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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

November 5: Senate Control Likely To Come Down to Two Georgia Runoffs in January

Because I’ve been predicting this for a while, I was prepared for the strange trajectory of this year’s battle for control of the Senate, and wrote about it quickly at New York:

All the talk about Mitch McConnell savoring continued control of the Senate and laying plans to keep a Biden administration from accomplishing a damn thing may have been a tad premature. Yes, Republicans stymied Democrats hopes of flipping Senate seats in Iowa, Maine and several other states. Pending late returns in North Carolina (where GOP incumbent Thom Tillis is running ahead of Donald Trump and leads Cal Cunningham by 96,000 votes with mail ballots still trickling in), and Alaska (where another GOP incumbent, Dan Sullivan has a big lead over Al Gross with mail ballot counting won’t even begin until next week), Democrats have only gained one net seat in the upper chamber, and need two more to control the Senate assuming Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker as vice president).

But here’s the big breaking news: In Georgia, David Perdue’s vote total in his race against Jon Ossoff has slipped below 50 percent, and with heavily Democratic mail ballots the main votes still out, he’s not going to get a majority back.

[T]hanks to Georgia’s strange and unique majority-vote requirement for general election wins, Republican Perdue will face Democrat Ossoff in a January 5, 2021 runoff for the Senate seat despite Purdue’s comfortable 100,000-plus vote lead. (Outstanding mail ballots will undoubtedly reduce that lead and put 50 percent far out of reach for Purdue.) Libertarian Shane Hazel’s 2.3 percent of the vote is the main reason neither of the major-party candidates will be able to put it away this week, this month, or indeed, this year.

A January runoff was already in the works for Georgia’s other Senate seat, where 20 candidates competed in a November 3 non-partisan “jungle primary” special election to complete the term to which Republican Johnny Isakson (who resigned for health reasons last year) was elected in 2016. Since no one received the required majority, the top two finishers, Democrat Raphael Warnock (with 33 percent of the vote at present) and appointed Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler (26 percent) will advance to the runoff.

The Republicans, Perdue and Loeffler, will probably be favored initially. For one thing, the conventional wisdom is that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to turn out for a runoff that’s not held in conjunction with other elections. That was the case in the two previous Senate general-election runoffs in Georgia: in 1992 when Republican Paul Coverdell beat incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler after narrowly denying him a majority on Election Day; and in 2008 when incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss beat Democrat Jim Martin by a landslide after barely edging ahead of him on Election Day.

Republicans will also claim an advantage based on their narrow Election Day leads (which are growing narrower by the hour as mail ballots are counted). In particular, it will be noted that much of the sound and fury in the special election involved two Republicans, Loeffler and Congressman Doug Collins, who has already endorsed the incumbent he scorned for so many months as a RINO and a corrupt plutocrat. But if you add up the votes of all the Republicans and all the Democrats in the special election, the Republican totals barely exceed the totals for Democrats. So all else being equal, both runoffs should be very competitive.

But that’s not taking into account the insanely intense scrutiny Georgia will now get from the entire political world between now and January 5, given the enormous stakes involved. Every unspent campaign dollar and every newly unemployed campaign operative will migrate to the Peach State for a holiday season wherein Senate ads will compete with Christmas pageantry and COVID precautions for the attention of Georgia voters. You could argue that the runoffs will be particularly crucial to Democrats who know that Senate control is absolutely essential if a Biden administration (which is at this moment a near-certain prospect) is to have a prayer of getting its executive and judicial appointees confirmed and enacting any sort of legislative agenda.

October 29: The Messy Task of “Calling” the Results of the 2020 Elections

After a lot of digging around for information, I wrote up a quick primer for New York on the problems the usual sources of authoritative information will face in “calling” the 2020 election results, particularly on Election Night:

You are undoubtedly aware that Election Night on November 3 could be unlike any other we’ve seen before. Heavy, heavy pandemic-driven voting by mail; laws in some states allowing mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted afterwards; problems (legal or logistical) many states will have in efficiently processing a glut of mail ballots could produce a much slower count nationally than is normal. But at the same time, a big partisan split in how and when voters choose to vote could produce some herky-jerky results. Democrats fear that Republicans’ preference to vote in person on Election Day will create an ephemeral lead for Donald Trump that he will use to prematurely declare victory.

Americans are accustomed to being told who has won major elections quickly. With the exception of the infamous 2000 contest, we’ve known the winner of every presidential election in this and the last century by the day after Election Day. In the post-1960 era of exit polling and media network competition to “call” races, we usually know much earlier than that, sometimes moments after polls close in enough states where the overall “winner” can claim the necessary 270 electoral votes to be president.

Who “Calls” Elections, Anyway?

We generally think of the authenticators of presidential, congressional, and statewide election results as the major television-broadcast and cable networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox) along with independent media services, preeminently the Associated Press, now supplemented by outfits emphasizing speedy results like Decision Desk HQ. All these authorities employ “decision desks” of election wizards, typically locked away in deliberate isolation from their employers and other potential sources of influence, who utilize carefully developed “models” to make projections (or, in the AP’s case, “declarations”) of who will ultimately win each contest. For presidential elections, of course, these “calls” are state by state (and also district by district, in the case of Maine and Nebraska, which let each congressional district cast one electoral vote) to reflect the reality that electoral votes determine the overall winner. None of these worthies will “call” the presidential race until they have “called” enough states to give the winner the requisite 270 electoral votes.

In addition to the “official” arbiters of the results, other media organizations will be collecting data for their own “unofficial” analysis, some of it quite influential, as anyone who associates Election Night 2016 with the infamous New York Times “needle” can tell you.

Anyone, of course, with access to a camera, a microphone, or a social-media account can “announce” an election result, real or imagined, and it is important to keep in mind that what we think of as “official” authenticators of the results are not necessarily authoritative to everyone. Let’s go ahead and look at the “red mirage” scenario, in which Donald Trump claims victory at midnight on November 3 based on sure-to-be-reversed leads in very partial results. It’s extremely unlikely that any of the television networks or the AP would verify such a claim. But whatever Fox News’ official “decision desk” decides to do or not do (and the network has gone out of its way to insist upon its independence), it’s likely that highly influential Fox News pundits would echo Trump’s claims anyway, along with vast armies of social-media warriors and Russian bots.

So it’s possible that “official” and “unofficial” calls of the election will compete for attention, with the unwillingness of the “official” outlets to make pronouncements based on incomplete data perhaps undermining their authority.

How Can You Do Exit Polling in a Year Like This One?

Back in the day, when voting by mail was rare and exceptional, Election Night “calls” depended on models that verified exit-poll data of people who had cast ballots in person with raw votes from key precincts, making quick decisions possible in all but really close races. Since 2004, exit polls have been conducted by Edison Media Research, backed by a consortium of media companies (currently ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN).

Exit polls have a good recent record of reliability, but there have been serious problems historically. In 2002, the whole system broke down and no exit-poll data was released, and in 2004, exit polls significantly overestimated Democratic voting, leading John Kerry’s staff to prematurely celebrate a victory he never actually won.

The steady growth of voting by mail has been a particular problem for exit-poll-based decision models. That’s one reason the AP and Fox News withdrew from the Edison consortium in 2018, deciding to rely entirely on the preelection polling everyone uses to get a handle on those who vote by mail. With mail ballots spiking this year, and with the partisan skew in voting methodologies, the particular value of exit polls (often used to interpret elections results as well as to project them) may decline further. Often the major media organizations will publish exit-poll findings (not the horse-race numbers but highly suggestive answers to questions other than candidate preference) even before polls close, but this year it may be necessary to take them with a shaker of salt.

Aside from the doubts the pandemic has sowed in the adequacy of exit-poll data, it has affected the mechanics, too. Here’s a description from ABC News of how exit interviews will work this year:

“Some exit polling procedures have been modified this year to help ensure a safe experience for the interviewers and voters. Typically, the exit poll interviewer walks right up to the selected voter and hands them the exit poll questionnaire and a pen. This approach has been modified.

“This year, the interviewer, who will be wearing a mask at all times, will approach the voter from a distance of at least 6 feet. Voters who agree to fill out the exit poll will be directed to a nearby table to get the questionnaire and a single use golf pencil.”

While ABC assures us that “these procedures were tested successfully during the recent primaries,” you do have to wonder if they will affect interview participation patterns in a general election where groups of voters across the country may react differently to the risks involved.

When Is the Presidential Race Likely to Be Called?

Again, the “official” arbiters of election results have, since at least 1980, followed the practice of refraining from any “call” of the presidential election until individual state “calls” have been made awarding one candidate or the other 270 electoral votes. In a highly informative interview with FiveThirtyEight, ABC’s Dan Merkle admits that the virtual certainty of slow counts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin makes it very unlikely that a winner will be indicated before November 4, if not later.

This is an important point to keep in mind. There has been a lot of talk about results from faster-counting states such as Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina telling us what we need to know about the ultimate outcome. It’s true that if Joe Biden wins all three on Election Night, the odds of him ultimately winning are prohibitively high. But if Biden hasn’t nailed down 270 electoral votes, he won’t be officially “called” the winner, even if the pundits are all concluding Trump is done.

The time gap between the first “takes” on Election Night on the results and their ultimate authentication is a window for great mischief, particularly on the part of a president who has repeatedly said he cannot lose unless the results are “rigged.” And if the race really is very close, with the results legitimately in doubt, Americans may relive the twilight experience of 2000, when every morning we woke up to wonder if we had dreamed Election Night had never quite ended.

October 28: Trump’s 2020 Strategic Failure

Stepping back from the chaos to look at how the president’s reelection strategy has been implemented, I offered some tentative final thoughts at New York:

[A] week from November 3 and many months into the strangest general-election campaign ever, with both debates over and all the messages sent or set in stone, it’s not too early to make one important judgment: Donald J. Trump has failed to make this contest “about” Biden (or the “socialist Democrat” party), rather than about his own performance as president. To put it in strategic terms, Team Trump’s efforts to turn a “referendum” election into a “choice” election have not only failed but arguably backfired: To the extent that persuadable voters look at the candidates instead of at Trump’s record, the comparison is working against him.

It’s a truism of political science that presidential reelection bids turn on perceptions of the incumbent’s performance above all else. With extremely rare exceptions, presidents with positive job-approval ratings (Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, Obama in 2012) get reelected, while those with negative ratings (Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992) don’t. Trump’s approval ratings in 2020 (generally in the low-to-mid 40s) haven’t been that far below W.’s in 2004 or Obama’s in 2012, but to an extraordinary extent, Trump’s numbers have been inelastic. So it’s not surprising that in looking forward to 2020 the Trump reelection strategy focused on turning polarization to the candidate’s favor rather than reducing it to broaden his coalition. The idea was to pursue the president’s time-tested divisive themes of cultural and partisan grievances to rev up his base while pressing swing voters to choose between the status quo and a caricature of the opposition.

At the beginning of 2020, it looked as though it could all work out for Trump. The economy was improving steadily enough to boost his job-approval numbers to near their historic ceiling. The failed Democratic drive to remove him from office via impeachment had solidified his base, focused his supporters on vengeance, and contributed to his campaign’s depiction of Democrats as a gang of extremists bent on a coup d’état. The occasionally fractious Democratic presidential nominating contest encouraged Team Trump that it might be able to batten on the opposition party’s divisions, and/or might face a nominee who was vulnerable to “socialism” charges.

But then two things happened almost simultaneously: Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination, and the coronavirus became a pandemic that Trump instantly and irrevocably mishandled. The former development made it more difficult to caricature the opposition party as extremist, while the latter put a firm cap on Trump’s popularity and closed off any alternative strategy.

The trajectory of the campaign has made it clear that Trump’s efforts to demonize Joe Biden and his party have failed. The claim that Biden is senile was essential to the twin charges that he is dangerously incompetent and a puppet of the “radical left” of the Democratic Party (or perhaps the front man for the “communist” and “monster” Kamala Harris). In the two debates, however (the most salient opportunities for comparing the two septuagenarians), Biden was, on balance, the more coherent and self-possessed of the two. And while Trump did score some points in the final debates concerning Biden’s record on criminal-justice reform, the former vice-president easily parried the “socialist” attack line by calmly pointing out that Trump must be confusing his platform with those of the progressive rivals he vanquished.

The major strategic adjustment Trump made since Biden’s nomination has been to depict him as Hillary Clinton Redux, a creature of the same bipartisan Establishment that Trump campaigned against in 2016. A corollary of this dubious effort to regain an outsider position has been the president’s tedious attacks on the looters and murderers of “Democrat cities,” who are apparently itching to cross the invisible barricades erected by Trump to sack and pillage the pristine suburbs. More broadly, the “China virus,” Black Lives Matter activists, antifa “thugs,” and Fake Media traitors are alien forces that have somehow taken control of Great-Again America with only the besieged president willing to rescue her. But as Tim Alberta notes at Politico, this just doesn’t work for an incumbent:

“Four years ago, just a third of the country believed America was on the right track. These conditions were fundamentally advantageous to Trump, a political outsider, whose party had been out of power for eight years. Today, only one-fifth of the country believes America is on the right track. But this time, Trump bears the brunt of the public’s frustration, primarily due to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Had Trump focused his reelection campaign on rebuilding his approval rating via (a) a pivot toward accepting responsibility and articulating a national strategy on COVID-19 and (b) making a credible case that the economy will come roaring back after the pandemic has subsided, not through some forced “reopening,” he might have lifted his approval rating and come closer to victory in a referendum election. At the same time, he might have done a better job of winning a “choice” election had he focused relentlessly on weak points of Biden’s agenda and Biden’s own record rather than trying to force him into an “extremist” template that just doesn’t fit him. A more disciplined and realistic comparative campaign might also have avoided the absurd effort by the most consistently incoherent and mendacious politician in American history to accuse Joe Biden of incoherence and lies.

As it is, the president’s campaign seems to have fallen between two stools: He hasn’t made a convincing case that he deserves a second term, and he has barely laid a glove on Biden. His very slim hopes for reelection now depend on an outsize turnout among the voters who have been with him from the beginning.

October 23: In the Final Debate, Trump Remained Trump

After watching the second and final presidential debate, I registered my thoughts at New York:

Donald Trump went into the final debate of the 2020 campaign needing a clear win and even more than that, needing to defend his record as president in clear, comprehensible language. His signal mistake in the first debate, I argued at the time, was to lapse into the right-wing code language of Fox News/Breitbart conspiracy theories, which almost certainly sounded like gibberish to the low-information undecided voters whose support is his only hope of victory.

In the Nashville debate, Trump started off doing exactly what he needed to do: defending his record on handling COVID-19 in complete sentences, with a bit of counter-punching against Biden’s criticisms (though the former veep’s “He said people are learning to live with it … they’re learning to die with it” line was unanswerable, and Trump’s pandemic record is tough to defend).

In the middle section of the debate, Trump began overriding moderator Kristen Welker regularly. Then on the very dangerous topic of children being separated from their parents at the border, Trump just lost it, shouting repeatedly “Who built the cages, Joe!” I know a fair amount about immigration, and if I had no idea what the president was alluding to, how would an undecided voter who hasn’t made Stephen Miller his guru on these issues?

Towards the end of the debate, Trump found his bearings and hit Biden hard on crime policy, just as the Democrat was beginning to lose steam and some of his own coherence. But he may have spoiled the effect (if any) on Black voters with his bizarre repeated insistence that “I am the least racist person in this room.” Was he suggesting the Black moderator is racist? Or appealing to the white racists who think that it’s Black people who are the racists? Again, you could almost hear the cheers in a room full of people who are already wearing MAGA hats.

The ultimate moment of speaking in code for Trump was in his attack on Biden’s environmental proposals, which he triumphantly described – twice – as “AOC plus three!” I get the reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman who is every conservative’s favorite demon-figure these days, but “plus three?” Is that a reference to the other members of the so-called “squad?” I don’t know, and neither did most viewers who aren’t already deep in the tank for the president.

The bottom line is that Trump had an unmistakable and unavoidable mission in this debate, which went beyond “not setting himself on fire,” as one commentator put it, and wasn’t accomplished even if he did score more points against Biden than Biden scored against him (which I don’t think he did). It was Trump’s last chance to make a case that his record entitles him to a second term, at a time when it’s really too late to make this a “choice” election where sowing doubts about his opponent will suffice. By this standard, Trump started out strong, but in the end he just could not help being himself.

October 21: Barrett Hearings Weren’t the Base Energizer Republicans Expected

After the Barrett confirmation hearings came to a close, I observed at New York that they hadn’t generated the excitement many Republicans anticipated:

You’d think getting a third Federalist Society–vetted Supreme Court nominee in a single presidential term would be enough good fortune for Republicans. But when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died there was immediate speculation in the GOP ranks that a good, vicious confirmation fight for a new conservative justice would be just what the doctor ordered for Republican prospects in November. Here’s one of many such prophecies, as reported by the Associated Press:

“Four years ago, the allure of conservative Supreme Court appointments helped persuade skeptical Republicans to support Donald Trump for president. Two years ago, a contentious clash over Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh for the court was credited with bolstering GOP gains in the Senate in an otherwise bad midterm election.

“GOP leaders are optimistic they can pull it off. In the turbulent Trump era, nothing has motivated the Republican Party’s disparate factions to come home quite like the prospect of a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court.”

Here’s another, from the Washington Post at about the same time:

“’Trump needs to fire up conservatives for the election. That’s the goal,’ said Mike Davis, a Republican consultant who helped lead the Senate confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018. ‘That is a big deal for conservatives and will motivate them.'”

Now before proceeding into an examination of how that’s working out for the GOP, I’ll pause to examine the dubious premise that Mitch McConnell won it all for Trump in 2016 by keeping Merrick Garland far from the Supreme Court, and that in 2018 the Brett Kavanaugh fight produced a big upset victory for Republican senators.

Yes, 2016 exit polls showed that among the 21 percent of voters who claimed Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their candidate choice, Trump won by a comfortable but hardly staggering 56-41 margin. And there’s no question that by naming a list of Supreme Court prospects and creating a process for the strict ideological vetting of judicial nominees, Trump built trust with conservatives — especially white Evangelical conservatives — who wound up supporting him overwhelmingly. But it’s really unclear the non-hearings and the non-confirmation of Garland made the shape of the Supreme Court significantly more vital to Trump supporters than a Court with Garland on it might have.

The myth of the Kavanaugh battle saving the Republican Senate in 2018, which is an article of faith for many GOP pols, is even more dubious. Exit polls that year showed voters opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation by a 47-43 margin, and more impressively, favoring continuation of Roe v. Wade’s constitutional right to choose abortion — by all accounts the driving motivation of conservative SCOTUS mania — by a 66-25 margins. As I pointed out at the time, the real reason Republican held onto the Senate and even made gains was an insanely favorable landscape, with 26 Democratic as opposed to just nine Republican seats at risk:

“In the Senate, Republicans picked up two net seats by winning Democratic-held seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota [all states carried by Trump in 2016], while losing seats they held in Arizona [ditto] and Nevada …

“Democrats won 22 of the 34 Senate races decided so far [ultimately 22 of 35 after a Mississippi runoff]. And while California complicates the Senate popular-vote picture (because its top-two primary system produced a two-Democrat general election for the Senate), by any measure more people voted for Democrats than Republicans in Senate races. FiveThirtyEight calculates that 27 of 33 Democratic candidates (excluding Mississippi and two-Democrats California) over-performed the partisan lean of their states. So it’s a bit strange to treat the Senate shift as a GOP “mandate” on par with what happened in the House.”

Even if you do buy the dubious theory that a Supreme Court confirmation war is a guaranteed net base energizer for the GOP, the confirmation hearings of Barrett, which finished last week, were decidedly lacking in drama as compared to the Kavanaugh saga two years ago. The most obvious reason, of course, is that no one has come forward to accuse Barrett of sexual assault, inspiring Me Too activists and generating total fury among conservative men led by those on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The lower temperature is also attributable to the Democratic strategy for coping with her, as I explained earlier:

“Barrett’s background has served as both shield and sword for her proponents in a way that Kavanaugh’s did not. Even before President Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court, Republicans cleverly alleged that Democrats would expose anti-Catholic (or even anti-Christian) animus in an examination of her worldview.

“Republicans claim, unfairly, that the opposing party already did this during the 2017 hearings that preceded Barrett’s confirmation to the Seventh Circuit, so in recent days Democrats have given her belief system a wide berth.”

Instead Democrats have focused on the impact of a more conservative Court on the Affordable Care Act, a regular messaging preoccupation of theirs and not something likely to provoke potential Trump voters to snake-dance to the polls in a state of hate-filled exaltation.

Yes, getting extra air time chairing the Barrett hearings and defending her on the Senate floor could help lift Lindsey Graham to an unimpressive win over the very impressive Jaime Harrison in South Carolina. But as an all-purpose base-arouser, it’s likely to be overshadowed by the president shouting at suburban women to “please like me!” because he “saved” their neighborhoods from Black and brown and poor people.

Perhaps Democrats unhappy with the handling of the Barrett hearings by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats should see a silver lining: If you snooze, they lose.

October 16: Is the Democratic South Returning in 2020?

It occurred to me this week that 2020 represents the half-century anniversary of a real political breakthrough in the South, so I wrote about it at New York:

[A]s we approach a momentous election, something’s happening that some of us old southern-bred progressives weren’t sure we’d live to see: Large swaths of the South are competitive in both presidential and Senate races. This development is typified by my home state of Georgia, where there are two red-hot Senate races, two red-hot suburban House races, and better than a puncher’s chance that Joe Biden will win the state’s 16 electoral votes.

It brings back memories. Fifty years ago this autumn, a wave of new, non-racist southern Democratic governors was elected and was widely proclaimed to represent a New South. There was Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, who soundly defeated the old race-baiter Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary before dispatching Republican incumbent Winthrop Rockefeller. There was Floridian Reuben Askew, who demolished conservative Republican incumbent Claude Kirk. In South Carolina, John West defeated party-switching Republican segregationist Albert Watson. And in Georgia, former state legislator Jimmy Carter defeated Republican journalist Hal Suit and almost immediately began repudiating the vestiges of segregation.

It was an exciting moment in southern politics. Black voters, gradually emancipated politically by the Voting Rights Act, joined forces with some northern transplants and urbanizing white voters to bury the racist southern Democratic Party of the Jim Crow era. (Aside from Alabama, where George Wallace reclaimed his hold on the state Democratic Party after he lost it temporarily when his wife and designated successor, Lurleen Wallace, died.)

The emergence of non-racist white southern Democrats leading a new biracial coalition initiated a long process wherein conservative white southerners drifted toward the GOP. For a very long time, Republicans held the advantage in this exchange. But for a brief moment after 1970, things were looking up for a biracial Democratic coalition.

This moment of hope peaked in Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, when the Georgia governor defeated Wallace in most southern primaries and then gained his endorsement, subsequently putting together a mind-bending coalition of Black and conservative white voters united by regional pride (between Andrew and Lyndon Johnson, no president was elected from a state that had been part of the Confederacy). Carter won every state of the former Confederacy (producing huge swings compared with Hubert Humphrey’s performance in 1968 and George McGovern’s in 1972) except Virginia; he won the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri as well as southern-inflected areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania that helped keep those states in the Democratic column. Carter also became a sort of figure of emancipation and political awakening among his fellow white Evangelical Christians — the same group that gave Donald Trump more than 80 percent of their votes in 2016.

Until now, the two Carter elections have been the high-water mark of post-civil-rights-era Democratic performance in the South, with a faint echo in 1992 when Bill Clinton won his own state of Arkansas, plus Georgia, Louisiana, and running mate Al Gore’s Tennessee. When the Carter coalition fell in 1980, it fell hard. Southern Democrats held on at the state and local levels for a good while, even into the current century in some places, but the handwriting was on the wall. Republicans won every state of the former Confederacy in the 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections. Beginning in 1992 and 1994, Republicans began a brisk conquest of southern congressional seats, in part by packing Black voters into gerrymandered House districts that left other districts vulnerable to GOP gains among white voters. A rapidly shrinking cohort of white moderate-to-conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats held out, although voting more and more often with Republicans in Congress, even as some gave up and switched parties.

Residual racism, of course, was an abiding wellspring for this trend. Indeed, beginning in the 1990s there was much talk of the “southernization” of the Republican Party as the migration of racially motivated hard-core conservatives into the GOP introduced an ideologically rigid, even savage tone into the councils of the Party of Lincoln.

Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century and well into the 21st, the arithmetic for Republican domination of the South was to roll up huge margins among white voters in suburban and rural areas that offset the growth of the Black voting population of urban areas, increasingly supplemented with northern transplants and “knowledge workers.” The omega point for this trend was the midterm election of 2014, when, for a brief moment, Republicans controlled every state legislative chamber, every governorship, and all but one Senate seat in the former Confederacy.

But underneath the surface, this demographic arithmetic has been steadily reversing itself as minority voting participation blossomed and college-educated white voters began spurning Republicans. Virginia flipped first; the sole southern state to spurn Carter has gone Democratic in three straight presidential contests and isn’t even competitive in 2020. North Carolina followed, going Democratic in 2008 for the first time since 1976, and has remained competitive, as has Florida, the ultimate national battleground state.

Carter’s own Georgia, with a steadily rising Black, Latino, and Asian voting population centered in Atlanta and its increasingly diverse suburbs, is widely expected to be the next southeastern state to “turn blue.” In 2018, Democrats picked up one House seat and nearly won another in the north Atlanta suburbs, which were a Republican stronghold until very recently. Their gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, came within an eyelash of winning back the statehouse that Democrats had last won in 1998.

Like Georgia, Texas is a state where Democrats made startling urban and suburban gains in 2018 and seem to be approaching a demographic tipping point. They flipped two House seats despite a heavily gerrymandered district map and improved their vote share almost everywhere, while Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke broke fundraising records and threw a serious scare into Ted Cruz. And that midterm election built on the gains of 2016, when Hillary Clinton reduced Barack Obama’s 15-point margin of defeat in 2012 to less than nine points.

Even in South Carolina, where the South’s conservative Republican revolution really began when the segregationist senator Strom Thurmond joined the GOP in 1964, the same coalition of Black and upscale white suburban voters is beginning to make serious inroads into Republican rule. This year, Democrat Jaime Harrison, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in U.S. political history, is running even in the polls with veteran Republican senator Lindsey Graham. No Democrat has won a Senate or gubernatorial race in the Palmetto State since 1998. It also appears that Biden may well win the highest percentage of the presidential vote there than any Democrat since — you guessed it — Jimmy Carter.

It’s important to understand, however, that the future Democratic coalition in the South is different from the one Republicans defeated a generation ago. From Carter’s day until very recently, the southern Democratic formula for success was to run moderate-to-conservative white candidates with residual appeal among rural white voters and count on monolithic Black support to lift them to victory over suburban-based Republican candidates. It created some understandable unhappiness among Black Democrats who were often taken for granted and were hardly ever represented in major offices. It also sustained a southern wing of the Democratic Party, the Blue Dogs, that was often out of sync ideologically with the national party and was unreliable in national elections and in Congress.

In Georgia, the last gasp of the old Blue Dog approach to Democratic politics was breathed in 2014 when two scions of legendary white Democrats headed the ticket: Michelle Nunn (daughter of Sam, the former senator) for Senate, and Carter’s own grandson Jason for governor. Both ran traditional centrist campaigns, and both lost. They were outpaced in 2018 by Abrams, a Black progressive lawmaker from Atlanta, who represented a new formula for southern Democratic politics: a truly multiracial and more ideologically progressive coalition that’s good news for Democrats both regionally and nationally. Similarly, in Florida, forthright Black progressive Andrew Gillum upset still another centrist white Democratic scion, Gwen Graham, in the 2018 primary and posted the best gubernatorial performance of any Democrat since 1994. In 2020, South Carolina’s Harrison fits the same mold, as do white Democrats like Senate candidate MJ Hegar in Texas — perhaps somewhat moderate by national standards but not the southern Democrats of yore who ran away from the national party and often aped conservative talking points.

So are Democrats on the brink of becoming a new, more racially equitable and progressive version of the successful Democrats of Jimmy Carter’s New South era? There are headwinds, to be sure. As Perry Bacon Jr. astutely observed in an analysis of the South Carolina Senate race, getting to 50 percent for southern Democrats is a lot harder than getting to 45 percent:

“White voters in the South tend to be consistently Republican. That is, they don’t really swing between the two parties as they do in a state like Iowa, where Biden could do 6 to 9 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. At FiveThirtyEight, we call this phenomenon “elasticity” — basically, how many voters in a state are persuadable vs. always vote for one party or the other. And South Carolina is one of the most inelastic states.”

That’s true of southern-bred white voters across the region, or at least those whose politics are unleavened by the influence of academic centers, tech companies, or Yankee-transplant friends and neighbors. And there are pockets of the South where the math just doesn’t add up for Democrats, either because there aren’t enough minority voters to serve as a party base (Tennessee) or because of conservative economic and cultural patterns that have inhibited the growth of a progressive white voting bloc (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi).

Still, you have to guess, as Jimmy Carter turned 96 this month, that he probably feels more comfortable with his region’s politics than at any time since at least the 1990s. The impossible task he performed of uniting the South around a Democratic candidacy despite vast differences of opinion on just about everything was a onetime proposition. It was born of a regional inferiority complex and the impressive, if forgotten, political skills of a man mostly admired for his post-political, postpresidential accomplishments in diplomacy and philanthropy. But the future southern Democratic Party is now being built on the more solid ground of policies and values that unite an increasingly diverse population with their counterparts in other parts of the country — led by politicians who are no longer whistling Dixie.

October 14: Why the Barrett Confirmation Hearings Are Unexciting

After watching a tedious day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings over the Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, I wrote about it at New York:

Perhaps someday we will look back on this week as a momentous turning point, as the substantive constitutional questions Barrett is largely refusing to answer are weighty and consequential and her expected confirmation will shift the Supreme Court sharply to the right. But at the moment, the temperature is far lower than it was two years ago during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

Now, obviously, the Kavanaugh confirmation battle came to revolve around Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against the nominee, and his angry counterattacks on Democrats for unveiling and considering them. It is extremely unlikely anything equally controversial and dramatic will arise during this week’s proceedings. But that isn’t the only reason the current proceedings feel much different. The dynamics at play in the Barrett hearings are fundamentally different in ways that benefit the nominee and her backers. Here’s why the “rush to judgement” on Barrett less than a month before a presidential election doesn’t feel like a bigger scandal:

This Time the Nominee’s Character and Personal Background Are Assets, Not Handicaps

Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett’s résumés are similar in some respects. Both are observant Roman Catholics of a traditionalist bent; longtime members of the conservative Federalist Society; and beneficiaries of past appointments from Republican presidents. But Barrett’s background has served as both shield and sword for her proponents in a way that Kavanaugh’s did not. Even before President Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court, Republicans cleverly alleged that Democrats would expose anti-Catholic (or even anti-Christian) animus in an examination of her worldview. Republicans claim, unfairly, that the opposing party already did this during the 2017 hearings that preceded Barrett’s confirmation to the Seventh Circuit, so in recent days Democrats have given her belief system a wide berth.

During a less rushed confirmation process, Barrett’s longtime membership in People of Praise, a secretive charismatic Christian group characterized by private oaths and an allegedly patriarchal leadership structure, might have sparked controversy — and it’s likely progressive investigators are looking into it all. But Senate Democrats won’t go there on their own.

In the meantime, Barrett’s unusual personal and professional career has lent itself to hagiographical treatment in a way that Brett Kavanaugh’s conventional climb to the Court couldn’t support even if he hadn’t been accused of sexual assault. As Christine Cauterucci notes at Slate, she’s become an odd sort of symbol of ersatz feminism for anti-feminists:

“In a crude way, [Barrett’s] lived example supports their argument that women’s choices, not the systemic restriction of those choices, is the only thing holding women back. It’s this belief that allows anti-choice activists to call themselves feminists and argue that abortion restrictions are not sexist — that assaults on a woman’s right to govern her own medical care, control what happens to her body, and choose when and whether to have children do not hold a woman back from achieving everything she wants in life.”

And on the first day of the hearings, Republican paeans to Barrett’s large and diverse family were ubiquitous, as Robin Givhan observed:

“Rare was the Republican on the committee who was able to deliver an opening statement without referring to the seven children in the Barrett family. This feat of parenting seemed to leave them gobsmacked with admiration and utterly mystified as to how a two-parent household with significant financial resources was capable of wrangling such a large brood without the missus showing up with oatmeal on her clothes.”

Republicans Have Just Enough Breathing Room in the Senate

Since Democrats had a very successful 2018 midterm election, it is sometimes forgotten that Republicans achieved a net gain of two Senate seats that year. Trump and others have propagated the theory that the Kavanaugh hearings “saved” the Republican Senate by energizing the party’s conservative base, and it may have made a slight difference on the margins in this or that close race. But the reality is that the 2018 Senate landscape was wildly slanted in the GOP’s direction, as I noted at the time:

“[A]’“split decision’ narrative driven by the GOP’s Senate gains was promoted by Republicans and media outlets alike. This was understandable since “Republicans retained the Senate because of the most insanely pro-GOP landscape ever” is not an interpretation that fits well into a headline or a tweet.”

In any event, the 51-49 margin by which the Republicans controlled the Senate in 2018 is 53-47 now, and that has made an enormous difference in the dynamics. The defection of Democrat Joe Manchin in Kavanaugh’s favor gave the GOP a two-vote cushion in 2018; it’s three now without any Democratic votes. So Republicans can afford to lose the electorally endangered Susan Collins (as they already have), the other pro-choice Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, and a random third senator, without consequences. Democrats know that, which is why they seem resigned to her confirmation.

The Senate margin also helps explain the Republican rush to get the confirmation done before Election Day; the Arizona Senate contest is a special election to complete the term of the late John McCain; Republican Martha McSally was appointed to the McCain seat until November 3. If, as currently seems likely, Democrat Mark Kelly defeats her, the Republican margin in the Senate instantly drops to two votes.

Democrats Have Decided to Use the Hearings to Reinforce Their 2020 Health-Care Talking Points

It’s impossible to know what line of attack Democrats might have taken in 2018 had Brett Kavanaugh not been facing sexual-assault allegations. But they might well have sought to reinforce their very effective midterm messaging on health-care policy thanks to pending Obamacare litigation.

That litigation is now on the Supreme Court’s doorstep, with oral arguments in California v. Texas scheduled to take place on November 10. The connection between the Supreme Court and a popular health-care law embodying protections for people with preexisting conditions is now very, very proximate, which also makes the acutely embarrassing Republican inability to design (or even describe) an Obamacare replacement more relevant than ever.

Since Barrett can’t say anything reassuring about her views on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (which are clear and discomforting, if not exactly on the point raised in California v. Texas), her hearings provide a risk-free opportunity for the Donkey Party to hold every elephant’s feet to the fire on a subject voters care about a great deal. They are going to take it, and that keeps the heat off Barrett herself.

It’s 2020!

The political environment surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation process was scorching hot, but not like 2020’s. Barrett’s confirmation hearing is being overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic — particularly the fact that the president and several Senate Judiciary Committee members have contracted COVID-19, with some infections quite likely having been spread at a White House reception honoring Barrett.

But ultimately the strangest thing about this confirmation remains its proximity to a high-stakes election in which control of both the presidency and the Senate could very well change. That Barrett is being asked how she’d feel about deciding a presidential election that Trump has clearly already decided to contest if he loses is a reminder that another conservative justice isn’t the only present threat to the Constitution as we know it. Barrett’s confirmation, important as it is, cannot stand out starkly against a background so lurid and consequential as today’s.

October 9: Pence Won’t Admit His Anti-Abortion Crusade

The sort of ho-hum reaction to Mike Pence’s evasions during the veep debate really annoyed me when it came to one subject, so I wrote about it at New York:

In public appearances, politicians often avoid discussion of their more unpopular positions. When they are at or near the top of a party ticket, moreover, they tend to downplay policy stances that divide their own team or that are under internal discussion. That’s why Joe Biden and Kamala Harris didn’t directly answer questions about hypothetical “court-packing” schemes that Democrats might or might not pursue if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed as Trump’s third Supreme Court justice. And it’s why Donald Trump and Mike Pence evade blunt questions about the administration’s Cheshire cat of a health-care plan.

But lumping all the evasions together as functionally equivalent isn’t right. One particular Pence side step in Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate is astonishing if you know anything about the man’s long history as a crusader against legalized abortion. Asked by moderator Susan Page what he’d want his own state of Indiana to do if Roe v. Wade is reversed and states could outlaw abortion, Pence would not answer other than a vague reference to himself as “pro-life,” a term that means different things to different people. That Pence has any doubt whatsoever on exactly what he’d want Indiana to do in this suddenly very plausible hypothetical situation is preposterous, unless he’s been lying to us for his entire public career.

But during his six terms in the House, Pence established the crusading identity on this subject that led Marjorie Dannenfelser of the hard-line anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List to praise him as a “pro-life trailblazer” and the best of all possible choices as Trump’s 2016 running mate. He was best known for launching the relentless attacks on public funding for Planned Parenthood that soon became part of the anti-abortion movement’s playbook at every level of government. The “defund Planned Parenthood” campaign he began nearly led to a government shutdown in 2011 and again in 2015, and was a symbolic expression of the grip the ban-abortion cause had on the Republican Party.

And speaking of that grip, Pence’s GOP has for many, many years been united in insisting that Roe v. Wade be replaced not by some sort of live-and-let-live states’ rights position on abortion policy but with a constitutional amendment banning abortion nationwide permanently. (This Human Life Amendment has been in every Republican platform since 1980.) There have been occasional attempts (by presidential nominees in particular) to insist on exceptions for pregnancies that are the product of rape and incest, or that threaten the life of the woman being ordered to carry the pregnancy to term. But the basic principal of making abortion illegal has been sacrosanct, as Michael Kinsley explained in 2012:

“Ever since [1984], with various rhetorical flourishes, the platform has contained the same four elements: 1) the unborn child has a ‘fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed’; 2) endorsement of a ‘human life’ constitutional amendment; 3) a call for judges who ‘respect human life’; and 4) new laws to ‘make clear’ that the fetus is a ‘person’ under the 14th Amendment. Paul Ryan has co-sponsored such legislation, declaring that the fetus is a ‘person.'”

An even more visible proponent of “personhood” legislation has been — you guessed it — Mike Pence. Brian Tashman explained the significance of this position when Pence joined Trump’s ticket in 2016:

“Advocates of federal personhood bills believe that if Congress passes legislation defining ‘personhood’ as beginning at conception, they can bypass and nullify Roe v. Wade, criminalizing abortion nationwide with no exceptions. While the personhood movement has traditionally sat on the far-right fringes of the anti-abortion movement, in recent years Republican politicians like Pence have brought the extremist cause into the GOP mainstream. Unlike more established abortion rights opponents that seek to cut off access to abortion and gradually outlaw the procedure, personhood activists want the government to immediately end abortion in all cases.”

Dubious as it is as a legal theory for circumventing the Constitution, the “personhood” movement is also too radical for the taste of many abortion opponents, suggesting as it does that certain forms of contraception might be banned as interfering with the development of a fertilized ovum. Personhood ballot initiatives have lost badly in Colorado, North Dakota, and (most recently) Mississippi. That Pence is inclined to go that far is another indication, should you need one, that he has not an ounce of doubt about the righteousness of taking control of reproductive systems from sea to shining sea.

On top of his single-issue devotion to the anti-abortion cause, pursuing that cause to its logical end of outlawing all abortions is Job One for a Christian right religiopolitical movement that regards Pence as its indispensable champion in the court of our erratic president. Here’s how I described Pence’s importance to Trump’s “faithful believers” in a review of a recent book about Trump’s relationship with conservative evangelicals:

“You can sense the authors’ nagging doubts, though, perhaps nourished by the new president’s nasty Twitter language and other forms of thuggish behavior toward critics. Near the very end of the book they bring in their star witness for Trump’s inner transformation: Vice-President Mike Pence, the Christian-right warhorse who constantly attests to the president’s reliance on both prayer and the prayer warriors (like Trump’s all-Evangelical Faith Advisory Committee) for whom Pence runs interference.”

All in all, it’s as likely that Pence would stop short of a total abortion ban in a world where the Supreme Court didn’t stand in his way as it is that Bernie Sanders will become a hedge-fund manager or Donald Trump a soup-kitchen cook. It’s the one thing about him that is most certain. And it’s precisely why he and his allies are so excited about Barrett’s potential advent to the Supreme Court.

So Pence’s evasions say a lot about the dishonesty of the anti-abortion movement and its doubts that its cause is winning the hearts and minds of the American people. All the efforts to distract attention from their fundamental radicalism with hand-wringing over a tiny number of late-term abortions can’t disguise that basic fact.

October 8: Prospects For Post-Election Violence Are Bigger Than Trump

The President has been doing everything he can to make Election Night and the days and weeks afterwards a dangerous and potentially violent juncture. But as I noted at New York, there are real and powerful differences at work as well:

In the wake of the beer-hall ambience of this week’s first presidential debate, it’s probably no surprise that a new study suggests a coarsening of political attitudes among Americans. But researchers want to make it clear that it’s not just crude talk or combative rhetoric that’s on the rise: it’s a bipartisan trend toward condoning potential violence after the election. It’s unclear whether, or how, the president’s COVID-19 infection will affect the atmosphere — it could be sobering, or it could increase tensions even more — but as a symbol of perpetually unsettling times, it’s just more of the new normal.

The violence study was authored by an unusually distinguished and bipartisan group of researchers whose work involves studying Americans’ political attitudes. As they explain in Politico, “Late last year, we noticed an uptick in the number of respondents saying they would condone violence by their own political party, and we decided to combine our data sets to get as much information as possible on this worrisome trend.” What they found was indeed disturbing:

“In September, 44 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said there would be at least ‘a little’ justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election. Those figures are both up from June, when 35 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats expressed the same sentiment.”

Perhaps more important, there’s a hard kernel of politically engaged Americans who might be the first in the streets if things go really bad:

“There has been an even larger increase in the share of both Democrats and Republicans who believe there would be either ‘a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of justification for violence if their party were to lose in November. The share of Republicans seeing substantial justification for violence if their side loses jumped from 15 percent in June to 20 percent in September, while the share of Democrats jumped from 16 percent to 19 percent.”

The numbers almost certainly reflect a steadily increasing bipartisan belief that the other side is preparing to seize the presidency by illegitimate means. Most of that is attributable to the president, who has been alleging over and over that Democrats plan to “rig” the election via manipulation of mail ballots. Trump’s subsequent refusal to say anything reassuring about his willingness to accept an election loss has produced a countervailing conviction among left-of-center observers that he is planning to contest the results if he loses, perhaps by a premature victory declaration on Election Night, or maybe by preventing the full counting of votes in the courts or even by force.

And even among those who don’t necessarily suspect the other side of plans to steal the election, there is a growing awareness that resolution of this election could drag on for an unprecedented length of time as the parties battle in court over a bumper crop of slowly counted mail ballots. If the presidential contest is as close as most expect, this period of post-election uncertainty could violently spill over into the streets. While the roughly one-in-five voters in the new study who think violence might well be justified may not themselves take to the barricades, there will clearly be a large enough pool of sympathizers to make large-scale conflicts possible. Even peaceful protests could turn ugly.

What can be done to turn down the temperature? The study’s authors clearly think it’s a leadership issue:

“Recent research on the United States reaffirms this timeless truth: Leaders play an essential role in fueling the fire or extinguishing the flames of violence among their followers. Preliminary studies show that messages from Biden or Trump denouncing all violence can reduce mass approval of violence.”

Biden has already done that, and it seems unlikely that after having spent months and months relentlessly undermining the legitimacy of the election Trump is going to say “Just kidding!” or even “Yes, the election is rigged, but nobody should get too upset over it!” Calming the waters really isn’t his style.

But while Trump is clearly the arsonist striking matches in a bone-dry forest, let’s not pretend that partisan and ideological polarization in this country is all artificial or cynically manufactured. Trump is a master of exploiting Americans’ existing divisions, which reflect significant disagreements on values and priorities. I won’t go through an exhaustive list, but a moment’s thought conjures up many. Many millions of Americans believe legalized abortion is an American holocaust, while many millions more view revocation of reproductive rights as a barbaric relic of ancient patriarchy that reduces women to brood mares under state supervision. There is a growing conviction on the left that climate change is an imminent threat to the survival of civilization, and a growing conviction on the right that the discussion of climate change is a ruse to justify the introduction of socialism. One large segment of the population thinks systemic racism against Blacks and other minority groups is a cancer eating at American society, breeding inequity and injustice. Another thinks that this is tantamount to the destruction of white people, aided by “political correctness” and “cancel culture” wiping out free speech.

And much more fundamentally, American conservatism is dominated by those who believe that the “inalienable rights” that make the country what it is include property rights, religious rights, gun rights, parental rights, and of course a fetal “right to life” — all based on divine will, natural law, and the wisdom of the Founders — that no majority, however large, should ever be allowed to traduce. And an increasingly alarmed and dominant faction of American progressives believe a coalition of economic and cultural reactionaries are successfully mastering the tools of institutional and economic power to frustrate the popular will and entrench their own power perpetually.

These are not beliefs and fears that you can talk away or resolve with a blue-ribbon commission, although that is what, predictably, the authors of the violence report suggested:

“The best hope now to tamp down support for this potential political violence is to establish an independent, bipartisan third force—a broad commission of distinguished leaders and democratic elders of both parties and of civil society. Its mission would be to reaffirm and defend our democratic norms, especially the critical principles that every valid vote should be counted and that political violence is never justified in the United States. Congress should immediately appoint such a commission.”

This is not the sort of thing that a deeply divided Congress is likely to do, and while harmless, the suggestion is based on the idea that there is general acceptance of what “democratic norms” mean at a time when the president and his party argue that “every valid vote” excludes many millions of mail ballots. But more basically, papering over partisan and ideological differences misses the essential point of why they exist.

Minimizing their significance is actually an insult to the very idea of principled activism. Conservatives are not wrong to recognize that massive demographic, technological, and cultural trends threaten a way of life they desperately want to preserve, and progressives are not wrong to recognize the old institutional arrangements that kept politics ostensibly “peaceful” were intended to maintain a deeply unjust status quo.

If the president has his way, we may find out this very year how rickety the old institutional arrangements for presidential elections are, and how violently large numbers of people care about the outcome. I pray we can avoid pitched battles in the streets, and if we are lucky, avoid a contested election. But let’s not pretend people are ready to take matters into their own hands because of a frivolous partisanship that has no place in America. If we’ve learned anything in this plague year, it should be that politics matter, and that (as Trump rightly said in the first debate) elections have consequences. Violence can indeed set our country on fire, but the kindling is all around us.

October 2: Trump Still Preaching Only To His Choir

After pondering the first presidential candidate debate, I noticed a telling habit of Trump’s and wrote about it at New York:

Viewers who endured to the end of the first Biden-Trump presidential debate in Cleveland did not come away with the impression that either candidate was a modern-day Demosthenes; indeed, there were long stretches in which a complete sentence was not uttered. But unlike Joe Biden, who was as intelligible as most people his age when forced to stay up late, President Trump exhibited an increasingly visible habit of speaking in a sort of shorthand or code. National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty explains it very well:

“By far Trump’s most self-defeating habit in these debates is to refer to stories rather than tell them. He speaks as if he’s talking to people who, like himself, spend hours a day watching Fox News and have a shared folklore of scandal stories that can be referred to in shorthand. He refers to events, like ballots found in a wastepaper basket, but doesn’t tell the story of where they happened, or why they matter.”

Sometimes Trump adopts characterizations from conservative media that are axiomatic to their audiences, but not to puzzled undecided voters. A good example from the debate was the follow-up to Trump’s charge that Biden wants to eliminate private health insurance, which he hotly denied (unsurprisingly to anyone who watched the interminable discussions of Medicare for All in the Democratic primary debates). Trump’s riposte was not entirely in the English language:

“Joe, you agreed with Bernie Sanders, who’s far left, on the manifesto, we call it. And that gives you socialized medicine.”

Trump is alluding to the policy recommendations of the “unity task force” set up by Biden and Sanders in the wake of their primary fight. In a Wall Street Journal column someone must have clipped for Trump, former Republican senator Phil Gramm called the agreement a “manifesto,” and claimed that Biden was accepting Medicare for All “on an installment plan.” In fact, the “unity task force” recommendations and his own campaign’s plans don’t go in that direction at all, which produced some bitter disappointment among single-payer health-care fans at the time

But Trump wouldn’t let go of it during the debate:

President Donald J. Trump:

Listen, you agreed with Bernie Sanders and the manifesto.

Vice President Joe Biden:

There is no manifesto, number one.

Chris Wallace:

Please let him speak, Mr. President.

Vice President Joe Biden:

Number two.

President Donald J. Trump:

He just lost the left.

Vice President Joe Biden:

Number two.

President Donald J. Trump:

You just lost the left. You agreed with Bernie Sanders on a plan that you absolutely agreed to and under that plan … they call it socialized medicine.

Convinced that he had nailed Biden for abandoning an imaginary deal with “the left” that conservative media invented, Trump seemed very pleased with himself.

At another juncture, the president showed an impressive ability to telescope multiple conservative myths about crime policy:

President Donald J. Trump:

You did a crime bill, 1994, where you call them super-predators. African-Americans are super-predators and they’ve never forgotten it. They’ve never forgotten it.

Vice President Joe Biden:

I’ve never said …

Chris Wallace:

No, no, sir. It’s his two minutes.

President Donald J. Trump:

So you did that and they call you a super-predator and I’m letting people out of jail now, that you have treated the African-American population community, you have treated the black community about as bad as anybody in this country.

Conservative media have gleefully seized upon progressive criticism of Biden and the Clinton administration’s sponsorship of a 1994 comprehensive crime measure that, among many other things, toughened mandatory federal sentencing for drug offenders. The bill at the time was attacked by Republicans as weak and loaded with liberal social spending (e.g., “midnight basketball” programs), not to mention gun control. Biden indeed never referred to anyone as “super-predators” (a term actually devised by crime policy maven John DiIulio, who later worked in the Bush White House), and Hillary Clinton’s single use of the term for members of gangs working for drug cartels came two years later.

The idea that Biden locked up Black voters while Trump is “letting people out of jail” comes from the claim by Trump and his fans that his single step toward criminal-justice reform, his signature on the First Step Act, executed reluctantly after he stalled more substantial legislation for years, was of revolutionary significance. Indeed, the idea that Trump single-handedly opened prison doors has been reinforced by some conservative attacks on “his” legislation.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who wasn’t familiar with this elaborate backstory understanding that exchange between Trump and Biden. But it was crystal clear compared to what the president did when the subject of election integrity came up at the very end of the debate, when Wallace asked the candidates: “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”

Biden went first and assured viewers that he’d accept an election loss once all votes were counted, and that Trump would have no choice but to do the same. Here’s how Trump responded:

“So when I listen to Joe talking about a transition [he really didn’t], there has been no transition from when I won. I won that election. And if you look at crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all of the different people, there was no transition, because they came after me trying to do a coup. They came after me spying on my campaign. They started from the day I won, and even before I won. From the day I came down the escalator with our First Lady, they were a disaster. They were a disgrace to our country, and we’ve caught them. We’ve caught them all. We’ve got it all on tape. We’ve caught them all. And by the way, you gave the idea for the Logan Act against General Flynn. You better take a look at that, because we caught you in a sense, and President Obama was sitting in the office.”

This is an elaborate reference to the conspiracy theory known as “Obamagate,” the claim that the former president — along with his Justice Department, law-enforcement leaders, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden — conspired to persecute the Trump campaign and administration (and notably former national security adviser Michael Flynn) with fake charges of collusion with Russia, partly to cover up their own treasonous interactions with shadowy foreign powers. It’s been the go-to conservative counterpunch in response to the many investigations of the president in Congress and elsewhere, but it’s really not something you can even begin to grok unless you watch a lot of conservative media, as the Guardian noted earlier this year:

“According to research compiled by the Internet Archive, analysed by GDELT and released on Wednesday, since last week Fox News and Fox Business have mentioned Flynn, the FBI and Obama far more often than the coronavirus.

“Nor has such coverage just been pursued by opinion hosts like Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. Hosts of supposedly straight news content have happily followed suit.

“Critics and other media outlets have been quick to call out the supposed scandal, which the former Obama adviser David Plouffe called a ‘sideshow to distract from the shitshow.’”

After his Obamagate digression, Trump dealt with Wallace’s request (to which Biden responded positively) about reassuring viewers that the election results would be accepted by both candidates by saying: “It’s a disaster … this is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen.” And he then related an assortment of anecdotal claims about alleged mail-ballot fraud along with the big lie that Democratic-controlled states are sending out ballots “all over the place” in order to manufacture fake votes for Biden after Election Day.

Trump has himself been the trendsetter in this area of conspiracy-mongering, but what he is alluding to was laid out starkly in the reliably Trumpy journal The Federalist (among many, many examples):

“[W]hen you go to your local precinct to vote this fall, remember that coming behind in many states will be bags full of ballots from unseen persons. There will be no guarantee they’ll arrive on time. No, we will be told that the new system takes a little longer, with some likely tallied long after election day. And if the margin is narrow, is there any question as to which way the vote count will drift?

“More than this year’s election contests will be at stake. We may be witnesses to the end of election integrity.”

Trump and his acolytes have been discussing such lurid (if completely fabricated) scenarios for so long that it’s no wonder he feels little need to explain it methodically. And that’s his biggest problem, not just as a debater, but as a presidential candidate behind in the polls and struggling to deal with a dubious record. He seems incapable of talking to anyone who isn’t already a member of his base, familiar with its rituals, its catchphrases, and its eccentric view of history and current events. It’s likely far too late in this election cycle for him to change.