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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

November 9: Backlash Against Abortion Bans Continues to Win Elections for Democrats

There’s not much doubt about the issue that most helped Democrats to a strong showing in the 2023 Off-Year elections, as I observed at New York:

Continuing a pattern evident in Democrat overperformance in the 2022 midterms and 2023 special elections, the Donkey Party posted solid wins in Tuesday’s elections thanks in large part to the continued backlash to the end of Roe v. Wade.

Democrats held on to an improbable Kentucky governorship, defeated a heavily financed bid by Virginia Republican governor Glenn Youngkin to win GOP control of the legislature, and won an expensive and potentially important Pennsylvania State Supreme Court race. And in the contest that most exemplified the day, Ohio became the seventh consecutive state where voters have confirmed abortion rights since the Supreme Court reversed Roe. The lone disappointment was in deep-red Mississippi, where, as generally expected, Republican governor Tate Reeves overcame scandals and a spirited challenge from Democrat Brandon Presley, cousin of Elvis.

Kentucky’s Democrat governor Andy Beshear handily defeated Daniel Cameron, the Republican attorney general and Mitch McConnell protégé, despite the state’s strong red tint (Donald Trump carried the state by 25 points in 2020) and some evidence that Cameron was gaining on Beshear as the campaign reached its climax. While the incumbent’s general popularity and his handling of the pandemic were front and center in the campaign, the abortion issue was major. The candidates were on opposite sides of a failed 2022 ballot initiative that would have overruled state-court recognition of reproductive rights.

The Ohio pro-choice win was no surprise, after Republicans spectacularly failed to sneak through a preemptive ballot measure during a special election in August that sought to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments like Tuesday’s reinstating Roe. The abortion-rights measure won by double digits in a state where Republicans who control the governorship and the legislature have tried to impose a six-week abortion ban. (That now looks impossible.) The partisan nature of the battle was underlined by the very visible role of Governor Mike DeWine and secretary of State (and 2024 Senate candidate) Frank LaRose in fighting (and lying about) the initiative. But without question, Republican voters contributed strongly to the abortion-rights victory; as the New York Times reported, 18 Ohio counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 gave a win to Issue 1.

Abortion policy also played a key role in the Virginia legislative races. Youngkin talked Republicans out of the defensive crouch on the issue they had assumed after the reversal of Roe and convinced them (and a lot of big donors) to loudly promote a “compromise” position backing a 15-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape and incest (in contrast to the six-week or total bans many red states were enacting) and seeking to depict Democrats as the extremists on abortion. It didn’t work, as Democrats repelled Youngkin’s bid to take over the state senate and create a Republican trifecta. Democrats also flipped the GOP-controlled House of Delegates.

Since Youngkin and his fans clearly advertised his abortion gambit as an experiment with vast national implications, the legislative defeat was a major blow to his star status among Republican elites, as Politico noted:

“Youngkin’s loss will likely stretch beyond the commonwealth. Some Republican donors have been publicly pining for the Virginia governor to jump into the presidential race as a last-minute challenger to Trump …

“Youngkin pointedly never ruled out a presidential run, only saying he was focused on these legislative races when asked. But Tuesday’s results will likely put an end to that talk.”

No question about that. But more importantly, Republicans in Virginia and elsewhere will very likely resume their defensive position on abortion, which will remain a Democratic priority everywhere. More oddly, the redundant demonstration that abortion is a loser of an issue for Republicans will likely benefit the front-running primary campaign of Donald Trump, who has been telling Republicans exactly that since the 2022 midterms, notwithstanding his own central role in making the reversal of Roe happen by installing three of the six justices who voted to overturn it.

All in all, the 2023 election was a tonic for Democratic troops recently dispirited by poor showings in the polls for President Joe Biden and jittery feelings about the incredible survival skills of his heavily indicted predecessor and likely future opponent. Off-year elections aren’t always harbingers of what will happen in the immediate future, but the evidence grows that the GOP will continue to pay a heavy price for its bad marriage with the anti-abortion movement.

November 5: Does Mike Johnson Want — or Know How — To Avoid a Government Shutdown?

Democrats in Congress and the White House really need to understand how to negotiate with new House Speaker Mike Johnson. I offered some pessimistic thoughts at New York on what he might demand:

On November 17, barring action by Congress and President Joe Biden, nonessential functions of the federal government will shut down, as they nearly did last month. The bullet Washington narrowly avoided in October at the price of Kevin McCarthy’s Speakership will be fired again. And there’s no indication just yet that McCarthy’s successor, Mike Johnson, has a feasible plan to keep the government functioning, or that he even wants to develop one.

Up until now, Washington politicians probably took solace at the news that Johnson wanted to enact another short-term stopgap funding measure that would extend spending authority until January or even later. His right-wing backers seem okay with that — in theory, at least — though it’s not necessarily a solution since the Democrats who control the White House and the Senate would vastly prefer a measure taking care of appropriations until the end of the fiscal year next September and ruling out any additional shutdown threats in the interim.

But it’s important to understand that Johnson has not committed to the kind of “clean CR” — continuing resolution, as stopgap spending bills are known in congressional parlance — that was McCarthy’s fatal concession. He’s talking about demanding an across-the-board spending cut as a condition for keeping the federal government open. And he’s already shown in his ultraconfrontational gambit tying aid to Israel to a demagogic cut in IRS funding that he is even more prone than McCarthy was to placating the hard-right faction in the House GOP (of which he is a charter member).

The latest wrinkle the new Speaker has added to the stopgap spending-bill discussions is a bizarre idea that would immensely complicate matters, as Government Executive explains:

“Federal agencies could face an ongoing series of independent shutdown threats under a proposal put forward by House Republican leadership on Thursday, who pitched the idea with just more than two weeks until current funding expires.

“While details on the plan were not yet made clear, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said he was considering rolling out a ‘laddered CR,’ or continuing resolution, that would create multiple stopgap bills that fund different parts of the government and have different end dates. Rather than the normal tact of keeping all agencies afloat under one short-term spending bill, the measures would be more narrowly focused and set up unique deadlines for each bill.”

This approach most definitely does reflect the House Freedom Caucus’s mania for avoiding the comprehensive spending measures it associates with runaway “big government” in favor of passing the 12 individual appropriations bills covering the landscape of federal agencies. Trouble is, in a time of divided government and partisan appropriations, multiplying the number of bills on which highly divisive time-sensitive negotiations must take place from one to 12 is a recipe for gridlock and chaos. A “laddered CR” is most definitely a nonstarter for Democrats and probably many Senate Republicans. It’s alarming to hear Johnson talking about it just a couple of weeks before all hell breaks loose, and it makes you wonder if he even wants to prevent a government shutdown.

November 3: Beware Rush to Judgment on Impact of Biden Support for Israel in War With Hamas

Amidst the sound and fury surrounding the war between Israel and Hamas, there’s been some loose talk about Biden imperiling his reelection by standing so firmly with Israel. I looked at the numbers, and wrote a cautionary note at New York:

In the furor over Joe Biden’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, one of the more interesting reactions is the supposition that Democrats are in dire danger of losing large numbers of votes from Arab Americans and/or Muslim Americans, risking their defeat in a number of critical states in November 2024.

The Arab American Institute released a new poll suggesting a serious backlash against Biden in 2024, as The Hill reported:

“President Biden’s support among Arab American voters has sharply decreased since the Israel-Hamas war, plummeting to dismal and unprecedented numbers.

“Support for his upcoming reelection bid from Arab Americans dropped by 42 percentage points, from 59 percent in 2020 to 17 percent, according to a new poll conducted by the Arab American Institute …

“The poll found that if the election were held today, 40 percent said they would vote for former President Trump, the GOP front-runner …

“The institute said the poll marks the first time in the 26 years it has polled Arab Americans that the majority did not claim to prefer the Democratic Party.”

Both support for third-party options (17 percent) and an undecided vote (25 percent) spiked in this poll. And, of course, the sponsors pointed out that “Arab Americans account for hundreds of thousands of voters in several key election states, like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where the 2024 election battleground will play out.” (At the same time, a group calling itself the National Muslim Democratic Counsel gave Biden and Democrats an “ultimatum” to support an “immediate cease-fire” in Gaza or potentially forfeit Muslim votes in “Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, where many of our voters reside.”)

So is this backlash as alarming as it sounds? It’s certainly significant, but there are some important qualifiers to address before weighing the effect on Biden’s and his party’s 2024 prospects.

First of all, there’s a tendency among Americans who aren’t closely in touch with Arab and Islamic communities to conflate the two. That’s a major mistake. Roughly one-fourth of Arab Americans are Muslim (a significant majority are Christian). And roughly one-fourth of American Muslims (or less by some estimates) are of Arab ethnicity. Michigan with its heavy concentration of Arab Muslims is probably an outlier.

Measuring Muslim or Arab political leanings isn’t easy, either, since neither category is deployed regularly by Census takers or exit-pollsters.

Since neither the U.S. Census or exit pollsters break out Arab or Islamic Americans systematically, any analysis of voting preferences for either group is less than completely authoritative, though it is clear both Arab Americans and Islamic Americans trended Democratic following September 11. The Arab American Institute’s portrayal of massive losses of support for Biden ’24 should be taken with a grain of salt since it was conducted by pollster John Zogby, whose methodologies have long drawn criticism from experts in the field.

That is not to say that Democrats shouldn’t worry about evidence of voter estrangement over Biden’s war policies (which will likely extend beyond Arab Americans and Muslims to include self-identified progressives and younger voters). In a close election like 2024 is expected to be, relatively small numbers of voters in battleground states can be crucial.

Without question, Democrats should make it clear that the GOP under Donald Trump is far from representing a safe haven for voters unhappy with U.S. policies toward Israel and Palestinians. Aside from Trump’s abundant history of Islamophobia and encouragement of Israel’s most extreme right-wing elements, he and his party are going to be seriously constrained from any “even-handedness” by their conservative Evangelical electoral base, in which disempowerment of Palestinian Arabs (along with general hostility to Muslimsis theologically blessed and even mandated. Trump as the Republican nominee could make a crucial difference between a mere lack of enthusiasm for Biden and a decision to vote for a third-party candidate or for no one at all.


October 27: Beware Youngkin’s Fake Compromise on Abortion

There are few topics more complicated and fraught with emotion than abortion politics and policy in the post-Roe era. At New York I addressed a Republican effort to turn the tables on this subject.

When a close and potentially historic election is on the horizon, political analysts invariably try to read entrails from off-year and special elections. This November, Beltway pundits are especially focused on elections in nearby Virginia, where Republican governor Glenn Youngkin is trying to gain control of the state legislature. The GOP currently controls the House while Democrats control the Senate, and thus have a veto on Youngkin’s agenda. Beyond the alleged significance of who wins and loses in Virginia, Youngkin is being widely credited with attempting a new party position on abortion that will get Republicans out of the defensive crouch they have assumed amid a widespread public backlash against the abortion restrictions made possible by U.S. Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade.

As the New York Times explains, Youngkin believes he’s come up with a silver bullet for his party on this issue: a ban on abortions after 15 weeks:

“Legislative races across the state will offer a decisive test of a strategy led by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has united Republicans behind a high-profile campaign in support of a ban on abortion after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. The party calls it a ‘common sense’ position, in contrast to Democrats, who it says ‘support no limits.’

“The strategy is meant to defuse Republicans’ image as abortion extremists, which led to losses in last year’s midterms and threatens further defeats next month in an Ohio referendum and the Kentucky governor’s race.”

This 15-week “compromise” idea should be understood from several perspectives. First of all, existing Virginia law, based on Roe v. Wade, allows abortions without restrictions up until fetal viability, or about 26 weeks of pregnancy. The Roe standard is pretty popular in Virginia and nationally, so the Youngkin strategy is to chip away at it incrementally, for now at least, and look for a more strategic time to go much further. It just so happens, moreover, that a 15-week national ban is the litmus-test demand of the most hard-core anti-abortion groups. To be clear, that doesn’t mean a national standard of allowing abortions prior to 15 weeks, but a 15-week floor that enables red states to ban abortions entirely or at a much earlier stage of pregnancy, as most of them have already done (at least where voters haven’t overruled them, as they have in Kansas and Kentucky).

Yet another dimension of the Youngkin gambit is to draw a new line between the parties in which Republicans favor “reasonable” abortion restrictions (at least in those states where they cannot secure unreasonable abortion restrictions) while Democrats favor “abortion on demand” up until the moment of live birth. There’s no question that the plan is to seize on the growing sentiment among many reproductive-rights advocates in favor of abandoning the old gestational framework of Roe (originally based on “trimesters” and now on different rules for pre- and post-viability abortions) and replacing it with more straightforward defense of abortion rights, as my colleague Irin Carmon recently explained:

“[Abortion rights advocate Erika] Christensen believes this moment of outrage provides an opportunity to stop debating about gestational age and instead focus on enshrining abortion as an absolute right. Using the old frameworks, she says, ‘accepts the premise that there’s a reasonable point in pregnancy in which the state should be given authority to compel breeding.'”

Much as the debate among Democrats over police reform following the murder of George Floyd was caricatured by Republicans as representing a demand to “defund the police,” Youngkin and the entire GOP are clearly disregarding the Roe framework that most Democratic policymakers still support in order to depict the opposition as especially devoted to complete legalization of late-term abortions. The full “abortion on demand” position, rightly or wrongly, remains unpopular, especially among swing voters, but more to the point, it’s not the position of Democrats fighting red-state pre-viability abortion bans.

If Virginia Republicans do win in November, you can expect the 15-week “compromise” position to become wildly popular within the GOP, particularly since a fake compromise on abortion is what Donald Trump has been calling for, while lying about where Democrats stand, as he made clear on Meet the Press last month:

“‘Let me just tell you what I’d do. I’m going to come together with all groups, and we’re going to have something that’s acceptable,’ Trump said when asked about a 15-week ban Sunday.

“’I would sit down with both sides and I’d negotiate something, and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years. I’m not going to say I would or I wouldn’t,’ he added.

“Trump also called Democrats ‘radicals’ on abortion, claiming that some Democrat-led states like New York allow for abortions after birth.”

Republicans will continue to press for total or near-total abortion bans whenever and wherever they can get away with it while labeling Democrats as extremists, even though most Democrats are simply asking for the legal standard that was in place nationally for 49 years before the Supreme Court struck.

If Youngkin fails, then the forced-birth lobby may have to go back to the drawing board.

October 25: Biden’s New Hampshire Write-In Campaign Probably Won’t Be Like LBJ’s

This week’s political news brought back some distant memories from 1968, and I wrote about that at New York:

Ever since Joe Biden convinced the Democratic National Committee to remove the first-in-the-nation status from the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary last December (in favor of a calendar placing South Carolina first), New Hampshire Democrats have been in a jam. They don’t control the date of their presidential primary; the Republican secretary of State does, and he’s under a state-law mandate to keep the Granite State’s primary first no matter what. So for a while now it’s been clear New Hampshire will hold a “rogue” Democratic primary on January 23, 2024. This election will not be recognized as legitimate by the DNC, exposing the state (and any participating candidates) to the loss of convention delegates and other sanctions.

Joe Biden’s campaign has now made it official: He will not file to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot. But sensing an opportunity to embarrass the incumbent early in what is not expected to be a competitive nominating contest, Biden’s two main challengers, Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips, are going for broke in the rogue primary. Phillips, the Minnesota congressman who tried to talk Democrats into dumping Biden before entering the primaries himself, is about to make his candidacy official on October 27 in New Hampshire.

Williamson, an eccentric progressive who ran for president in 2020 but dropped out shortly before voters began voting, is very much a known quantity. She has received single-digit support in New Hampshire polls and at best low double-digit support in national polls; she could inherit some of the modest but significant anti-Establishment backing previously held by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who switched to an independent general election candidacy earlier this month. Phillips is more of a wild card, with more mainstream respectability than Williamson or Kennedy, but also with virtually no name ID outside Minnesota.

To head off an embarrassing upset in New Hampshire, that state’s Democratic Establishment is organizing a write-in campaign for Biden, who is the overwhelming favorite of Granite State Democrats (polling at 70 percent there in the RealClearPolitics averages), despite their disappointment in his removal of their primary’s premier status. This step will inevitably bring back distant memories of the last time an incumbent Democratic president ran a write-in campaign in New Hampshire against significant opposition: in 1968 when Lyndon B. Johnson underestimated the anti–Vietnam War candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. LBJ won, but by an unimpressive margin that contributed greatly to his subsequent decision to fold his campaign.

Could history repeat itself? Almost certainly not. Whatever misgivings Democrats have about Biden, they pale in comparison to the impassioned anti-war sentiment that fed opposition to LBJ in 1968. Marianne Williamson isn’t going to win in New Hampshire, and at this point, all Dean Phillips shares with the well-known Gene McCarthy is a home state.

Still, Team Biden needs to be careful in associating the president too closely with the New Hampshire write-in effort. He won’t be campaigning there at all, and it’s not exactly Biden Country; he finished a poor fifth in the 2020 New Hampshire primary. More importantly, any semi-decent showing by his opponents will be inflated and massively publicized by conservative media and perhaps by some Democrats nervous about Biden’s electability.

It’s tough to ask voters for their support in a primary that you have delegitimized. So the president’s campaign may need to loudly write off New Hampshire as meaningless in advance while privately hoping state party leaders can give him a solid win.

October 20: Beware the “I Hate Everybody” Vote

Early as it is in the 2024 presidential election cycle, it’s good to pay attention to general election trial heats, which I did at New York:

Despite some Republicans’ concerns about Donald Trump’s 91 felony indictment counts, and Democrats’ worries about Joe Biden’s age and job approval ratings, these two men are steadily heading towards a 2024 rematch. Fairly regular polling of a prospective Biden-Trump general election has consistently shown a close race: At the moment, the two are actually tied in the RealClearPolitics polling averages.

But as we should be constantly reminded, presidential elections are determined by the Electoral College, not the national popular vote (if they were, neither George W. Bush nor Donald Trump would have been president). So as the two parties begin to formally nominate their 2024 candidates, attention will shift to how well they might fare in the “battleground states” where the fight for 270 electoral votes will be waged.

We’ve now gotten a taste of that landscape via two big batches of state general-election trial heats from Emerson and Bloomberg/Morning Consult. Emerson seems to have focused much of its polling on states with down-ballot races, so the firm is mostly confirming that Trump is predictably far ahead of Biden in red states like Montana (by 21 points), Tennessee (by 33 points), and Wyoming (53 points). But Emerson also has polls of Wisconsin (Trump 42 percent, Biden 40 percent), Michigan (Biden 44 percent, Trump 43 percent), and a Pennsylvania shocker (Trump 45 percent, Biden 36 percent).

The new Bloomberg/Morning Consult polls are squarely centered on the seven states that were closest in 2020 (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). The results show Trump leading among registered voters in Arizona (47 percent to 43 percent), Georgia (48 percent to 43 percent), North Carolina (47 percent to 43 percent), Pennsylvania (46 percent to 45 percent), and Wisconsin (46 percent to 44 percent). Biden leads in Nevada (46 percent to 43 percent), and the two candidates are tied in Michigan (at 44 percent). Taking the margins of error into account, Trump has small leads in Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina, and the candidates are statistically tied in Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Aside from the rather important fact that the 2024 general election is more than a year away, there are a lot of variables to keep in mind when looking at such early data. For one thing, both Emerson and Bloomberg/Morning Consult are measuring sentiment among registered voters; you can make arguments for either candidate having an advantage when a set of likely voters emerge (Trump because Republicans are historically the most likely to vote and Biden because he’s unusually strong among the college-educated voters most likely to vote). For another, in both 2016 and 2020, Trump over-performed his national numbers in battleground states, which is why he was able to win in 2016 while losing the national popular vote by 2.1 percent and come close in 2020 despite losing the national popular vote by 4.5 percent.

It’s pretty likely that neither candidate is going to be wildly popular by November 2024, so the ultimate deciding factors could be (a) how many voters who dislike both Trump and Biden decide to turn out and (b) which candidate they prefer. Trump actually won the “hate ‘em both” vote by similar margins in 2016 and 2020, but lost in part because this segment of the electorate was a lot smaller in the latter year.

The even bigger variables, of course, could be turnout levels within each party’s base, and the possible impact of nonmajor-party candidates such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, and someone sponsored by No Labels. On this latter front, it will be important to see exactly where minor-party-indie candidates gain ballot access; nobody’s really going to care if they rack up significant percentages of the vote in states either Biden or Trump is carrying easily.

It’s not too soon to begin paying attention to the places where the presidency will actually be determined next year. In the end, a national popular vote win may be a nice bonus for the next president or another bitter reminder that our system isn’t fully democratic.

October 19: About the Phantom 2022-23 “Crime Wave”

It’s always a good idea to compare political rhetoric to facts, so it’s important to be aware of the latest official crime statistics, as I noted at New York:

Anyone whose major information source is conservative media or the rhetorical stylings of Republican politicians probably believes the United States is in the grip of an unprecedented crime wave. Indeed, one of the standard GOP talking points against the investigation and prosecution of Donald Trump is that prosecutors should be devoting their resources to fighting out-of-control crime rather than pursuing the former president. But beyond that, an alleged unwillingness to fight crime is a central element of GOP attacks on Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. And as has been the case for many decades, crime-wave rhetoric has provided a pretext for conservative politicians and pundits to engage in thinly veiled racist commentary on the dangerous nature of the Black and Latino citizenry in various urban areas.

The latest official crime statistics for 2022 (the most recent full year for which numbers are available), released this week by the FBI, poke a major hole in the premise of crime-wave talk:

“The FBI’s crime statistics estimates for 2022 show that national violent crime decreased an estimated 1.7% in 2022 compared to 2021 estimates:

“Murder and non-negligent manslaughter recorded a 2022 estimated nationwide decrease of 6.1% compared to the previous year.

“In 2022, the estimated number of offenses in the revised rape category saw an estimated 5.4% decrease.

“Aggravated assault in 2022 decreased an estimated 1.1% in 2022.”

Violent crime, and particularly the homicides that understandably get so much attention, are even lower if viewed in any sort of historical context, as Popular Information explains:

“Since 1991, the rate of murder has dropped 36%….

“The rate of violent crime is the lowest it has been since 2014, and is nearly half of what it was in 1991 and 1992.”

This downward trend, experts say, is expected to continue in 2023. According to crime data from the first half of the year, there is “strong evidence of a sharp and broad decline in the nation’s murder rate,” crime analyst Jeff Asher reports. Asher finds that preliminary data indicates that the nation is witnessing the “largest annual percent changes in murder ever recorded.”

Yes, property crime were up 7 percent in 2022, but as Popular Information also notes, it was mostly owing to what should be a temporary spike in certain auto thefts:

“The rise in auto thefts is likely due to a recent trend on social media platforms, including TikTok, that teaches viewers how to steal certain models of Kias and Hyundais.

“According to Axios, the videos show people how to “break windows and remove parts of the steering column cover, then start the vehicle with a screwdriver, or a plugin from a USB device.” The viral videos take advantage of Hyundai Motors’ decision “not to install a theft prevention mechanism called an immobilizer in certain makes and models” of Kias and Hyundais since model year 2011. The craze developed into a “Kia Challenge,” which involves creating social media content about successful car thefts.”

In its report on the phenomenon, Axios notes that “Kia and Hyundai both released new ‘theft deterrent software’ for more than 8 million vehicles in response to the trend.” So it may not last. And more to the point, crime analyst Jeff Asher observes, it’s not like we are in some historic property “crime wave” either: “The property crime rate in the US has fallen an astounding 61 percent since 1991.”

All in all, GOP fearmongering about crime parallels the party’s inflation alarms based on selective and outdated numbers. It can be effective, unfortunately; during 2022, Gallup found that 78 percent of Americans thought crime was higher nationally than in 2021. Turns out it just wasn’t true.


October 13: Republican Extremism Now Coming From Every Region

A very old hypothesis essentially attributing Republican extremism to southern influences popped up again this week, so I addressed it at New York:

Having grown up in the authoritarian police state of the Jim Crow South, I am acutely aware of the racism that dominated the politics of my home region while white supremacists had the former Confederacy in their grip, and that persisted in various ways even as they lost power. So I am sympathetic to the argument that the roots of today’s twisted Republican Party trace back to the peculiar white southern conservatism that migrated into the GOP during and after the civil-rights movement. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie revives this “southern coup” hypothesis in a meditation on the death of Republican prophet (and later anti-Republican writer) Kevin Phillips and the rise of Louisiana’s Steve Scalise. But I think it’s a bit anachronistic. The MAGA movement that has now conquered the GOP is a thoroughly national phenomenon drawing on reactionary and “populist” impulses from every region of the country.

There’s no question that the rapid defection of the South from its ancient Democratic allegiances to the GOP that began with Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 was a major factor in the narrow victory of Richard Nixon in 1968 (for which Phillips was the whiz-kid demographic analyst). But as Phillips pointed out in his seminal 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, southern white conservatives angry about civil rights were just one component of the new coalition that just three years later gave Nixon a vast landslide win that captured nearly every former citadel of Democratic power. There were the Catholic working-class ethnic voters (soon to be known as “Reagan Democrats”) of the urban Northeast and Midwest, who had their own racial and economic grievances with LBJ’s Great Society; rural midwestern and western “populists” bridling against federal regulations; and, throughout the country, white suburbanites defending their quality of life from rising crime and creeping taxes. Yes, racism pervaded much of this newfangled conservatism, but it was native to much of white America, not just imported from the South.

It’s plausible to argue that there was a particular ferocity to southern white conservatism — perhaps based on Evangelical culture and/or a racialized approach to issues like labor relations and public education — that has come to characterize conservatism elsewhere. But just as country music is a national (and even global) cultural force whose southern heritage is increasingly incidental, there’s a point at which white conservative Republican politics became truly national as well, blending southern and non-southern traditions.

When Connecticut Yankee turned Texan George H.W. Bush became president in 1988 by catering to the Christian right in the primaries and running openly racist ads in the general election, was he representing “the South”? How about that much-discussed avatar of harsh partisanship Newt Gingrich, the Pennsylvania-born Army brat from a suburban Georgia district that could have been relocated to just about anywhere in the country without changing its character? Did the South slowly strangle the moderate Republican tradition in its ancestral northeastern stomping grounds, or did the GOP come to represent a coalition of homegrown cultural and economic conservatives in unlikely places such as New York? It’s often been noted that the harsh anti-labor and anti-government themes Scott Walker championed in Wisconsin made the 21st-century politics of that once-progressive state feel like 20th-century “southern” politics. But at a certain point, you have to stop treating a national political movement as some sort of interregional infection; it’s more like an ideological pandemic.

That point was surely reached when Donald Trump came along and conquered the Republican Party with a speed that showed how ripe it was for a sharp turn toward authoritarian populism in all its forms, from southern cultural and religious grievances to western anti-government paranoia to the midwestern protectionism and isolationism that gave Trump his “America First” motto.

It’s really no accident that Trump was a quintessential New Yorker who moved to the least “southern” spot south of the Mason-Dixon line, just as it’s no surprise that Ohioan Jim Jordan has outflanked Louisianan Steve Scalise on the right in the House GOP conference. Sure, there remain some distinctively southern MAGA folk such as the Alabaman Tommy Tuberville and arguably even Marjorie Taylor Greene, a wealthy Atlanta suburbanite who basically bought a rural-and-small-town congressional seat. But those battling to restore the “American greatness” of government of, by, and for conservative Christian white people hail from fever swamps located in all 50 states.

October 12: Kennedy Leaving the Primaries Is One Less Annoyance Joe Biden Has To Face

A noisy dog has stopped barking with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s decision to withdraw from the Democratic nominating contest and run as an independent. I took a look at this development at New York:

Much of the limited buzz about nuisance candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. dropping out of the Democratic presidential contest and launching an attempted general-election independent run has focused on the question of whom the conspiracy theorist might help or hurt in a general election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. That’s understandable, in part because of the likelihood of another extremely close two-major-party race in November 2024 and in part because of Kennedy’s combination of high name ID and a potentially bipartisan well of support (or, as he likes to put it, a “horseshoe” coalition of left and right “populists” whose distrust of pretty much every institution makes them credulous customers for the cranky stuff he’s peddling). There’s also a rush of donations to RFK Jr. now that he’s rid himself of the light yoke of party loyalty.

The truth is we don’t have a good way of assessing a Kennedy independent candidacy until we see if he has the money and moxie to get on the ballot in competitive states. It won’t be easy, now that the adulatory treatment he has been getting from conservative media as a burr under Biden’s saddle may come to an abrupt end.

But we do know the absence of the Kennedy name on Democratic primary ballots next year is an unambiguous boon to the incumbent. With only the lightly regarded Marianne Williamson (polling at under 4 percent nationally in the RealClearPolitics averages) facing Biden (unless you take pundit Cenk Uygur’s newly announced candidacy seriously, which I don’t), he can run as the all but unanimous Democratic favorite who need not campaign for the nomination or even look or sound defensive about refusing to debate intraparty opponents. Even though his Democratic support has dropped since he was polling at around 20 percent in the spring and has been stagnant since the summer, he was still regularly hitting double digits in the polls and couldn’t be entirely ignored (he was, after all, doing about as well as the much-ballyhooed Republican Ron DeSantis). By contrast, Williamson is an asterisk, comparable less to the incumbent than to “Some Dude” perennial candidates.

Gone with RFK Jr.’s Democratic candidacy, moreover, is any fear of an embarrassingly poor showing in New Hampshire, whose rogue primary he could not enter and that media folk might find themselves unable to ignore (particularly with conservative media inflating every Kennedy vote into a repudiation of the incumbent). The Biden write-in effort that New Hampshire Democratic leaders have been quietly undertaking to overwhelm RFK Jr. in the Granite State should have even less trouble swamping Williamson.

Kennedy also takes with him, via his departure from his ancestral party, any lingering affection of Democrats for him in tribute to his famous relatives (I speak as someone who idolized his father and is pained to see his name profaned so vividly). What’s left is a veteran scandalmonger and misinformation peddler who belongs to no party because no party really wants him. Biden and Democrats are well rid of him.

October 6: Iowa Democrats Give Up the Ghost of Caucuses Past

The deal went down on this some time ago, but it’s still worth noting the official demise of the First-in-the-Nation Iowa Democratic Caucuses, as I did at New York:

The death rattle of the hallowed First-in-the-Nation Iowa Democratic Caucuses took a while to subside. But now it’s done. Yes, Iowa Democrats will still get together in precinct gatherings on January 15, the same day when Iowa Republicans caucus to formally launch the 2024 Republican nominating contest. But thanks to a national party mandate insisted upon by President Joe Biden, there will be no presidential preference balloting at the Democratic caucuses. A separate, mail-in ballot process will culminate in the announcement of the results on March 5, Super Tuesday, safely outside the “early state” window Iowa once dominated, and in the midst of a cascade of votes that will confirm Biden’s nomination.

Iowa’s defenestration from the early-state window was caused by three interrelated factors that came together to overcome the first-in-the-nation tradition. First, Democrats have moved decisively to outlaw caucuses as a method for awarding national-convention delegates, compared to more open and inclusive primaries. Second, Iowa was deemed far too unrepresentative of the country demographically to maintain such a highly influential position on the nominating calendar. And third, the last Democratic Caucuses in 2020 were a huge mess with the state party unable to report the results on Caucus Night (though arguably national party mandates helped make that happen). You could add as a fourth, decisive factor: Biden’s poor performance in Iowa en route to his nomination and election; certainly the White House owed the state no favors.

As Politico reports, Iowa Democrats hope their cooperation in what is after all an uncontested nomination contest in 2024 will give them a chance at reentering the early-state window in the future, albeit not likely in its old premier position. And as the Des Moines Register notes, the state party’s surrender eliminates a collateral threat to Iowa Republicans who might have faced a calendar challenge from New Hampshire if Iowa Democrats conducted something that looked like a primary before the Granite State’s event (which by state law must occur first).

Now the only apparent troublemakers left in the presidential nominating arena are New Hampshire’s Democrats, who have no choice but to follow state law and conduct a presidential primary on January 23; the DNC has demanded New Hampshire give way to the vastly more diverse South Carolina as the first primary state and vote instead on February 6, the same day as Nevada’s primary. The Republicans who control New Hampshire’s legislature have refused to play ball, leaving their Democratic counterparts to hold a rogue event that will cost New Hampshire at least half its delegation to the Democratic convention in Chicago next year, while creating the possibility of an embarrassing upset of President Biden, who won’t participate in a primary that defies his own calendar rules.

Most recently, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has significantly reduced the risk of that happening by indicating he plans to withdraw from an allegedly “rigged” Democratic nominating contest to run as an independent, leaving Marianne Williamson as Biden’s only foe with any significant support. To be safe, New Hampshire’s Democratic leaders are planning a Biden write-in effort.

No matter what happens in New Hampshire, the whole show will begin in Iowa on January 15 strictly on the GOP side of the partisan divide. Republicans, after all, aren’t that hung up on diversity and are still okay with caucuses and highly unrepresentative delegate award systems. Meanwhile, sad Iowa Democrats may well feel their caucus traditions on January 15 like a missing limb.