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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

May 27: Trump Preparing Challenge to an Election Loss

In watching Trump’s bizarre messaging on voting by mail, it hit me that he wasn’t really trying to influence election laws, and I wrote it up at New York:

Trump is now regularly claiming that voting by mail is inherently illegitimate, except for grudging exceptions for people who can’t make it to the polls. So, presumably, states that allow for no-excuse voting by mail in November are holding “substantially fraudulent” elections, to use his description for such procedures.  That’s 34 states who do so by law (including battleground states Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), 11 more that so far are waiving excuse requirements this pandemic year (including New Hampshire), and another that may be forced to do so by a lawsuit (Texas).

A group of 30 political scientists who recently met to look at scary post-election scenarios explained exactly how a vote-by-mail contest might play out, as Louis Jacobson noted at Cook Political Report:

“On Election Night, the Republicans have the lead in a key battleground state, but that lead is erased due to late-counted ballots favoring the Democrats. The participants looked at a scenario where this happened in Michigan. This state already has a modestly high level of mail balloting and expects to have significantly more this fall due to the pandemic. (Notice how these scenarios all revolve around the critical battleground states?)

“President Donald Trump could tweet that the initial count was sufficient and that mail ballots — an election method he’s already inveighed against repeatedly — are illegitimate and thus shouldn’t be counted.

“In Michigan, Democrats occupy the offices of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general, but the GOP controls both legislative chambers. Michigan Republicans could back Trump’s position and decide to submit their own slate of (Republican) electors, bucking the slate that is officially certified by the Democratic officeholders.”

If that seems implausible to you, remember how House Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy proclaimed in 2018 there was something fishy in late-counted mail and provisional ballots that enabled Democrats to overtake Republicans after Election Night in California House districts. There were no formal challenges because, (a) there was not a scintilla of evidence anything improper was going on (young and minority voters who lean Democratic are more likely than others to send in mail ballots late or to cast ballots deemed provisional because of some superficial flaw, and Democrats simply took greater advantage of changes in election procedures), and (b) the GOP lost the House by far more seats than those flipped in California.

In a close presidential election where one or two states may well determine the outcome in the Electoral College, crying “fraud” could have much more serious consequences. And yes, a Republican-controlled state legislature might claim for itself the right to name electors in a “disputed” popular-vote scenario; that very nearly happened in Florida in 2000 until the U.S. Supreme Court decided to intervene and award the presidency to George W. Bush.

Slow counts aside, other disputes involving voting by mail could trigger chaos, as in another scenario discussed by Jacobson’s political scientists:

“The participants discussed an example involving Philadelphia voters who, due to coronavirus-related delays, received their absentee ballots late. In this scenario, a state court has allowed these voters to vote by using an existing federal absentee ballot that is typically used by overseas servicemembers. The court allowed them to submit these ballots by the deadline for overseas voters, one week after the election.

“In the scenario, the GOP has challenged this state court decision in federal court, citing a lack of due process and arguing that it unfairly changed the rules of an election in the middle. The Democratic Party countered that the remedy imposed by the state court was justified because it was based on equal protection. In other words, both parties pointed to credible constitutional arguments for their case.”

And if Pennsylvania happens to be the tiebreaker in the Electoral College, you could again have the spectacle of the U.S. Supreme Court deciding a presidential election — all based on the kind of fact situation that led that same Supreme Court to order the disallowance of late mail ballots cast in Wisconsin during its primary earlier this year.

In a fair and rational world, we’d decide the presidency in a national popular-vote election under uniform national procedures and with Congress making available resources for efficient voting and counting and for the prevention and detection of actual fraud, such as it is. Trump and his party, however, not only support maintenance of the Electoral College forever but support and oppose state election decisions strictly based on who might benefit. It creates the situation where any relatively close election will be contested by those who have been told it has already been “rigged.” Even if chaos does not ensue, confidence in democracy will be seriously undermined, paving the way for God knows what.

May 21: Trump’s Final 2020 Message May Be: POTUS Interruptus

The more I look at how Trump is adjusting to the coronavirus crisis, the more I think he may have a truly perverse reelection message. I outlined one strong possibility at New York:

As you’d expect from any president with a low-to-mediocre job-approval rating, Donald Trump has been working to keep his reelection bid from becoming a referendum election based on judgments about his record. Instead, he hopes to make 2020 a comparative election by promoting fears about the opposition. The coronavirus pandemic has obviously complicated this effort by creating the sort of horrific living conditions that are fundamentally incompatible with any upbeat reelection message. “You never had it so good eight months ago” isn’t a very compelling slogan, even if you buy the premise that the pre-pandemic economy was near ideal and that Trump was responsible for producing it.

But that may be the underlying idea of Trump’s reelection pitch, as an AP report suggests:

“Aiming to energize his base less than six months before he stands for reelection, the president has drawn a cultural link between the disaffected who voted for him four years ago and those who want to quickly restart the nation’s economy. Amplified by conservative media commentators, Trump has leaned into the pandemic’s partisan divide and urged states to reopen regardless of whether they meet the benchmarks set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“’They want to get out there, and they want to get back,’ Trump said recently of those agitating to restart the nation’s economy. ‘That’s what they want. They want their country back, and they’re getting it back.’”

If that sounds a lot like Trump’s 2016 rhetoric, it’s no mistake. Since the pandemic and its economic effects have ruined his presidency, he’s able to put himself right out there with the “reopening” activists as someone fighting government on behalf of the “forgotten Americans,” notably small business owners and white wage earners in areas with relatively low COVID-19 infection rates. Yes, he’s running as an “outsider” again, which, if effective, is the best way to avoid a referendum election. And it helps that his opponent has been regularly employed at high levels of the federal government since 1973.

Earlier this week, the president’s son Eric offered a more demented take on this Trumpian grievance over COVID-19, as my colleague Matt Steib observed earlier this week:

“Speaking with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, Eric Trump said that Democrats were using shutdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19 as an attempt to take away ‘Donald Trump’s greatest tool, which is being able to go into an arena and fill it with 50,000 people every single time. You watch, they’ll milk it every single day between now and November 3. And guess what, after November 3, coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear and everybody will be able to reopen.'”

The idea that COVID-19 — engineered by China and made worse by Democrats — has sabotaged the most successful presidency since George Washington’s seems to be at the core of everything Trump has been saying lately. So he cannot possibly be held accountable for any of the suffering Americans are experiencing. After all, he’s suffering too, and is mourning for “his” lost economic boom. And he’s fighting the same smug elites that are telling Americans to wear masks and keep their businesses and churches closed and just suck it up until they’re told they can have their country back.

It’s an audacious message if he sticks to it, but one that has the advantage of letting Trump run on a portion of his record while attributing the more recent disasters to the same old enemies he’s been fighting for so long.

May 20: My Angry Rap About the “Enthusiasm Gap”

At New York this week, I unloaded on one of my pet peeves:

Those of us who get paid to write about politics inevitably have some meme or theory or habit of speech we hear regularly offered that makes us a bit crazy. For me it is the “enthusiasm gap,” which is touted every two years to claim that one party or the other or one candidate or the other is in a superior position because their supporters are psyched out of their skulls. Here’s the 2020 version presented on Trump’s behalf at the Washington Examiner by Kimberly Ross:

“At the end of March, an ABC News-Washington Post poll revealed that ’74 percent of those supporting Biden are doing so enthusiastically, compared to 86 percent of Trump supporters.’ And an April Emerson College poll showed that Republican voters are far more excited about voting for Trump than Democratic voters are for Biden.

“The simple fact is that regardless of messaging, Biden can’t elicit as much passion as his opponent, the unapologetic and charismatic president….

“Democrats may have an enthusiasm problem, but frankly, they don’t have much time left to fix it.”

Before getting to the root problem with this point of view, I’d note that those promoting it often don’t offer exactly convincing evidence even if you accept their premise. Here’s another big data point from Ross:

“According to a recent Rasmussen poll released Thursday [May 14], the gap in party energy between the two candidates is rather wide. When it comes to Republicans, 70% believe Trump should be the nominee compared to 23% who believe another should take his place. Another 7% are undecided. On the Democratic side, 54% believe Biden should be the nominee relative to 28% who would prefer someone else. A whopping 18% of likely Democratic voters remain unsure.”

You don’t have to be an especially acute observer of political news to be aware that Trump had no significant opposition for his party’s nomination (to the point where states were canceling presidential primaries long before COVID-19 showed up), while Biden had to fight through more than 20 opponents and still hasn’t clinched a majority of delegates. Of course Trump has more “energy” if that’s how you define it.

“[T]here are a couple of problems with this assumption, namely (1) ‘enthusiasm’ does not reward the base voter with additional trips to the ballot box, and (2) there are quite a few factors other than “enthusiasm” that affect turnout rates.

“On this first point, the reality is that the voters most likely to vary in levels of ‘enthusiasm’ are those most likely to vote — and most partisan in their leanings — in the first place. Short of a rare self-conscious revolt, the party is going to get their votes, even if the voters have mixed feelings about it. ‘Enthusiasm,’ unless it’s infectious…is quite frankly a wasted quality from a strictly electoral point of view. It may excite partisan journalists to sense their voters are snake-dancing to the polls (recall all those excited conservative columns in late October 2012 about the size of Romney rallies in places like Pennsylvania), but it doesn’t necessarily add to the length of the snake.”

That is, an unexcited Biden vote counts exactly as much as an excited Trump vote. Yes, enthusiasm matters up to the point that it exists sufficiently to get the voter to the polls. But unenthusiastic voters trudge to presidential elections every year – the bar for whether one will cast a vote for a candidate is considerably lower than whether someone will profess to be enthusiastic about said candidate in a poll .

In downballot or even presidential nomination races, “enthusiasm” is valuable in producing campaign contributions and volunteer signups. “Enthusiasm” is legal tender in the Iowa Caucuses, but not so much in a presidential general election in which money is largely not that significant and both candidates have near-universal name ID and vast armies of partisans at their disposal.

Now you can make a case that enthusiasm can become contagious via social media or interest- and identity-group organizing, which makes it a vote-multiplier if not a vote-originator. But you cannot measure the quantity or quality of such efforts by asking big samples of voters whether they are excited or kinda meh about their preferred candidate. One reason campaigns exist is to maximize the electoral payoff for inputs like partisanship, strong issue-commitments, and perceived identification with a candidate. “Enthusiasm” is nothing more than a raw material for campaign practitioners.

So let’s please hear a lot less about it, at least until we are on the brink of the election and can begin to make a real-time assessment of the obstacles to voting for those who favor Trump or Biden–whether it’s the coronavirus, or voter-suppression efforts, or a relative lack of “enthusiasm.”

May 14: Major-Party Unity Means Less Oxygen for Minor Parties

In a continuing effort to show that 2020 is not just another 2016, I wrote about minor-party candidates at New York:

To put it mildly, the 2020 presidential contest is being haunted by what happened in 2016. For one thing, it helps explain the widespread belief that Donald Trump will win despite considerable evidence inimical to his cause, whether that belief is based on mistrust of polls, or observation of the enthusiasm of his base, or the suspicion that he sold his soul to the Infernal Lord Satan in exchange for earthly power.

There is one particular element of the 2016 experience, however, that may be less compelling than others looking ahead to November: the strength of minor political parties, which had a boffo year last time around. As I noted recently, there are multiple reasons for expecting a considerably diminished showing by the Greens, the Libertarians, and other minor parties in November, ranging from less-well-known presidential candidates to the impact of the coronavirus on ballot access in states where numerous petitions must be gathered. Justin Amash’s recently announced Libertarian candidacy could boost that party’s vote a bit, particularly in his home state of Michigan. But as Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman argue in a new analysis at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, there’s another big reason we can expect minor-party voting to decline: The major parties are significantly more united than they were in 2016:

“[T]he top election on this list [of strong third-party performances]— 1912 — is the cleanest example of a divided party leading to the rise of a big third party vote. Theodore Roosevelt, upset with the performance of his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, tried to win the GOP nomination. He was rebuffed, so he created his own party and ran for president. The Republican vote splintered, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency easily despite getting only 42% of the vote.

“But we can also see this phenomenon in some of these other elections.

“George Wallace, the conservative, segregationist Democrat who ran third party in 1968, ran strongest in the South, the conservative region that had once formed the backbone of the Democratic Party but was in the midst of breaking away from its ancestral party over the party’s leftward evolution on civil rights and other issues.”

The biggest third-party showings preceded major-party splits or transitions, including Wallace’s (four years later the once-solid Democratic South had become solidly Republican in voting to reelect Richard Nixon). And there was quite a bit of noisy intraparty opposition to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton four years ago. In the current race, that has mostly subsided:

“This naturally removes some of the oxygen for third party candidates, and the lack of major intraparty strife makes this election, to us, more reminiscent of 2004 and 2012, when George W. Bush and Barack Obama won second terms in competitive elections that featured very low levels of third party voting. Indeed, in 2012, Florida was the only state were neither major party candidate took a majority of the vote — by 2016, there were 14 states where both major candidates polled under 50%.”

There’s another factor that may strengthen party unity while discouraging “protest votes.” Just about everyone expects a close election, and those who thought Clinton had it in the bag in 2016 and voted third-party (or stayed home) may be particularly immune to minor-party siren songs. The above-mentioned Democrats who are still shocked by what happened four years ago may put on the party harness and never even consider taking it off:

“This time, even though Trump generally trails nationally and in at least some of the most important swing states, he still is favored by betting markets, and he usually does better in polls asking people who they believe will win as opposed to those that ask who voters are supporting. Democrats, burned by expectations in 2016, likely will remain guarded no matter what the polls say.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty going into this election, much of it associated with how little we know about the trajectory of the coronavirus, the economic damage it has wrought, and how COVID-19 will affect voter turnout. But the odds are higher than ever that any “swing” vote late in the game will be oscillating between the Donkey and Elephant brands.

May 13: Unclear What Trump Gains From “Obamagate”

After puzzling over our president’s latest wild twitter-storm, I offered some thoughts at New York:

It’s a well-established fact of contemporary politics that partisan polarization has reached the point where “base mobilization” has become more important than swing-voter persuasion in winning close elections. And a supreme emphasis on the Republican base has been particularly notable in Trumpworld, with its strategy of scorching the ground between the two parties and demonizing the opposition.

From that perspective, the cluster of revisionist-history lessons and conspiracy theories the president likes to call “Obamagate” has been especially useful, in that it provides an innocent explanation for many of the very bad things Trump himself has been credibly accused of doing. Tim Miller provides a simple explanation of Obamagate:

“Four years ago, there was a global conspiracy — comprised of President Obama, Vice-President Biden, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director Jim Comey, much of the FBI, the DNC, a company called CrowdStrike, multiple foreign-intelligence services, and Ukrainian oligarchs — to undermine Donald Trump by planting a phony conspiracy theory that he was colluding with the Russians to win the 2016 election. These deep-state operators framed several top Trump officials, fabricated evidence, and spied on the campaign with the end goal of committing the biggest fraud in American history in order to derail Trump.”

In one fell swoop, “Obamagate” turns Trump from a sleazy practitioner of corrupt and arguably unpatriotic campaign tactics into a victim of those same tactics, perpetrated by a “deep state” liberal Establishment whose depredations account for virtually every negative “story” coming out of the Trump administration from the day it took power. As House Republicans argued vociferously during the impeachment proceedings against Trump late last year, this conspiracy not only cooked up the findings of the Mueller investigation (to the extent said investigation didn’t exonerate Trump), but also the Ukraine scandal involving Trump’s efforts to smear Joe Biden, which got it all exactly backward.

Instead of serving as an alternative account of recent history that undermines the conventional understanding of Trump as a scofflaw who would do anything to seize or retain power, Obamagate in Trump’s own hands looks to be a wild and insanely complicated tale of liberal perfidy, by which the 45th president accuses the 44th president of perpetrating “the biggest political crime in American history, by far!”

As David Frum notes, Obamagate is so complicated and implausible that it cannot possibly serve as a persuasive argument for Trump’s reelection:

“The ‘Obamagate’ that Trump tweets about — like the comic-book universes on which it seems to be modeled — is a tangle of backstories. The main characters do things for reasons that make no objective sense, things that can be decoded only by obsessive superfans on long Reddit threads.

“So you’re saying that the deep state set up this whole elaborate plot to entrap Trump, but instead of using any of that material, it instead sabotaged Hillary Clinton ten days before the election?

“No, no, you don’t get it. You’ve gotta go back to the Benghazi episode four seasons back. Well, really to Troopergate, but that’s only available on DVD …”

It all makes sense in MAGA-land, but does Trump really need any enhancement of his support in those regions? As Obamagate becomes an ever-more-complicated tale, is anyone going to read it other than those who are already convinced of its veracity and importance?

Probably not. And that makes you wonder if Trump is drinking his own Kool-Aid, and shirking swing-voter persuasion in an endless effort to fire up troops who are already psyched out of their skulls. Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade says Trump wants this election to be “Obama against Trump” rather than “Biden against Trump.” What is he thinking? Obama is a lot more popular than either 2020 candidate. But the Tea Party–turned-MAGA folk from whom Trump draws his energy are still hating on the 44th president in a way that probably mystifies swing voters. The 45th president doesn’t seem to care. It could be a fatal mistake.

May 8: Democrats Should Prioritize the Judiciary Like Republicans Have

Something happened in Congress this week that reflects some important partisan dynamics, as I explained at New York:

At the beginning of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for DC Court of Appeals nominee Justin Walker, Democrats suggested it said a lot about Republican priorities that the Senate was called back into session during a pandemic to speed the ascent to the higher ranks of the federal judiciary this 37-year-old Brett Kavanaugh protégé from Mitch McConnell’s home state, CNN reports:

“During opening statements, Democrats on the committee also blasted McConnell for focusing on the nomination amid the pandemic, with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois laying out a ‘lengthy’ list of things he said the panel could be doing instead to address the crisis.

“’We’re in the middle of one of the greatest public health crisis in the history our nation. We’re sitting in a committee with jurisdiction in so many critical areas when it comes to this crisis and instead Sen. McConnell is unwilling to set aside his wish list fulfilling the courts,’ Durbin said.”

Durbin was right. McConnell could not have cared less about the criticism. And therein lies an important partisan difference these days.

McConnell’s judicial “wish list” really is central to his conception of what he is in Washington to do. And it is the iron cord that binds him to Donald Trump and to the Republican Party: moving the judiciary — particularly the Supreme Court, but lower courts, too (and the DC Circuit is considered the top rung of the latter of “lower courts”) — in a sharply ideological direction.

It was not universally understood at the time, but arguably the turning point in Trump’s improbable 2016 campaign, creating unquestionably the one promise he has kept as president, occurred in March of 2016, as Time reported then:

It was a crucial step in reconciling conservatives to his candidacy, and his presidency, as I noted at the time:

“[S]omebody is giving him good advice about how to address the concerns of conservatives about his ideological reliability.

“Of all the things they fear about a President Trump, the most urgent is that he will throw away a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape SCOTUS and constitutional law. And of all the temptations they have to hold their noses and support the man despite all of his heresies and erratic behavior, the most powerful would be the confident belief that at least he would position the Court to overrule Roe v. Wade, protect Citizens United, overturn Obama’s executive orders, eviscerate regulation of businesses, inoculate religion-based discrimination, and maybe even introduce a new Lochner era of constitutionally enshrined property rights. This would be a legacy that might well outweigh the risks associated with a Trump presidency.”

He ultimately released his SCOTUS list in May of 2016, with, we now know, Leonard Leo, executive vice-president of that guild of right-wing legal beagles, the Federalist Society, being the principal vetter. He amplified his list in September of 2016 (an act that brought around conservative holdout Ted Cruz, among others) and among the new prospects were Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The Federalist Society’s involvement brought directly into Trump’s judicial selection process an organization that had been building a pipeline to the judiciary since its founding in 1982. And it provided a simple and essential litmus test for Trump with conservatives — particularly the conservative Evangelicals devoted to the goal of reversing crucial liberal precedents creating a right to abortion and to same-sex marriage — he would either pass or fail. Exit polls showed that over a fourth of Trump voters called his impact on SCOTUS the single most important reason they voted as they did.

He passed with the appointments of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to SCOTUS, and is burnishing his report card with lower-court appointments. In all cases, he is choosing judges who are relatively young (Gorsuch was 49, Kavanaugh 53 upon appointment; the average age of the pre-Trump SCOTUS justices on the court is now 71; the average age of his Court of Appeals appointees is 48, well under the average for recent presidents) and thoroughly vetted. No significant effort is being made to appoint judges with bipartisan support. But then those who relied on Trump’s promises didn’t want or need such efforts.

If Trump has bonded with conservatives by his judicial appoointments, Mitch McConnell has bonded with Trump by confirming them as efficiently as he can. The suspension of Senate proceedings due to the coronavirus pandemic interrupted this crucial process. So starting it back up as quickly as possible made perfect sense from the Republican point of view. In case any Republicans are tempted to stray from the party harness in November, they will be reminded as regularly as possible that on this one measure of success that lives on for decades, Trump and his party have delivered and will continue to do so for the next four years.

Do Democrats care as much about the judiciary? Some do, particularly women, LGBTQ folks, and members of groups in danger of losing their voting rights. But Democrats did not “weaponize” judicial appointments in 2016 anywhere near the extent Republicans have, and while Trump and McConnell have won test after test of their resolve, Democrats lost theirs by failing to find a way to force the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland for the last 11 months of the Obama presidency.

As Republicans cheered the progress of their child-judge Walker to the DC Circuit, Democrats were praying for the health of 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who participated by phone in oral arguments from a hospital bed where she was recovering from a flare-up of a chronic gallbladder ailment. It was a grim reflection of each party’s long-term positioning in the effort to shape the judiciary and, through it, constitutional law.

May 7: Are Never Trumpers Now a Democratic Faction?

The Democratic Party is a constantly evolving coalition, so I looked at a potential new element for New York:

[T]here’s nothing that annoys politically informed people more than overestimating the impact of the Never Trump Republicans (or ex-Republicans) who are already overrepresented in the punditocracy, including such key precincts as cable TV and the op-ed pages of the New York Times. But four years after Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party, it is probably a good time to get some perspective on Never Trumpers and their significance. Perry Bacon Jr. gives us a good start at FiveThirtyEight:

“Anti-Donald Trump activism among conservatives — known informally as the “#NeverTrump” movement — started in early 2016 as a way to stop the businessman from winning the GOP nomination. It failed.

“Even by the slightly broader standard of influencing Republican politics, #NeverTrump has been largely unsuccessful …

“But ‘Never Trumpers’ are increasingly involved in the Democratic Party and have gradually shifted their tactics in that direction — effectively becoming a ‘Never Trump’ and ‘Never Bernie Sanders’ coalition. And they appear to be having more success shaping their new party than the one that many of them had been associated with for much of their lives.”

So Bacon does not treat this high-profile tribe (whose membership includes media figures Joe Scarborough, Bill Kristol, Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, David Brooks, George Will, and many others) as they were once widely regarded, as representatives of a sort of permanent conservative aristocracy that would outlive Trumpism and rise again in some future — perhaps near future — GOP. Recognizing that the Republican Party’s heart, soul, and membership now belong to POTUS, Bacon regards Never Trumpers as having largely made the transition from one party to the other. And in that respect, they represent not the small number of GOP holdouts quietly resisting Trump, but the voters who have defected as Trump replaced George W. Bush and Mitt Romney as the definer of Republican (and conservative movement) orthodoxy. And whether or not their numbers justify the heavy presence of Never Trumpers in the commentariat, these defectors are a real phenomenon:

“[I]t is possible that 5 to 10 percent of the people who will vote for Biden in November backed either Romney in 2012 or Trump in 2016 and at some point identified as conservative or Republican. So while “Never Trump” conservatives are a smaller and less formal constituency in the Democratic Party than black voters, for example, some of them feel exiled from a Republican Party dominated by Trump, backed Democrats in the 2018 midterms and participated in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Michael Halle, a strategist on Buttigieg’s campaign, said about 50 of the campaign’s county precinct captains in Iowa were former Republicans who changed their party registration to become Democrats so they could participate in the caucuses and back the former mayor.”

At the elite level, Bacon’s right in observing the active role Never Trumpers played in warning Democrats to eschew Bernie Sanders. It’s less clear that they spoke for a sizable body of swing voters who were prepared to vote for anybody but Bernie against Trump. There is some evidence that a lot of the upscale suburban voters who gave Democrats some of their most notable 2018 gains joined African-Americans in the coalition Joe Biden put together to beat Sanders on Super Tuesday and subsequent primaries. So perhaps Never Trumpers do represent, as Bacon suggests, a new Democratic Party faction serving as a not-so-heavy counterweight to the better known progressive tendency. More likely they are simply merging into the Donkey Party’s preexisting moderate wing.

By and large, these people, at both the elite and grassroots level, resemble the neoconservatives of the 1970s and 1980s. Before “neoconservatism” became associated with a specific GOP foreign-policy school of the early-21st century (mostly identified with the failed military enterprise in Iraq), it referred to a group of disgruntled Democratic thinkers and movers who gradually abandoned their party over an assortment of cultural and foreign-policy grievances. The classic definition was offered by Bill Kristol’s father, Irving, a former leftist who quipped that a neoconservative was “a liberal mugged by reality.” The classic neoconservative leader was Jean Kirkpatrick, an adviser to old-school liberal Democratic presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson, who gradually left the Democratic Party during the Carter administration and eventually became a key figure (as ambassador to the United Nations, and as 1984 Republican Convention keynote speaker) in the Reagan administration.

As Anthony Elghossain explained recently, the original neocons weren’t just hawkish conservatives:

“Remaining relatively liberal on social and economic issues and rejecting conservatives’ isolationist impulses, these neocons — and some younger, internationalist hawks such as Richard Perle — spent the 1970s in a space occupied by Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson. They wanted to engage the world, not ‘come home.’ They wanted to confront, not contain or compromise with, communists. And they wanted to apply American power to pursue interests and ideals abroad.”

Like the Never Trumpers, the neocons represented an actual body of voters — particularly strongly anti-communist Catholics and white Southerners — drifting from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Like the Never Trumpers, they had some associates (notably Daniel Patrick Moynihan) who could not bring themselves to abandon the Old Faith. And there’s some tangible links between the older band of heretics and the new (e.g., Max Boot and the Kristol family).

Perhaps Never Trumpers will, like the neocons did, melt into their new party and eventually lose their identity, if not their history. Even in the short term, a narrative of 2020 that emphasizes such discrete developments as migrations between parties is likely to be swept away in the tide of pandemic and depression. But at the moment, Never Trumpers do offer some fresh impetus to the nonprogressive Democrats who are, for the moment, in charge of the urgent task of ridding the nation of Donald Trump. If they succeed, there will be many new questions about the future direction of both parties.

May 1: Trump Hates Polls Unless They Show Him Winning

Trump revived one of his more ridiculous routines this week, and I wrote about it at New York:

Nothing illustrates the self-interested moral relativism characterizing our president’s worldview quite like his purely instrumental view of public-opinion research. If it redounds to his power and glory, it’s wonderful and worth proclaiming to the whole world like some sort of heathen gospel. If it doesn’t, then it’s “fake” and the mendacious work of his anti-American enemies.

Since Trump hasn’t had that much to brag about in the way of polling results as president, it’s sometimes hard to remember that polls were about all he talked about in the early days of his 2016 campaign. Here’s a reminder from Politico in December 2015:

“Poll numbers are, unlike perhaps any candidate in history, central to Trump’s pitch to voters. In his telephone and in-person morning talk show interviews and his evening rallies, not to mention on his hyperactive Twitter account, he rarely lets an opportunity escape without mentioning his titanic standing. “Wow, my poll numbers have just been announced and have gone through the roof!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning …

“One Trump insider likens Trump’s obsession with his poll numbers to a TV executive’s hunger for ratings: ‘It’s a barometer of success.'”

He was fairly promiscuous in praise of pollsters, so long as they made him look good:

“After a favorable poll release from CNN last week, for instance, he tweeted his thanks to the network and political team for ‘very professional reporting.'”

After he won the Republican presidential nomination, however, the support he had been getting from a surprisingly large plurality of Republican primary voters didn’t project so well onto the much bigger landscape of a general-election audience. In the RealClearPolitics national polling averages of the general election, Trump led Hillary Clinton for two brief moments, in May and then in July. But for the most part, he trailed HRC, which led, of course, to the Myth of Bad 2016 Polls, which Trump is still repeating today, tweeting: “FAKE POLLING, just like 2016 (but worse)!”

The reality is that 2016 polling was reasonably accurate, as Nate Silver, who thought more highly of Trump’s chances than most observers, pointed out in his exhaustive postmortem about erroneous expectations of a Clinton win:

“Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state. Certainly, there were individual pollsters that had some explaining to do, especially in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Trump beat his polls by a larger amount. But the result was not some sort of massive outlier; on the contrary, the polls were pretty much as accurate as they’d been, on average, since 1968.”

Yes, many pundits relying on polls overinterpreted them and did not anticipate Trump’s success in threading the needle and winning the electoral vote even as he lost the national popular vote by a pretty decisive margin. There’s a fair amount of evidence that the results surprised Team Trump, too. But the polls weren’t “fake.” And even if they were grievously in error in 2016, many polling outlets have made adjustments to their methodologies to increase accuracy, most notably by weighting samples for education levels to avoid the undersampling of non-college-educated white voters that may have artificially depressed support for Trump in some 2016 surveys.

None of this seems to matter to the president, for whom polling results are nothing more than agitprop to be praised or attacked, depending on how well they show him faring. Since recent head-to-head polls matching Trump against Joe Biden have been pretty generally negative for him (he trails the Democrat by 6.3 percent in the RCP polling averages), he’s on the warpath again. According to multiple accounts, his campaign’s internal polls show pretty much the same thing, and he’s sufficiently upset about it to lash out at the people around him, which is par for the course. Here’s how Vanity Fair reported a recent blowup with campaign manager Brad Parscale:

“[A]fter Trump’s disinfectant comments set off a new political firestorm — the president reportedly took his anger over his dimming electoral prospects out on Parscale, whom he shouted at over the phone. ‘[Trump is] pissed because he knows he messed up in those briefings,’ one Republican close to the White House told CNN about the president’s attack. CNN, which first reported the news of Trump’s call with Parscale, notes that Trump ‘berated’ the campaign manager for the president’s poor polling numbers, and even threatened to sue Parscale, though the Post reports the comment was intended as a joke.”

 It’s clear Trump wants to undermine the credibility of adverse polls as part of a broader project of undermining the credibility of unfriendly media. The erroneous but pervasive myth that polls got 2016 terribly wrong will help him in this endeavor, and if his polling performance improves, he will have no inhibitions about boasting that “even” the fake-news media’s fake polls acknowledge his towering popularity among a grateful populace. The scarier prospect is that he’s preparing to declare adverse election returns “fake” unless they confirm he’s won.

April 29: Clock Already Running Down on Expanded Access to Voting By Mail

I’ve been following the battles in Congress over the idea of a federal mandate to allow expanded voting by mail this November. But whoever’s winning at any given moment, time’s running out, as I noted at New York:

The question of how to conduct elections during and immediately after a pandemic has been a red-hot topic during the relatively brief span of the U.S. coronavirus crisis. It blew up big time during the latter stages of the stalled Democratic presidential primaries (particularly in the last state that attempted to hold a live-voting primary, Wisconsin), and became a highly partisan issue in congressional negotiations over the $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus legislation enacted last month.

Generally speaking, Democrats want voting by mail to be made available as broadly as possible going forward — preferably by mailing all registered voters ballots they can cast if they choose — and want the federal government to push states in that direction via carrots (major new federal funding) and sticks (a mandate). Most Republicans oppose major changes in voting practices to one degree or another. Some Republicans, notably the president, have claimed, without any actual evidence, that voting by mail is inherently vulnerable to massive fraud. And they are more or less united in opposing the kind of federal push toward voting by mail that Democrats have demanded. They did go along with a modest amount of federal funding for election assistance in the coronavirus stimulus bill, but kept it free of any mandates for voting by mail.

Congressional Democrats have renewed calls for conditional election assistance in negotiations over the next coronavirus stimulus legislation, as the Hill reports:

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to say on Friday how much money Democrats would try to include, saying she wouldn’t negotiate through the media. But Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said during a conference call with progressives groups on Friday that he would push to include $1.8 billion for mail-in voting and other ‘alternatives.’

“’I don’t think this president wants to have an election at all. I think he’s going to do everything he can to circumvent people going to the polls in November,’ Clyburn said during the call.”

But simply by waging a battle against expanded voting by mail, Republicans may be winning the war, because the clock is running down on major election rules and infrastructure changes in cash-strapped states that may not have the wherewithal to adopt near-universal voting by mail, even if they want to move in that direction, as Dominic Holden reports:

“’I would call it an emergency situation,’ said Carl Amacker, whose company, BlueCrest, makes Relia-Vote, a system that handles outbound mail ballots and processes them once they’re returned.

“BlueCrest currently supplies vote-by-mail systems to counties around the United States, yet like other leaders in the industry, it can’t expand those systems overnight. ‘Counties need to act very, very quickly,’ Amacker told BuzzFeed News, explaining that it can take months to build and install mail-in election systems. ‘The problem is we are going to run out of time.’

“Despite many inquiries in recent weeks, there are ‘not a lot of orders yet,’ added Jeff Ellington, president of Runbeck Election Services, which makes envelope sorters, prints mail-in ballots, and develops software to manage mail-in elections.”

The dirty little secret of American democracy is the ramshackle nature of our ridiculously decentralized system of elections. Starved of funds, staffed by elderly volunteers, often supervised by Republican state and local officials determined to hold down turnout for partisan reasons, that system didn’t get fixed after the Florida debacle in 2000 and now faces a supreme challenge. And in states with limited experience with voting by mail, it will soon be too late to change by November:

“The emerging consensus among industry leaders and election experts is that expanding voting by mail for November — particularly in large jurisdictions that haven’t processed a huge number of absentee ballots in the past — could require making commitments in the next few weeks …

“Getting ready for a big spike in mail-in ballots can involve months of preparation: In addition to building new machinery, the mere act of printing ballots is complex, as neighbors can be in different legislative districts, so ballots have numerous variations. Mail-in elections also entail constructing multilayer security envelopes, assigning each envelope a barcode for tracking, and installing computer systems to help verify voter signatures upon return.”

That’s in addition to the legal changes necessary in states that currently discourage voting by mail. Sixteen of them require an excuse for utilizing absentee ballots, though Democratic governors in Kentucky and New York have waived these requirements by executive order, and New Hampshire’s Republican election officials have announced that coronavirus fears represent a “disability,” which qualifies voters rationally convinced they are at risk to vote by mail there as well.

At some point, Democrats in Congress may need to decide whether fighting for weeks over conditions for federal-election assistance, or simply getting as much money into the pipeline as quickly as possible and hoping for the best, makes the most strategic sense. Any Democratic tack that delays election preparations, and thus elevates the odds of chaos, plays into the hands of the King of Chaos in the White House.

April 24: Trump Could Suffer the Fate of Late-Second-Term W.

In looking at various scenarios for how things will unfold politically between now and November, I landed on one nobody is much taking about, and I explained it at New York:

As signs proliferate that the coronavirus is spreading to nonurban Trump country, the odds of the president being able to seek reelection as the vengeful tribune of red America infuriated by a blue America pandemic that has wrecked the economy grow smaller. That’s not to say Trump won’t use every angle he can to divide voters along the same racial, cultural, and geographical lines that undergirded his 2016 victory. But he may now be vulnerable to growing unhappiness about his management of the crisis right there in his electoral base. Indeed, the rapid business reopening some of his Republican allies are engineering in pro-Trump states could expose the MAGA folk to the kind of infection rates normally associated with urban hot spots.

As Ron Brownstein explains, positive assessments of Trump’s handling of coronavirus has up until now closely tracked less-hard-hit areas where things could soon go terribly wrong:

“[Trump’s] precarious public support on the virus heavily depends on preponderant backing from voters in the places that have been least affected. The Pew Research Center divided respondents in its mid-April poll into three groups: those living in counties that faced high, medium, and low incidences of the disease as of early in the month. The high- and medium-impact counties on one side and the low-impact counties on the other each accounted for almost exactly half of the nation’s population.

“These areas diverged strikingly in their assessments of Trump’s response. And ominously for the president, assessments in the medium-impact counties were closer to the (mostly negative) high-impact group.”

So as the impact of the pandemic spreads, so too may downward pressure on Trump’s approval ratings, which are already very slowly sinking. And there could even be a tipping point where dismay with POTUS begins to eat into his base:

If this scenario seems unlikely given Trump’s strong hold on red America — and perhaps it is — we should remember another president who appeared to have unshakable support from his party’s base: George W. Bush.

In late July of 2005, W.’s job-approval rating among his fellow Republicans stood at 87 percent, a bit below where Trump’s are today. Among independents, he was at 46 percent. After his clueless performance in the management of Hurricane Katrina, his numbers began eroding, dipping to 79 percent among Republicans and 32 percent among indies in November and then 68 percent with Republicans and 28 percent with indies in May 2006, when the occupation of Iraq was beginning to become unpopular across party lines. By the time the economic crisis of 2008 kicked in, the president who had won two close red-blue slugfests by uniting the GOP and enthusing the conservative movement saw his job-approval rating drop to 55 percent among Republicans and 19 percent among independents. The “uniter, not divider” was doing neither very successfully.

I am by no means predicting that sort of trajectory is in store for Donald J. Trump, but it’s a scenario worth considering, particularly if he gambles on a highly partisan approach to COVID-19 that backfires with an increasingly infected red America, while failing to revive the economy. The whole country’s watching him on TV every day, and if he fails in this crisis, everyone’s going to see it, and only the most fervent supporters (or those lucky enough to live in the shrinking parts of the country with low rates of infection) will still be cheering. Yes, there are plenty of voters who will cast ballots for him no matter how he handles the coronavirus and the economic fallout. But even though pundits remembering 2016 will likely give him every benefit of the doubt, there’s now legitimate doubt he’s going to keep the race close.