Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Where Do Voters Get Their Ideas About Electability?

To his fiercest critics ranging from the ideological center all the way to the far left, Donald Trump is both a danger to the health of the republic and a living testament to the continued (if not resurgent) prevalence of racism and sexism in American society. Many commentators concluded after the 2016 election that Trump's political success represented his effective exploitation of popular animus against Latinos, Muslims, and Barack Obama. Some analysts also interpreted the unexpected outcome that year as reflecting antipathy toward the prospect of Hillary Clinton as the first female president, especially among the non-college whites whose disproportionate abandonment of the Democratic ticket in 2016 from Pennsylvania to Iowa turned out to be pivotal in the electoral college.

Democratic voters have largely accepted the argument that Trump is a unique menace to the nation whose electoral career has benefited from the existence of racist and sexist attitudes in the public. And many have drawn a natural inference from this premise: the Democratic Party should maximize its chances of defeating the president in 2020 by nominating an "electable" candidate to oppose him. What does electability apparently mean to these voters? A candidate who doesn't come across as an extremist, who doesn't threaten to push the hot buttons of race and gender, who promises to flip those all-important midwestern battleground states from red back to blue. A candidate like, say, Joe Biden.

The perception of Biden as an especially strong potential general-election candidate seems to have spread widely among rank-and-file Democrats since Trump's victory in 2016. And it's not hard to see why. Pundits in the mainstream media and a number of veteran politicians have spent the past three years arguing that the Democratic Party needs to improve its standing with white working-class voters in order to regain a national majority in the electoral vote count, and Biden is widely assumed to be an effective ambassador to that particular segment of the public.

This argument has been further reinforced by the rhetoric of many liberal and leftist commentators, who have become especially likely to emphasize the presence of ethnic and gender prejudice in the mass public and to identify it as the central source of Trump's political power. Democratic voters intent on defeating Trump are therefore receiving messages from multiple trusted sources promoting the view that a Biden type represents an especially shrewd choice of nominee.

In the days since Biden jumped into the presidential race and extended his lead atop preference polls of Democratic voters, voices on the left who normally stress the enduring presence of group biases in the American mass public have encountered growing evidence of a development that they do not appear to have fully anticipated. As it turns out, their own arguments can be interpreted to suggest that pragmatic Democrats should accommodate the sober reality of popular prejudice by nominating a white man like Biden to run against him. David Weigel of the Washington Post even reported meeting an Iowa voter wearing a shirt reading "A Woman's Place Is In the White House" who told him that she was supporting Biden in part because "a woman couldn't win."

Since Biden is hardly a favorite in young lefty and feminist circles, the head-on confrontation between a popular argument and one of its own apparent implications has resembled the sound of squealing tires careening across the internet. Whereas it was once problematic to minimize the role of racial and gender attitudes in Trump's political rise, now it is also apparently problematic to suggest that the existence of such attitudes might place female or non-white candidates at a relative disadvantage in a 2020 general election campaign. But it won't be easy to convince Democratic voters desperate for electoral victory that the second proposition is entirely consistent with the first.

Of course, nobody knows for sure at this stage whether Biden is indeed the strongest potential nominee in the Democratic race, or whether other candidates would pay a decisive electoral penalty for their racial or gender identity. There is also a clear difference in objectives between a significant bloc of Democratic voters who care above all about defeating Trump (and seem quite happy to make compromises toward that end if they perceive it to be necessary to do so), and activists or intellectuals who remain dedicated to other goals as well—breaking the presidential glass ceiling, increasing the demographic diversity of the political leadership class, moving the Democratic Party further to the ideological left—and are reluctant at best to put them off for another four (or eight) years.

But whenever we observe voters behaving in a strategic manner, it's worthwhile to identify the source of the assumptions that underlie their calculations. Citizens are unlikely to develop their sense of electoral practicality simply from their own intuition. The messages that they receive from party leaders and the news media—both in interpreting the results of previous elections and in making predictions about future contests—are critical in shaping their perceptions of poltiical reality. Given the content of the information environment in which most Democrats have spent the past three years, we shouldn't be surprised that many of them currently view Joe Biden, rightly or wrongly, as their surest bet to eject Donald Trump from the White House.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The Democrats Are Still the Party of Obama, Part 2 (Joe Biden Edition)

After the 2018 midterm elections, much of the national media suffered from a collective misunderstanding of the Democratic Party. Multiple news stories described a party that was moving sharply to the left under the newfound leadership of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Democratic Socialists. But Ocasio-Cortez wasn't very representative of the large freshman class of Democrats elected in November. Like her, many of these members were young, fairly new to elective politics, and non-white, non-male, or both. But most also avoided ideological rhetoric, built campaigns around middle-class practicalities, and preferred a cooperative style to confrontation. Figuratively (and in some cases literally), they were political protégés of Barack Obama.

So I wrote a post-election analysis in which I explained how the Democrats were still the party of Obama, notwithstanding all the hype swirling at the time about an imminent leftist revolution. Even so, most of the phone calls I received from journalists asking for expert comment on American party politics over the subsequent three months were for stories they were writing about Ocasio-Cortez. But the recent entry of Joe Biden into the presidential race as the early favorite of Democratic voters has finally started to inspire a broader reappraisal of the actual state of the party, since Biden's initial lead in the race seems so incongruous with media perceptions of the political "moment."

One important reason for this apparent disconnection is that reporters and commentators swim in a social and social-media current where there is little obvious enthusiasm for Biden compared to other Democratic candidates. No notable pro-Biden activist faction exists on Twitter, for example, unlike the highly visible fan clubs belonging to Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. At the mass and elite level alike, Biden draws much of his support from an older, more moderate, less digitally hyperliterate population—some of his most prominent endorsements so far have come from party figures like Andrew Cuomo and Dianne Feinstein who are themselves favorite targets of the hip online left. And because Biden waited until late April to begin actively campaigning, journalists looking for Biden aficionados in the real world have had no easy place to find them.

But there's another factor working to Biden's advantage that has been underappreciated by many political analysts. Barack Obama left office after eight years as an extraordinarily popular president among members of his own party. Gallup measured Obama's favorability rating among Democrats at 95 percent in 2017; a CNN poll from early 2018 estimated it at 97 percent. More Democrats identify as "Obama Democrats" than as liberals, progressives, or any other label. Michelle Obama's memoir has sold over 10 million copies in the five months since its release, making it perhaps the biggest-selling autobiography in history. Democrats are even more likely to name Obama as the best president of their lifetime than Republicans are to say the same about Ronald Reagan.

Obama has not maintained a high public profile since leaving office, and the non-stop whirlwind of the Trump years can make his presidency seem to professional politics-watchers like ancient history. But Democrats out in the country at large continue to regard him with great affection—more so than Bill Clinton, who was viewed as a successful president but who (understandably) inspired rather less straightforward personal devotion. It's hardly surprising that these uniformly positive feelings would extend to Obama's vice president as well.

Biden's service under Obama doesn't guarantee him the nomination. He suffers from some personal vulnerabilities as a campaigner; his current lead in the polls is partially a temporary reflection of superior name recognition; the first-in-the-nation states of Iowa and New Hampshire are not ideally suited to him; and several other Democratic contenders have Obama-esque qualities of their own that may allow them to build greater support as the electorate starts to tune in more closely. But media analyses of the 2020 presidential race that reduce the candidates to mere ideological or demographic profiles risk ignoring a very real advantage that ex-Vice President Biden can uniquely claim (and that the Senator Biden who washed out early in the 1988 and 2008 elections lacked): eight years as the second-in-command to the nation's most beloved Democrat. In a huge field of candidates struggling to attract attention from voters, that's not a bad place from which to start.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

As "Mayor Pete" Shows, Some Democrats Just Keep Looking For JFK

An extremely long presidential nomination process, when combined with a large number of aspirants, is fertile ground for a series of boomlets in which successive candidates attract a burst of positive attention and upward motion in public opinion polls. The first such boomlet of the 2020 Democratic contest seems to have arrived right on schedule, though its specific beneficiary is more of a surprise. In a field crowded with members of Congress, it's Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana (population: 102,000), who has managed to capture the most early momentum.

Several recent polls have found Buttigieg running in third place behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (the only two Democratic candidates who have previously run for president), both nationally and in the early nomination states. Buttigieg also raised more than $7 million in individual donations during the first quarter of 2019, more than all but three of the other Democratic contenders (Biden, of course, was not yet a declared candidate).

It seems strange that a measurable segment of the party would already be throwing its support behind a midsize-city mayor rather than any of the many federal or statewide officeholders in the race. But Buttigieg projects a Kennedyesque persona, and a Kennedyesque persona is a valuable asset in a Democratic primary contest.

Kennedyesque politicians are youthful, personable, and confident. They compensate for their relative inexperience with well-hyped intellectual credentials: Ivy League diplomas, pet policy passions, authorship of "serious" books, public displays of erudition. Their bouts of earnestness are balanced by expressions of humor and self-awareness. They are masters of the rhetoric of idealistic generalities, leading audiences to find them charismatic or even inspirational, but they don't insist on doctrinal purity when it comes to the details. Indeed, the hope they offer—and "hope" is often what they explicitly promise—is that electing them will allow the nation to shed its messy ideological and partisan conflicts, progressing unencumbered into a new, brighter era of reason, civility, and mutual understanding. (One of the reasons why the Kennedy style doesn't have the same appeal within the Republican Party is that in the Republican version of utopia, political enemies are simply defeated, not converted.)

For decades, Democratic politicians with the capacity to do so have adapted themselves to the Kennedy model. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both found considerable success in Democratic presidential primaries by emulating Kennedy's approach, and even losing candidates like Gary Hart (1984) and John Edwards (2004) rode elements of the Kennedy persona to advance further in the nomination process than their other political virtues would likely have carried them. The fact that Clinton and Obama are the only post-JFK Democrats to be elected twice to the presidency reinforces the perception among electability-minded partisans that the Kennedy style can offer a strategic advantage that persists even after the primaries are over.

There are other recurrent archetypes in Democratic politics: the scrappy pugilist (Harry Truman, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders); the just-the-facts technocrat (Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Paul Tsongas); the political veteran who can work the levers of power (Lyndon Johnson, Walter Mondale, Hillary Clinton). But it's hard to imagine any of these other profiles being sufficient to launch a midwestern mayor into presidential contention against a raft of better-situated opponents. Buttigieg's electoral chances will depend on his ability to keep this precious persona intact as he weathers the added scrutiny that will inevitably follow his recent bump in the polls.

The interest that Buttigieg's campaign has already received is a testament to the warp speed at which today's political world operates. Except for Biden and Sanders, the other, more conventionally qualified Democratic candidates in the 2020 race are new faces on the national scene by traditional standards—yet much of the journalistic and social media realms are currently treating them like yesterday's news. It really wasn't all that long ago, in fact, that there was this other youngish candidate who suddenly emerged from obscurity to inspire Democratic activists across the country by seeming to personify a new, more hopeful kind of politics.

Had kind of a Kennedy look about him, too.

Beto something?

Whatever happened to that guy?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Donald Trump and the Electoral Benefits of Presidential Weakness

I recently argued that Donald Trump has been, so far, the weakest of the modern (i.e. post-FDR) presidents in exercising the power of the office on behalf of policy goals. Moreover, the Trump presidency does not appear to be gaining in capacity over time. Rather than learning from early failures and bringing in experienced Washington hands to steady the ship, as previous presidents like Bill Clinton did, Trump has opted instead to retreat further into a skeletal executive branch increasingly bereft of managerial talent and substantive expertise. The power of presidential speech has also been diluted to an unprecedented point, since attentive audiences within the political system—members of Congress, journalists, bureaucrats, even the president's own subordinates—have learned through experience that Trump's words often bear no relationship to his actions or those of his administration.

This is a prescription for nothing much getting done. Indeed, it seems as if progress on the president's agenda has either slowed or stalled on nearly every major policy dimension. Such a development is bad news for anyone invested in those policies. But it's probably good news for Trump's re-election chances.

One of the major lines of attack on Trump in 2016 was that he represented a potential threat to the survival of the nation, or even the globe. Jeb Bush called Trump a "chaos candidate . . . [who] would be a chaos president," while Hillary Clinton argued that "a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons." Some otherwise persuadable voters may have declined to support Trump over these concerns; as Clinton advisor Mandy Grunwald recalled after the 2016 election, "I don't think we ever had a focus group where somebody didn't say, 'He's going to blow up the world. I just can't do that.'"

Trump's administration may indeed be fairly described as chaotic, but he hasn't introduced the kind of visible instability to the nation, or the world, that swing voters might easily perceive and punish in 2020. The weakness of his presidency has prevented him from accomplishing major policy objectives that would also have been politically treacherous. For example, both the repeal of the ACA and the instigation of multi-front trade wars would have resulted in economic disruption within a significant segment of the national electorate, and it is surely to Trump's electoral benefit that neither goal has (yet) been achieved. Mass deportations of DACA beneficiaries would likewise have caused a political firestorm from which judicial intervention has, at least up to this point, helpfully protected the Trump re-election campaign.

Though he has failed to deliver on many other promises as well—he did not get Carl Icahn to negotiate new trade agreements with China and Japan, or end birthright citizenship, or bring back the coal industry, or invest an additional $1 trillion in infrastructure, or enact a federal child care plan designed by his daughter, or prove to be so dedicated a president that he was too busy to take vacations—Trump has remained overwhelmingly popular among his 2016 supporters. In addition, the president has benefited from a solid economy and strong record of job growth. Here, too, the frustration of his greater ambitions may have worked to his political advantage—what would have happened to the financial sector in the wake of, say, a hard exit from NAFTA rather than the quiet negotiation of a near-identical successor agreement?

Trump is now positioned to run for a second term less as a transformational figure continuing his project to remake American politics and society than as a defender of the status quo against what will no doubt be characterized as a radical socialist alternative. If he loses, it will be due more to his existing unpopular personal qualities than to any particular act that he committed while in office. The enduring weakness of his presidency may well prevent Trump from making much of a mark on history, but he could earn a second term if he's able to convince enough voters that they don't have much to fear from more of the same—and that it's the Democrats, instead, who offer a risk America can't afford to take.

Monday, April 08, 2019

A Historically Weak Presidency Just Keeps Getting Weaker

Donald Trump dominates the popular, electoral, and media landscapes of American politics like no other figure in living memory. Trump remains a ubiquitous presence in the daily press coverage of current events. The 2018 elections were almost entirely a referendum on Trump, with the various individual candidates running for Congress serving merely as proxy vessels for voters to register their approval or disapproval of the president amid record national turnout for a midterm. Many of Trump's supporters view him in admiring terms as something of a national savior, while his detractors accuse him of being a uniquely potent villain leading America down the road to authoritarian rule.

But in terms of actual effectiveness in using the tools of the office to achieve policy ends, the Trump administration so far ranks at the bottom among all the modern presidencies. Trump the political personality is historically strong, yet Trump the president is historically weak.

The evidence for, and reasons behind, this weakness have been catalogued by my political scientist colleagues Jonathan Bernstein (here, here, and here) and Matt Glassman (herehere, and here). One set of difficulties concerns Trump's personal qualities. This president is bored or impatient with most substantive policy questions or discussions. He seems unfamiliar with many aspects of how the government operates and uninterested in becoming educated on this point. And, crucially, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he cannot be trusted to keep his word either publicly or privately, which reduces his ability to negotiate productively with other power centers within the political system or around the world.

Another source of weakness is the executive branch surrounding the president. Trump promised during the 2016 campaign that he would select the "best people" who were "truly, truly capable" to serve at the senior levels of the government. But he has been unable to attract, or to identify, consistently skilled deputies across the various cabinet departments and within the White House itself; personnel choices frequently seem to reflect preoccupations with perceived loyalty or "looking the part" on television rather than actual talent. The high turnover rate of presidential appointees, extraordinary number of unfilled positions, excessive dependence on "acting" officials who lack the clout that comes with permanent status, and absence of a coherent policy-making process make it even more difficult for the Trump presidency to gain the deference from bureaucrats, judges, members of Congress, and other actors that is usually necessary to implement significant policy change.

Finally, Trump's unpopularity in the mass public—and the toxic levels of antipathy that he provokes among Democratic voters in particular—means that even ideologically moderate or electorally vulnerable members of the opposition party see little benefit in cooperating with the president. Trump's mediocre job approval ratings also led directly to the Democratic victories in the House last November that have further curtailed his legislative influence and handed investigative power to his congressional critics.

Some presidents suffer from a rocky start but get the hang of the job as they go on. The Trump presidency seems only to be getting more ineffective over time. Trump's greatest strength up to now has been his power within the Republican Party; other Republicans have generally been reluctant to become enmeshed in public disputes with the president for fear that their own party's voters will take Trump's side and wreak punishment on dissenters. Recently, however, Mitch McConnell responded to Trump's suggestion that Republicans turn their attention (yet again) to health care reform by flatly shooting down the president's declaration in the pages of the national press. Imagine Harry Reid doing such a thing to Barack Obama, or Bill Frist to George W. Bush, and it becomes clear what an unusual act this was for the Senate majority leader, who was surely speaking for his caucus as a whole.

It's also clear that the executive branch's management of immigration policy—a rare subject on which the president demonstrates substantial personal investment—is an outright mess. The forced resignation of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is merely the latest development in a chain of events that also included a lengthy federal shutdown that failed to secure border wall funding from Congress, the damaging revelation and subsequent public reversal of the practice of separating families seeking entry at the southern border, and the indefinite judicial suspension of the president's unpopular withdrawal of DACA protections in September 2017. Rather than identify hard-line aide Stephen Miller as a common element in his repeated failures to achieve lasting policy gains on the issue, Trump has apparently sided with Miller over Nielsen in one of many internal administration battles as Miller seeks to consolidate influence over DHS from the White House—which does not bode well for future success.

While Trump seems by now to have grasped that the job he has isn't the same as the job he thought he was running for in 2016, he hasn't managed to figure out what to do about it. If media impressions are accurate, the cacophonous frenzy of this presidency's early months—memorably marked by a parade of colorful characters constantly barging on- and off-stage—has evolved into a quieter, though not necessarily less chaotic, atmosphere structured (if that's not too strong a word) around the uneven energy of the president himself, who seems to oscillate between bursts of acute, though often unproductive, engagement and increasingly lengthy periods of retreat to television and Twitter. Even Trump's aggressive verbal taunting of potential Democratic opponents in a re-election contest that's well over a year away gives off the impression that the incumbent is somewhat unfulfilled by his governing responsibilities and yearns for the prospect of electoral competition to really get his blood flowing.

In other circumstances, a president who fails to deliver on major initiatives—and who prefers not to even show up at the office on the weekends, or in the evenings, or in the mornings—would inspire murmurs of discontent within the party whose platform forms the basis of his policy to-do list. Yet Trump has proven that the demands of today's Republican activist and voter base can largely be satisfied by symbolic appeals rather than substantive achievements. If his supporters ask of him only that he says the right things, and angers the right opponents, then it's possible for him to do the job they want him to do from the comfort of his couch at Mar-a-Lago. But as long as Trump himself continues to promise major policy change without demonstrating any idea of how to attain it, the strength that he so conspicuously attempts to project through his words will not be matched by his deeds.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Should Democrats Really Worry About a Contested Convention?

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report published an op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday provocatively titled "Why a Long Democratic Primary Slugfest Might Help Re-Elect Trump." In the piece, Wasserman argues that the Democratic presidential nomination race in 2020 could well turn out to be a protracted fight that exposes or exacerbates wide rifts within the party, that the identity of the Democratic nominee might remain unresolved until the national convention, and that internal conflict could prevent Democrats from unifying to defeat Donald Trump in the November general election.

At the foundation of Wasserman's case is an important observation: under the internal rules of the Democratic Party, winning a majority of pledged delegates requires attracting at least a near-majority of the popular vote in presidential primaries. That's because Democrats, unlike Republicans, mandate the proportional allocation of delegates; all candidates who receive at least 15 percent of the vote in a state or congressional district are entitled to a corresponding share of the delegates chosen there regardless of whether they place first. If there are multiple candidates attracting significant but not overwhelming popular support over an extended segment of the primary calendar, no single candidate will accumulate a majority of delegates, and therefore the national party might assemble in Milwaukee on July 13, 2020 without a certain nominee.

However, I think that this scenario is far less probable than Wasserman suggests—and that even if no candidate ends the primary season with a majority of delegates formally pledged to him or her, neither unusually bitter infighting nor ineffective opposition to the Republican ticket are particularly likely consequences. Here are some of the reasons behind this skepticism:

1. The early states will immediately cull the field. At the current preliminary stage of the process, it's relatively easy to envision a long competition with multiple strong contenders. But the early states invariably impose a deep and sometimes brutal mark on the race, reinforced by the news media's enthusiasm for branding candidates as either winners or (more commonly) losers. There have been 20 contested presidential nominations since the modern system was introduced in 1972, and the eventual nominee placed no worse than second in the New Hampshire primary in all 20 elections. Unsuccessful candidates may not immediately drop out if they do badly in the first few states, but unless they can consistently reach the necessary 15 percent threshold of popular support in the face of the resulting negative publicity or media inattention, they won't be able to deprive the front-runner of delegates.

2. Front-loading might end the race sooner, not later. Wasserman argues that the front-loading of the nomination calendar paradoxically increases the chance of a dragged-out competition, because many pledged delegates will be chosen at a point when multiple active candidates could potentially split the electoral map among themselves. It's possible to see things working out that way. But it seems equally plausible that the evolution of Super Tuesday into an early March quasi-national primary raises the level of financial and organizational resources necessary to run a viable campaign beyond the reach of more than a handful of candidates, and that the extensive media coverage required to catch the eye of voters tuning into the race after Iowa and New Hampshire will similarly be divided among just two or three main contenders. If the results of Super Tuesday and the two following weeks give one candidate a large enough lead in the delegate count, the front-loading of the calendar could produce an apparent nominee by March 17, since the combination of proportional allocation requirements and the lack of delegate-rich states voting later in the season makes it even more difficult for a trailing opponent to mount a second-half comeback.

3. The Democratic Party is not "highly fractious." Notwithstanding the wildly disproportionate fascination in some circles with a few backbench members of the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party is arguably as unified, at both the mass and elite level, as it's ever been in its history. There are important differences among Democrats, of course, and some of these differences will be publicly litigated over the course of the 2020 presidential nomination race. But there's little reason to believe that internal party divisions are any greater, or harder to overcome, than they were in 2008, or 1992, or 1976, or 1948, or 1932. Democrats universally dislike Donald Trump and are highly motivated to defeat him in 2020; no major candidate or group within the party will want to risk being forever blamed for Trump's re-election by stirring up trouble between the convention and the November vote.

4. A true contested convention is very unlikely, because party leaders will work hard to prevent it. Media discussions of hypothetical contested conventions often carry the whiff of hopeful anticipation; many journalists find today's scripted coronations to be impossibly boring and yearn to experience the excitement of yesteryear's dark horses and smoke-filled rooms. But party leaders have exactly the opposite view. They fear and despise the unpredictability and colorful in-fighting that media types live for; above all, they want an exuberant, harmonious, drama-free party. Democratic officials will therefore do everything in their power to prevent the kind of rollicking free-for-all that the term "contested convention" or "brokered convention" commonly connotes.

For risk-averse party leaders who are habitually obsessed with maintaining internal unity and popular legitimacy, the obvious path of least resistance in a situation where no candidate has accumulated a majority of pledged delegates is to close ranks around the first-place finisher in the delegate count. Secondary candidates could be pressured to release their own delegates and endorse the leader; alternatively, superdelegate votes could deliver him or her a numerical majority on the second ballot at the convention. Denying the nomination to the candidate with the greatest demonstrated popular support would risk a highly inconvenient public debate over whether the "voice of the people" was being silenced by the scheming of party "bosses," as the experience of the 2008 and 2016 superdelegate controversies demonstrated so memorably. At the same time, the Democratic leadership is quite unlikely to let a contested nomination play out without attempting to direct the proceedings in advance; it's not obvious how a modern convention could even be competently staged without a presumptive nominee to take charge of its organization.

Until such a turn of events actually happens, it's impossible to know whether the nominal majority requirement for presidential nominations is, as I suspect, closer to a plurality requirement in practice. But the prospect of a chaotic nomination process or national convention doesn't seem like a leading concern for the Democratic Party at this stage of the election. Whatever challenges Democrats may face in 2020, a deeply divided or unmotivated party base is unlikely to be one of them.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

In Fox Debate Flap, the Press Defends Its Power to Pick Presidents

It is widely accepted in most democracies that party leaders have a right to control the process of nominating candidates for elective office. Here in the United States, however, this proposition is not merely controversial but downright unpopular.

Even the hint that superdelegates might exercise their voting rights under party rules to support a candidate other than the narrow leader in the pledged delegate count provoked accusations in both the 2008 and 2016 Democratic presidential nomination contests that insiders had "rigged" the system in order to silence the voice of the people. These complaints forced a chastened Democratic National Committee to enact limits to superdelegate power in order to protect its popular legitimacy. Republican politicians in 2016 similarly looked on helplessly as voters delivered the nomination to a candidate whom many believed at the time to be a generationally disastrous standard-bearer for their party. Despite this broadly-shared judgment, attempts to force an alternative outcome at the national convention had little energy and soon fizzled out entirely.

But it's too simplistic to view struggles over control of nominations as only pitting party bosses against regular citizens. As critics like Nelson W. Polsby observed decades ago, the post-1968 reforms that created the modern presidential nominating process actually transferred crucial influence from one set of elites—state party organizations—to another set—the news media. Because voters in party primaries habitually act with limited information and weak preferences, especially when the field expands to three or more contenders, they can be decisively swayed by the volume and tone of press attention devoted to each candidate.

The post-reform era is littered with presidential candidacies made and unmade by media coverage. Ed Muskie outpolled George McGovern in both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1972, yet the press treated McGovern like the winner in both cases, setting him on a path to the Democratic nomination. Jimmy Carter received a similar publicity boost after finishing behind an uncommitted slate of Iowa delegates in 1976. Reporters and commentators accepted Bill Clinton's self-proclaimed persona as the "comeback kid" at the expense of Paul Tsongas, the actual winner of the 1992 New Hampshire primary. In the 2000s, media favorites John McCain and Barack Obama benefited from sympathetic coverage while the unlucky Howard Dean became a media dartboard for the sin of screaming too loudly in a concession speech. Donald Trump attracted far more press attention than any other candidate in 2016, to the frustration of rivals who found it much harder to get their messages out to the public.

Journalists sometimes resist acknowledging their sizable influence over nominations, and may not always be fully conscious of the central role they can play in determining the outcome. But when party leaders attempt to assert power at the potential expense of the media, members of the press quickly rise to defend the prerogatives of themselves and their peers.

The Democratic National Committee announced this week that Fox News Channel would not be authorized to hold a debate among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, in the wake of reports confirming the de facto alliance between Fox News and the Trump White House. Rather than respect political leaders' judgment about how their own party's nomination process should operate, prominent journalists immediately blasted the DNC, vouching for their Fox News colleagues in the face of a perceived affront to their professional rectitude. Some even accepted the DNC's premise that Fox would treat Democratic candidates with more hostility than the other news outlets hosting debates in 2020, suggesting that the gauntlet of a Fox-organized debate was not a trap to be avoided but rather a test of character that the party was failing.

 "If you can't answer questions—especially if they're not the questions you want asked—maybe you don't have good answers," snorted Jonathan Allen of NBC. "And if you aren't prepared for tough questions/subjects in a primary debate, how will you handle the general?" chided Zeke Miller of the Associated Press. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times preferred the ha-ha-you-suckered-yourself style of riposte: "it sends a message of being afraid of something. Which is what Trump feeds off in opponents."

Beneath this outburst of (self-)righteous indignation is a set of powerful assumptions: that the press—not voters or party leaders—properly holds the job of asking "tough questions" (and judging the worthiness of the answers) during the nomination process, and that televised debates are the most important venue for performing this critical task. Parties "expect the forums to produce infomercials that glorify their candidates, not journalistic grillings," taunted Jack Shafer of Politico, who went on to argue that any candidate who didn't want to participate in a debate sponsored by a disfavored cable network should "be disqualified from running" for the presidency—in case any doubt remained about where Shafer thinks the power to choose the nation's political leadership should rightfully reside.

One quirky attribute of American media culture is the consensus veneration of debates as a uniquely sacred exercise in civic enlightenment. The origin of this precept is somewhat mysterious; perhaps it's a romanticized legacy of Messrs. Lincoln and Douglas, or maybe it just reflects a collective belief that campaign events organized by the media are definitionally superior to those produced by the candidates and parties. In any case, a frank and unsentimental re-evaluation of its experiential soundness is decades overdue. It's not hard to recall important debates, or moments in debates, in both primaries and general elections. But nearly all of them involve candidate mannerisms, zingers, or gaffes (gaffe after gaffe after gaffe), not important substantive discussions or revelations. Is this really the best way to choose a president?

The Republican National Committee recently pondered this question as well. Republican leaders concluded that there were too many debates during the 2012 nomination season, which (in their view) gave an undeserved platform to secondary candidates while pushing their eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, into taking positions that were ultimately damaging to the party's general election chances (Romney's endorsement of "self-deportation" as an immigration policy, blamed in retrospect for costing him Latino support, was made during a Republican primary debate). In response, the RNC, like the DNC, acted after 2012 to limit the number of debates and take greater control of the sponsors and moderators.

The parties naturally perceive a strategic advantage in a nomination procedure that bolsters the chances of producing a nominee who can unify the party, be a formidable general election candidate, and possess the skills to govern successfully. But surely the American public would also be well-served by a choice of presidential candidates who possess such qualities. And it's not clear that the incentives governing the media's coverage of elections necessarily favor an equally desirable set of characteristics, despite the self-important proclamations of some self-appointed gatekeepers.

With the mixed track record of the media-dominated nomination process over half a century of history, perhaps both national committees deserve some deference to tinker strategically with aspects of the current system without facing attacks from journalists acting as if their personal honor has been outrageously besmirched by rank partisan interlopers. For some, it may not be easy to conceive of a situation where the interest of the public is not aligned by definition with that of the press, or is instead more closely matched with that of the perennially-maligned party organizations. But as Nina Simone used to sing, "it be's that way sometime."