severely hamper Democrats as we try to unify our party’.”

All these complications could become, well, even more complicated if Team Biden’s iron control over the convention is challenged via a platform fight or some other symbol of factional rivalry.

Republicans are not immune from the same problems in planning their August convention in Charlotte, though they don’t have to worry about anyone questioning the authority of Trump’s reelection campaign to make all the key decisions.

In the end, we could have conventions this year that complete the evolution of these institutions from unpredictable, deliberative, and sometimes chaotic events to slickly produced television shows for the two parties and their presidential nominees. The main question is whether they will have live delegates as props.

March 4: As Candidates Withdraw, What Happens To Their Delegates?

The above is a question that arose after the Buttigieg and Klobuchar withdrawals, but it all may become more relevant after Super Tuesday and its fallout, as I discussed at New York:

What happens with the voters who would have otherwise supported Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar in Tuesday’s elections and beyond remains an open question.

Meanwhile there is the related question of what happens to delegates pledged to candidates who subsequently quit. There aren’t very many of them: Buttigieg won only 26 delegates and Klobuchar only 7. But down the road it could matter more if, say, Bloomberg or Warren drop out after accumulating a significant pile of delegates on Super Tuesday or later in the contest.

The first thing to understand is that there is a small but very real difference in how the national-party rules treat delegates of candidates who have suspended their campaigns versus those who have formally withdrawn. Buttigieg and Klobuchar fall into the former category; it’s the most common thing for failed candidates to do since it gives them more time to settle the financial affairs of their campaigns, while also leaving the door cracked to a zombie campaign in case things get weird later on. And as nomination-contest wizard Josh Putnam (of the invaluable Frontloading HQ websiteexplains, the candidates retain some rights:

“Their campaigns have been suspended but they are still technically candidates in the race. Even without any involvement from those two campaigns, delegate candidates of those two candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada will continue in the delegate selection process. …

“Most of the delegates won by these two candidates are district delegates. Buttigieg claimed nine district delegates in Iowa, six district delegates in New Hampshire and three district delegates in Nevada. Klobuchar was allocated one district delegate in Iowa and an additional four in New Hampshire. Ten of those 23 district delegates — the ones from New Hampshire — have already basically been chosen. Slates of district delegates were elected for each active candidate at pre-primary caucuses in the Granite state on January 25. Iowa district delegates will be selected on April 25 and Nevada Democrats will select their district delegates at the party’s May 30 state convention. If the Buttigieg and Klobuchar campaigns are still in suspension at those points, then they will retain those delegates and they will all become free agents upon selection.”

This last point is important. Delegates pledged to candidates who have quit the race really are free agents, since the only real compulsion governing them is a “pledge” required by the national party to do their best to represent the jurisdictions that elected them. Unlike Republicans, who called such delegates “bound,” Democrats rely on more of an honor system, aside from the fact that campaigns typically choose delegate slates from which delegates are “pledged” (yes, a few states have laws that seek to bind delegates until “their” candidates have formally withdrawn, but it’s unclear they can be enforced at a convention).

Ultimately, there’s no real way to force any pledged delegate to honor the spirit of the system and stay committed at the convention, much less in the case of a second ballot in which 771 superdelegates would come into play. But you’d have to figure that delegates pledged to candidates who are no longer really in the race would be the loosey-est gooses of them all if the nomination isn’t already buttoned down tight before the opening gavel falls in Milwaukee.

February 27: California’s Indies May Struggle to Vote in Democratic Primary

As a California resident, I have some insights on the growing brouhaha over independents’ voting on Super Tuesday, which I shared at New York:

There are increasingly loud complaints from the Bernie Sanders camp about the difficulties independent voters face in California in participating in the Super Tuesday primary, as Politico reported recently:

“Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders charged Friday that California’s primary system threatens to disenfranchise millions of independent voters whose support he has cultivated in the nation’s most populous state.

“Sanders said Friday during a press conference in Santa Ana that he and his team have been campaigning hard to reach California’s 5.3 million ‘no-party-preference’ voters, who now represent the second largest voting bloc in the state at 25.9 percent — ahead of Republicans, who comprise 23.7 percent …

“’Unfortunately, under the current NPP participation rules, we risk locking out millions of young people … millions of young people of color — and many, many other people who wanted to participate in the Democratic primary but may find it impossible for them to do so,’ he said. ‘And that seems to me to be very, very wrong.’”

The root of the problem here is that party preferences in California have become relatively insignificant thanks to the establishment via a 2010 ballot initiative of a nonpartisan top-two primary system in which everyone in the state gets the same ballot for sub-presidential contests that includes all the candidates competing regardless of party, with the top two vote winners proceeding to the general election. But voters are still asked to designate a party preference when registering, which makes those registration rolls a hot property for campaigns and other purchasers, and also guides the one partisan primary still remaining: the quadrennial presidential primaries.

What makes this affirmative requirement especially tricky is that big majorities of California voters now vote by mail, which means there’s not going to be some friendly election official in their faces to explain to NPP voters how to participate in the Democratic primary. So election officials have sent vote-by-mail NPP registrants postcards, which they are asked to return if they want to “replace” their empty NPP ballots with a chock-full-o-candidates Democratic ballot. It has not worked very well, as Capitol Weekly reported last week:

“To participate in the open Democratic presidential primary, independent voters need to request the partisan ‘crossover’ ballot.  To expedite this, counties sent all vote-by-mail independent voters a postcard for them to select their partisan ballot and then return the card to the registrars.

“But as the cards were mailed to independent voters over the holidays, very few of these voters responded to get the crossover ballots that would allow them to participate in the Democratic primary …

“Remarkably, only 9% of California’s growing independent and vote-by-mail population have successfully obtained a partisan presidential primary ballot. For 91% of nonpartisan voters, there is no presidential race on the ballot they received in the mail.”

We’re talking 3.7 million voters with those empty NPP ballots, even though a significant majority of them wanted to vote in the Democratic primary. Given Sanders’s regular over-performance among indies generally, he probably will be affected most, with Mike Bloomberg also taking a disproportionate hit.

There’s another, smaller (if still quite significant) problem for nearly 600,000 voters who are registered members of the American Independent Party. The AIP is the zombie survivor of George Wallace’s 1968 third-party candidacy that’s stuck around all these years mostly because voters persistently misunderstand the “independent” in the right-wing party’s name and think they are registering NPP. A bill to force the AIP to change its name to get “independent” out of it was vetoed this year by Governor Gavin Newsom on grounds that it was likely unconstitutional. In order to vote in the Democratic presidential primary, these low-information voters will have to change their party registration.

Now all these indies who have missed the deadline for requesting a Democratic ballot by mail can still fix the problem by showing up on primary day (so long as they haven’t already mailed in a ballot) and asking for the Donkey option, and presumably Team Bernie is letting them know that. But in response to the steady decline in live Election Day voting, some California counties have been replacing traditional precincts with “voting centers” that may confuse some by-mail voters. And in the state’s largest county, Los Angeles, new touchscreen voting machines are being deployed on March 3, which could create some additional confusion and delay.

Even if Sanders wins the state easily, which he is favored to do (FiveThirtyEight gives him a five-in-six chance of carrying the state), a shortfall in indie voting could cost him some delegates. So you will definitely hear about this on March 3.

The other problem all the candidates — and the news media — will be dealing with on March 3 is California’s slow count of ballots, which is mostly attributable to the rule allowing mail ballots postmarked by March 3 (and received by March 6) to be counted. These and other late mail ballots have to be opened individually and tabulated, which takes a while. But candidates who see themselves ahead on Election Night but then lose later aren’t happy about it, and some of them hint darkly at “fraud” or other dirty deeds (e.g., California Republicans after they lost half their U.S. House delegation in 2018). Unlike Iowa, California has baked late returns right into the electoral cake, and people just need to get used to it as a by-product of reforms to make it easier to vote — if not easy enough for a lot of indies.

February 26: The Last Caucuses

As most commentators moved on after Nevada, I reflected on the future implications at New York:

This year’s Democratic caucuses are not entirely in the rearview mirror yet: There is one more on April 4 in Wyoming. But after the Caucus Night meltdown in Iowa, and then a near brush with disaster in Nevada, the odds of this form of nominating contest surviving into the next presidential cycle is somewhere not far north of zero.

Nevada Democrats were lucky on several counts. Most obviously, they had Iowa’s example to put them on high alert. Their basic caucusing procedures were modeled on Iowa’s; they had the same huge new complications based on the multiple reporting requirements imposed on them by the national party, exacerbated by a large field of candidates, and were originally planning to use the same technologies. On top of that, Nevada was experimenting with an “early caucusing” option utilizing ranked-choice voting that created another layer of complexity.

Horrified by the possibility of a second meltdown, the DNC offered a lot of technical assistance to the Nevada party and helped mobilize volunteers from other states to staff the event. But with all that, on Caucus Day the results came in v-e-r-y slowly. There were just enough returns, however, to justify the release of full entrance polls, and the really lucky thing for Nevada is that there was a clear winner, which allowed media types to spend many fine hours agitating the air about the Greater Meaning of a Bernie Sanders nomination — as though the thought had never occurred to them before — instead of complaining about the slow count.

“The statement is as follows:

“’I am so proud of the Nevada Democratic Party, its talented staff, and the thousands of grassroots volunteers who have done so much hard work over the years to build this operation. We have the best state party in the country, and that was shown again this past week after another successful caucus that featured a historic four days of early voting with more than 10,000 new voter registrations.

“”With so much Democratic enthusiasm in Nevada, demonstrated again by the tremendous caucus turnout this year, I believe we should make the process of selecting our nominee even more accessible. We’ve made it easier for people to register to vote here in Nevada in recent years and now we should make it easier for people to vote in the presidential contests. That’s why I believe it’s time for the Democratic Party to move to primaries everywhere.'”

No, of course, there’s no problem with holding caucuses: It’s just that primaries are even better! They didn’t just get that way, of course, but Reid knows when it’s time to count your blessings and move on. Besides, he and other Nevada Democrats have more important fish to fry:

“’I’m glad to have fought to make Nevada the first Western state in the Democratic nominating process since 2008, and we have proven more than worthy of holding that prominent early state position. I firmly believe that Nevada, with our broad diversity that truly reflects the rest of the country, should not just be among the early states — we should be the first in the nation.'”

A big part of the Great Iowa Freak-out of 2020 was attributable not just to the Caucus Night brouhaha but to long-standing and rapidly intensifying complaints about the state’s exceptionally pale demographics. Part of the reason Nevada and South Carolina got moved into the charmed circle of privileged and officially designated “early states” was to protect the status of Iowa (“First-in-the-Nation Caucus”) and the equally honkyfied New Hampshire (“First-in-the-Nation Primary”) by giving more diverse jurisdictions some representation. Now Nevada wants it all: to move past Iowa and New Hampshire to go first in a system without caucuses. Certainly Iowa is in no position to insist on a future with caucuses, and New Hampshire cannot hold on to the status quo forever on its own.

The abolition of caucuses may have been inevitable even without this year’s caucus issues. As Geoffrey Skelley noted last spring, fully 11 states that held caucuses in 2016 moved to primaries this year, mostly because the national party kept insisting on safeguards to improve access and accountability (e.g., all those raw-vote tabulations) that are difficult to reconcile with old-school party-run caucuses. You might wonder what states whose legislatures refuse to conduct and pay for partisan presidential primaries do instead of caucuses. There is the option (which four states will exercise this year) of a party-run primary — sometimes called a “firehouse primary,” because they typically use limited publicly owned polling places to hold down expenses.

Those of us who were fond of caucuses for the deliberative voting process and the sheer sense of community they fostered will have to move on in the great cattle drive of life.

February 21: Combative Democratic Debaters Are Nothing Like 2016’s Republicans

There was a lot of Republican crowing about Democrats in Disarray after the February 19 Democratic candidate debate in Las Vegas. So at New York I offered a reminder of what real fighting looked like:

It’s probably a good time to remind everyone that last night’s battle in Vegas pales in comparison to the regular spectacle of insults, eye gouging, and kneecapping that characterized many of the 2016 Republican debates. Yes, Bloomberg got taken down a few notches as Elizabeth Warren showed why she got a debate scholarship for college. But it was nothing like the incredible disrespect and downright hatred expressed toward Trump by his 2016 rivals, which (unlike Bloomberg last night) he reciprocated in full, giving us all a preview of the depths to which he would plunge presidential communications.

“On the debate stage, Trump stretched his hands out for the audience to see — then insisted the suggestion that ‘something else must be small’ was false.

“’I guarantee you there’s no problem,’ Trump said to howls from the audience at the Fox debate.”

Then there was the endless insultfest between Trump and Ted Cruz, which extended beyond the debate season when “Lyin’ Ted” (Trump’s nickname for the senator) refused to endorse the nominee at the Republican convention (likely because of Trump’s bizarre, outrageous suggestion that Cruz’s father might have been involved in the JFK assassination).

And how about the endless war of contemptuous words Trump aimed at “low-energy” Jeb Bush and the two former presidents in his family? It all finally provoked the normally pacific Jebbie to fire back:

“Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida blasted Donald J. Trump for insulting the Bush family and ridiculed the idea that Mr. Trump could be commander-in-chief during a contentious and sometimes nasty Republican presidential debate in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday, a week before a crucial primary in the state.

“With Mr. Trump leading in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere after his victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he was a ripe target for his Republican rivals, especially Mr. Bush and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who are under intense pressure to halt his political momentum. But the vitriol was so intense that it seemed to surprise even Mr. Trump, a combative figure who had not been so roundly pummeled at a debate before.”

Were you impressed by Warren’s challenge to Bloomberg’s reputation for sexism? Well, its direct predecessor in presidential politics was Carly Fiorina’s angry rebuke of Trump during a September 2015 debate for insulting her appearance and treating it as a disqualifier.

To be clear, the 2016 Republican combat didn’t always require Trump to be a direct participant. Rubio and Cruz regularly took nasty personal shots at each other over the authenticity of their relative positioning on immigration policy. And one of the nomination contest’s key moments occurred in a debate just prior to the New Hampshire primary, when Chris Christie took down putative front-runner Rubio effectively and remorselessly:

“Christie, in the worst condition of any of the establishment challengers, in fifth place in the polls and with no obvious path to the nomination, landed the strongest blows on Rubio we’ve seen yet. Worse yet, Rubio responded to a pounding from Christie for being a paper-thin senator with no accomplishments by playing the part to a T: robotically repeating talking points even as the New Jersey governor mocked him for robotically repeating talking points.”

Now, in the end, all these Trump rivals other than Bush (Fiorina had withdrawn her endorsement of the nominee after the Access Hollywood video confirmed his arrogant piggishness) clamored onboard his foul-smelling bandwagon, and Rubio and Cruz are administration toadies in the Senate. And most obviously, in 2016 Republicans won the White House and both Houses of Congress despite all the discord. So I wouldn’t write off Democratic prospects this November simply because the candidates gambled a bit on aggressiveness in Las Vegas.