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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

May 16: GOP Extremism Predated Trump and Won’t Die With His Departure

In listening to some of the intra-Democratic discussion of Trump as an “aberration,” I felt the need to weigh in at New York with some not-so-distant memories:

One of the latent questions in American politics for both parties is whether Donald J. Trump is some sort of horror-movie version of a unicorn, who after this term, and perhaps another one, will retreat to Mar-a-Lago, leaving the Republican Party — and the United States — scarred but not fundamentally changed. For obvious reasons, Republicans don’t discuss this view of their own future very openly, lest their master resent the suggestion that he’s a man whose moment is rapidly slipping away. You hear the subject discussed more among Democrats, particularly those who are running for president to consign Trump to the ash bin of history. Joe Biden, for example, has made it clear he considers the 45th president an aberration, whose evil spell over Republicans will dissipate once he’s out of office.

But Trump’s undoubtedly strange and outlandish personality should not make us forget that the party he took by force in 2016 was already exhibiting an alarming extremism on multiple issues. Here’s Barack Obama being hopeful about Republicans in 2012:

“President Obama told supporters that he expected the gridlock to end after the election, when Republicans can stop worrying about voting him out of office.

“’My expectation is that if we can break this fever, that we can invest in clean energy and energy efficiency because that’s not a partisan issue,’ Obama said, speaking to supporters in Minneapolis.

“Obama pointed to deficit reduction, a transportation bill, and immigration reform as initiatives that could well pass in November.”

None of that happened, of course. And instead of getting over their “fever” of policy extremism and tactical obstructionism, what did Republicans do? They nominated Donald Trump as their next presidential candidate.

Mitt Romney, one of the GOP’s most respectable figures, advocated immigration policies arguably to the right of Trump’s in his pursuit of the 2012 presidential nomination. He also endorsed the Ryan budgets (reflecting the party’s hard-core commitment to “entitlement reform” and an end to decades of anti-poverty measures), and supported the cut, cap, balance pledge to permanently shrink the size of the federal government. And most famously, he embraced one of the foundational myths of conservative extremism in his remarks that the votes of “47 percent” of Americans had been corruptly bought by welfare-state benefits, thus implicitly making those votes illegitimate.

For the ninth consecutive time, the GOP platform on which Romney ran in 2012 called not just for the reversal of reproductive rights in Roe v. Wade but the constitutional enshrinement of fetal (even embryonic) rights in a Human Life Amendment that would ban states from allowing abortions from the moment of conception.

All that was mainstream Republican policy pre-Trump. In the ever-more-militant conservative wing of the party, the big fashion in the early years of this decade was to call oneself a “constitutional conservative.” As I tried to explain at the time, this meant something genuinely alarming:

“I do worry that the still-emerging ideology of ‘constitutional conservatism’ is something new and dangerous, at least in its growing respectability. It’s always been there in the background, among the Birchers and in the Christian Right, and as as emotional and intellectual force within Movement Conservatism. It basically holds that a governing model of strictly limited (domestic) government that is at the same time devoted to the preservation of ‘traditional culture’ is the only legitimate governing model for this country, now and forever, via the divinely inspired agency of the Founders. That means democratic elections, the will of the majority, the need to take collective action to meet big national challenges, the rights of women and minorities, the empirical data on what works and what doesn’t — all of those considerations and more are so much satanic or ‘foreign’ delusions that can and must be swept aside in the pursuit of a Righteous and Exceptional America.”

A first cousin to, or perhaps just a corollary of, constitutional conservatism is the belief, which has spread rapidly through the GOP ranks, that the Second Amendment is the most important element of the Bill of Rights and includes an implicit right to armed revolution against “tyranny,” as defined by, well, constitutional conservatives. It wasn’t Donald Trump who espoused that point of view during the 2016 Republican presidential nominating process, but his rivals Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson.

Constitutional conservatism has more or less been absorbed into “America First” Trumpism, but the way of thinking hasn’t gone away — as evidenced by Trump’s tendency to disregard those aspects of the Constitution that don’t suit his needs, while deifying those that do. When it comes to extremist goals like banning abortion entirely, or defending an absolutist view of gun rights, or sealing the borders, or making freedom of religion contingent upon its consistency with “Judeo-Christian heritage,” Trump is a louder champion of extremism, but hardly novel. And even where Trump has departed from hard-core conservative orthodoxy, he seems to have coarsened it more than anything else, viz the open pro-corporate mercantilism of his trade policy, and the supposed “non-interventionism” that is accompanied by constant threats of military violence.

Yes, there are long-term demographic trends that could make Republican extremism no longer practicable, but you have to figure the GOP will have to lose a few more presidential elections before that lesson sinks in; extremism does, if nothing else, help mobilize the party “base” and attract highly motivated donors. For every Democrat baffled by Trump’s win in 2016, there’s a Republican who believes the formula will work forever. For the legions of younger Republicans who have probably never met a genuinely “moderate” GOP leader in their lives, the “fever” could be especially persistent.

Practical politics aside, progressives need to take seriously the possibility that their counterparts on the right feel just as passionately about fetal life, the alleged threat of immigrants to civilization, and the decline of religious affiliation and 1950s-style patriarchal “family values” as those on the left feel about climate change or equality. Those who doubt the staying power of conservative extremism beyond its relationship to Trump should take another look at Michael Anton’s 2016 essay arguing that the condition of liberal-dominated American society is so catastrophically dire that voting for Trump is a survival impulse like that of the terrorism victims who stormed the cockpit of United Flight 93 on 9/11. Trump’s 2016 victory was in no small part the product of that brand of extremism, not its cause.


May 15: GOP’s “Infanticide” Attack Lines Colliding With GOP Early-Term Abortion Bans

Sometimes a political party’s left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing, and that’s happening to Republicans on abortion policy, as I noted this week at New York:

For many years, the chief political strategy of the anti-abortion movement has been to gradually chip away at reproductive rights by focusing on rare but lurid-sounding late-term abortions. It made sense, given the unpopularity of such procedures (particularly when presented without the context of the tragic circumstances involved) and the overwhelming popularity of legalized early-term abortions, whose criminalization is the movement’s ultimate goal. Once the regime set up by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey is unraveled, anti-abortion proponents thought, it might be time to stop the charade and go public with a more radical agenda.

But as my colleague Irin Carmon recently explained, as pro-lifers have gained power in state legislatures via the Republican Party they now completely dominate, the temptation to go for the anti-choice gold has been too strong for many to resist, as evidenced by the sudden rush to enact “heartbeat” bills that ban abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy:

“Heartbeat bans are suddenly in place, if not in effect, in Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi, and Kentucky …

“For nearly a half century, the Supreme Court has said that states can’t ban abortion before a fetus is viable — no earlier than 24 weeks, not six, before many women even know they’re pregnant. That’s why the focus-grouped, gray-suited architects of the anti-abortion movement believe total bans hurt their cause. They’ve read the polls that say Americans broadly support abortion in the first trimester, that they don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and that they squirm when they hear about the later abortions allowed under it: after 20 weeks, or later for reasons of health or life.”

Yet states’ early-term abortion bans are becoming more radical every day, culminating in this week’s passage of legislation in Alabama that would ban all abortions from the moment of conception other than those necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman. There aren’t even exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

As a matter of constitutional law, it’s unlikely that even today’s 5-4 majority of presumed abortion foes on the Supreme Court would choose so extreme a law as the lever to reverse or modify its reproductive-rights precedents. If they do want to go in that direction, laws regulating later-term abortions — such as the 20-week bans popular among Republican legislators in many states and in Washington, too — are a more likely vehicle.

But beyond that, such laws uncloak the ultimate goals of the GOP and the RTL movement at a time when Republicans are trying to brand Democrats as an extremist party that supports abortions so late in pregnancy that they can be labeled “infanticide.” As National Journal reports, this is a big deal for Donald Trump’s party heading toward 2020:

“President Trump has laced it into his rally repertoire, calling Democrats ‘the party of high taxes, high crime, open borders, late-term abortion, witch hunts, and delusions.’ And as campaigns continue to ramp up for 2019 and 2020, there is little expectation among Republicans that the abortion message will fizzle …

“The issue was sparked in January, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act, which expanded limited abortion rights beyond the 24th week of pregnancy, and days later when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam made comments about a bill in his state loosening restrictions on late-term abortions …

“Critics call the infanticide claims manufactured outrage, pointing to the existing laws that criminalize action taken to end a newborn’s life. As it stands, late-term abortion — generally referring to those after 20 weeks of gestation — is a rare procedure typically done in the interest of protecting the mother’s health, according to a 2018 Congressional Research Service report.

But it’s kind of hard to pose as the party in the firm mainstream of public opinion on abortion, fighting those baby-killing Democrats, when one’s own Republicans are trying to ban the bulk of abortions that occur early in pregnancy. It’s not just a mixed message but arguably an honest statement of principles stepping all over a calculated lie.

Some observers suggest the infanticide talk may be “cover” for the early-abortion prohibition measures beginning to sweep through Republican legislatures. If so, it may not be loud enough to drown out the howls of triumph from extremist lawmakers in places like Alabama or the cries of dismay from those who previously thought basic reproductive rights were safe. It’s hard to look at all this state-level activity and not quickly discern who the real “extremists” are.


May 10: Newly Purpose States Offer Best Path for Retaking the Senate

Having heard a lot of despair from Democrats over high-profile recruits turning down the opportunity to run for the Senate, I looked at some trends and suggested a more optimistic approach at New York:

[A]s my colleague Eric Levitz recently explained, a Republican-controlled Senate could dash hopes that a progressive 46th president could enact any kind of legislative agenda or reverse the conservative judicial revolution that Donald Trump is overseeing. Beyond that, a Democratic president who can’t get anything done would be a strong candidate for a disastrous 2022 midterm and early lame-duck status.

So picking up three net Senate seats is almost as urgent a task for Democrats in 2020 as getting Trump out of the White House. The conventional wisdom in some circles is that Democratic Senate hopes have been betrayed by potentially strong candidates (e.g., Texas’s Beto O’Rourke, Montana’s Steve Bullock, and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams) selfishly deciding to pursue other offices and other goals. Aside from how you feel about the proposition that these people owe the Democratic Party a year or so of tough, miserable campaign work and then six years in a job they may not even want, the candidate-driven look at 2020 Senate races may be missing something more fundamental. In the last presidential election year, split-ticket voting in Senate races basically vanished. That’s right: In 2016, all 34 races were won by the party that won the state in question in the presidential contest. That’s never happened before. As Harry Enten pointed out, there wasn’t much variation in the pattern of votes:

Unless 2016 was an outlier (and given a general trend toward straight-ticket voting, that’s unlikely), you can see why most observers are pessimistic about Democrat Doug Jones surviving a presidential year in Alabama (Trump won the state by 27 points), and also why Steve Bullock wasn’t interested in a Senate race in Montana (which Trump carried by 20 points) and Beto O’Rourke gave it a pass in Texas (a nine-point Trump win in 2016).

More generally, the depressing fact for Democrats is that 22 of the 34 Senate races in 2020 are happening in states won by Trump in 2016. Considering that Trump managed to lose the national popular vote, that’s mostly a reminder that the United States Senate, with its equal seats for California and Wyoming, is a fundamentally anti-democratic (and hence anti-Democratic) institution.

There is a flip side to this straight-ticket-voting reality: If Democrats win the presidential race decisively, some of those presidential red states could turn blue. In particular, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina are states with 2020 Senate races against Republican incumbents where Democrats think they have a decent chance of beating Trump this time. Add in two states Trump lost last time that have Republican senators up in 2020 (Colorado and Maine), and the odds of liberating the upper chamber from Mitch McConnell’s death grip look a lot better. That means a strong Democratic investment in purplish states with Senate races could pay off doubly.

Strange things can always happen in the interim, of course: Joe Manchin could practically hand over his Senate seat to Republicans if he resigned to run for governor of West Virginia. On the other hand, Alabama Republicans could make an equally generous gesture by again nominating Roy Moore to run against Jones. But instead of obsessing about recruitment of ideal candidates for potentially winnable Senate races, Democrats would be wise to focus on winning those states against Trump, with all the good things that could mean down-ballot.


May 8: Planning For a Contested Convention

As a long-time national convention junkie, I’m looking forward to next year’s Democratic assemblage with even greater than usual interest, and wrote about some candidate contingency planning at New York:

Even though campaigns stay mostly focused on the immediate, there have to be strategies in place for remote (in time and likelihood) contingencies. With 21 Democratic candidates already in the field and at least one more (Steve Bullock) on the way, they must all deal with the possibility of Democrats arriving in Milwaukee in July of next year with nobody having the requisite majority of pledged delegates buttoned down.

Under this “contested convention” scenario, a strange and ironic thing would happen once a by-the-book first ballot ended in deadlock. Party superdelegates, the ex officio delegates (mostly elected officials and DNC members) who lost their independent first-ballot voting power in a post-2016 concession to angry Bernie Sanders supporters, would regain it on any second or subsequent ballot. So after being written off as nonentities, these largely Establishment figures — 769 of them in all, compared to 3,768 pledged delegates — could, in the context of a contested convention, wind up deciding it all.

As Ruby Cramer of BuzzFeed reports, the Democratic campaigns are beginning to think about this scenario. Unsurprisingly, Bernie Sanders, who has (a) prior experience running for president, (b) money to burn, and (c) a robust record of trashing the very institution of superdelegates, seems to be thinking about it most deeply:

“’We’re taking superdelegates and superdelegates strategy seriously,’ a Sanders aide said, ‘hence having a team dedicated to delegates who can prepare for multiple convention scenarios. We will be reaching out to them over the course of the campaign. When the senator wins the nomination, he’s eager to work with them to support and unite of all the party in the general and beyond.'”

Of course he is.

Cramer touts Kamala Harris’s campaign as having a very effective superdelegate outreach program already, under the direction of Hillary Clinton’s top 2016 delegate tracker (who also worked for DNC chairman Tom Perez). But it’s kinda something any candidate with the resources for it would want to do even if a contested convention was impossible:
“An official from Harris’s campaign pointed out that superdelegate outreach is good politics regardless of whether they factor in the convention. ‘All of these people — whether they are DNC members or members of Congress — have footholds in their communities,’ the Harris official said. ‘Obviously we are reaching out to those individuals and doing our due diligence.'”

That will matter a whole lot more if Democrats look up after the blitz of March primaries and see no one really in charge of the race:

“[F]ully 60 percent of pledged delegates will be awarded during a two-week period running from March 3 (generally known as Super Tuesday) through March 17, when primaries are scheduled in fully half the states (a share that could go even higher if late-deciding states like New York move into this window). Depending on what happens in the four February contests that are “protected” from additional competition by national party rules (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, in that order), this huge bloc of early-to-mid-March states could either produce scattered results that make an early decision impossible, or could instead make one candidate the putative (not official, but certain) nominee.”

In the case of a Wild West scenario, superdelegates could again walk tall in the councils of the Donkey Party, and even the fieriest of insurgents will find kind words to say about those staid Establishment figures toiling in the party’s vineyards.


May 3: The False Base/Swing Choice

One of the oldest arguments in politics reemerged this week, and I wrote about it at New York:

There is no area of argument in politics hoarier than the one that revolves around targeting “base” or “swing” voters — or to put it another way, the choice between mobilizing voters who already agree with you or persuading voters who don’t but might.

There’s obviously some ideological freight carried by the argument, since by definition base voters are going to be more comfortable with positions and messages most distinct from that of the opposition, while swing voters tend to listen to both sides. And so, among Democrats, base versus swing has long been a bone of contention between centrists and progressives.

This argument used to be one in which centrists usually had the upper hand because there were so very many swing voters, and also because winning a swing voter had the dual effect of gaining Democrats a vote while taking one away from Republicans. But with the rapid shrinkage of swing voting amid growing partisan polarization, and the heavy investment of Republicans in obstructing full voting opportunities for young people and minorities, the shoe is more often on the other foot now, with base mobilization becoming more essential and swing-voter persuasion being more difficult. It should still be possible for campaigns to do both. But on occasion representatives of the base view appeals to swing voters as something of a betrayal.

That’s how New York Times columnist Charles Blow appears to feel about appeals to white working-class voters:

“[T]here is part of the Biden enthusiasm, and to a lesser extent the energy around candidates like Bernie Sanders, that focuses too heavily on the fickle white, working-class swing voters and is not enough focused on the party’s faithful.

“Indeed, in political circles, Biden’s chief attribute in this election feels like his apparent appeal to these white voters.”

Then Blow, well, blows up:

Blow goes on to quote from a 2017 sociological study concluding that only 18.6 percent of 2016 voters were from the white working class. But that study develops its own, narrow definition of “working class” based on specific occupations, which may be defensible as a matter of sociology but does not describe the much larger universe (most commonly defined as non-college-educated) of voters actual politicians are actually targeting. As Ruy Teixeira reports from a 2018 study of this larger universe, it represented 44 percent of the 2016 electorate.

But even if I think his numbers are way off, I can understand Blow’s frustration with those exclusively preoccupied with swing voters who don’t share the party’s basic values. As a southern Democrat, I was always bothered that the members of the party’s most important electoral bloc, African-Americans, were expected perpetually to vote for white candidates, including those who self-identified as conservatives, with no expectation of white-voter reciprocity. As white southern voters increasingly moved into the GOP ranks, this particular swing-voter strategy became morally if not politically obtuse.

Is that what’s going on with the national Democratic Party now? And is that why Joe Biden is a viable candidate? Is Paul Waldman right in saying that “Hoe Biden seems to be assembling a coalition combining ‘People who’d just be more comfortable with an older white guy’ and ‘People who figure other people would just be more comfortable with an older white guy'”?

There’s enough truth in that to make me chuckle, but on the other hand, the only reason Joe Biden is the 2020 front-runner is that he’s also the single-most-popular candidate among minority voters. A March 28 Quinnipiac poll of Democrats with detailed cross-tabs showed Biden supported by 44 percent of African-Americans (and just 29 percent of white voters), with Bernie Sanders a distant second at 17 percent.

More generally, it’s a rare and foolish Democrat who argues for targeting all white working-class voters; there’s a large segment lost for the foreseeable future thanks to reactionary racial, cultural, and even economic views, and a smaller but still significant segment that’s open to the same Democratic messages as most base voters. We are mostly, after all, talking about white working-class voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 — a candidate deeply beloved among base Democrats (and perhaps the main reason so many base Democrats currently like Joe Biden).

What will fail to bring these voters back, of course, is a Democratic Party that ignores them, or that treats them as inherently reactionary, or that goes out of its way to tell them they don’t matter politically. Charles Blow comes pretty close to arguing for precisely those tokens of disrespect:

“At some point, the leadership and the front-runner are going to have to explain to women and minorities why their inordinate focus on white, working-class voters is justified, and that explanation will have to extend beyond, ‘It’s the only way.'”

“That explanation no longer has currency. ‘Anything to defeat Trump’ is also not a soothing elixir. At some point, the loyal constituencies will demand to know: ‘What’s in it for us, specifically?’ And I don’t blame them.”

No one that I’m aware of is in favor of an “inordinate” focus on white working-class voters, but in the end a vote is a vote, and an a priori rejection of broad demographic categories is a good way to make sure you don’t get enough of them.

Without question, the base will determine the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and no matter how much talk about electability takes place, it’s extremely unlikely anyone can win without explaining to “loyal constituencies” what’s in it for them, specifically. But treating the defeat of Donald Trump as a second-order consideration that’s less important than rewarding the steadiest of base voters is an approach that runs a high risk of forfeiting these very voters’ interests.


May 1: Why Trump’s a (Slight) Underdog Heading Towards 2020

With Democrats now discussing the “electability” of their 2020 prospects, I thought it was worthwhile to conduct a thorough examination of Trump’s “reelectability,” and I wrote it up at New York.

As you can imagine, there’s no ironclad formula for determining these things (despite the occasional glib and inaccurate assertions that incumbents always win or that “it’s the economy, stupid”), particularly with respect to an outlandish president like Trump. But there are factors that will definitely have a bearing on the odds that he’ll have a second inaugural and can again radically exaggerate attendance.

1. The sheer power of incumbency

A statistic we’ll hear often between now and November 2020 is that four of the five presidents running for reelection after 1980 won — or alternatively, that eight of the 11 running since the end of World War II won. Some gabbers may even stack the deck a bit more by excluding Gerald Ford from the calculation, since he was never elected president or vice-president before his narrow 1976 loss. And there are those who would distinguish Ford and Jimmy Carter from any meaningful precedents because they had to overcome powerful intraparty primary challenges unlike anything Donald Trump is likely to face in 2020.

And there’s still another argument for excluding Carter, as noted by Musa al-Gharbi in predicting a Trump win in 2020:

“Had Ford won in 1976, it would have marked three consecutive terms for the GOP. If George H.W. Bush had won in 1992, it would have meant four consecutive Republican terms.

“Since 1932, only once has a party held the White House for less than eight years: the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter from 1976 to 1980.”

In any event there are real advantages any incumbent president undoubtedly possesses:

“’Incumbents have the following advantages,’ says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. ‘Name recognition; national attention, fundraising and campaign bases; control over the instruments of government; successful campaign experience; a presumption of success; and voters’ inertia and risk-aversion.'”

Name recognition and the ability to command attention are assets that don’t matter quite so much at the end of a high-profile presidential general election, and it’s hard to envision Trump ever being the natural choice of the risk-averse. But “control over the instruments of government” does involve the ability to throw a surprise or two into the mix (e.g., Barack Obama’s DACA directive in June 2012, which was not only quite popular but preempted a Romney move in the same direction that might have mitigated his harsh anti-immigrant image).

So Trump probably should be credited with a modest thumb on the scales simply for being in the White House already.

2. Good times for the economy

While most political scientists reject the idea that economic conditions are the only thing that matters in presidential elections involving an incumbent, virtually all predictive models do take the economy into account. And if there’s been a recent revision of expectations in Trump’s favor in recent weeks in the chattering classes generally, it’s because earlier signs of a possible near-term economic slowdown now appear to be hiccups. Initial estimates that first-quarter 2019 GDP growth came in at 3.2 percent(significantly higher than most economists’ expectations) struck fear into the hearts of many Democrats.

But economic indicators in the year before a presidential election aren’t usually a very reliable guide to how voters will feel when they head to the polls. One well-reputed model, developed by Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz, uses second-quarter GDP growth in the election year as the primary economic variable. Even economists who weren’t surprised by the early-2019 numbers (usually attributed to the effects of the 2017 tax legislation) aren’t predicting they’ll continue all the way into 2020. So what may matter more than any particular numbers right now is a general climate in which steady growth, low inflation, and perhaps a touch of partisan politics convince the Federal Reserve Board to continue expansionary monetary policies, keeping the economy in the pink as the 2020 election grows nigh (it’s frequently assumed that short of a catastrophe, very late economic developments don’t matter anymore than very early ones — hence Abramowitz’s second-quarter focus).

As a separate matter, however, strong economic indicators in 2019 could complicate Democratic messaging in the early phases of the presidential election cycle. Democrats and their presidential candidates may, accordingly, focus less on macroeconomic conditions than on arguments about growing wealth being poorly distributed, which is what a majority of Americans appear to believe even as they perceive economic conditions as relatively rosy.

3. Presidential approval ratings

It’s generally agreed that presidential job-approval ratings are the single most reliable indicator of any POTUS’s reelection prospects, if only because it reflects so many other factors, such as economic conditions, international developments, and the net effect of partisan pressures. Trump’s approval ratings 18 months out are not that different from those of a number of predecessors. The most recent monthly Gallup rating (from early April) has Trump at 45 percent, identical to Ronald Reagan’s number at this juncture in 1983; one point above Barack Obama’s 44 percent in 2011; and one point below Gerald Ford’s 46 percent in 1975. Reagan eventually won 49 states in 1984, Obama won by just under four points in 2012, and Ford lost very narrowly in 1976.

What separates Trump from all of these presidents, and indeed from all presidents, is the remarkable stability of his job-approval numbers; he’s had the least variation of any post–World War II president. His current Gallup rating is at his absolute peak, which he briefly achieved two other times in his presidency but could never sustain. Reagan’s Gallup approval rating rosefrom 45 percent 18 months out to 53 percent six months later, then 55 percent eight months later. Obama’s rose from 44 percent 18 months out to 52 percent on Election Eve. While anything’s possible, there’s no particular reason to think Trump is capable of a similar ascent. And for that matter, Gallup’s latest relatively high job-approval number for Trump could be an outlier on the high side: His average approval rating at Real Clear Politics is 43.1 percent, and at FiveThirtyEight, 41.3 percent. The GOP’s hope that the “exoneration” of Trump they falsely attributed to the Mueller report would finally get POTUS over the hump into something like positive job-approval territory did not turn out to be realistic at all.

Whether it’s a product of Trump’s singular personality or partisan polarization, his inflexible approval ratings do not bode well for an election-year surge, barring some very large external event or a very poor decision by Democrats in nominating an opponent.

4. Comparative popularity with opponents

Midterm elections are for the most part referenda on the party controlling the White House. Presidential elections involving an incumbent are partially that as well, but there is a significant comparative element, too, that is not as important in midterms.

The possibility that Trump could be reelected despite bad job-approval ratings is best illustrated by the still-shocking fact that he won in 2016 despite a horrendous Election Eve Gallup favorability ratio of 36/61. His opponent’s ratio of 47/52 was bad enough to enable him to win with an inside straight in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by more than two points. Since his entire 2020 strategy is again to drive down his opponent’s popularity with savagely negative attacks while solidifying his own base, Trump’s own popularity could again be less crucial than might otherwise be the case.

Despite an ever-increasing Democratic preoccupation with the “electability” of their 2020 prospects, it’s very difficult at this juncture to predict whether 2016 could repeat itself. Early trial heats show Trump mostly trailing the best-known Democrats, Biden and Sanders, and mostly leading the lesser-known aspirants. But early presidential trial heat polls do not have a very good record of predictive value. After a Democratic nominee is chosen such polls really will begin to be worth following; despite all the postelection caterwauling about inaccurate polls, they weren’t at all far off in 2016, as Nate Silver observed in a postmortem:

“[The] myth is that Trump’s victory represented some sort of catastrophic failure for the polls. Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state.”

After what happened in 2016, however, it’s a good guess that more extensive polling will be conducted in states that are competitive but not assumed to be battlegrounds, like the Rust Belt states that fell to Trump with very little warning.

A big imponderable is the question of whether the various Democratic candidates truly vary in electability, or if instead partisanship will drive the election — i.e., in the end, any Democrat will be a “generic” Democrat. Surely the specific identity of the nominee, and for that matter campaign developments like debates, will matter at least at the margins, where close elections are often won and lost. And it may also matter whether the nominee is or isn’t especially vulnerable to GOP campaign attack lines aimed at painting the Democrat as an “extremist,” or to put it another way, as risky a proposition as a second term for Trump.

5. Other factors

Reporters will pay a lot of attention to fundraising numbers heading toward 2020. But while these may matter in primaries, barring massive advantages by one side or the other, money isn’t usually a decisive factor in presidential general elections, in part because name identification isn’t an issue and in part because there’s so much unpaid media available. How the money is spent could be important, but it’s a bit too early to make comparative conclusions about any of that.

Comparative turnout will matter a lot, and both parties are expected to focus more than ever on driving base voters to the polls, both via mechanical outreach efforts and inflammatory rhetoric. Generally speaking, presidential elections bring out pro-Democratic elements of the electorate more than midterms, though high 2018 turnout from those very elements could mean Democrats shouldn’t count on that much of a boost in 2020. Long-term demographic trends universally assumed to favor Democrats will have marginally affected the shape of the electorate since 2016, which is one of those things that could make a difference in another razor-close Electoral College contest.

There is one factor that is difficult to measure but undoubtedly real that could help get Democrats across the line in 2020: Trump will not ambush them again. It’s unclear how many should-have-been Clinton voters in 2016 didn’t bother to vote, went third-party, or even cast a protest vote for Trump on the assumption that HRC was certain to win. But anecdotally at least, they existed, and that very likely won’t happen again. Similarly, the 2020 Democratic candidate, whoever it is, will almost certainly avoid the underinvestment in what turned out to be crucial battlegrounds that the Clinton campaign mistakenly made.

Last but not least, there’s the little matter of some election-altering set of external events. There’s no way to know if some sudden international development involving military conflict, or some domestic terrorist incident, will happen between now and November 2020 and, in that event, whether Trump will handle it in a way that helps or hurts him politically. Right now, Democrats and neutral observers alike are engaged in an intense argumentabout whether moving toward impeachment of Trump would help crystallize public understanding of his corrupt and even criminal character, or would distract voters from more compelling anti-Trump arguments. How that argument is resolved could be one of the greatest wild cards for 2020.

So adding all this up, how do Trump’s reelection prospects look? I still think he’s an underdog — albeit a menacing, loudly growling underdog — for reelection given his perpetually poor approval ratings; the likelihood that Democrats’ larger base will be exceptionally motivated to turn him out of office lest the existential threat of a second Trump term materialize; and his inability to control some of his worst impulses, even when it’s politically imperative.

But a Trump defeat won’t happen automatically, and we already know that precedent-shattering bad behavior by the incumbent is so fundamental to his identity that it probably won’t matter at all, unless a critical mass of voters just get weary of the whole circus — in which case, he’s toast.


April 27: The Many Definitions of “Electability”

Listening to some of the “opening arguments” for various 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, it struck me that many campaigns use the same words but mean different things. One of the most important of these is “electability,” so I thought it would be useful to sort out the varying assumptions at play, and wrote it up at New York:

[G]eneral-election trial-heat polls offer one obvious way to project the odds of winning with this or that nominee. But early in the nominating contest, they sometimes measure name identification as well as popularity. And as Democrats learned to their eternal sorrow in 2016, polls can get it all wrong, too, even late in the contest.

So barring definitive evidence that a particular candidate is decisively stronger as a Trump opponent than others, what do Democrats (and for that matter media observers) mean by “electability” in the first place? What prejudices do they bring to that discussion?

I would discern five basic ideas about the abilities that equip a candidate to do well in 2020:

This is the oldest idea, and probably the one most often embraced by media folks. Its basis in social science is the median voter theorem — the basic idea of which is that the candidate that puts themselves in the center can win the most votes:

“The median voter theorem as developed by Anthony Downs in his 1957 book, “An Economic Theory of Democracy,” is an attempt to explain why politicians on both ends of the spectrum tend to gravitate towards the philosophical center. Downs, as well as economist Duncan Black, who proposed the theory in 1948, argue that politicians take political positions are far as possible near the center in order to appeal to as many potential voters as possible. Under certain constraints/assumptions, Black says, the median voter ‘wins,’ and the outcome ends up as a Nash equilibrium.”

For obvious reasons, the median voter theorem is unpopular among ideologues in both parties who view “the center” as a place where the unprincipled and the timid gravitate. There are also some problems associated with defining “the center” in the first place, as Perry Bacon Jr. has noted:

“Would it help the Democrats in 2020 if they had a ‘centrist’ at the top of the ticket? All else being equal, it’s probably safe to conclude that candidates more removed from the mainstream of American political thought will do worse at the ballot box. There is some evidence, for example, that Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater (1964) and Democratic nominee George McGovern (1972) lost by larger margins than other factors would have predicted in their elections because of the ideological extremism of their voting records.

“But ideology is somewhat complicated to measure, particularly for people who haven’t served in legislative bodies (like Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a potential Democratic candidate in 2020) or in any political office at all (like Trump.) Trump’s Muslim plan was perhaps the most radical idea proposed by any recent presidential candidate, but voters had trouble pinning the candidate down on a left-right spectrum before the election. Trump, according to the Pew Research Center, won the plurality of 2016 voters who described their views as ‘mixed’ and basically was even with Clinton among self-described independents.”

All sorts of candidates, moreover, can make a plausible claim to represent views within the political “mainstream.” As my colleague Eric Levitz has pointed out, the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has been careful to identify himself with initiatives that are broadly popular:

“Bernie Sanders’s signature policies — Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage, a giant tax hike on the wealthy, and a $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus — all boast majority support in most surveys, and overwhelming bipartisan support in a few.”

Still, the strong tendency in many circles to view “the center” as ideologically moderate is an explicit talking point in the campaigns of Amy Klobuchar and John Hickenlooper, who are reasonably close to the Clinton-Obama “centrist” heritage that won four presidential elections for Democrats since 1992. And it’s certain to be a fundamental argument for Joe Biden’s candidacy as well.

2. Win crucial swing voters.

Another prevalent way to judge candidate “electability” is to frame 2020 as essentially a battle over a particular set of crucial swing voters to whom particular candidates do or don’t appeal. Without question, the most popular contestants for key swing voters next year are the Rust Belt white working-class voters — many of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 — who helped Trump win Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and thus, the presidency in 2016.

Midwestern natives Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tim Ryan will talk early and often about their geographical and psychological solidarity with these voters. And Joe Biden’s alleged popularity in this sector will be a big deal for him, too; it’s no accident he is launching his candidacy with multiple events in his native Pennsylvania.

The belief that particular candidates will hurt Democrats among swing voters can become a factor as well. There’s a widespread if often quiet fear that Hillary Clinton’s gender and perceived cultural elitism killed her candidacy in the Rust Belt. This fear could hurt female candidates — particularly from the coasts — in 2020.

3. Run to the left

For many years there has been a persistent progressive dissent against the median voter theorem holding that on the contrary, Democrats need a more strongly ideological candidate to win an electorate left cold by centrists and the Washington bipartisan “Establishment” they embody. A subset of that dissent is what I’d call the “hidden majority hypothesis,” articulated here by Colin McAuliffe and Sean McElwee:

“[T]he path forward for Democrats needs to include mobilizing marginal voters, individuals who drift in and out of the electorate. These voters are overwhelmingly more supportive of progressive policies than individuals who consistently vote. According to Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES) 2016 data, individuals who voted for Barack Obama but stayed home in 2016 preferred Democratic candidates in the House 83 percent to 14 percent (the rest preferred a third-party candidate). Ninety-one percent of those nonvoters support increasing the minimum wage to $12, 72 percent believe white people have advantages, 76 percent support a renewable fuel mandate, and 82 percent support an assault weapons ban.”

Another “run to the left” argument is that Democrats need an “insurgent” candidate to counter Trump’s anti-Establishment “drain the swamp” rhetoric while authentically representing the increasingly left-wing views of reliable Democratic voters.

The most powerful evidence for aiming the 2020 Democratic candidacy to the left, of course, is negative: Look what happened to Hillary Clinton. There is some evidence to support the emotionally powerful claim that Sanders would not have lost, sparing the country a Trump presidency.

4. Energize the base

A theory that sometimes overlaps with the “run to the left” prescription simply holds that 2020 will be a savage turnout battle and Democrats need a candidate whose identity will help mobilize the party base. This approach generally begins with an analysis of disappointing 2016 turnout by African-Americans and Latinos, and the importance of minority voters in states trending Democratic like Arizona, Georgia, and Texas.

This theory offers a particularly strong boost to Kamala Harris, an African/Asian-American woman. But Cory Booker relies on it as well, as does the sole Latino in the field, Julián Castro. It’s unlikely, but if Stacey Abrams were to jump into the race late, it would be significant that she’s devoted most of her career to registering and mobilizing young and minority voters. And speaking of young voters, candidates not named Joe Biden will likely boast of their appeal to Democratic-trending millennials and post-millennials.

5. Charm the electorate

There’s one theory of electability that denies ideology or geography or ethnic, gender, and racial identity offer the best Democratic path to victory. It’s all about a candidate’s charisma or “relatability” or likability, as Molly Ball recently suggested:

“As always, style and charisma are likely to matter to voters at least as much as policy papers and voting records. ‘These candidates are going to try very hard to distinguish themselves from each other, but their positions are pretty similar,’ says Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau. ‘It’s going to be a lot more about the framing of your worldview than one specific vote.’”

Arguably Donald Trump won not because of policy positions or money or endorsements, but because he embodies his own sinister brand of charisma, based on an ability to understand and amplify the inchoate fury of white voters who feel threatened or left behind by technological or demographic or cultural change. Some Democrats think they need their own brand of rhetorical enchantment, and are attracted to candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, who offer “narratives” instead of policy papers, and just seem refreshingly likable.

Any successful candidate is going to give off some of that sweet aroma of charm, but maintaining it regularly is tough.

So next time you hear someone boast of this or that candidate’s “electability,” it’s useful to discern what is meant, and which often-unstated premises are involved. It will make everything easier for Democrats if polls in January of 2020 show one candidate beating Trump by 20 points and the rest of them trailing the much-feared demagogue. They probably won’t be that lucky


April 26: Indivisible’s Candidate Unity/Civility Pledge Important For 2020 Democrats

As a perpetual advocate for avoiding what Barack Obama calls “a circular firing squad” among Democrats, I was pleased to see a new effort emerge to encourage 2020 candidates to remember the wolf at the door (or in the White House), so I wrote about it at New York:

I’m interested to see that there is at least one organized effort underway to get presidential candidates to pledge to observe certain rules in an effort to bolster the party’s general-election standing, as Ruby Cramer reports:

“A national progressive group, Indivisible, is asking the 20 candidates in the Democratic presidential race to sign a pledge promising a positive, ‘constructive’ primary that ends with all participants coming together to support the eventual nominee — ‘whoever it is — period….’

“The Indivisible document asks candidates to agree to three terms: ‘make the primary constructive’ and ‘respect the other candidates’; ‘rally behind the winner’; and ‘do the work to beat’ President Donald Trump. ‘Immediately after there’s a nominee, I’ll endorse,’ the pledge reads.”

It sounds relatively uncontroversial, but it’s hard to get political candidates, who are, by and large, desperate to win, and their staff, whose lives will take a turn for the worse if they lose, to look kindly on a pledge to hold anything back. And there’s always the suspicion that talk of civility represents a sneaky effort to encourage unilateral disarmament by opponents who won’t return the favor….

The problematic underlying reality is that more than a few Democrats believe that only their faction is capable of beating Trump; different Democrats have very different theories as to “electability.” And then there are those for whom winning the “struggle for the soul of the party” trumps any general-election win.

If the “unity pledge” is to catch on, the majority of Democrats, who do value civility and seek common ground, must impose their will on the party’s candidates and their hard-core supporters. That means supporting the unity pledge, of course, but also perhaps going further: How about a pledge not to vote in the caucuses or primaries for candidates refusing to take the pledge? That might get their attention.

A day later, I was happy to report Indivisible’s progress in getting candidates on board:

[T]he pledge campaign is off to a good start, with five candidates having already signed it (in alphabetical order): Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Jay Inslee and Bernie Sanders.

It’s significant that Sanders was the first to sign the pledge….

It’s no secret that the pledge was in part motivated by bad memories of discord during and after the 2016 primary fight between Sanders and Hillary Clinton–less between the candidates than between their fiercest supporters….

Perhaps Sanders’ leadership here will help inspire the rest of the field to sign onto the pledge quickly, the first and essential step towards making it stick.


April 19: Mueller Punts to Democrats and to Voters

All of us in the chattering classes had an immediate reaction to the release of the redacted Mueller Report. Here was mine at New York.

Mueller lets us know (directly contradicting Barr’s repeated assurances that it was lack of evidence, not the legal standard, that prevented criminal accusations) that he decided not to pursue a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on possible obstruction of justice in order to comply with the DOJ’s position against prosecution of sitting presidents:

“The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has issued an opinion finding that ‘the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions’ in violation of ‘the constitutional separation of powers.’ Given the role of the Special Counsel as an attorney in the Department of Justice and the framework of the Special Counsel regulations, see 28 U.S.C. § 515; 28 C.F.R. § 600.7 (a), this Office accepted OLC’s legal conclusion for the purpose of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction.

In a sort of Catch-22, Mueller then concluded that it wouldn’t be fair to Trump to accuse him of criminal conduct if he wasn’t going to be hauled into court and given an opportunity to properly defend himself.

“Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought. The ordinary means for an individual to respond to an accusation is through a speedy and public trial, with all the procedural protections that surround a criminal case. An individual who believes he was wrongly accused can use that process to seek to clear his name. In contrast, a prosecutor’s judgment that crimes were committed, but that no charges will be brought, affords no such adversarial opportunity for public name-clearing before an impartial adjudicator.”

And then there’s this tantalizing passage:

The footnote to the italicized portion reads: “See U.S. CONST. Art. I § 2, cl. 5; § 3, cl. 6; cf OLC Op. at 257-258 (discussing relationship between impeachment and criminal prosecution of a sitting President).”

So very carefully Mueller is suggesting: Here’s what the president did. I can’t do anything about it, so I will not call it criminal. Use my findings to impeach him if you wish, Congress.

As Nancy Pelosi could tell you, there are solid practical grounds for the U.S. House of Representatives to eschew impeachment proceedings, beginning with the fact that there is approximately zero chance the Republican-controlled Senate would vote to convict Trump, particularly now that we are in the active phase of a presidential election cycle. So it may well be that the best Democrats, and Trump’s other critics, can do is to take Mueller’s findings and whatever else other prosecutors or House investigators can uncover, and present it clearly as part of the case against the man’s reelection.


April 17: Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi, and the Function of Safe Congressional Seats

Watching as the MSM had great sport with snippy-grams going back and forth between House Democratic leaders and their new super-star freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I tried to think through the deeper implications at New York:

Nancy Pelosi’s comments at the London School of Economics explaining the fruits of partisan gerrymandering made their way back across the pond with lightning speed, as reflected in the Washington Examiner:

“Pelosi explained to the London school audience that her district as well as the one represented by [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez vote Democrat no matter what.

“’This glass of water would win with a “D” next to it in those districts,’ Pelosi said. ‘But that’s not where we have to win elections.’”

Just to be clear, Pelosi’s right about the noncompetitive nature of her own San Francisco House district and AOC’s in New York: The former is the sixth-most Democratic district according to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index (PVI), and the latter is the 31st-most Democratic. Hillary Clinton won 77 percent of the vote in AOC’s district, and Obama won 81 percent in 2012.

Presumably Pelosi thinks that despite her own safe seat, she can understand the plight of Democrats representing swing districts, but apparently has doubts about aggressively progressive members like AOC:

“’This is about winning,’ Pelosi told the London School of Economics and Political Science. ‘When we have to go into the districts we have to win, we have to cull that to what we have in common with those people.'”

Now Pelosi also had words of praise for her preternaturally talented young colleague. But you have to figure she wishes AOC, who has replaced Pelosi as the principal target of sexist conservative agitprop, had a slightly lower profile.

It’s unclear how any of this threatens Pelosi’s majority, except insofar as conservatives have sought to identify the entire Democratic Party with this one democratic socialist member’s views — which of course they are going to do in any event. Unless the entire House Democratic Caucus is expected to repeat the party line like cicadas, then there will always be members from districts where a more progressive viewpoint is viable than is politically sustainable everywhere. Their job is precisely to keep pressure on the leadership and the party to represent their constituents, too — not just the swing voters who have very nearly been hunted to extinction. And it doesn’t mean Democrats cannot accommodate candidates and members in more competitive districts with views more appropriate to local conditions. The big-tent principle should, however, work both ways.

If AOC begins threatening primary challenges to loyal Democrats from swing districts who happen to disagree with her ideology or policies, or suggesting Democrats take a dive in national elections if their candidates are too “centrist,” then that’s a clear violation of party discipline and Pelosi would be justified in rebuking her. That hasn’t happened, though. So long as gerrymandering and simple concentration of partisan voters produces safe House seats, however, their valuable function is to produce restless insurgents who stretch the imaginations of their elders rather than time-serving perpetual incumbents who go along to get along. In truth, both Pelosi, the precedent-shattering Speaker, and Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive comet, represent the silver lining of the generally rotten system of partisan gerrymandering: It gives leaders the opportunity to emerge from the crowd of election-fearing pols.