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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

May 9: Watch Out! Team Trump Setting Up Another Premature Victory Claim

I got a strong sense of deja vu from a comment by Lara Trump this week, and fired off a warning at New York:

A dark specter hanging over the 2024 presidential election is the possibility that Donald Trump will again declare victory on Election Night based on deliberately false accusations about voting by mail. Lest we forget, that was the foundation for all of Trump’s efforts to reverse Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, up to and including the January 6 insurrection: the idea that it was Democrats who “stole” the election by stuffing the ballot box with fabricated mail ballots counted after Election Day had ended (that wasn’t the only phony “fraud” allegation made by Team Trump, but it was the one made most often).

In the run-up to the Trump-Biden rematch, Republicans and the candidate himself have sent mixed signals about the legitimacy of voting by mail, mostly suggesting it’s inherently fraudulent yet encouraging MAGA voters to use it as a sort of fighting-fire-with-fire strategy. But the crucial if totally counterfactual idea that Democrats will look to see how many votes they need on Election Night and just make up enough mail ballots to reverse a Trump victory is being kept alive by Trump’s daughter-in-law, the new Republican National Committee co-chair Lara Trump, in an interview on Fox News. Per Raw Story:

“Republican National Committee co-chair Lara Trump argued Sunday that ballots should not be counted after elections are over.

“’You cannot have ballots counted, Maria, after elections are over,’ Trump opined. ‘And right now, that is one of the many lawsuits we have out across this country to ensure that just that happens, that we have a free, fair, and transparent election.’

“’So in Nevada, as you pointed out, we are saying we want, on election day, that to be the last day that mail-in ballots can be counted,’ she added. ‘And we’ve been very successful in a lot of lawsuits.’”

Taken literally, this argument is absurd. An election isn’t “over” until the votes are counted. Trump’s 2020 victory claim was based on the candidate arbitrarily declaring the election “over,” conveniently, when he was momentarily ahead. Even in the era before widespread voting-by-mail, close elections often weren’t resolved until days or even weeks after Election Day, as anyone who remembers 2000 (or countless other elections with respect to downballot contests) can tell you. Slow counts are sometimes as attributable to safeguards against election fraud as to any sort of funny business.

Lara Trump’s reference to a lawsuit in Nevada, however, suggests a much narrower issue: Nevada is one of 17 states where mail ballots postmarked by Election Day can be counted if they are received by election officials within a specified time. This practice has sometimes been demonized by Republicans seeking conspiracy-theory legitimization for election defeats (notably in 2018, when early GOP leads in California congressional races melted away once late mail ballots were counted). But it raises a question critics of voting-by-mail never seem to answer: When does voting happen in the first place? When a vote is cast or when it is tabulated? If it’s the former, why isn’t the act of filling out, sealing, and placing a ballot in the hands of the U.S. Postal Service as definitive an act of voting as marking a ballot in a polling booth? Arguably the postmark-rather-than-receipt deadline is fairer and more rational at a time (in 2024 as in 2020) when expedient delivery of mail by a troubled USPS is by no means assured.

Of the 17 postmark-deadline states, only two (Nevada plus North Carolina) are likely presidential battleground states, so it won’t be easy for Team Trump to pin an election defeat on that practice. But complaints about Election Day being extended by larcenous Democrats, however bogus, are part of the pall Republicans are trying to cast over the entire 2024 election. If Trump wins, our election system will retroactively become golden in MAGA-land, or perhaps we will be told Trump’s immense popularity will have overcome Democrat and Establishment efforts to count him out. If he loses, the election was “rigged” and patriots need to to un-rig by any means necessary.

We’ve been warned.

May 3: Democrats Should Call Out Trump’s Big Lies on Abortion

Everyone knows that Donald Trump can’t be trusted on abortion policy (or many other things). But his particular lies on abortion are worth noting, as I explained at New York.

There is no exercise more exhausting and probably futile than examining a Donald Trump speech or social-media post for lies, half-truths, and incoherent self-contradictions. But it’s important on occasion to highlight some very big whoppers he tells that are central to his political strategy. It’s well known that Trump’s own position on abortion policy has wandered all over the map, and it’s plausible to suggest his approach is entirely transactional. Now that he’s staked out a “states’ rights” position on abortion that is designed to take a losing issue off the table in the 2024 presidential election, he’s telling two very specific lies to justify his latest flip-flop.

The first is his now-routine claim that “both sides” and even “legal scholars on both sides” of the abortion debate “agreed” that Roe v. Wade needed to be reversed, leaving abortion policy up to the states:

This claim was the centerpiece of Trump’s April 9 statement setting out his position on abortion for the 2024 general election, as CNN noted:

“In a video statement on abortion policy he posted on social media Monday, Trump said: ‘I was proudly the person responsible for the ending of something that all legal scholars, both sides, wanted and, in fact, demanded be ended: Roe v. Wade. They wanted it ended.’ Later in his statement, Trump said that since ‘we have abortion where everybody wanted it from a legal standpoint,’ states are free to determine their own abortion laws.”

This is clearly and demonstrably false. The three “legal experts” on the Supreme Court who passionately dissented from the decision to reverse Roe are just the tip of the iceberg of anguish over the defiance of precedent and ideological reasoning underlying Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The Society of American Law Teachers immediately and definitively issued a “condemnation” of the Dobbs decision. When the case was being argued before the Supreme Court, the American Bar Association filed an amicus brief arguing the constitutional doctrine of stare decisis required that Roe be left in place. None of these views were novel. Back in 1989 when an earlier threat to abortion rights had emerged, 885 law professors signed onto a brief defending Roe.

Sure, there was a tiny minority of “pro-choice, anti-Roe” liberals over the years who claimed resentment of the power of the unelected judges who decided Roe would eventually threaten abortion rights (not as much, it turns out, as the unelected judges that decided Dobbs). And yes, there have always been progressive critics (notably Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) of the particular reasoning in the original Roe decision, but by no means have any of them (particularly Ginsburg) favored abandoning the federal constitutional right to abortion even if they supported a different constitutional basis for that right. So Trump’s claim is grossly nonfactual and is indeed not one that any self-respecting conservative fan of Dobbs would ever make.

The second big lie that Trump has formulated to defend his latest states’-rights position is that he’s just supporting the age-old Republican stance on the subject, as he has just asserted at Truth Social:

“Sending this Issue back to the States was the Policy of the Republican Party and Conservatives for over 50 years, due to States’ Rights and 10th Amendment, and only happened because of the Justices I proudly Nominated and got Confirmed.”

Yes, of course a growing majority of Republicans have favored reversal of Roe as a way station to a nationwide ban on abortion, but not as an end in itself. The GOP first came out for a federal constitutional amendment to ban abortion from sea to shining sea in its 1980 party platform, and every single Republican presidential nominee since then has backed the idea. There have been disagreements as to whether such a constitutional amendment should include exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. But the last GOP presidential nominee to share Trump’s position that the states should be the final arbiter of abortion policy was Gerald R. Ford in 1976, as the New York Times reported at the time:

“[Ford] said that as President he must enforce the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that forbids states to ban abortions. But he has come out in favor of a constitutional amendment that would overturn that ruling and return to the states the option of drawing up their own abortion laws.”

Ronald Reagan, who challenged Ford’s nomination in 1976 and was already a proponent of a “pro-life” constitutional amendment, and the GOP formally adopted that position in 1980; four years later, it adopted its long-standing proposal that by constitutional amendment or by a judicial ruling the protection of fetal life under the 14th Amendment should be recognized and imposed on the country regardless of what states wanted. Anti-abortion leader Marjorie Dannenfelser noted this well-known history in a not-so-subtle rebuke to Trump’s revisionist history, as NBC News reported:

“’Since 1984, the GOP platform has affirmed that 14th Amendment protections apply to unborn babies and endorsed congressional action to clarify this fact through legislation,’ Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a statement to NBC News. ‘Republicans led the charge to outlaw barbaric partial-birth abortions federally, and both chambers have voted multiple times to limit painful late-term abortion. The Senate voted on this most recently in 2020. In January 2023, House Republicans also voted to protect infants born alive during an abortion.’”

It’s pretty clear that anti-abortion activists know Trump is lying about both Roe v. Wade and the GOP tradition and will support him anyway. But the rest of us should take due notice that the once and perhaps future president’s word on this subject, including his current pledge to leave abortion policy to the states, cannot be trusted for even a moment. Absent the abolition of the Senate filibuster (which, lest we forget, Trump backed as president out of impatience with the Senate’s refusal to bend the knee to his every demand), there isn’t going to be a complete federal ban on abortion in the foreseeable future. But Trump can be counted on to use the powers of the presidency to make life miserable for women needing abortion services, among the many “enemies of the people” he wants to punish.

May 2: Gaza and the 2024 Presidential Election

Having seen a lot of material of questionable utility on a key 2024 issue, I decided to explore it at New York:

The Israel-Hamas war has become an abiding presence in U.S. political discourse in the past six months. President Joe Biden has been lambasted by both a small but visible minority of Democrats who oppose his support for Israel as it wages war in Gaza, and Republicans who say he hasn’t done enough to back Israel and curb pro-Palestinian campus protests. But for all the noise and heat in the air on this subject, it’s still unclear whether the conflict in the Middle East will be a significant factor in the November presidential election.

Polling on Americans’ attitudes toward the conflict and its domestic fallout has been erratic and difficult to compare, as various pollsters have taken very different angles on the subject. But the “salience” of the issue as something that might push a significant number of voters this way or that is dubious at best.

There’s no question that U.S. public opinion has slowly evolved from strongly pro-Israel immediately after the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas to a mixed assessment leaning toward hostility to Israel’s conduct of the war ever since. Already by November, Gallup found significant deterioration in Americans’ support for Israel’s war in Gaza, with 50 percent approving and 45 percent disapproving of Israeli military operations. By March of this year, the approval-disapproval ratio had dropped to 36 percent approval to 55 percent disapproval. Meanwhile, the reflexive sympathy Americans have traditionally felt for Israel when it’s embattled has eroded as well; as of February, Pew had found that a solid 57 percent of Americans sympathize “at least somewhat with both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people or equally with both of them.”

Nearly every survey on the subject has identified a significant generational divide on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, with those under the age of 30 sympathizing more with Palestinians and less with Israelis; opposing Israel’s military operations in Gaza by strong margins; and also opposing unconditional U.S. military aid to Israel. A Pew survey earlier this month showed that “six-in-ten adults under age 30 have a positive view of the Palestinian people, compared with 46% who see the Israeli people positively.” Meanwhile, “only 16% of adults under 30 favor the U.S. providing military aid to Israel to help in its war against Hamas, compared with 56% of those 65 and older.”

Young voters’ unhappiness with Israel and Biden’s policies on the Gaza conflict, compounded by less-well-documented but apparent pro-Palestinian tendencies among nonwhite voters, have created more and more of a partisan gap on Middle Eastern policy. The aforementioned March Gallup survey found that 64 percent of Republicans still approved of Israel’s military operations in Gaza, while 75 percent of Democrats disapproved. So long as Biden was identified as America’s most prominent supporter of Israel in the conflict, this disconnect with his own party’s base was potentially a source of intra-Democratic friction and a negative influence on Democratic enthusiasm for Biden’s reelection. The problem looked likely to go well beyond the relatively small number of “uncommitted” voters in Democratic presidential primaries this year who were explicitly seeking to condemn or reverse the president’s position on what was happening in Gaza.

Most recently, however, Republican politicians may have given Biden a hand — or at least reduced the possibility that pro-Palestinian voters would give them a second look out of anger at the president — with increasingly more vocal support for Israel, particularly after recent exchanges of fire between Israel and Iran. Republicans have been even more vocal about adopting what might be called an “anti-anti-Israel” stance: calling for repressive and punitive actions toward pro-Palestinian protesters. It’s also relevant that the most visible “third option” for voters unhappy with the two major parties, independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has been staunchly pro-Israel throughout the course of the Gaza war.

But is the Israel-Hamas war a voting issue — or a reason not to vote at all — for enough people to greatly affect the outcome of the November election? The available data on issue saliency doesn’t provide much evidence that it’s top of mind for that many voters.

March 29 Gallup survey asked respondents to identify “the most important issue facing the country today.” “War in the Middle East” tied for 13th with just 2 percent. More often, pollsters don’t bother to break out the Israel-Palestine conflict as a singular concern, instead lumping it together with other foreign-policy concerns or national-security threats. But foreign policy in general isn’t looking terribly salient. A mid-April Economist-YouGov poll showed just one percent of Americans considered any or all foreign-policy issues as “the most important for you.” A late April University of North Florida national survey that added all of foreign policy to national-security challenges as an issue cluster found 6 percent of voters willing to identify it as most important in determining presidential preferences. But with Republicans fanning all sorts of national-security fears, who knows what that means?

Perhaps the most startling data comes from the very credible large-sample Harvard Youth Poll released on April 19:

“Poll results showed that two issues closely associated with under-30 voters — the Israel-Hamas war and student debt relief — may not be especially consequential ones when it comes to casting votes.

“Biden gets good marks (39 percent) for his efforts to reduce student debt, and poor marks for his handling of the war in Gaza (18 percent). But young people ranked these as least important among the issues facing the country. The majority said inflation, healthcare, and housing were the top three matters, followed by gun violence, according to the poll.”

To be more specific, under-30 voters listed “Israel/Palestine” 15th among the 16 “major issues” they were asked to rank in importance. Pew’s March survey on the subject noted low interest and information levels on the Middle East in the same age cohort:

“Just 14% of those under 50 say they are following the war extremely or very closely, roughly half the share among those over 50 (30%). Consistent with their lower levels of attention, younger Americans are also less likely to know key facts about the ongoing war, based on their responses to three knowledge questions included on the survey.”

Without question, perceptions of the presidential candidates and their political parties may be influenced on the margins by their positions and conduct on this and related issues. Biden’s efforts to broker a broader regional peace agreement could reinforce his reputation as an internationalist and a competent diplomat. Republican demagoguing about campus protesters could strengthen their issue advantage on crime. But even if news coverage continues to draw attention to the carnage in Gaza and its underlying causes, it may not be an election game-changer, unless the election is extremely close. If that’s the case, of course, almost anything could be decisive.

April 26: Kennedy Now Taking As Many Votes From Trump As From Biden

Polls are showing a subtle but potentially important shift that I discussed at New York:

For a while there, the independent ticket of ex-Democrats Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Nicole Shanahan seemed to be taking crucial votes away from Democrat Joe Biden, at least as indicated by comparing three-way and five-way (with Cornel West and Jill Stein) polls to head-to-head matchups of the incumbent and Donald Trump. Now, even as Biden has all but erased his polling deficit against Trump, he’s getting some more good news in surveys that include other candidates.

Two recent major national polls show Biden running better in a five-way than a two-way race. According to NBC News, Biden moves from two points down to two points up when the non-major-party candidates are included. In the latest Marist poll, Biden leads Trump by three points head-to-head and by five points in a five-way race. Since left-bent candidates West and Stein are pulling 5 percent in the former poll and 4 percent in the latter (presumably taking very few votes from Trump), you have to figure Kennedy is beginning to cut into the MAGA vote to an extent that should get Team Trump’s attention. And it has, NBC News reports:

“Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he’s confident that independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will pull more votes away from President Joe Biden than from him — a net win for the Republican’s candidacy.

“’He is Crooked Joe Biden’s Political Opponent, not mine,’Trump wrote on Truth Social late last month. ‘I love that he is running!’

“Behind closed doors, however, Trump is less sure. A Republican who was in the room with Trump this year as he reviewed polling said Trump was unsure how Kennedy would affect the race, asking the other people on hand whether or not Kennedy was actually good for his candidacy.”

Politico notes that Kennedy is drawing higher favorability numbers from Republican voters than from Democratic ones, which could indicate a higher ceiling for RFJ Jr. among Trump defectors. And it’s generally assumed from his past performances that there is a lower ceiling on Trump’s support than on Biden’s; he needs to be able to win with significantly less than a majority of the popular vote, as one Republican told Politico:

“’If the Trump campaign doesn’t see this as a concern, then they’re delusional,’ Republican consultant Alice Stewart said. ‘They should be looking at this from the standpoint that they can’t afford to lose any voters — and certainly not to a third-party candidate that shares some of [Trump’s] policy ideas.’”

One likely reason that Kennedy could be appealing to Republicans is the residual effect from the positive attention he received from conservative media when he was running against Biden in the Democratic primaries; his identification with anti-vaccine conspiracy theories also resonates more positively on the right side of the political spectrum than the left. So it’s in the interest of Team Trump to begin telling the former president’s sympathizers that RFK Jr. is actually a lefty, and that started happening recently, as the New York Times reported: “Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, pointed in particular to Mr. Kennedy’s views on climate change and the environment, writing on his social media site that Mr. Kennedy was more ‘radical Left’ than Mr. Biden.”

The idea, of course, is not only to discourage potential Trump voters from drifting toward the independent candidate, but to encourage potential Biden voters to consider a Kennedy vote.

If Kennedy continues to draw votes from both Biden and Trump, each of their campaigns will need to make a strategic decision about how to deal with him: Do you ignore him and count on the usual fade in support afflicting non-major-party presidential candidates as Election Day nears, or do you attack him as too far left (if you’re Trump) or too far right (if you’re Biden) and try to make him a handicap to your major-party opponent? The more aggressive approach has become common among Democrats seeking to intervene in Republican primaries (or in the recent case of the California Senate race, a nonpartisan top-two primary) by loudly attacking candidates they’d prefer to face in the general election, encouraging Republicans to flock to the supposed menace to progressivism. This kind of tactic — if deployed with some serious dollars — could have an effect on Kennedy’s base of support.

Certainly Trump seems to be considering it. With his usual practice of saying the quiet part out loud, Trump opined: “If I were a Democrat, I’d vote for RFK Jr. every single time over Biden, because he’s frankly more in line with Democrats.”

Trying to minimize losses to Kennedy and maximize opposite-party votes for Kennedy could become a routine practice down the stretch. Where and by whom this strategy is pursued will depend in part on where RFK Jr. is ultimately on the ballot. Right now he has nailed down ballot access in just two states, Utah and Michigan. CBS News reports the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket is close to securing a spot on the November ballot in a number of other states:

“Kennedy’s campaign says it has completed signature gathering in seven other states in addition to Utah and Michigan — Nevada, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nebraska and Iowa.

“The super PAC supporting Kennedy, American Values 2024, says it has collected enough signatures in Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina.”

Coping with Kennedy could become a game of three-dimensional chess between the Biden and Trump campaigns. But if it begins to look like RFK Jr. has become an existential threat to Democrats or to Republicans, you can bet they’ll go medieval on him without even a moment’s hesitation.


April 25: Can “Reverse Coattails” Help Biden Win?

A relatively new term is popping up in articles on 2024 strategy for Democrats that I explained and explored at New York:

When you have a presidential candidate who is struggling to generate enthusiasm in the party base, it’s natural to look for some external stimulation. In the case of Joe Biden, the most obvious source of a 2024 boost is the deep antipathy that nearly all Democrats, many independents, and even a sizable sliver of Republicans feel toward Donald Trump. But in case that’s not enough, Team Biden is looking at another avenue of opportunity, albeit a risky one: the possibility of “reverse coattails” taking him past Trump on a wave of turnout that incidentally benefits the president of the United States.

That’s not the conventional wisdom, as the term reverse coattails makes clear: Normally, it’s the head of the ticket from whom all blessings flow, which makes sense insofar as presidential-election turnout dwarfs that of off-year and midterm contests in no small part because people who don’t necessarily care about the identity of their senator or governor are galvanized by the battle for the White House. But as Russell Berman of The Atlantic explains, this year is different:

“Faith in the reverse-coattails effect is fueling Democratic investments in down-ballot races and referenda. In North Carolina, for example, party officials hope that a favorable matchup in the governor’s race — Democratic attorney general Josh Stein is facing Republican lieutenant governor Mark Robinson, who has referred to homosexuality as ‘filth’ and compared abortion to slavery — could help Biden carry a state that Trump narrowly won twice. Democrats are also trying to break a Republican supermajority in the legislature, where they are contesting nearly all 170 districts. ‘The bottom of the ticket is absolutely driving engagement and will for all levels of the ballot,’ Heather Williams, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told me.”

In other states, high-profile ballot measures, particularly those aimed at restoring the abortion rights denied by conservative courts and Republican lawmakers, may generate bottoms-up enthusiasm benefiting Biden and embattled Democratic Senate candidates as well:

“In key states across the country, Democrats and their allies are planting ballot initiatives both to protect reproductive rights where they are under threat and to turn out voters in presidential and congressional battlegrounds. They’ve already placed an abortion measure on the ballot in Florida, where the state supreme court upheld one of the nation’s most restrictive bans on the procedure, and they plan to in Arizona, whose highest court recently ruled that the state could enforce an abortion ban first enacted during the Civil War. Democrats are also collecting signatures for abortion-rights measures in Montana, home to a marquee Senate race, and in Nevada, a presidential swing state that has a competitive Senate matchup this year.”

Berman notes that the reverse-coattails strategy is unproven. Voters, for example, who attracted to the polls by abortion ballot measures don’t always follow the partisan implications of their votes when it comes to candidate preferences. Red-hot down-ballot races are probably more reliable in attracting voters who can be expected to follow the party line to the top of the ticket. A positive precedent can be found in Georgia’s coordinated effort of 2020, when a powerful campaign infrastructure built by Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock clearly helped maximize Biden’s vote; the 46th president won the state by less than 12,000. Perhaps a strong Senate candidate like Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey could help Biden survive as well. As for the possible effect of ballot measures, it was once generally accepted that in 2004 a GOP strategy of encouraging anti-same-sex-marriage ballot measures helped boost conservative turnout in battleground states like Ohio, enabling George W. Bush’s narrow victory (though there are analysts who argue against that hypothesis). One reason it may work better today is the increasing prevalence of straight-ticket voting and the heavy emphasis of Democratic campaigns up and down the ballot on the kind of support for abortion rights that should help them take advantage of ballot-measure-generated turnout.

We won’t get a good idea of how either reverse-coattails strategy is working until late in the 2024 campaign when it becomes possible to measure new voter registrations, screen registered voters for their likelihood to participate in the election, and assess states where down-ballot contests are turning into a Democratic blowout. Team Biden would be wise to do everything in its power to lift the president’s popularity and build a favorability advantage over Trump that can reduce the number of “double haters” likely to stay home or vote for a change in the party management of Washington.

April 19: Will Chaos of Chicago ’68 Return This Year?

A lot of people who weren’t alive to witness the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago are wondering if it’s legendary chaos. I evaluated that possibility at New York:

When the Democratic National Committee chose Chicago as the site of the party’s 2024 national convention a year ago, no one knew incumbent presidential nominee Joe Biden would become the target of major antiwar demonstrations. The fateful events of October 7 were nearly six months away, and Biden had yet to formally announce his candidacy for reelection. So there was no reason to anticipate comparisons to the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention, when images of police clashing with anti–Vietnam War protesters in the Windy City were broadcast into millions of homes. Indeed, a year ago, a more likely analog to 2024 might have been the last Democratic convention in Chicago in 1996; that event was an upbeat vehicle for Bill Clinton’s successful reelection campaign.

Instead, thanks to intense controversy over Israel’s lethal operations in Gaza and widespread global protests aimed partly at Israel’s allies and sponsors in Washington, plans are well underway for demonstrations in Chicago during the August 19 to 22 confab. Organizers say they expect as many as 30,000 protesters to gather outside Chicago’s United Center during the convention. As in the past, a key issue is how close the protests get to the actual convention. Obviously, demonstrators want delegates to hear their voices and the media to amplify their message. And police, Chicago officials, and Democratic Party leaders want protests to occur as far away from the convention as possible. How well these divergent interests are met will determine whether there is anything like the kind of clashes that dominated Chicago ’68.

There are, however, some big differences in the context surrounding the two conventions. Here’s why the odds of a 2024 convention showdown rivaling 1968 are actually fairly low.

Gaza isn’t Vietnam.

Horrific as the ongoing events in Gaza undoubtedly are, and with all due consideration of the U.S. role in backing and supplying Israel now and in the past, the Vietnam War was a more viscerally immediate crisis for both the protesters who descended on Chicago that summer and the Americans watching the spectacle on TV. There were over a half-million American troops deployed in Vietnam in 1968, and nearly 300,000 young men were drafted into the Army and Marines that year. Many of the protesters at the convention were protesting their own or family members’ future personal involvement in the war, or an escape overseas beyond the Selective Service System’s reach (an estimated 125,000 Americans fled to Canada during the Vietnam War, and how to deal with them upon repatriation became a major political issue for years).

Even from a purely humanitarian and altruistic point of view, Vietnamese military and civilian casualties ran into the millions during the period of U.S. involvement. It wasn’t common to call what was happening “genocide,” but there’s no question the images emanating from the war (which spilled over catastrophically into Laos and especially Cambodia) were deeply disturbing to the consciences of vast numbers of Americans.

Perhaps a better analogy for the Gaza protests than those of the Vietnam era might be the extensive protests during the late 1970s and 1980s over apartheid in South Africa (a regime that enjoyed explicit and implicit backing from multiple U.S. administrations) and in favor of a freeze in development and deployment of nuclear weapons. These were significant protest movements, but still paled next to the organized opposition to the Vietnam War.

Political conventions are different today.

One reason the 1968 Chicago protests created such an indelible image is that the conflict outside on the streets was reflected in conflict inside the convention venue. For one thing, 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey had not quelled formal opposition to his selection when the convention opened. He never entered or won a single primary. One opponent who did, Eugene McCarthy, was still battling for the nomination in Chicago. Another, Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated two months earlier (1972 presidential nominee George McGovern was the caretaker for Kennedy delegates at the 1968 convention). There was a highly emotional platform fight over Vietnam policy during the convention itself; when a “peace plank” was defeated, New York delegates led protesters singing “We Shall Overcome.” Once violence broke out on the streets, it did not pass notice among the delegates, some of whom had been attacked by police trying to enter the hall. At one point, police actually accosted and removed a TV reporter from the convention for some alleged breach in decorum.

By contrast, no matter what is going on outside the United Center, the 2024 Democratic convention is going to be totally wired for Joe Biden, with nearly all the delegates attending pledged to him and chosen by his campaign. Even aside from the lack of formal opposition to Biden, conventions since 1968 have become progressively less spontaneous and more controlled by the nominee and the party that nominee directs (indeed, the chaos in Chicago in 1968 encouraged that trend, along with near-universal use of primaries to award delegates, making conventions vastly less deliberative). While there may be some internal conflict on the platform language related to Gaza, it will very definitely be resolved long before the convention and far away from cameras.

Another significant difference between then and now is that convention delegates and Democratic elected officials generally will enter the convention acutely concerned about giving aid and comfort to the Republican nominee, the much-hated, much-feared Donald Trump. Yes, many Democrats hated and feared Richard Nixon in 1968, but Democrats were just separated by four years from a massive presidential landslide and mostly did not reckon how much Nixon would be able to straddle the Vietnam issue and benefit from Democratic divisions. That’s unlikely to be the case in August of 2024.

Brandon Johnson isn’t Richard Daley.

Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley was a major figure in the 1968 explosion in his city. He championed and defended his police department’s confrontational tactics during the convention. At one point, when Senator Abraham Ribicoff referred from the podium to “gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” Daley leaped up and shouted at him with cameras trained on his furious face as he clearly repeated an obscene and antisemitic response to the Jewish politician from Connecticut. Beyond his conduct on that occasion, “Boss” Daley was the epitome of the old-school Irish American machine politician and from a different planet culturally than the protesters at the convention.

Current Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson, who was born the year of Daley’s death, is a Black progressive and labor activist who is still fresh from his narrow 2023 mayoral runoff victory over the candidate backed by both the Democratic Establishment and police unions. While he is surely wary of the damage anti-Israel and anti-Biden protests can do to the city’s image if they turn violent, Johnson is not without ties to protesters. He broke a tie in the Chicago City Council to ensure passage of a Gaza cease-fire resolution earlier this year. His negotiating skills will be tested by the maneuvering already underway with protest groups and the Democratic Party, but he’s not going to be the sort of implacable foe the 1968 protesters encountered.

The whole world (probably) won’t be watching.

The 1968 Democratic convention was from a bygone era of gavel-to-gavel coverage by the three broadcast-television networks that then dominated the media landscape and the living rooms of the country. When they were being bludgeoned by the Chicago police, protesters began chanting, “The whole world is watching,” which wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Today’s media coverage of major-party political conventions is extremely limited and (like coverage of other events) fragmented. If violence breaks out this time in Chicago, it will get a lot of attention, albeit much of it bent to the optics of the various media outlets covering it. But the sense in 1968 that the whole nation was watching in horror as an unprecedented event rolled out in real time will likely never be recovered.

April 17: A Closer Look at the “Uniparty” Fable

RFK Jr. and MTG are using the same dismissive term for major-party differences. I took at look at this phenomenon at New York:

Partisan polarization has been steadily growing in the U.S. since roughly the 1960s. Ironically, during this time, the complaint that the two parties are actually too alike has become increasingly prevalent. For years, right-wing Republicans have called people in the GOP who don’t share their exact degree of ideological extremism RINOs, or “Republicans in name only,” suggesting they’re basically Democrats. Left-wing Democrats occasionally echo these epithets by calling (relative) moderates “DINOs,” “ConservaDems,” or — back when maximum resistance to George W. Bush was de rigueur — “Vichy Democrats.”

Today the term “Uniparty” has come to denote the idea that Democrats and Republicans are actually working for the same evil Establishment enterprise, their loudly proclaimed differences being a mere sham. This contention was the culmination of a five-page letter Marjorie Taylor Greene recently sent her Republican colleagues calling for House Speaker Mike Johnson’s removal, unless he changes his ways instantly. She wrote:

“With so much at stake for our future and the future of our children, I will not tolerate this type of ‘leadership.’ This has been a complete and total surrender to, if not complete and total lockstep with, the Democrats’ agenda that has angered our Republican base so much and given them very little reason to vote for a Republican House majority …

“If these actions by the leaders of our conference continue, then we are not a Republican party – we are a Uniparty that is hell-bent on remaining on the path of self-inflicted destruction.”

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also leaned heavily into the Uniparty idea in his recent speech introducing running-mate Nicole Shanahan:

“Our independent run for the presidency is finally going to bring down the Democrat and Republican duopoly that gave us ruinous debt, chronic disease, endless wars, lockdowns, mandates, agency capture, and censorship. This is the same Trump/Biden Uniparty that has captured and appropriated our democracy and turned it over to Blackrock, State Street, Vanguard, and their other corporate donors. Nicole Shanahan will help me rally support for our revolution against Uniparty rule from both ends of the traditional Right vs. Left political spectrum.”

The Uniparty claim is ridiculous, of course, as FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley demonstrates:

“[O]ur current political moment is arguably farther away from having anything resembling a uniparty than at any other time in modern U.S. history. Based on their voting records, Democratic and Republican members of Congress have become increasingly polarized, and both the more moderate and more conservative wings of the congressional GOP have moved to the right at similar rates. Meanwhile, polling suggests that Americans now are more likely to view the parties as distinct from one another than in the past, an indication that the public broadly doesn’t see a uniparty in Washington. Although there are areas where the parties are less divided, the broader uniparty claim is at odds with our highly polarized and divided political era.”

Kennedy’s subscription to the Uniparty notion is understandable on two points. The first is that his candidacy is vastly more likely to tilt the 2024 presidential campaign in the direction of one of the two major-party candidates (likely Donald Trump, according to most of the polling) than to actually succeed in winning the presidency. Maintaining that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Biden or Trump running the country is essential to maintaining RFK’s appeal as November approaches and the futility of his bid becomes clearer. Second, Kennedy’s pervasive conspiracy-theory approach to contemporary life lends itself to the argument that the apparent gulf between the two major parties is a ruse disguising a sinister common purpose.

MTG’s Uniparty contention also reflects dual motives. In part she is simply echoing Trump’s weird but useful contention that he’s an “outsider” battling a Deep-State Establishment that secretly controls both parties, which is pretty rich since he dominates the GOP like Genghis Khan dominated the Golden Horde. But there is a marginally more legitimate sense in which key elements of the two parties really are in line with each other on isolated issues that happen to obsess Greene, such as aid to Ukraine. If you are a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail.

The same is true of other implicit Uniparty claims, particularly those made by progressive pro-Palestinian protesters who adamantly argue that the need to smite “Genocide Joe” Biden for his pro-Israel policies outweighs all the reasons it might be a bad idea to help Trump return to the White House (including the fact that Trump is palpably indifferent to Palestinian suffering). If the two parties do not appear to differ on your overriding issue, then the fundamental reality of polarization can fade into irrelevance.

So we’re likely to hear more Uniparty talk even as Democrats and Republicans head toward another highly fractious election with very high stakes attributable to their differences.

April 11: Presidential Race is Back to Square One

As part of my regular poll-gazing, I took a look at the presidential trends at New York:

Joe Biden is continuing his snail-like progress toward a dead heat with Donald Trump in polling this week. The RealClearPolitics polling averages for a national head-to-head contest between the two presidents now show Trump up by a mere 0.2 percent (45.5 to 45.3 percent), his smallest lead in these averages dating back to last October. If you took a very outlierish Rasmussen Poll giving Trump an eight-point lead out of the equation, Biden would actually be ahead. As it is, he leads Trump in the most recent surveys by Reuters-IpsosI&I-TIPPData for ProgressNPR-PBS-Marist, and Quinnipiac, a pretty impressive collection of pollsters (all but I&I-TIPP are in the top-25 outfits, according to FiveThirtyEight’s ratings).

Trump is maintaining a slightly larger lead (1.9 percent) in the national five-way polls that include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, and Jill Stein, per RCP’s averages. RFK Jr. holds 10 percent of the 13.2 percent going to non-major-party candidates. So the larger field continues to help Trump and hurt Biden, albeit marginally.

Battleground-state polling has been sparse in recent weeks; the last public polls in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin were from a March 24 Wall Street Journal survey. So Trump maintains his relatively robust leads in all those states. New polling in North Carolina (from High Point University and Quinnipiac) shows Trump’s lead in that state shrinking slightly to 4 percent. And fresh data from Pennsylvania via Franklin & Marshall has given Biden a slight (0.1 percent) lead in that state in the RCP averages. The trends for Biden overall are positive, albeit very slightly and slowly so.

In terms of where the numbers might go as we approach November, there are some even more positive sights for the incumbent. A fascinating new national survey from NORC published by FiveThirtyEight looked at how demonstrated propensity to vote affected presidential-candidate preferences, and the findings are potentially significant:

“When we broke out respondents by their voting history, we found dramatic differences in whom they support for president in 2024. President Joe Biden performed much better among frequent voters, while Trump had a large lead among people who haven’t voted recently. Specifically, among respondents who voted in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 general elections, Biden outpaced Trump 50 percent to 39 percent. But among respondents who were old enough to vote but voted in none of those three elections, Trump crushed Biden 44 percent to 26 percent.”

This survey reinforces evidence elsewhere that the traditional Democratic reliance on “marginal voters” has ended, and that now it’s Republicans who need an unusually high-turnout election to get Trump’s supporters to the polls. In the short term, this could mean that when pollsters begin to shift from registered-voter to likely-voter samples, Biden will probably get a boost (the sort of boost Republican candidates used to count on) in the comparative numbers. Whether that carries over to the actual results in November may depend on overall turnout levels, with Democrats holding an unusual advantage among the voters most likely to show up at the polls.

There are, of course, many other factors that will influence the direction of this contest, including the strength, wealth, and wisdom of the campaigns and of the national and state parties supporting them. But one thing to watch is whether the Kennedy candidacy, which is marginally hurting Biden right now, gets onto the ballot in all or most of the battleground states. At present, Kennedy’s campaign claims it has enough signatures to gain ballot access in Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan, and it’s in a dispute with Nevada over an early deadline for identifying a vice-presidential candidate that it missed, which may land in court. If Kennedy does gain the ballot access he needs, the big question will be whether his conspiracy-theory-drenched appeal has the sort of staying power that non-major-party candidates usually lack. If he fades, it will likely benefit Biden.

Real-world developments outside the campaign trail could matter as well. Team Biden has to worry about signs of renewed inflation. And all of Trump’s efforts to avoid a preelection criminal trial appear to have failed, at least in New York.

For now, this contest seems to be back to square one: very close and subject to a lot of cross-currents and events we can’t really predict.

April 10: For Biden, Two Paths to Victory Are Better Than One

A perennial strategic topic has popped up a lot recently, so I addressed it at New York:

In 2020, Joe Biden won four states by a margin of less than 2 percent of the vote: Georgia (0.23 percent), Arizona (0.30 percent), Wisconsin (0.63 percent), and Pennsylvania (1.33 percent). Donald Trump won one state, North Carolina, by 1.34 percent. Biden carried two other key states by margins under three points: Nevada (2.39 percent) and Michigan (2.78 percent). These seven states represent what most strategists in both parties consider to be the Biden-Trump battlegrounds for 2024, though obviously some will argue that others should be targeted (many Republicans think they have a chance in Minnesota, which Biden carried by just over 7 percent, and an abortion referendum makes Florida, which Trump carried by 4.36 percent, tempting for Democrats). Polling tends to confirm these seven as highly competitive this year.

2024 polls also, however, show a distinct regional pattern whereby Trump is leading Biden by robust margins in the Sun Belt states of Arizona (4.5 percent in the RCP polling averages), Nevada (3.2 percent), Georgia (3.8 percent), and North Carolina (4.6 percent), while Biden is doing relatively well in the Rust Belt states of Michigan (Trump leads by 2.8 percent, per RCP), Pennsylvania (Biden leads by 0.1 percent), and Wisconsin (Trump leads by 0.6 percent). His campaign may be tempted to narrowly focus on a Rust Belt strategy for victory but would be well advised to keep his options open.

There are some underlying dynamics that reinforce the regional pattern, as Ron Brownstein explains:

“President Joe Biden’s breakthrough 2020 wins in Arizona and Georgia seemed to confirm that the party’s future was increasingly reliant on Sun Belt states rapidly growing more racially diverse.

“But seven months before his rematch with presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, Biden’s most promising path may run directly through the three Rust Belt states that he recaptured in 2020 after Trump dislodged them from the ‘blue wall’ in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That’s the conclusion of a broad array of Democratic strategists.

“The shift in expectations reflects the upside-down racial dynamics of the 2024 race, with most national and state polls showing Biden largely holding his 2020 support among White voters, while facing, at this point, unprecedented erosion among Black and Latino voters. Biden, as I wrote last year, is likewise maintaining his 2020 support better among older than younger voters. These surprising patterns have made the relatively older and Whiter three industrial blue wall states appear a better bet for Biden.”

If everything else stays the same as in 2020, Biden could lose Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, along with North Carolina, and still win the presidency by the smallest possible margin in the Electoral College: 270 electoral votes to 268.

As Brownstein notes, the issue landscape in November could also make a Rust Belt strategy focused on white swing voters profitable:

“Biden is heavily stressing his support for legal abortion, and while polls show broad support for that position across racial lines, many pollsters believe it resonates most powerfully as a voting issue among college-educated White voters, especially women. Conversely, economic issues loom largest for most non-white voters; that’s a difficult dynamic for Biden across the Sun Belt because polls consistently show widespread discontent with his management of the economy, including among many Black and Latino voters.”

Another factor pushing Team Biden toward a Rust Belt strategy is the apparent strength of indie candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. among the Latino voters who are so prevalent in Arizona and Nevada, as Politico recently reported:

“[A] previously unreported poll in mid-February by Democratic group Equis Research … showed Kennedy performing surprisingly well among Latino voters in a dozen battleground states, effectively splintering Biden’s Hispanic coalition from 2020, when he garnered 59 percent Hispanic support …

“The poll of 2,010 registered Latino voters found Kennedy winning one in five young Latino voters, and also reported him capturing a sizable 17 percent Latino support in Arizona and an even more robust 21 percent in Nevada — the highest number among the battleground states polled.”

More generally, RFK Jr. seems to be taking votes away from Biden disproportionately in the Sun Belt. In the RCP averages, polls that include Kennedy and other minor candidates show Trump increasing his lead over Biden to 5.8 percent in Arizona5.5 percent in Nevada5.6 percent in Georgia, and 7 percent in North Carolina. These margins are pretty formidable.

Still, staking everything on sweeping Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin would be perilous for Biden. Michigan still looks a bit shaky for the president thanks to Democratic base voters there who are unhappy with his position on the Israel-Hamas war. And you can argue that as November approaches, the Kennedy threat will fade as minor-party/indie candidacies typically do and that the Black and Latino voters so crucial in the Sun Belt are likely to return to the Democratic fold. In addition, Arizona and Nevada may have abortion-policy measures on the ballot in November that could help boost Democratic turnout. On Tuesday, Arizona’s high court reinstated a total abortion ban from 1864.

Fortunately for Biden, his campaign doesn’t have to commit to one region or the other just yet, and it has the resources to keep all the battleground states in play. But some Democrats may have a residual hangover from 2016, when Hillary Clinton vainly pursued Sun Belt votes while failing to shore up what was then called the “blue wall” of Rust Belt states that swung to Trump. The numbers indicate that Biden should indeed nail down Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin if he can. But it would be prudent to make a big play for one of the larger Sun Belt states as well (e.g., Arizona, Georgia, or North Carolina) in case things go wrong. Having just one narrow path to 270 electoral votes is never a good idea.

April 5: Will Abortion Vote Make Florida Competitive in November?

A complicated series of judicial decisions in Florida could have changed the state’s dynamics in 2024, and I wrote it all up at New York:

Not long ago, Florida was considered the ultimate presidential battleground state. It determined the outcome of the 2000 election, and as recently as 2012 it was carried by a Democrat, Barack Obama. But after being won twice by Donald Trump, as Republicans swept every statewide elected office and increased their grip on the state legislature and congressional delegation, Florida is now perceived as decidedly red-tinged. Nevertheless, as Joe Biden’s 2024 campaign ponders a path to 270 electoral votes complicated by poor polling in key 2020 states like Arizona and Georgia, Florida’s 30 electoral votes remain tempting. That’s particularly true after the Florida Supreme Court simultaneously let a six-week abortion ban take effect while clearing the way for a November ballot initiative aimed at overturning it. The very next day, the same court cleared a November ballot initiative to legalize recreational cannabis use as well.

Florida could theoretically become ground zero for a national Democratic strategy of making popular anger over abortion restrictions the big game-changer for 2024, offsetting economic unhappiness, border-security worries, and concerns about Biden’s age. As my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti has pointed out, ballot measures have become a turnout-booster for Florida Democrats: “In three of the last four election cycles, the party’s turnout appeared to be helped by ballot initiatives — on broadening medical marijuana laws in 2016, on restoring voting rights for felons in 2018, and on raising the minimum wage in 2020.”

But is Florida likely to be close enough in 2024 to make this issue-driven reach for a win feasible? That’s not entirely clear. Perceptions of Florida’s trajectory are being heavily affected by the 2022 midterm blowout that gave Ron DeSantis a landslide 19-point reelection win. But at the presidential level, the red tide in the Sunshine State has been less dramatic, if still highly significant. Obama carried the state by a mere 0.9 percent in 2012 and then Hillary Clinton lost it by 1.2 percent four years later. Trump’s margin then increased to 3.3 percent in 2020, though the Biden campaign did not really target Florida. Demographically Florida has been a haven for tax-leery white retirees, including the blue-collar folk who have been trending Republican, and it’s also Exhibit A in the much-discussed Latino voter surge toward the GOP (much of it driven by conservative Cuban American and South American immigrants, with some drift among Puerto Ricans as well).

Public polling of the 2024 general election in Florida has been sparse, but two polls taken in March both show Trump with a solid if not overwhelming lead (six points per St. Pete Polls and seven points according to Redfield & Wilton Strategies).

There’s no question the twin abortion and cannabis ballot initiatives should be appealing to Democratic constituencies in Florida (especially the crucial youth vote). And the state’s 60 percent requirement for approval of state constitutional amendments means those votes will be tantalizingly close and heavily publicized. It’s also likely that the abortion policy fight will attract serious national money, with some perhaps coming from ultrawealthy Democratic Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who is already donating heavily to abortion ballot initiatives in Arizona and Nevada.

On the other hand, past ballot-measure fights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in 2022 have had a debatable effect on partisan-turnout patterns. Pro-choice forces have won them all, but often by attracting pro-choice Republican voters who still support their party’s candidates despite its anti-abortion positioning. The relatively late timing of Florida’s imposition of a near-total abortion ban (it was enacted last year but held up in the courts until this week’s judicial decision) could make the ballot fight in the state especially intense and accordingly dangerous for the Republicans responsible for this denial of basic rights.

Perhaps the best way to characterize Florida’s status in the presidential race right now is that it’s on the Biden campaign’s watch list and could move near the top if (a) subsequent polling looks promising and (b) other states counted on to win the president an Electoral College majority appear problematic. Even if it’s a reach, Team Biden would enjoy making a relatively cash-strapped Trump campaign devote precious resources to defending the 45th president’s home turf.