washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

December 13: Electability Comparisons Could Define DeSantis-Trump Competition

When beginning to look at 2024 polls, it occurred to me that some information is more valuable than others, and wrote about that at New York:

Now that we are in the 2024 presidential-election cycle with the first primaries just over a year away, it’s time to begin looking at how the two parties’ voters will approach their choices. At this point, a competitive GOP nomination contest seems a lot more likely than one among Democrats. Perhaps the punditocracy is underestimating Donald Trump’s strength within his party yet again, but even so, no one thinks he’s strong enough to clear the field and run unopposed. While no one knows exactly how many intraparty rivals Trump will face, it is already possible to look at polls to estimate his relative popularity among Republicans, and his “electability” as a general-election candidate against presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

On the first measurement, let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: I don’t put a lot of stock in vague polls asking Republicans if they want to renominate Trump or “someone else.” Perhaps that’s because I am old enough to remember similar signs of disenchantment with presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama before they were renominated without opposition. Plus, more recent polls showed disenchantment among Democrats with President Biden, who nonetheless seems to be a lead-pipe cinch for renomination if he indeed runs. Republicans overwhelmingly remember the Trump administration positively, and one major pre-midterm poll gave him an 81 percent favorability rating among Republicans (arguably unhappiness over his role in the underwhelming GOP midterm performance will fade much like the Republican anger at his role in the January 6 insurrection). A post-midterm survey from Pew showed 60 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners feeling “warmly” toward Trump (41 percent “very warmly”). He’s hardly a spent force just yet, and it’s more compelling to look at how specific potential rivals would perform against him.

There are presently 40 polls in the RealClearPolitics database measuring support among Republican voters for potential 2024 nominees. Trump has led in all 40. To be more specific, Trump leads Ron DeSantis, far and away his most formidable rival, by an average of 21.5 percent (48.8 percent to 27.3 percent). There is a school of thought (mostly based on the huge field of opponents Trump faced in 2016) that in a one-on-one competition DeSantis would dispatch Trump easily, but that probably overestimates DeSantis’s appeal among Republicans backing other potential candidates, and underestimates Trump’s king-of-the-mountain performance in 2016 once the field had been culled of all but the strongest opponents.

So at this very early stage, it’s reasonable to affirm that DeSantis’s strength against Trump remains speculative and could be illusory, much like Rick Perry’s momentary burst of support in 2012 or Scott Walker’s alleged potential going into 2016. It’s also worth remembering that national polls assessing support for this or that presidential candidate mean a lot less than performance in the early nominating contests, which for Republicans will begin in Iowa and New Hampshire. We have yet to see how DeSantis performs in a presidential caucus or primary.

But there is one measurable optic that could affect Republican voter preferences from sea to shining sea if they show a glaring disparity: perceived 2024 electability. Just as Democrats who might have preferred a younger or more progressive nominee in 2020 settled on Biden as the most electable option against the much-hated Trump, Republicans could dump Trump in 2024 if he’s perceived as a sure loser while alternative candidates aren’t. So it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on general-election polling along with primary polling.

There hasn’t been a wealth of 2024 general-election trial heats matching variable candidates just yet, but so far there are already signs that a perceived electability advantage could be an important asset for DeSantis, aside from the very important data point that Trump has already lost to Biden once.

In the RCP averages, DeSantis is currently tied with Joe Biden at 43 percent, while Biden leads Trump by three points (44.7 percent to 41.7 percent). But the most recent poll, from USA Today–Suffolk, shows DeSantis leading the incumbent by four points (47-43), while Biden leads Trump by seven points (47-40). That’s a pretty big performance gap, and if it persists or even grows, it could affect Republican primary voters who detest Biden today as much as 2020 Democratic primary voters detested Trump. Yes, Trump can be expected to denounce all adverse polls as fake, and confidently predict total victory every time his name appears on a ballot. But even hard-core MAGA folk know in their hearts that their warrior-king has lost some altitude, and may want the kind of general-election victory that doesn’t require months of conspiring and an insurrection at the Capitol to achieve pay dirt. A focus on electability could produces some dilemmas for DeSantis (and other Trump rivals) as well; the Florida governor has spent a lot of time perfecting appeals to the most extreme elements of his party to outflank Trump on the rights. But DeSantis seems like the kind of politician who is motivated by opportunism more than principle, so he may give electability a try.

December 2: Democrats Need to Worry a Bit More About Black Turnout Trends

Sifting through more data from the 2022 midterms, there was one indicator that surprised and concerned me, so I wrote about it at New York:

As analysts pick over the results of the 2022 midterm elections, there have been a lot of mixed messages for Democrats. Yes, they performed better than you might have expected for the party controlling the White House, especially considering the president has underwater job-approval ratings. And yes, Democrats benefited from an unusually robust performance among young voters, who often don’t participate in midterm elections. But at the same time, Democrats didn’t significantly improve their performance among other key demographics, notably Black, Asian American, and Latino voters. As my colleague Eric Levitz observed, Democrats remain dangerously dependent on white college-educated voters who remain sympathetic to Republican economic messages.

Worse yet for Democrats, there is growing evidence that their single most loyal demographic group, African Americans, was underenthused in 2022. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn looked at the preliminary numbers and sounded the alarm:

“Georgia and North Carolina are two of the states where voters indicate their race when they register to vote, offering an unusually clear look at the racial composition of the electorate. In both states — along with Louisiana — the Black share of the electorate fell to its lowest levels since 2006.

“In all three states, the turnout rate among Black voters was far lower than among white voters. In North Carolina, for example, 43 percent of Black registered voters turned out, compared with 59 percent of white registered voters — roughly doubling the difference from 2018 and tripling the racial turnout gap from 2014.

“While similarly conclusive data is not available elsewhere so far, the turnout by county suggests that a relatively weak Black turnout was a national phenomenon.”

Low Black turnout in Georgia and North Carolina is especially significant because Black candidates (Senate candidate Cheri Beasley in North Carolina and Senate Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Georgia) headed up the Democratic tickets in both states. It’s not like the old days when Black voters were being urged to support white conservative Democrats to thwart even more conservative Republicans.

If the signs of relatively low Black turnout in 2022 are accurate and representative, what do they mean? Cohn offers some possible explanations:

“Still, relatively low Black turnout is becoming an unmistakable trend in the post-Obama era, raising important — if yet unanswered — questions about how Democrats can revitalize the enthusiasm of their strongest group of supporters.

“Is it simply a return to the pre-Obama norm? Is it yet another symptom of eroding Democratic strength among working-class voters of all races and ethnicities? Or is it a byproduct of something more specific to Black voters, like the rise of a more progressive, activist — and pessimistic — Black left that doubts whether the Democratic Party can combat white supremacy?”

It’s possible to overinterpret Black voter trends. According to exit polls, the Democratic share of Black voters dropped from 90 percent in 2018 to 87 percent in 2020 and 86 percent in 2022 — not exactly a deep plunge. And some of the negative turnout trends may be attributable to voter-suppression efforts in Republican-controlled states rather than Black voter disaffection with Democrats. In Georgia, moreover, there are encouraging signs about Black early voting turnout in the U.S. Senate general election runoff contest between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker.

But any way you cut it, Democrats have both a practical and a moral responsibility to boost Black voter participation in elections going forward. In particular, President Joe Biden, whose nomination and election in 2020 depended heavily on Black support, should devote a lot of attention to rekindling the fires of affection in this critical segment of the electorate.

December 1: November Surprise: The White House Party Unusually Got the Late Breaks

I took a vacation last week and a fresh look at the midterm results and some pertinent analysis struck me with a realization I wrote up at New York:

Ever since the results of the 2022 midterm elections became clear, it’s been a bit of a struggle to find a proper precedent. Yes, there have been a few past midterms where the party controlling the White House gained House seats (or just lost a few), but invariably that happened under presidents quite a bit more popular than Joe Biden, and usually in economic circumstances a lot more positive than those prevailing today. Still, the results weren’t all that crazy; Republicans did, after all, flip the House, and Democratic success in the Senate (much like Republican success in 2018) was heavily dependent on a favorable mix of contests.

The shock and awe that accompanied a relatively strong Democratic performance may have been because many were expecting a late Republican surge. The polls, after all, were pretty accurate. But it was hard for a lot of analysts from both parties to overcome the belief that the party opposing the White House would get all the late breaks and win most of the really close races. That wasn’t just a hunch; it used to be a political-science truism until late surges cemented the reelections of George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012. It seemed even more probable in 2022 given the historical unlikelihood of a good Democratic midterm and the suspicion that the energy Democrats got from the Dobbs abortion rights backlash might have dissipated by November.

But that’s not how it turned out, as the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter explains in a new analysis:

“Since 2006, the final House and Senate races we’ve rated as Toss-Ups have broken decisively in one direction. What was different about this cycle, however, is that both the House (69 percent) and Senate (currently 75 percent), broke for the White House party.”

Republicans in 2014 and Democrats in 2006 won sizable majorities of the toss-up House and Senate races. And Democrats won a majority of toss-up Senate races in 2010, as did Republicans in 2018, thanks to Senate landscapes that tilted the playing field (along with non-toss-up contests that flipped seats). So a late-breaking surge (against expectations, at least) for the White House party in both House and Senate races in a midterm truly is unusual. That Democrats also won four of five gubernatorial races identified as toss-ups by Cook reinforces the surprising late trend.

So what’s the explanation? That’s not so easy to determine. Take your pick among such factors as bad GOP candidate selection (though it wasn’t just “bad candidates” who lost), Republican extremism, or a stronger “Dobbs effect” than expected. Or, to cite the explanation that makes the most sense to me (and to Walter, who has written about “calcified” politics), maybe we are in an era where polarization and partisan attachments are so strong that midterm “swings” are less powerful and the party controlling the White House is going to be on stronger ground for the time being. As always, we’ll need more elections to supply the data needed to make postelection surprises less … surprising.

November 18: Coming Soon: Decisions on the 2024 Democratic Primary Calendar

One of my favorite wonky topics is the presidential nominating process, and as it happens, the way it’s shaping up for Democratic in 2024 is unusual, as I explained at New York:

Donald Trump’s 2024 announcement signaled that we are now officially in the run-up to the next presidential election. But there’s a big missing piece of basic election infrastructure, at least for Democrats: The order of states holding presidential primaries is very much up in the air.

Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which sets guidelines for the nomination process and administers sticks and carrots to get states to comply, announced it would authorize five “early states” allowed to have nominating contests prior to March 1, 2024. The four states that were allowed across this golden rope line from 2008 through 2020 — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — would have to reapply for privileged status along with everyone else. As many as 20 state Democratic parties expressed interest in vying for these five spots. But because some of the changed calendar positions would require action by the state government, which typically control and finance primaries, the DNC delayed a final selection until after the midterms sorted out who ruled where.

Now Michigan Democrats, who flipped both legislative chambers and hung on to the governorship this month, are galvanizing the 2024 calendar discussion with a clear bid for an early spot, as NBC News reports:

“Michigan Democrats — led by Rep. Debbie Dingell — feel well positioned to join the coveted ranks of the early states, after they made huge gains in the Nov. 8 election. With Iowa facing possible eviction from the early states, many expect Democrats to elevate a Midwest state.

“Democrats now have full control of the Statehouse in Lansing, which would allow them to easily change state laws to support a new date for the 2024 primary.”

The DNC’s previously announced criteria for early states, as reported by CBS News, were diversity (racial, ethnic, geographic, and economic diversity as well as union representation), general-election competitiveness, and feasibility (whether states can move their contest into the early window, if they can run a “fair, transparent and inclusive nominating process,” and the logistical requirements and cost of campaigning in that state). It was an unstated but understood criterion as well that the five early states would represent different regions. So Michigan may be competing for an early-state slot with Minnesota, where Democrats also nailed down a trifecta in the midterms.

Iowa’s traditional first-in-the-nation caucus has looked doomed all along. The state is famously nondiverse and is now solidly Republican in general elections. The “feasibility” of an Iowa event was also called into question by the 2020 fiasco, in which no Iowa caucus results were announced until the next day.

New Hampshire will be harder to dislodge, despite its nondiverse population, because of a state law that authorizes the secretary of state to move the primary date around in order to maintain the position of first primary. But Nevada Democrats are making a sustained effort to leap ahead of New Hampshire by switching to a primary and aggressively advertising their superior diversity and obvious competitiveness. It’s unclear, however, whether Republican Joe Lombardo’s gubernatorial win in Nevada will disrupt efforts to authorize a new state primary.

That points to one of two variables complicating the early-state selection process: By and large, Republicans are happy with the existing order of states. There is no pressure within the GOP to dump Iowa or displace New Hampshire or do anything else unusual. So in states where Republican cooperation is necessary to move things around or make the requisite resources available, Democrats have to convince their partisan enemies to care about it as well. And if the proposed new primary date in any given state violates the RNC’s existing calendar rules, that state’s Republicans could be penalized and lose delegates to their own convention. The prospect of a serious battle for the GOP presidential nomination adds another series of calculations.

It’s a Rubik’s Cube, and that’s largely why the existing calendar for both parties has stayed in place for so long aside from the fact that, in Iowa and New Hampshire, both parties have long cooperated to defend their calendar privileges like crazed badgers.

The other big variable facing Democrats is the broader context: What sort of decisions will Democrats be facing in 2024? At this point, we don’t know for sure whether President Biden is running for a second term, and we don’t know if he’ll face major competition if he does. If Biden has to fight for renomination, how he performed in particular states in 2020 may have some influence on a loyal DNC deciding where he has to run in 2024. That might really doom Iowa, if it’s not already doomed, given Biden’s fourth-place finish there in 2020. And Biden finished fifth in New Hampshire. The DNC likely wouldn’t want to give calendar privileges to the home state of a potential rival.

But decisions have to be made, and the Rules and Bylaws Committee is set to make them when it meets from December 1 through 3 in Washington, D.C.

November 16: Is the Democratic “Blue Wall” Coming Back in 2024?

To guard against unjustified optimism or pessimism, I took a look at one emerging take on the 2022 midterms and evaluated it at New York:

In 2020, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by flipping a number of battleground states that the Republican carried in 2016, namely Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. One of the reasons Republicans were optimistic about winning back the Senate this year is that several key contests were in these states. If the states were very close in a presidential year, surely they would turn red in a midterm when an unpopular Democrat was in the White House, right?

Wrong, for the most part. Democrats defended a seat in Arizona (and another in Nevada, a state Trump hadn’t carried but nearly did in 2020), flipped a Republican-held seat in Pennsylvania, and held the lead in Georgia going into a December 6 runoff (similar to the two January 2021 Senate runoffs Democrats won). Biden’s party didn’t win the Senate race in Wisconsin, but it was close, and it did win the gubernatorial contest there, as in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona.

So if Republicans were wrong to count on these states in 2022, are Democrats justified in counting on them in 2024, when presumably conditions will return to whatever is considered “normal” in these turbulent days? Even if the White House backlash didn’t emerge as expected, it does seem that Republicans did better than they would have if they didn’t have a relatively unpopular President Biden to kick around. So at this very early point, and without knowing what external factors will develop in the next two years, it’s reasonable to argue that Democrats begin this presidential cycle ahead. After all, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin together have 71 electoral votes or, to put it another way, one electoral vote more than megastates Florida and Texas have together. Sounds pretty good, eh? Almost as good as the “Blue Wall” Democrats supposedly enjoyed in 2016 in states that hadn’t gone Republican in many years, like … Michigan and Pennsylvania, last red in 1988, and Wisconsin, last red in 1984.

Perhaps the Democratic Party is rebuilding an advantage in some of those states that were lost to Trump in 2016. But the situation is probably too fluid to make any neat assumptions. And there’s also a possibility that a big part of what happened in 2022 was simply voter inflexibility in a period of extreme partisan polarization and gridlock; we may not have the big swings between midterm and presidential votes we’ve grown accustomed to in the past. If so, that obviously helped Democrats in 2022, but might help Republicans just as much in 2024.

For all the disappointment they experienced in this year’s results, there were also some positive developments for the GOP. They continued to trend upward among non-white and especially Latino voters. If this latter trend continues, not only would the red hue of Florida and Texas intensify, but Republicans could gain a renewed advantage in Arizona and Nevada while becoming more competitive in New Mexico and Colorado (and eventually even California).

So let’s see what the 2020 and 2022 battleground states do in 2024 before shifting them into competitive or less-competitive groups and deciding either party is well on the way to an enduring majority.

November 13: Assessing Trump’s Midterm Culpability

I didn’t really trust either Trump or his Republican critics to give a fair accounting of his responsibility for Republican underachievement in the midterm elections, so I conducted a review of my own at New York:

A lot of Republicans are really mad at Donald Trump. They are unhappy that the big red midterm election wave they had been promised did not materialize, and a lot of the blame is being directed at him.

Some of this angst probably amounts to opportunistic potshots from Republicans who were looking for an excuse to undermine Trump’s position in the party and/or preferred other leaders (notably Florida governor Ron DeSantis, in whose state Republicans actually overperformed high expectations).

But some of the caviling is sincere. Instead of staying out of the news and letting voters forget he was the leader of the party that was hustling them to either vote Republican or stay home, Trump did two things that affected the elections. First, he pursued an extensive candidate-endorsement strategy in the primaries and in the general election that had a big impact on who represented the GOP in November and how they were perceived. Second, he constantly fanned the flames of grievances over the 2020 election in ways that encouraged candidates to become election-denying extremists, which was another distraction from the desired party message.

Trump’s endorsements are the main object of postelection finger-pointing. But some were clearly more important than others. Indeed, the majority of the ex-president’s 495 endorsements this cycle were for House GOP incumbents who were in no danger of losing; partly this was intended to pad his winning percentage but also to show he appreciated Republicans who didn’t cause him any trouble even if they weren’t shrieking MAGA bravos.

There were some House candidates closely identified with Trump who won contested primaries and subsequently lost winnable races or may lose when all the votes are in. These include Ohio’s J.R. Majewski, the man who “first caught the eye of then-President Donald Trump after going viral for painting his lawn into a massive ‘Trump 2020’ banner,” as the Toledo Blade explained; New Hampshire’s Karoline Leavitt, Trump’s former assistant press secretary; Washington State’s and Joe Kent, who with Trump’s backing purged pro-impeachment Republican incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler and is now trailing Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez as results slowly come in. Perhaps the most conspicuous Trump misstep was his backing of Sarah Palin in a special election in Alaska, which she promptly lost to Mary Peltola, the first Democrat to represent the state in the U.S. House since 1973. Now Palin is trailing Peltola in the race for a full House term. Of course, she’s weighed down by baggage that predates Trump’s political career by a good while.

The newsiest Trump misfires involve U.S. Senate candidates who have apparently failed to flip that chamber. Let’s look at a few and assess Trump’s culpability.

Dr. Oz: A star born of Oprah, but a pol born of Trump.

While Mehmet Oz built the celebrity that he traded on in entering Pennsylvania politics from a TV career originally sponsored by Oprah Winfrey, there’s no question Oz’s surprise endorsement by Trump lifted him to the U.S. Senate nomination over his wealthy rival David McCormick, who unlike Oz was actually from Pennsylvania (though he left to make his fortune in Manhattan). He beat McCormick by an eyelash, and despite his anodyne political background, he ran a relatively MAGA-ish general-election campaign, ranging from his demagogic attacks on an allegedly pro-crime, pro-open-borders John Fetterman to his Trump-like cruelty in mocking his opponent’s struggle to overcome the effects of a mid-campaign stroke.

When Trump endorsed Oz, he said, “Women, in particular, are drawn to Dr. Oz for his advice and counsel. I have seen this many times over the years. They know him, believe in him, and trust him.” According to the exit polls, Fetterman trounced Oz among women by a 57-to-41 margin.

Trump fully owns this loser.

Herschel Walker: Trump’s friend and stooge but also a ruined hero.

To be clear, Herschel Walker may well be the junior U.S. senator from Georgia in January; he faces Democrat Raphael Warnock in a December 6 runoff after finishing (at this count) less than a point behind the incumbent. But since Walker ran nearly 5 points behind his ticket mate, Republican governor Brian Kemp, and failed to win the majority that every other statewide GOP nominee got in Georgia, he has clearly been a suboptimal candidate in a crucial contest.

Trump’s culpability here is real but not complete. He has been Walker’s patron for much of the brilliant ex-athlete’s adult life, signing him to his first professional-football contract in the early 1980s and later making him a compelling figure on Celebrity Apprentice. And Trump clearly talked him into leaving his Texas home to return to Georgia and run for the Senate; the ex-president announced Walker’s candidacy before the candidate did.

But in urging Walker upon Georgia Republicans, Trump was clearly pushing on an open door. Practically from the moment of Warnock’s election, Peach State Republicans began yearning for Walker as a unifying candidate in a party that might otherwise be torn apart in a divisive Senate primary. And when the state’s agriculture commissioner, Gary Black, ran against Walker and warned that the Heisman Trophy winner would soon be damaged goods after his background of questionable behavior toward women came out, most Republicans (including Mitch McConnell) dismissed these concerns and backed Walker to the hilt.

While Trump remains responsible for his friend and stooge’s candidacy, he probably didn’t know about the full extent of Walker’s baggage, particularly the allegations that, in the not-distant past, he repeatedly impregnated women outside of wedlock and on occasion urged (and even financed) their abortions. So the ex-president is only partially to blame if Walker fumbles this winnable Senate election.

Adam Laxalt: The golden boy adopted by Trump.

Adam Laxalt, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in Nevada, lost to Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto. Some blame will be directed toward Trump since Laxalt has been a staunch MAGA supporter who actually ran the former president’s narrowly unsuccessful 2020 campaign in the state.

He was hardly unknown before Trump hit the scene, though. He’s the grandson of former Nevada governor and U.S. senator Paul Laxalt and the product of an affair between Laxalt’s daughter and Pete Domenici, the longtime Republican U.S. senator from New Mexico. He was elected attorney general of Nevada in 2014 before losing a gubernatorial bid in 2018. Trump is only partially responsible for Laxalt’s loss, like a stepdad dealing with a stepson’s misadventures.

Blake Masters: A child in joint custody.

Arizona’s Blake Masters lost his challenge to Democratic incumbent U.S. senator Mark Kelly. He ran several points behind the even Trumpier gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. But while Lake has preternatural political talents that have led some to consider her a possible successor to Trump as MAGA chieftain, Masters is a strange dude who entered politics as a protégé and employee of rogue Silicon Valley mogul and proto-authoritarian Peter Thiel. Like his fellow Trump-Thiel joint-custody child J.D. Vance of Ohio, Masters received a crucially timed Trump endorsement during the primary season that elevated him over a crowded field of rivals who were battling for the MAGA vote.

Give Trump at least half the blame for Masters’ loss, which is probably as good an assessment as you will get of his overall responsibility for the Republican disappointments of 2022.

November 11: Abortion Rights Keep Winning at the Ballot Box

There’s not much question that the backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision helped Democrats over-perform expectations in the 2022 midterms. But the pro-choice cause won direct victories on ballots as well, as I noted at New York:

In November 8’s midterm election, voters in Kentucky defeated a ballot measure that aimed to eliminate abortion rights from the state constitution. And voters in Michigan, Vermont, and California have amended their state constitutions to explicitly acknowledge abortion rights. The door to state abortion bans opened by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year when it reversed Roe v. Wade is being closed by voters whenever they have the opportunity to weigh in on the matter.

In the days after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision turning abortion policy over to the states, Republican politicians and other opponents of legalized abortion looked with bad intent at places where courts had identified a state constitutional right to choose independent of Roe. They immediately found two red states, Kansas and Kentucky, where it was relatively easy to get a compliant, GOP-controlled legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the 2022 ballot (the primary ballot in Kansas and the general-election ballot in Kentucky). The thinking was that in states where the electorate would lean even more conservative than usual due to a midterm Republican wave, it would be a snap to get “liberal” courts out of the way and give legislators the power to enact draconian anti-abortion laws.

This assumption was upended on August 2 when Kansas voters defeated the “Value Them Both” constitutional amendment, which would have ended state constitutional abortion rights, by a 59-41 margin. It was a stunning result in a state that Donald Trump had carried by a 56-42 margin in 2020, and it soon became apparent that a sizable minority of pro-choice Republican voters bucked their party leaders and elected officials by voting “no.”

By then, Democratic legislators in California and Vermont had already arranged for their own states to vote on constitutional amendments enshrining abortion rights. And after the Kansas vote, pro-choice advocates in Michigan secured enough petitions on a citizen-led abortion-rights initiative to get it on that state’s November ballot.

Kentucky’s “no right to abortion” initiative was losing by six points with 88 percent of the votes in, showing once again that some Republican voters remain pro-choice even if their politicians (e.g., Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who was easily reelected this year) are soldiers in the war on legalized abortion. Abortions are still largely illegal in the state by legislative statute, but at least the ban will not be made permanent via a proposed constitutional amendment. Michigan’s reproductive-rights constitutional amendment (Proposal 3) was approved by a double-digit margin. California’s very extensive abortion-rights constitutional amendment, Proposition 1, is being approved by nearly a two-to-one margin. And Vermont’s parallel Proposition 5 (guaranteeing a right to “reproductive freedom”) is winning by more than a three-to-one margin.

There was a much, much narrower ballot initiative at play in Montana, passed by the legislature long before Dobbs came down, requiring medical interventions to treat “born alive” survivors of botched abortions. It too is currently losing by a six-point margin. So there could be a pro-choice clean sweep at the polls. Reproductive-rights advocates and their Democratic allies are already planning additional ballot initiatives for 2024.

November 4: Trump’s 2024 Announcement Could Wrong-Foot Republicans

Today some unsurprising but still significant political news came over the transom, so I wrote it up at New York:

A loudly barking dog that has quieted down as the midterm elections approach their omega point is the de facto head of the Republican Party — Donald Trump. While he was ubiquitous during primary season, when he was emblazoning a host of candidates with his brand, he appears to have heard the whispered pleas or silent prayers of Republicans that he keep a lower profile so that the midterms could be a straight referendum on Joe Biden and his (allegedly) socialist Democrats. Yes, he’s doing last-minute rallies for favored candidates in Ohio and Pennsylvania and dubious events in the early presidential states of Florida and Iowa. But for a world-class narcissist like the 45th president, this level of activity is almost restrained — if not at all selfless.

It appears that this will change very soon, per a report from Axios:

“Former President Trump’s inner circle is discussing announcing the launch of a 2024 presidential campaign on Nov. 14 — with the official announcement possibly followed by a multi-day series of political events, according to three sources familiar with the sensitive discussions.

“Look for Trump to take credit for Republican victories across the board — including those he propelled with his endorsements, and even those he had nothing to do with.”

Before you mark November 14 on your calendars as a day to spend in a decompression chamber and far from Twitter, it should be noted that there were similar reports in the summer that Trump ’24 would launch any day. But it’s not like there’s any remaining doubt that he’s running. And a relatively early launch would not only allow Trump to come out bragging but could force potential rivals to bend a knee — before their own presidential ambitions tempt them to take the enormous risk of challenging the dark lord of Mar-a-Lago.

However, for Republicans (if not for Trump) there are potential disadvantages to a precipitous 2024 campaign kickoff.

There is a chance that control of the U.S. Senate will come down to a December 6 general-election runoff between Herschel Walker and incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock. As any Georgia Republican will privately tell you, Trump personally ruined the January 2021 runoff contests of David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler by coming to the state and talking about himself and Georgia’s rigged election system, which did not inspire enthusiasm to vote among Republicans. It seems unlikely that he would stay away from the runoff campaign of his buddy Herschel, but with Trump as a newly reminted presidential candidate, that might not be good for Walker, who needs to hang on to and mobilize every single Trump-skeptic Republican in the state.

Another moment for Republicans a Trump announcement might ruin is Joe Biden’s 80th birthday on November 20. If, as is widely expected, Democrats suffer serious losses on Election Day, there will be immediate talk about the need for replacing today’s party gerontocracy in Washington with fresh leadership. But the real-life prospect of a Trump comeback could do wonders in reminding everyone that Old Man Biden defeated his predecessor and may still be the only candidate who can do that in 2024. More generally, there’s nothing quite like hearing the Big Bad Wolf howling outside the door to instill a desire for unity among all the little piggies who fear being gobbled up politically just two years down the road.

November 3: The Truth About Swing Voters


I know at this point of every election cycle, political people are supposed to feel reverently towards swing voters. But sometimes you just have to tell the truth, so I did at New York:

If you’ve been following the midterms, you know there are a lot of close Senate, House, and gubernatorial races. The irony is that if you are tuned in to what’s happening, the odds are low that you are among the small group of voters who will determine the results next week. Call them “swing voters,” “persuadable voters,” or simply “undecided” or “late-deciding voters,” the people with the most power to shape American government for the next two years are typically underinformed about, if not thoroughly alienated from, government and the political system. And as Lee Drutman and Charlotte Hill explain in a New York Times essay, “swing voters” are often far from being the thoughtful moderates that the conventional wisdom imagines:

“If we consider only voting behavior, the number of ‘floating voters’ — those who have voted for presidential candidates from both major parties at some point in the last four elections — dropped to 5.2 percent in 2012 (down from an average of 12 percent from 1952 to 1980). In 2022, new polling suggests swing voters could make up as little as 3 percent of the electorate …

“Swing voters hold an idiosyncratic mix of priorities and values that scramble the common liberal-conservative divide. Some are economically liberal and socially conservative, while others, albeit relatively few, are the reverse. Many are holdouts from another political era: conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans who no longer feel at home in their party but who haven’t (yet) formally switched to the other side.

“But this is not to say that swing voters are moderates. Undecideds are just as likely as partisans to hold a mix of extreme and mainstream positions. The only difference is that these positions do not neatly align with those of one party.”

They’re not typically moderate or milquetoasty in their attitudes, either, They’re often angry, yet disengaged.

“[If] a shared outlook binds swing voters, it mostly seems to be generalized disdain for both major parties and a kind of anti-system, anti-partisan outlook. This only perpetuates their disengagement. It also leads to more candidates running against Washington, which further undermines trust in government.”

In fact, this disdain for politicians means that negative campaigning, featuring character attacks on opponents as corrupt charlatans, falls on fallow ground in swing-voter-land. These voters often assume the worst of politicians, so they accept this “information” even if it’s being spewed by ad agencies hired by other politicians. And all the nastiness only adds to this group’s civic estrangement.

This year, there is a small subgroup of swing voters in what CNN’s Ron Brownstein calls the “‘double negative election,’ in which most voters are expressing doubts about each party,” as reflected in low job-approval ratings for President Biden alongside low favorability ratings for Republican candidates:

“[R]ecent CNN polls in several key Senate races show that a large, and potentially decisive, slice of voters both disapprove of Biden’s performance and view the GOP nominee unfavorably: 9 percent in Wisconsin, 11 percent in Nevada, 13 percent in Pennsylvania, and 15 percent in Arizona, according to detailed results provided by the CNN polling unit.

“’The real question comes down to that group of independents in the middle, and who votes at the end,’ says Paul Maslin, a long-time Democratic pollster. ‘Is it people saying, “I hate inflation, crime is wrecking this big city I live in,” or people saying, “I’m sorry, but Herschel Walker is a clown, Mehmet Oz is a clown … Blake Masters is a joke,” and they go back to [the Democrats]? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.’”

Of course, it’s easier for politicians to expand on these voters’ negative feelings about their opponents rather than convincing them their party isn’t so bad. So you wind up with the chimera of a political system dominated by partisans who hold diametrically opposed views on a whole range of economic and cultural issues being controlled by swing voters who dislike them all. Indeed, as Drutman and Hill point out, some swing voters prefer divided government because they don’t trust anyone to govern, leading to tactical voting aimed at perpetuating gridlock as an alternative to the kind of clear governing agenda needed to meet big challenges. And so the cycle of frustration, alienation, and poorly performing government goes on down the road to perdition.

Drutman and Hill make a compelling case for changing our system of electing legislators to one of proportional representation wherein swing voters lose most of their decisive power and those frustrated with the political system can find outlets in viable minor parties rather than paralyzing government altogether. Maybe that will happen someday.

For now, however, it is extremely likely that Democrats will lose their rare governing trifecta next week mostly due to swing voters who’ve decided their unhappiness with the status quo outweighs their fears about Republican extremism. Two years from now, some of these same people may vote for an ex-president with such contempt for voters that he refuses to accept their judgment of his performance. The risk remains that low-information, low-trust swing voters may be the death of us as a functioning democracy.

October 27: Partisanship Will Limit Extent of Any Midterm Election Wave

It’s still unclear which way the winds are blowing going into the midterms. But if a GOP wave does develop, Republicans might want to curb their enthusiasm, as I explained at New York:

Republicans are generally upbeat about their midterm prospects while Democrats are fearful, if not necessarily pessimistic. Most of the major indicators of likely midterm performance (notably the generic congressional ballot and polling of a lot of battleground races) are turning steadily red, which is also what one would expect from all historical precedents involving the party of an unpopular president in sour economic times. GOP activists and spinmeisters are excitedly imagining that the wave in their favor will rise and rise and engulf all sorts of Democratic candidates thought to be safe.

They should curb their enthusiasm. There are some structural factors at play this year that limit the probable size of any big turnover in offices in either direction.

The first is what the professionals call “exposure,” which means the number of Democratic-held offices that are reasonably within the reach of any rival. High-exposure cycles are typically those that follow a landslide in the opposite direction, creating a lot of vulnerable incumbents next time around. For example, the 2010 wave that swept 63 House seats into the Republican column came right after two consecutive very good Democratic cycles (2006, in which Democrats gained 31 House seats and flipped control of the chamber, and 2008, when they added 21 more).

While Democrats do go into the midterms with a small House majority, their surprising losses in 2020 essentially took some vulnerable Democratic districts off the table this time around. In the last midterm, in 2018, the authoritative Cook Political Report listed 73 Republican-held House seats as being up for grabs in competitive races (toss-ups or leaning to one party or the other). Democrats ultimately netted 41 seats. In the 2022 cycle, Cook has just 44 Democratic House seats as being at risk in competitive races. The battleground just isn’t as large, so the losses will likely be smaller, even in a rout.

The efforts of both parties to protect their own House seats via control of the redistricting process also reduces exposure to big losses. In essence, both parties are trading the opportunity for big gains for a reduced risk of big losses. And since they are making decisions that will draw maps for an entire decade, they may not be all that opportunistic about short-term gains.

There’s a different calculation for U.S. Senate seats thanks to the eccentric patterns created by six-year terms, which means only one-third of the seats are up in any one election. And the 2022 Senate landscape has never been that promising for Republicans, with only 14 Democratic seats up, none of them in states carried by Donald Trump in either 2016 or 2020. Meanwhile, the GOP is defending 21 seats, two of them in states carried by Joe Biden in 2020 and six left open by retirements.

But there’s another factor as important as reduced exposure in placing something of a cap on Republican gains this year. It’s the sheer partisanship of an electorate that just isn’t as “persuadable” as it used to be and also doesn’t need much “enthusiasm” for its own candidates to become motivated to vote in order to smite a feared and hated enemy party. New York Times columnist Tom Edsall has assembled some political-science literature on this subject. He quotes UC San Diego’s Gary Jacobson on how partisanship modulates big electoral swings:

“Partisans of both parties report extremely high levels of party loyalty in recent surveys, with more than 96 percent opting for their own party’s candidate. Most self-identified independents also lean toward one of the parties, and those who do are just as loyal as self-identified partisans. Party line voting has been increasing for several decades, reaching the 96 percent mark in 2020. This upward trend reflects a rise in negative partisanship — growing dislike for the other party — rather than increasing regard for the voter’s own side. Partisan antipathies keep the vast majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents from voting for Republican candidates regardless of their opinions of Biden and the economy.”

This helps explain the persistent gap between the president’s underwater job-approval ratings and Democratic voting preferences (which we also saw on the other side of the partisan barricades in 2020). But it also helps explain positive assessments of Joe Biden from the vast majority of self-identified Democrats who do think he’s doing a good job, Edsall notes:

“As partisanship intensifies, voters are less likely to punish incumbents of the same party for failures to improve standards of living or to live up to other campaign promises.

“Yphtach Lelkes, a professor of communication and a co-director of the polarization lab at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote by email that ‘people (particularly partisans) are far less likely to, for instance, rely on retrospective voting — that is, they won’t throw the bums out for poor economic conditions or problematic policies.’”

“In the early 1970s, Lelkes wrote, ‘partisanship explained less than 30 percent of the variance in vote choice. Today, partisanship explains more than 70 percent of the variance in vote choice.’”

A wild card is whether either of the two parties gains or loses significant support from whole demographic groups. Republicans are still boasting about the modest but significant gains they made among Latinos in 2020, and Democrats are counting on detaching Republican women offended by the Supreme Court decision abolishing constitutionally protected abortion rights.

But another possibility is that abrupt swings in partisan performance may simply not occur in the immediate future as often as they did in the recent past. If polls continue to redden, then Democrats may profoundly hope this is the case.