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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

June 7: “Independent Charismatics” Becoming an Evangelical Firewall for Trump

Another religion and politics topic came up in my reading, so I discussed it at New York:

Everyone covering Republican presidential politics knows how important a force conservative Evangelical Christians are in that party, particularly in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. So it has become routine to examine GOP politicians for their adherence to various issue positions of presumed significance to these voters, and to their pulpit-based leaders.

That’s still well worth doing at a time when the culture-war issues so closely associated with religious conservatives are red-hot topics in American politics, and of great importance to many of the most likely voters in the Republican presidential primaries. Clearly, Ron DeSantisMike Pence, and Tim Scott are particularly focused on letting conservative Evangelicals know how committed they are to the battle against legalized abortion, LGBTQ rights, “woke” corporations, and government impingements on “religious liberty.” These candidates are intensely determined to prove they are more faithful to the agenda of the Christian right than their front-running rival Donald Trump.

But there are two major problems with any sort of by-the-numbers effort to flip conservative Evangelicals against Trump. First, these voters have an abiding sense of gratitude for what Trump has already done for them. Second, Trump himself is deeply tied to the religious views of a growing subset of Christian Evangelicals.

As the 45th president frequently reminds conservative Christian audiences, he was the first Republican president to redeem decades of promises to secure the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the abolition of federal constitutional abortion rights. And more generally, Trump discarded decades of embarrassed Republican efforts to downplay cultural issues in pursuit of upscale swing voters favoring moderation and compromise on topics that Evangelicals considered matters of eternal and immutable principle. He was firmly the enemy of the enemies of the people in the pews, and smote them hip and thigh unscrupulously. It will take more than a slightly higher rating on the latest set of litmus tests laid out by conservative religious leaders for mere politicians to match the founder of the MAGA movement in the esteem of voters who really do want to turn back the clock to a “greater” America.

The second element of Trump’s Evangelical primary firewall is the significant and rapidly growing subset of American Evangelicals whose view of politics and its relationship to religion cannot be captured by mere policy issues. Trump plays a larger-than-life role in a supernatural drama of good and evil that many of these believers embrace via the teachings of a new set of “prophetic” teachers and preachers, as religious scholar Matthew Taylor explains:

“Trump’s most ardent Christian advocates are nondenominational Charismatic evangelicals, a group sometimes referred to by academics as Independent Charismatics or Independent Network Charismatic Christians.

“Independent Charismatics emphasize a modern, supernaturally driven worldview where contemporary prophets speak directly for God; miracles are everyday experiences; menacing demonic forces must be pushed back through prayer; and immersive, ecstatic worship experiences bolster Christian believers’ confidence that they are at the center of God’s work in the world. These believers are country cousins to the more denominationally aligned Pentecostal evangelicals, though the lack of denominational oversight and the freewheeling nature of the independent Charismatic sector leaves them more vulnerable to radicalization.”

Many Independent Charismatics have been radicalized by the passions unleashed by Trump and the conflicts he has engendered. Cultural warfare is for them spiritual warfare in which Trump is literally an agent of the divine will. Independent Charismatics are notably active in Trump-adjacent groups like the ReAwaken America Tour, in which pardoned former Trump lieutenants Roger Stone and Michael Flynn have been conspicuous participants, and a newer group called Pastors for Trump. The 45th president is an irreplaceable and heroic figure in the apocalyptic cosmologies of such groups, who aren’t about to replace him with some other Republican politician, no matter what more orthodox Evangelicals say or think. Specific political “issues” are very small in their reckoning of God’s destiny for America.

So within the legions of conservative Evangelicals engaged in American politics, Trump has charismatic shock troops whom he can count on to stick with him as though their lives — indeed, their souls — depend on it. If you add in the Evangelicals who uniquely trust Trump for keeping his promises to them and are grateful for his reshaping of the U.S. Supreme Court to make it a powerful allied force, you can see why he’s not as vulnerable to raids on this base of support as you might imagine from the boasts of his rivals that they are nearer to God than he is.

 


June 2: Rise of Religious “Nones” a Mixed Blessing for Democrats

Since I’m always standing at the intersection of politics and religion, I’m always interested in fresh data on the subject, and wrote some up at New York:

One of the big predictions in American politics lately, of infinite comfort to embattled progressives, is that the increasing number of religiously non-affiliated Americans, particularly among younger generations, will spur a steady leftward drift. Perhaps that will mean, we are told, that Democrats will be able to build their elusive permanent majority on the grounds of abandoned houses of worship. Or perhaps, some hope, the religious roots of today’s Republican extremism will begin to wither away, allowing American conservatives to resemble their less intemperate distant cousins in other advanced democracies, ending the culture wars.

Both propositions may be true. But it’s a mistake to treat so-called nones as an undifferentiated secularist mass, as Eastern Illinois University political scientist Ryan Burge explains with some fresh data. He notes that “in 2022, 6% of folks were atheists, 6% were agnostics, and another 23% were nothing in particular.” This large bloc of “nothing in particular” voters may lean left, all other things being equal, but they tend to be as uninterested in politics as in religion, making them a less than ideal party constituency. He explains:

“To put this in context, in 2020 there were nearly as many nothing in particulars who said that they voted for Trump as there were atheists who said that they voted for Biden.

“While atheists are the most politically active group in the United States in terms of things like donating money and working for a campaign, the nothing in particulars are on another planet entirely.

“They were half as likely to donate money to a candidate compared to atheists. They were half as likely to put up a political sign. They were less than half as likely to contact a public official.

“This all points to the same conclusion: they don’t vote in high numbers. So, while there may be a whole bunch of nothing in particulars, that may not translate to electoral victories.”

As Burge mentioned, however, there is a “none” constituency that leans much more strongly left and is very engaged politically — indeed, significantly more engaged than the white evangelicals we’re always hearing about. That would be atheists. In a separate piece, he gets into the numbers:

“The group that is most likely to contact a public official? Atheists.

“The group that puts up political signs at the highest rates? Atheists.

“HALF of atheists report giving to a candidate or campaign in the 2020 presidential election cycle.

“The average atheist is about 65% more politically engaged than the average American.”

And as Thomas Edsall points out in a broader New York Times column on demographic voting patterns, atheists really are a solid Democratic constituency, supporting Biden over Trump in 2020 by an incredible 87 to 9 percent margin. It’s worth noting that the less adamant siblings of the emphatically godless, agnostics, also went for Biden by an 80 to 17 percent margin and are more engaged than “nothing in particulars” as well.

So should Democrats target and identify with atheists? It’s risky. Despite the trends, there are still three times as many white evangelicals as atheists in the voting population. And there are a lot more religious folk of different varieties, some of whom have robust Democratic voting minorities or even majorities who probably wouldn’t be too happy with their party showing disdain for religion entirely. There’s also a hunt-where-the-ducks-fly factor: If atheists and agnostics already participate in politics and lean strongly toward Democrats, how much attention do they really need? There’s a reason that politicians, whatever their actual religious beliefs or practices, overwhelmingly report some religious identity. Congress lost its one professed atheist when California representative Pete Stark lost a Democratic primary in 2012; the only professed agnostic in Congress is Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, whose political future isn’t looking great.

It’s a complicated picture. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat argues that American liberalism’s increasing identification with secularism is keeping a lot of conservative Christians from politically expressing their reservations about Donald Trump. And religious people beyond the ranks of conservative faith communities may feel cross-pressured if Democratic politicians begin to reflect the liberal intelligentsia’s general assumption that religion is little more than a reactionary habit rooted in superstition and doomed to eventual extinction.

Perhaps it makes more sense for Democratic atheists and agnostics to spend time educating and mobilizing the “nothing in particular” Americans who already outnumber white evangelicals and ought to be concerned about how they’ll be treated if a Christian-nationalist Gilead arises. Only then can “nones” become the salvation for the Democratic Party.


May 31: Debt Default Crisis May Soon Give Way to a Government Shutdown Crisis

In reviewing the Biden-McCarthy debt limit deal, it became apparent to me that a lot of disputes were delayed more than resolved, as I pointed out at New York. Don’t get too comfortable just yet.

Since the federal government will be unable to meet its debt-servicing obligations as early as June 5, per Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the political world is understandably focused on Congress ratifying the debt-limit deal reached between negotiators representing President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Despite the deep desire of many members of Congress in both parties to vote against this deal, it will likely be enacted after some significant yelling and screaming. But it’s important to understand that the deal is by no means self-implementing. Its crucial agreements on federal spending have to be enacted via the entirely separate congressional appropriations process. To a considerable extent the dealmakers have simply kicked the can down the road until autumn when actual funding decisions are made.

Moreover, the provisions of the deal that constrain the appropriations process reflect a House Republican obsession that didn’t get a lot of attention during the debt-limit negotiations: demands for a return to so-called “regular order,” in which the federal government is funded by 14 distinct appropriations bills. The last time Congress actually completed all of these appropriations bills was in 1996; more typically, big chunks of federal spending are appropriated through catchall “continuing resolutions” or “omnibus appropriations bills” that (according to conservatives) protect liberal spending priorities and associated policies. But it’s supposed to happen prior to the September 30 end of the current fiscal year when FY 2023 appropriations expire.

There will probably be plenty of partisan fighting over the contents of these appropriations bills. The debt-limit deal specifies some of them (e.g., funding levels for defense and veterans’ benefits backed by both parties). But others will be worked out in the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, on the House and Senate floor, and ultimately through House-Senate conferences and potential veto battles with the White House. If any of these appropriations aren’t settled by October 1 and aren’t addressed in stopgap spending deals (which, again, House Republicans tend to oppose as a matter of principle), the portions of the federal government affected will be shut down. And in the details of the debt-limit-deal legislation is a final, powerful inducement to regular appropriations: At the end of the calendar year, any appropriations contained in a stopgap spending bill will automatically be cut by one percent (via the “sequestration” process employed to enforce the spending caps enacted during the previous big debt-default agreements in 2011 and 2013) above and beyond any cuts already enacted.

This means it will be impossible under the debt-limit deal to paper over partisan and House-Senate differences on spending levels for individual federal programs by just tossing them into a stopgap spending bill that ultimately gets extended until the end of the fiscal year, after which the whole process begins again. So the odds of at least partial government shutdowns beginning in October and extending to the end of December are very high. Moreover, if Congress cannot somehow regain the ability to enact 14 appropriations bills for the first time this century, the cuts in appropriated programs will go deeper than previously expected via the mindless across-the-board cuts inflicted by sequestration.

We have learned during the prior 21 federal-government shutdowns that these interruptions in the normal functioning of agencies are deeply annoying but tolerable, especially compared with a debt default that could throw the national and global economies into recession. And the cuts we will ultimately see in nondefense programs that aren’t specifically protected in the debt-limit deal will be preferable to a debt default triggering a recession that forces even deeper funding cuts by increasing future debt-service requirements and reducing revenues. All in all, the debt-limit deal could have been worse, and the alternatives could have been disastrous.

But let’s not pretend the deal has resolved anything other than avoiding a default; the one big fight over the debt limit will give way to a thousand battles over appropriations. And don’t forget: The even bigger act of kicking the can down the road reflected in the debt-limit deal is the understanding that spending levels beyond FY 2025 will be determined by the results of the 2024 elections. If either party wins a trifecta, it could be in a position (subject to the Senate filibuster) to impose its spending priorities on the minority party. If, as is more likely, divided government continues beyond the next election, the sort of interminable battles over the size and shape of the federal government that produced the current debt crisis and the imminent government-shutdown crisis will continue for the foreseeable future. American voters really do owe it to their country to give somebody effective control of Washington next year. Otherwise, the shadow show of agreements now to disagree later could become the annual game in Washington.


May 26: DeSantis Stumbles Out of the Gate

Like everyone else, I listened to DeSantis’s botched Twitter Spaces launch, but then reached some conclusions about the trajectory of his campaign at New York:

Before long, the laughter over the technical glitches that marred Ron DeSantis’s official presidential campaign launch with Elon Musk on Twitter Spaces will fade. We’ll all probably look back and place this moment in better perspective. Political-media folk (not to mention DeSantis’s Republican rivals and Democratic enemies) tend to overreact to “game changing” moments in campaigns when fundamentals and long-term trends matter infinitely more. Relatively few actual voters were tuned in to Twitter to watch the botched launch, and even fewer will think less of DeSantis as a potential president because of this incident.

It mattered in one respect, however: The screwed-up launch stepped all over a DeSantis campaign reset designed to depict the Florida governor as a political Death Star with unlimited funds and an unbeatable strategy for winning the GOP nomination. The reset was important to rebut the prevailing story line that DeSantis had lost an extraordinary amount of ground since the salad days following his landslide reelection last year, when he briefly looked to be consolidating partywide support as a more electable and less erratic replacement for Donald Trump. For reasons both within and beyond his control, he missed two critical strategic objectives going into the 2024 race: keeping the presidential field small enough to give him a one-on-one shot at Trump and keeping Trump from reestablishing himself as the front-runner with an air of inevitability about a third straight nomination.

To dissipate growing concerns about the DeSantis candidacy, the top chieftains of his Never Back Down super-PAC let it be known earlier this week that they had a plan that would shock and awe the political world, based on their extraordinary financial resources (fed by an $80 million surplus DeSantis transferred from his Florida reelection campaign account). The New York Times wrote up the scheme without questioning its connection to reality:

“A key political group supporting Ron DeSantis’s presidential run is preparing a $100 million voter-outreach push so big it plans to knock on the door of every possible DeSantis voter at least four times in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — and five times in the kickoff Iowa caucuses.

“The effort is part of an on-the-ground organizing operation that intends to hire more than 2,600 field organizers by Labor Day, an extraordinary number of people for even the best-funded campaigns….

“The group said it expected to have an overall budget of at least $200 million.”

In case the numbers didn’t properly document the audacity of this plan, Team DeSantis made it explicit. The Times report continues:

“‘No one has ever contemplated the scale of this organization or operation, let alone done it,’ said Chris Jankowski, the group’s chief executive. ‘This has just never even been dreamed up.’” …

At the helm of the DeSantis super PAC is Jeff Roe, a veteran Republican strategist who was Mr. [Ted] Cruz’s campaign manager in 2016. In an interview, Mr. Roe described an ambitious political apparatus whose 2,600 field organizers by the fall would be roughly double the peak of Senator Bernie Sanders’s entire 2020 primary campaign staff.

Clearly opening up the thesaurus to find metaphors for the extraordinary power and glory of their plans, one DeSantis operative told the Dispatch they were “light speed and light years ahead of any campaign out there, including Trump’s.”

Now more than ever, DeSantis’s campaign will have to prove its grand plans aren’t just fantasies. Those doors in Iowa really will have to be knocked. Thanks to Trump’s current lead, DeSantis will absolutely have to beat expectations there and do just as well in New Hampshire and South Carolina before facing an existential challenge in his and Trump’s home state of Florida. And while DeSantis had a good weekend in Iowa recently, picking up a lot of state legislative endorsements even as Trump canceled a rally due to bad weather that never arrived, he’s got a ways to go. A new Emerson poll of the first-in-the-nation-caucuses state shows Trump leading by an astonishing margin of 62 percent to 20 percent. And obviously enough, Iowa is where DeSantis will likely face the largest number of rivals aside from Trump; he’s a sudden surge from Tim Scott or Mike Pence or Nikki Haley or even Vivek Ramaswamy away from a real Iowa crisis.

Door knocking aside, a focus on Iowa, with its base-dominated caucus system and its large and powerful conservative Evangelical population, will likely force DeSantis to run to Trump’s right even more than he already has. The newly official candidate did not mention abortion policy during his launch event on Twitter; that will have to change, since he has a crucial opportunity to tell Iowa Evangelicals about the six-week ban he recently signed (similar, in fact, to the law Iowa governor Kim Reynolds enacted), in contrast to Trump’s scolding of the anti-abortion movement for extremism. DeSantis also failed once again to talk about his own religious faith, whatever it is; that will probably have to change in Iowa too. He did, however, talk a lot during the launch about his battle against the COVID-19 restrictions the federal government sought to impose on Florida even during the Trump administration. That will very likely continue.

The glitchy launch basically cost DeSantis whatever room for maneuvering he might have enjoyed as the 2024 competition begins to get very real — less than eight months before Iowa Republicans caucus (the exact date remains TBD). He’d better get used to spending a lot of time in Iowa’s churches and Pizza Ranches, and he also needs to begin winning more of the exchanges of potshots with Trump, which will only accelerate from here on out. All the money he has and all the hype and spin his campaign puts out won’t win the nomination now that Trump is fully engaged, and it sure doesn’t look like the 45th president’s legal problems will represent anything other than rocket fuel for his jaunt through the primaries. So for DeSantis, it’s time to put up or shut up.


May 25: The Very Problematic No Labels Ticket

Like a lot of Democrats, I’m concerned about the possibility No Labels will sponsor an independent presidential candidacy that could throw the 2024 election to Donald Trump. Here are some of the problems with their thinking, as I explained at New York:

The nonpartisan group No Labels wants to put a hypothetical independent unity ticket on the presidential ballot in 2024. There are a lot of problems with this plan. The biggest is that the group says it won’t launch such a candidacy unless victory is entirely possible. This means if it doesn’t get on enough ballots to ensure 270 electoral votes, the whole thing will have been a waste of time and of the money the group’s shadowy donors have ponied up.

Another problem is figuring out who will determine the ticket’s viability before it is (potentially) unveiled at No Labels’ April 2024 convention in Dallas. Will it be No Labels CEO Nancy Jacobson? Her husband, the pollster-strategist Mark Penn (who has supplied the group’s … interesting past polling showing that Joe Biden’s Delaware is in play)? Or perhaps the same shadowy donors who are paying for the show?

Moreover, what if the theoretical viability of an independent unity ticket falls apart when the actual candidates are unveiled? There are lobbyists who swoon over the two senators whose names are most often mentioned as possible independent unity presidential candidates, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. But both politicians are very likely in the process of losing their Senate seats next year; it’s unlikely either would light up the sky as a presidential candidate. And even if they looked good initially, there’s a rich history of third-party candidacies (particularly the prior two “independent centrist” efforts, by John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992) polling well for a moment until reality sets in and the “maverick” option fades.

Beyond all these questions, though, is a more fundamental problem with the No Labels premise, based on the idea that the two “broken” political parties are holding a largely centrist nation hostage to the fanatical ideologues who control them. Perhaps you could make an argument that the party caucuses in Congress or powerful partisan interest groups are keeping Republicans and Democrats in Washington from the “commonsense” policies that are supposedly so easy to discern. But when it comes to the presidential nominations, “centrists” have every opportunity to influence the outcome, particularly in the Democratic Party.

To begin with, the idea that the plurality persuasion in American politics is “independent” is a much-exploded myth. Most independents regularly vote for one party or the other and just prefer to think of themselves as “independent”; many register as members of a party or participate in their preferred party’s primaries. Estimates of the percentage of the electorate that are “true” independents usually range from 7 percent to 9 percent. They aren’t typically “centrist.” And their most distinct characteristic is political disengagement, not a desperate, hand-wringing desire for more options.

But disengaged or not, independents are far from locked out of the presidential primaries. Independents participate in partisan primaries in 24 states, and 22 states allow voters to change their party registration and vote on Election Day. And along with the phony independents who regularly vote in such primaries, they could mount a serious effort to get rid of Donald Trump (who is going to have plenty of credible opponents) or Biden if they choose to do so.

Long story short, the No Labels ticket isn’t going to succeed, which means its most likely impact, as Democrats keep warning (including those affiliated with Third Way, an organization whose centrist credentials are as good as Jacobson’s and Penn’s, and with No Labels ex-supporters like Bill Galston), would be to toss a close election to Trump. And that brings to mind the most important false premise promoted by No Labels: that the two parties and their likely presidential nominees are equal threats to democracy and the future of sensible, “commonsense” governance. Anyone who believes that should watch or rewatch Trump’s wild performance at the recent CNN Town Hall event, which should scare any advocate of constructive centrist politics half to death.


May 17: Pence is Running on the GOP’s Worst Ideas

In the restless search among Republicans for a way to avoid more undiluted Trumpism, rival candidates are choosing some pretty bad messages, as I noted at New York:

Naturally former vice-president Mike Pence wants to rebrand himself in his 2024 presidential campaign. He’s known to the world as the cringingly obsequious Trump sidekick who refused to give the Boss the unconstitutional boost he needed to stop Joe Biden’s confirmation as president-elect on January 6, 2021. In MAGA land, he will never, ever be forgiven for this “betrayal” of Donald Trump. In seeking a new identity, Pence is unsurprisingly returning to his pre-Trump image as a methodical movement-conservative warhorse with a particular connection to the Christian right (albeit one whose political career all but self-immolated thanks to his clumsy handling of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Indiana).

In campaigning as the man who can return the GOP and the country to pre-Trump conservatism, Pence is obviously scratching a deep itch among Republican elites who want to imagine that the 45th presidency was just a nightmare that produced a lot of madness and some nice tax cuts. There’s a big problem, though. Practically everything the former veep wants the GOP to stand for is deeply unpopular, as this summary of the Pence message from the New York Times illustrates:

“Mr. Pence is working to carve out space in the Republican primary field by appealing to evangelicals, adopting a hard-line position in support of a federal abortion ban, promoting free trade and pushing back against Republican efforts to police big business on ideological grounds. He faces significant challenges, trails far behind in the polls and has made no effort to channel the populist energies overtaking the Republican Party.”

Imposing a strict national abortion ban is very unpopular outside (and to some extent inside) the Republican base, as Trump has repeatedly acknowledgedFree trade is a creed as outmoded as the free coinage of silver and is anathema in much of the heartland areas Republicans rely on. “Populist” conservative efforts to mess with corporate policies are irresponsible and hard to maintain, yet they help insulate Republicans from their ancient image as Wall Street toadies. But Pence’s unpopularity contest doesn’t end there:

“Unlike almost every major Republican running for president, Mr. Pence still defends former President George W. Bush’s decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, though he acknowledged in the interview that the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ intelligence that Mr. Bush used to justify the Iraqi invasion was wrong.”

And for dessert:

“Mr. Pence says Social Security and Medicare must be trimmed back as part of any serious plan to deal with the national debt …

“Mr. Pence said he would ‘explain to people’ how the ‘debt crisis’ would affect their children and grandchildren. He says his plan to cut benefits won’t apply to Social Security and Medicare payments for people in retirement today or who will retire in the next 25 years. But he will pitch ideas to cut spending for people under 40.”

Social Security and Medicare cuts are nearly as unpopular among Republican voters as they are among Democratic and independent voters, which is very unpopular indeed. And Republican politicians (most notably and recently George W. Bush and Paul Ryan) have forever sought to “explain to people” why it’s somehow fair to literally grandfather in the retirement benefits of old folks while screwing over their children and grandchildren with half a loaf or less. It hasn’t worked.

The axiom Pence is running on is simple: There was nothing wrong with old-school Reagan-Bush Republicanism until the Bad Man came along (with Pence’s sycophantic help, by the way) to wreck everything with his demagogic heresies. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, there was a lot wrong with where Republicans were heading going into 2016, beginning with the simple fact that the non-college-educated white voters on which the GOP had begun to depend didn’t like free trade, slavery to big business, “entitlement reform,” or “forever wars” and warmed to a presidential candidate who pledged to overturn the party Establishment that promoted these shibboleths as though they came down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets. If Pence succeeds in making himself known as the would-be president who wants to get rid of half of Trump’s more popular positions, his own popularity (his favorable-unfavorable ratio according to the FiveThirtyEight polling averages is 36-53) is likely to fade even more as voters begin to understand him.


May 11: About Hugh Hewitt’s Biden-LBJ Fable

As an old guy with a pretty good memory of political events, I am alert to misuses of history to make a contemporary point, like the one I tried to expose this week at New York.

The same day that Donald Trump, the GOP’s front-running candidate for president, got assessed millions of dollars for defamation and sexual abuse, a leading conservative media maven, Hugh Hewitt, adjudged Joe Biden as so absolutely doomed that he won’t even make it to the 2024 starting gate. RealClearPolitics relays Hewitt’s tall tale of a prediction:

“Hugh Hewitt on Monday told Special Report host Bret Baier he expects President Joe Biden to exit the presidential race like President Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1968. LBJ announced in March of 1968 that he would not seek another term …

“’Gallup came in at 38 percent approval. So the ABC/Washington Post poll at 36 does not sound like an outlier … I think the American people coming to the recognition he really can’t do this,’ Hewitt said.

“’I’m expecting an LBJ ’68 exit sometime next year,’ Hewitt said.”

What Hewitt was referring to was the surprise announcement by President Lyndon Johnson on March 31, 1968, in conjunction with a bombing halt in Vietnam, that he was withdrawing from the Democratic presidential contest. But the idea that Biden will face anything like the circumstances that led LBJ to that decision is ridiculous, even for a spinmeister like Hewitt.

First, to get one dubious data point out of the way, Hewitt suggests that Biden is currently in the same doldrums as LBJ was in March 1968, when his Gallup rating (the only generally available poll at that time) was 36 percent. Nowadays we have lots of polls, so whereas Biden’s approval is at 38 percent at Gallup and 36 percent at ABC-WaPo, he’s also at 43 percent at IBD/TIPP48 percent at Rasmussen46 percent at Economist/YouGov, and 44 percent at Fox News. So Hewitt is cherry-picking negative polls to make his shaky case.

More to the point, Biden is being backed by the entire Democratic Party and faces only two nuisance opponents in the 2024 primaries. When LBJ withdrew from the 1968 race, he had already grossly underperformed expectations in an actual New Hampshire primary against U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy and trailed McCarthy in polls in the next primary in Wisconsin (which McCarthy would subsequently win 56-35 right after LBJ’s withdrawal). More importantly, Johnson’s poor showing in New Hampshire (along with a failure to reach a deal with antiwar Democrats on Vietnam policy) had drawn the very formidable U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy (father of one of today’s nuisance candidates) into the race.

But according to those closest to him, LBJ did not withdraw from the 1968 contest because he was sure to lose his party’s nomination; after all, in those days before ubiquitous primaries, LBJ’s designated successor, Hubert Humphrey, won the nomination without entering a single primary. Johnson called it quits after he decided to announce a major peace initiative (the bombing halt was part of it) in Vietnam and did not want it to be perceived as a mere candidate maneuver. Additionally, LBJ, who nearly died of a heart attack over a decade earlier, had a family history of short life spans and did not feel up to another four years in office, unlike Biden. (Johnson actually died just two days after the next presidential term ended, even without the pressures of the Oval Office.)

Yes, Biden is an aging incumbent Democrat with less than ideal popularity, and you never know what pitfalls his presidency might encounter between now and November 2024. But having decided to run for a second term, there’s no particular reason to think he’ll change his mind, and no reason at all to think his party will push him away from its nomination. So Hugh Hewitt needs a different scenario to imagine in his service to the GOP.


May 10: Warning: Republicans May Not Mind a Debt Default

In looking at the dynamics of the debt limit standoff in Washington, it occurred to me that some Republicans may view this not as a risky situation but as a win-win proposition, so I wrote a warning at New York:

In any high-stakes conflict in which combatants have taken diametrically opposed positions, avoiding a destructive outcome depends on equivalent risks and rewards. If failure to reach an agreement is an unmitigated disaster for one side and something less than that for the other, the latter is very likely to win any game of chicken.

The comforting conventional wisdom about the rapidly impending debt-limit collision in Congress is that the House Republicans (and their largely passive Senate GOP allies) precipitating the crisis have as much to lose as the White House and Senate Democrats. If there’s any doubt that Kevin McCarthy will ultimately find some way to avoid a debt default, it’s because the wildly reckless House Freedom Caucus, whose members seem to relish a national or global economic calamity, hold his continuation as Speaker in their hands. So from the point of view of Democrats and allegedly responsible Republicans, the game has been to find some face-saving way for McCarthy to do the right thing, as he surely wants to do, without losing his precious gavel.

But what if the assumption that we’re in a mutually assured destruction scenario is not exactly right? What if McCarthy or the Freedom Caucus or some other strategically positioned group of Republicans is convinced that disaster for the economy and the country could produce an electoral victory for the GOP? If so, that would destroy any incentives for compromise: Republicans will either win important concessions from Joe Biden and his Democrats that would gratify potentially rebellious MAGA types or they’ll inherit a damaged country in November 2024 amid the sort of radically diminished expectations that ease the burden of governing.

One danger sign Democrats should note is public-opinion research indicating that Americans are inclined to apportion blame equally for the debt-limit crisis even though they favor the Democratic position on how to avoid calamity, according to a new ABC/Washington Post survey (a flawed but nonetheless influential poll):

“A 58 percent majority of Americans say the debt limit and federal spending should be handled as separate issues, down from 65 percent who said this in February. A much smaller 26 percent of Americans say Congress should only allow the government to pay its debts if Biden agrees to cut spending, the same share as February….

“The poll finds 39 percent of Americans say they would blame Republicans in Congress if the government goes into default, and 36 percent say they would blame President Biden and 16 percent volunteer that they would blame both equally. (That dynamic is similar to the 2011 debt limit showdown, when 42 percent said they would blame congressional Republicans and 36 percent said they would blame President Obama. Lawmakers averted a default that year.)”

The 2011 analogy is important for both parties. As Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer recalls, the 44th president’s standing going into a reelection year was almost fatally damaged even by a near-miss of a debt default:

“In 2011, [Obama] spent months negotiating with Speaker John Boehner to strike a ‘grand bargain’ that would help solve America’s longstanding fiscal problems. But Mr. Boehner couldn’t deliver his caucus in support of the framework, and the nation hurtled toward default. With only a few days to go, negotiators were able to strike a smaller agreement that satisfied no one, left both sides angry about the result and was damaging for the country. The United States’ credit rating was downgraded for the first time in the nation’s history, and borrowing costs for the government went up.

“Mr. Obama’s approval rating slumped, even dipping below 40 percent in Gallup polling. Our internal polling in the White House showed the president losing re-election handily to a generic Republican.”

Barack Obama managed to claw back much of his popularity and was reelected in 2012, but it was a near thing. Republicans may calculate that an actual debt default, likely followed by a recession, would doom any incumbent president, particularly if voters are inclined to blame that president at least partly for a debt default triggered by the other party.

The abiding truth is that chief executives who preside over a major economic contraction do not often get reelected. This phenomenon dates all the way back to the administration of Martin Van Buren and shortened such recent presidencies as those of Gerald FordJimmy CarterGeorge H.W. Bush, and arguably (though a lot of other things were going on) Donald Trump.

The possibility that at least some Republicans may glimpse a silver lining in a debt default is all the more reason that their buddies on Wall Street (who literally cannot afford to be so sanguine about a market meltdown) should be making it very clear the GOP will never see another campaign contribution if it runs Biden and the U.S. economy right off the road.


May 3: 2024 Battlegrounds

When you’ve been following presidential elections as long as I have, you realize that yesterday’s battleground states can become today’s deeply red or blue states. So at New York I wrote up some thoughts about which states may matter most in 2024.

Close presidential elections are a defining feature of our political era. And thanks to the Electoral College system, that means each contest is really waged in a handful of battleground states, which draw the bulk of campaign spending and candidate elbow grease. There is nothing preordained about battleground states’ location or number. The map has already shifted several times in just this century, and several states we think of as battlegrounds today may be noncompetitive in 2024.

A look back at the shifting battlegrounds in recent presidential elections is instructive. Using the most common definition of a battleground state as one decided by less than 5 percent of the vote, the 2000 election had these 12 battleground states: Florida (of course), Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

In 2004, another close election, there were again 12 battleground states. But Missouri and Tennessee dropped off the list while Colorado and Michigan joined it.

We can skip past the 2008 election, which Barack Obama won by a popular-vote margin of more than 7 percent. Obama’s 2012 reelection victory was much closer; there were only four states decided by less than five points, and only Florida and Ohio were battleground states in both 2004 and 2012. North Carolina and Virginia joined the list of close states.

In 2016, when Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College in a shocker, the battleground map shifted again. The number of closely contested states blossomed from four to 11 with Ohio and Virginia dropping off the list and Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin joining the list.

And finally, in 2020 there were eight battleground states in an election that Joe Biden won by a comfortable margin of the popular vote but a much closer Electoral College margin. Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, and New Hampshire dropped off the battleground list and Georgia joined it.

Florida is the only state that was decided by less than 5 percent of the vote in all five of the elections we’ve examined. Yet if you were going to pick the 2020 battleground state most likely to drop off the list in 2024, it’s probably the rapidly Republican-trending Sunshine State. Perhaps the second-most likely to become less competitive in 2024 is Democratic-trending Michigan. Both of the areas saw statewide sweeps in 2022 by the increasingly ascendant party.

To be clear, ultimately the battleground states are determined by where the presidential campaigns choose to “play” and, more to the point, to spend money. The map is determined not just by the results of the most recent presidential elections but by the number of electoral votes at stake, the relative cost of advertising, and the opportunities to strategically outmaneuver the opposing party (e.g., by forcing the party to expend resources and candidate time where it really would prefer to take a pass). That process has already begun for 2024.

It’s all another reason to pay at least as much attention to state as to national polls, even though the former tend to be less accurate than the latter.

But it’s also important to recognize that there’s a risk of perpetually fighting the last war in focusing on the previous election’s battlegrounds. In living memory, such highly noncompetitive states as California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas have been presidential battleground states. The map never stops changing. We may be reminded of that again in 2024 when things don’t go as expected.


April 28: No, Biden Need Not Fear an Early State Upset

Now that Joe Biden has officially announced his reelection bid with nuisance-level opposition, there’s some speculation that the changing Democratic primary calendar could post pitfalls for the president. I discussed that theory at New York:

There is zero reason for Joe Biden to worry about the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, barring some unforeseeable development. Party elites are entirely in his corner. No viable opponents have emerged. And even among rank-and-file Democrats, where Biden’s support has always been a bit mushy, scattered polling shows him far ahead of announced rivals Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who undoubtedly benefits from positive name ID unassociated with his eccentric recent views) and Marianne Williamson. To put it bluntly, if either of those candidates does become viable as an aspirant for the presidential nomination, the Democratic Party will have become unrecognizable.

That’s not to say, however, that these out-there candidates might not be capable of an embarrassingly strong showing in an isolated contest under very special circumstances. And those circumstances might be early contests in Iowa or New Hampshire, which won’t matter in the final analysis but could get significant media coverage out of sheer force of habit.

Biden himself is barred from competing in Iowa and New Hampshire, which have been the two kickoff states in the presidential nominating process since 1972. That’s because the Democratic National Committee acceded to Biden’s request for a new primary calendar in which South Carolina goes first and Iowa has been ejected from the list of “early states” holding contests prior to March 1. If (and this is still up in the air) Iowa persists with a “first-in-the-nation-caucus,” that will be an unsanctioned event and candidates competing there could lose delegates and even debate access. Whatever happens in Iowa, an unsanctioned primary is all but certain in New Hampshire, where state law requires both parties to hold contests the same day as established by the secretary of State, whose mission is to keep the Granite State first on the primary calendar. But while Biden will stay out of these proscribed contests (it would be a bit absurd for the party’s leader to violate the party’s rules), Kennedy and Williamson, having nothing to lose from sanctions and a lot to gain from a day of headlines, will undoubtedly run hard wherever Biden can’t.

What can Team Biden do to preempt the possibility of an embarrassing early loss to Team WooWoo? In Iowa, with its robust caucus traditions, and where nobody really blames Biden for the state’s loss of status (that became inevitable when the party couldn’t get the votes counted on Caucus Night in 2020), it’s likely caucusgoers pledged either to Biden or to no one will be able to subdue Kennedy or Williamson (and again, Iowa Democrats may just comply with the new calendar, allowing Biden to run there).

New Hampshire’s a bit trickier. Compliance with the new calendar is not an option, and there is some genuine Democratic anger at Biden for dropping the hammer on the Granite State. Still, New Hampshire Democrats don’t want to send an anti-vaxx slate (to cite one possible outcome) to the convention in Chicago, and they’d just as soon not throw their state to the GOP in the general election, either. As nomination-process wizard Josh Putnam notes, New Hampshire Democrats might mount a write-in effort for Biden, but they would be in trouble if it fell short: “If Williamson or Kennedy stand to gain in that scenario, it may not be Biden who loses. It may be New Hampshire that loses even more clout with the national party for 2028.”

Democrats nationally do have a number of months left to persuade the political media to ignore whatever happens in Iowa (if the state goes rogue) and New Hampshire, though there’s no question conservative media will go absolutely wild if Kennedy or Williamson officially wins in an early state, even if Biden’s not on the ballot and no one is campaigning on his behalf. There’s only so much the president’s people can do about how Fox News or the New York Post spin non-news into a big story. Probably the smart thing for them is to threaten local Democrats in any state Biden can’t enter with unending vengeance if they in any way encourage other candidates or lend credence to their empty “wins.”