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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

December 23: The Iowa-New Hampshire Duopoly May Survive After All

I am an inveterate student of the Iowa Caucuses, so news this week about the 2024 presidential nominating processes fascinated me, as I explained at New York:

On February 4, 2020, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses suffered a meltdown when results could not be tabulated and reported on Caucus Night. This perfect storm of dysfunction fed a lot of preexisting discontent about the privileged position of the not-terribly-diverse states of Iowa and New Hampshire in the Democratic presidential-nominating process. It looked like a change in the process, or at least a toppling of Iowa, was inevitable.

As late as this past autumn, that was still the prevailing mood in the Democratic Party, as the Washington Post reported:

“President Biden is not a big fan. Former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez is openly opposed. And elsewhere in the Democratic inner sanctum, disdain for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucus has been rising for years.

“Now the day of reckoning for Iowa Democrats is fast approaching, as the national party starts to create a new calendar for the 2024 presidential nomination that could remove Iowa from its privileged position for the first time since 1972, when candidates started flocking to the state for an early jump on the race to the White House.”

But now, as a disappointing year for Democrats comes to an end, Politico explains that the impetus for changing the nominating process has ground to a near halt:

“Democrats, including in the White House, suddenly have more pressing problems. And as party leaders gathered in recent days for year-end meetings here, interest in what was once a red-hot effort to overhaul the order of the early nominating states had all but vanished.

“Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic National Committee members, state party chairs and strategists laid bare widespread desire to avoid a divisive, intraparty dispute in 2022 — and skepticism that any change enacted after the midterm elections could be done in time for the next presidential campaign.”

Even if DNC members were strongly in favor of changing the nominating process, there are a lot of obstacles to wholesale reforms. For one thing, the national parties do not control what individual states decide to do; there isn’t a “system” in place but rather an interlocking set of decisions by state parties and legislatures. The most common form of nominating contest is a state-funded primary, which typically requires bipartisan cooperation in state legislatures and usually involves a common date for both parties (anything else would be deemed an inefficient waste of tax dollars).

If Democratic Iowa critics had their way, the state would replace the caucuses with a primary that would be held later in the year. But the Republican-controlled Iowa legislature is perfectly happy with the status quo, and, in fact, there is no evident interest among Republicans anywhere (including the party’s 2024 front-runner, Donald Trump) in a “reformed” nominating process. This is evidenced by the fact that Iowa’s GOP chair has been designated to lead the national-party committee that sets the calendar. And if Iowa did try to stay first but shift to a primary, New Hampshire has a state law that empowers and requires the secretary of state to move the Granite State’s election date back perpetually to head off any rivals for the first primary. Nevada has already bid for first place (it is currently third) in the process by junking its caucuses for a primary and scheduling it ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. But New Hampshire will fight for its primacy, and it’s unclear if the national party really wants to adjudicate fights between the states.

It’s possible that residual anger at Iowa among Democrats over its non-diversity or its 2020 meltdown could lead to a simple national-party veto on Iowa going first. Short of creating a state-funded primary, Iowa Republican legislators would have no leverage over that sort of decision. The national party could also try to force Iowa Democrats to abandon caucuses, though in the absence of legislative action, the only option would be a party-funded so-called firehouse primary, so named because financial considerations usually mean that polling places would be limited to inexpensive public facilities like firehouses.

Iowa Democrats could also take some of the heat off themselves by simplifying the caucus process to make a recurrence of the 2020 fiasco far less likely. Iowa Republicans, after all, just show up, hear a few announcements, eat some cookies, and vote for their favorite presidential candidate before going home. Moving to that sort of process instead of the complex system of candidate thresholds and affinity groups and “votes” measured in multiple ways might boost participation while making the results much easier to tabulate and report.

In the end, the decision to stand pat or try to change the system may come down to how interested Joe Biden is in changing the calendar or the procedures by which particular states elect national-convention delegates. Biden is famously not invested in the Iowa–New Hampshire duopoly; he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire in 2020 and then began his comeback with second place in Nevada and a big landslide win in South Carolina. Some of his closest party allies are those who think more diverse states should weigh in first.

Biden, however, obviously has other fish to fry and doesn’t need any additional intraparty drama at present. If he runs again in 2024, he will almost certainly win the nomination no matter which state goes first, second, third, or 35th.

December 19: Freedom Caucus Invades the States

An alarming bit of news you might have missed is the subject of a piece I wrote this last week at New York:

Been wondering what former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has been up to when he wasn’t dodging subpoenas and questions from the House Select Committee to Investigate January 6? Turns out he’s spending some time helping his old friends in the House Freedom Caucus to spread their noxious activities from Washington to state capitals around the country, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

“Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is making headlines in Washington today, but he’s also looking to make a mark on state legislatures, including Georgia’s, with the launch of the State Freedom Caucus Network.

“The network will be an extension of the House Freedom Caucus, the group of conservative House members that Meadows once chaired, which has successfully moved the House GOP agenda to the right since it was founded in 2015.

“The network will be supported by the Conservative Partnership Institute, a Washington-based non-profit founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint, where Meadows has been a senior partner since leaving the White House earlier this year.

“Also on the CPI staff with Meadows is Cleta Mitchell, a prominent Republican attorney who helped Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.”

The State Freedom Caucus Network will start initially with affiliates in 22 states from Connecticut to Alaska, with representatives attending a gala kickoff dinner in Atlanta. Its stated purpose is to organize “principled, America-First conservatives” to focus on “election integrity, critical race theory, school choice, vaccine mandates, and police reform,” issues where “our nation’s most important battles are taking place in state legislatures.” An unstated purpose is to encourage such pain-in-the-ass tactics as legislative hostage-taking, disruption of routine governing practices, and shakedowns of the “Republican establishment,” while serving as outposts for Trump’s efforts to get back to the White House by book or by crook.

This new organization, which will likely spread to other states soon, will help ensure that Republican state elected officials can’t get away with simply tugging the forelock to Trump and then getting along with their regular business back home. MAGA agitation is a permanent revolution with foot soldiers wherever cultural resentment and political opportunism meet.

December 2: No, Biden Doesn’t Need a “Sister Souljah Moment”

As a old guy and a history buff, this topic attracted me like catnip, and I addressed it at New York:

Seth Masket did something important and admirable at Politico this week: He examined the historical premise for some advice being offered to President Biden by many voices and found it to be ill-founded:

“Joe Biden needs a ‘Sister Souljah Moment.’ At least, that’s according to the quickly congealing conventional wisdom in Washington. That is, Biden and Democrats are in dire danger of losing control of Congress next year, and the one thing that could save them would be by bashing someone to Biden’s left on matters of race.”

The allusion is to a speech famously made by Bill Clinton in the summer of 1992 (when he had already nailed down the Democratic presidential nomination) to a conference of the Jesse Jackson–chaired Rainbow Coalition criticizing the organization for holding a panel the previous day that included Sister Souljah. The rapper had recently made remarks related to the L.A. riots that some interpreted as promoting the killing of white people (a claim she denied).

Jackson (who had expressed pride in Souljah’s appearance at his conference) was sitting on the stage near Clinton as he spoke and understandably felt blindsided and exploited by what Clinton said. So it has gone down in legend as a “moment” when a Democratic politician pandered to swing voters (and perhaps to white racists) by conspicuously separating himself from Black political activists. And that, as Masket notes, is what some commentators want Biden to do to stem the political bleeding over controversies surrounding racial justice, including Black Lives Matter protests, the “defund the police” movement, and the alleged influence of critical race theory in public-school classrooms.

The principal trouble with the claim Biden can do wonders via a little measured race-baiting, Masket explains, is that it didn’t do Clinton much good in 1992. A lot of factors lifted him to victory that fall, but clearly it was the economy (stupid!) and the temporary withdrawal of Ross Perot from the race that were most important. There is little-to-no evidence that the Sister Souljah “moment” had any particular effect on the contest. Yet the legend persists:

“Is it possible that Clinton got some help on Election Day from his bashing of Souljah five months earlier? It’s possible, but unlikely. Campaign effects just generally don’t last that long. It was a very old story by then, and it’s hard to even discern much of an effect when the story was fresh. Polling that year shows that voters were more likely to trust Clinton on issues related to racial politics, but that was true prior to the Souljah moment, as well.

“So why is it important to interrogate this piece of political lore three decades later? Because clearly many opinion leaders take it as an article of faith that a Democratic president can make himself more popular by bashing advocates for racial justice. The evidence doesn’t really support this, but they make the argument anyway.”

I would go a step further than Masket in debunking the “Sister Souljah Moment” theory. I say this not because I have any insider information on what was going on in the Clinton campaign (or in the candidate’s mind) before he made that Rainbow Coalition speech. But I was an early Clinton supporter and later worked for the decidedly Clintonite Democratic Leadership Council, and I sure didn’t think the incident was mostly about race. Obviously, racists in the electorate probably perceived it that way, though few of them at that point in history were likely to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. The broader perception at the time was captured by Tom Edsall’s on-site report on the speech for the Washington Post:

“Clinton’s frank remarks seemed designed to demonstrate his willingness to challenge core Democratic constituent groups and to begin to break his image in the public as a “political” person who would bend to pressure from major forces within his party …

“The power of the Perot campaign, and growing public animosity to both the Republican and the Democratic parties, has been interpreted in the Clinton campaign as a powerful message requiring the Arkansas governor to attempt to regain the status of an ‘outsider’ candidacy — a status first lost to former Massachusetts senator Paul E. Tsongas, then to former California governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. and most recently to Perot.”

Indeed, the idea that Clinton was triangulating against Black folks generally on race was not borne out by the reaction from, well, Black folks, other than those very close to the justifiably insulted Jackson, as Steve Kornacki later observed:

“Clinton did not suffer any discernible fallout among black voters; in fact, many black political leaders — some nursing their own grudges against Jackson — used the occasion to throw their support behind Clinton.”

That could be in part because even if you think Clinton was pushing off the left, he wasn’t exactly moving right. In the same speech in which he chastised Sister Souljah for allegedly smiling upon the hypothetical killing of white people for the sins of their race, Clinton sounded some familiar populist themes that were entirely congenial to his audience:

“The speech included repeated attacks on the Bush administration, with a well received line about Vice President Quayle — ‘I’m tired of people on trust funds telling people on food stamps how to live’ — and praise for ‘the real story of Los Angeles — that most people who live in that city did not burn, loot or riot.’”

So what would a more nuanced understanding of the “Sister Souljah Moment” tell Joe Biden?

First of all, Biden is in a vastly different position than was Clinton in 1992. There is no Ross Perot on the horizon, appealing to a huge block of swing voters temporarily estranged from both parties. When Clinton rejected Jesse Jackson’s advice to run a base-mobilization campaign, there were plenty of reasons to fear that identification of Clinton with Democratic orthodoxy would be disastrous: At the time of the Sister Souljah speech, Clinton was running third in many polls behind Perot and George H.W. Bush. And when Perot did (temporarily) withdraw from the race right after the Democratic convention (I was involved in speech preparations for that convention and remember when the word came down: No more criticisms of Perot!), he basically confirmed that Clinton had succeeded in redeeming his pledge to become “a different kind of Democrat,” as the Los Angeles Times explained:

“’When we started … there was a climate there where we could win outright,’ Perot asserted. But now, he said, ‘the Democratic Party has revitalized itself. They’ve done a brilliant job, in my opinion, in coming back.’

:Perot did not elaborate on that point. But Morton H. Meyerson, a longtime Perot confidant and campaign adviser, later cited the Democratic Party’s platform as something that ‘Ross feels good about.’

“Meyerson added: ‘The Democrats seem to be listening to the people.'”

Biden, by contrast is operating in a highly polarized climate with few swing voters and no Perot-like centrist to challenge him. He has zero reason to gamble on separating himself rhetorically from his party.

Second of all, while Clinton was dealing with decades of perceived Democratic subservience to the party’s interest and constituency groups, Biden is dealing with a conservative media environment in which nothing he says will effectively contradict assertions that he wants to defund the police, open the prison doors, impose “woke” speech codes and racial quotas on colleges and workplaces, and usher in a socialist revolution. It’s all preposterous, but Biden has already tried and failed to challenge the smears with rhetorical signals. Some hypothetical equivalent to the supposed message Clinton sent in the “Sister Souljah Moment” would mostly be heard by those who feared, not hoped, he was separating himself from his party under pressure.

And third, even if Joe Biden thought he needed to “push off” the left (as though defeating Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primaries wasn’t enough “pushing off”), he should stay far away from racially inflammatory subjects. Biden would have never won the presidential nomination without the kind of staunch Black support that destroyed the potentially strong nomination campaigns of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, even though Biden’s history on racial issues was far more problematic than Clinton’s in 1992. Besides, now and in 1992, the idea that “the left” and “Black voters” are somehow synonymous is simply wrong.

If Biden feels the need to make it clear he’s still the moderately progressive Democrat who hates racism but is by no means a socialist or especially “woke,” he should just say so, as often as possible. No “pushing off” is necessary.

November 24: The Presidential Buzz About Buttigieg Isn’t Helping Anyone

I got a bit annoyed at one of the recent topics of Beltway scuttlebutt, and wrote about it at New York.

I like Pete Buttigieg. I met and interviewed him at a mayors’ conference in 2017 and found him to be smart, engaging, and open-minded. I didn’t even mind that he failed to respond to my hint that I’d sure like help getting tickets to the upcoming Georgia–Notre Dame football game in his fair city (maybe he didn’t have any; he did, after all, go to Harvard, not Notre Dame). It did not occur to me that he might run for president in the very next cycle, but he was clearly a young pol to watch.

Once he did take the plunge, Mayor Pete’s ability to transcend his slim résumé to become a top-tier candidate was impressive indeed. As an observant liberal mainline Protestant, I couldn’t help but cheer the challenge he posed to the religious right, which could not grasp the idea of a gay, married, churchgoing military veteran who knew scriptures and theology better than its own champions. But Buttigieg also showed some conventional political chops, particularly in Iowa, where his largely amateur grassroots organization basically fought Bernie Sanders to a tie. Even when he faded, he managed not to burn too many bridges with occasionally sharp-elbowed debate performances, and got out of the race at the right time while endorsing the ultimate nominee. His reward, the visible but distinctly second-tier Cabinet post of secretary of Transportation, seemed appropriate to his contributions to Biden’s victory and his status in the party. He had, after all, just turned 39 the day before the new administration took office.

But now he faces the most daunting challenge yet of his brief career on the national political stage: presidential buzz. It emanates regularly from Beltway journalists and their sources like a sort of sonic nerve gas. Today’s entry from Politico reads:

“While Buttigieg says he’s not contemplating the race to be Biden’s successor, inside the West Wing, others are imagining it for him. His name is sometimes discussed by aides as a natural Democratic presidential nominee in 2028 — or 2024 if the president opts not to run.

“’Nobody in the West Wing shuts that down,’ said one person with direct knowledge of the conversations. ‘It’s very open.'”

This sort of thing is deadly for Buttigieg’s potentially very long future in Democratic politics. It is bound to annoy his boss, President Biden, who is tamping down any speculation that he might take a pass on a reelection fight in 2024 and obviously wants to keep talk of a successor on a low boil at best. More pointedly, any Buttigieg buzz will undoubtedly be perceived as hostile and even disrespectful to the interests of heir-apparent Kamala Harris. The biggest political liability Mayor Pete took out of his presidential campaign was a reputation for being the ultimate wine-track candidate, with a particular difficulty (fed by events in South Bend) in attracting any sort of support from Black voters. He may have made some subtle progress in this respect by proposing a well-received “Douglass Plan” for Black empowerment, though it wasn’t enough to help him electorally. But clearly the last thing he needs if he ever does want to serve as president is to become a cat’s paw for those who want to sideline the first Black woman to have a clear shot at the presidency.

Beyond that, presidential buzz puts Buttigieg in a no-win position vis-à-vis doing the job assigned to him in the Biden administration. Politico notes that the kind of barnstorming any secretary of Transportation should be doing to promote the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that is Biden’s biggest accomplishment to date sure looks a lot like proto-campaign activity:

“While there is no election directly in sight, Buttigieg’s initial on-the-ground efforts to promote the infrastructure deal had some familiar elements of his past campaigns. There were lots of news interviews, meet-and-greets with local electeds, die-hard fans in ‘Pete’ shirts carrying copies of his book, a protester with a homophobic sign (‘Booty Gay Go Away’), and people having trouble pronouncing his name (‘Butt-Edge-Edge’ instead of ‘Boot-Edge-Edge,’ as the emcee of one event kept pronouncing it).

“There were also attempts at that folksy Midwestern humor that were part of his candidacy roughly two years ago. On the benefits of the infrastructure package, he told POLITICO ‘this is literally as concrete as it gets.’ He noted how cold it was at the bill signing but said that the bipartisan package ‘warmed my heart.’”

If everything he does in public or private becomes interpreted as little more than a calculated step toward the presidency, that goal may grow further and further away.

Buttigieg hasn’t even turned 40 yet. If Biden has set a new standard for the lifespan of presidential ambitions, Buttigieg can keep hope alive for close to four more decades. What he doesn’t need is to burn out and become yesterday’s news long before he makes another big move in 2036 or 2040 or 2050. If it turns out he is quietly promoting the buzz as we speak, he deserves the danger he would be courting. Otherwise, for Pete’s sake, cut it out and let him do his job.

November 19: Why Kevin McCarthy Does What He Does

Some political observers seem baffled by the behavior of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. I’m not, and wrote about it at New York, just before McCarthy’s demagogic eight-hour speech opposing Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation.

In every respect, the House GOP fight against the censure of Paul Gosar for posting a tweet with an anime video depicting him murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was embarrassing. Republicans were defending a clearly dangerous and contemptible act while identifying themselves with a chronically dangerous and contemptible extremist politician. Beyond that, though, rallying around Gosar interrupted their efforts to make this week’s Beltway coverage revolve around the follies of the opposition Democrats. As Politico Playbook observed: “This was supposed to be a ‘Dems in Disarray’ week, but thanks to Rep. PAUL GOSAR (R-Ariz.), it turned into a ‘McCarthy Defends …’ week.

So why didn’t House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy toss Gosar onto the dustbin of political history where he belongs, or at least keep his troops from treating him like a martyr? I can’t see into McCarthy’s mind or soul, of course, but it’s reasonably clear he has adopted a policy of pas d’ennemis a droit (“no enemies to the right,” an inversion of the old Popular Front slogan “no enemies to the left,” deployed to prevent criticism of communists). And he did so because he does not want to go the way of his distinguished former colleagues in the House Republican leadership, Eric Cantor and John Boehner.

Cantor, you may recall, was the brilliant young Virginia congressman who was in top leadership spots (first as House Minority Whip then as House Majority Leader) from 2009 until 2014. That last year, he came crashing to earth in a primary loss to an obscure economics professor named Dave Brat, who demonized Cantor’s friendly attitude toward a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. More generally, Cantor painted a big bull’s-eye on his back by identifying himself with the famous “Growth and Opportunity Project” — better known as the “2012 GOP autopsy report” — that argued the Republican Party was doomed if it did not expand its base by attracting minority voters, with comprehensive immigration reform being a sine qua non. Brat’s nativist-tinged campaign found its most avid cheerleader in Ann Coulter, and got an assist from a former Michele Bachmann staffer named Stephen Miller. It was, arguably, the first MAGA campaign ever. And it sent shock waves through Washington that have yet to subside completely.

Who succeeded Cantor as House Majority Leader? Kevin McCarthy, of course. You think he remembers Cantor’s demise pretty well? I do. But there’s more.

Soon thereafter, the only House Republican who outranked the prelapsarian Cantor, Speaker John Boehner, crashed and burned as well, not in a primary, but by losing an internal party struggle with the House Freedom Caucus, which viewed the convivial wine-and-cigarettes Ohioan as insufficiently combative toward the hated Democrats and their especially hated president Barack Obama. When Kevin McCarthy sought to succeed Boehner, he was blocked by the HFC, which did not consider him ideologically reliable and preferred (and secured) Paul Ryan for the gig. In 2019, McCarthy finally did gain the top leadership spot and has been very solicitous toward the right wing of his conference ever since.

With the Speaker’s gavel in sight — he probably goes to sleep at night envisioning the moment he takes it away from his least-favorite colleague, fellow-Californian Nancy Pelosi — McCarthy isn’t going to blow it now by upsetting Gosar and his Freedom Caucus friends Andy Biggs, Lauren Boebert, Andrew Clyde, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and … the list keeps growing. Periodic bad publicity about his tolerance of scary people saying and doing scary things is a small price to pay for ensuring there is no GOP leadership coup in 2023 if history repeats itself and the president’s party loses quite a few House seats. After all, if McCarthy isn’t careful, he could be brushed aside by a fresh new face aspiring to the Speakership: Donald J. Trump.

November 18: Horse-Race Polling Is Not the Problem With Our Politics

I was in a contrarian mood, and wrote this piece for New York expressing an unpopular but empirically accurate point of view:

There is a vocal group of politically minded people who absolutely hate horse-race polling (i.e., polling about who is leading in election contests). They have varying reasons. Some think polls systemically underrepresent the viability of their favorite party or politicians. Others just dislike the hype surrounding poll findings and the phony conflicts over various numbers. And particularly among progressives, there are some who object to such polling because they feel the coverage it generates blots out the sky at the expense of the policy discussions that ought to be the focus of political media.

To all these poll-o-phobes, the recent emergence of self-doubt in the public-opinion industry based on polling errors in certain elections is a tiding of great comfort and joy. A particularly big moment came on November 4, after the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, when Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray, deploring his own big “miss” in the New Jersey race, made this statement in an op-ed:

“Public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes is abysmal. Honest missteps get conflated with ‘fake news’ — a charge that has hit election polls in recent years …

“Most public pollsters are committed to making sure our profession counters rather than deepens the pervasive cynicism in our society. We try to hold up a mirror that accurately shows us who we are. If election polling only serves to feed that cynicism, then it may be time to rethink the value of issuing horse race poll numbers as the electorate prepares to vote.”

As Murray pointed out, two of the big guns in public opinion, Gallup and Pew Research Center, have already stopped polling candidate preferences, though they still poll on issues, presidential job approval, ideological views, partisan affiliation, and other horse-race-adjacent matters. And Murray’s freak-out over polling error in New Jersey reflected broader anxieties expressed within and beyond the polling industry over high-profile “misses” in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Now it’s important to note that polls were quite accurate in the 2018 midterms, and were also spot-on in the Virginia gubernatorial race that occurred the same day as New Jersey’s (in the final RealClearPolitics polling averages for Virginia, Glenn Youngkin led Terry McAuliffe by 1.7 percent. He won by 1.9 percent). And it’s easy to exaggerate the 2016 and 2020 errors. In the former election, the final RCP average projected a 3.3 percent Clinton lead over Trump. Her actual popular vote plurality was 2.1 percent. The margin of error was larger in 2020, but was a less-than-astronomical 2.7 percent (RCP averages showed Biden up 7.2 percent, and he won the popular vote by 4.5 percent).

The more crucial errors in both cases were in state polling, which (a) is generally less accurate than national polling, and (b) is less frequent. Yes, the chatter about Clinton and Biden’s big national leads based on national polling may have misled people who forgot there was this thing called the Electoral College that actually determines the presidency. But this goes to my fundamental problem with horse-race-polling abolitionism: Bad media coverage of political races won’t necessarily go away, or even improve, if you get rid of candidate-preference polls. Indeed, getting rid of the polls will likely create a vacuum which will be filled with partisan spin, leaked campaign poll results (believe me, the candidates aren’t going to deny themselves polling data), and “reporting” that harvests predictable, self-confirming “data” from tiny samples, conspiracy theories, and other misinformation.

FiveThirtyEight’s Galen Druke raised a lot of these and other concerns with Murray in a podcast interview this week. The more you listen to the back-and-forth, the more it becomes clear that Murray’s big fear is that the perception of pollster bias, fed by polling errors, is contributing to the loss of “public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes,” which he cited in his op-ed. This is a pretty clear allusion to the anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) fallout reflected in heavy Republican subscription to the Big Lie about the 2020 elections. And it helps explain why Murray is upset about New Jersey but not Virginia, and about 2020 polling but not 2018 polling. The crisis, it seems, is that misleading (or more accurately, misinterpreted) polls are among the factors turning Republicans into authoritarians who won’t believe anyone other than Donald Trump.

It’s an understandable fear, and one that may particularly grip pollsters, who suspect a disproportionate refusal to participate in polls by Republicans is at the root of the 2020 polling “miss,” and perhaps others. Maybe not doing horse-race polls at all will keep the problem from getting worse.

There are, fortunately, remedies short of abolitionism that could help ameliorate the legitimate issues Murray and others have raised, without unnecessarily obscuring elections for political office in a data-free fog. Pollsters can more cautiously establish and publicize margins of error and what they mean. They can also simply refuse to conduct likely voter calculations — which Murray rightly suggests is the source of a lot of, or maybe most, polling error — relying on predefined samples like registered voters, or even the “all adults” samples typical of the job-approval and issues polls no one seems to find objectionable. Then pollsters could make it clear that they are not estimating turnout patterns, which might significantly reduce perceptions of bias.

Because misuse of polling data is probably the biggest problem of all, media outlets should be strongly encouraged to balance polling data with other kinds of political coverage, whether it’s on-the-ground campaign reporting, issues polling, or simply a focus on events remote from the campaign trail (e.g., actual governing activity in the three branches of government, and at the federal, state, and local level). And even in reporting polls, consumers of this data (including media) should absolutely look at averages, and warn that sparse polling of particular contests (which, ironically, voluntary decisions to stop horse-race polling by individual pollsters will exacerbate) is a danger sign in making predictions. It’s no accident that the New Jersey governor’s race featured less public polling than its counterpart in Virginia; similarly, the state polls that were off in 2016 and 2020 were, in most cases, conducted less frequently than national polling. Should there be any surprise that more polling means greater overall accuracy?

But make no mistake, there’s no silver bullet. As the deep skepticism over exit polls (sort of a combination of candidate-preference and issues polling) shows, non-horse-race polling has its own problems. There is a lot of “pure” issues polling out there that’s unreliable and downright biased, thanks to tricks of wording and question order (and a lot of it is commissioned by special interests promoting a particular point of view).

Some high-minded folks might ask a more fundamental question: What would we lose if we got rid of horse-race polling and instead did a lot more issues polling? My answer to that may infuriate such people, but it’s the truth: In our system, and especially with today’s extreme partisan polarization, who wins elections has much greater influence on policy outcomes than all the policy “debates” and public-opinion surveys you can devise. Politicians in both parties — and particularly Republicans, I would argue — routinely ignore issues polling in what they decide to do; ideology and pressure from donors and activists typically matters more, which is why Republicans won’t support even the most modest gun-safety measures, and Democrats won’t give government the prescription-drug-price negotiation powers the public has demanded for years. To put it another way, you can’t take the politics out of politics.

Polling of all sorts can and should be improved, and without question, we must do a better job of reporting and interpreting survey findings. But it’s folly to think that a reduction or an abolition of one type of polling is going to keep Republicans from believing Big Lies, or give politicians in both parties overpowering incentives to focus on policies rather than politics. In the end, the answer to flawed data is more, not less, data, with the kind of transparency and accountability we can’t get from private polls done for private purposes and then leaked and spun selectively.

November 10: The Centrist Third Party Delusion

Some new data relevant to one of my favorite false political theories became available, so I wrote about it at New York:

An enduring fantasy about American politics is that our polarized two-party system may give way to a centrist third party that will rise to power on the frustrations of voters tired of gridlock and refusals to compromise in the national interest. You hear this cry for a fresh option more and more as Republicans systematically deploy the filibuster to obstruct Joe Biden’s agenda, and Joe Biden’s Democrats cannot or will not chase Republicans around Washington with candy and valentines until deals are cut and things get done. Indeed, Gallup found earlier this year that a record-high 62 percent of Americans agreed that “the parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.”

That’s in theory, of course. In reality, a lot of Americans who say they are angry at the two-party system are really just angry at the party opposing their own for failing to get out of the way or go off to die. And even if you could somehow get all the malcontents together in one room, do they actually speak the same ideological language and agree on what is to be done when all the “getting things done” commences?

A new typology of American voters from the Pew Research Center shows why a centrist third party is problematic in the extreme. After asking a very large sample of voters a battery of questions aimed at determining their partisan leanings and ideological tendencies, alongside positions on key issues, Pew came up with nine groups. Four (Progressive Left, Establishment Liberals, Democratic Mainstays, and Outsider Left) are Democratic leaning, four more (Faith and Flag Conservatives, Committed Conservatives, Populist Right, and Ambivalent Right) are Republican leaning, and one (Stressed Sideliners) leans neither way.

If you take the left and right groups least intensely partisan (the Outsider Left and the Ambivalent Right) and add them to the nonpartisan Stressed Sideliners, you get a substantial 37 percent of the electorate, enough to form a plurality in close three-way political contests. But there are two big obstacles to them becoming an effective Third Force, notes Pew:

“Surveys by Pew Research Center and other national polling organizations have found broad support, in principle, for a third major political party. Yet the typology study finds that the three groups with the largest shares of self-identified independents (most of whom lean toward a party) — Stressed Sideliners, Outsider Left and Ambivalent Right — have very little in common politically. Stressed Sideliners hold mixed views; Ambivalent Right are conservative on many economic issues, while moderate on some social issues; and Outsider Left are very liberal on most issues, especially on race and the social safety net.”

These three groups do have one negative point of conjunction:

“What these groups do have in common is relatively low interest in politics: They had the lowest rates of voting in the 2020 presidential election and are less likely than other groups to follow government and public affairs most of the time.”

So even if you designed a party or a candidate that could somehow appeal to all of the politically dispossessed, many in the target audience might not notice or wouldn’t vote anyway. And if they did get motivated enough to consider the Third Force, they might tear each other apart on the way to saving the country.

Ultimately, the purported constituents for a centrist third party aren’t as large a group as is often imagined and aren’t really centrists, either. And their alienation from both parties may be more about alienation from politics or, to put it another way, from the prospect of doing anything about their grievances. This fantasy will never die, but it’s not springing into real life in the foreseeable future.

November 4: Democrats Can Only Lose Again By Abandoning Their Agenda

In the wake of the disappointing 2021 off-year elections, I heard disturbing reactions from Democrats and responded at New York:

Things did not go well for Democrats in the 2021 elections. Most notably, Terry McAuliffe lost the governorship his party had held since 2009 in Virginia, a state that Joe Biden carried by ten points just last year; Democrats also lost the state lieutenant governor’s race, are behind in the state attorney general’s race, and may lose control of one chamber of the legislature. In New Jersey, Democratic governor Phil Murphy, expected to romp to an easy reelection, is in a near dead heat with Republican Jack Ciattarelli with the outcome still in doubt. And Democratic Senate president Steve Sweeney is in danger of losing to an anonymous schmo who barely even had a campaign. In New York, three Democratic-sponsored ballot initiatives aimed at making voting easier and simplifying redistricting went down to defeat. Happy days are not here again for the Donkey Party.

There are myriad factors that went into these disappointing but hardly atypical off-year setbacks, perhaps the most important being simply an age-old and nearly universal backlash against the party of newly elected presidents (Republicans got waxed in New Jersey and Virginia in 2017). And yes, such losses usually portend a poor showing in the upcoming midterm elections (the president’s party has lost U.S. House, Senate, and gubernatorial seats in the last four midterms).

But some narcissistic congressional Democrats seem to assume the bad Election Night is all about them, and they want to learn exactly the wrong lesson going forward. Punchbowl News reports:

“Numerous Democrats privately have told us they’re uneasy with the contours of the massive Build Better Act despite weeks of intra-party negotiations. They believe the party leadership is rushing through the final stages of these talks. Last night’s loss – or losses – won’t end Democrats’ quest to pass the massive reconciliation package, but it will certainly impact it. Pelosi and her leadership team were hoping for floor passage this week. However, Tuesday losses will give new heft to those voices that have been suggesting the speaker slow the agenda down and bring it back to the center.”

“Bring it back to the center” is code for reducing the size, scope, and ambition of the Build Back Better package, which has, as a matter of fact, already happened thanks to the demands of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and their House allies. Some of these same “centrist” Democrats typically think House passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill would send some sort of important signal to voters, and they may even be under the illusion that the Virginians who elected Youngkin in a high-turnout contest were somehow longing for the roads and bridges they have been denied. (To be clear, some Democrats thought of as “centrists” or “moderates,” like the Third Way organization, have rejected the let’s-do-less mantra emphatically).

Actually, the House progressives with whom the centrists are battling fully plan to vote for the infrastructure bill, perhaps even without conditions. But the single quickest way to show Democrats can get something done is to unlock the logjam by reaching quick agreement on BBB and then immediately passing the infrastructure bill. That’s the opposite of “suggesting the speaker slow the agenda down.”

Beyond that, Democratic centrists need to get out of the habit of thinking that voters are watching their every move and will reward or punish them instantly for too much perceived liberalism. Even before the November 2 setbacks, the odds of Democrats holding on to their trifecta in 2022 were extremely low. On the two occasions since 1934 when the president’s party gained House seats in a midterm, the president in question (Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002) enjoyed approval ratings in the 60s. In this polarized moment of American political history, Joe Biden couldn’t match their numbers even if COVID-19 disappeared, the economy boomed, friendly unicorns romped across the landscape, and lollipops dropped from the sky. Instead of decimating their own agenda in an uninformed and likely vain effort to head off the inevitable, congressional Democrats should focus on what they can accomplish in this fleeting moment of power, which may not recur for years. Lowering their sights and abandoning legislative goals — goals whose achievement actually may, for all we know, make them more popular in 2022 — gives Republicans an anticipatory victory they have by no means earned.

Losing elections is painful, and as my colleague Eric Levitz points out, the 2021 defeats are particularly painful because Republicans have never paid the price for their obeisance to the outlaw president who may yet head up their next presidential ticket. There could be discrete lessons to be learned from what happened on November 2, including the inadequacy of a playbook that focused too much on COVID-19 mandate debates and the specter of Trump, who wasn’t on the ballot. And more generally, Democrats need to adjust to the fact that we are in a period of high voter engagement in which just inflaming your own base won’t be enough.

But there is no sensible interpretation of the 2021 defeats that suggests a muddled, cramped, confusing, diminished, or delayed legislative agenda will save Democrats in 2022 and beyond. They still have a good chance to hang on to the White House in 2024; after all, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama won reelection after terrible midterm performances by their party. But more importantly, they need to remember the purpose of political power: to accomplish things they cannot get done in opposition or in periods of divided government. The future truly is right now.

October 29: Another Sign of Republican Extremism on Abortion From Missouri

Not too long after Todd Akin’s death, it’s clear the example he set for the disaster of abortion extremism hasn’t taught Missouri Republicans much, as I explained at New York:

With the U.S. Supreme Court quite possibly on the brink of abolishing federal reproductive rights and returning abortion policy to the states, it’s alarming to note that the anti-abortion movement is becoming even more radical about what it intends to do with that power if it gets it. Most notably, the once-standard exceptions for victims of rape and incest are disappearing from the state abortion bans that would leap to life if SCOTUS permits them to. Both the Texas and Mississippi laws before the Court this term have no rape or incest exceptions.

Supporters of these bans, particularly if they are candidates or elected officials, don’t usually like to talk about them; when they do, they certainly don’t like to talk about forcing a victim of rape or incest to carry a pregnancy to term. But in what is perhaps a sign of the times, Missouri Senate candidate Mark McCloskey — better known as the lawyer who pointed a rifle at Black Lives Matter demonstrators passing his mansion last summer — went out of his way to position himself as an abortion extremist by talking about banning abortion for a teenage victim of incestuous rape, as the Kansas City Star reports:

“He made the comments in response to an audience member’s question at a forum in Osage Beach. ‘There’s a lot of candidates that say they’re pro-life, but really they’re not completely pro-life,’ the woman in the audience said, according to a video of the event posted on Facebook. ‘There’s a lot of, ‘Well in this case, it would be allowed.’”

“McCloskey, a St. Louis personal-injury attorney, responded that he doesn’t ‘believe in any exceptions.’ ‘We were down in Poplar Bluff a couple of months ago, and somebody asked me that question, “So you would force a 13-year-old who’s raped by a family member to keep that baby?’” he said. “And I said, ‘Yes, and more than that, I’ve got that client.’ I’ve got a client who was raped by an uncle when she was 13 years old, had the child; she finished high school, finished college, and got a master’s degree.”

McCloskey seems to be very firm in his belief that teenagers should be forced to carry pregnancies to term in all cases, making this unusual analogy in the same appearance:

“He said it had bothered him ‘as long ago as when I was in grade school’ that some death-penalty opponents also support abortion rights. His comments received applause from the audience. ‘The justice of the Supreme Court in the most heinous crimes don’t have the right to decide who should live and die,’ he said. ‘But every 13-year-old girl on the street should be able to decide the fate of the life of their child?’”

Clearly, McCloskey thinks male Republican lawmakers should have that power. But he barely stands out among his rivals for the Republican Senate nomination. Disgraced former governor Eric Greitens calls himself “100 percent pro-life” and boasts that he forced the legislature into a special session on abortion. Missouri attorney general Eric Schmitt has been defending his state’s own extreme abortion law (which also has no rape or incest exceptions) in court. Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler is a favorite of the hard-line anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, and Congressman Billy Long is another “100 percent pro-life” Republican who has specialized in fighting publicly funded abortions. Nary a “moderate” in the bunch.

It’s all a bit amazing since Missouri provided one of the most graphic illustrations of the political perils of anti-abortion extremism in 2012, when Senate candidate Todd Akin blew up his candidacy while defending his own position against rape exceptions for abortion bans. Akin famously tried to argue that any woman who had experienced “legitimate rape” wouldn’t get pregnant, implying those who did must somehow have asked to be raped. But even he didn’t blithely go for the crazy-train trifecta of commandeering the bodies of 13-year-olds raped by their own family members. But Mark McCloskey did.

October 28: The Right’s Embrace of Violent Revolution is Becoming Routine

After reading about another of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s outrages, I wrote about what it really meant at New York:

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene is occasionally useful for her habit of coming right out and saying things her extremist colleagues think and imply but don’t usually articulate. That happened this week during an interview MTG gave to a right-wing media outlet, as the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reported:

“During an appearance on conservative outlet Real America’s Voice, Greene repeated a frequent GOP talking point that the real focus of congressional investigators should be violence at Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. But while doing so, she essentially suggested the Capitol riot comported with our Founding Fathers’ vision.

“The racial-justice protest violence ‘was an attack on innocent American people, whereas January 6th was just a riot at the Capitol,’ she said. ‘And if you think about what our Declaration of Independence says, it says to overthrow tyrants.'”

This is not a tossed-off comment or anything new for Greene, as the Post reported soon after the Capitol riot:

“References to the year 1776 and the American Revolution have grown substantially among the far right as Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists have hinted at the possibility of a revolution in the wake of Trump’s election loss, which they view, falsely, as illegitimate. Trump allies and surrogates, including first-term Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), referred to Jan. 6 as Republicans’ ‘1776 moment.'”

This is actually a sentiment that goes a bit deeper than its “my violence GOOOOD, your violence BAAAAAD” wrapping. In January and this week, MTG was almost certainly alluding to the time-honored right-wing extremist doctrine that whenever “patriots” decide the government is controlled by “tyrants,” they are entitled to pick up shooting irons and start trying to kill soldiers and cops and anyone else complicit in that tyranny. That is, after all, what the Founders did in 1776, right?

Indeed they did, but they did not purport to serve as leaders in the very government they were overthrowing and certainly didn’t intend to create some permanent right of violent revolution against the republic they created. To put it another way, you can choose to be a revolutionary or you can choose to be a member of Congress, but you can’t be both. Once you have deemed the government a tyranny (which MTG constantly does in conflating the “Democrat Party” with communism), you pretty much need to take to the hills and stop giving interviews in and around the U.S. Capitol. That’s particularly true when the “tyranny” in question is the result of a democratic election that every available nonpartisan institution has confirmed as fair.

The treatment of right-wing insurrectionism, actual or potential, as the work of patriots as blessed by the Founders is hardly original to Greene. It is intrinsic to the Second Amendment absolutism that is dangerously popular among conservatives these days. The doctrine holds that the ultimate purpose of the right to bear arms is to ensure a citizenry that is willing and able to “resist tyranny,” with the meaning of “tyranny,” of course, left up to those choosing violence to battle it. And it was also implicit in the tea-party-era movement known as “constitutional conservatism,” which argued that conservative policy prescriptions ranging from free-market capitalism to states’ rights to fetal personhood were eternally embedded in the Constitution in conjunction with the Declaration of Independence by the Founders, who themselves had divine sanction for their work. Thus any contrary policies imposed via democratic representative government were inherently illegitimate and warranted resistance. In unbalanced minds, that resistance would definitely justify terrorism.

The same anti-democratic creed is alive and well in MAGA circles, including the intellectuals of the Claremont Institute who serve as shock troops in the wider world, much as MTG does in Washington. “In March, one of Claremont’s senior fellows published an essay proclaiming the need for a counterrevolution against the American majority who didn’t vote for Trump,” Laura Field reports at The New Republic. “In late May, the think tank produced a podcast that gamed out how a future president might convert herself or himself into a new Caesar.”

Even absent any exotic constitutional theories, the idea that nothing must stand in the way of the correct people (i.e., Donald Trump) holding power is at the very heart of the Big Lie that inspired (and, some would say, incited) the Capitol riot. Unfortunately, MAGA folk seem determined to claim a permanent right to power, which in every important respect is a direct and permanent threat to democracy.