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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

March 11: Is a Virtual Convention On the Way This Summer?

One of the many coronavirus-related topics under discussion this week is the potential effect of the crisis on the national political conventions, which I discussed at New York:

[I]n place of the fantasy of the first multi-ballot convention since 1952, we’re contemplating the unprecedented nightmare of a convention that cannot be held at all, at least in the sense of a physical gathering of delegates celebrating the coronation of a nominee and the launch of a general election campaign.

The two developments are related in a way. Joe Biden’s sudden progress toward becoming the presumptive nominee means that an authority structure for planning the July convention scheduled for Milwaukee should soon take shape, beyond the powers already exercised by the Democratic National Committee. And as the COVID-19 cases and the public health consequences proliferate, there’s already serious talk about how to hold a virtual convention. After all, if America is about to enter a regimen of “social distancing” for an indefinite period of time, packing thousands of people into a Milwaukee arena for a political convention in July won’t exactly set a good example, even if public health authorities somehow allow it.

report from the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein last week suggested that contingency discussions are well underway:

“[A]s coronavirus has spread and travel restrictions seem likely to be intensified, top officials are wondering whether attendees will or should make it.

“The result could be a convention that is not just sparsely attended but one where the act of formally nominating a presidential candidate is thrown into disorder …

“According to several top officials, the DNC’s charter and bylaws leave little ambiguity when it comes to the requirement that delegates be physically on site in order to cast their votes. Under Section 11, it states that ‘Voting by proxy shall not be permitted at the National Convention. Voting by proxy shall otherwise be permitted in Democratic Party affairs only as provided in the Bylaws of the Democratic Party.'”

Fortunately, national political conventions are masters of their own rules, so voting by proxy (or remotely) can be legitimized. But however they cast ballots, delegates do still have to be formally elected at the state level, and that process could be undermined by COVID-19 as well:

“’It is serious. The question for state chairs is, look, we all have to put on conventions coming up. Most of the delegates to the national convention are elected at [state] conventions. What happens if state parties have to cancel these events where delegates are elected?’ said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and a Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee. ‘If things continue to evolve, It could dramatically alter the contest and severely hamper Democrats as we try to unify our party’.”

All these complications could become, well, even more complicated if Team Biden’s iron control over the convention is challenged via a platform fight or some other symbol of factional rivalry.

Republicans are not immune from the same problems in planning their August convention in Charlotte, though they don’t have to worry about anyone questioning the authority of Trump’s reelection campaign to make all the key decisions.

In the end, we could have conventions this year that complete the evolution of these institutions from unpredictable, deliberative, and sometimes chaotic events to slickly produced television shows for the two parties and their presidential nominees. The main question is whether they will have live delegates as props.


March 4: As Candidates Withdraw, What Happens To Their Delegates?

The above is a question that arose after the Buttigieg and Klobuchar withdrawals, but it all may become more relevant after Super Tuesday and its fallout, as I discussed at New York:

What happens with the voters who would have otherwise supported Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar in Tuesday’s elections and beyond remains an open question.

Meanwhile there is the related question of what happens to delegates pledged to candidates who subsequently quit. There aren’t very many of them: Buttigieg won only 26 delegates and Klobuchar only 7. But down the road it could matter more if, say, Bloomberg or Warren drop out after accumulating a significant pile of delegates on Super Tuesday or later in the contest.

The first thing to understand is that there is a small but very real difference in how the national-party rules treat delegates of candidates who have suspended their campaigns versus those who have formally withdrawn. Buttigieg and Klobuchar fall into the former category; it’s the most common thing for failed candidates to do since it gives them more time to settle the financial affairs of their campaigns, while also leaving the door cracked to a zombie campaign in case things get weird later on. And as nomination-contest wizard Josh Putnam (of the invaluable Frontloading HQ websiteexplains, the candidates retain some rights:

“Their campaigns have been suspended but they are still technically candidates in the race. Even without any involvement from those two campaigns, delegate candidates of those two candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada will continue in the delegate selection process. …

“Most of the delegates won by these two candidates are district delegates. Buttigieg claimed nine district delegates in Iowa, six district delegates in New Hampshire and three district delegates in Nevada. Klobuchar was allocated one district delegate in Iowa and an additional four in New Hampshire. Ten of those 23 district delegates — the ones from New Hampshire — have already basically been chosen. Slates of district delegates were elected for each active candidate at pre-primary caucuses in the Granite state on January 25. Iowa district delegates will be selected on April 25 and Nevada Democrats will select their district delegates at the party’s May 30 state convention. If the Buttigieg and Klobuchar campaigns are still in suspension at those points, then they will retain those delegates and they will all become free agents upon selection.”

This last point is important. Delegates pledged to candidates who have quit the race really are free agents, since the only real compulsion governing them is a “pledge” required by the national party to do their best to represent the jurisdictions that elected them. Unlike Republicans, who called such delegates “bound,” Democrats rely on more of an honor system, aside from the fact that campaigns typically choose delegate slates from which delegates are “pledged” (yes, a few states have laws that seek to bind delegates until “their” candidates have formally withdrawn, but it’s unclear they can be enforced at a convention).

Ultimately, there’s no real way to force any pledged delegate to honor the spirit of the system and stay committed at the convention, much less in the case of a second ballot in which 771 superdelegates would come into play. But you’d have to figure that delegates pledged to candidates who are no longer really in the race would be the loosey-est gooses of them all if the nomination isn’t already buttoned down tight before the opening gavel falls in Milwaukee.


February 27: California’s Indies May Struggle to Vote in Democratic Primary

As a California resident, I have some insights on the growing brouhaha over independents’ voting on Super Tuesday, which I shared at New York:

There are increasingly loud complaints from the Bernie Sanders camp about the difficulties independent voters face in California in participating in the Super Tuesday primary, as Politico reported recently:

“Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders charged Friday that California’s primary system threatens to disenfranchise millions of independent voters whose support he has cultivated in the nation’s most populous state.

“Sanders said Friday during a press conference in Santa Ana that he and his team have been campaigning hard to reach California’s 5.3 million ‘no-party-preference’ voters, who now represent the second largest voting bloc in the state at 25.9 percent — ahead of Republicans, who comprise 23.7 percent …

“’Unfortunately, under the current NPP participation rules, we risk locking out millions of young people … millions of young people of color — and many, many other people who wanted to participate in the Democratic primary but may find it impossible for them to do so,’ he said. ‘And that seems to me to be very, very wrong.’”

The root of the problem here is that party preferences in California have become relatively insignificant thanks to the establishment via a 2010 ballot initiative of a nonpartisan top-two primary system in which everyone in the state gets the same ballot for sub-presidential contests that includes all the candidates competing regardless of party, with the top two vote winners proceeding to the general election. But voters are still asked to designate a party preference when registering, which makes those registration rolls a hot property for campaigns and other purchasers, and also guides the one partisan primary still remaining: the quadrennial presidential primaries.

What makes this affirmative requirement especially tricky is that big majorities of California voters now vote by mail, which means there’s not going to be some friendly election official in their faces to explain to NPP voters how to participate in the Democratic primary. So election officials have sent vote-by-mail NPP registrants postcards, which they are asked to return if they want to “replace” their empty NPP ballots with a chock-full-o-candidates Democratic ballot. It has not worked very well, as Capitol Weekly reported last week:

“To participate in the open Democratic presidential primary, independent voters need to request the partisan ‘crossover’ ballot.  To expedite this, counties sent all vote-by-mail independent voters a postcard for them to select their partisan ballot and then return the card to the registrars.

“But as the cards were mailed to independent voters over the holidays, very few of these voters responded to get the crossover ballots that would allow them to participate in the Democratic primary …

“Remarkably, only 9% of California’s growing independent and vote-by-mail population have successfully obtained a partisan presidential primary ballot. For 91% of nonpartisan voters, there is no presidential race on the ballot they received in the mail.”

We’re talking 3.7 million voters with those empty NPP ballots, even though a significant majority of them wanted to vote in the Democratic primary. Given Sanders’s regular over-performance among indies generally, he probably will be affected most, with Mike Bloomberg also taking a disproportionate hit.

There’s another, smaller (if still quite significant) problem for nearly 600,000 voters who are registered members of the American Independent Party. The AIP is the zombie survivor of George Wallace’s 1968 third-party candidacy that’s stuck around all these years mostly because voters persistently misunderstand the “independent” in the right-wing party’s name and think they are registering NPP. A bill to force the AIP to change its name to get “independent” out of it was vetoed this year by Governor Gavin Newsom on grounds that it was likely unconstitutional. In order to vote in the Democratic presidential primary, these low-information voters will have to change their party registration.

Now all these indies who have missed the deadline for requesting a Democratic ballot by mail can still fix the problem by showing up on primary day (so long as they haven’t already mailed in a ballot) and asking for the Donkey option, and presumably Team Bernie is letting them know that. But in response to the steady decline in live Election Day voting, some California counties have been replacing traditional precincts with “voting centers” that may confuse some by-mail voters. And in the state’s largest county, Los Angeles, new touchscreen voting machines are being deployed on March 3, which could create some additional confusion and delay.

Even if Sanders wins the state easily, which he is favored to do (FiveThirtyEight gives him a five-in-six chance of carrying the state), a shortfall in indie voting could cost him some delegates. So you will definitely hear about this on March 3.

The other problem all the candidates — and the news media — will be dealing with on March 3 is California’s slow count of ballots, which is mostly attributable to the rule allowing mail ballots postmarked by March 3 (and received by March 6) to be counted. These and other late mail ballots have to be opened individually and tabulated, which takes a while. But candidates who see themselves ahead on Election Night but then lose later aren’t happy about it, and some of them hint darkly at “fraud” or other dirty deeds (e.g., California Republicans after they lost half their U.S. House delegation in 2018). Unlike Iowa, California has baked late returns right into the electoral cake, and people just need to get used to it as a by-product of reforms to make it easier to vote — if not easy enough for a lot of indies.


February 26: The Last Caucuses

As most commentators moved on after Nevada, I reflected on the future implications at New York:

This year’s Democratic caucuses are not entirely in the rearview mirror yet: There is one more on April 4 in Wyoming. But after the Caucus Night meltdown in Iowa, and then a near brush with disaster in Nevada, the odds of this form of nominating contest surviving into the next presidential cycle is somewhere not far north of zero.

Nevada Democrats were lucky on several counts. Most obviously, they had Iowa’s example to put them on high alert. Their basic caucusing procedures were modeled on Iowa’s; they had the same huge new complications based on the multiple reporting requirements imposed on them by the national party, exacerbated by a large field of candidates, and were originally planning to use the same technologies. On top of that, Nevada was experimenting with an “early caucusing” option utilizing ranked-choice voting that created another layer of complexity.

Horrified by the possibility of a second meltdown, the DNC offered a lot of technical assistance to the Nevada party and helped mobilize volunteers from other states to staff the event. But with all that, on Caucus Day the results came in v-e-r-y slowly. There were just enough returns, however, to justify the release of full entrance polls, and the really lucky thing for Nevada is that there was a clear winner, which allowed media types to spend many fine hours agitating the air about the Greater Meaning of a Bernie Sanders nomination — as though the thought had never occurred to them before — instead of complaining about the slow count.

“The statement is as follows:

“’I am so proud of the Nevada Democratic Party, its talented staff, and the thousands of grassroots volunteers who have done so much hard work over the years to build this operation. We have the best state party in the country, and that was shown again this past week after another successful caucus that featured a historic four days of early voting with more than 10,000 new voter registrations.

“”With so much Democratic enthusiasm in Nevada, demonstrated again by the tremendous caucus turnout this year, I believe we should make the process of selecting our nominee even more accessible. We’ve made it easier for people to register to vote here in Nevada in recent years and now we should make it easier for people to vote in the presidential contests. That’s why I believe it’s time for the Democratic Party to move to primaries everywhere.'”

No, of course, there’s no problem with holding caucuses: It’s just that primaries are even better! They didn’t just get that way, of course, but Reid knows when it’s time to count your blessings and move on. Besides, he and other Nevada Democrats have more important fish to fry:

“’I’m glad to have fought to make Nevada the first Western state in the Democratic nominating process since 2008, and we have proven more than worthy of holding that prominent early state position. I firmly believe that Nevada, with our broad diversity that truly reflects the rest of the country, should not just be among the early states — we should be the first in the nation.'”

A big part of the Great Iowa Freak-out of 2020 was attributable not just to the Caucus Night brouhaha but to long-standing and rapidly intensifying complaints about the state’s exceptionally pale demographics. Part of the reason Nevada and South Carolina got moved into the charmed circle of privileged and officially designated “early states” was to protect the status of Iowa (“First-in-the-Nation Caucus”) and the equally honkyfied New Hampshire (“First-in-the-Nation Primary”) by giving more diverse jurisdictions some representation. Now Nevada wants it all: to move past Iowa and New Hampshire to go first in a system without caucuses. Certainly Iowa is in no position to insist on a future with caucuses, and New Hampshire cannot hold on to the status quo forever on its own.

The abolition of caucuses may have been inevitable even without this year’s caucus issues. As Geoffrey Skelley noted last spring, fully 11 states that held caucuses in 2016 moved to primaries this year, mostly because the national party kept insisting on safeguards to improve access and accountability (e.g., all those raw-vote tabulations) that are difficult to reconcile with old-school party-run caucuses. You might wonder what states whose legislatures refuse to conduct and pay for partisan presidential primaries do instead of caucuses. There is the option (which four states will exercise this year) of a party-run primary — sometimes called a “firehouse primary,” because they typically use limited publicly owned polling places to hold down expenses.

Those of us who were fond of caucuses for the deliberative voting process and the sheer sense of community they fostered will have to move on in the great cattle drive of life.


February 21: Combative Democratic Debaters Are Nothing Like 2016’s Republicans

There was a lot of Republican crowing about Democrats in Disarray after the February 19 Democratic candidate debate in Las Vegas. So at New York I offered a reminder of what real fighting looked like:

It’s probably a good time to remind everyone that last night’s battle in Vegas pales in comparison to the regular spectacle of insults, eye gouging, and kneecapping that characterized many of the 2016 Republican debates. Yes, Bloomberg got taken down a few notches as Elizabeth Warren showed why she got a debate scholarship for college. But it was nothing like the incredible disrespect and downright hatred expressed toward Trump by his 2016 rivals, which (unlike Bloomberg last night) he reciprocated in full, giving us all a preview of the depths to which he would plunge presidential communications.

“On the debate stage, Trump stretched his hands out for the audience to see — then insisted the suggestion that ‘something else must be small’ was false.

“’I guarantee you there’s no problem,’ Trump said to howls from the audience at the Fox debate.”

Then there was the endless insultfest between Trump and Ted Cruz, which extended beyond the debate season when “Lyin’ Ted” (Trump’s nickname for the senator) refused to endorse the nominee at the Republican convention (likely because of Trump’s bizarre, outrageous suggestion that Cruz’s father might have been involved in the JFK assassination).

And how about the endless war of contemptuous words Trump aimed at “low-energy” Jeb Bush and the two former presidents in his family? It all finally provoked the normally pacific Jebbie to fire back:

“Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida blasted Donald J. Trump for insulting the Bush family and ridiculed the idea that Mr. Trump could be commander-in-chief during a contentious and sometimes nasty Republican presidential debate in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday, a week before a crucial primary in the state.

“With Mr. Trump leading in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere after his victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he was a ripe target for his Republican rivals, especially Mr. Bush and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who are under intense pressure to halt his political momentum. But the vitriol was so intense that it seemed to surprise even Mr. Trump, a combative figure who had not been so roundly pummeled at a debate before.”

Were you impressed by Warren’s challenge to Bloomberg’s reputation for sexism? Well, its direct predecessor in presidential politics was Carly Fiorina’s angry rebuke of Trump during a September 2015 debate for insulting her appearance and treating it as a disqualifier.

To be clear, the 2016 Republican combat didn’t always require Trump to be a direct participant. Rubio and Cruz regularly took nasty personal shots at each other over the authenticity of their relative positioning on immigration policy. And one of the nomination contest’s key moments occurred in a debate just prior to the New Hampshire primary, when Chris Christie took down putative front-runner Rubio effectively and remorselessly:

“Christie, in the worst condition of any of the establishment challengers, in fifth place in the polls and with no obvious path to the nomination, landed the strongest blows on Rubio we’ve seen yet. Worse yet, Rubio responded to a pounding from Christie for being a paper-thin senator with no accomplishments by playing the part to a T: robotically repeating talking points even as the New Jersey governor mocked him for robotically repeating talking points.”

Now, in the end, all these Trump rivals other than Bush (Fiorina had withdrawn her endorsement of the nominee after the Access Hollywood video confirmed his arrogant piggishness) clamored onboard his foul-smelling bandwagon, and Rubio and Cruz are administration toadies in the Senate. And most obviously, in 2016 Republicans won the White House and both Houses of Congress despite all the discord. So I wouldn’t write off Democratic prospects this November simply because the candidates gambled a bit on aggressiveness in Las Vegas.


February 20: A Close Look at Trump’s Rising Job Approval Ratings

After neurotically avoiding the topic for a two days, I buckled down at New York to consider POTUS’s significantly improving job approval numbers and what they might mean.

One of the stone verities of national life over the last three years, right up there with regular California wildfires and a dysfunctional Congress, has been the stability of Donald J. Trump’s job-approval assessments by the public. Yes, they sometimes went up well into the low 40s, and sometimes went down into the mid-to-high 30s, depending mostly on the presence or absence of conspicuously bizarre and destructive Trump behavior. But as Geoffrey Skelley noted in March last year, Trump has stood out from past presidents in this respect:

“Trump’s approval rating has the least variation of any post–World War II president. Granted, Trump hasn’t yet served a full term, but changes in his approval rating have been remarkably small.”

That may be changing, and at the perfect time for Trump. His average job-approval rating according to RealClearPolitics had but rarely drifted just above 45 percent since Inauguration Day. Today, it stands at 46 percent. And you can’t blame that on some unusual mix of pro-Trump surveys like Rasmussen or The Hill–HarrisX. The venerable Gallup Poll has for two straight months placed the president’s job-approval number at 49 percent, far above his average Gallup rating of 40 percent over the course of his presidency.

RCP does not weigh job-approval polls for reliability and partisan bias, so sometimes its numbers are suspect. But FiveThirtyEight conducts multiple adjustments to boost accuracy, and its job-approval ratings for Trump are also spiking in the direction of previously unreached levels. It’s at 44.3 percent utilizing all polls, and at 45.9 percent if you limit the sample to those of registered voters or likely voters (as opposed to “all adults”). Both these numbers are highs for Trump since early 2017.

The comparison to which some observers leap is, ironically, Barack Obama, whose job-approval rating also began to drift upward just before he faced voters for a second time in 2012. A year out, his job-approval rating was at 43 percent (per Gallup), much where Trump’s was in November 2019. By Election Day 2012, it was up to 52 percent, and he won 51 percent of the popular vote.

The most commonly cited explanation for why Trump’s approval rating might be spiking, of course, is that Greatest Economy Ever he keeps boasting about. Multiple public-opinion outlets are reporting that optimism about the economy is on the rise, and, along with it, confidence in Trump’s stewardship of the economy (despite the lack of evidence that his policies have much to do with the steady job growth that began when Obama was in office).

But Trump’s overall job-approval rating — by all accounts the measurement most closely associated with reelection prospects — has long lagged the positive economic numbers. Indeed, Ron Brownstein has capably shown that the key to his reelection or defeat may be a group of voters who basically can’t stand Trump personally, but like the economy for which he claims all credit. Is anything happening with the economy now that should flip these voters into enthusiasm for the president? Or is something else going on?

Another theory is that Trump’s impeachment and acquittal has revved up his MAGA base to a level of excitement associated with some sort of massive social movement, boosting the likelihood that his fans will show up in November to a near certainty as they seek to consummate the destruction of POTUS’ evil persecutors. And in that explanation lies the possibility of some distortion in the polling, since people excited about their politics are more likely to respond to polls to a degree that doesn’t necessarily correspond to higher voting turnout. There’s even a hint of that in the Gallup data that looks so good for Trump:

“Gallup has observed an increase in the percentage of Americans identifying as Republicans (32% in the past two surveys, up from 28% in the prior two surveys), along with a decline in the percentage identifying as independents (41%, down from 43%) and Democrats (27%, down from 28%).”

So are Americans drifting into the Republican Party with its agenda of “entitlement reform,” militarism, nativism, climate-change denial, and unlimited presidential authority? Or are Trump’s bravos just skewing response rates?

It’s too early to know. For one thing, Trump has a habit of stepping on his best reelection messages with destructive behavior, such as his decision to throw a temper tantrum in late 2018 over border-wall money and shut down the federal government, which temporarily tanked his approval ratings. His sense of liberation in surviving impeachment could lead him to do really stupid things; would-be tyrants tend that way. But without question, he’s in better shape from the point of view of basic popularity than he has been for big stretches of his presidency, and if his numbers do improve, he may need to worry about his arrogance breeding complacency and overconfidence, matching Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.


February 15: Democracy Versus Quick Election Results

I’ve been brooding over the Caucus Night disaster in Iowa, but then read a piece that cast light on broader questions, which I wrote about at New York:

During the long, agonizing evening of February 3, if you were watching cable news, you saw two interrelated things happening. The first and most obvious was that a terrible meltdown had struck the flawed volunteer-based and technologically afflicted system that Iowa Democrats had for tabulating results, which did not come in at the expected mid-evening juncture — or at all that night. The second is that a lot of highly paid, puffed-up talking heads were enraged that they were denied the raw material for their punditry. No telling how many planned and even paid-for witticisms and future catchphrases went unuttered, or how many maps of Iowa counties were tossed into digital wastebaskets.

As the renowned political scientist Norman Ornstein observes, we should beware putting too much stock in the perceived needs of those who want instant gratification on election nights. Some reforms that improve democracy make results harder to calculate and slower to harvest. Ornstein cites ranked-choice voting as one of those we are likely to see more of in the immediate future:

“It allows voters to give their first, second and subsequent choices, and allocates those second choices if no candidate gets over 50%, dropping off sequentially the lowest-performing candidates until a winner can be declared.

“This gives a truer picture of voter preferences and takes away the ability of independent or third-party candidates to distort the outcomes, or enable a candidate to win an election with a vote that is much less than a majority.”

But it takes time to tabulate ranked-choice votes, which is why when it was deployed in Maine in 2018 Democratic primaries the winners weren’t known for eight days. That was frustrating to a lot of people with a stake in the results, including journalists. But it arguably fulfilled the prime directive of the election in better reflecting the actual preferences of Maine Democrats.

As Ornstein also notes, there is a far more common democracy-enhancing reform that slows down election results — voting by mail:

“States have different ways to count those mail ballots, but because the envelopes have to be opened manually, one by one, and then tallied, they can take a lot of time — weeks in the case of California.

“And frequently, the mail ballots have voter preferences different from those of voters who go to the polls on Election Day, making the initial counts made on election eve misleading. In California, Democrats tend to vote more by mail, and several contests that had initial Republican leads were changed when the mail ballots were counted, leading many Republicans to cry foul.”

That was particularly true after California changed its laws to allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day but received by the following Friday to be considered valid. And why not? Why does the act of filling out a ballot at a polling place on election day possess more civic virtue than filling it out at home or work and placing it in the mail or dropping it off the very same day?

Yet when late mail ballots slowed down and then (as Ornstein said, predictably) reversed the results of key California congressional races in 2018, Republicans (notably House Speaker Paul Ryan and his successor as House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy) erupted with 100 percent unsubstantiated cries of “voter fraud.” Their candidates were ahead on Election Night! Then they lost! Those godless socialistic Democrats must have cooked the books, right?

Wrong. Partial results are just partial results, and there’s nothing magic about those cast or tabulated or reported on Election Night. Perhaps part of the problem is that the older set of political observers grew up on lurid tales of candidates being “counted out” by crooked election officials who waited until the wee hours to see how many votes they needed for victory and then fabricated them one way or another. That likely still happens in isolated circumstances (along with the very new threat of hacking), and in others, incompetence or inadequate investment in election technology is to blame. But we really do need to get over the idea that instant results are some sort of testament to the integrity of elections and a media birthright.


February 12: Virginia To End the Rebel Yell and Make Election Day a State Holiday

Something richly symbolic is underway thanks to Virginia Democrats, and I wrote about it at New York:

When Democrats won control of the Virginia legislature last year (along with the governorship under Ralph Northam), it gave them a governing trifecta. Bills more than doubling the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 are moving through both chambers of the legislature. A bill abolishing the Commonwealth’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees has been passed by the House of Delegates and is moving toward passage in the Senate.

But the most richly symbolic sign of a new day in the Old Dominion is undoubtedly this one, as reported by CNN:

“Virginia is one step closer to ending its tradition of honoring Confederate generals.

“This week, the Virginia House voted to strike Lee-Jackson Day from the list of state holidays. The holiday, observed on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, honors Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as ‘defenders of causes.’

“Both men owned slaves and fought to preserve slavery in the US.

“In its place, the House bill proposed that the state replace it with Election Day, the first Tuesday after the First Monday in November, instead.

“Gov. Ralph Northam included the measure in his 2020 legislative proposals. If Election Day becomes a state holiday, he said, it’ll be easier for Virginians to vote.”

Lee, of course, has been the object of an enormous and region-wide cult of Confederate memorial and neo-Confederate defiance. In Virginia, though, he has long been rivaled in esteem among admirers of the Lost Cause by his most famous field commander, General James “Stonewall” Jackson (given that nickname after heroics in the first major engagement of the Civil War at Bull Run). Military prowess aside, the intensely religious Jackson became known as the epitome of the “Christian soldier,” a reputation somewhat at odds with his advocacy of brutal treatment for disobedient soldiers and enemy combatants. And without question, part of the devotion surrounding him in subsequent decades derived from the belief that had he not died of an injury from friendly fire in 1863, the South would have won the war and its right to become an independent slave-owning republic.

Now, at long last, the rebel yell of defiance associated with a state holiday in honor of these two racist traitors (which, no matter how you judge them otherwise, they most definitely were) is apparently going to be silenced. And it is highly appropriate that this particular state replace this particular tradition with an Election Day holiday to encourage voting. Under Jim Crow and the Byrd Machine, Virginia famously disenfranchised poor whites as well as African-Americans; the great historian of southern politics V.O. Key said of the Commonwealth in the late 1940s: “By contrast, Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.”

Fare thee well, Lee-Jackson Day! Soon enough only open, hard-core racists will mourn its passing.


February 6: Bad Moon Rises Over the Iowa Caucuses

When I went to Iowa this last weekend to observe the Caucuses, I had no idea disaster would strike the event’s machinery, and I wrote sadly about it for New York:

For political media and other political junkies, the meltdown in the Iowa caucus results tabulation and reporting system was deeply annoying. TV gabbers were left with little to say, other than to lash out at the people of this proud and sometimes sensitive state. For the presidential campaigns most directly affected by the uncertainty of it all, it was a logistical and messaging challenge of the highest order. Amy Klobuchar showed the way by getting out there first with a happy speech claiming a level of success in Iowa that no one had the hard data to refute — and then jetting off to New Hampshire. Everyone eventually adapted to the weird half-light of the first voting event of the 2020 presidential cycle culminating in a long night with no results at all other than an entrance poll no one trusted.

But for political — and even apolitical — people here in Iowa, this has been a catastrophe all out of proportion to the technical and training glitches that produced it. The caucuses in their complexity have always represented a half-miracle pulled off quadrennially by a vast army of volunteers and a relatively small cadre of professionals. This year’s trebled reporting requirements (forced on Iowa by the national party) and the technological means chosen to accommodate them finally broke the Iowa Democratic Party. And that happened at the worst possible time, when critics and coveters of Iowa’s privileged perch in the nomination process had already built up a head of hateful steam.

“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should,” Iowa journalism legend David Yepsen told Politico.

Et tu, David?

Here in Des Moines, as the TV pundits spat fire at the caucuses last night, there was a growing sense of horror among locals that this was indeed a breakdown moment for the state’s political influence and legacy. It wasn’t confined to Democrats. This morning, even as taunts from their president echoed across the Twitterverse, Iowa’s Republican governor and senator leapt to the defense of the Iowa Democratic Party and the Caucuses, insisting that Iowa was still “the ideal state to kick off the nominating process.”

But if the nominating process for 2024 and beyond isn’t clear, there’s a feeling of what can only be described as mourning this morning in Des Moines. And best as I can tell, Iowans are not angry about the 2020 caucus meltdown the way so many members of the traveling political circus seem to be. After all, who’s to blame? The state party professionals struggling as always to comply with new party rules under the watchful eyes of campaigns? The hundreds of volunteers, many of them elderly, who couldn’t deal with the new reporting app? The volunteers at party headquarters trying to juggle late-night calls on overburdened phone lines as puzzled and frustrated precinct chairs tried to use the 2016 reporting system? It’s not like Caucus Night was the first random catastrophe of the cycle for Iowa, given the surveying mishap that killed the much-awaited Iowa Poll this last weekend, which fed the uncertainty felt by all going into the contest.

Everyone and no one is to blame for an almost inevitable collapse of a tradition-bound process in which there was too much room for human error. And so people here are now left wondering about the civic and economic consequences of this perhaps being the last of the Iowa caucuses as we have known them since 1972. Iowa haters will enjoy the moment before they set upon one another along the treacherous path to a different “system.” But for Iowans, and the many adopted Iowans who have spent winter weeks and months here every four years, it’s a sad morning.


January 30: Iowa, Obama and African-Americans

An old argument about Iowa popped back up this week, so I addressed it at New York:

Many Iowa Democrats are proud about their caucuses giving Barack Obama his first electoral win in 2008, in part because it showed Obama’s cross-racial and trans-partisan appeal (his campaign conspicuously turned out independent and even Republican voters in Iowa). In response to the perennial complaint about the state’s unrepresentative demographics, Iowans often tout their role in Obama’s rise as evidence of their broad-mindedness and lack of racism.

But these understandable claims have become conflated with the less defensible proposition — or “myth” as its critics rightly call it — that Iowa’s white Democrats “allowed” African-Americans in later states like South Carolina to support him. The myth has come back up in connection with dubious suggestions that whoever wins Iowa may suddenly experience a breakthrough with the black voters currently inclined to support Joe Biden. Astead Herndon has the story:

“It has become political lore, repeated on cable airwaves and by Democratic campaign consultants, even presidential candidates. In 2008, as the story goes, black voters were uncertain about Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy until he won the Iowa caucuses, after which they rallied around him over the onetime front-runner, Hillary Clinton …

“The persistence of the narrative that Iowa made Mr. Obama has long irritated some of his advisers, who said that this recollection from 2008 had led campaigns astray since then, discounted the agency of black voters and minimized the robust grass-roots strategy that Mr. Obama’s team undertook in the South …

“’Black voters aren’t waiting for white people to tell them what to do,’ [Obama pollster Cornell] Belcher said. ‘It’s racist. It’s racial paternalism.’”

I sympathize with Belcher’s complaint. As I noted in a post earlier this year on Kamala Harris’s failure to implement Obama’s 2008 strategy, the future president was already doing well with black voters nationally and in South Carolina before his Iowa win (unlike Kamala Harris at a similar juncture in this cycle):

“A late-July 2007 Pew survey of African-American Democrats showed Obama winning 34 percent — trailing Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent in that demographic but still within striking distance. By contrast, a late-July 2019 Quinnipiac poll had Harris at 7 percent among black voters, far behind Biden’s 55 percent …

“Obama was running very close to Clinton among black South Carolina Democrats in August 2007 (Clinton was at 44 percent, Obama at 41 percent, according to Insider Advantage). Meanwhile, a late-July 2019 Monmouth poll of black South Carolina Democrats showed Biden leading Harris by 51 percent to 12 percent …

“Obama had built a solid 54-21 lead over Clinton among South Carolina’s African-Americans by December 2007, before Iowa. Afterward, he did surge to his eventual 78-19 landslide among black voters in the Palmetto State, but he built that win over an extended period of time.”

Now is is not a myth — much less a racist myth — to say that his performance in Iowa gave Obama a significant boost among African-Americans in later states. Then, as now, black and white voters alike cared about electability, and nothing raises confidence in electability like winning, particularly if you are a freshman senator hoping to become the first African-American president of the United States.

If a 2020 Iowa winner gets a bounce in South Carolina — or New Hampshire, or Nevada, or anywhere else — it won’t be because voters elsewhere are looking to Iowans and yearning for enlightenment. It will be because prevailing in the first actual real-live test of the cycle is a good sign for a candidate hoping to go the distance and take on Donald Trump.