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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

September 17: Does Biden Need Yard Signs and Door-Knocking to Win?

As different attitudes towards the pandemic lead Rs and Ds in different directions in terms of campaign tactics, I wrote up the debate at New York:

Back in the 1990s, when disciples of James Carville dominated the ranks of Democratic campaign professionals, you could always get a big rise out of any of them by suggesting they should deploy more yard signs and billboards. Their contempt for such old-school tools was near-complete, as was their faith in a concise, poll-tested message conveyed heavily on TV. You saw an echo of this contrast in partisan preference in 2012, when Barack Obama’s data-hip team quietly mocked the conservative pundits aflutter over Mitt Romney’s yard-sign advantage.

Now even in the 1990s, Democrats didn’t completely eschew hard-core, visible campaign methods, as anyone who has ever heard a sound truck in an urban neighborhood conducting aptly named “knock and drag” get-out-the-vote operations can attest. Indeed, as partisan polarization has reduced the number of persuadable swing voters, such occasionally noisy mobilization efforts have become more important in both parties.

“This year, 83-year-old former Chrysler employee [Don Sabbe] says he’ll definitely vote for Joe Biden, but he’s getting concerned about Biden’s campaign here in Michigan.

“’I can’t even find a sign,’ Sabbe says outside a Kroger’s in Sterling Heights, where surrounding cars fly massive Donald Trump flags that say ‘No More Bullsh-t’ and fellow shoppers wear Trump T-shirts for their weekend grocery runs. ‘I’m looking for one of those storefronts. I’m looking for a campaign office for Biden. And I’m not finding one.’

“The reason Sabbe can’t find a dedicated Biden campaign field office is because there aren’t any around here. Not in Macomb County, the swing region where Sabbe lives. It’s not even clear Biden has opened any new dedicated field offices in the state; because of the pandemic, they’ve moved their field organizing effort online.”

Hilariously, when Alter asked one Biden campaign staffer how many people they had on the ground in Michigan, she was asked in turn: “What do you mean by ‘on the ground’?”

By contrast, for all its alleged social-media savvy and its heavy TV presence, the Trump-Pence campaign is very physically in-your-face, from the raucous live rallies the president loves so much to the boat parades and the huge flags and signs and every other campaign resource of the 1950s. The MAGA folk may choose to ignore polls because they allegedly miss “shy Trump voters.” But “shy” is not the word that comes to mind when you encounter bellowing red-hatted fans of the president eager to show their lack of political correctness.

In choosing a different approach, the Biden campaign is practicing what he preaches in the way of responsible behavior during a pandemic. The candidate’s representatives say they are compensating for the lack of sound and fury in other ways, according to Alter:

“Biden’s Michigan team says its campaign is significantly bigger than Clinton’s and may be the largest program in the state’s history. The campaign says it reached out to 1.4 million voters during the Democratic convention and the weekend that followed, with 500 digital-organizing events and 10,000 volunteer signups. In the week before Labor Day, the campaign sent 500,000 texts to Michigan voters — one every half-second. It has just replaced the trappings of a traditional ground game — volunteers knocking on doors, distributing literature, and so forth — with a digital field operation.”

The question is whether there’s something about the loud-and-proud Trump effort that is somehow contagious, or that helps build enthusiasm and willingness to vote in a tangible way. Looking at it conversely, does a field operation without physical voter contact forfeit something essential?

“Democrats are used to measuring their strength by their ground game, and without physical boots on the ground, the effect can be unsettling. It brings up uncomfortable questions about whether a ‘digital field’ operation can really replace a ‘traditional field’ operation without something being lost. Sure, it sounds like digital field organizing should work. But does it actually? Nobody knows, because it’s never been tried on this scale before.”

The polls look good for Biden in Michigan, but they looked good for Clinton in 2016, too — though fewer of them were being taken. If nothing else, though, perhaps the dominant physical presence of the Trump campaign and its supporters will help prevent the kind of Democratic overconfidence that may have done in HRC.

September 16: A Comparative Check-In on Polls 50 Days Out

I decided to compare Biden’s poll position to those of the Democratic nominees in the last four elections, and wrote up the results at New York:

Fifty days from Election Day (November 3), Joe Biden leads Donald Trump in the RealClearPolitics polling averages nationally by 7.4 percent (50.5 to 43.1). He’s led every day of the last year, by margins ranging from 11.8 percent on September 17, 2019, to 4 percent on January 24, 2020.

Biden’s current lead is the largest a candidate has held at the 50-day mark in any of the last four presidential election cycles. In 2004 George W. Bush led John Kerry by 5.7 percent; he would ultimately win by 2.4 percent. In 2008 John McCain actually led Barack Obama by 1.3 percent; he would eventually lose by 7.3 percent. In 2012 Obama led Mitt Romney by 2.8 percent 50 days out; his actual margin was 3.9 percent. And in 2016 Clinton was up 1.3 percent 50 days out; her final popular-vote margin was 2.1 percent.

It is possible Trump will get those kind of late breaks, but unlike Obama in 2008, he’s now the incumbent president with a consistent “very unfavorable” rating in the polls hovering at or just under 50 percent. Heavy early voting this year means that with each passing day the slice of the electorate (with an already-low undecided vote) that could be “turned around” by a Trump surge is shrinking. And Biden’s polling lead is enhanced by the fact that most national pollsters have already completed the “switchover” to a likely voter screen that often benefits Republican candidates.

While Trump partisans trash the national polls as inaccurate “like they were in 2016” (they actually weren’t), and mindlessly claim his manifest greatness will generate a landslide win, his best hope remains an Electoral College advantage that could again give him a narrow win despite a popular-vote deficit. From state polls and what we can infer from regional trends, Trump might well pull off an upset if he gets Biden’s national lead down to around three points.

But again: Trump hasn’t been within three points of Biden in the RCP national polling averages even once in the past year. So it might take something exceptional to make that happen now.

September 10: Sun Belt or Rust Belt: the Strategic Choice Remains

Looking back at something I wrote at the beginning of the election cycle about the strategic battleground, I revisited the key question at New York:

Soon after the 2018 midterms, I reviewed the evidence about where Democrats made gains and suggested it still wasn’t clear which strategy the party should adopt in trying to recover from the 2016 loss to Trump:

“The two most obvious regional strategies for Democrats are to win back the heartland/Rust Belt (depending on how you think about them) states that Trump narrowly carried despite a strong history of going the other way: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. There are two similar additional states that Obama carried twice: Iowa and Ohio.

“At the other end of the spectrum are Sun Belt states that were already quite close (Florida and North Carolina) or that have recently been trending Democratic (Arizona, Georgia, and Texas) at varying rates.”

The midterm numbers didn’t really indicate one path or the other:

“In the end, the Democratic presidential strategy for ejecting Trump in 2020 will follow the polls — hopefully better and more frequent polls than those taken by the Clinton campaign in those heartland states that ultimately cost them the election of 2016 — and perceived opportunities.”

So here we are less than two months away from Election Day, and with early voting beginning almost immediately, and the best strategic path is still unclear. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump nationally by 7.5 percent. If Biden maintains that sort of lead through Election Day, then the Electoral College will take care of itself and the Democrat will win very comfortably across the range of battleground states in both competitive parts of the country.

But if the national race tightens, the battleground situation gets much more complicated. Again using FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Biden’s currently trailing in Georgia and Texas, and has a lead under 2 percent in Florida and North Carolina. Of the realistic Sun Belt targets for Democrats, Biden has a robust lead only in Nevada (6.4 percent), which Democrats carried in 2016, and Arizona (4.7 percent).

In the competitive Rust Belt states, Biden’s national lead is matched only by his advantage in Wisconsin (7.5 percent). He has a decent cushion as well in Michigan (6.6 percent) and Minnesota (6.2 percent), and a slimmer one in Pennsylvania (4.1 percent). He’s trailing, however, in Ohio and Iowa, which means they probably become winnable only in the midst of a big Biden victory.

So all in all it looks like a Rust Belt strategy makes the most sense for Biden, right? Ron Brownstein suggests that could be the case:

“Exactly eight weeks before Election Day, Biden has strong opportunities to recapture states that President Donald Trump won in 2016 both in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt. But public and private polls consistently show that Biden is running slightly better in the former group of battlegrounds — centered on Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — than the latter, which include North Carolina, Florida and Arizona …

“[Biden’s] potential to improve on Hillary Clinton’s showing with older and blue-collar

September 9: Mail Ballot Requests Heavy, and Heavily Democratic

With voting by mail about to begin, the first clear statistics on who will cast mail ballots are significant, so I wrote it up at New York:

Until now, the prospect of people voting by mail in unprecedented numbers in November has been mostly speculative, based on what happened in this year’s primaries, along with polling, and a general long-term trend towards this method of voting. But now as states are releasing data on general election mail ballot requests, it’s all getting very real, as the Associated Press reports:

“Mail balloting is set to begin Friday in the presidential election as North Carolina starts sending out more than 600,000 ballots to voters — responding to a massive spike in requests that has played out across the country as voters look for a safer way to cast ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic….

“In 2016, just one-quarter of the [national] electorate cast votes by mail. This time, election officials expect the majority of voters to use the method. Wisconsin has already received nearly 100,000 more requests than it did in the 2016 election. In Florida, 3,347,960 people requested ballots during the 2016 election. The state has already received 4,270,781 requests.”

And so far (from states that can and do track the party ID of mail ballot applicants) the Democrat tilt of those who plan to vote by mail is unmistakable:

“The GOP has historically dominated North Carolina mail voting, but this year the people asking for the ballots are generally not Republicans. Democrats requested more than 337,000 ballots, and independents 200,000, while only 103,000 were sought by Republicans. Voters in the state can continue to request the ballots up until Oct. 27, though that may be too close to the Nov. 3 election for them to receive the ballot and return it to their local elections office in time.

“The Democratic lead in mail ballots isn’t only in North Carolina. In Maine, 60% of requests for mail ballots have been made by Democrats and 22% by independents. In Pennsylvania, Democrats have requested nearly triple the number of absentee ballots as Republicans. In Florida, where the GOP once dominated mail voting, 47.5% of requests have come from Democrats and 32% from Republicans.”

Now normally, that would indicate higher general interest in voting among Democrats, and perhaps an impending blue tsunami. But the president’s months-long campaign against voting by mail is clearly a big, and perhaps the biggest, factor in creating this partisan tilt, so it’s unclear whether it would exist otherwise. The other implication of the early evidence on partisan splits in willingness to vote by mail is that the Red Mirage scenario – where the first votes counted on Election Night are in-person ballots that skew heavily Republican, leading to a premature Trump victory claim coupled with delegitimization of subsequently counted mail ballots as fraudulent – remains a very real threat.

September 4: The Kennedy Dynasty Didn’t Fall in One Night

Given the reaction — and arguably over-reaction — to Joseph Kennedy’s III primary loss to Ed Markey in a Massachusetts primary, I offered some ruminations about earlier setbacks to the famous political dynasty at New York:

Coverage of Joseph Kennedy III’s failed primary challenge to Senator Ed Markey has been described as signaling the end of the family dynasty he young Joe often seemed uncomfortable representing. That feels unfair, since the Kennedy clan’s reputation for political invincibility began to slowly unravel many years ago.

It’s true that Joe III’s campaign broke a long Kennedy winning streak in Massachusetts, as the Boston Globe noted:

It was also the first Kennedy loss in 13 U.S. Senate races (two by JFK, one by RFK, and nine by Ted Kennedy). But it was hardly the first big family disappointment.

Joe’s grandfather Bobby suffered the first Kennedy loss in any electoral contest over a half-century ago in 1968, when he lost an Oregon presidential primary to Eugene McCarthy a week before posting a comeback win in California — but was then assassinated after his victory speech.

Four years later, former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy by marriage, agreed to become the replacement for vice-presidential nominee Tom Eagleton (who was pushed off the ticket after the media discovered his history of drunk-driving arrests and shock treatments) on the horrifically unsuccessful presidential slate of George McGovern, which lost 49 states. McGovern had actually been the stand-in for RFK at the 1968 convention.

In 1980, Ted Kennedy’s presidential challenge to Jimmy Carter got off to a disastrous start, as he lost 12 of the first 13 primaries and caucuses, winning only Massachusetts. Though he later rallied with some big wins, it was all too little, too late, and Ted never ran for president again.

The next generation of Kennedy pols had a lot of problems. Joseph Kennedy II, the most recent candidate’s dad, chose to retire from the U.S. House in 1998 after an embarrassing scandal over his efforts to secure an annulment and marry his secretary. His sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend served two terms as lieutenant governor of Maryland but then lost the governorship to a Republican in a huge 2002 upset. Cousin Mark Kennedy Shriver served two terms in the Maryland legislature before losing a congressional primary to (now-senator) Chris Van Hollen.

Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick won a congressional seat in Rhode Island in 1994 and made it into the House Democratic leadership, but in 2010 he gave up his seat and his electoral career after struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. Until Joe III won a Massachusetts congressional seat in 2012, there was a brief moment when no Kennedy was serving in elected office. JFK’s famous daughter, Caroline Kennedy, briefly considered a Senate bid in New York when Hillary Clinton became secretary of State, but she withdrew from consideration. Yet another RFK child, Chris Kennedy, ran for governor of Illinois in 2018 but finished third in the Democratic primary.

That’s a lot of family trial and error that should not be laid at the doorstep of Joe Kennedy III. As the Globe notes, it’s entirely possible the dynasty could make a comeback:

“There are other, younger Kennedys who could enter the political arena — Jack Schlossberg, JFK’s grandson, appeared in a video with his mother, Caroline, at the Democratic National Convention, quickly sparking memes about his resemblance to his handsome uncle, the late John Kennedy Jr. And Ted Kennedy’s grandson, Edward Kennedy III, has expressed an interest in politics. Amy Kennedy, who married Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick, recently won a Democratic House primary in New Jersey.”

And the latest Kennedy candidate is himself awfully young to retire from politics. Perhaps next time around, he can run as just “Joe.”

September 2: Look Out For the “Red Mirage”

Some new data on a scary 2020 scenario has popped up, and I wrote about it at New York:

For a good while now, a number of us political obsessives have been playing Paul Revere in warning of an Election Night phenomenon that could lead to a contested presidential election and perhaps a constitutional crisis. The issue is an unprecedented number of mail ballots (thanks to COVID-19 fears and the polling-place chaos we saw in many primaries this spring and summer) accompanied by a big partisan split in willingness to vote by mail, mostly created by the president’s interminable attacks on that method of voting. Since, for the most part, Election Day in-person ballots will be counted before mail ballots, Trump and other Republicans may assume an early lead on Election Night that will inevitably be reduced and in many cases erased as mail ballots drift in. Trump being Trump, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision him claiming victory on Election Night and then attacking subsequent Democratic-leaning mail ballots as fraudulent.

Now, the digital data firm Hawkfish has come up with an empirically solid scenario of how this “red mirage” (as they call it) might unfold. An extensive survey conducted by the firm confirmed the partisan split in voting methodologies, and its significance. They explained, via email:

“Over 40% of voters intend to vote by mail, nearly double the number who voted by mail in 2016.

“Far more Democrats than Republicans intend to vote by mail. Over 50% of Biden’s supporters intend to vote by mail, compared to less than 20% of Trump’s supporters.

“The partisan divide in voting method is greater in most battleground states. Over two thirds of Biden supporters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Arizona intend to vote by mail; less than one quarter of Trump supporters in these states intend to exercise that same option.”

Using the baseline of the 9.3 percent national Biden lead (and a 334–204 advantage in the Electoral College) shown by FiveThirtyEight in August, and information on vote counts in the recent past, Hawkfish shows that an ultimate nine-point Biden national popular vote win could look like a four-point Trump lead (and a 339–199 electoral vote lead) on Election Night:

“[I]f by election night all polling place ballots and 40% of vote-by-mail ballots (in states where vote-by-mail will surge high above historical levels) are counted, Trump will temporarily lead in even safelyblue states. Given his history of false claims and dismissal of vote-by-mail, Trump may exploit this Red Mirage to claim victory and dispute any subsequent change to the electoral map.”

Needless to say, if the presidential race tightens (and Biden’s lead in the FiveThirtyEight polling averages is already down to 7.1 percent), Trump’s Election Night lead could be even larger, even if he’s doomed to defeat. And according to Hawkfish’s estimates, Biden might not take the lead until 75 percent of mail ballots have been counted, which could take several days.

Trump’s ability to throw sand in everyone’s eyes on Election Night depends on some combination of media impatience and public ignorance about how the vote count will proceed. If media outlets refute a Trump victory claim as premature, and if the public understands the election results may take several days to congeal, the red mirage may fade pretty quickly. But a new survey from Axios shows a majority of voters still expect a relatively quick result:

“One in three Americans thinks we’ll know who won the presidential election on the night of Nov. 3, and six in 10 expect the winner to be announced within a couple of days, our new poll finds …

“While so many opinions around the elections are heavily influenced by party ID, so far this question is not.

“A slightly smaller share of Democrats than Republicans say we’ll have same-night results (32% versus 37%). There’s even less of a gap by party among those who say we’ll know within a couple of days. More Republicans than Democrats think it could take longer than a month, but the difference is just 5 percentage points.”

There is no time like the present to begin educating everyone on the red mirage and its sources.

August 27: Pence Expels Democrats From America As We’ve Known It

Vice President Mike Pence’s RNC speech achieved new lows, as I noted at New York:

For a while the third night of the Republican National Convention was a relatively bland evening of conservative ideological boilerplate (I lost count of how many times “school choice,” never once defined, was touted). But then Vice-President Mike Pence had his big moment as “keynote speaker” from a superpatriotic setting at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. And as you might expect from the sycophant-in-chief, Pence carried the message of this convention to its logical end in this remarkable passage:

“Last week, Joe Biden said democracy is on the ballot but the truth is … our economic recovery is on the ballot, law and order is on the ballot. But so are things far more fundamental and foundational to our country.

“It’s whether we will leave to our children and our grandchildren a country grounded in our highest ideals of freedom, free markets, and the unalienable right to life and liberty — or whether we will leave to our children and grandchildren a country that is fundamentally transformed into something else.”

In other words, America can’t be America without Donald Trump. Even Trump himself has never made that sweeping a claim tying his identity to the essence of the nation, though you can bet he will now. Given a campaign strategy based on claims of wild success for the Trump administration combined with demonization of Democrats as enemies of the country bent on disbanding police departments and turning loose Black rioters to sack and pillage the suburbs, it was a short step to denying them and their candidate any legitimate role in national life. Pence went there without missing a breath, though it took away mine.

Earlier in his address, Pence did a rather humdrum job of what I thought would be a major focus of his address: defending the administration’s record on managing COVID-19. He did pull off a nice trick of playing on the religious sensibilities of his fellow conservative Evangelicals by expressing confidence in the “miracle” of an early, American-developed vaccine. But the real tell was that the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force spoke to a crowd of over a hundred people, few of them masked and indifferently separated, who cheered and chanted in what was probably a small dress rehearsal for Trump’s speech on the White House lawn tomorrow night. These people still don’t take their own alleged advice on the pandemic that will have killed close to a quarter million Americans by Election Day — though at least it was all outside.

But Pence’s real focus was making it abundantly clear that in the turmoil over police killings and the battle for racial justice, Republicans stand unambiguously for the Heroes in Blue and the good taxpaying citizens who expect them to provide protection against those people:

“We will have law and order on the streets of America.

“President Trump and I know the men and women that put on the uniform of law enforcement are the best of us. They put their lives on the line every day …

“The hard truth is … you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America. Under President Trump, we will stand with those who stand on the Thin Blue Line, and we’re not going to defund the police — not now, not ever.”

Given the timing of this address, Pence seemed to be identifying with the officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake, if not the 17-year-old Trump fan suspected to have murdered two protesters against that act of police brutality. But beyond that dog whistle, Pence was roughly the 20th speaker at this convention to repeat the lie that Biden (who has been very clear in opposing any “defunding of the police”) or Democrats (whose congressional caucuses unanimously embraced a police-reform bill that rejected “defunding” as even an option) want to disband the police and exult in anarchy. But the lie was key to his final judgment about Biden:

“When you consider their agenda it’s clear: Joe Biden would be nothing more than a Trojan horse for a radical left.”

You know, the “radical left” that supports reproductive rights that have been the law of the land for 47 years; that wants to restore voting rights first established in 1965; that supports a perspective toward immigrants shared by George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan; that doesn’t want to repeal Obamacare or privatize Medicare or raid Social Security.

Republicans are entirely within their rights to treat the November election as an ideological choice between liberalism and conservatism, and also as a choice of leadership styles between a chronic norm-breaker and an apostle of boring normalcy. But claiming patriotism, goodwill, and Americanism itself as the exclusive property of his own party and president, as Mike Pence did at Fort McHenry, is just beyond the pale, and a disgrace to the spirit of community that is patriotism’s essence. It’s a sign of his party’s desperation that it goes this far in reinforcing Donald Trump’s dangerous belief that without him, his country is a bunch of losers.

August 20: Will Republicans Counter DNC’s Diversity with Racism?

Trying to watch the Democratic National Convention through the baleful eyes of the opposition, I got the feeling it would tempt them into sin, so I wrote about it at New York:

We don’t know much about the messaging and lineup of next week’s Republican National Convention — aside, of course, from the president’s provocative decision to deliver his acceptance speech from the White House grounds and his equally provocative choice to offer a speaking slot to Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who brandished assault weapons at peaceful protesters who were passing the McCloskey’s mega-mansion on their way to the mayor’s house. But we know that Trump’s reelection campaign has been focused on energizing his base and emphasizing those racially abrasive themes that seek to augment his base with suburban swing voters. Here’s how one Trump adviser explained it to Politico:

“’Part of our message will focus on how the suburbs are becoming unsafe because inner cities are unsafe, and Biden and Kamala are going to make it even worse. People who have been impacted by the lawlessness will speak,’ said the outside Trump adviser.”

He might have added that Trump has been crudely promoting the idea that the equal-housing policies Biden is likely to favor will damage suburban property values by letting those people move into previously white areas. In any event, it’s unlikely the Trump campaign will suddenly “pivot to the center” and moderate his pitch this late in the game.

Indeed — as Ron Brownstein points out — for all the president’s troubles, he retains relatively strong support among the non-college-educated white voters who were attracted to his hateful and divisive 2016 message:

These are not as strong as the numbers he posted in 2016, but boosting them with raw, race-based MAGA appeals may be the most direct path to another narrow Trump win. And it’s entirely possible that the images being flashed around the country by the Democratic convention will add to the Republican temptation to go feral:

“Last night’s proceedings were effectively a tribute to America’s growing diversity. The energetic, quick-cut keynote speech included multiple speakers who were Latino, Black, Asian American, Native American, and LGBTQ, not to mention several women. The brilliantly reimagined convention roll call reinforced the point, with brief testimonials—some somber, others endearingly goofy—from another diverse roster of speakers in every state and territory, a change that drew rave reviews on Twitter and TV news. Some Democratic activists complained that organizers had allocated too much of the event’s limited time to Republicans and too little to nonwhite progressive leaders such as Stacey Abrams and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But average viewers probably absorbed a very different image: On a day when Trump delivered an incendiary speech in Yuma, Arizona, touting his border wall and even reprising the language from his 2015 campaign announcement about immigrants as ‘murderers’ and ‘rapists,’ Democrats offered the 21st-century version of a Norman Rockwell painting.”

You have to figure Team Trump has some focus groups registering fear and loathing of this image of an America where 20th-century ideas of “greatness” have not been restored and are threatened anew.

Sure, the RNC will have its own overlapping agendas. You can, for example, expect as many non-white Republican speakers as organizers can find (including Black state legislator Vernon Jones of Georgia, who will serve as a counter to all the cross-party speakers Democrats recruited). But no one will be left with the impression that Trump’s GOP is anything other than the party of a threatened white Christian hegemony that is unhappy about Black Lives Matter, police accountability, and immigrant rights and is nearly twice as exercised about “violent crime” as it is about COVID-19 (according to a recent Pew survey). You can expect four days of subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging to their worst instincts.

August 14: The Building Blocks of an Early Trump Lead on Election Night

I have warning about a presidential election contested by Trump for months now, and can only watch it falling into place, as I explained at New York:

For months now, I and other observers have suggested that the president’s demonization of voting by mail wasn’t just aimed at securing restrictions in the practice by the states. He also wants his own supporters to vote in person. Why? Well, because if they comply, he is likely to take an early lead in Election Night returns that will only slowly erode as disproportionately Democratic mail ballots drift in after being authenticated and then tabulated. Since he has taken the position that mail balloting (except in Florida!) is fraudulent, and that elections decided after Election Day are “rigged” and stolen, then he will be in a position to claim victory and then contest any reversal of fortune.

If that’s the plan, it’s well on its way to implementation, as a new national survey from Pew Research indicates. Asked how they intend to vote, 80 percent of Trump supporters say they will vote in person (either on Election Day or earlier) and only 17 percent will vote by mail. Among Biden supporters, 58 percent say that will vote by mail as opposed to 40 percent who will vote in person.

If these numbers are even close to reality, since in-person votes are generally counted before mail ballots, Trump will be in a position to take an early lead nationally and in most battleground states. Any appearance of a pro-Biden trend later, or for that matter any logjam or other problems with counting mail ballots, will undoubtedly be touted by Team Trump as evidence of fraud.

When Trump first started his crusade against voting by mail, you had to wonder if it might backfire by denying loyal Trump voters — including elderly Trump voters — a way to turn out for MAGA without endangering their health. But a separate part of the Pew survey shows that Trump has also succeeded in minimizing their COVID-19 fears to an impressive extent. Asked if they found any in a long series of issues this year “very important,” only 39 percent of Trump supporters placed COVID-19 in that category, as compared to 88 percent of Biden supporters. Issues which a higher percentage of Trump supporters deemed “very important” included “violent crime” (74 percent), “Supreme Court appointments” (61 percent), “immigration” (61 percent), “gun policy” (60 percent), and “abortion” (46 percent). Perhaps these perceptions will change by the fall if Trump’s assurance that the pandemic is just going to go away predictably proves false. But for now, his people are more than willing to go vote for him in person. And the “blue shift,” whereby the latest mail ballots (and thus the last counted) tilt Democratic, can exaggerate the split between what we hear on Election Night and what we hear when the count is finally completed.

What can opponents of election tampering do about this fairly open plan to skew the early results? Well, it would be helpful if polls began to distinguish between those planning to vote by mail and those planning to vote in person, in order to make expectations realistic and head off the possibility that pundits and citizens alike will see the early returns and decide Trump’s 2016 miracle is happening again. Some pundit education is in order, too, so that the petulant behavior of TV gabbers when they were denied an early decision from the 2020 Iowa caucuses doesn’t recur.

The most important thing, however, is to make every effort to facilitate the efficient (and transparent) handling of mail ballots so that counting them isn’t unduly delayed, and BS fraud allegations are rebutted. And if they don’t want to get “counted out,” Democrats should do what they can, if conditions permit, to bank as many early in-person ballots as possible.

August 13: The Democratic Popular Vote Streak

As we drift towards November, I offered a reminder at New York that even if Trump wins, he will probably lose the popular vote — again.

When I was a much younger political junkie, a term you heard a lot was the “Republican Electoral College Lock.” E.J. Dionne explained it in 1988:

“In the last five elections, 23 states with 202 electoral votes (out of the 270 needed to win) have voted Republican every time. In those elections, Republicans have won a total of 2,075 electoral votes, the Democrats a mere 567.”

That year Republicans expanded their electoral vote lead since 1968 to a 2,501 to 678 margin (though two states, Iowa and Oregon, voted Democratic for the first time since 1964, a sign of shifting tectonic plates to come). But the more fundamental idea was that Republicans were regularly putting together a coalition of states that left them with a much shorter path to the finish line than Democrats had.

The “Republican Electoral Vote Lock” was rudely interrupted by Bill Clinton’s two wins, and put to rest for all time with Barack Obama’s two wins. But Democrats have quietly put together a streak of their own, as Ron Brownstein explains:

“If Joe Biden maintains his steady lead in national polls over President Donald Trump through Election Day, Democrats will win the popular vote for the seventh time in the past eight presidential elections – something no party has achieved since the formation of the modern American political system in 1828….

“Since…1828, no party has won the popular vote more than six times over any eight-election sequence. Democrats did that from the 1820s to the 1850s, Republicans did it from the 1890s to the 1920s and Democrats managed the feat again from the 1930s to the 1960s. Viewed from another angle, no party has previously won seven popular-vote victories in fewer than nine presidential elections (as Democrats did from 1824 to 1856, Republicans from 1896 to 1928 and Democrats from 1932 to 1964).”

Republicans, of course, have won the presidency twice in this century while losing the popular vote. That only happened three times in the previous 211 years.

Since Trump’s strategy assumes another Electoral College win combined with a popular vote loss, a record- a record-breaking Democratic streak is, well, nearly a lock. And unless the Republican Party gets serious about expanding its narrow coalition to include nonwhite voters and urban areas, its presidential candidates will likely to continue to rely on an Electoral College advantage to win the presidency – until they lose and are forced to change.

But unfortunately, they have another, sinister option: hanging onto power by strengthening the institutions – not just the electoral college, but the U.S. Senate, the states, the federal courts – that allow for minority rule. And they can also continue to thwart popular majorities by building rather than filling potholes on the path to the ballot box. Brownstein quotes Republican heretic Geoffrey Kabaservice on this point:

“The Republican appetite for vote suppression ultimately springs from the lack of confidence in the popular appeal of its ideas. Otherwise you wouldn’t need to do that. … I think the party has not just given up on ever winning majority status, it has given up on trying to persuade people who are not already in the camp.”

As for Democrats, they can continue to agitate for a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College or some scheme to neutralize it (e.g. the National Popular Vote Initiative, an interstate compact whereby states pledge to cast their electoral voters for the national popular vote winner); the former would take many years and the latter could be challenged in court as unconstitutional. The surest route to protection of minority rights is probably via voting rights activism, assuming Democrats win both Congress and the White House this year, says Brownstein:

“[M]ost observers consider it more likely that a unified Democratic government would pursue the election agenda the House passed in 2019 – and that former President Barack Obama recently endorsed in his eulogy for Rep. John Lewis. That would include approving a new Voting Rights Act, measures to ease registration and access to voting, limits on gerrymandering of congressional districts, constraints on unregulated political spending and potentially making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico new states. (The House has already voted for DC statehood but has not addressed Puerto Rico.)”

A trifecta Democratic government would also at least seriously consider abolition of the legislative filibuster, a goal Obama endorsed in those same remarks at Lewis’s funeral.

At some point the Democratic popular majority is going to reject being regularly consigned to the tender mercies of a GOP minority that’s mostly interested in fighting to protect its illicit power.