washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

April 23: Trump May Be Blowing It With Seniors

The strength Joe Biden has been exhibiting among seniors is fascinating and potentially important, and I wrote about a new wrinkle in the story at New York:

Two of the political data points that currently spell bad news for Donald Trump are steadily worsening public assessments of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Joe Biden’s strong position among voters over 65, who have leaned Republican in every presidential election since 1996. Since the elderly as a whole are more vulnerable than younger cohorts to a lethal dose of COVID-19 and since Trump at first minimized the threat and later expressed impatience with measures to arrest it, the obvious question is whether the one poll finding has anything to do with the other. Is Trump losing older voters because he seems callous toward their fears?

Morning Consult definitely has evidence that seniors are souring on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, particularly now that he’s fretting so much over the economy:

“By a nearly 6-to-1 margin, people ages 65 and older say it’s more important for the government to address the spread of coronavirus than it is to focus on economic goals. And as President Donald Trump increasingly signals interest in prioritizing the economy, America’s senior citizens are growing critical of his approach.

“In mid-March, this group approved of Trump’s handling of the outbreak at a higher rate than any other age group, with a net approval of +19. A month later, that level of support has dropped 20 points and is now lower than that of any age group other than 18-29-year-olds.”

Similarly, Quinnipiac shows seniors approving of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus by a 48/45 margin in early March but disapproving by a 52/45 margin in early April. Quinnipiac also shows Biden’s lead among seniors swelling from 49/46 in March to 54/41 in April, even though the Democrat’s overall lead drops from 11 to eight points.

But any way you slice it, Trump is playing with fire in promoting a megastrategy for the pandemic that appears to make the safety of seniors a secondary concern, even as he agitates against allowing the robust voting-by-mail options that might make seniors feel safer in voting. His party needs to win seniors and needs them to vote at their typically high levels. It’s possible Biden’s success in polling of older voters reflects these specific concerns about Trump or simply a tendency to embrace a less erratic and more empathetic leader at a time of maximum insecurity. But it could be Uncle Joe’s ace in the hole.

April 16: Where’s That Republican Health Care Plan?

I kept thinking to myself that Republicans were missing something important during the coronavirus pandemic. Then it hit me, and I wrote it up for New York:

Despite provoking 70 congressional votes on measures to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans still never developed any sort of consensus plan for addressing such basic problems as the millions of Americans without health insurance or the insurance-company practice of denying coverage to those with preexisting health conditions. Yes, they could tell you what they opposed. (Basically any Democratic-supported effort to expand coverage via public or private means or a combination of the two, like Obamacare.) And Republicans went to a lot of effort in the courts and state legislatures and, after 2016, via federal executive action to undermine the ACA and its protections, usually on grounds that Obamacare made health insurance more expensive for the people who didn’t much need it.

To a considerable extent, Republicans in Washington were inclined to dump all the problems of the health-care system on the states, which is why some described the idea of repackaging federal health-care dollars into block grants for the states as the GOP “plan,” though it was the very opposite of one in terms of providing national protections.

GOP fecklessness on health care was by nearly all accounts a significant factor in Democratic midterm gains in 2018. Given the continued efforts of the Trump administration and Republicans in the states to blow up Obamacare in the courts (though they rather disingenuously asked the Supreme Court to wait until after the 2020 elections to decide their case), and their continued inability to come up with a comprehensive approach to health-care reform of their own, Democrats entered 2020 planning to emphasize this issue again.

Has that changed the Republican posture on health-care policy? Not in any significant way. Yes, the Trump administration has endorsed the idea of using coronavirus stimulus funds to reimburse hospitals for treatment of uninsured coronavirus patients. But there’s still no plan for the millions of people without insurance who are at risk of infection (not to mention other life-threatening ailments), much less for the many millions of additional Americans who will lose employer-sponsored health insurance as they lose their jobs. And the GOP position is still characterized by unrelieved hostility toward existing programs that might help, as NBC News observes:

“The clarity in Trump’s health care vision begins and ends with repealing the Affordable Care Act …

“His budget proposals would strip away funding for the law, and he has endorsed a lawsuit to wipe it off the books. But the president hasn’t thrown his weight behind a replacement bill or even an outline, and he has rejected calls to reopen Obamacare for enrollment during the current crisis.

“Trump’s focus on mitigating the economic damage has kept health care on the back burner. Some allies worry that with millions of newly unemployed Americans poised to lose coverage during a public health crisis, Trump’s lack of a plan for the needy will be a political liability in his re-election bid.”

No kidding.

The focus by Democrats on the nonexistence of any GOP plan to expand health coverage — alongside efforts to shrink coverage via the Obamacare exchanges or Medicaid — is certain to become intense now that they are no longer arguing about the ultimate health-care plans of their own presidential candidates. Much as progressives may find Joe Biden’s health-care proposals inadequate, they look like a veritable horn of plenty compared to anything coming out of the opposing party. Yes, conservative policy wonks have developed theoretical plans, mostly involving high-deductible catastrophic care policies, perhaps supplemented by health-savings accounts. But now more than ever, in a national health emergency, they look howlingly out of proportion to the current situation.

Presumably, Trump will try to take credit for whatever emergency measures Congress provides for dealing with immediate coronavirus-related health costs and try to get across the finish line in November without the “phenomenal” plan he has been promising since 2016. But if they are competent, 2020 Democratic candidates from Joe Biden on down will make this not only a policy emphasis, but a token of all of Trump’s many broken promises, which have brought the country and its most vulnerable people to the gates of living hell.

April 15: Trump’s Reelection Odds Heading Down

After noticing that Trump fans were still crowing triumphantly about his certain victory in November, I offered an assessment at New York of where he currently stands:

Given the near-universal belief of Republicans that POTUS was cruising in style toward a second term, I was beginning to feel lonely not long ago in my skepticism about the Keep America Great cause. And I even felt some doubts about my own judgment as a booming economy boosted Trump’s job-approval ratings out of their stagnant position in the low 40s, with signs they might even drift up toward where Obama’s were in 2012 when he was reelected. Adding in the GOP’s Electoral College advantage, the historic value of incumbency, and Trump’s lavishly financed and unscrupulous campaign, and you had the look of a plausible, if hardly certain, winner.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit after Trump very publicly dismissed its significance, and it was legitimately in question for a while as to whether the rally-round-the-flag effect that usually boosts national leaders in times of emergency – enhanced by Trump’s opportunity to commandeer media attention with daily “briefings” – would offset the universal tendency of voters to sour on incumbent presidents in hard times.

The evidence is beginning to mount that the damage COVID-19 is doing to the economy Trump so often touted as his supreme achievement, along with meh public assessments of his leadership, have together reversed the arrows and made the incumbent an underdog, as National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar — by no means a liberal or partisan Democrat — explains:

“[T]he reality is that, absent a speedy V-shaped economic turnaround by the fall, Trump is now a decided underdog for a second term.”

Yes, it’s true that past precedents of poor economic conditions blowing up presidential reelection candidacies (from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter to George H.W. Bush) seem inadequate to the kind of disaster COVID-19 poses. But there’s also no example of a president being reelected in the midst of economic calamity on the grounds that it wasn’t entirely his fault. Given the extraordinarily polarized foundation on which Trump has built his political career and his presidency, it’s hard to imagine a figure less likely to inspire sudden respect and appreciation among those not already in his camp (even the regularly pro-Trump polling from Rasmussen currently shows as many Americans strongly disapproving of the job he is doing as approving of it by any degree). To the extent that every presidential election involving an incumbent is basically a referendum on life during the previous four years, you have to figure Trump’s current mediocre approval ratings (at 44 percent at FiveThirtyEight and 45 percent at RealClearPolitics) are a ceiling rather than a floor, assuming no shocking turnaround on either the public-health or economic conditions of the country.

And, as Kraushaar suggests, the nationally darkening climate for Trump’s reelection is being matched by bad news from states he needs to eke out another Electoral College win:

“In traditionally Republican Arizona, a must-win state for Trump, he trails Biden 52 to 43 percent in a new OH/Predictive Insights poll. He’s down by 6 points to Biden in Florida, in an April University of North Florida survey, despite his generally sunny track record in the state. Biden led Trump in a trifecta of Michigan polls conducted in March. According to the RealClearPolitics statewide polling averages, Biden is ahead in every swing state.”

Add to that the shocking, and shockingly large, Democratic win in a Wisconsin Supreme Court contest (ostensibly, but not really, nonpartisan), during which Republicans went to extraordinary lengths to hold down turnout from pro-Democratic constituencies, and you’ve got a landscape that’s no longer friendly to Trump and his party. Joe Biden’s strong showing in trial heats against Trump points to another expected advantage the president has lost: Democrats are not in disarray, as they were four years ago. Biden’s efforts to keep his party united have gotten off to a good and early start, and all the indications are that third- and fourth-party options for disgruntled progressives aren’t looking nearly so alluring this time around, as The Economist noted in a recent profile of Green Party presidential front-runner Howie Hawkins:

“Polling by YouGov for The Economist shows support for third-party candidates at 3%, half of what they won in 2016. More probably, then, Mr. Hawkins is in a fight to avoid humiliation. Even getting on the ballot in many states, which Greens usually manage, is proving difficult. The problem is getting signatures (and the tightening of some requirements). The party’s presidential candidate is eligible to stand in just 21 states so far. Mr. Hawkins guesses 1.6m more signatures are needed to qualify in the remaining ones. The arrival of COVID-19 makes that look almost impossible.”

No, I am not predicting an end to the Trump administration on January 19, 2021. The pandemic’s course and its impact — in terms of lives and political side effects — are far too unpredictable for that and, at this point, we aren’t even sure a normal election with normal procedures can be held in November.

But the idea that Trump has some infernal hold on the presidency (the combined product, I believe, of perennial shock over what happened in 2016 and the endless braying braggadocio of Trump’s conservative media voices) is looking shaky now. He clearly will not be able to campaign as the triumphant engineer of an economic boom created by bulldozing the environment and shiftless workers and godless foreigners while showering tax dollars on wealthy American job-creators. His other credentials for a second term are compelling mostly to people who want to return this country to the 1950s. That’s always going to be a decided, if loud, minority.

April 10: Joe Biden’s Debt to African-American Voters

As Joe Biden officially won the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination (or at least lost his remaining rival), I looked back at his victory and found a common thread, which I wrote up at New York:

Looming in the foreground, of course, is COVID-19 and its drastic effect on the remaining primaries and the overall political climate. But recalling that Biden really won the nomination in an amazing sprint in late February and early March, after a dismal beginning to the cycle for the former veep’s campaign, it’s pretty clear in retrospect that he owes everything to African-American voters. Let us count the ways:

1. Elevating Him Over Cory and Kamala

There were two highly credible African-American candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential field, Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Both of them hoped to replicate Barack Obama’s 2008 path to victory with a strong early showing in lily-white Iowa followed by a breakthrough in majority-black (among Democratic primary voters) South Carolina. But Joe Biden’s strength among black voters in and beyond the Palmetto State — far more durable than Hillary Clinton’s in 2008 — remained an immovable object.

Booker never caught fire much of anywhere, and despite spending a lot of time in South Carolina, never showed any signs of cutting into Biden’s black support there. Harris had one moment of hope after politely brutalizing Biden’s record on school desegregation in a June 2019 debate, and even saw a spike in black support in South Carolina. But it wasn’t impressive or enduring: A late-July Monmouth poll in that crucial state showed her being crushed by Biden among South Carolina’s African-Americans by a 51/12 margin.

2. His Saving Grace in Nevada

After finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, Biden’s campaign was on death’s door. But then he finished second in the Nevada caucuses on February 22, and in conjunction with a terrible debate performance by Michael Bloomberg, the former veep was back in the discussion heading toward the last early-state primary in South Carolina a week later and then Super Tuesday on March 3.

Had Biden slipped behind Pete Buttigieg in Nevada, where the former mayor put on a strong and well-financed effort, he might have been written off for good. And according to entrance polls, Biden trailed Mayor Pete by four points among white voters (two-thirds of the total) in the state, and didn’t beat him that badly among Latinos. But among the 11 percent of Nevada caucusgoers who are African-American, Biden trounced Buttigieg 38/2 and nailed down the runner-up position behind Sanders.

3. His Big Win in South Carolina

The whole narrative of the 2020 nominating contest flipped on February 29 when Biden won a big victory in South Carolina, winning nearly half the vote against what was then still a large field, and beating second-place Bernie Sanders by nearly 30 points. Sixty-one percent of the state’s African-American voters, well over half the primary electorate, went for Biden, who not only eclipsed Sanders’s support among young voters of all races but limited Tom Steyer — who made a last-gasp bid for black voters via heavy advertising and a big retail campaign presence — to 13 percent of the African-American vote.

The fact that Biden finally won a state was crucial to his shadow battle with Bloomberg, who for a time was close to supplanting Biden entirely as the candidate of Democratic centrists — and was becoming a threat to win black voters as well. As I noted at the time, Biden had some crucial momentum after South Carolina’s black voters saved him again:

“Between centrists looking for a champion against Bernie and regular Democrats wanting a viable alternative to either career non-Democrat, the former veep has a strong potential coalition and — if he can strongly outperform Bloomberg on Super Tuesday — a good shot at his own two-candidate race against Bernie.”

4. Croaking Pete ‘n’ Amy

It’s generally recognized that the last-minute conjoined endorsements of Biden by Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar on the eve of Super Tuesday had a lot to do with his performance not only in beating Bloomberg but in winding up with more delegates than consensus-favorite Sanders. What is less well-understood is that black voters made the departure of these two centrist candidates from the field inevitable.

Buttigieg famously worked hard to overcome an antipathy toward his candidacy among African-Americans. Klobuchar had her own problems in this demographic, which she never even began to resolve. When black voters became a factor in the primaries, the inability of either candidate to show any traction with them became an obvious sign they weren’t going anywhere as the primary electorate grew more diverse. In Nevada, Pete ‘n’ Amy each got 2 percent of the African-American vote. In South Carolina, Buttigieg won 3 percent of the black vote and Klobuchar won one percent. It was time for them to go, and they did so at the perfect time for Biden.

5. Vaulting Him Into the Lead on Super Tuesday

On March 3, Biden began putting together the coalition of minority and white-suburban supporters that made him the nominee via wins in ten of the 14 states holding contests that day. Again, though, African-Americans were his base: According to exit polls he won 58 percent of black voters across this vast landscape. The example set by South Carolina’s electorate, and amplified by high-profile endorsements from black opinion-leaders like Jim Clyburn, appeared to boost Biden into the coveted position of leading a multiracial coalition that looked like the Democratic Party as a whole.

6. Sealing the Deal in March

Before the coronavirus put a halt to the 2020 primaries (except for the botched, Republican-engineered April 7 event in Wisconsin), black voters again were crucial to Biden’s drive to presumptive-nominee status. In the March 10 Michigan primary that Sanders supporters thought he might win, Biden won comfortably, in no small part because he won two-thirds of the black vote. On March 17, where three states (Arizona, Florida, and Illinois) held virtually all-voting-by-mail contests, Biden won a sweep, with even higher margins among African-Americans, joined increasingly by white working-class and suburban college-educated voters.

All in all, it’s very clear that Joe Biden would have never survived the tough early going in 2020 without his base of African-American support, particularly if his rivals had managed to take away a significant share of that same support.

To the extent that black support for Biden is attributable to the power of his electability credentials among an element of the electorate determined to get rid of Donald Trump, it’s a good start for him in building an enthusiastic general election coalition. But it also suggests a political debt that may go deeper than Biden’s constant proclamations of loyalty to his great benefactor Barack Obama.

In choosing the woman who will serve as his vice-presidential nominee, the pressure on Joe Biden to thank African-Americans with a running mate from their ranks — a reciprocal gesture to the one Obama made in choosing him in 2008 — could be considerable. If, of course, there’s anyone else who tangibly could help improve the odds of beating Trump, black voters will likely again go with the winning formula.

April 9: Biden’s Advantage Over HRC Among Dyspeptic Voters

With so much of Election 2020 up in the air, it’s a good time to dig a bit deeper in public opinion research, so I tried to do that at New York:

[I]n a national Quinnipiac poll released on April 8, Trump had a relatively strong (for him) job approval rating of 45 percent and a personal favorability rating of 41 percent. Joe Biden’s favorability rating wasn’t much better, at 43 percent. But he led the president in a head-to-head matchup by a solid eight points, 49/41.

As Philip Bump explains, what seems to be going on here is that among the 11 percent of voters in this poll who have an unfavorable opinion of both major-party candidates, Biden has a 32-point lead. That’s very similar to the pro-Biden margin among voters Bump called “cynics” in a column on an earlier Q-Pac survey late last year (at that point, 55 percent of don’t-like-either-candidate voters were inclined to hold their noses and vote for Biden, with 22 percent going to Trump, 9 percent for a third party, and 10 percent staying at home).

This could matter a lot in a close race, as it pretty clearly did in 2016. According to exit polls, 18 percent of voters didn’t care for Trump or for Hillary Clinton, but Trump won that group by a 17 percent (47/30) margin, with 23 percent voting for a third-party candidate.

Why would the dynamic change in Biden’s favor this year? Disgruntled voters tend disproportionately to blame their unhappiness on the party already controlling the White House — reelections are called a “referendum on the president” for a reason — and the out-party candidate is also sometimes given the benefit of the doubt from voters wanting a change. There’s another long-standing dynamic that could hurt Biden, though: unhappiness among supporters of intraparty opponents a nominee has defeated. That’s why he is hastening to patch up things with Bernie Sanders and will count on his rival to help him unify Democrats.

April 3: Why Democrats Postponed the Convention But Didn’t Make it “Virtual”–Yet

Sometimes big political decisions are made that seem a little odd until you explore the internal logic. That’s how I assessed the big news this week about the 2020 Democratic National Convention at New York:

Here are several explanations for the decision to move the date instead of bagging the whole atavistic event in favor of a long-distance show for TV and social media.

1. Because they could

Yes, the postponement of the Olympic Games might make it seem strange to go ahead with a different (if vastly smaller and less complex) high-profile live event. But it also opened up new scheduling territory. The original July dates for the DNC were based on giving a wide berth to the Games. Now Democrats can snuggle right up to the August 24 start date for the Republican Convention without trying to draw eyeballs away from the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. And if the pandemic (and the fear of big gatherings) somehow fades by then, they can go ahead and party like it’s 2019.

2. They don’t want to give the GOP an advantage

Even as Democrats talked about going virtual, Republicans were insisting none of their plans had changed: “No way I’m going to cancel the convention,” Trump has told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “We’re going to have the convention, it’s going to be incredible.”

Conventions have traditionally been worth a significant bounce for each party’s presidential candidates. They typically canceled each other out, but the possibility of Republicans having their big four-day live TV show after Democrats had bagged or curtailed their own did not seem advisable to those planning the Milwaukee event. If, of course, Republicans do look at the epidemiological evidence and radically modify their plans for Charlotte, Democrats will do the same in a Milwaukee Minute.

3. A lot of local money depends on a live convention

National political conventions are massive undertakings by the host city, which in turn expect massive benefits from the many thousands (an estimated 50,000, initially) of people who attend the event and eat and drink and pay premium rates for lodging and transportation. Now that Milwaukee, like every other American city, is facing a deep and immediate recession, a huge live convention in August seems perfectly timed in terms of a much-hoped-for rebound, as local leaders tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called the decision ‘absolutely the right move’ by the organizers and the Democratic National Committee.

“’It underscores the commitment that they have made to Milwaukee,’ he said. ‘It underscores the commitment they have made to Wisconsin and it is my hope that by having it in August it will be a much needed shot in the arm for our restaurants, hotels and other businesses.’”

Sharply cutting back on the in-person aspects of the convention before it’s absolutely necessary would be a bummer for the host city, and that in turn could cast a pall over the residual events.

4. Nobody wants to offend Wisconsin

And speaking of palls cast, Democrats haven’t for a moment forgotten why they picked Milwaukee for their convention in the first place: the belief that Wisconsin will be one of the key states — and perhaps the key state — that will determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Scrubbing the party’s big party there would likely be a buzzkill for Wisconsin Democrats and could even alienate swing voters:

“Part of the narrative that comes out of a convention also involves the host city and state. A potential casualty if there is a virtual convention would be the visibility Milwaukee and Wisconsin stand to gain from the convention and the political message Democrats want to send by choosing Wisconsin — that the party is laser-focused on a part of the country it neglected in the last presidential race.”

Being literally afraid to set foot in Milwaukee would not be a good look for Democrats, even if it’s for public-health reasons everyone can understand.

5. It’s Joe’s party now

It’s no coincidence, of course, that the decision to postpone the convention (without changing its nature — so far at least) came almost immediately after Joe Biden began urging that course of action. Perhaps his DNC friends were whispering to him to move in that direction, but in any event, as the presumptive presidential nominee, Uncle Joe is on the brink of assuming complete command of convention planning. It’s essentially a turnkey operation ready to bow before the imperial will of the candidate whose name will be uttered a thousand times once the opening gavel drops.

Delaying the convention also gives Biden’s people more time to impose control over the proceedings, which is handy since the coronavirus has also greatly postponed the moment when he officially clinches the nomination.

6. The convention can always “go virtual” later

Postponing the convention may simply mean kicking the can down the road a month in making the fateful decision to sadden nostalgic Democrats and the population of Milwaukee by “going virtual” with significant elements of the convention — or just scaling everything back. I’d be shocked if contingency planning for a very different kind of convention isn’t quietly under way (probably among Republicans as well), even as the DNC trumpets sound the charge toward an event just like the ones that made Joe Biden the vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and 2012. So don’t be surprised, if it turns out to be just too risky to kick it old school in Milwaukee on August 17, that the Democratic Party will have a fully developed plan B before the first balloon order is canceled.

April 1: 2020 Congressional Landscape Tilting Blue

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, political life goes on, and so this week I wrote about the House and Senate landscape at New York:

At FiveThirtyEight, Nathaniel Rakich has conducted an overview of Senate races, and concludes that Democrats have a marginally better — though still limited — chance of picking up the three or four (depending on who controls the tie-breaking vice-presidential vote) net seats needed for control in 2021:

“The most competitive Senate races remain unchanged from late last year — there haven’t been any significant developments in Colorado or Maine, for example, that have dislodged them from their too-close-to-call status. Instead, the biggest Senate news of the last couple months came in the longer-shot Democratic pick-up opportunity of Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock’s entry has shaken up the race. Bullock was considered to be the only Democrat who could put this red state in play, and his announcement caused nonpartisan handicappers to move the race from ‘Solid Republican’ to ‘Lean Republican.'”

The November special election for a Republican-held Senate seat in Georgia is another potential Democratic pickup opportunity, given the potentially vicious GOP intraparty maneuvering involving Doug Collins and recently appointed senator, Kelly Loeffler. And as Rakich notes, in Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly is beginning to look like a slight favorite against another appointed senator, Martha McSally.

If the Senate landscape is looking slightly bluer but still tinged red, COVID-19 has more decisively affected House races, as Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman explains:

“As the COVID-19 outbreak forces more states to delay spring primary and runoff dates, it’s had another, more subtle effect: it’s all but frozen the House recruitment process in place and curtailed fundraising, benefiting incumbents and candidates who had already built large war chests and disadvantaging recent entrants. On the whole, that boosts Democrats, the party on defense this cycle.

“Republicans need a net gain of 18 seats to win the majority back. But of the 30 House Democrats who represent districts President Trump carried in 2016, 11 still didn’t have a GOP challenger with more than $200,000 in the bank at the beginning of 2020. In fact, the median Democrat in these 30 seats ended 2019 with $1.8 million on hand to just $247,000 for the median leading Republican challenger.

“Amid self-quarantines and massive 401k losses, it’s going to be next to impossible for the parties to convince fence-sitting would-be candidates to jump into races and spend most of the year asking for money. That’s bad news for Republicans, who still have a few glaring recruitment holes.”

In his own ratings, Wasserman has moved four freshman Democrats — Laura Underwood of Illinois, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Antonio Delgado of New York, and Ben McAdams of Utah — from toss-up races to Lean D.

Most obviously, we are in the kind of insane cycle where everything could change between now and November, with the most politically important variables (themselves significantly affected by public-health and economic developments) being Donald Trump’s job approval rating and the capacity of the states to pull off a competent general election with something approaching the high turnout everyone expected before COVID-19 arrived. At this point we don’t even know for sure that the presidential nominees will be healthy as the campaign gets geared up. But it will matter a lot which party controls Congress next year, and whether either has the kind of trifecta that can make governing much easier as the country — God willing — moves beyond the current crisis.

March 27: Crucial General Election State Struggling With Its Primary

As we head slowly and erratically towards November, I remain alert to any news about general election battleground states, so I wrote about perhaps the most crucial one at New York:

Of all the states struggling to hold elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it might make sense to pay special attention to Wisconsin, which is plowing ahead with an April 7 presidential and local government primary despite all sorts of legal and logistical problems. This is the state, after all, that many analysts think could decide the presidential contest in November. And if COVID-19 still haunts voters in the fall, Wisconsin’s past heavy reliance on in-person voting (only 6 percent of ballots were cast by mail in the 2018 midterms there) could make it a source of massive controversy if turnout patterns are strange.

Wisconsin is one of the 24 states that don’t require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot by mail, but do require that voters proactively request one. Heading toward April 7, an unprecedented number of voters are doing just that, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“As of March 16, 134,556 absentee ballots had been requested statewide. By March 19, that grew to 315,429. By March 23, it grew to 482,321. As of Thursday, the total was 699,431.”

That’s compared to 170,000 mail ballots cast in 2018. And it’s impossible at this point to tell how this will affect the shape of the electorate or the speed and fairness of vote counting:

“[T]his shift poses all sorts of questions and problems. It is potentially overloading a system never designed for mail voting. It is likely to overwhelm all the local election clerks who must process and eventually count these ballots.

“Turnout will undoubtedly be depressed by the fact that people can’t and won’t vote en masse at the polls on election day. That raises fairness issues because some types of voters may be less likely to vote by mail (younger voters, lower-income voters) than others.”

And even though the decision to move ahead with this primary was bipartisan (Democratic governor Tony Evers and the legislature’s Republican leadership), there are multiple fears the situation could distort the outcome:

As you may remember, Wisconsin has for a decade been ground zero for partisan polarization. And the primary is already the subject of at least four lawsuits seeking to modify or delay or postpone the event:

“[T]he Democratic National Committee sued last week to try to extend absentee voting. That resulted in an order that reinstated online voter registration until March 30 …

“One of the new lawsuits, led by voter mobilization group Souls to the Polls, seeks to put off the election for weeks or months. It’s in line with a lawsuit Green Bay’s clerk filed this week to postpone the election …

“[Souls to the Polls] argued problems conducting the election would fall hardest on minorities and would result in violations of the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act.”

On top of everything else, a sudden shift to voting by mail could significantly slow down the vote count and publication of results. Maybe that’s no biggie on April 7, but if the presidential general election comes down to Wisconsin and the count takes days, you can imagine the wild conspiracy theories that will take wing.

March 26: Coronavirus and Trump’s Reelection Prospects

There’s been a lot of speculation about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Trump’s popularity, so I tried to analyze the evidence at New York:

[T]railing the progression of the coronavirus pandemic is a low fever of speculation about the impact of this terrible development on the 2020 elections, and most particularly, on the fate of the ever-erratic president who is purporting to lead this country through the crisis.

Trump critics watch him and see someone who was in deep and destructive denial about COVID-19 until very recently, and then briefly cleaned up his act before again chafing at the restraints of responsibility and seeking to buck up the markets and get the economy rolling, whether the rapid spread of the disease has been curtailed or not.

But according to the available evidence, a narrow majority of Americans currently approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. So the question inevitably arises: Could this horrid experience, along with the economic pain it will inflict, actually help Trump get reelected in November?

There’s general agreement that his reelection prospects now depend on what happens next as much as on what happened the first three years of his presidency, though deeply entrenched and intensely partisan perceptions of him still shape day-to-day reactions to Trump’s behavior. The best indicator of where he stands with the public overall remains his job approval ratings, and while they are higher than the average for his tenure as a whole, they remain under his de facto ceiling of the mid-40s, and are as sluggish as ever right now. According to RealClearPolitics, his approval ratings are currently averaging 44.5 percent, down from a high of 46.3 percent on February 20, before the U.S. outbreak began. FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, which are adjusted for partisan bias and weighted for accuracy, put Trump’s approval at 44.0 percent, down from a high of 44.6 percent on February 18.

Possibly, but as political scientist David Hopkins notes, the “rallying effect” that often benefits leaders in times of crisis doesn’t always last that long:

“[C]itizens close psychological ranks around their national leaders in a moment of uncertainty and fear; they evaluate these figures on different criteria than they did before the crisis erupted; and the normally critical opposition party (sometimes) mutes its attacks on the incumbent. Both French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte have enjoyed spikes in popularity during the current coronavirus outbreak, despite (especially in Italy’s case) substantial national dislocation and tragedy.

“But these popularity bumps fade with time. Either the crisis is soon resolved and citizens turn their attention to other things, or it is not, in which case they start to grow impatient with the effectiveness of their leader. The 2020 general election is still far enough away that even if Trump were to benefit from the rally effect in the short term, it wouldn’t be a very reliable signal of his popularity more than seven months in the future.”

The connection between reelection prospects for incumbent presidents and the state of the economy is stronger and more persistent than such “rallying effects,” as Newsweek recently observed:

“Since 1900, only one president has won re-election with a recession occurring sometime in the last two years of their first term: William McKinley.

“Since then, the four presidents who ran for a second term during such an economic downturn—William Taft in 1912, Herber Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992—were unsuccessful.

“The only person to defy the trend was Democrat Harry Truman in 1948. But the recession that year only started in November, the same month that Americans went to the polls to vote.”

It’s no wonder Trump is frantic to turn the economy around quickly and take credit for a resurgence. But as Alan Abramowitz observes, all economic impressions are not equal when it comes to presidential elections:

“Some forecasters are predicting a major recession with the economy shrinking by 5% or more in the second quarter of 2020. That’s significant because, in many election forecasting models, including my own ‘time for change’ model, economic growth in the second quarter is a key predictor of the election results. Models like mine use second quarter GDP growth to measure the state of the economy because GDP is a broad measure of economic activity and the performance of the economy in the second quarter seems to shape opinions of the economy in the fall. So it’s possible that even if the economy recovers later in the year, the most electorally-salient perceptions will nonetheless be formed in the spring and summer.

It’s true, of course, that this particular economic downturn, attributable to a pandemic that no one is going to blame on Trump, is different than most. And that means how he handles it could be crucial, and as conservative polling analyst Jay Cost suggests, how he explains it could matter as well:

“He has to make sense of this virus for the American people. What lessons must we learn from its emergence? What does it say about our current place in the world? What do we need to do to fix it?

“This president is the best person to tell a compelling story about this disease. Virtually alone among top politicians, he has been a skeptic of globalization. He has resisted the impulse to let America float along in the currents of the world. He has to make that argument to the people once again.”

As I put it more bluntly recently, there’s a potential take on this calamity that plays right into Trump’s MAGA wheelhouse, at least within his own base of core supporters:

“[E]ven if (or, more likely, when) the virus spreads beyond the big metropolitan areas, there’s a chance it will simply reinforce small-town and rural hostility to the culturally alien influence of big-city folk aligned with foreigners, given the more cosmopolitan (demographically and economically as well) nature of Urban America.”

It may be no mistake that Trump is emphasizing the foreign origins of what he calls the “Chinese virus,” or is criticizing Democrats for not helping him seal the borders or in other ways anticipate the pandemic.

The bottom line is that we cannot anticipate at this point what the current crisis means for the 2020 presidential election. But strong winds are blowing in different directions from moment to moment.

March 18: Towards Universal Voting-By-Mail

As the COVID-19 pandemic roils primary elections around the country, it’s time to worry about the possibility that conditions won’t improve enough to enable a normal general election in November. I wrote about what we can do about that at New York:

[A]s the timeline for getting through the coronavirus pandemic continues to stretch out, buying some time may not be enough to avoid serious disruptions of elections this year. Yes, the two major-party presidential contests may soon effectively end, but there are a host of Senate, House, gubernatorial, and state legislative primaries with significant implications that are scheduled to occur in the spring and summer. And if we are unlucky — or even if fears last far beyond the actual likelihood of COVID-19 infection — this crisis could greatly affect participating in what most people consider the most consequential general election in many years.

The obvious way to separate elections from the fear of coronavirus is to encourage remote voting — usually by mail, but “mail” ballots can also sometimes be placed in drop boxes or even picked up by intermediaries. But moving in that direction nationally is easier said than done, since many states actively discourage this mechanism, and others accept or promote it in widely varying degrees. And in case you haven’t gotten the memo, states and localities run even “federal” elections in this country, with the Constitution and the federal government regulating them around the edges. There is no “national election system,” so big changes like the one we may need this year will probably have to be enacted on a state-by-state basis.

States That Discourage Voting by Mail

Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia

Fully 16 states limit remote voting to “absentee ballots” that must be requested by the voter along with an affadavit offering an excuse (typically some unavoidable absence from one’s residence on election day) for not being able to vote in person. Seven of those states waive the “excuse” requirement for voters over a certain age (usually 65). Some of the states that discourage voting by mail do offer early voting in-person (e.g., Texas and beginning this year, New York), which is sometimes viewed as the functional equivalent, but obviously is no substitute during a pandemic.

It will vary state by state as to whether a relaxation or abolition of restrictions on voting by mail can be accomplished by some sort of executive action or will require legislation. But an awful lot of states are holding special legislative sessions to deal with various aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, and they should have an opportunity to liberalize voting rules, even if it’s a temporary measure.

States That Allow No-Excuse Voting by Mail, But Don’t Make It That Easy

Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming

Of the 33 states that do allow voting by mail without some excuse, 23 require that voters proactively request a mail ballot. Of those, 9 require separate applications for each election (12 allow for annual applications covering election in a calendar year). Often political parties or advocacy groups are involved — sometimes heavily — in facilitating mail-ballot requests, though in states with in-person early voting that may become the favored nontraditional turnout strategy for particular groups (that’s particularly true of minority voting advocates in the South, for example).

Again, moving toward a system in which voting by mail becomes the rule rather than an exception may require legislation in many states.

States That Encourage Voting by Mail With Permanent Registration

Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, and New Jersey

Five states plus the District of Columbia allow voters to register as permanent voters-by-mail who will automatically receive mail ballots so long as they keep voting regularly. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of voting by mail (and total turnout) has gone up in these jurisdictions.

Permanent voting by mail typically requires state legislation.

All Voting-by-Mail States

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington

In five states all or virtually all voting is done remotely, generally with an option to mail in ballots or drop them off at voting centers or in special drop boxes (some counties in California have also moved to universal voting by mail). Every registered voter gets a mail ballot for every election without having to request it. In the 2018 general election these states averaged turnout 10 percent higher than the country as a whole.

Moving to all voting by mail does not eliminate all COVID-19 anxieties. Prior to Washington’s March 10 primary, voters and election officials fretted about possible contamination of licked envelopes and stamps, and in the future, poorly staffed postal systems (already an issue in certain rural and tribal areas) could be a problem as well.

Measures Needed to Make All-Mail-Ballot Elections Fair

States that are already (or are, like California, moving toward) all-mail elections are beginning to take measures to make that method of voting equally accessible to all voters in ways that are often controversial, particularly to Republicans who tend to think of voting as a privilege rather than a right.

Allow proxies to deliver mail ballots
To deal with voters who have limited access to postal services and/or are elderly or disabled, California allows sealed and signed mail ballots to be delivered to election officials by anyone authorized to do so by voters themselves. This practice has been invidiously called “ballot harvesting” by Republicans in California and elsewhere, as though it somehow represents or enables a fraudulent practice. But opening, much less filling out or altering, mail ballots remains a felony in California, so the practice is really no different than asking a neighbor to drop a mail ballot off at the post office. That won’t cut much ice in Republican-governed states absent a real determination to make voting by mail work.

Set the mail-in ballot deadline for Election Day
Another by-product of voting by mail that may cause bipartisan heartburn is the issue of when mail ballots must be returned. ColoradoHawaii, and Oregon require that mail ballots be received by close of business on Election Day to count, though again, those states make a real effort to provide plenty of drop-off locations. But Utah counts any mail ballot postmarked by the day before the election, and California and Washington count those postmarked on or before Election Day. These latter practices make sense from a fairness point of view: Why should by-mail voters have to anticipate Election Day any more than traditional in–person–on–Election Day voters? But accepting mail ballots — which have to be individually opened and signatures authenticated — so late inevitably slows down the counting and reporting of results. If the whole country moved in that direction, could Americans, the news media, and the two major parties psychologically handle not knowing the results for days after November 3? Is there any remote chance Donald J. Trump would fail to fire off tweets every 15 minutes alleging without a shred of evidence that the godless socialistic Democrat Party was stealing the election with millions of illegal votes from homicidal Mexicans? It’s a real concern.

Perhaps more to the point, getting from today’s system to universal voting by mail — again, even if it’s temporary — could be very difficult. Oregon senator Ron Wyden has introduced legislation to give the transition a real legal and financial boost, as the Washington Post reported:

“Sen. Ron Wyden (D) is proposing $500 million of federal funding to help states prepare for possible voting disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Wyden’s bill also would give Americans the option to vote by mail in case of a widespread emergency …

“Wyden’s bill would give all Americans the right to vote by mail if 25 percent of states declared an emergency related to the coronavirus outbreak. The bill also would require state and local officials to prepare for possible coronavirus disruptions and to offer prepaid envelopes with self-sealing flaps to minimize the risk of contagion from voters’ licking envelopes.”

The single biggest obstacle to a big push like Wyden’s toward voting by mail is the recent resistance of the GOP to all expansions of the franchise via more convenient registration and voting. Even if Republicans go along with the general drift, they may gnaw at the margins of a universal voting-by-mail system to make it hard to access for voters deemed hostile to their party. But there is one thing about the coronavirus crisis that may jolt Republicans nationally and in the states to change their tune about “convenience” voting measures: The very high likelihood that older voters, who tilt toward the GOP (Trump carried seniors by seven points in 2016), will be most reluctant to risk their health (and in many cases, their lives) by voting in person during the primaries and perhaps in November. For once, Republicans may have a partisan interest in making it easier for everyone to vote. Lawmakers should take advantage of that opportunity.