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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

October 21: January 6 Ought to Be a Campaign Issue

In all the talk about the issue landscape for 2022, there’s a glaring anomaly, which I wrote about at New York:

The astonishing endgame of the 2020 presidential election happened less than two years ago. After news outlets from the AP to Fox News, plus 50 state governments, certified Joe Biden’s victory, Donald Trump made an unprecedented attempt to overturn the results and stay in power. This culminated in a day of violence when Trump’s supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the final confirmation of the election by Congress. In case anyone managed to forget these shocking events, the House select committee on January 6 has held an impressively produced series of made-for-TV hearings in recent months detailing the postelection coup attempt.

So what has been the ultimate effect of all this high-visibility evidence of a rogue president gone insurrectionist? Well, the number of Republicans who agree with Trump’s “stolen election” fable has almost certainly gone up rather than down. The 45th president remains the leader of his party by any reasonable definition and is unquestionably the front-runner for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination if, as expected, he chooses to run. He actually leads Biden in averages of 2024 trial heats.

And the best efforts of the House select committee have failed to make the events of January 6 a significant campaign issue in the 2022 midterms. You can, if you wish, blame some of that on Democratic campaign wizards, as Politico recently noted:

“Overall, less than 2 percent of all broadcast TV spending in House races has gone toward Jan. 6 ads, according to ad-tracking firm AdImpact — or just $2.7 million of $163 million. Taken in total, Democrats have aired just two dozen spots focused on threats to democracy this cycle, in roughly 16 different battleground districts.”

But some unusually deep polling by the New York Times and Siena College about whether voters care about “threats to democracy,” and how they understand that term, might justify Democrats’ focus on other issues.

That recent survey asked an open-ended question about the “most important issue facing the country today.” Just 7 percent cited “the state of democracy.” That’s nothing compared with the 26 percent who offered “the economy” or the 19 percent who volunteered “inflation or the cost of living.” But concerns about democracy did top “abortion,” which was cited by 4 percent, and “crime,” which was called a top issue by 3 percent. Moreover, the pollsters later asked whether American democracy is “currently under threat,” and 71 percent said yes. That’s a big deal, right?

Maybe not. It’s when the pollsters dig into what people mean by “threats to democracy” that any focus on January 6 gets lost. Far and away the most popular complaint was about politicians and government generally being “corrupt.” Nate Cohn tried to explain the responses:

“When respondents were asked to volunteer one or two words to summarize the current threat to democracy, government corruption was brought up most often — more than Mr. Trump and Republicans combined.

“… One said, ‘I don’t think they are honestly thinking about the people.’ Another said politicians ‘forget about normal people.’ Corruption, greed, power and money were familiar themes.”

This sure sounds a lot closer to MAGA folk calling Washington a “swamp” than it does to members of Congress expressing shock at the desecration of “the temple of democracy” on January 6.

Voters perceiving a “threat to democracy” are nearly as likely to view Biden as a “major threat” (38 percent) as Trump (45 percent). Forty-nine percent call “electronic voting machines” a major or minor threat (as opposed to no threat at all), and 54 percent feel the same way about voting by mail. The claim with the strongest bipartisan support is that “mainstream media” are a threat to democracy: 84 percent of respondents, including 83 percent of self-identified independents, consider the media a major or minor threat to democracy.

Democracy itself is broadly perceived as so broken that Trump’s deliberate effort to break it by an act of insurrection is being accepted by an alarming percentage of the population as just another warning light. They see it as no more significant than ineffective anti-inflation policies rather than as a unique threat to our system of self-government that must be condemned, punished, and prevented from ever happening again. If Trump’s Republican Party makes the gains so many expect in November, it will be a green light for authoritarianism in the future, even if Trump himself exits the political scene and gives way to another demagogue.

October 20: Democrats Should Expose GOP’s Bad Ideas for Fighting Inflation

Inflation, inflation, inflation. It’s practically all we hear about from Republicans on the campaign trail, but Democrats need to point out the GOP’s ant-inflation strategies won’t make voters happy, as I noted at New York:

It’s now pretty clear that if current trends showing Republicans locking down control of the House and making gains in Senate races continue through Election Day, it will mostly be because of increasingly concentrated public concern about the economy and particularly inflation.

It’s not exactly news that sharp increases in the cost of living are deadly to governing political parties. Indeed, current international polling shows that parties unlucky enough to be in control of governments right now — whether they’re on the left, right, or center — are suffering major losses of popularity, as John Halpin of the Center for American Progress wrote at the Liberal Patriot website:

“As recent Global Progress/YouGov data from 11 leading democratic countries shows, inflation is a political wrecking ball for incumbent governments. Although citizens don’t have a consistent idea of what should be done about inflation — and many opposition parties have no clear alternative policy ideas on the matter — most voters don’t like the situation and are apt to punish sitting parties for rising costs regardless of their actions.

“Respondents in the survey were given three options about inflation and asked which one best reflects their own view. Across all 11 countries, 62 percent of citizens say they lack confidence in their own government’s ability to get inflation under control. In contrast, one-tenth of global citizens believe not much can be done on inflation and about another fifth say they have confidence in their government on inflation. ”

That’s part of the reason why Republicans in the United States are licking their chops in anticipation of Election Day. But you have to wonder how the voters inclined to reward the GOP with power thanks to inflation fears would actually feel about Republican policies aimed at fighting inflation.

As Halpin notes, it’s clear in virtually all the advanced societies battling inflation that voters do not support what used to be called “austerity” measures, like cutting public spending benefitting low-to-moderate income people, raising interest rates, or raising broad-based tax rates:

“[L]arge majorities of citizens across all 11 countries say they would oppose their own government taking action to reduce consumer prices if it means that ‘rent and mortgage payments increase’; ‘taxes paid by people like you increase’; or that ‘unemployment increases.’ The only consequence that global citizens are willing to stomach to reduce inflation is ‘rich people pay more taxes’ — an idea backed by two-thirds of people across the 11 countries.”

This does not augur well for how Republican anti-inflation plans will be received in this country. As CNN reports, far and away the most common GOP anti-inflation talking point is that “runaway Democrat spending” is responsible for today’s price hikes, and “cutting wasteful spending” is the way to rein it in:

“In mid-July, Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy tweeted, ‘Inflation is running rampant due in part to out-of-control spending from President Biden and Speaker Pelosi.”

“About two weeks later, the chair of the House Republican Conference, Rep. Elise Stefanik, went a step further in blaming Democrats, saying in a press conference that ‘inflation is skyrocketing because of Democrats reckless and wasteful spending’ and ‘this rampant inflation is a result of Democrats reckless tax and spend policies.’

“Later that day, in an interview with Newsmax, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz suggested Republicans should not support Democrat-led initiatives that call for more spending and cited Biden’s several trillion dollar proposed budget, claiming ‘when it comes to spending, spending trillions is what is driving inflation.'”

Nobody, of course, likes “wasteful spending.” But the problem Republicans will eventually run into is that the “Democrat policies” most associated with stimulating (and possibly overstimulating) consumer demand and thus reigniting inflation have been wildly popular. The direct “stimulus” payments that were supported by both parties in 2020 and continued by Democrats in 2021 are a case in point: According to Data for Progress polling in March of 2021, Americans supported the final “stimulus checks” by a 78-16 margin; supported increased funding for state and local governments by a 76-17 margin; and supported increased family tax credits by a 68-21 margin.

But more problematic for Republicans is that their anti-spending plans invariably wind up threatening programs that are even more popular than stimulus checks: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Part of Donald Trump’s appeal was that he was the first major Republican politician in a long while who did not talk about “entitlement reform” (though the health-care plan he unsuccessfully promoted to replace Obamacare did indeed hammer Medicaid). But the itch to mess with the New Deal and Great Society legacy programs never goes away in the Republican Party. And as my colleague Jonathan Chait points out, House Republican leaders are already talking about using a mandatory debt-limit vote to extort “entitlement reform” from Joe Biden and congressional Democrats:

“Republicans are committed to scaling back the safety net. But they realize this agenda is toxically unpopular — even less popular than defunding the police, a policy Democrats have repudiated en masse.

“They could try to accomplish this through compromise — the previous two Democratic presidents showed some willingness to trade social-spending cuts for higher taxes on the rich. But higher taxes on the rich are completely verboten in the GOP. And so their strategy is to force Democratic presidents to sign spending cuts into law against their will.”

Other than attacking “wasteful” — and popular — spending, what else might Republicans propose to fight inflation? As Chait noted, the most popular solution here and globally — paying for relief for regular folks by taxing the rich — is off the table until the end of time. Maybe they can have some success with expanding fossil-fuel production to reduce transportation and heating/air-conditioning prices, at the expense of the global climate. But the most effective yet politically dangerous weapon in their arsenal is to lead cheers for the interest-rate hikes that the Fed is already in the process of aggressively implementing.

The GOP’s taste for tight-credit policies is one of its dirty little secrets, dating all the way back to the 19th-century days when “hard money” defined its economic worldview. It is for many conservatives a fundamentally moral issue, fed by disdain for interest rates that let those people borrow money and live beyond their means (the fundamental complaint in the Rick Santelli rant that touched off the tea-party movement). But even on pure economic-policy grounds, Republicans have regularly groused about the Fed loosening credit to battle or head off unemployment instead of monomaniacally making inflation-fighting its only goal. And occasionally they are plain about wanting high interest rates, as conservative columnist Henry Olsen called for in March of this year:

“Rapidly rising interest rates will increase the returns to saving, which will cause some people to stop spending. But that’s in the purview of the Federal Reserve, not Congress. Congressional Republicans should call loudly for rapid interest rate hikes and pledge to conduct oversight hearings of the Fed to monitor its activity.”

You won’t hear Republican candidates specifically praising higher mortgage and car-loan costs, but it’s the predictable product of an austerity strategy for fighting inflation, along with the serious risk of a recession that is already spooking investors.

To be clear, Republicans would have to be a lot more dangerously specific about their policies on inflation if Democrats challenged them to a highly visible debate instead of changing the subject to abortion or threats to democracy, important as those topics undoubtedly are. That’s what Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has been arguing:

“Democrats cannot be the custodians of the status quo. This insight informs Greenberg’s advice to candidates about the all-important inflation issue. Instead of boasting about signs of progress or discussing macroeconomic statistics, Democrats should recognize that the living standards of wage earners have been deteriorating for years and focus on those who are grinding them down by both holding down wages and boosting prices: rich and powerful corporations.”

At the very least, a populist counterattack on the inflation issue could force Republicans to oppose anti-inflation measures that are actually popular and admit their reliance on policies that are politically toxic. But it’s getting late in the day for that when it comes to the 2022 midterms. Democrats should at least get ready to join the inflation debate in earnest before 2024, when control of the whole federal government will be at stake.

October 14: Oregon Governor’s Race a Warning That Party Affiliation Is No Guarantee of Victory

The Oregon gubernatorial contest has horrified me all year as a sort of slow-motion nervous breakdown for Democrats, so I wrote about it at New York:

You have to wonder what would have happened in Oregon’s gubernatorial race if New York Times columnist Nick Kristof hadn’t been booted off the ballot for nonresidency back in January. Yes, the messianic air Kristof exuded when offering to come parachuting into the troubled political waters of his home state was annoying to some. But Oregon, specifically its Democratic Party, could use some “outsider” energy right now. As it stands, Democrats are in danger of losing the governorship they have held since 1986.

As confirmed by fresh polling from Morning Consult, two-term (and term-limited) incumbent governor Kate Brown is the most unpopular chief executive in the U.S. amid a widespread sense that Oregon’s political Establishment has done a poor job of handling chronic and worsening problems. These include the intertwined housing and drug-addiction crises that have made the state’s dominant city, Portland, a source of anger and embarrassment to many voters. Democratic nominee and former longtime Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, who is backed by unions and the party’s more-or-less dominant progressive activists, is being described by many critics as “Kate Brown 2.0,” which some of her allies resent as a slur on the LGBTQ self-identification Kotek and Brown share.

But a correlation with an unpopular incumbent is just one of Kotek’s problems in seeking to win her party’s tenth-straight governor’s race. An independent ex-Democratic state senator, Betsy Johnson, is running a well-financed campaign (she got a big chunk of change from Nike founder Phil Knight) on an outspokenly centrist platform. Johnson is probably drawing voters from both parties, but at a time when Democrats elsewhere are benefiting significantly from the backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, Johnson offers voters a pro-choice option combined with a pro-business, get-tough-on-government message that could most hurt Kotek. And that could provide an opening for Republican nominee and legislator Christine Drazan, who won her party’s nomination as a sane alternative to multiple MAGA candidates. Drazan shows the standard GOP hostility to legalized abortion (not entirely a disadvantage in a race against two pro-choice rivals) but has promised to respect Oregon’s existing Roe-era laws.

Polls consistently show Kotek and Drazan in a close race with Johnson (who may have the most money on hand for late ads) in a distant but substantial third. All the national election forecasters call the contest a toss-up. But the risk of losing such a deep-blue state, likely alongside cries for help from Democratic constituency groups, convinced Joe Biden to go to Oregon and give Kotek a boost. It’s an interesting decision since Biden is more generally aligned with centrist Democrats who have been at odds with Kotek for years. (Biden endorsed rogue centrist congressman Kurt Schrader during his most recent trip to Oregon, shortly before Schrader lost his primary to progressive rival Jamie McLeod-Skinner.) But it’s all hands on deck for Oregon Democrats.

Biden may woo Democrats away from support for Johnson and also dramatize issue differences between Kotek and Drazan. But Kotek’s main problem may be the sour mood of Oregon voters who are susceptible to arguments from both of her challengers that it’s time for a change in Salem. The one thing we know for sure is that the next governor will be a woman with state legislative experience. And Kristof will be left wondering if he would be in charge of this race had he just spent more time in the state before endeavoring to rescue it.

October 13: Abortion Issue Could Be a Perpetual Turnout Machine for Democrats

It’s looking more and more like Republicans may regret kicking over the abortion hornet’s nest, and I wrote about it at New York:

When Gavin Newsom started deploying billboards in seven red states advertising California as an abortion-rights sanctuary, the standard cynical reaction was that the famously ambitious politician was laying the groundwork for a presidential bid in 2024 or later. You can’t say that about his latest abortion-related expenditure of reelection-campaign funds, though: an ad rollout strictly for Californians urging a “yes” vote on Proposition 1, a ballot initiative amending the state constitution to enshrine abortion rights.

To be clear, the governor doesn’t need to run any ads to get himself reelected. He’s very comfortably ahead of Republican Brian Dahle in a state that is emphatically Democratic (the GOP badly lost in its best opportunity to dislodge Newsom, the 2021 recall election). For that matter, there is zero doubt Prop 1 is going to pass. A September poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showed the initiative leading among likely voters by a 69-25 margin (even one-third of self-identified Republicans supported it, according to this and other polls).

Newsom is spending money promoting Prop 1 for the very good reason that it’s a turnout generator for the Democratic-leaning voters who could also help the party win close congressional, state legislative, and local government contests. That’s why Democrats in other states are figuring out how to get an abortion referendum on their own ballots — if not in 2022 (where it will appear in one shape or another in Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont as well as California), then in 2024, as the Washington Post reports:

“While in the early stages, discussions around whether to pursue an abortion rights ballot measure are occurring in states including Ohio, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado and Missouri, according to interviews with over a dozen advocates, liberal groups and others, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations. One person familiar with the discussions said at least a dozen states are exploring — or are expected to soon explore — whether a citizen-led petition is a viable path to restoring or protecting abortion access in their state.

“’Every state that has access to direct democracy as a tool will consider if that is a strategy that makes sense for 2024, for 2026 and beyond,’ said Sarah Standiford, the national campaigns director at Planned Parenthood Action Fund.”

States with Democratic-controlled legislatures may also act to create abortion-rights ballot measures in future years. And it’s possible that anti-abortion activists and legislators may miscalculate and create a ballot test on abortion that they will proceed to lose. That famously happened in Kansas in August and could happen in November in Kentucky and/or Montana.

For decades, the anti-abortion movement claimed it wanted nothing more than to abolish the illegitimate judicial usurpation of abortion policy-making and “return it to the people” where it belonged. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has done just that in the Dobbs decision, it turns out that, in many places, “the people” want to choose reproductive rights and, in doing so, have boosted the electoral prospects of the pro-choice party. In this as in many other respects, the anti-abortion GOP is the eager dog that finally caught the bus.

October 7: Yes, MAGA Yankees Can Be Neo-Confederates, Too

One of my pet peeves is the revival of veneration for the symbols of the Confederacy that sought to perpetuate slavery and yoked my home region to so many decades of oppression and poverty. So when new research on the subject popped up, aI sought to interpret it at New York:

New public-opinion findings from the Public Religion Research Institute and E Pluribus Unum confirm a counterintuitive phenomenon that is becoming hard to ignore or deny: Affection for the insignia and monuments associated with the Confederate States of America is not at all confined to the southern states that once formed a seditious compact to defend slavery. As white (and especially rural) conservatives nationwide have begun to share stereotypically southern feelings of racial grievance, support for maintaining memorials to the Lost Cause of white supremacist laws and institutions has spread as well. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham succinctly summarized the takeaways:

“Where things get interesting is when the survey measures support for reforms, whether destruction of these markers or removal to a museum: Across race, party, and education levels, numbers diverge, but views about reform are nearly identical in the South and in the rest of the country. Nearly identical portions of southerners and Americans elsewhere (22 percent versus 25 percent) back reform, and nearly identical portions oppose it (17 percent versus 20 percent). The remainder are split between leaning one way or another, again closely mirrored. In other words, non-southerners feel the same way about Confederate monuments that southerners do.”

Graham hits the nail on the head: “The South is no longer simply a region: A certain version of it has become an identity shared among white, rural, conservative Americans from coast to coast.”

It’s important to understand that “neo-Confederacy” — the aggressive defense of the monuments and “heritage” of the Confederate States of America — is not really about Civil War history at all. Most of the monuments were built long after the war when Jim Crow laws were being aggressively imposed and defended. The heyday of the famous Confederate battle flag was in Jim Crow’s final days in the mid-20th century, when southern states were attaching it to state flags and white supremacists (very much a mass movement at the time) flourished it at every opportunity.

I know this because the high point of the neo-Confederacy coincided with my own childhood in small-town Georgia. No high-school football game was complete without a performance of “Dixie.” The dominant radio station in a nearby city called itself “The Big Johnny Reb.” Georgia required no front license plates, so many vehicle owners used that spot to display a cartoon rebel holding the battle flag and declaiming, “Hell no, I ain’t forgetting!” None of this was really about history. It was about defending segregation, under assault from the federal courts and eventually Congress, and insisting on racism against Black people as the essence of regional pride. It was contemporary, not an exercise in nostalgia.

But neo-Confederacy seemed to be dying out until quite recently when it became part of the cultural-political uprising that gave the country President Donald Trump. As I noted when Trump blessed the defenders of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville in 2017, the 45th president and many of his supporters essentially revived the neo-Confederacy as part of its demand to “Make America Great Again”:

“In the blink of an eye, the backlash to acts of simple racial decency began. It was not confined to Donald Trump’s campaign, but in many corners of the right, hostility to ‘political correctness’ — defined as sensitivity to the fears and concerns of, well, anyone other than white men — became a hallmark of the “populist” conservatism Trump made fashionable and ultimately ascendent.

“And so the relatively uncontroversial movement to get Jim Crow era Confederate insignia and memorials out of the public square and back into museums and history books suddenly faced renewed opposition — not just from the motley crew of open white supremacists who viewed the 45th president as their hero, but from politicians who saw a broader constituency for a brand-new era of white backlash.”

In effect, the white backlash to “political correctness,” and the notion that America still has some work to do in recognizing and atoning for racism, has appropriated neo-Confederate symbols — just as it has appropriated Christianity, the U.S. armed forces, and “Americanism” itself. It’s a crowning irony that the MAGA movement has adorned itself most of all with the red-white-and-blue insignia of those who fought and died to crush the actual Confederacy, whose ghosts live on in the resentments of angry conservatives everywhere.

October 6: What Do the Polls Say? It Depends.

Having experienced some vertigo in sorting through polling data this year, I looked into some of the reasons for all the disparate findings, and wrote about it at New York:

There’s been a lot of talk about polling accuracy this election year, as there has been in the last five election cycles. Four of those election years (2012, 2014, 2016, and 2020) produced results significantly different from the expectations created by the best-known and (previously) most reliable outfits conducting national and state-level public-opinion research. In 2012, Democrats overachieved their standing in the polls, as did Republicans in 2016 and 2020. In 2018, the polls pretty much nailed the results nationally, though there were some misses in Senate races won by Republicans.

There are several reasons fears about polling accuracy are strong right now. First, 2022 is a midterm election where very small changes in the results could yield big consequences, thanks to the dead-even Senate and the tiny Democratic margin of control in the House (there are also many potential 2024 presidential battlegrounds where partisan control of the election machinery is up for grabs this year).

Second, there is a bit of residual trauma in the political commentariat about pro-Democratic polling errors before the astonishing victory of Donald Trump in 2016 and before his near-reelection (echoed by strong House gains by Republicans) in 2020. Pro-Republican errors in 2012, and the mostly accurate 2018 surveys, have been all but forgotten. Pro-Republican polling errors in 2022 special elections have all but been ignored or minimized.

Third, there are some pretty significant differences in what the pollsters are showing nationally and in individual contests this year. Consider the most-cited (and typically most reliable) indicator of the House national popular vote, the polling question known as the generic congressional ballot. The polling averages (per RealClearPolitics) on this indicator have been nearly even since the beginning of August. But one pollster, Trafalgar Group, has been showing Republicans with a five-to-eight point advantage in monthly soundings since July. (Another pollster Republicans love to love, Rasmussen, has consistently shown the GOP leading in the general ballot as well, though not by as large a margin.)

Similarly, Trafalgar has Republican Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley statistically tied with Washington’s Democratic incumbent Patty Murray, while all but one of the other polls of this race have Murray up by double digits. The Cook Political Report rates the contest as “Solid Democratic,” which means not remotely competitive. Then there’s the Pennsylvania governor’s race, which is turning into a Democratic rout, thanks to the incompetent campaigning and extremist antics of Republican nominee Doug Mastriano. Six of the last seven public polls have shown Democrat Josh Shapiro up by double digits. The exception? Trafalgar Group, which showed a statistical tie in mid-September.

There are some races where Tragalgar isn’t so much an outlier as one end of a pretty broad spectrum of findings. In the Ohio Senate race, for example, the RCP averages have Republican J.D. Vance leading Democratic Tim Ryan by 1.2 percent. Trafalgar Group shows Vance up by 5 percent, while Siena has Ryan up by 3 percent.

Now as it happens, Trafalgar got a lot of positive attention after the 2016 presidential election for accurately showing Donald Trump ahead in Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, when nearly every other national polling outfit had Hillary Clinton winning all three states. And the same pollster wound up with a relatively low average error in 2020, particularly as compared to some of the big established firms like Monmouth, Quinnipiac, and SSRS (though Trafalgar Group founder and former Republican operative Robert Cahaly incorrectly predicted a Trump reelection, and erroneously showed him ahead in Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania). While Cahaly stubbornly keeps his full methodology private (he uses live calling, robocalling, and online sampling), he is famous for claiming he adjusts his findings to reflect alleged “social desirability bias,” which mostly means putting a thumb on the scales of red voters who allegedly assume pollsters want them to support blue candidates. So Trafalgar assumes a general pro-Democratic polling bias that he aims to correct. You can see how that might or might not work out well.

Another common source of polling differences involves the basic sample. Often Republicans look better in polls of “likely voters” rather than “registered voters” or “all adults,” particularly in a midterm election with Democrats controlling the White House, a scenario that usually (but not universally) gives the GOP a turnout advantage. But at this stage of the election cycle, virtually all pollsters have already “switched over” to likely voter models, eliminating one artificial reason for differences in findings.

The thing about a recent record for polling accuracy is that it earns pollsters more business, so Trafalgar Group (and to some extent Emerson College, which did pretty well in 2020) is expanding its footprint this year, and its arguably affecting the polling averages more than in the past. But in some of the more heavily polled contests, averages probably still smooth out the differences between pollsters and their methodologies. In the red-hot Georgia U.S. Senate contest between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker, there have been eight published polls in the RealClearPolitics database since the beginning of August. Four (including Trafalgar Group, Emerson, Insider Advantage, and the University of Georgia) show Walker ahead, and four (Quinnipiac, Marist, YouGov, and Fox News) show Warnock ahead. The average puts Warnock ahead by 0.7 percent; in other words, the race is tied. For variety’s sake, you can consult the polling averages at FiveThirtyEight, which weights poll findings according to pollster accuracy and partisan bias. It’s still a tie race, with the projected vote share being 49.8 percent for Warnock and 48.6 for Walker. Indeed, if you are placing a bet on the contest the best wager is that neither candidate will win a majority and Georgia will again hold one of its notorious general election runoffs.

We won’t know until after the elections how to assess pollsters, or how to retroactively adjudge the impact on expectations of the very real differences in their findings. But at this point we can say that if Trafalgar Group’s polling is correct, there is a broader range of competitive statewide elections in play (if Patty Murray is truly in trouble, which Democrats are really safe?), and Kevin McCarthy can go ahead and put in an order for a Speaker’s gavel. But like partisan activists, a lot of people in the political prediction business will be white-knuckling it and composing their spins on and after November 8.

September 30: Real Democrats Don’t Love “the Senate As an Institution”

I ran across a quote from Kyrsten Sinema this week that made me angry, so I vented my spleen at New York.

In a cloying little exchange of pleasantries before Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema spoke from the podium of Mitch McConnell’s eponymous center at the University of Louisville on Monday, the Senate Republican leader called the Democrat “the most effective first-term senator” he’d ever seen. McConnell was probably being sincere given Sinema’s role, along with Joe Manchin, in saving the filibuster, the chief tool in the GOP’s obstructionist bag of tricks. He could have called her a “one-term senator” since her demise in 2024 seems all but certain after she alienated as many Arizona Democrats as she could, but that wouldn’t have been gracious. Instead, he went on to give her the highest token of his esteem, calling her a “deal-maker.”

For her part, Sinema noted that she and McConnell share a “respect for the Senate as an institution,” a statement she reinforced by calling for the restoration of 60-vote thresholds for executive and judicial-branch confirmations in the upper chamber, which were abolished by serial Democratic and Republican majorities in 2013 and 2017, respectively. Sinema is, you see, an old-school respecter of the Senate, which makes me sick to my stomach.

Anyone who spends time around the Senate (I worked there in the late 1980s and early 1990s and with Senate offices for years before and after that) is aware of the extremely high regard in which senators hold themselves “as an institution.” They don’t publicly bash House members as petty-minded, party-bossed parochial Lilliputians who have to spend all their time running for reelection. But the unstated though very real mutual disdain of the two congressional chambers is deeply rooted in the Senate’s distinctive constitutional role as an anti-democratic redoubt of entrenched privilege.

This is nowhere more apparent than in Sinema’s beloved filibuster, which in its most recent incarnation has made supermajorities a requirement for even routine legislation. But lest we forget, even if the filibuster went away, the Senate’s grant of equal power to all 50 states is profoundly undemocratic. The states themselves are not allowed to get away with such a gross misappropriation of legislative power. In the 1964 decision in Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, under the Equal Protection Act of the 14th Amendment, state legislatures had to respect the principal of “one person, one vote,” with seats in the upper as well as lower chambers being awarded in districts of equal population. As Chief Justice Earl Warren famously wrote in the Court’s opinion in a 8-1 decision:

“Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system.”

The logic is the same with respect to the model for all those once-oligarchical state upper chambers, the U.S. Senate itself. But the Senate has its own separate, unassailable constitutional basis. The Article I, Section 3 provision of the Constitution providing for equal representation of states in the Senate is expressly exempted from amendment in Article V (“no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate”). So we are stuck with an anti-democratic chamber. But we don’t have to celebrate it.

It’s important to remember the two reasons we have a U.S. Senate. First, it represented a compromise with those in the founding generation who wanted an unelected body like Britain’s House of Lords to counteract “the people’s House,” the lower chamber. But more important, as James Madison made clear in “Federalist 62,” it was essential to the ratification of the Constitution that the country maintain its original character as a compact of states, not as a truly United States:

“It may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each state, is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual states, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty …

“Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the states.”

This understanding of the country as a modified confederation of states with a stronger central government than it originally had more or less perished with the outcome of the Civil War and the ratification of the Civil Rights Amendments (including the 14th Amendment, that great and still-evolving guarantee of individual rights against states rights). But the Senate remains as a relic of the era when McConnell’s hero Henry Clay and a host of other patriarchal slaveholders held the Union temporarily together by engaging in “deal-making” at the expense of human dignity. The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913 and providing for the popular election of senators instead of letting state legislatures choose them, took the chamber as far toward democracy as a flawed Constitution would allow.

“Respect for the Senate as an institution” means contempt for democracy as a fundamental value. That is why those with respect for democracy — particularly those who profess to be a member of the Democratic Party — should do everything possible to minimize the Senate’s ability to function according to the Founders’ design instead of boasting about making the chamber even more susceptible to high-handed measures to frustrate the popular will.

September 28: The Gridlock Theory of the 2022 Midterms

In looking at the trajectory of the 2022 midterms, I noted at New York a theory that suggests we’d better get used to close elections that defy history:

With six weeks to go until Election Day, the midterms aren’t unfolding as we all expected earlier this year, when Republicans were better than even money to retake the Senate and a lead-pipe cinch to flip the House by a substantial margin. There are, of course, plenty of reasons you can cite for this change in the political climate, from the backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision to somewhat better economic news to Donald Trump’s continued presence on the campaign trail to bad GOP-candidate selection. It’s nerve-racking, of course, because with Democrats holding the slightest of majorities in both congressional chambers, very small micro-trends in just a few states or districts could have enormous consequences for the parties and for the country (the consequences extend, of course, to state-level positions, not just governors but election-supervising secretaries of State).

But as political observers anxiously parse polls and hold up weather vanes to test partisan winds, Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter offers another way of looking at this election cycle:

“In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck write that American politics has become more polarized and calcified. Events and the responses to them from politicians no longer have the ability to deeply and fundamentally reshape our politics or political coalitions. ‘Voters and leaders in the two major parties are not only more ideologically distant from each other but also more likely to describe each other in harsh terms,’ they write. ‘In the fall of 2020, 90 percent of Americans said there were important differences in what the parties stood for — the highest number recorded in almost 70 years of American National Election Study surveys.’

“Moreover, they write, voters are ‘less likely to change their basic political evaluations or vote for the other party’s candidate.’ This calcification of our partisanship ‘produces rigidity in our politics — even when dramatic events suggest the potential for big changes.’

“In other words, if every election is an existential fight, then every election will be close. Or, as the Democratic strategist told me, ‘notably competitive.’”

If true, this would mean not only fewer “persuadable” swing voters to produce big shifts in the results from election to election, but likely a reduction in the sorts of “enthusiasm gaps” thought to affect partisan turnout patterns in the past. Elections would be more like a series of huge pre-mobilized armies meeting in a series of huge clashes with no prisoners taken (and little cooperation across party lines between elections). Even if that’s an exaggeration of the degree of gridlock from which our government and our electorate is suffering, we might truly be entering a period in which swings in party voting are limited. And as Sides, Tausanovitch, and Vavreck note, the “calcification” of party and ideological divisions can become self-perpetuating:

“Calcified politics and partisan parity combine to produce a self-reinforcing cycle. When control of government is always within reach, there is less need for the losing party to adapt and recalibrate. And if it stays on the same path, voters have little reason to revise their political loyalties.”

To be clear, very close elections can have variable outcomes. And in our winner-take-all system, the stakes will remain high. It will obviously make a great deal of difference which party wins the White House in 2024. Control of the Senate, moreover, depends as much on near-accidents of landscape than on the overall voting strength of the two parties, since only one-third of senators face voters each cycle. Democrats are benefiting from a modestly positive Senate landscape this year. Republicans should have a big Senate advantage in 2024. There is no guarantee either party can muster a governing “trifecta” in the future. As Republicans learned in 2017–18 and Democrats have learned in 2021–22, a trifecta isn’t all that if you can’t rigidly discipline all your troops all the time.

When white-knuckle time arrives just before Election Day this year, the odds are pretty good there will remain a lot of uncertainty about exactly what will happen when the votes are all counted (assuming we can get bipartisan buy-in on the results as officially certified, which is hardly a safe assumption at present). If Democrats managed to hold onto both congressional chambers, they may well feel vindicated by voters and go on to undertake an ambitious agenda in the next two years. More likely we will have a return to divided government and even more uncertainty and gridlock as we enter still another momentous election cycle.

September 23: About That House Republican Agenda

I’m certainly old enough to remember lots of these pre-election “agenda” documents, and couldn’t help but mock the latest one at New York:

In Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 cult novel The Crying of Lot 49, a character who has taken too much LSD decides that if everyone on earth repeats the marketing phrase “rich, chocolatey goodness,” it will represent the voice of God. With or without drugs, a lot of people in politics have a similar delusion that getting candidates to make the same noises like chirping cicadas will produce electoral victories. It’s a particularly strong belief among congressional Republicans, who share the dubious conviction that Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” is what flipped control of Congress in 1994.

With the assistance of Gingrich and former Donald Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, the House Republican Conference has released a new “agenda” document, entitled “Commitment to America.” The document, clearly designed for online consumption, has lots of bells and whistles and factoids about the hellish reign of Joe Biden and his “Democrat” Party. What it doesn’t have is a whole lot of specificity, unlike the unfortunate “agenda” that Republican Senate Campaign Committee chairman Rick Scott released earlier this year to the near-universal horror of his colleagues, who don’t want to be identified with the proposed sunsetting of Social Security and Medicare.

The relatively anodyne character of Kevin McCarthy’s pet project doesn’t mean it is entirely useless. Candidates mouthing the approved pieties will presumably not be expressing their pithy views on Jewish space lasers or repeating QAnon slogans.

Still, it’s hard to take seriously an agenda for the nation that does not mention climate change, Russia, or extremist threats to democracy — or one that suggests the sole cure for inflation is to cut “wasteful government spending” without explaining what that means (in the indictment of Democrats that accompanies the agenda, there is much criticism of direct stimulus payments, which Donald Trump preferred to virtually every other form of government spending).

Most interesting was how House Republicans handled a red-hot issue they dare not ignore completely, given the obsession it commands among a very big chunk of the GOP party base: abortion. You have to look pretty hard to find it, nestled as it is under the unlikely heading of “A Government That’s Accountable,” and the downright misleading subheading of “a plan to defend America’s rights under the Constitution.” And it simply says Republicans will “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers.” So they checked off a box for anti-abortion activists in the manner least likely to draw curious or unfriendly attention to the extreme abortion views so many of them have expressed, which don’t poll well. Perhaps voters will be too mesmerized by the overall party message to notice. Repeat after me: rich, chocolatey goodness.


September 21: The Return of Party “Issue Ownership”

I knew there was something familiar about the way Democratic and Republican strategists were talking about the 2022 issue landscape, and it finally hit me, as I noted at New York:

In the gospel according to the Church of Bipartisanship, the way politics should work is that each side should devise distinctive solutions to commonly identified problems and then compromise where necessary to get things done. If that doesn’t happen, the blame is typically assigned to self-serving politicians and fanatical activists who prefer gridlock to any accommodation of divergent views.

Reality is more complicated. In part, that’s because the real engines of gridlock are the institutional obstacles (especially the Senate filibuster and judicial review) available to minority parties to obstruct anything they don’t want to happen. Beyond that fundamental problem, moreover, is a flawed premise at the heart of the bipartisan proposition: The parties often don’t agree on any “commonly identified problems.” Indeed, as Ron Brownstein explains, that’s why Democrats and Republicans appear to be “talking past each other” in this year’s midterm-election chatter:

“As the Democratic pollster Molly Murphy told me, 2022 is not an election year when most Americans ‘agree on what the top priorities [for the country] are’ and debate ‘different solutions’ from the two major parties. Instead, surveys show that Republican voters stress inflation, the overall condition of the economy, crime, and immigration. For Democratic voters, the top priorities are abortion rights, the threats to democracy created by former President Donald Trump and his movement, gun control, climate change, and health care.”

Now this is not, of course, an entirely unprecedented phenomenon. Ever since polling and focus groups were invented, politicians have understood there are certain issues that favor or disfavor their own parties. For ages, Republicans have struggled to maintain credibility on fundamental fairness, maintenance of an adequate social safety net, and sensitivity to the needs of minorities, while Democrats aren’t really trusted to keep government efficient, attend to national security needs, or protect traditional moral values. Ceding whole areas to the opposition unfortunately tends to reinforce such stereotypes, which in turn makes loud shouting the way to elevate the issues one “owns.”

In living memory, some of the more innovative politicians in both parties have refused to play this game of ownership and instead sought to “capture,” or at least neutralize, the other party’s issues with distinctive policies of their own. Most famously, Bill Clinton, to the great dismay of Republicans and quite a few people in his own party, insisted on offering proposals aimed at reducing crime (e.g., community policing and deploying more officers on the streets), reforming welfare (originally a work-based proposal that maintained a personal entitlement to assistance), and “reinventing government.” Yes, Clinton, whose party did not control either chamber of Congress for six of his eight years in office, ultimately went too far in accommodating Republican policies on both crime and welfare reform (thus exposing him to the charge of “triangulating” against his own party). But the basic idea of offering Democratic proposals on public concerns outside the party’s comfort zone was smart, and it drove Republicans, who constantly complained that Clinton was “stealing our issues,” absolutely crazy.

Similarly, George W. Bush, on the advice of strategist Karl Rove, spent much of his first term offering modest but significant proposals on health care (a Medicare prescription-drug benefit), education (the No Child Left Behind Act), and immigration (a comprehensive reform measure) — all issues Democrats were generally thought to “own.” Like Clinton, he paid a price among party activists for “RINO” efforts to address “Democrat issues.” Arguably, the conservative backlash to his perceived heresies, especially on immigration, fed both the tea-party movement and its descendent, the MAGA movement, though Bush himself was clearly undone by the Iraq War and his inept reaction to a financial crisis. But the impulse to build credibility on salient public concerns where none existed was wise, and it was even in some minor respects emulated by Donald J. Trump (e.g., in his effort to co-opt criminal-justice reform via the Jared Kushner–brokered First Step Act).

Is anything like this kind of mold-breaking occurring at present? To some extent, Democrats have tried to address “Republican issues” involving the economy. Certainly, Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have spent much of 2021 and 2022 touting their budget proposals as essential to the task of building a strong economy. And while Joe Manchin might have been principally responsible for branding the fiscal year 2022 budget-reconciliation bill as an “Inflation Reduction Act,” by the time Biden signed the legislation, it had come to seem like a very good idea to most Democrats. The party has been less resolute in dealing with the crime issue, other than by constantly trying to rebut made-up claims that it wants to “defund the police” as part of an orgy of “wokeness.”

Republicans, perhaps because they thought they had a surefire winning message in 2022 and are loath to depart from it, have been less adept in adjusting to shifting public concerns that undermine their position. They justifiably think of abortion as a “Democrat issue” right now — one that threatens to boost Democratic turnout while flipping many suburban swing voters — and when Lindsey Graham tried to offer a proposal to reposition them on stronger ground, the reaction among Republicans was overwhelmingly negative, as the Washington Post reported:

“In a memo to GOP campaigns released this week, the Republican National Committee laid out what it called a winning message on abortion: Press Democrats on where they stand on the procedure later in pregnancy, seek ‘common ground’ on exceptions to bans and keep the focus on crime and the economy. Then, Senator Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation to ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy — overshadowing new inflation numbers and undermining what many GOP strategists see as their best message for the fall: ‘Leave it to the states.’

“’It’s an absolute disaster,’ GOP strategist John Thomas said, as Republican Senate nominees already targeted for their comments on abortion were asked to weigh in. ‘Oy vey,’ he said when informed that Blake Masters in battleground state Arizona had just expressed his support.”

Even if Republicans succeed in making inflation or crime or border control more salient than abortion among 2022 voters, they will pay a price down the road — among voters generally and in their powerfully anti-abortion base — by running for the hills when an issue is raised that’s not going to go away in the foreseeable future. Maybe someday the two parties can get onto the same page when it comes to the menu of national problems they intend to address. But don’t hold your breath.