washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

January 3: Get Ready For a L-O-N-G General Election Campaign

You think a lot of voters are tired of politics this year? Just wait until a few more months have gone by, as I explained at New York:

Back in the days when presidential nominees were chosen by elites at national conventions rather than in mass-participation caucuses and primaries, general elections were pretty brisk affairs. Traditionally, the campaigns kicked things off around Labor Day and conducted a real sprint to early November. Candidate debates didn’t happen before 1960, and then they were generally held in late September or October.

Even in recent years, at least one of the major-party nominees often wasn’t known until well into the election-year calendar. In 2016, for example, Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination on May 26, and Hillary Clinton didn’t nail down the Democratic nomination until June 7. And while Trump’s renomination in 2020 was a given, Joe Biden wasn’t an absolute certainty as his opponent until June 5.

At this point it appears the 2024 match-up will be known much, much earlier. Barring some health crisis, President Biden will again be the Democratic nominee. And barring a huge upset in an early state, Trump will again be the Republican nominee. Trump could have the delegates he needs by early March. He may even be the last candidate standing on February 24, when he is favored to win the South Carolina primary, which is crucial for both Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.

In all likelihood, then, we’ll soon be dealing with an eight-month general election, the longest since John Kerry ran against George W. Bush in 2004 (Bush was an unchallenged incumbent; Kerry clinched his nomination in March).

The race is going to feel a lot longer than the 2004 election because it’s a rematch. For months, polls have been showing that Americans don’t particularly want to see these two men on their ballots again. They are universally known, and at present, quite unpopular. According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Biden’s ratio of favorability to unfavorability is 39.2 percent favorable to 55.3 percent unfavorable, while Trump’s is 39.9 percent favorable to 55.4 percent unfavorable. Biden and Trump are a matched pair of ugly socks in the national leadership drawer. How will another eight months of their omnipresence wear on voters, after their domination of news for the last eight years (or longer in Biden’s case, given his eight years as Barack Obama’s sidekick)?

Yes, it’s possible the condition of the country and the world will make Biden more or less popular as an incumbent, and tempestuous legal dramas are likely to affect perceptions of Trump. But will voters simply get more fatigued with them as presenting a choice they don’t particularly want to make?

If so, that could have a dampening effect on 2024 general-election turnout. And it could also stimulate already-high interest in minor-party or independent candidacies. These typically lose altitude late in a general-election cycle as voters realize they aren’t going to be successful. But that might not be the case in this seemingly eternal battle between two very old men who have been lobbing grenades at each other for such a very long time.

Perhaps something will spice up and refresh the general-election contest. It probably won’t be the conventions, themselves a tired ritual lacking all real drama for decades now. It probably won’t be political ads, which are more relentlessly, predictably negative than they’ve ever been. And it probably won’t be debates, assuming they even occur; any debate involving Trump will be a mud fight. It would be nice if new issues emerged in the course of 2024 that could elicit something we’ve haven’t heard again and again.

More likely than not, however, both campaigns will need to devote even more resources than usual to voter mobilization, as voters are tired of a contest that few can barely remember beginning. One truly useful thing the two major parties could do is to convince Americans their vote will be truly consequential, which won’t at all be a lie or an exaggeration: The 2024 contest will likely be very close, and the stakes — particularly if the resolute anti-constitutionalist Trump wins or again refuses to accept a defeat — could be epochal. Indeed, eight months probably isn’t long enough to cure the electorate of the cynical tendency to believe elections don’t really matter. But it’s one goal Biden and Trump and their supporters ought to be able to share each and every day.

December 22: It’s Biden or Bust in 2024!

After reading endless scenarios for some sort of late withdrawal by Joe Biden from the 2024 presidential race, I decided to state some plain facts at New York:

There is a misconception about how the 2024 presidential election is likely to unfold that just won’t die: that President Joe Biden will suddenly rethink his 2024 election bid and drop out. Independent candidate Cornel West was the latest to float this idea.

“I’m not even sure whether I’ll be running against Biden,” West told Politico. “Biden — I think he’s going to have an LBJ moment [and] pull back.”

This is an allusion to Johnson’s famous announcement on March 31, 1968, in conjunction with a Vietnam bombing halt, that he was ending his campaign for reelection. The idea is that, like LBJ, Biden will come to a realization, even after the 2024 primaries have begun, that it would be good for his party and country if he hung up his spurs and let Democrats choose someone who polls better against Donald Trump (or in LBJ’s case, against Richard Nixon).

In an earlier column I challenged the LBJ Redux scenario from the point of view of the two presidents’ political standing. In 1968, Johnson was leading a Democratic party deeply divided by the Vietnam War, which he had prosecuted relentlessly. He had already stumbled in a New Hampshire primary (not losing, but underperforming expectations badly) against Senator Gene McCarthy, and the more formidable Senator Robert F. Kennedy had just announced his own candidacy.

Biden is facing only feeble opposition from woo-woo author and failed 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson and obscure Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips; Biden currently leads the second-place Williamson by 60 points in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. His rivals are betting everything on making a splash in a rogue New Hampshire primary where Biden won’t even be on the ballot (though a write-in effort will be waged on his behalf). But Biden is almost certain to crush them there and in the official first primary of South Carolina on February 3. (South Carolina was Biden’s big breakthrough state in 2020.)

But beyond Biden’s stronger intra-party position, there are growing obstacles to the selection of a different nominee that Democrats simply did not face in 1968. Back then, only 13 states held primaries, and some of those were either nonbinding on delegates or were won by “favorite sons.” The ultimate nominee, Johnson’s veep Hubert Humphrey, did not enter a single primary.

In 2024, every delegate who will vote on the first ballot of the Democratic convention in Chicago will be pledged to a candidate according to the primary results. (So-called superdelegates who have seats at the convention through the elected or party offices they occupy won’t have any role unless there’s a first-ballot deadlock, which hasn’t happened since 1952.) There won’t be any large reserve of uncommitted votes a late-emerging candidate can comandeer (as Humphrey did in 1968). And thanks to generations of “front-loading” the primaries, the deal will go down much earlier on the calendar than in 1968. An estimated 48 percent of pledged Democratic delegates will have been chosen by March 12 (the week after Super Tuesday, when 15 states hold primaries). Filing deadlines have already passed or are fast approaching for these crucial primaries (Florida’s was on November 30, Michigan’s was on December 8, and the largest state’s, California’s, was on December 15).

So if the idea is for Biden to have a dark night of the soul and withdraw after the first few contests, it’s unclear how Democrats will settle on the ultimate nominee. Will there be enough primaries left for an open competition among the various would-be candidates we keep hearing about (e.g. Governors Gretchen WhitmerGavin NewsomJ.B. Pritzker, and Josh Shapiro, not to mention Vice-President Kamala Harris)? Or if people are expecting some sort of mind-meld among Democratic elites that produces an ideal Democratic ticket, how, mechanically, is that supposed to happen in a nomination system designed to make that choice via delegates pledged in primaries?

It’s not impossible for Biden to step aside and let someone else to win the nomination in an emergency; far-fetched scenarios for doing just that should be in the back of the mind for wire-pullers in both parties in case a health crisis or something else dramatic afflicts the current front-runners. But the breezy assumption that Democrats are stupidly blundering ahead when an alternative course is still available to them is just significantly out of date. The time for Joe Biden to take a pass and let his party go elsewhere for a 2024 nominee was months — arguably many months — ago. Second thoughts now would just create chaos.

December 21: Do Biden’s Critics on the Israel-Hamas War Think Trump Would Do Better?

At New York I asked an obvious question that wasn’t being asked elsewhere.

new national poll from the New York Times–Siena College reinforces a development that’s getting clearer every day: Joe Biden’s strength among Democrats and other past supporters is being steadily sapped by deep unhappiness with his staunch support of Israel in its war with Hamas. The phenomenon is particularly evident among young (under-30) voters, a left-leaning group that astonishingly favors Donald Trump over Biden by a 49 percent to 43 percent margin in the Times–Siena poll. While there are a variety of contributing factors to Biden’s poor standing with young voters — including his age, cost-of-living concerns, and unfulfilled promises on student loans and climate change — Times data wizard Nate Cohn sees a lot of evidence that the war is pivotal:

“Usually, it’s not worth dwelling too much on a subsample from a single poll, but this basic story about young voters is present in nearly every major survey at this point. Our own battleground-state surveys in the fall showed something similar, with Mr. Biden ahead by a single point among those 18 to 29. Either figure is a big shift from Mr. Biden’s 21-point lead in our final poll before the midterms or his 10-point lead in our last national poll in July.

“And there’s a plausible explanation for the shift in recent months: Israel …

“[Young] voters in the survey took an extraordinarily negative view of Israel’s recent conduct: They overwhelming say Israel isn’t doing enough to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza, believe Israel isn’t interested in peace, and think Israel should stop its military campaign, even if it means Hamas isn’t eliminated.”

If it’s true that Biden is losing voters to Trump because he’s tilting too far toward Israel in this war, then the question has to be asked: Do these voters know Trump’s position on this war? Do they imagine Trump would be more benevolent toward the suffering people of Gaza?

Anyone familiar with the 45th president’s Middle Eastern policies — and, for that matter, his Islamophobic immigration policies — while he was in office would mock the idea of his being more sympathetic to Palestinians than Biden is. His own January 2020 “peace plan” for the region, unveiled with his longtime ally Bibi Netanyahu at his side, would have “give[n] Israel most of what it has sought over decades of conflict while offering the Palestinians the possibility of a state with limited sovereignty,” as the New York Times described it:

“Mr. Trump’s plan would guarantee that Israel would control a unified Jerusalem as its capital and not require it to uproot any of the settlements in the West Bank that have provoked Palestinian outrage and alienated much of the world …

“President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority immediately denounced the plan as a ‘conspiracy deal’ unworthy of serious consideration, making the decades-long pursuit of a so-called two-state solution appear more distant than ever. ‘We say a thousand times over: no, no, no,’ Mr. Abbas said on Tuesday in Ramallah, in the West Bank.”

While the “Trump peace plan” is DOA, the former president can (and often does) boast that he gave Netanyahu the gift of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and recognition of that divided and contested city as Israel’s capital, itself a blow to Palestinian aspirations. He also frequently cited the belief of Republican (and Likud) mega-donor Sheldon Adelson that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was “impossible” because of a mutual legacy of hatred.

But what’s interesting is how little — quantitatively or substantively — Trump has had to say about the war currently underway between Israel and Hamas.

He got attention right after it broke out for calling Hamas’s allies the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah (which many feared would join in the war against Israel) “very smart,” while criticizing Netanyahu on petty grounds that had nothing to do with the conflict.

Yet even as his Republican rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination competed with one another to show who could be more vicious in encouraging uninhibited Israeli military action in Gaza, Trump’s comments have mostly revolved around his narcissistic claims that this war — like the Russia-Ukraine War — would never have happened if he were still in office. Apparently, he believes his fearsome presence in Washington would have deterred Hamas from its original plan of attack, though there’s very little evidence that the U.S., assumed to be a close ally of Israel with Biden in office, was much of a factor in the decision to go to war.

Trump has also used the Israel-Hamas War to reinforce his positions on other issues remote from the conflict itself, particularly his hostility to Muslim refugees, making it clear that Gazans (and, likely, Muslims generally) would be stopped from entering the U.S. if he is reelected.

Nothing in Trump’s self-centered utterances about the war suggests he could change Israel’s conduct or bring about a cease-fire, much less a lasting peace. You have to wonder if, by refusing to address the situation in any concrete detail, the GOP front-runner for the 2024 nomination is deliberately sowing ambiguity about his position or even making himself acceptable to voters who would normally flee in horror from the idea of this advocate of violence, chaos, and prejudice being placed in charge of U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps he’s just trying to lie in the weeds and, for once, keep himself out of the center of a political news story. If young voters indeed are inclined to punish Biden for inadequate sympathy for the Palestinian people, then voting for an independent or third-party candidate or not voting at all would benefit Trump’s campaign even if they cannot bring themselves to vote for the former president himself. His silence or incoherence on the war could well be strategic.


December 15: How Large Will the Nonmajor Party Vote Be in 2024?

There’s been a lot of talk about one of the big variables in 2024, but not a lot of precision. I tried to provide a bit more at New York:

Between 2016 and 2020, the nonmajor party share of the presidential vote dropped from 5.7 percent to 1.9 percent. It’s impossible to determine whether that factor had a decisive impact on the fact that Donald Trump won the former race and lost the latter; after all, he lost the popular vote in both elections. But if you accept the proposition that his conduct and character have placed something of a cap on his popularity, the availability of robust minor-party or independent candidacies to divert anti-Trump votes seems significant. Beyond that, nonmajor-party votes that might have gone to a major-party candidate always matter to some degree. Indeed, critics of Joe Biden may believe there’s a cap on his popularity as much as on Trump’s, thanks to his age or stubborn negative perceptions of his presidency.

Early 2024 polls have shown a massive uptick in possible willingness to vote for a nonmajor-party candidate, along with low-approval and favorability numbers for the likely major-party candidates, Biden and Trump.

The RealClearPolitics average of polls testing Biden and Trump against announced independent candidates Robert F. Kennedy and Cornel West and likely Green Party candidate Jill Stein shows 18.2 percent of voters willing to go rogue. This is obviously a lot higher than the nonparty vote in 2016 and 2020, and about double the maximum I could find in 2016 polls when minor/independent candidates were last the rage. That’s without a Libertarian (the largest-standing minor party) in the mix, by the way; there are so many candidates running for that party’s nomination that most pollsters are waiting for a name.

There are definitely reasons to assume the number of people willing to vote independent/minor party will decline before November 2024. The first is history, as Jacob Indursky explains in an article on the difficulty of third-party polling:

“Third-party candidates routinely fade in the stretch. A June 2000 Gallup survey found Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and Green Party nominee, and Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan combining for roughly 8 percent. Still, on Election Day, they only won 3 percent of the national vote, albeit enough to tip Florida, and thus the presidency, to George W. Bush. In 1980, Republican congressman turned independent presidential candidate John Anderson scored around 20 percent in Gallup polling for most of the spring and summer but wound up with under 7 percent of the popular vote.”

A major reason for this nonmajor-party fade is one that is high relevant to today’s grumpy electorate:

“When voters are underwhelmed by the major party nominees and want to express their frustration to a pollster, they may claim to back a third option. With the average favorability of Trump and Biden well underwater, according to FiveThirtyEight, the double-digit polling numbers for RFK Jr. are essentially a ‘cry for help’ from the voting public.”

Indursky also mentions the fall in support that often accompanies minorparty candidates becoming better known. RFK Jr., a man with a famous name and some superficially attractive populist poses, is likely to lose altitude with some of his more erratic conspiracy-theory leanings and a largely incoherent worldview become manifest to voters, as the major-party campaigns are guaranteed to ensure. As the New York Times observed last month, Kennedy was briefly popular among Democratic primary voters before he switched to an independent bid in part because his numbers were crashing:

“The durability of Mr. Kennedy’s appeal to voters remains an open question. Shortly after he entered the Democratic primary race in April, polls found him drawing support from up to 20 percent of the party’s primary voters.

“But as he gained more attention from the news media and articulated more positions that are out of step with the Democratic base, his numbers dropped to the low single digits.”

He’s not as big a factor in the polls as RFK Jr., but Cornel West is already drawing some very hostile press about his personal life and financial probity. Jill Stein’s candidacy, moreover, will bring back bad memories of her alleged role in tipping key states to Trump in 2016.

Still another reason nonmajor-party candidates sometimes poll better than they actually perform in elections involves the difficulty of accurately measuring their supporters’ likelihood to vote. The voters most disgruntled with the choice of Biden and Trump — the “double haters” as they are sometimes called — are disproportionately marginal, and often young, voters, who are less engaged with politics and most likely to just stay home.

And even with the major-party primaries beginning next month, it’s possible additional general election candidates could join the fray and confuse everything. The centrist group No Labels will decide in April whether to field a candidate and claims it will only do so if said candidate could actually win (which seems an extremely dubious proposition). Until its ruled out this option, it must be considered a factor and as deadly a threat to the other nonmajor-party candidates as to Biden and Trump.

And finally, there is the crucial question of how many voters in the states that will decide the Electoral College winner in 2024 will even have the opportunity of voting for these candidates. According to veteran political observer Doug Sosnik, the nonmajor-party candidates have had variable success in obtaining the ballot access necessary to affect the presidential election:

“Jill Stein announced that she is running again as the Green Party candidate and thus far she has qualified to be on the ballot in three battleground states — Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Stein will likely attack Biden from the left on a variety of issues, including his support for Israel. This could have a significant impact in Michigan, with a population of over 300,000 Arab Americans. No Labels will be holding a convention on April 14 in Dallas to determine if it will field a candidate. So far it has achieved ballot access in the swing states of Arizona, Nevada, and North Carolina. Robert Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West are running, but neither has qualified to be on the ballot in any state.”

However large the minor party/independent vote looks at any given point, we will hear arguments that either Biden or Trump would have had an additional advantage if the other candidates weren’t around. So far the 2024 polling shows the minor party vote helping the 45th president though not massively; the RealClearPolitics head-to-head polling averages show Trump leading Biden by 3.2 percent; while the more limited five-way polling that includes Kennedy, West, and Stein shows Trump leading Biden by 5.7 percent. That could change a bit once a Libertarian candidate is in the field. But for all we know the non-major-party vote could split so evenly that it will still be a Biden-Trump race to the finish. Most experts now believe the most successful independent candidate of recent decades, 1992 and 1996 presidential aspirant Ross Perot, didn’t really affect the outcome of either election, other than marginally influencing the mix of issues the major candidates addressed. So while a smaller non-major party vote is good for the major parties, the outliers in the field could just add to the noise.

December 14: Low Approval Ratings Happen to Nearly Every President, Not Just Biden and Jimmy Carter

Reading about President Biden’s approval ratings lately, it’s struck me that some of the panic among Democrats is based on a lack of accurate historical perspective. I sought to address that at New York?

Joe Biden’s presidential job-approval numbers have been sinking recently, and are now under 40 percent in both the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight polling averages. This data point is understandably being linked in a lot of commentary to Biden’s relatively poor showing of late in general-election polls matching him against Donald Trump and/or a larger field that includes a passel of minor candidates.

To place this in the proper context, it’s helpful to note that a sub–40 percent job-approval rating is not terribly unusual for U.S. presidents. As Gallup explains, 11 of the 13 post–World War II presidents — all but Eisenhower and JFK — had approval ratings below 40 at some point. One of those presidents, of course, was Trump, who managed to hit 34 percent just as he was noisily and reluctantly leaving office.

No president has been reelected with a sub–40 percent job-approval rating on Election Day, but per Gallup, three had ratings below 50 percent in June of their successful reelection years (Harry Truman: 40 percent; George W. Bush: 49 percent; Barack Obama: 46 percent), and Gerald Ford missed reelection by an eyelash after posting a 45 precent approval rating in June 1976.

The idea that Biden is toast 11 months before Election Day 2024 is ridiculous. But what makes it especially ridiculous is the double-incumbency factor. Trump is not some fresh, promising alternative to an unpopular incumbent. He’s a recent incumbent himself who is very well known and steadily unpopular. Every struggling incumbent wants to make reelection a comparative rather than a referendum election. The 45th president is the ideal foil for the 46th.

Biden’s poor job-approval ratings should be compared to Trump’s very similar recent favorability ratings. At RCP Trump’s favorability averages are currently at 40.4 percent, a half-percent above Biden’s job-approval averages. Trump’s record as president is in the can, and he has clearly doubled down on the issue-positioning and personal conduct that have put a cap on his popularity. Biden’s popularity has room for improvement as his presidential record evolves. Trump’s? Not so much.

Without much question, the impending Biden-Trump rematch is an “unpopularity contest.” As veteran political observer Bill Schneider suggests, these two men are precisely the kind of presidential candidates who play into partisan stereotypes that cut both ways:

“Democrats win when they nominate a ‘tough liberal.’ They used to do that in the old days, with standard bearers like Harry Truman (who fired General MacArthur), John F. Kennedy (the Cuban Missile Crisis) and Lyndon Johnson …

“Many Republicans have a reputation for being mean and nasty (Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and certainly Donald Trump). Republicans need a ‘nice conservative’ …

“That was Ronald Reagan, who, voters quickly found out, was not going to start a war or throw old people out in the snow. Donald Trump denounces “niceness” as a sign of weakness. He has advised the police, ‘Please don’t be too nice’ in handling criminal suspects.”

So in 2024, we are likely to have an unpopularity contest between a Democrat who is not very tough and a Republican who is not very nice. That’s why it’s so close, and so hard to predict.

Biden is more likely to get tough than Trump is to get nice. But the key point is that this will be a comparative election no matter how far Biden’s job-approval rating lags at this point. As the president often says: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty but to the alternative.”

Yes, Biden needs, and is perfectly capable of achieving, a higher job-approval rating between now and next November. But his opponent’s popularity is crucial and is probably capped. Team Biden needs not only to energize its currently passive electoral base but to have the kind of swing-voter appeal that was crucial in beating Trump in 2020. Indeed, Biden may have to win voters who don’t like either candidate, which will require a focus on Trump’s terrifying second-term agenda.

There is no particular level of popularity, however, that the incumbent president needs to achieve in order to prevail in a contest with his unpopular predecessor. This really could be a race to the near-bottom.

December 8: Trump’s “Drain the Swamp” Plan Worse Than a Return to the Spoils System

It’s hard to keep up with the growing evidence of the horrors Trump plans to implement in a second term, but I wrote about one item that really struck me at New York:

There have been many credible reports that a second Trump administration would feature an assault on the federal civil-service system in order to reduce “deep state” resistance to his authoritarian ambitions — or, to use his terms for it, to “drain the swamp” — while stuffing the higher levels of the federal bureaucracy with political appointees. Those of us who are history-minded have immediately thought of this as threatening a return to the “spoils system” of the 19th century, which was more or less ended by enactment of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 (signed into law by Republican president and reformed spoilsman Chester Alan Arthur).

But the more we know about Team Trump’s plans, this understanding of what they want to do in staffing the federal government looks increasingly inadequate and anachronistic. The spoils-system beneficiaries of the distant past were by and large party foot soldiers rewarded for attending dreary local meetings, talking up the the party’s candidates in newspapers and forums, and, most of all, getting out the vote on Election Day. No one much cared what they believed in their heart of hearts about issues of the day or how they came to their convictions. It was enough that they put on the party yoke and helped pull the bandwagon to victory.

As Axios reports, one questionnaire used late in the first Trump administration to vet job applicants and another distributed by the Heritage Foundation to build up an army of second-term appointment prospects show a far more discriminating approach:

“The 2020 ‘Research Questionnaire,’ which we obtained from a Trump administration alumnus, was used in the administration’s final days — when most moderates and establishment figures had been fired or quit, and loyalists were flexing their muscles. Questions include:

“’What part of Candidate Trump’s campaign message most appealed to you and why?’

“’Briefly describe your political evolution. What thinkers, authors, books, or political leaders influenced you and led you to your current beliefs? What political commentator, thinker or politician best reflects your views?’

“’Have you ever appeared in the media to comment on Candidate Trump, President Trump or other personnel or policies of the Trump Administration?”

Similar questions are being asked for the Talent Database being assembled by the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 — the most sophisticated, expensive pre-transition planning ever undertaken for either party.

The Heritage questionnaire makes it especially clear that being just any old kind of Republican isn’t going to be enough. It asks if applicants agree with a number of distinctively MAGA issue positions, including:

“The U.S. should impose tariffs with the goal of bringing back manufacturing jobs, even if these tariffs result in higher consumer prices. …

“The permanent institutions of family and religion are foundational to American freedom and the common good. …

“The President should be able to advance his/her agenda through the bureaucracy without hinderance from unelected federal officials.”

One insider told Axios that both the 2020 Trump and 2024 Heritage questionnaires have a common and very particular purpose:

“An alumnus of the Trump White House told us both documents are designed to test the sincerity of someone’s MAGA credentials and determine ‘when you got red-pilled,’ or became a true believer. ‘They want to see that you’re listening to Tucker, and not pointing to the Reagan revolution or any George W. Bush stuff,’ this person said”.

This represents a really unprecedented effort to place the executive branch under the direction of people chosen not on the basis of merit or experience or expertise, and not on party credentials, but on membership in an ideological faction that is also a presidential candidate’s cult of personality. As such, it’s more dangerous than a return to the partisan habits of a bygone era.


November 30: Biden Has a Relatively Low Popularity Requirement For Beating Trump

Staring at the polls and recent precedents, I offered some blunt thoughts at New York on exactly how popular Biden needs to be in 2024:

There’s abundant evidence that if it were held today, a general election rematch of Joe Biden and Donald Trump would show the 46th president in serious trouble. He’s trailing Trump in national and most battleground-state polls, his job-approval rating is at or below 40 percent, his 2020 electoral base is very shaky, and the public mood, particularly on the economy, is decidedly sour.

The standard response of Biden loyalists to the bad recent polling news is to say “The election is a year away!,” as though public-opinion data this far out is useless. But it’s only useless if Biden turns things around, and while there’s plenty of time for that to happen, there has to be a clear sense of what he needs to secure victory and how to go about meeting those needs. Vox’s Andrew Prokop provides a good summary of possible explanations for Biden’s current position:

“One theory: Biden is blowing it — the polls are a clear warning sign that the president has unique flaws as a candidate, and another Democrat would likely be doing better.

“A second theory: Biden’s facing a tough environment — voters have decided they don’t like the economy or the state of the world, and, fairly or not, he’s taking the brunt of it.

“And a third theory: Biden’s bad numbers will get better — voters aren’t even paying much attention yet, and as the campaign gears up, the president will bounce back.”

The first theory, in my opinion, is irrelevant; Biden isn’t going to change his mind about running for reelection, and it’s simply too late for any other Democrat to push him aside. And the second and third theories really point to the same conclusion: The president is currently too unpopular to win in 2024 and needs to find a way to change the dynamics of a general-election contest with Trump.

There’s not much question that Biden needs to improve his popularity at least modestly. There is only one president in living memory with job-approval ratings anything like Biden’s going into his reelection year who actually won; that would be Harry Truman in 1948, and there’s a reason his successful reelection is regarded as one of the great upsets in American political history. There are others, including Barack Obama, who looked pretty toasty at this point in a first term and still won reelection but who managed to boost their popularity before Election Day (Obama boosted his job-approval rating, per Gallup, from 42 percent at the end of November 2011 to 52 percent when voters went to the polls 11 months later).

Given the current state of partisan polarization, it’s unlikely Biden can get majority job approval next year even with the most fortunate set of circumstances. But the good news for him is that he probably doesn’t have to. Job-approval ratings are crucial indicators in a normal presidential reelection cycle that is basically a referendum on the incumbent’s record. Assuming Trump is the Republican nominee, 2024 will not be a normal reelection cycle for three reasons.

First, this would be the exceedingly rare election matching two candidates with presidential records to defend, making it inherently a comparative election (it has happened only once, in 1888, when President Benjamin Harrison faced former president Grover Cleveland). In some respects (most crucially, perceptions of the economy), the comparison might favor Trump. In many others (e.g., Trump’s two impeachments and insurrectionary actions feeding his current legal peril), the comparison will likely favor Biden.

Second, Trump is universally known and remains one of the most controversial figures in American political history. It’s not as though he will have an opportunity to remold his persona or repudiate words and actions that make him simply unacceptable to very nearly half the electorate. Trump’s favorability ratio (40 percent to 55 percent, per RealClearPolitics polling averages) is identical to Biden’s.

And third, Trump seems determined to double down on the very traits that make him so controversial. His second-term plans are straightforwardly authoritarian, and his rhetoric of dehumanizing and threatening revenge against vast swaths of Americans is getting notably and regularly harsher.

So Biden won’t have to try very hard to make 2024 a comparative — rather than a self-referendum — election. And his strategic goal is simply to make himself more popular than his unpopular opponent while winning at least a draw among the significant number of voters who don’t particularly like either candidate.

This last part won’t be easy. Trump won solidly in both 2016 and 2020 among voters who said they didn’t like either major-party candidate (the saving grace for Biden was that there weren’t that many of them in 2020; there will probably be an awful lot of them next November). So inevitably, the campaign will need to ensure that every persuadable voter has a clear and vivid understanding of Trump’s astounding character flaws and extremist tendencies. What will make this process even trickier is the availability of robust independent and minor-party candidates who could win a lot of voters disgusted by a Biden-Trump rock fight.

So the formula for a Biden reelection is to do everything possible to boost his job-approval ratings up into the mid-40s or so and then go after Trump with all the abundant ammunition the 45th president has provided him. The more popular Biden becomes, the more he can go back to the “normalcy” messaging that worked (albeit narrowly) in 2020.

If the economy goes south or overseas wars spread or another pandemic appears, not even the specter of an unleashed and vengeful authoritarian in the White House will likely save Biden; the same could be true if Uncle Joe suffers a health crisis or public lapses in his powers of communication. But there’s no reason he cannot win reelection with some luck and skill — and with the extraordinary decision of the opposition party to insist on nominating Trump for a third time. Yes, the 45th president has some political strengths of his own, but he would uniquely help Biden overcome the difficulty of leading a profoundly unhappy nation.

November 29: Biden, Trump and Young Voters

I decided to add my analytical two cents at New York to the political topic many Democrats are worried about right now: the direction of the youth vote.

Until recently, Democrats’ biggest concern about the 2024 youth vote was that millennial and Gen-Z voters were so disappointed with our octogenarian president that they might not turn out in great enough numbers to reelect Joe Biden. Young voters were, after all, the largest and most rapidly growing segment of the Democratic base in the last election. But now public-opinion surveys are beginning to unveil a far more terrifying possibility: Donald Trump could carry the youth vote next year. And even if that threat is exaggerated or reversible, it’s increasingly clear that “the kids” may be swing voters, not unenthusiastic Democratic base voters who can be frightened into turning out by the prospect of Trump’s return.

NBC News reports it’s a polling trend that cannot be ignored or dismissed:

“The latest national NBC News poll finds President Joe Biden trailing former President Donald Trump among young voters ages 18 to 34 — with Trump getting support from 46% of these young voters and Biden getting 42%. …

“CNN’s recent national poll had Trump ahead of Biden by 1 point among voters ages 18 to 34.

“Quinnipiac University had Biden ahead by 9 points in that subgroup.

“The national Fox News poll had Biden up 7 points among that age group.

“And the recent New York Times/Siena College battleground state polling had Biden ahead by just 1 point among voters ages 18 to 34.”

According to Pew’s validated voters analysis (which is a lot more precise than exit polls), Biden won under-30 voters by a 59 percent to 35 percent margin in 2020. Biden actually won the next age cohort, voters 30 to 49 years old, by a 55 percent to 43 percent margin. In 2016, Pew reports, Hillary Clinton won under-30 voters by a 58 percent to 28 percent margin, and voters 30 to 44 by 51 percent to 40 percent.

So one baby-boomer Democrat and one silent-generation Democrat kicked Trump’s butt among younger voters, despite the fact that both of them had their butts kicked among younger primary voters by Bernie Sanders. It’s these sort of numbers that led to a lot of optimistic talk about younger-generation voters finally building the durable Democratic majority that had eluded the party for so many years.

What’s gone wrong?

For one thing, it’s important to note that yesterday’s younger voters aren’t today’s, as Nate Silver reminds us:

“Fully a third of voters in the age 18-29 bracket in the 2020 election (everyone aged 26 or older) will have aged out of it by 2024, as will two-thirds of the age 18-to-29 voters from the 2016 election and all of them from 2012. So if you’re inclined to think something like “gee, did all those young voters who backed the Obama-Biden ticket in 2012 really turn on Biden now?”, stop doing that. Those voters are now in the 30-to-41 age bracket instead.”

But even within relatively recent groups of young voters, there are plenty of micro- and macro-level explanations available for changing allegiances. Young voters share the national unhappiness with the performance of the economy; many are particularly afflicted by high basic-living costs and higher interest rates that make buying a home or even a car unusually difficult. Some of them are angry at Biden for his inability (mostly thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court) to cancel student-loan debts. And most notoriously, young voters are least likely to share Biden’s strong identification with Israel in its ongoing war with Hamas (a new NBC poll shows 70 percent of 18-to-34-year-old voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the war).

More generally, intergenerational trust issues are inevitably reflected in perceptions of the president who is turning 81 this week, as youth-vote expert John Della Volpe recently explained:

“Today many young people see wars, problems and mistakes originating from the older generations in top positions of power and trickling down to harm those most vulnerable and least equipped to protect themselves. This is the fabric that connects so many young people today, regardless of ideology. This new generation of empowered voters is therefore asking across a host of issues: If not now, then when is the time for a new approach?”

All of these factors help explain why younger voters have soured on Uncle Joe and might be open to independent or minor-party candidates (e.g., Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel WestJill Stein, or a possible No Labels candidate). But they don’t cast as much light on why these same voters might ultimately cast a ballot for Donald Trump.

Trump is less than four years younger than Biden and is about as un-hip an oldster as one can imagine. He’s responsible for the destruction of federal abortion rights, a deeply unpopular development among youth voters (post-election surveys in 2022 showed abortion was the No. 1 issue among under-30 voters; 72 percent of them favored keeping abortion legal in all or most cases). His reputation for racism, sexism, and xenophobia ought to make him anathema to voters for whom the slogan “Make America Great Again” doesn’t have much personal resonance. And indeed, young voters have some serious issues with the 45th president, even beyond the subject of abortion. In the recent New York Times–Siena battleground state poll that showed Trump and Biden about even among under-30 voters, fully 64 percent of these same voters opposed “making it harder for migrants at the southern border to seek asylum in the United States,” a signature Trump position if ever there was one.

At the same time, under-30 voters in the Times-Siena survey said they trusted Trump more on the Israel-Hamas conflict than Biden by a robust 49 percent to 39 percent margin. The 45th president, needless to say, has never shown any sympathy for the Palestinian plight. And despite the ups and downs in his personal relationship to Bibi Netanyahu, he was as close an ally to Israel’s Likud Party as you could imagine (among other things, Trump reversed a long-standing U.S. position treating Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank as a violation of international law and also moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a gesture of great contempt toward Palestinian statehood). His major policy response to the present war has been to propose a revival of the Muslim travel ban the courts prevented him from implementing during his first term.

But perceptions often differ sharply from reality. Sixty-two percent of 18-to-29-year-old and 61 percent of 40-to-44-year-old voters said they trusted Trump more than Biden on the economy in the Times-Siena survey. It’s unclear whether these voters have the sort of hazy positive memories of the economy under Trump that older cohorts seem to be experiencing or if they instead simply find the status quo intolerable.

In any event, the estrangement of young voters provides the most urgent evidence of all that Team Biden and its party need to remind voters aggressively about Trump’s full-spectrum unfitness for another term in the White House. Aside from his deeply reactionary position on abortion and other cultural issues, and his savage attitude toward immigrants, Trump’s economic-policy history shows him prioritizing tax cuts for higher earners and exhibiting hostility to student-loan-debt relief (which he has called “very unfair to the millions and millions of people who paid their debt through hard work and diligence”). Smoking out the 45th president on what “Trumponomics” might mean for young and nonwhite Americans should become at least as central to the Biden reelection strategy as improving the reputation of “Bidenomics.” And without question, Democrats who may be divided on the Israel-Hamas war should stop fighting each other long enough to make it clear that Republicans (including Trump) would lead cheers for the permanent Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank while agitating for war with Iran.

There’s no world in which Donald Trump should be the preferred presidential candidate of young voters. But it will require serious work by Team Biden not only to turn these voters against the embodiment of their worst nightmares but to get them involved in the effort to keep him away from power.

November 17: Democrats Will Have to Fight Through More Government Shutdown Threats

Fortunately, the federal government will stay open through the holidays, but Democrats must stay vigilant, since the nihilist forces that keep bringing Congress to the brink have not gone away, as I explained at New York:

After his success in passing a two-tiered stopgap spending bill with a ton of Democratic votes and quiet concurrence from the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House, freshly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson hastily retreated into a Thanksgiving recess with angry shouts from his erstwhile hard-core MAGA allies echoing in his ears, as Punchbowl News reports:

“Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), policy chair for the House Freedom Caucus, went to the House floor and angrily bashed the GOP leadership after members had bolted town on Wednesday, a bitter ending to a grueling 10-week marathon for the chamber.

“’I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing — one — that I can go campaign on and say we did. One!’ Roy yelled during a speech in an otherwise empty House chamber.

“’Anybody sitting in the complex, you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides, well, I guess it’s not as bad as the Democrats.’”

Among the “material, significant things” Roy and others among the 93 House Republicans who voted against Johnson’s plan wanted were deep spending cuts in disfavored areas of the federal government and perhaps some symbolic policy shibboleths smiting abortion providers or transgender athletes or tax collectors. Such items would have been treated by Democrats and even some Republicans as poison pills, which is why Johnson’s “clean” stopgap bill didn’t include them. The new Speaker’s support for a “clean” bill and his reliance on Democratic voters are precisely the actions that got old Speaker Kevin McCarthy tossed out on his ear. Thanks to Johnson’s past record of rigorous right-wing orthodoxy (and perhaps exhaustion following the long fight over McCarthy’s successor), his rebellious friends appear to have given him a mulligan. But it probably won’t last.

A new government shutdown threat will likely appear once the first “tier” of the stopgap bill expires on January 19. Indeed, the hard-liners are already firing shots across Johnson’s bow, as Politico reports:

“Hardliners sunk any chances of passage for two additional funding bills this week — marking a major setback for Speaker Mike Johnson less than 24 hours after working with Democrats to pass a bill that would thwart a shutdown deadline Saturday …

“GOP leadership then canceled the rest of the votes for the week, with Republicans predicting that Johnson’s spending headache won’t get any easier once they return at the end of the month.

“Instead, members of the Freedom Caucus vowed to continue blocking House Republicans’ remaining five funding bills. They urged Johnson to come up with a plan that would cut spending for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, without any accounting tricks.”

What makes this revolt even more significant is that Freedom Caucus types are really obsessed with the need to enact individual appropriations bills instead of the catchall measures they believe endemic to out-of-control federal spending. A big part of the rationale for Johnson’s two-tiered stopgap was to provide enough time — and no more — for passage of these individual bills. But now HFC leaders are sabotaging that very possibility out of a fit of pique, in an exceptional example of what it means to cut off your nose to spite your face.

The thing is, Senate Democrats and the White House aren’t going to bend to Chip Roy’s definition of what the American people want or need between now and the time the next shutdown crisis arrives (indeed, a collision over aid to Ukraine and border policy contained in the president’s supplemental spending proposal will likely come to a head before Christmas). So the shutdown threat may have simply been deferred for a bit even as House GOP hard-liners flagellate themselves for letting Johnson off the hook for the exact sins that damned McCarthy. Enjoy the holidays, federal employees. But stash away some provisions for what could be a stormy winter.

November 16: Trump’s Nativist Immigration Agenda Represents a Challenge and an Opportunity for Democrats

I know there’s a lot of scary stuff in the air about Donald Trump’s second-term plans. But there is one agenda item that is unusually well-defined and a real electoral challenge and opportunity for Democrats, as I explained at New York:

Donald Trump’s recent reference to his political enemies as “vermin” is a reminder that while we should be cautious about comparisons between the 45th president and the most notorious fascists of the 20th century, there are times when nothing else suffices. That’s certainly true of Trump using such dehumanizing rhetoric for his fellow Americans. And it’s also true of Trump’s appalling immigration-policy proposals for his second term, which truly sounds like something you’d expect to see in an authoritarian dictatorship rather than in the modern-day United States.

The New York Times recently reported that if reelected, Trump plans to round up, incarcerate and then deport millions of undocumented immigrants. In recent decades there has been plenty of talk among Republicans about sealing off the southern border, reducing both legal and illegal immigration, and deporting selected groups of immigrants deemed a threat to national security. But aside from those living in the fever swamps of racist xenophobia, nobody has proposed mass deportations of people who have been living and working peacefully in America for years.

That will clearly change if Trump wins a second term and returns former Breitbart News rabble-rouser Stephen Miller to the helm of the government’s immigration policies, per the Times:

“Former President Donald J. Trump is planning an extreme expansion of his first-term crackdown on immigration if he returns to power in 2025 — including preparing to round up undocumented people already in the United States on a vast scale and detain them in sprawling camps while they wait to be expelled …

“He plans to scour the country for unauthorized immigrants and deport people by the millions per year.

“To help speed mass deportations, Mr. Trump is preparing an enormous expansion of a form of removal that does not require due process hearings. To help Immigration and Customs Enforcement carry out sweeping raids, he plans to reassign other federal agents and deputize local police officers and National Guard soldiers voluntarily contributed by Republican-run states.”

This isn’t some surreptitious plan that reporters have dug out from obscure sources. Miller is publicly chortling about the audacity of what he intends to do, as the Times notes:

“Stephen Miller, a former senior Trump administration official who led Trump’s immigration policy, told The Times, ‘Any activists who doubt President Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error: Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown.’

“Miller told The Times that Trump’s immigration plans are being designed to avoid having to create new substantial legislation. During Trump’s first term, he relied heavily on executive orders to implement immigration policy. Many of those moves were challenged in the courts, something Miller acknowledged would be likely to happen again in a second Trump term.”

We’ll get to see, in other words, whether Trump’s judicial appointments and more competent lawyering can help him achieve a different result in his new term than he did with his less aggressive first-term agenda.

There’s no doubt the political climate on immigration policy has changed since Trump was first elected president in 2016. For one thing, the salience of immigration as a voting issue dropped significantly between 2016 and 2020. And it was clearly a topic that hurt Trump’s second campaign even though he wasn’t raging about it constantly, as a 2020 Election Night survey from Public Opinion Strategies found:

“The Public Opinion Strategies poll makes clear that President Trump’s immigration policy was a political loser by a double-digit margin and cost him a substantial vote share. Voters across the political spectrum want to reform our nation’s immigration system, centered on a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.”

Now, thanks to massive publicity (particularly in conservative media) about migrants at the southern border, immigration policy matters more than it did in 2020. According to recent battleground-state polling from New York Times/Siena, voters trust Trump more than Biden on immigration policy. It’s simply a better environment for Trump to propose an immigration crackdown. However, it’s unclear whether voters have any idea of how far Trump wants to go in inaugurating Gestapo-style policies to track down, arrest, transport, and deport millions of people from communities all over the country. But it’s not ambiguous at all. Once they know about Trump’s plans, the Latino voters who have been trending Republican in recent elections will likely bridle at the racial and ethnic profiling by federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials that will inevitably accompany any effort to “scour the country for unauthorized immigrants,” as the Times puts it.

Team Biden may be tempted to ignore immigration policy as a “loser” for the incumbent president. But if they do, they will be missing an opportunity to let voters know how scary Trump’s plans are. He’s using concerns about migrants to justify the most massive reversal of U.S. immigration practices at least since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s openly racist “Operation Wetback” deportation drive in the 1950s (which Trump has often praised). Biden and Democrats need to stop thinking of immigration as a Republican issue and explain to voters just how radical Trump is on the subject. It’s encouraging that the Biden campaign has already come out with an attack on Trump’s plan, calling it an “extreme and rapid expansion of his first-term clampdown on immigration if he takes back the White House,” as Politico put it. But they need to keep it up. It’s a really big deal not just for people directly affected by immigration policy but for anyone who wants to block a lurch into authoritarianism.