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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

February 8: The Futility (and Danger) of Third-Party Candidacies

One of the under-discussed topics of Election 2024 is the size, scope and impact of third-party or independent presidential candidacies. But it could become a big and (to Democrats in particular) eventful deal, which is all the more unfortunate insofar as these candidate’s can’t win, as I discussed at New York:

There’s no telling what the 2024 presidential general election is going to look like after what will probably seem like an endless campaign between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But both the early polls and recent history suggest that the contest will be close, just like six of the last seven presidential elections. Thanks to widespread disgruntlement with this choice, the odds are also high that the non-major-party vote will be relatively high (more like 2016’s 5.7 percent than 2020’s 1.9 percent) — and that may decide the election.

But as Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times points out in an important column, the one thing we know for sure is that none of these third-party or independent candidates is going to win:

“[T]o have any hope of fulfilling the constitutional requirement to win a majority of electoral votes, a third-party candidate would need at least a plurality of voters in a huge number of states. The party would need, on a state-by-state basis, to outcompete one of the other two parties, so that it could notch electors under the winner-take-all rules that apply in most states.

“This, unfortunately for anyone with third-party dreams, has never happened.”

Yes, there is an argument (being suggested most recently by the No Labels crowd, which is seeking ballot access for a yet-to-be-identified presidential candidacy) that a non-major-party candidate can crucially influence the direction of the nation by picking off a few states and deadlocking the Electoral College, thereby gaining massive leverage in the resolution of that deadlock in Congress. But to do that you need a very big regional base of support, as Bouie notes:

“In 1948, with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its candidate, the States’ Rights Democratic Party — better known as the Dixiecrats — won four states and 39 electoral votes despite gaining just 2.4 percent of the national popular vote. Twenty years later, George Wallace and the American Independent Party won 46 electoral votes and 13.5 percent of the popular vote.

“What both results suggest is that under the Electoral College, the next best alternative to a large and well-distributed national constituency is to have a small and intense regional one. It is, it seems, the only other way to win electoral votes as a third party.”

Both those efforts failed, of course. And if you scan the list of likely non-major-party candidates in 2024 — independents Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West; Green Party aspirant Jill Stein; whoever the Libertarians choose to run; and the “centrist” worthies under consideration by No Labels — there’s no one with the kind of regional base Thurmond or Wallace (or Teddy Roosevelt in his Bull Moose run of 1912) enjoyed. There is a nascent argument that Kennedy might augment his already-significant but highly diffused support (13 percent in the national RealClearPolitics averages in a five-way race) by winning the Libertarian nomination. That’s a bit of a reach given Kennedy’s lefty background and erratic views; he’s just not the sort of person you can imagine as a hero in an Ayn Rand novel, and his support for strong environmental policies might be a deal-breaker for the Libertarian Party, which has plenty of true believers from whom to choose. In any event, whatever RFK Jr. might gain from the easy ballot access Libertarians might offer would be offset by the number of voters who are decidedly non-libertarian.

As for No Labels, the group may back away from its threat to run a “unity ticket” thanks to internal dissension and the fury of former allies who think the whole effort would just guarantee a Trump victory. But even No Labels’ own highly dubious polling shows any foreseeable candidate would struggle to win electoral votes. To cite one example, the West Virginia voters whose antipathy to Joe Manchin led him to give up his Senate seat aren’t going to back him for president against Donald Trump.

What all of this suggests is that non-major-party candidacies should be viewed by voters and pundits alike strictly in the context of how they affect the Biden-Trump binary choice. Sure, there are ideological reasons some voters might pull the lever for the candidates of parties like the Libertarians and the Greens; those voters may believe that in the broader scheme of things it really just doesn’t matter whether Biden or Trump is the 46th president. For everyone else, the choice to go independent or third-party isn’t really a choice of that candidate, but of either Biden or Trump.

Things could change by November, of course, and the implications of non-party candidacies may depend on how many of them there are and who they are. But current polling shows that the current five-way race we are contemplating will likely help Trump defeat Biden, which makes sense when you consider the cohesiveness of Trump’s MAGA base and his inability to win a popular-vote majority. As Bouie puts it: “If Americans want different choices, they will need a different system.”

February 1: Will South Carolina Democrats Save Nikki Haley to Stop Trump?

There have been some odd twists already in the 2024 presidential contest, and today I wrote about one of them at New York.

After a nearly monthlong drought in public polling of South Carolina, the state whose February 24 Republican primary could for all practical purposes clinch the GOP nomination for Donald Trump, we finally have some fresh data. And the new Washington Post–Monmouth survey shows Trump still has a big lead over Nikki Haley in her home state.

The former president is up by a 58 percent to 32 percent margin among voters interested in and eligible to (we’ll have more on that below) participate in the open Republican primary, and he leads Haley comfortably in voter enthusiasm and on multiple issue-position and candidate traits, including electability. Fifty-seven percent of poll respondents say Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election “due to voter fraud,” and 60 percent believe Republicans should stick with Trump as nominee even if he’s convicted of criminal conduct in connection with his efforts to overturn that election result. Trump’s favorable-unfavorable ratio is 66 percent to 28 percent; Haley’s is 45 percent to 41 percent. He leads among women as well as among men, and in every age category of voter. And Trump leads the former South Carolina governor by 60 points (77 percent to 17 percent) among those who call themselves “strong Republicans” and by 26 points (60 percent to 34 percent) among “soft” or “leaning” Republicans.

There is some good news for Haley in this poll: She slightly leads Trump (46 percent to 44 percent) among college graduates, and she leads him strongly (61 percent to 15 percent) among those who self-identify not as Republicans but as independents or as Democrats. These independents and Democrats make up 19 percent of the poll’s sample. Ifthey were a much bigger portion of the GOP primary electorate, Haley might have a chance at an upset win. That’s a very big “if,” though.

South Carolina has no voter registration by party. Registered voters can choose either party’s primary in any given election cycle (though the registration deadline for this year’s presidential primaries has already passed), but once they choose one, they are barred from the other until the cycle is over. As it happens, South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary will be held on February 3. President Joe Biden has made a real effort to turn out the Democratic vote to resolve some doubts about his intraparty support in the state that gave him his big breakthrough in 2020. Nikki Haley really needs a lot of Democrats and Democrat-leaning indies to pass up that opportunity and turn out for her on February 24, says Monmouth polling director Patrick Murray:

“Haley’s hopes appear to hang on pulling in Democratic-leaning voters who would never support her in a general election but simply want to stop Trump. Our sampling frame for this poll did not include voters who have participated only in Democratic primaries. If a sizable number of those voters decide to skip this week’s primary and show up for the Republican contest instead, she could narrow the gap. It would remain a tough challenge, though, for her to actually close it.”

Keep in mind that for all of Nikki Haley’s self-portrayal as a beacon of civility and potential bipartisanship (at least as compared to the savage 45th president), she was the very partisan governor of South Carolina for six years after winning the election in 2010 as the candidate of the hard-core conservative DeMint-Sanford wing of the GOP and the high-profile tea-party protégé of Sarah Palin. As governor, she was known as a fierce advocate for big-business interests and for absolutely hating organized labor. Her one big enlightened gesture, the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse, was finally taken after a racist massacre at a Charleston church made the step largely noncontroversial.

For South Carolina Democrats to enter a Republican primary en masse to save Nikki Haley from a humiliating loss on her home turf would require either a great deal of amnesia or a fear of Donald Trump that makes all things possible. It would also represent a level of strategic voting that is rare in practice.

With three weeks to go before the GOP primary, we should be able to discern a major movement of South Carolina Democrats into the enemy camp if it happens. You can bet Team Trump will again warn (as it did prior to the New Hampshire primary) that Haley is inviting Democrats to “infiltrate” the Republican contest because they fear the former president. Sooner or later, of course, if Haley is to remain in the contest, she’s going to have to beat Trump among the “strong Republicans” who will dominate most primaries down the road. For the present, though, she needs a miracle and a lifeline from the other side of the partisan barricades.

January 31: How No Labels Lost Its Way–and Its Soul

One of the more fascinating battles in politics is between the centrist Democratic group Third Way and the allegedly centrist non-partisan group No Labels, which I examined carefully at New York:

The ideological polarization of the two major political parties that took place during and after the civil-rights era fed a partisan polarization as voters began to sort themselves out into dual tribes with contrasting points of view on a broad range of issues. As interparty disharmony increased, it was inevitable that there would be a widespread craving for more cooperation across party lines. That has been the mother’s milk of “centrism” in both major parties (more prevalent among Democrats than Republicans, to be sure) and absolute rocket fuel for bipartisan and nonpartisan organizations like No Labels. That group has flourished since its founding in 2010 as a vehicle for Republican and Democratic centrists to signal their interest in, and in some cases actually work on, joint policy projects, particularly in Congress (where it sponsored the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus).

In the Trump era of hyperpolarization, the craving for bipartisanship on which No Labels feeds has intensified along with voter fatigue with the traditional parties and the gerontocracy that often seems to rule them. Unfortunately, this development has seduced the leadership of No Labels to consider a fateful plunge into its own electoral project at the very highest level: a presidential candidacy in 2024. A significant segment of its original “centrist” supporters and sympathizers — especially those whose “label” being put aside was the Democratic donkey — has objected vociferously. These include the founder and CEO of the once-formidable Democratic Leadership Council, Al From, and, most of all, the organization that is in many respects the DLC’s successor, Third Way, which has become the Paul Revere of Democratic opposition to No Labels. Centrist policy intellectual and former No Labels booster Bill Galston has best explained his and other Democrats’ estrangement from No Labels, as reported by David A. Graham:

“’The initial premise was: We have no choice but to make the two-party system better,’ the political scientist William Galston told me. Galston helped found No Labels, but he parted ways with the group in 2023 because he feared that a presidential bid would help reelect Trump. ‘The current effort rests on a different premise altogether — namely, that we have to go outside the two-party system to make things better,’ Galston said.”

Running its own presidential candidate arguably makes the nonpartisan No Labels a third party, even though the group rejects that … label. In theory, the idea is to jolt Democrats and Republicans into cooperation by beating them to the White House, presumably just once. The premise seems to be that a No Labels president — or, in some iterations of the group’s shadowy 2024 plans, a president who takes office via a deal with No Labels after its candidate has denied either party an Electoral College majority — will retreat from the field after forcing the old parties to play pretty with each other. That scenario requires a degree of trust in No Labels’ leaders that they really haven’t earned, as Graham observes:

“No Labels isn’t offering much information at all about how it will choose its ticket without a primary. The group says it will make the decision about whether to field a candidate after Super Tuesday, based on an analysis of whether such a candidate would have a real shot. Many experts outside No Labels see such a calculation as basically impossible …

“Assuming No Labels does decide to nominate a candidate, how will the group choose that person? That’s a mystery too. Originally, the group planned an in-person convention of supporters this April in Dallas, but in November, it announced plans to hold the convention virtually instead. But No Labels hasn’t said what such a convention would look like or what role delegates would play in choosing the candidate.”

Based on Joe Biden’s own centrist credentials and the tight-knit Republican-base vote that Donald Trump commands, most of No Labels’ Democratic detractors echo Galston’s fear that any candidate sponsored by the group will take more votes away from the incumbent and pave the way for another Trump plurality win even more egregious than his 2016 election. And No Labels’ secrecy about the donors who have paid for its extensive ballot-access operation (which has succeeded in 14 states despite no one knowing the identity of its candidate) has fed the suspicion that a Trump victory could be the whole idea.

Even if you don’t believe the No Labels 2024 initiative is a sinister MAGA plot and instead think it’s a well-meaning but dangerously naïve undertaking (as Third Way’s leaders suggest), it’s just bizarre that its plans have gone so far without a clear plan of what they will actually produce. But there are signs the wheels are falling off this particular bandwagon, as CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere reports:

“Larry Hogan, the Republican former governor of Maryland, quit the No Labels board last month over frustration that power and information were being hoarded by group leadership — and not to, as reported elsewhere, clear the way for a presidential run of his own.

“’It’s been far less organized than he expected it to be’ and ‘he doesn’t see a plan coming together,’ a person familiar with Hogan’s thinking told CNN. ‘You don’t know where this train is going, and you’re signing up for something you didn’t necessarily sign up for.’

“Asked for his own assessment of the No Labels plan, [West Virginia Senator Joe] Manchin told CNN on the road in New Hampshire as he kicked off a national tour, ‘I don’t think anybody knows. I think it’s changing day by day, hour by hour.’

That’s significant since Hogan and Manchin are the two names mentioned most often as potential No Labels presidential candidates. Pretty clearly the organization has veered off course, arguably because it tried to change missions overnight. Historically, those who try to harness discontent with major political parties seek to break the mold by creating their own “third” party in hopes of realigning politics or actually aim at “reforming” one of the old parties in a more productive direction. No Labels’ ostensible strategy of knocking Democratic and Republican heads together and then fading away makes no sense and thus naturally arouses suspicion. It’s probably going nowhere fast in 2024, and that’s a good thing even for those unhappy with the Democrats and the Republicans. No Labels lost its original purpose and as a result has lost its soul.

January 25: Can Nikki Haley Really Be an “Outsider” In Her Own State?

I try not to share too much content here that’s strictly about intra-Republican political matters. But I’ll make an exception today because Nikki Haley’s shape-shifting habits are relevant to political deception in every kind of election, as I explained at New York:

During her aggressively upbeat speech on primary night in New Hampshire, presidential candidate Nikki Haley obliquely acknowledged the fact that the overwhelming majority of Republican-elected officials in her home state of South Carolina — the next and perhaps final stop of the competitive phase of the 2024 GOP nomination battle — are backing Donald Trump.

“Every time I’ve run for office in South Carolina, I’ve beaten the political Establishment. They’re lined up against me again, that’s no surprise,” Haley said. “But South Carolina voters don’t want a coronation, they want an election.”

It was a bit of an odd note for a politician who was twice elected governor of the Palmetto State. Yes, it’s doubtless been difficult for Haley to watch her former home-state allies — including her successor, Governor Henry McMaster, and the man she appointed to the U.S. Senate, Tim Scott — climb aboard the Trump Train. But without question, it’s Trump’s intense popularity in South Carolina, not some sort of “Establishment” disdain for Insurgent Nikki, that has led to her embarrassing lack of elected official support back home. There haven’t been any public polls from the state since early January, but Trump’s smallest margin over Haley during the entire cycle has been 26 percentage points, and he’s at 52 percent there in the RealClearPolitics averages. It’s no surprise: Trump won the state’s primary in 2016, beating out Marco Rubio, the preferred candidate of the South Carolina Republican “Establishment” at the time (he was endorsed by both Scott and Haley).

So perhaps Haley has no real choice but to seek to re-acquire the mantle of the scrappy underdog fighting “the man,” a role she really did assume back in 2010 in her first race for governor. That contest, in which she came from the back of the pack to win a tightly contested Republican primary and runoff (and then a tough general election fight, a bit of an afterthought in that deep-red state) is now overtly becoming the model for Haley 2024 in South Carolina, as The State reports:

“’She’s always been the outsider, she didn’t have endorsements in 2010, she doesn’t have them now, she is running as the outsider anti-establishment candidate, same as 2010 and I think ultimately they have their endorsements and their Washington insiders and that’s totally fine,’ said [Olivia] Perez-Cubas, spokeswoman for the Haley campaign. ‘Nikki is focused on earning the votes and supporters and everyday Americans.’”

There are some big problems, however, with that analogy, other than the obvious fact that Haley was an obscure state legislator in 2010 and has been a dominant figure in Palmetto State Republican politics ever since. In 2010 Haley was the candidate of the hard-core Tea Party conservatives in what might be called the Jim DeMint–Mark Sanford wing of the GOP, systematic ideologues often at odds with the former Dixiecrats who were slowly dying out. Sanford’s bizarre 2009 extra-marital affair conducted under the guise of “hiking the Appalachian Trail” made him damaged goods in 2010, but his estranged wife, Jenny, was an important force behind Haley’s ascent. Her real stroke of luck, however, was becoming the very favorite candidate of the then-red-hot right-wing folk heroine Sarah Palin, the veritable Queen of the Tea Party, who designated Haley a fellow Mama Grizzly, as the Washington Post recently recalled:

“Former congressman J. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) still remembers what he calls the ‘seismic’ quake that upended the 2010 South Carolina Republican primary for governor. …

“[F]ormer vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin came to town, holding a raucous rally for Haley on the steps of the South Carolina State House in downtown Columbia.

“’We felt a tectonic shift, honestly, to the point where we actually went back into the field the next week, because it was that earth-shattering,’ Barrett said.”

Palin’s high-profile backing perfectly set up Haley to campaign as the “conservative reformer” battling the state party’s “good ol’ boys” (code for former Democrats who had drifted into the GOP in opposition to civil rights measures). She beat Barrett in a runoff in which she won crucial backing from third-place finisher Henry McMaster (the same Henry McMaster who’s being deemed an “Establishment” figure for backing Trump), and the rest was history.

So how does this translate to 2024? Not very well. Trump is now the candidate of the right-wing insurgents, and he’s in the process of executing a hostile takeover of the Republican Establishment, with last-ditch resistance from beltway types and donors who are almost invariably backing Haley. In New Hampshire, Haley’s very best state going into the January 23 primary, Trump won (according to the exit polls) 71 percent of self-identified conservatives, and 89 percent of those who describe themselves as “very conservative.” These are the kind of Republicans Nikki Haley and Sarah Palin were appealing to in 2010. They are now populating the MAGA movement, which in many respects is the Tea Party on steroids and with a very bad attitude.

You can’t blame Haley for trying to make a virtue of necessity by treating her lack of elite and popular support in South Carolina as the product of an arrogant Establishment she is bravely battling, just as she did 14 years ago. To a limited extent, it might even work. A wild card in her 2010 victory was an ugly spate of racist and sexist comments and rumors about her (most notably undocumented claims of extramarital sexual activity) that reinforced her image as a courageous woman of principle fighting piggy rednecks. Trump’s strange decision to savage her personally for refusing to fold her tent, along with his penchant for racist nicknames for her, will bring back some unsavory Palmetto State memories of those early smears.

But in that respect as in others, Haley cannot expect Trump to win this or any other primary for her with his excesses. If nothing else, Trump’s crude antics will remind primary voters that no matter how many endorsements he gathers from elected officials, he’s the unrivaled King of Chaos, and his “establishment” is based on the very ideological extremism that gave Nikki Haley’s political career its first big lift.


January 24: Joe Biden Won Twice in New Hampshire

After watching the returns from New Hampshire on the evening of January 23, I offered a take on the rogue Democratic primary at New York:

Despite lots of irresponsible talk about Joe Biden potentially getting ambushed in an officially unauthorized New Hampshire primary where he wasn’t on the ballot, the president brushed aside two opponents and won a primary for the first time in this influential state. He won even though he didn’t campaign there and even though Democrats had to go to the trouble to write in his name. And he won about two-thirds of the vote against two challengers who essentially camped out in New Hampshire, hoping lightning would strike. Some predicted he would underperform and get knocked out of his reelection race like Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Instead Biden called into question whether Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson have any reason to continue their unsuccessful candidacies.

In fact, Biden won a double victory in New Hampshire. Aside from winning his own primary, his general-election strategy is being vindicated by the continuing success of his preferred general-election opponent, Donald Trump. No, Trump didn’t (or so it seems) knock Nikki Haley out of the Republican race. But the former president’s nomination seems really inevitable now. And the fact that he may have to grumpily stalk the primary campaign trail for at least a month before it’s official will give the White House fresh opportunities to remind voters (including Haley supporters) of the fateful choice they will have to make in November.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden can move on to his first official, non-rogue primary in South Carolina, where Democrats will vote three weeks before the Trump-Haley battle there. The Palmetto State Democratic primary should be a real love-in as Joe Biden campaigns among the voters who absolutely saved his bacon in 2020 and put him on the path to the presidency. The contrast with the glowering Trump and the Republicans who are on a white-knuckle ride with him should be richly rewarding for the 46th president.


January 19: No, Democrats Aren’t “Infiltrating” the New Hampshire Republican Party

It’s not unusual for Donald Trump to just make up stuff that’s not true, but in this case I wanted to set the record straight at New York:

In her very long-shot effort to get in the way of Donald Trump’s third consecutive Republican presidential nomination, Nikki Haley really needs to overperform in the New Hampshire primary on January 23. Fortunately for her, it’s probably her best state in the entire country. For one thing, she’s spent a lot of time there and is benefiting from the strong support of popular lame-duck governor Chris Sununu. But more basically, the GOP primary electorate is relatively light on Evangelicals (a mere 25 percent in the 2016 presidential primary), and GOP moderates are a small but visible breed (27 percent in 2016). Plus, independents (42 percent of GOP primary voters in 2016) are allowed to participate in the Republican contest.

Trump has seized on this last data point in an effort to discredit Haley’s showing on the chance that she really does beat expectations, as the Washington Post reports:

“Trump argued during his rally here [in Portsmouth] that Haley is ‘counting on Democrats and liberals to infiltrate your Republican primary.’

“’A vote for Nikki Haley this Tuesday is a vote for Joe Biden and a Democratic Congress this November,’ Trump said. (He went so far as to suggest that Haley would abandon her party, stating at one point: ‘I actually think she might go to the Democrat Party.’”)

As is often the case with the 45th president, he didn’t exactly get his facts right. Registered Democrats cannot vote in the GOP primary in New Hampshire, and they couldn’t even switch party registration after the October 2023 deadline (reportedly 4,000 voters — or less than 2 percent of the anticipated primary vote — did so). Still, as Ben Jacobs noted at New York recently, there has been an organized effort to get Democratic-leaning independents to vote against Trump in the GOP primary, and according to the polls, they are contributing to Haley’s base of support.

A new St. Anselm College poll this week shows Haley leading Trump by 52 percent to 37 percent among registered independents, who represent 47 percent of likely Republican primary voters (Trump leads Haley 65 percent to 25 percent among registered Republicans). Ten percent of likely GOP primary voters, moreover, told the pollsters they self-identify as Democrats, and among them Haley wins 90 percent.

There’s nothing illegitimate, much less illegal, about independents voting in a partisan New Hampshire primary (six other states allow independents to vote in either party’s primaries, and another 16 states — including South Carolina, which is holding the next big primary on the calendar — don’t have registration by party, which means you just show up at the polls and pick a primary). And a significant majority (81 percent, according to a Pew study in 2019) of independents nationally lean strongly toward one party or another. So there’s no “infiltrating” going on in New Hampshire, and the vast majority of GOP primary participants will likely support the party nominee in November. Team Haley, of course, will argue that her popularity among non-party-affiliated and even some self-identified Democratic voters is a token of how well she would do in a general-election contest with Joe Biden.

Having said all that, Trump’s superior performance among self-identified Republicans could pay off for him down the road in states with closed primaries in which independents — no matter which way they lean — cannot vote. That’s assuming he hasn’t already clinched the nomination much earlier, which will certainly happen if he beats Haley in New Hampshire and then in South Carolina, as appears likely. That St. Anselm poll showing Haley doing so well among independents also gives Trump a 14-point lead overall. To invert the old Sinatra song, if she can’t make it there, she can’t make it anywhere.

January 17: What the Iowa Caucuses Mean for November

Now that the results are in from the Iowa Caucuses, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what if anything they mean for the general election, so I assessed that issue at New York:

Donald Trump’s landslide victory in the Iowa Caucuses sealed his position as the overwhelming favorite to win a third straight Republican presidential nomination. For the millions of Americans who either hope or fear that our most-impeached and most-indicted president will consummate his comeback in November, the big question is what the Iowa results can tell us about the general election, beyond the high odds that Trump will be on the ballot.

The clearest answer is that Trump will be the nominee of a relatively well-united Republican Party that is familiar with his act in all its outrageous permutations and is fine with it. That’s quite the contrast with where he was the last time he participated in contested Iowa Caucuses, in 2016. Then he was an insurgent candidate who lost to the more conventional (if hard-core) conservative Ted Cruz, and eventually won the nomination by wearing down the opposition and taking a number of steps (including the choice of the hyper-conventional Mike Pence as his running mate) to win over skeptics. But even as the nominee he had a lot of intraparty problems; 33 percent of Republicans gave him an unfavorable rating in mid-October of 2016, according to Gallup.

The latest such poll this year, from YouGov, showed just 16 percent of Republicans giving him an unfavorable rating, despite eight intervening years of relentless mendacity, shout-outs to authoritarians, erratic (at best) management of a pandemic, and then the 2020 election denial followed by an attempted coup d’état via thugs invading the Capitol. And that’s just the high spots of a record that you’d think (and think wrong) might give a lot of Republicans pause about going to war with this particular general in the lead tank.

Yet as Iowa showed, they are plunging straight ahead. He won there by a record 30 points, with 51 percent, despite being heavily outspent by opponents on campaign advertising. Yes, caucuses like Iowa’s draw a very small percentage of voters, even within the limited universe of the GOP. But here’s the thing: Trump is actually doing a lot better in national polls of Republicans, registering the support of 61.4 percent of them in the RealClearPolitics averages. And the entrance polls in Iowa do indicate that Trump is winning broad support within the GOP, across ideological and geographical lines. Nothing happened there that should make you doubt the general election polling that shows him leading Joe Biden.

There are some shadows in the Iowa numbers for Trump, however, as the ever-insightful Ron Brownstein points out at The Atlantic after looking at the entrance polls:

“[N]oteworthy was voters’ response to an entrance-poll question about whether they would still consider Trump fit for the presidency if he was convicted of a crime. Nearly two-thirds said yes, which speaks to his strength within the Republican Party. But about three in ten said no, which speaks to possible problems in a general election. That result was consistent with the findings in a wide array of polls that somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of GOP partisans believe that Trump’s actions after the 2020 election were a threat to democracy or illegal. How many of those Republican-leaning voters would ultimately support him will be crucial to his viability if he wins the nomination.”

This confirms that Trump’s conduct on January 6, along with the criminal charges he faces, could have a crucial effect on the general election, even though these same factors may have actually helped him win the nomination (in part by forcing his most formidable rivals to defend him!). But it is very, very difficult to assess at this early point where exactly the various court procedures involving Trump will be just before and on Election Day, much less what exactly they will reveal and how the revelations (or the unprecedented spectacle of a presidential nominee in the dock) will affect the campaign and the outcome. You cannot just assume the people (in Iowa or elsewhere) who now say a criminally convicted Trump isn’t fit to serve as president will vote for Joe Biden or some other non-Republican candidate. How many of them said in October of 2018 that the swinish man revealed by the Access Hollywood tape would never get their vote for president … and then voted for him anyway just weeks later? Yes, Trump’s conduct and efforts to hold him accountable will become part of a powerfully presented comparative case by the Biden campaign to make voting for the Republican difficult if not impossible even for voters who aren’t happy with the incumbent’s performance. But it’s one of many variables that will determine how many swing voters there are in November and which way they will swing.

Trump’s hold on a majority of his partisans is fierce, though like Biden he is going to have some defectors, and it’s likely to be a close general election unless conditions in the country improve enough to lift Biden’s job-approval ratings significantly. Anyone hoping that Trump would stumble early on the road back to the White House is likely going to be disappointed.

January 12: Like Mr. Magoo, Mike Johnson May Blunder Into Keeping the Government Open

Watching the now-customary chaos among House Republicans, I predicted at New York that this time all the dysfunction may prevent rather than trigger a government shutdown:

Since Republicans won narrow control of the U.S. House a year ago, the most important dynamic affecting the 118th Congress has been utter disarray within the GOP ranks. The only real leverage the House GOP has over big national policy issues is its ability by inaction to shut down the federal government, since affirmative legislation in both congressional chambers is required to enact the annual spending measures necessary to keep Washington humming. Because Republicans only have a tiny majority (down temporarily to just one seat thanks to recent resignations), it only takes a few rebels to keep their conference from any particular course of action. Within the hard-core conservative House Freedom Caucus there are enough members willing to risk a government shutdown to make very basic decisions on federal spending levels impossible. They’re also happy to wreak vengeance on any Speaker who cooperates with the hated Democratic enemy to avoid disaster, as Kevin McCarthy did last fall.

So Congress lurches from stopgap spending bill to stopgap spending bill, and now Speaker Mike Johnson is in very much the same position that led to McCarthy’s defenestration by a maneuver to take away his gavel. He’s agreed with Senate Democrats on general spending levels for defense and nondefense programs (known in beltway jargon as a “top-line spending deal”) and wants now to translate the agreement into individual appropriations bills before the last stopgap spending measures expire on January 19 (for part of the federal government) and February 2 (for the rest of it, including the Pentagon). Predictably, Freedom Caucus hardliners don’t think the deal cuts spending nearly enough, and they also want to pass some right-wing “policy riders” on issues like abortion and the alleged persecution of conservatives by federal law enforcement officials. But Johnson’s their guy, unlike McCarthy, and they really don’t want to go through another “motion to vacate the chair” and then another impossible search for a Speaker who can somehow meet their demands without the power to force Democrats to go along with them.

Ironically, the continuing disarray in the House GOP conference may produce enough paralysis to keep the federal government operating. At the moment Johnson wants another stopgap spending measure (known as a “continuing resolution” or CR) to buy enough time to implement the top-line spending agreement. After issuing some threats to blow everything up, the Freedom Caucus rebels now seem inclined to favor a CR so they can buy time to unravel that agreement and unite Republicans around something more to their liking. Conveniently, Senate Democrats are moving a CR that would kick the can down the road until March. It’s looking more and more like a House GOP (and more generally, a Congress) that can’t agree on anything else might be able to agree to disagree at least a bit longer without dire consequences for the federal government. It’s even possible that the closer they get to November elections, the more Republicans will become inclined to just let voters decide how to resolve their differences with each other and with Democrats.

If Johnson is indeed rescued from a fatal revolt by the irresolution of the very rebels who took down McCarthy, there will be some observers who credit the novice congressional leader with Machiavellian talents not possessed by his wily predecessor. It’s more likely Johnson is Mr. Magoo, blundering through potential disasters by sheer luck. It remains to be seen if his luck runs out before this exhausting session of Congress ends.


January 11: Trump’s True “Evangelical” Base: Hateful People Who Don’t Go to Church

As a long-time student of the intersection of religion and politics, I don’t often learn something that really surprises me, but reported at New York on an exception:

Barring a big surprise that defies all the polls, Ron DeSantis is going to fall far short of his original expectations in the Iowa Caucuses on January 15.

Where did DeSantis go wrong in Iowa? His strategy, to be clear, was to closely emulate that of the last three winners of contested GOP caucuses, Mike Huckabee (in 2008), Rick Santorum (in 2012), and Ted Cruz (in 2016), by building a formidable field organization and appealing to Iowa’s powerful conservative evangelical voting bloc via hard-core right-wing positions on cultural issues. He committed early on to appearances in all 99 counties in the state; turned most of his campaign over to veterans of Cruz’s 2016 effort; signed a “heartbeat” law banning abortions after six weeks that was virtually identical to the one signed by Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, an evangelical heroine; and succeeded in winning endorsements from both Reynolds and from evangelical kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats (who had supplied crucially timed endorsements to Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz). He also (at least initially) added the kind of money politicians like Huckabee and Santorum could never have raised.

None of it has worked beyond keeping the Florida governor in the game in Iowa even as he sank like a stone in the other early states, which he neglected. There have been three common explanations for DeSantis’s Iowa struggles: (1) organizational problems stemming from overdelegation of campaign chores to the Never Back Down super-PAC, leading to late-campaign chaos; (2) DeSantis’s meh personality, which only grew more evident thanks to his retail-heavy Iowa effort; and (3) DeSantis’s bid to out-Trump Trump, regularly running to his right, which was doomed to fail against the founder of the MAGA movement and the beloved daddy of its most right-wing elements.

There’s undoubtedly a significant element of truth to all these reasons DeSantis is falling short of high early expectations in Iowa. But there is another that helps explain why the Floridian’s intense cultivation of conservative evangelicals isn’t bearing the kind of fruit he surely anticipated: Evangelicals themselves are evolving in a way that strengthens their loyalty to Trump no matter what self-professed “kingmakers” want. The New York Times’ Ruth Graham and Charles Homans have reported on this phenomenon:

“Being evangelical once suggested regular church attendance, a focus on salvation and conversion and strongly held views on specific issues such as abortion. Today, it is as often used to describe a cultural and political identity: one in which Christians are considered a persecuted minority, traditional institutions are viewed skeptically and Mr. Trump looms large.

“’Politics has become the master identity,’ said Ryan Burge, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor. ‘Everything else lines up behind partisanship.’”

More and more white evangelicals are engaging in a sort of roll-your-own form of religious practice, and this appears to be a particularly advanced development in Iowa, according to Graham and Homans. These believers are detached from collective worship services as much as from formal denominations and feed on social media “prophets” and others who share Trump’s treatment of conservative Christians as an aggrieved constituency group longing for the good old days and paranoid about persecution by Big Government and secular progressives. From their perspective, Trump’s heathenish personal behavior and theological illiteracy aren’t nearly so alienating as it is for churchgoing folk who acknowledge strict codes of conduct and doctrinal teachings. Indeed, in some respects they are more like Trump than some of his churchier political rivals, as Burge tells the Times writers:

“An increasing number of people in many of the most zealously Trump-supporting parts of Iowa fit a religious profile similar to the former president’s. “’Iowa is culturally conservative, non-practicing Christians at this point,’ Mr. Burge said. ‘That’s exactly Trump’s base.’”

This trend is doubly deadly for politicians like DeSantis. Un- or de-churched evangelicals are not going to take orders from Bob Vander Plaats or Kim Reynolds. And they are more focused on MAGA issues rather than on the “social issues” as traditionally defined by the old-school Christian right:

“The evolving evangelical identity is already scrambling how politicians appeal to these voters. Mr. Burge’s research has found that ‘cultural Christians’ care relatively little about bedrock religious-right causes like abortion and pornography.

“In interviews across Iowa, non-churchgoing Christians who supported Republican candidates, even those who said they believed in governing the country by Christian principles, cited immigration and the economy most often as their top issues in this year’s election.”

That’s not to say these people have lost the sense of certainty — and sometimes self-righteousness — often associated with conservative Christians, whether it’s “traditionalist” Catholics or The-Bible-Tells-Me-So Protestants, Graham and Homans observe:

“At Mr. Trump’s rally in Coralville, it was Joel Tenney, a 27-year-old local evangelist who does not lead a church, who delivered the opening prayer.

The crowd responded tepidly to his impassioned recitation of several Bible verses. But the rallygoers roared to life when he set aside the Scripture and told them what they had come to hear.

“’This election is part of a spiritual battle,’ Mr. Tenney said. ‘When Donald Trump becomes the 47th president of the United States, there will be retribution against all those who have promoted evil in this country.’”

Among these Iowans, Ron DeSantis, for all his contrived battles with Disney and Anthony Fauci and LGBTQ+ activists and the education establishment, can’t compete with Trump. Uninhibited by laws or the Constitution, and devoid of Christian charity, Trump will smite Satan and all his infernal minions on Day One.

January 4: Biden ’24 Is a Better Bet Than Truman ’48

I love historical analogies for campaigns and elections, and looked at a familiar precedent at New York:

It’s probably a by-product of our unstable and fractious political environment that observers constantly reach for historical precedents to anchor today’s dizzying developments in patterns we can recognize. So I am highly sympathetic to Nate Cohn’s effort in a New York Times column to suggest that Joe Biden’s reelection bid might resemble Harry Truman’s in 1948.

Truman is an eternal role model for embattled presidents whose reelection prospects seemed doomed; his upset win over Thomas Dewey is the perpetual consolation of struggling incumbents. It’s no accident that when Donald Trump was badly trailing Biden in the polls during the summer of 2020, his fans began predicting a Truman-style comeback.

Cohn, however, is focused on a particular analogy between 1948 and 2024: the fact that, like Biden, Truman struggled to overcome intense unhappiness over rapidly rising prices at a time when other economic indicators were quite positive:

“In the era of modern economic data, Harry Truman was the only president besides Joe Biden to oversee an economy with inflation over 7 percent while unemployment stayed under 4 percent and G.D.P. growth kept climbing. Voters weren’t overjoyed then, either. Instead, they saw Mr. Truman as incompetent, feared another depression and doubted their economic future, even though they were at the dawn of postwar economic prosperity.”

What Cohn wants us to understand is that Truman’s remarkable comeback was accompanied by an intense presidential focus on fighting inflation:

“You might well remember from your U.S. history classes that he blamed the famous ‘Do Nothing Congress’ for not enacting his agenda.

“What you might not have learned in history class is that Mr. Truman attacked the ‘Do Nothing Congress’ first and foremost for failing to do anything about prices. The text of his speech at the Democratic convention does not quite do justice to his impassioned attack on Republicans for failing to extend price controls in 1946, and for their platform on prices.”

Cohn notes that Biden cannot emulate certain assets Truman had in his efforts to bring down inflation while blaming his Republican opponents for its persistence: a mechanism, government price controls, that was popular then but entirely disreputable now and a Congress totally controlled by the GOP, making it as culpable as the president for hard times.

But while Biden may not have some of the raw materials Truman used to build his remarkable comeback, he also doesn’t share some of the distinct problems the 33rd president faced.

Yes, Biden is coping with dissension in his party’s ranks but not the sort of formal crack-up that led to not one but two competing ex-Democratic presidential tickets in 1948: the States’ Rights Democratic (a.k.a. Dixiecrat) ticket led by Strom Thurmond, which attracted southern segregationists, and ex-Vice-President Henry Wallace’s left-bent Progressives. Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is indeed an ex-Democrat from a famous Democratic family, but it appears he is taking away at least as many votes from the Republican column as from his former party.

Biden also suffers from a dyspeptic post-pandemic public mood that is similar in some respects to the angst afflicting Americans after the euphoric unity of World War II. That’s bad for any incumbent president. But Truman had the additional handicap of his party having controlled the White House for 16 years, the longest stretch since the post–Civil War era of Republican dominance. Today, the United States is in an extended period of exceptional balance between the two major parties, which have each held the presidency for exactly half of the 21st century and shared control of Congress as often as not.

But the most important difference between 1948 and 2024 is the identity of the likely Republican nominee. Yes, Dewey was a repeat nominee as Trump will be, having run a respectable if losing campaign against FDR in 1944. But Dewey, who was the governor of New York, was as remote from Trump in his temperament and ideological inclinations as is possible to imagine. The living embodiment of the Republican Establishment of his day, Dewey was relatively progressive on domestic-policy issues (he famously debated his most formidable primary opponent, Harold Stassen, on the single topic of Stassen’s proposal that the Communist Party should be outlawed, strongly opposing the idea) and resolutely internationalist in foreign policy. In sharp contrast to the perpetually turbulent MAGA movement founder, Dewey ran a quiet, even complacent general-election campaign that heavily relied on the poll-driven belief that he would win easily. And while Truman did indeed run a strongly partisan campaign attacking the opposing party, most of his fire was trained on congressional Republicans rather than Dewey himself.

There is zero question that Biden is staking his reelection prospects on making 2024 a referendum on Trump as much as on his own performance as president. And while the kind of sharp improvement in perceptions of the economy that helped rescue Truman would also enormously benefit Biden, he may not have to become all that popular to win.

In his essay on 1948 and 2024, Cohn hints at one factor that was crucial in 1948 and could be equally important this year: a national craving for “normalcy.” He doesn’t go into this issue in detail, but it’s clear in retrospect that Republicans had high expectations of victory in 1948 in no small part because they assumed voters wanted calm and stable governance after the excitement of the Great Depression and World War II (much as British voters rejected Winston Churchill’s long-governing Tories at the very end of that war). One reason Truman won is that he successfully warned swing voters that a Republican administration would junk Democratic policies (not just wartime price controls but, crucially, farm price supports) they had come to rely on as a normal part of economic life.

One of the big intangibles about 2024 is whether swing voters ultimately perceive a Trump comeback as auguring a return to the pre-pandemic status quo ante (especially in terms of prices and interest rates) as less fearful than another term for an octogenarian incumbent thought to be less than fully in control — or instead make the same calculations many did in 2020 when Biden offered a safe alternative to the perpetually alarming 45th president. I’d say the odds of the latter contingency are pretty high so long as the economy continues to improve even modestly. It’s far too early to predict happy days will be here again for Democrats, but it’s no time for excessive pessimism either.