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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Vote Blue! No Matter Who.

VOTE BLUE.

No matter who.

“Vote Blue, No Matter Who” do-it-yourself t-shirts and bumper stickers–just call your local, unionized print shop and ask for an estimate. They can contact editors@thedemocraticstrategist.org for the artwork.

Vote Blue No Matter Who bumper sticker

Vote Blue!

No Matter Who!

“Vote Blue, No Matter Who” do-it-yourself t-shirts and bumper stickers–just call your local, unionized print shop and ask for an estimate. They can contact editors@thedemocraticstrategist.org for the artwork.

Vote Blue! No Matter Who.

VOTE BLUE!

No Matter Who.

“Vote Blue, No Matter Who” do-it-yourself t-shirts and bumper stickers–just call your local, unionized print shop and ask for an estimate. They can contact editors@thedemocraticstrategist.org for the artwork.

Vote Blue No Matter Who bumper sticker

Vote Blue

No matter who.

“Vote Blue, No Matter Who” do-it-yourself t-shirts and bumper stickers–just call your local, unionized print shop and ask for an estimate. They can contact editors@thedemocraticstrategist.org for the artwork.

RIP GOP book by Stanley Greenberg

R.I.P. G.O.P.

You can find out more about the return to progressive politics from our founder Stanley Greenberg in his new book!

Pre-Order Now.

The Daily Strategist

June 3, 2020

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.


Teixeira: Can the Democrats go 8 for 8 and 4 for 4 in the Southwest?

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

The Democrats have not controlled all 8 Senate seats in the Southwest states of AZ, CO, NM and NV since 1941. And the Democrats have not carried all four of these states in a Presidential election since 1948. This year, the Democrats could quite plausibly accomplish both of these feats–something the Democrats have not accomplished together since 1936. Ron Brownstein makes the case here, a case which accords with my own reading of the polls and trends and, at the Presidential level, is consistent with the data rolling in from the massive Nationscape survey. I’ll have more to say about this down the line.

And then there’s this:

“The scariest prospect for Republicans is that everything said …about Arizona and Colorado in particular could also apply to Texas, the foundation stone of the GOP’s national political strength. From Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin down south through Houston and San Antonio, the four metropolitan areas in what’s called the Texas triangle account for just over two-thirds of the state’s votes and jobs and more than three-fourths of its economic output.

All of them rank among America’s 10 fastest-growing cities, according to the census. (All are also big recipients of transplants from California, which sent over 86,000 migrants to Texas just in 2018.) And as they grow, they are shading more blue: In his narrow 2018 defeat, the Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke won the five counties encompassing those cities by nearly 800,000 votes, roughly six times then-President Barack Obama’s combined margin just six years earlier.

Like other observers, [Brookings Mountain West head Robert] Lang says that for now, the massive GOP advantage in Texas’ rural areas should allow Trump to hold it in 2020 (albeit likely by a much smaller margin than his 9-percentage-point victory last time). Republican Sen. John Cornyn also looks tough to beat. But in both parties, many agree that the shift away from the GOP in the large metropolitan areas driving the state’s population growth have placed Texas on the same political moving walkway as Colorado, Nevada and Arizona, only a few steps behind.”

For what it’s worth, the Nationscape data since the beginning of the year has Trump only up by a single point in Texas!


Teixeira: Biden Bolshevism Watch

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

It’s really very simple: If elected, Biden will govern from the center of the Democratic party. And the center has moved left.

“[I]f Biden is elected in November, the left may get a presidency it likes after all — or at least one it hates less than anticipated. The coronavirus outbreak and the resulting massive surge in unemployment has moved American political discourse to the left: Ideas that would have been considered too liberal for most Democrats a few months ago are now being proposed by Republicans. And if American politics is moving left, expect Biden to do the same. Biden was often cast as a centrist or a moderate during the Democratic primaries, but those labels don’t really describe his politics that well — he doesn’t really seem to have any kind of set ideology at all.

Instead, Biden’s long record in public office suggests that he is fairly flexible on policy — shifting his positions to whatever is in the mainstream of the Democratic Party at a given moment. So if Biden wins the presidency and his fellow Democrats are still clamoring for more government spending to help the pandemic recovery, Biden is likely to be a fairly liberal president, no matter how moderate he sounded in the primaries….

It’s hard to measure the precise center of American politics and how it has changed over the last few months. But it’s certainly moved left in response to the COVID-19 crisis — toward way more federal spending….Mirroring the shift in his party, Biden and his advisers are now reimagining his candidacy and presidency — rolling out more liberal policy plans, speaking in increasingly populist terms and joining forces with the most progressive voices in the party. Biden himself has invoked the idea that he might be entering the Oval Office facing a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression.”


Teixeira: But 2016! Clinton Was Ahead Too!

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

It is true that Clinton polled mostly ahead of Trump in the 2016 election campaign, yet still lost the election. It is also true that Biden, while ahead of Trump in the polls today, could still lose to Trump this year even if he stays ahead in the polls all the way to election day.

But it is not true that Biden is in exactly the same situation as Clinton was in 2016. No, his situation is better and here’s why as explained by Harry Enten.

“Almost any time I explain that Biden’s leading Trump, someone will inevitably bring up “but what about 2016.” That’s why this week marks an important milestone for the Biden campaign.

It’s one of the first times during the election year that Biden was clearly running ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 pace in the matchup against Trump.

Four years ago, Trump closed the national gap quickly with Clinton as he was vanquishing Republican rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich from the presidential race. Clinton’s average lead shrank from 10 points during the first half of April to 6 points in the second half in April to 4 points in the first half in May to a mere 1 point in polls completed four years ago between May 16-May 23….

Although Clinton would regain some of her advantage in June 2016, the fact that the race became so close at this point four years ago was an indication that the electorate was somewhat unsettled. It showed that under the right circumstances, Clinton could lose nationally, or, at the very least, that Trump could come close enough nationally to win in the electoral college….

Biden’s lead, of course, is the steadiest of all time. His lead has never fallen to just a point or anywhere close. It’s been consistently at or right around 6 points, as it was this week. If you were to create a 95% confidence interval around the individual 2016 and 2020 polls, the 2016 race was about 1.5 times as volatile up to this point.

But it’s not just the margin that is important to examine. Look at the vote percentages.

The reason Biden’s lead is so wide compared to Clinton’s is that he’s running a little more than 5 points ahead of where Clinton was in terms of vote percentage. Biden is at slightly greater than 48%, while Clinton was a little less than 43%.

Even when Clinton’s lead widened in June, she never got to 48% in the polls. She had to pick up a lot more late-deciding voters for her lead to feel secure than Biden will likely need to.”

2020 is not 2016. Biden is not Clinton. And the differences between the two situations and candidates mostly help the Democrats. This is worth keeping in mind the next time you hear “But 2016!”


Teixeira: Trump’s Swing State Blues

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

Below I show the results (for the 20 most competitive states) of G. Elliott Morris’ “toy model” that integrates national and state polling with some regression analysis to give an idea of how the election is shaping up in each state in the country.

As you can see, the model implies that Trump is in deep trouble, behind in enough states to give Biden an easy win with other states like GA, OH, IA and TX either tied or very close.

Evan Scrimshaw of Decision Desk HQ reviews the latest data and sees the same kind of electoral landscape. His assessment of Trump’s troubles vis a vis Biden I largely agree with and I’ll quote it here.

“The Democrats have the upper hand across enough states to comfortably win the Electoral College, and the Midwest would be back to Obama 2012 levels of relative partisanship. For Joe Biden to be able to pull this off is a testament to his specific popularity with voters who don’t have a degree, and a sign that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was a specific turnoff for those voters who populate the legion of counties and Congressional Districts that flipped from Obama to Trump. It makes sense why that would be, too – her campaign was frequently about social issues which mattered to young progressives but not to the overwhelmingly older constituency who don’t have degrees. Biden, in contrast, is running a tight ship where he says little and doesn’t allow himself to take too many questions where troubling issues can come up. As of now, it’s working, with Quinnipiac polling this week showing Biden up 10% with seniors and 11% Nationally. For Trump, those numbers need to start reversing fast.

If Trump can’t eat into Biden’s lead with older voters and can’t stretch his non-college white lead back to Clinton levels, it’s over. Older people vote, and the suburban voters who broke for Trump in 2016 because they disliked both candidates aren’t coming back. Trump was able to squeeze out his narrow win because he got more Obama-Trump voters in exurbia than Hillary got Romney-Clinton voters in suburbia, and right now that trick isn’t repeating itself. He’s bleeding Obama-Trump voters back to Biden while the slow march of Romney voters in the suburbs continues unabated.

The President is now more than one usual polling error away from re-election, meaning he needs to do some work just to get back to the 30-70 underdog Nate Silver had him at in 2016. Even if the LeanTossup Presidential Model is aggressive in some states, namely Texas and Georgia, Trump is still in a very real mess in the upper Midwest, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. It’s hard to see the strategy that can flip back suburban Maricopa County, Arizona while not costing the President his huge margins in rural Wisconsin or southwest Pennsylvania. If he goes in on the culture wars, he may claw back non-degree holders with socially conservative views in some areas, but that won’t solve the problems in the suburbs of Phoenix and Atlanta. Go in on a tax cut for the well off and you give up a lot of your claim to be a different Republican who cares for real America.”


Political Strategy Notes

At The Cook Politial Report, Amy Walter addresses the critical challenge Democrats will be facing in November: “So, which of these things— the way he has dealt with individual issues like health care, COVID or the economy or the way he has conducted himself as president — will be the most important for swing voters in November?…The challenge in answering that question is that we really have no idea which one of these things is going to be dominating our attention this fall. Will we be dealing with a ‘second wave’ of COVID infections, overstressed hospitals and climbing death rates? If so, it’s hard to see how Trump’s handling of the crisis and health care won’t be at the top of the priority list for voters. But, what if we have actually been through the worst of it? If that’s the case, it’s easy to see that efforts to revive the economy will be the topic that is getting the most attention.”

In his article, “The False Dichotomy” at Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson beings some needed clarity to the discussion of economic policy during the pandemic: “The United States has done an absolutely abysmal job of protecting people’s employment. The “paycheck protection program” has been an administrative nightmare, funneling money to companies that don’t need it and saddling small businesses with new debt. The government could have simply paid salaries during the crisis, but a choice was made not to do this, in part because people in government have a pathological hatred of “handouts” and would rather other people die needlessly by the thousands than give an inch on their ideology. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, for example, said that there is simply “not enough money” to help people through the crisis. This is false; the U.S. government prints its own money. What he is saying is not that there is not enough money, but that he personally does not want the government to spend the money. And instead of giving a reason (the reason is free market Social Darwinist ideology that sees helping the vulnerable as rewarding weakness) he has to pretend it is impossible…If we were a sensible country, what we would instead be asking is: How do we stay locked down as long as public health experts think is necessary, while mitigating the economic consequences?”

David Atkins makes the case that “We Need to Speak Honestly About the GOP’s Evolution Into a Conspiracy Cult” at The Washington Monthly: “Unfortunately, the modern Republican Party’s abdication of seriousness, good faith and reality-based communications or policy-making has stretched even the most open-minded analyst’s capacity for forced balance. Donald Trump’s own inability to string together coherent or consistent thoughts has led to a bizarre normalization of his statements in the traditional media, as journalists unconsciously try to fit his rambling, spontaneous utterances into a conventional framework…Go to any conservative event and you’ll notice a shift from even the raucous detached weirdness of Tea Party rallies. They feel less like political events than cult rallies. Cult experts like Steven Hassan have taken note of this, calling it exactly what it is: a cult built around manufactured realities, shared grievances and us-against-them insular extremism. The increasing dependence of Republican politicians on a shrinking, embattled white evangelical base already given over to faith-based belief systems and racism-tinged “city on a hill” ideology has only exacerbated the phenomenon…It’s long past time for even the venerable pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post to start calling this what it is, and stop normalizing it as standard partisanship. It is deeply dangerous in a democracy whose constitution functionally guarantees a two-party system, for one of those two parties to become a conspiracy cult.

Much of the recent buzz about Biden’s likely running mate choice centers on Sen. Elizabeth Warren. At CNN Politics Greg Krieg and Dan Merica do a good job of explaining why Warren would add policy gravitas and progressive cred to the Democratic ticket. They point out that she is the leading choice of Sanders supporters, and that’s a bridge Democrats will need in November. But Krieg and Merica don’t address the downside risk — that Warren joining the ticket would likely cost Democrats a much-needed U.S. Senate seat, since Massachusetss has a Republican Governor who would pick her replacement, at last for a while. And it is unclear what effect Biden picking Warren would have on African American voter turnout for the Democratic ticket, also a significant concern.

Charlie Cook discusses “What Keeps Democrats Up at Night,” also at The Cook Political Report, and notes, “Democrats risk a perception of being one-dimensionally pro-lockdown, as if reopening was a simple matter of throwing a giant national on-off switch, an exclusive focus on public health above everything else, suggesting that the abilities of families to get back to work or have a life is of secondary or tertiary interest. While it is certainly true that economic well-being cannot be restored without addressing the more immediate health challenge of the coronavirus, the reality is that all Americans are not similarly situated. A one-size-fits-all policy for parts of the country or even entire states strikes some as arbitrary…The danger in both small town and rural America, as well as among working-class whites, is that this can play into a form of grievance and identity politics that could tar the Democratic Party as caring only about those who live in or near cities and along the coasts.”

“A federal judge on Sunday dismantled Florida’s restrictive felon voting rights law in a ruling that could open the door to hundreds of thousands of new voters being added to rolls just ahead of the 2020 presidential election,” Gary Fineout reports at Politico. “U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle declared key portions of the state’s felon voting law unconstitutional, ordering the state to put in place a new process that would help people register to vote in the state…Hinkle’s ruling could lead to a major addition to the state’s voting rolls just months before the election in the battleground state…The decision comes nearly a year after the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed the law that requires people with felony convictions to pay all outstanding court debts in order be eligible to vote. Legislators passed the bill after voters approved Amendment 4 to the state constitution, which aimed to end the state’s lifetime ban on voting for most ex-felons…Hinkle’s ruling did not completely strike down the law, but the judge asserted that requiring people with felony convictions to pay off costs and fees violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on poll taxes.”

Politico’s Holly Otterbein reports on a warning for Democrats from Pennsylvania: “Pennsylvania could determine the presidency. But it might not be clear for days who won the state on Nov. 3…Election officials throughout the critical battleground, which is implementing no-excuse mail-in voting for the first time ever amid a pandemic, say they are unlikely to finish counting those ballots the night of the general election…Less than two weeks away fromPennsylvania’s primary, some state election officials said they lack the funding and staff needed to handle the massive influx of mail-in ballots they’ve received for that race. They also said the fact that they legally can’t start counting those ballots until the morning of Election Day is complicating matters. In addition to delaying a final tally, the chaos and confusion could sow distrust ahead of the general election and give fodder to those seeking to discredit its results…“We don’t just have a perfect storm. We have perfect storms,” said Republican Al Schmidt, one of the three Philadelphia city commissioners who oversee elections here. “We have new voting technology. We have an election reform that pushed back all the deadlines. And we have mail-in ballots and the pandemic.””

At The Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky warns, “There was a terrifying piece in the Times on Sunday laying out all the different moves he could pull to steal the election that his opponents are war-gaming to prepare for and counter. One little nugget from it: Trump could issue orders that impact cities in battleground states like “declaring a state of emergency, deploying the National Guard or forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people.”…Everyone knows he’ll cheat. Even his supporters know he’ll cheat. His cheating is one of the things they love about him…Here’s one of the scenarios, with Tomasky’s comments: “Imagine, first, an Electoral College tie, 269-269. Yes, it can happen. Under the 12th Amendment, a tie goes to the House, which votes for the next president. Easy-peasy, right? The Democrats control the House, so President Biden, your day has come…Not so fast. First of all, it’s not the current Congress that votes, it’s the next one, the one the nation will elect on Nov. 3 (yes, I’m correct about this). OK, but that Congress is still likely to be Democratic, so what’s the problem? Here’s the problem. The 435 members of the House don’t vote as individuals. They vote as state delegations, each delegation getting one vote. That’s right. So for this vote, Lynne Cheney (Wyoming’s lone legislator) will have a voting power equal to that of the 45 California Democrats (and seven Republicans). Let that sink in. Cheney’s vote on this matter would carry more than 50 times the weight of Nancy Pelosi’s.”

On a more optimistic note, Tomasky also reports “A Surprising Sign of a Democratic Revival in Ohio” and observes: Some numbers from this year’s primary suggest—I don’t want to go too hard here; suggest—that something very interesting might be happening in the Buckeye State, and it’s not good news for Team Orange.” Tomasky notes that Democrats did much better than expected in  Ohio’s April primaries,  including Democrats requesting more absentee ballots in a historically-Republican district (OH-12) and “8,800 R to D switchers.”  Tomasky notes also that “Turnout in the Democratic primary last month was higher than Republican primary turnout for the first time since 2008. And it was a lot higher—more than 860,000 votes to about 680,000.”


Oxford Economics Election Model: Trump Will Lose in Landslide

“President Donald Trump is headed for a historic defeat, according to a new election model released by an organization with a strong track record of predicting presidential elections,” Tim Darnell reports at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Because of the coronavirus’ hugely negative impact on the U.S. economy, Oxford Economics’ latest election model predicts Trump will only win 35% of the popular vote in November.”

Darnell notes further, “With the economy still suffering from the global coronavirus recession in early fall, our state-based and national election models both anticipate President Donald Trump will lose the popular vote,” the U.K.-based global forecasting organization said Wednesday. “An unemployment rate above its global financial crisis peak, household income nearly 6 percent below its pre-virus levels, and transitory deflation will make the economy a nearly insurmountable obstacle for Trump come November.”

Matt Egan notes at CNN Business that “The model, which uses unemployment, disposable income and inflation to forecast election results, predicts that Trump will lose in a landslide, capturing just 35% of the popular vote. That’s a sharp reversal from the model’s pre-crisis prediction that Trump would win about 55% of the vote. And it would be the worst performance for an incumbent in a century.”

Egan adds, “The national election model assumes that the economy is still in bad shape this fall, with unemployment above 13%, real per capita incomes down nearly 6% from a year ago and brief period of falling prices, or deflation….”The economy would still be in a worse state than at the depth of the Great Depression…It would take nothing short of an economic miracle for pocketbooks to favor Trump,” the Oxford report said.

Further, “A separate state-based election model run by Oxford Economics that incorporates local economic trends and gasoline prices predicts Trump will badly lose the electoral college by a margin of 328 to 210. That model forecasts that seven battleground states will flip to Democrats: Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and North Carolina…”We would expect these states to experience significant economic contractions and traumatic job losses that would likely swing pocketbook vote,” the report said.”

This model has an impressive track record. According to CNN, it has “correctly predicted the popular vote in every election since 1948 other than 1968 and 1976,” notes Darnell.

The forecasting model’s metrics incude unemployment, disposable income and inflation. However, Egan reports, “Oxford Economics said that its models have “inherent limitations,” including the fact that they exclude noneconomic factors such as a candidate’s agenda or likeability.” Further, “the models don’t account for potential shifts in the pandemic. And this election may be a referendum on Trump’s handling of the crisis.” Greg Valliere, chief US policy strategist at AGF Investments said, “If new infections really pick up, people will conclude Trump opened the country too soon…But if new infections drop, Trump will get some credit.”

“Another wildcard is how the pandemic impacts voter turnout,” Egan adds. “Strong turnout for Democrats could cause Trump to lose Florida, Texas, Arizona, Tennessee and Georgia, Oxford Economics said. But weak Democratic turnout, along with a sharper economic recovery, could give Trump a “razor-thin” electoral college victory, the report said.”

In addition, “Users on PredictIt, a prediction platform, give Trump a 50% chance of winning reelection. That’s up from 45% in mid-March. The betting odds also solidly favor Trump, according to an average compiled by RealClearPolitics.”


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.


Political Strategy Notes

In her CNN  Opinion article, “Democrats can’t keep ignoring this vital campaign issue,” Jen Psaki, White House communications director during the Obama administration, writes, “Few Democrats want to talk about the possibility of a liberal vacancy. After all, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest justice at age 87, is an icon who broke through gender barriers to become one of the most influential and committed progressive voices on the Supreme Court in history. As a proud owner of a “Notorious RBG” shirt, I get it. But remember, she and Justice Stephen Breyer, another liberal member of the court in his 80s, cannot be justices forever…And if Republicans are talking about this, Democrats should be, too…I was the communications director in the White House when then-President Barack Obama nominated Garland. We naively thought that someone who had been confirmed to the DC Court of Appeals with 76 votes in the Senate would face some opposition — but would ultimately be confirmed…But Democrats should also turn that bitterness into action — and take a lesson from Trump and McConnell, making the next Supreme Court vacancy a centerpiece of the 2020 election. Unlike in 2016, when the Garland nomination was not mentioned during the Democratic National Convention, it should get top billing this year.”

Psaki continues, “Democrats should be clear that confirmation of another Trump judge could be the death knell of the Affordable Care Act, which Trump is currently asking the Supreme Court to overturn. In other words, they should make this vote the 2020 version of the ACA-repeal votes that contributed to the downfall of so many Republican members of Congress in 2018…Anyone voting to confirm a Trump nominee is voting to kick tens of millions of Americans off their health care in the middle of a pandemic that’s reminding families everywhere how important access to care really is…And Democrats should not let Senate decorum get in the way. It’s basic campaign 101 — when a candidate is down, you don’t let up. You deliver the clear knockout punch…Finally, Democrats can’t hem and haw for weeks. Democratic Senate candidates should announce the stakes of this election immediately and begin to mobilize grassroots opposition, putting vulnerable Senate Republicans in the hot seat.”

At The Cook Political Report, Charlie Cook writes that “While it is still a bit more likely than not that Republicans hold onto either the White House or the Senate, the chances of Democrats scoring a trifecta is at least one-in-three and going up. Very roughly speaking, both the presidential race and the Senate are 50-50 bets, while the odds for Democrats holding the House are very high and rising…Given that Democratic incumbent Doug Jones’s reelection hopes appear completely futile, Democrats had to run the table and beat McSally, Gardner, Collins, and Tillis to win a Senate majority—and that was predicated on their party winning the White House as well; otherwise, they would have to unseat yet another Republican…But adding Loeffler and Daines gives Democrats a couple of other paths to a majority. Now, new Republican polling shows the elected incumbent in Georgia, David Perdue, in a difficult race. The open Kansas seat is looking very problematic with a filing deadline now just two weeks away. Even challenges to Sens. Joni Ernst, Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Dan Sullivan are drawing attention.”

Domenico Montenaro reports at npr.org that a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds that “A majority of Republicans (56%) would rather cast their ballots in person than by mail (42%), whereas 61% of Democrats and 53% of independents prefer voting by mail this November…The most likely to want to vote by mail were white women with a college degree (64%), whites with a college degree (62%), those who live in the West (62%) and Democrats (61%). Western states have been voting by mail for many election cycles…Among those most likely to say they want to vote in person are Republicans (56%), those in the South (45%), white women without a college degree (44%), those 45 and older (44%), whites (42%) and people without a college degree (40%)…Some 10% say they do not intend to vote, which the pollsters indicate is about what would be expected, but the groups with the highest percentages of members who say they won’t vote cut across key pillars in both parties: Gen Z and millennials, ages 18 to 38 (19%); Latinos (16%); suburban men (13%); those without a college degree (13%); white men without a degree (12%); and African Americans (11%).”

A CBS/YouGov poll conducted April 28-May 1 shed some light on public attitudes toward potential  running mates for the likely Democratic presidential nomineee, Joe Biden. “Democrats/Democratic Leaners” poll respondents were presented a list of frequently-mentioned potential Vice-Presidential running mates, and then asked “if Joe Biden were asked to pick a Vice Presidential running mate right now, which one of those should he pick?” Elizabeth Warren led the pack with 36%, followed by: Kamala Harris (19%); Stacy Abrams (14%); Amy Klobuchar (13%); Susan Rice (4%); Val Demings, Tammy Duckworth and Gretchen Whitmer (3%); Catherine Cortez-Masto (2%); Michelle Lujan-Grisham, Tammy Baldwin and Sally Yates (1%). Asked “If she wanted to run, should Joe Biden Pick Michelle Obama as his Vice-Presidential selection?,” 64% of the respondents said ‘Yes,’ while 36% said ‘No.’

Franklin Foer has a warning for Dems at The Atlantic: “The Russians have learned much about American weaknesses, and how to exploit them. Having probed state voting systems far more extensively than is generally understood by the public, they are now surely more capable of mayhem on Election Day—and possibly without leaving a detectable trace of their handiwork. Having hacked into the inboxes of political operatives in the U.S. and abroad, they’ve pioneered new techniques for infiltrating campaigns and disseminating their stolen goods. Even as to disinformation, the best-known and perhaps most overrated of their tactics, they have innovated, finding new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics. Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020…What sort of operation could Russia execute in 2020? Unlike Ukraine, the United States doesn’t have a central node that, if struck, could disable democracy at its core. Instead, the United States has an array of smaller but still alluring targets: the vendors, niche companies, that sell voting equipment to states and localities; the employees of those governments, each with passwords that can be stolen; voting machines that connect to the internet to transmit election results.”

Georgia Republicans are road-testing how cancelling an election plays with the public. As Ian Milhiser reports at Vox, “The state of Georgia was supposed to hold an election Tuesday to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court. Justice Keith Blackwell, a Republican whose six-year term expires on the last day of this year, did not plan to run for reelection. The election, between former Democratic Rep. John Barrow and former Republican state lawmaker Beth Beskin, would determine who would fill Blackwell’s seat…But then something weird happened: Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and the state’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, canceled Tuesday’s election. Instead, Kemp will appoint Blackwell’s successor, and that successor will serve for at least two years — ensuring the seat will remain in Republican hands…On May 14, the state Supreme Court handed down a decision that effectively blessed this scheme to keep Blackwell’s seat in the GOP’s hands. The court’s decision in Barrow v. Raffensperger is unusual in many regards — among other things, six of the state’s regular Supreme Court justices recused from the case, and they were replaced by five lower court judges who sat temporarily on the state’s highest court. The court’s decision in Barrow turns upon poorly drafted language in the state constitution, which does suggest that Blackwell, Kemp, and Raffensperger’s scheme was legal.” No doubt the White House will be watching,

FiveThirtyEight has a chat addressing the question, “Will 2020 Be Another Blue Wave Election Year?” Among the shared observations: Geoffrey Skelley notes, “while the generic ballot does handily favor Democrats now, it could change. (Historically, the margin has narrowed, and as we’ve said, I found that it moved 4 points, on average, between six months out and Election Day.)..Of course, there’s no guarantee it’ll move as much this time, but as I noted in an article on the 2020 House map, there are a bunch of seats Democrats are defending that Trump carried in 2016, so even a 1- to 2-point move in the generic ballot might make it tougher for Democrats to hold on to some of these more competitive seats they won in 2018.” Nathaniel Rakich rsponds, “But even if the environment changes, I’m not sure it will be in Republicans’ favor. In addition to the polling evidence, there’s a good theoretical argument for a blue wave, which is that we’ve entered an economic crisis and the incumbent president (and his party) does not do well when the economy is struggling….The unemployment rate is currently 14.7 percent, and I think most experts expect it to get even worse.” Sarah Frostenson adds, “there’s no precedent for what we might see in 2020, and as Lee wrote, “The obvious implication is that efforts to expand absentee voting in a pandemic might work differently. And maybe there will be partisan differences in who chooses to vote by mail, as we saw in Wisconsin’s primary.”

In her column at The Wisconsin State Journal, Paula Niedenthal, professor of psychology at UW-Madison, shares “2 lessons for Democrats from social psychology,” focusing on Wisconsin’s elections: “Winning elections in Wisconsin these days takes far more than persuading people to vote for a platform that polls indicate a majority already endorses anyway. In an era of extreme partisanship, winning elections also relies on learning two lessons from social psychology…One lesson is to enhance voters’ feelings of intelligence and relevance by allowing them to define the conversation. About anything. The second lesson is to take control of the communication of social norms…Gerrymandering of voting districts influences perceived norms because people use simple logic to draw conclusions. The Legislature has a Republican majority, so most Wisconsinites must vote Republican, right? Wrong. Democratic candidates in 2018 received more votes than Republicans in Wisconsin’s U.S. House and state Assembly races. But Republicans won five of the eight U.S. House seats and 64 of the 99 state Assembly seats…Democrats have been less energetic at taking control of the narrative about political norms in the state. Wisconsin has progressive roots, a strong relationship to public education and a concern for small business and agriculture. Documenting and communicating Wisconsinites’ beliefs about education, guns, natural resources, immigration and health care would go some way in correcting perceptions that have been constructed on the basis of ideology (often by the national GOP) rather than democracy…But scolding won’t work. The average Wisconsinite is intelligent and expert in some domain. Empiricists by nature, the people of this state are able to understand honest information about social norms. When they learn that most people think as they do, democracy will prevail.”


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.”