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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

July 4: Affirmative Action Restoration Leads California Ballot Initiatives

California ballot initiatives often set national trends and affect down-ballot races in the Golden State. I wrote about this year’s batch at New York:

California offers reasonably easy access to the ballot for groups wanting to change state policies, and requires public approval of constitutional amendments passed by the legislature. So it has a rich history of ballot initiative fights that sometimes overshadow elections for public office, from the tax revolts of the 1970s to the immigration backlash of the 1990s and beyond. 2020 is no exception, with 12 measures on the ballot in a year when California won’t be competitive in the presidential contest and has no Senate seats up for grabs.

Going into 2020, it was widely anticipated that a so-called “split roll” initiative removing strict limits on property tax increases from commercial property might blot out the sky and produce one of the most expensive and consequential battles ever. Long the apple of the eye of many public-sector unions and good government groups seeking a broader tax base, the initiative would limit the sacrosanct Proposition 13 protections against tax increases to (largely) residential real estate, exposing commercial property to tax assessments based on current market value rather than its value when the property last changed hands.

Backers of a “split roll” figured a presidential year with high Democratic turnout would be the best time to pursue this measure, but didn’t account for the arrival of the coronavirus and a deep economic recession, which may have made voters averse to major changes in the status quo. The defeat by voters of a statewide bond initiative for education in the March primary may indicate California’s entering a period of fiscal retrenchment, though the huge budget deficits the state is now facing could cut the other way. An April PPIC survey showed.a slim majority of voters then favoring the split roll initiative.

While Prop 209 won 55 percent approval from California voters, the state’s demographics have significantly changed since then. Additionally, past hostility to affirmative action among the state’s Asian-American leadership has abated; a majority of Asian-American legislators supported the repeal initiative on grounds that whatever losses their community might have in university admissions would be more than offset in gains in public employment and contracts, but there may be grassroots opposition among white and Asian-American voters. The repeal is being supported by Governor Gavin Newsom, the Regents of the University of California and most elected Democrats.

Two other ballot initiatives of note would be aimed at expanding voting rights. One would extend restoration of voting rights to parolees as well as the probationers who currently qualify. According to one study, about 40,000 Californians would benefit from this initiative if it passes. A separate amendment would allow those who will turn 18 by any general election date to vote in the preceding primaries (or special elections) at the age of 17.

An initiative relaxing state limits on local imposition of rent control was defeated in 2018. A narrower measure is back on the ballot this year that supplements a new state law limiting the size of rent increases generally.

Another initiative that could spur heavy ad spending is one backed by Uber and Lyft and some delivery services that would essentially exempt their drivers from a new California law designed to limit the classification of workers as independent contractors to avoid minimum wage and benefits obligations.

And in one other notable battle, “split roll” isn’t the only ballot initiative that would change the Prop 13 property tax system. Another backed by realtors (who failed with a similar initiative in 2018) would let homeowners over 55 keep Prop 13 protections when buying new properties. As a sweetener to progressives often hostile to Prop 13, the initiative would also eliminate the so-called “Lebowski Loophole” (so named because actor Jeff Bridges was a major beneficiary, though he is all for its elimination) whereby children can continue Prop 13 protections on expensive investment and rental properties they inherit.

The California airwaves will be busy with ads for and against initiatives in the fall, and could help goose turnout, affecting U.S. House and state legislative races if not the presidential contest.


July 2: Imperial President Wants to Run For Reelection As Outsider

One of the odder takes on Trump’s reelection strategy drove me to a mocking response at New York:

You may have heard that Donald J. Trump is president of the United States. If you are inclined to forget it for a moment, he is ever ready to remind you by incessant tweets, abrasive public comments, loud rallies, expensive ads, and the hallelujahs of his chorus of supporters that he is the man. Not only is he the president, he is, he insists, the greatest president ever, whose administration is dizzy with success and muscle-bound with accomplishments. His midterm self-assessment was modestly entitled “500 Days of American Greatness.” Trump’s presidency is quite possibly the most imperial of imperial presidencies, characterized by contemptuous disregard for any constitutional limits on his power (“I have an Article 2 [of the Constitution] where I have the right to do whatever I want as president” he once said).

I reiterate these well-known attributes of our narcissistic chief executive by way of background for this astonishing Wall Street Journal story:

“President Trump’s case for re-election reprises his pitch for a first term in office, as he and his team try to portray presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as an incumbent while accentuating his own outsider credentials.

“In advertisements, interviews and social-media posts, Mr. Trump is highlighting Mr. Biden’s four decades as a Delaware senator and vice president — the most consistent message among several the president has driven so far about his competitor.”

Now, it’s not surprising that an incumbent president running for reelection at a time when objective conditions in the country are dreadful — in part because of his own hubris, negligence, and, yes, narcissism — wants to avoid a “referendum” election. And that’s particularly true of an incumbent whose personal favorability indices are as horrible as Trump’s (about half the electorate has a very unfavorable opinion of him). Typically, a president in this sort of jam will try to engineer a “choice” election; when Jimmy Carter was in a world of hurt in 1980, his strategy was to frame the election as a “two futures” choice between him and his controversial challenger Ronald Reagan. It didn’t work, but it made sense.

“’Trump is the president, not simply a candidate,’ said Steve Bannon, the chief executive of the 2016 Trump campaign. ‘He is the protagonist in this drama. You drive action like a president, govern like a president, show leadership like a president and you will be re-elected. It really is that basic.’”

Sure, it’s possible, even credible, for Team Trump to treat Joe Biden as a figure from the past who would drag the country back into the swamp from which the 45th president has sought to rescue it. But that doesn’t absolve the president from what has happened since Biden returned to private life in 2017. The best Trump’s campaign can do is to beg for more time:

“Jason Miller, a Trump campaign adviser, said the campaign plans to paint Mr. Biden as ‘part of every job-killing, failed policy decision of the past 40 years.’ The campaign wants voters to see the race as a choice between ‘President Trump’s record of success in less than four years versus Joe Biden’s record of failure over more than 40 years.’”

But even if you are willing, somehow, to describe the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations as a long saga of failure before the so-much-winning of the current regime — and blame it all on Joe Biden — the fact remains that Trump is responsible for where the country is today. A new Pew poll asked Americans if “in thinking about the current state of the country these days” they felt angry, fearful, hopeful, or proud. Only 17 percent answered “proud,” which is a terrible rebuke to a president who has made “America First” nationalism his central theme alongside hatred for those who dare to question his or the country’s divinely anointed destiny.

No, Trump isn’t going to get to proclaim his power and glory as president for three and a half years and then rerun his 2016 campaign as though his presidency did not exist. It is in fact the dominant reality of American political life — joyous for some and painful for many — and perpetuating or ending it is unavoidably going to be the big question for voters in November.


June 24: Polls Show Trump In Real Peril

A wave of new polling data has been coming out showing Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump growing larger and deeper. So I wrote up the implications at New York:

 [T]hree weeks ago, I concluded that Biden’s lead in horse-race matchups with the incumbent was getting “seriously large.” A barrage of new polling data confirms the trend. In the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Biden now has a double-digit (10.1 percent) lead, and has also breached the 50-percent barrier (he’s at 51 percent). FiveThirtyEight, which weights results for pollster accuracy and adjusts them for partisan bias, shows Biden with a slightly smaller 9.7 percent lead, but with the same 51 percent.

To put Biden’s lead into a historical context, the last time a presidential candidate actually won by that margin was 36 years ago, when Ronald Reagan crushed Walter Mondale. And the only Democratic presidential tickets since 1976 to win a majority of the popular vote were the two Biden shared with Barack Obama.

Let’s take a look at the last two incumbent presidents to win reelection, and see if they were ever behind by anything like the margin by which Trump currently trails Biden. In 2012, Obama never fell behind Mitt Romney in the RCP averages by more than a single point. In 2004, George W. Bush’s maximum deficit against John Kerry was 2.7 percent.

Now it’s true that Hillary Clinton periodically held a double-digit lead over Trump in the RCP averages early in the 2016 race, when he was still struggling to consolidate Republican support. But by this point in the cycle, her lead had dwindled to 6.6 percent, and even in polling immediately after the Access Hollywood video scandal broke, which produced a vast wave of GOP repudiations of Trump, Clinton’s maximum lead in the RCP averages was 7.1 percent.

There is still, of course, a lot of time before November. Joe Biden could in theory make a spectacular mistake, though as time goes by his soundness as a candidate is becoming very apparent. Perhaps improving conditions in the country will give the incumbent a late lift, though you’d have to say right now that the odds of the coronavirus going away or the economy sharply recovering are getting lower every day, and in any event, Trump’s perpetually underwater job approval rating seems impervious to anything he does or fails to do.

The famous enthusiasm of Trump voters is also in question after they failed to fill even half an arena in Tulsa when Trump held his first post-pandemic rally. Additionally, Trump is inspiring a sort of negative enthusiasm boom. According to the latest high-quality national poll, from New York Times/Siena College, fully one-half of registered voters have a very unfavorable opinion of the president, as opposed to just over a quarter with a very favorable opinion. If, as is the case with most elections involving an incumbent president, Election 2020 is a referendum on Trump, this sort of finding could represent the greatest obstacle of all to his reelection.

There remains the possibility that Trump could make even a fairly sizable national popular vote loss irrelevant by again squeaking out a narrow electoral college win. But again, the polls aren’t looking so hot for him in the battleground states. According to current RCP averages, Biden is leading Trump by 8.0 points in Michigan, 7.0 points in Wisconsin, 6.2 percent in Florida, 5.6 points in Pennsylvania, and even by 4.0 points in Arizona.

It could in theory all change, or at least get a lot more interesting, but right now Donald Trump has become a clear 2020 underdog, and his situation could just as easily get worse instead of better. In the end we may realize that Trump’s mojo depended on his ability to pose as an insurgent outsider, and wasn’t transferable to an environment in which he was called upon to govern. And he may yet try, somehow, to run against the status quo for which he is now responsible. His 2016 upset is going to be a very tough act to follow.


June 19: Making Juneteenth a National Holiday: the MLK Precedent

There is significant momentum for creating an important new national holiday, and I reviewed the situation at New York:

Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee has repeatedly offered legislation in Congress to make June 19, or Juneteenth – the celebration of slavery’s end that originated in her state – a federal holiday. As Fabiola Cineas explains at Vox, it’s an event with a long history:

“A portmanteau of ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth,’ Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free from the institution of slavery….

“Newly freed black people celebrated the first Juneteenth in 1866 to commemorate liberation — with food, singing, and the reading of spirituals — and take pride in their progress. But a century and a half later, Juneteenth is still not taught in most schools, nor is the event a federal holiday despite decades of pushing from activists.”

This year, amid a national wave of outrage and awakening over racial injustice, Juneteenth has seen wider national observance than ever before. Lee’s resolution to recognize the historical significance of Juneteenth has gathered 200-plus cosponsors, and on Thursday Senator John Cornyn said he will introduce bipartisan legislation to make it a federal holiday. In the last week the governors of Virginia and New York announced that they will observe Juneteenth as an official holiday with paid time off for state workers (joining Texas, which took the step in 1980). A growing list of corporations have made Juneteenth a paid day off for employees, including the NFL, Twitter, Nike, Uber, and Target, along with media companies such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Vox Media (New York Magazine’s parent company).

The easiest “dodge” for those resisting an official holiday is to offer less significant forms of recognition that do not command general attention, much less the widespread discussion of racial justice issues that both the MLK and Juneteenth commemorations are intended to promote. Currently 42 states “recognize” Juneteenth, but do not offer time off for public employees or close state offices. That was a problem in the early days of the drive for an MLK holiday, too.

Michigan’s John Conyers made the first congressional call for a federal holiday to honor Dr. King just four days after his assassination in 1968. But the original Senate bill, sponsored by Massachusetts Republican Senator Ed Brooke (at that point the only African-American in the chamber) simply called for a “national day of commemoration,” and Republicans in both chambers frequently sought to substitute less significant forms of recognition.

Conyers and other key sponsors never accepted half a loaf. Support for the holiday by President Jimmy Carter and congressional Democrats gave it near-success in 1979, but it took a sustained public campaign in the early 1980s to make it a reality despite Republican control of the White House and the Senate, as the Constitution Center explains:

“Musician Stevie Wonder helped in 1981 by releasing the song ‘Happy Birthday’ to promote the holiday. (He would later sing it at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial dedication in 2011).

“The King Center kept up its efforts. It organized a march on Washington that included an estimated 500,000 people. Coretta Scott King, along with Wonder, presented a petition signed by 6 million people to House leader Tip O’Neill.”

Finally Republicans began to come around to support for the holiday, with Representatives Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich, and even Senator Strom Thurmond speaking out for it during the next push in 1983. After proponents finally overcame a filibuster by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina (a bitter opponent of the holiday who was forever trying to draw attention to scurrilous smears of Dr. King cooked up by the FBI at J. Edgar Hoover’s direction), it passed both houses and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law.

One key moment in the House debate involved one of the most common objections to a MLK holiday: its cost in lost federal worker hours. As Don Wolfensburger observed years later:

“Republican manager [William] Dannemeyer complained in his opening statement about the cost of a paid federal holiday. Congressional Black Caucus Member Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) retorted, ‘What do you mean ‘”cost?”’ What was the cost of keeping us blacks where we were? All these extraneous things do not mean a thing to me. I am talking about what is the right and decent thing to do, and to urge a vote for this bill in the form that it is.’”

It took even longer to secure full recognition of the holiday at the state level. As of 1986, when the federal MLK holiday took effect, only 17 states had done likewise. In addition to the usual efforts to dilute the holiday, it became popular in southern states to incongruously draft it onto commemorations of Confederate generals. Notably, Virginia combined the MLK holiday with recognition of both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson until 2000. To this day Alabama and Mississippi honor Lee and King together.

All told, it took 15 years from the time of Dr. King’s assassination for the federal holiday to be enacted, and then another 17 before all 50 states acknowledged it. That fight yielded three major lessons: (1) don’t accept some watered-down observance; (2) seek enough bipartisan support to overcome conservative opposition; and (3) mobilize the public and link the holiday to the eternal causes of equal rights and racial justice.

Advocates for a federal Juneteenth holiday have already made progress on each of these fronts, so hopefully its path to recognition can be shortened.


June 18: Exploring Republican Over-Confidence About Trump’s Reelection

Sometimes you see a political phenomenon so often that you can forget to look into what it means. I chose one to write about at New York this week:

By any objective standard, the president’s prospects for reelection are looking down. Joe Biden is continuing to lead him in trial heats nationally (by 8.1 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics averages) and in most battleground states. The president’s job approval numbers are lower than they’ve been since last December. People are still very afraid of COVID-19, and despite one good monthly jobs report, the economy is still in the ditch, with unemployment higher than at any time since the 1930s.

There’s tons of time between now and November, the economy could somehow turn around and that second “wave” of the coronavirus could fail to appear, and Joe Biden could do or say something self-destructive. But the possibility of a Trump revival is not the same thing as its probability, much less certainty. Yet as Politico notes, there’s little doubt in MAGA-land that Trump will win in November, and maybe win big:

“Interviews with more than 50 state, district and county Republican Party chairs depict a version of the electoral landscape that is no worse for Trump than six months ago — and possibly even slightly better. According to this view, the coronavirus is on its way out and the economy is coming back. Polls are unreliable, Joe Biden is too frail to last, and the media still doesn’t get it….

“’The more bad things happen in the country, it just solidifies support for Trump,’ said Phillip Stephens, GOP chairman in Robeson County, N.C., one of several rural counties in that swing state that shifted from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. ‘We’re calling him “Teflon Trump.” Nothing’s going to stick, because if anything, it’s getting more exciting than it was in 2016.’

“This year, Stephens said, We’re thinking landslide.’”

Politico found that if you ask Republicans why Trump’s going to win, they generally offer explanations ranging from the hyper-optimistic (everything will be back to normal any day now and a happy back-at-work electorate will reward Trump for saving them), to the aggressively ignorant (all polls showing Biden ahead are fake, because they were dead wrong last time —well which they actually weren’t), to pure disinformation (Democrats are throwing away the election by calling for the abolition of police departments and confiscation of private property, beginning with guns).

So why are Trump-supporting Republicans so relentlessly upbeat, and dismissive of objective evidence that points in the direction of defeat? Here are five theories:

1. They’re drinking his own Kool-Aid

Trump supporters are by definition big fans of a man who never admits mistakes or weaknesses, expresses narcissistic, self-congratulatory hubris every other hour, and hates “losers” as much as Jesus Christ loved them. Perhaps they are simply following the leader, who appears to systematically block out any source of information that doesn’t tell him what he wants to hear.

2. They believe “enthusiasm” is the ball game

As is well known, Trump’s reelection strategy, and his behavior in office, have been heavily oriented towards “base mobilization,” to the extent of sometimes excluding any serious effort to identify or persuade swing voters, much less Democrats. To the extent that mobilization is facilitated by enthusiasm, getting the MAGA faithful to believe they are marching in a perpetual victory parade is presumably valuable. It’s possibly relevant that polls show a majority of Republicans are motivated by a desire to support Trump, while a majority of Democrats are more focused on beating Trump than on electing Biden. Trump voters want to know they are part of a historic reelection campaign that will take America another step closer to the paradise of the 1950s, not into some socialist nonwhite dystopia.

3. They want to “own the libs”

One bond Trump has with his supporters is in deeply enjoying the discomfort of their common enemies. They are aware that the vast majority of left-of-center Americans don’t simply dislike the president, but dislike him intensely. Many view the prospect of this strange “accidental president” serving another four years with genuine horror. So it’s great sport for Trump supporters to confront them with this possibility, raised to the level of certainty. It’s mass schadenfreude, with a dollop of Trump’s own signature cruelty.

4. They truly despise the “elite” sources of adverse information

If you are convinced that polls are all “fake” and most of the media — including Fox News on occasion — just systematically lie, all to benefit Trump’s enemies, then it’s a short leap to assume that the “truth” they are hiding is MAGA-rific or even glorious. Similarly, once one is convinced that “real Americans” are in the president’s corner, then anything (like a bad poll or mockery of a self-destructive Trump video clip) emanating from sources that either “don’t get it” or are actively hostile to this country and its interests simply cannot be credited as “real.” Believing that Trump might lose, therefore, can become an anti-patriotic act, or a sign of being duped by contemptuous wrong-doers.

5. They are preparing to contest any defeat

The most troubling possibility is that Trump supporters understand the president is laying the groundwork for contesting a defeat, and want to help him do so. Here’s how I recently described Trump’s efforts to undermine, in advance, the legitimacy of the November election in case he happens to lose it:

“Trump is now regularly claiming that voting by mail is inherently illegitimate, except for grudging exceptions for people who can’t make it to the polls. So, presumably, states that allow for no-excuse voting by mail in November are holding ‘substantially fraudulent’ elections. That’s 34 states who do so by law (including battleground states Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), 11 more that so far are waiving excuse requirements this pandemic year (including New Hampshire), and another that may be forced to do so by a lawsuit (Texas).

“So in a very real sense, unless Trump backs off his claims that voting by mail means a ‘rigged election,’ he’s letting us know that he and his supporters will be justified in challenging any adverse results in states that allow this terrible practice to take place.”

Keep in mind that Trump went to a lot of trouble to claim he was robbed of a popular-vote majority in 2016 (thanks to “millions of illegal votes” for Hillary Clinton for which he offered not a shred of evidence), even though it didn’t ultimately matter. One possible rationale was to convince his followers Democrats always cheat, meaning their victories should prospectively be discounted or challenged. If on Election Night 2020, Donald Trump claims victory on the basis of early returns, is there any doubt his fans and media allies will join him in crying out “fraud!” to the high heavens should late mail ballots drift in and reverse the results? I don’t think so. And either consciously or unconsciously, some of them may be anticipating that fraught scenario already. To a significant number of the faithful, Trump is not just a president, but an embodiment of America, and even God’s Annointed. He can’t fail. He can only be failed.


June 12: Why Biden May Need That Big Lead

As Democrats took cheer at Joe Biden’s recent strong showing in horse-race polls, I offered a cautionary word at New York:

At a time when Joe Biden is enjoying comfortable leads in both national and battleground-state polls, it’s a good time for us all to remember the most fundamental lesson of what happened four years ago: Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election while winning the national popular vote by 2.1 percent, or more than 2.8 million votes. The current Republican skew in the composition of the Electoral College (or if you prefer, the “wastage” of “excess” Democratic votes in noncompetitive states like California) has not gone away, as David Wasserman noted last year:

“The ultimate nightmare scenario for Democrats might look something like this: Trump loses the popular vote by more than 5 million ballots, and the Democratic nominee converts Michigan and Pennsylvania back to blue. But Trump wins re-election by two Electoral votes by barely hanging onto Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.”

With that possibility in mind, it’s useful to look at the analysis of recent battleground-state polls (taken in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin) conducted by Geoffrey Skelley for FiveThirtyEight. According to the data Skelley assembles, Biden leads in six of them (all but Georgia and Texas). But here’s the thing: In just one of them does Biden’s lead match his national polling lead.

“There are two big takeaways here. One, Biden is in an enviable position in many of these battleground states. However, the second takeaway — which is the caveat we mentioned earlier — is that all of these battleground states save Michigan are more Republican-leaning than the national average. In other words, most of the states that will decide the presidential election are to the right of the country as a whole, and that speaks to Trump’s advantage in the Electoral College.”

And that means Democrats shouldn’t get at all complacent about Biden’s national polling lead:

The other reason Biden needs a big national popular vote win is that he really needs a Democratic Senate to accomplish anything legislatively as president, and to the modest but very real extent he may have coattails, it could be crucial in close Senate races. That obviously matters in battleground states with Senate races, like Arizona, Georgia (two races), Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Texas. But it could matter even more in red states where a narrower-than-2016 presidential loss could be the key to a Democratic Senate win, such as Iowa, Kansas, Montana, and perhaps even Kentucky and Alabama.

One advantage Biden has over Hillary Clinton in managing a polling lead is that Democrats are almost certainly going to refuse to be overconfident this time around. Uncle Joe may have to be up by 20 points before they relax for a moment.


June 10: Remember: A Vote’s a Vote

At New York this week, I repeated a bit of strategic advice I offer now and then:

Those of us in the political analysis industry love nothing more than slicing and dicing the electorate into its constituent parts and divining via polls and election results which are moving where at what velocity. That is often the best way not only to predict future elections, but to understand their implications, and also to evaluate political parties as coalitions.

But it’s easy to get carried away with such distinctions, and act as though this or that “key” group literally holds the key to victory. In the end (with an exception I will get to in a minute), a vote’s a vote, and candidates who do poorly in a “key” constituency can make it up elsewhere. Indeed, it’s especially dangerous to pretend that winning some voter group matters most; sometimes losing a group by less than the expected margin is just as important. For example, the conventional wisdom is that Democrats made big gains in the 2018 midterm by winning college-educated white voters (who leaned Republican in 2016). But it was also important that Democrats cut their margin of loss among non-college-educated white voters from 37 percent in 2016 to 24 percent in 2018 (according to exit polls).

There are times, of course, when harping on one group makes sense because polls are underestimating their numbers (one reason white working-class voters have gotten so much attention since 2016, when polls clearly under-sampled them), or have ignored them altogether as a distinct group (some polls and analysis lump together disparate voters with imprecise categories – are voters under or over the age of 45 really a “group”? – or failure to make obvious subdivisions such as by gender, or by the various identities of “non-white voters.”).

“In the most recent polls, white college graduates back Mr. Biden by a 20-point margin, up four points since the spring. It’s also an eight-point improvement for the Democratic nominee since 2016, and a 26-point improvement since 2012.

“Mr. Biden has also made some progress toward redressing his weakness among younger voters. Voters ages 18 to 34 now back Mr. Biden by a 22-point margin, up six points from the spring and now somewhat ahead of Hillary Clinton’s lead in the final polls of 2016….

“Remarkably, Mr. Biden still leads by seven points among voters 65 and over in the most recent surveys, despite the kind of racial unrest that led many of these voters to support Republican candidates at various points in their lifetimes.”

In other words, there are multiple paths to a popular-vote plurality nationally and in any one state. But that does call to mind the biggest exception to the doctrine that a vote’s a vote. The Electoral College makes huge numbers of voters irrelevant in presidential elections, and reduces the influence of various groups who are or aren’t situated in battleground states. The single biggest reason for the recent focus on white working-class voters is that they are disproportionately represented in the Rust Belt states where Donald Trump pulled his 2016 upset. Conversely, even though Latinos are the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the electorate, their clout in presidential contests is reduced by the large number living in states that have not been competitive recently (Arizona, California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas). If, as some Democrats hope, Arizona and/or Texas do become competitive this year, you will hear a lot about Latino voters in the aftermath.

But even in battleground states that are easy to stereotype, there’s a lot going on under the surface. Was Trump’s 10,704 margin in Michigan in 2016 attributable to underestimated white working-class voters, or low turnout among African-Americans, or a late minor-party trend among younger voters? You can make a case for any of those propositions, or for any number of combinations of them. So beware over-simplification.


June 5: Cotton Wrong About Precedents to “Send in the Troops”

Because it was such a red-hot topic this last week, I did a little research and learned that Tom Cotton unsurprisingly had his history wrong, so I shared it at New York:

In a highly controversial (so much so that its publication produced anguished protests from Times staffers) New York Times op-ed on Wednesday, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton called on President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and send U.S. military units into an undefined number of cities to suppress the “nihilist criminals” and “left-wing radicals infiltrating protest marches.” Cotton has been egging Trump on in this direction for a while now. He may have inspired the president’s threats to “send in the troops,” which Trump did in a June 1 conference call with governors (one participant called Trump’s manner “unhinged”) and then publicly in his Rose Garden remarks that evening, just prior to his infamous stroll to St. John’s Episcopal Church.

It’s a dangerous idea generally, as such revered military veterans as Trump’s own former secretary of defense James Mattis noted yesterday in decrying the politicization of the armed forces it would represent. Given the president’s reckless and divisive character, his taste for militarism, and his desperate need for base-inspiring action, telling him he has the power to take over city streets across the country and crush his enemies while showing up Democrats is like handing a pyromaniac a flame-thrower.

Cotton knows this, but his own reputation for the harshest sort of law-and-order politics is well earned. You wouldn’t expect a man who fought criminal-justice reform tooth and nail in the Senate and said America had an “underincarceration problem” to have much sympathy for protests aimed at addressing police misconduct toward minorities. In an effort to get a grip on what makes Cotton feel so threatening to progressives alert to whiffs of authoritarianism, I once described him as having the “mien and the worldview of a grim and unforgiving lawgiver right out of the Book of Deuteronomy or Calvin’s Geneva.” Likewise Molly Ball wrote that Cotton possessed a “harsh, unyielding, judgmental political philosophy, one that makes little allowance for compassion or human weakness.” Like Trump, he has no patience for “losers,” which disposes him to the use of maximum repressive force to defend privilege and property rights.

The only modern precedents involving a president invoking the Insurrection Act against the wishes of state authorities were Eisenhower’s dispatch of troops to insure the integration of Little Rock schools in 1957, Kennedy’s similar use of U.S. military assets to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962 and stop racist violence in Alabama in 1963, and Johnson’s deployment of troops to protect the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers in 1965.

Cotton notes these cases but does not acknowledge that what justified all of them was a situation where state and local authorities were in open and explicit defiance of federal court orders aimed at vindicating constitutionally protected rights. These presidents did not “send in the troops” simply to maintain order, or because they deemed local law-and-order measures ineffectual, but because in a very real sense these places were in a state of rebellion led by governors like Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett, and George Wallace (all of whom not-so-secretly welcomed armed federal intervention so as to posture as defenders of Jim Crow).

Are any of the Democratic governors disdained by Trump and Cotton raising flags of rebellion on a pro-looter or pro-rioting platform? Are there any antifa state governments? I don’t think so. Federal military interventions without state and local consent would simply represent a political use of the U.S. Armed Forces to substitute an angry president’s notion of “law and order” for those of the officials elected to make such decisions. Trump does have the power to do so under the Insurrection Act. But the dire consequences of doing so is why sober supporters of constitutional order ranging from Mattis to conservative law professor John Yoo to Trump’s own secretary of defense, Mark Esper, oppose it. The president should listen to them rather than the avid, skull-cracking moralist from Arkansas before playing commander-in-chief in the streets of America.


June 3: Texas Democrats Show Why Virtual Conventions Are the Wave of the Future

In the last few tumultuous days, when I was under a stay-at-home order, I did some reporting by phone, as noted at New York:

As Democrats openly — and Republicans more covertly — consider holding virtual national conventions in August, the general assumption has been that it would be a diminished event that no one would voluntarily hold.

This week, Texas Democrats are holding their own virtual convention that they believe may show that less is more: that the virtual format can enable them to prepare their party more effectively for November than a live event, and create a template for the party conventions of the post-pandemic future.

The convention will be made available via two digital channels: one devoted to the sometimes boring but essential party business that is conducted at annual conventions, and the other to the speeches, messaging, and entertainment that make party conventions an effective “infomercial.” The latter channel will get a lot of attention as the locus for speeches throughout the week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, vice-presidential prospects Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and former presidential candidates from Texas Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is slated to speak next Saturday, June 6.

This public-facing channel will also provide a convenient outlet for fundraising appeals and party outreach efforts. But the other channel, a sort of digital home for the nearly 12,000 official convention delegates, will focus not only on “convention business,” but on general election preparations, in a less expensive and more transparent version of what live conventions normally do in hotel or civic center conference rooms.

One particularly important chore the virtual convention will actually make easier is pre-general election volunteer training. As the state party’s Voter Expansion director Luke Warford explained to me, Texas’s voter-unfriendly laws on registration efforts have a highly restrictive training requirement for volunteer “deputy registrars.” It’s actually easier to do the training virtually, and the infrastructure being built for the convention is conducive to that sort of labor-intensive but crucial chore. Already Democrats are close to meeting their goal of a thousand participants in their convention-based training to become state-recognized deputy registrars.

That’s a big deal in a year when harvesting demographic trends to change the shape of the electorate is the ball game for Texas Democrats, and could tilt the national landscape if and when it becomes seriously competitive (the state has more electoral votes than Michigan and Pennsylvania combined).

While the Texas Democrats’ virtual convention is a bit of an experiment that the DNC and other state parties are watching closely, it’s likely to become a success by normal standards. As Texas Democratic Party communications director Abhi Rahman told me, the event has already been paid for and will command six-figure viewership, if not more. There’s no real reason to go back to an in-person event in the future.

Texas Republicans, as it happens, are still planning an entirely in-person state convention for Houston on July 16 to 18, reflecting the national GOP’s commitment to set a “reopening” example by ignoring public-health injunctions against large gatherings. There is a lot of risk associated with this approach, which could produce either a sparsely attended, low-excitement convention or worse yet, a super-spreader event illustrating why big crowded conventions full of sweaty cheering partisans are just a terrible idea.

Risks aside, Republicans in the Lone Star State are also passing up on some of the efficiencies they could achieve by going virtual in order to show how little they are interested in accommodating themselves to the present, not to mention the future.

As Democrat Warford noted, they’re planning an event that “is right from a public safety perspective, but that also makes sense from a strategic point of view.”

I am a bit nonobjective on this subject, having argued for years now that the national political convention as we know it needs to go away. If it can be established this year that the essential business of such gatherings can be done virtually at less cost, with far less risk to public safety, and with all sorts of additional advantages in general election preparation, then there may be no rational argument for going back to a model that hasn’t made sense for years.


May 28: Trump’s Ego Makes for a Dangerous Convention

In pondering the president’s demands for a filled-up convention venue in August, I came up with some unsettling explanations at New York:

Back when run-first, conservative strategies were still the vogue in college football, coaches often quoted Texas legend Darrell Royal in saying that when you throw a forward pass, three things can happen (a completion, an incompletion, or an interception) — and two of them are bad.

You could say the same of the live, in-person national political convention Donald Trump seems determined to hold in Charlotte (or, he threatens, some other city and state where the local yokels don’t interfere with his grandiose plans). It’s possible the coronavirus pandemic will have abated enough that he’ll be able to hold the traditional convention he wants by August without large negative consequences. That’s the best-case scenario, to be sure.

But as Michael Kruse notes, anything less than that could be really problematic:

“[M]aybe more than everybody else, the optics-obsessed former reality television star is aware of the potential damage of the image of a half-full, semi-silent arena—a looming totem to the insufficiencies of his administration’s response to the still spreading coronavirus.”

In other words, a live, indoor convention under the social-distancing regime most experts think will still be in order for large gatherings even if they are allowed might be counterproductive, no matter how many colorful MAGA masks are distributed throughout a necessarily reduced and muffled audience.

But that scenario is infinitely less perilous than one in which Trump and Republicans defy the experts and hold an old-school convention in which Trump fans in a packed and sweaty throng toss thousands of droplets into the air as they cheer their warrior-king at every juncture.

So why is Trump taking this kind of risk? Is it simply an extension of the Republican craze for “reopening” or the tendency of conservatives to believe that precautions against a pandemic are cowardly and un-American (not at all a majority opinion among rank-and-file voters)? Or is it something deeper?

Kruse thinks it’s a personal thing with Trump that dates back to his experience with the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans that nominated then-Vice-President George H.W. Bush. At that event, he was squired onto the convention floor in its final moments by lobbyist Laurance Gay, at the request of Roger Stone, and achieved a galvanic moment:

“’So we went down there, and the speeches were made,’ Gay recalled, and Bush capped his remarks by placing his hand on his heart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and then Barbara Bush joined him on the podium, and the rest of his family, and their families, and Dan Quayle, his pick for vice president, and his family, ‘and there’s 25 people out there, and with that, the band strikes up, the confetti starts to fall, the balloons are rising and falling,’ 150,000 of them, red, white and blue, and there were 15-plus minutes of sustained, ecstatic sound.

“And in the middle of this scene, Trump said something, not quite to Gay, who was immediately to his left, but loud enough for him to hear.

“’This is what I want.'”

With himself, not Poppy Bush, as the object of all that intense affection, of course. This particular itch was at least partially scratched in Cleveland in 2016:

“In 2016 in Cleveland, of course, he became the Republican nominee, and that stage—his stage—featured the big bright white letters of his name bracketed by panels of gold and a backdrop of American flags, while his hour-and-15-minute-long remarks were defined by language that was dystopian and dark—’violence in our streets,’ ‘chaos in our communities,’ ‘damage and devastation.’ But when he was finished, he was feted the way Bush had been feted; out came his wife and his family and the VP-to-be and his family, and up went the noise of the crowd, and down came the balloons, all that red, white and blue, and Trump pointed and made a face like an O. ‘That,’ biographer Michael D’Antonio told me this week, ‘must have been an orgasmic moment for him.'”

And that, mind you, was at a convention where his control was somewhat limited, as shown by Ted Cruz’s prime-time speech in which the former Trump rival dissed his conquerer by refusing to endorse him. Given the president’s famous affection for military hoopla and his limitless ego, you can only imagine the kind of idolatrous display of fealty he might expect at a point where his party — including Cruz and many other previous detractors — is entirely in thrall to him.

Ultimately, the direction of the pandemic will determine whether Trump even has the option of pursuing convention folly, and the consequences if he does and guesses wrong. He might be able to mitigate the risk a bit by moving outdoors (that’s where Obama accepted his nomination in Denver in 2008); there is a large NASCAR racetrack nearby, which would be a good cultural fit. But it’s possible the man just can’t shake an addiction to tightly packed throngs of the sort that make him long for the resumption of MAGA rallies.