Thursday, August 15, 2019

Honest Graft on the Factually! Podcast

On the latest episode of the Factually! podcast, I chat with host Adam Conover about American political parties, voters, polarization, health care, and why Sean Hannity scares more politicians than Chris Hayes. It was a fun, wide-ranging conversation and you can listen to it here or via the usual podcast apps.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Democratic Debate Analysis (Second Night): Can Anyone Beat Biden But Biden?

Some takeaways from Part 2 of this week's Democratic presidential debates (my analysis of Part 1, as well as more general thoughts on debates, can be found here):

1. Joe Biden was the biggest target of attacks on Wednesday—unsurprisingly so, given his current status as the leading candidate in the race. And nearly all of the attacks were ideological jabs from the left: Castro and de Blasio on immigration, Gillibrand and Harris on women's rights, Gabbard on Iraq. What's not yet clear is how vulnerable Biden is to such criticisms; his frequent deployment of his service under Barack Obama as a defense shield in these situations prompted a frustrated response from Booker but may well turn out to be a perfectly effective strategy given Obama's continued popularity with the Democratic electorate. One important question that the debate raises is whether there is an argument that another Democratic candidate can make that's strong enough to bring Biden down, or whether Biden is ultimately much more vulnerable to self-inflicted wounds such as gaffes, or quiet concerns about his age, than open attacks from rivals.

2. One strategic implication of the "lanes" model of party nominations is that it can be advantageous for candidates to attack competitors who are the most ideologically, demographically, or stylistically similar to themselves, on the theory that they are competing over the same blocs of voters. But we haven't seen much evidence yet that Democrats are thinking this way. No Sanders vs. Warren, Buttigieg vs. O'Rourke, Harris vs. Booker, or Biden vs. Bennet showdowns erupted in either debate this week. This was partially due to CNN's transparent maneuvering on both nights to stoke cross-ideological conflict, but no candidates seemed particularly interested in challenging this network-imposed dynamic.

3. Underlying much of the discussion on both nights of the debate is a divide within the Democratic Party over the proper interpretation of the 2016 Clinton-Sanders race and the subsequent rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and company. Do these recent elections demonstrate that a majority of the Democratic Party continues to prefer Obama-style incrementalist politics? Or, instead, do they reflect a growing pressure at the party roots for transformative social change?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Democratic Debate Analysis (First Night): CNN Decides What the Race Is About

Honest Graft was on vacation during the first pair of Democratic presidential debates last month, so this week's events are the first of the 2020 campaign that will receive recaps here on the blog. Perhaps it's worthwhile, then, to review my general perspective on debates before proceeding to discuss Tuesday night's proceedings.

• I tend to be skeptical of analysts' confident declarations of debate "winners" and "losers," because the standards by which such pronouncements are made are usually unclear and are often colored by previous preferences. However, a strong collective judgment among media figures about who did well or who committed a major gaffe can affect candidates' fortunes in important ways, regardless of the fairness of such evaluations.

• Debates can tell us important things beyond who won or lost. They help illustrate candidate strategy, internal party trends and developments, and media preoccupations. But most debates don't turn out to be dramatic "game-changers" in the race as a whole.

• As tools for voters to learn about candidates and make decisions about whom to support, debates are not entirely useless—but neither are they reliably helpful. Rather than adopting the common media theme that debates are sacred exercises in civic enlightenment, citizens should treat them more like the television productions that they are at heart. Television can be entertaining, but it's not reliably informative.

Now, on to a few takeaways from the first night's debate:

1. There was a chance that the random assignment of Sanders and Warren to the same debate stage this month would lead to a showdown between them, but that didn't happen. Instead, the most common dynamic was one in which both candidates were lumped in together as targets of criticism from more moderate rivals.

2. This dynamic didn't just naturally happen on its own; it was largely the consequence of CNN's choice of questions. The moderators, who displayed a curiously hostile tone throughout the evening, were clearly most interested in defining the race as a battle between ideological purity and electoral formidability—a frame to which they frequently returned. (CNN's post-debate coverage summarized the event by repeatedly displaying the chyron "Breaking News: Liberal and Moderate Democrats Clash in Detroit.") The moderators' behavior had the inevitable effect of minimizing the differences between Sanders and Warren, while making the two of them stand out dramatically from the rest of the field.

3. John Delaney, Steve Bullock, Tim Ryan, and John Hickenlooper all repeatedly accepted the moderators' invitations to make attacks against Warren and Sanders, but the short response times imposed by CNN (as low as 15 seconds in some cases) meant that these candidates didn't have as much of a chance to explain what made them, personally, the best alternative to the two leading lefties in the race. There's a long historical tradition of Democratic candidates distancing themselves from the left edge of their party—and convincing the Democratic electorate that they are smartly positioning themselves for the general election by doing so. But previous Democrats who have successfully employed this approach en route to the nomination have had some other quality that could excite the party's voters: impressive biography, youthful charisma, policy wonkery. Without an immediately obvious personal selling point, these candidates need to make a positive case for themselves as well, but the format was not well-suited to this objective.

4. Amy Klobuchar, interestingly, didn't really take the opportunity to join in the push against the left, despite her self-positioning as an electable midwesterner. (She preferred the popular moderate tactic of attacking the other party instead.) Klobuchar seems to be doing just well enough in polls and donations to qualify for the next debate in September, so she's not in imminent danger of being culled from the race, but as the resident of a neighboring state she'll need to make a big splash in Iowa or she'll be written off before the New Hampshire primary.

5. After (mostly) uniting around the ACA, the presidential wing of the Democratic Party is splintering again on the issue of health care, with substantive policy differences among candidates sometimes illustrated, and sometimes confusingly obscured, by the invocation of phrases like "Medicare for All." Whether or not Democratic primary voters consciously base their choice of candidate on the issue, the 2020 nomination contest will determine whether the party enters the general election on a platform of advocating the wholesale restructuring of the American health insurance system. A vote for Sanders or Warren as nominee is partially a bet that such a position is now viable in a national race.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

What's Missing from the "Ideology vs. Electability" Debate

We're still in the early stages of the 2020 presidential campaign, but a common media frame has emerged already: will Democrats prioritize pragmatic electability when selecting a challenger to President Trump, or will the party instead prize ideological purity? Again and again, news coverage of the Democratic nomination contest has boiled a well-populated, multi-faceted candidate race down to this either-or choice, with Joe Biden usually personifying the "electability" option while Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represent the "purity" alternative.

News outlets have repeatedly publicized surveys of Democratic primary voters designed to measure how they come down on this supposedly inevitable dilemma. "Which type of candidate would you prefer to see the Democrats nominate for president in 2020: a candidate who agrees with you on almost all of the issues you care about but does not have the best chance of beating Donald Trump, or a candidate who has the best chance of beating Donald Trump but who does not agree with you on almost all of the issues you care about?" "Who would you choose if you had a magic wand and can make any of the candidates president—they don't have to beat anyone or win the election?"

One problem with this increasingly ubiquitous concept of the race is that Democrats might not register an obvious collective preference after all. As a general rule, most political analyses in the "now we have come to a fork in the road" style don't turn out well in retrospect; politicians and voters alike are demonstrably adept at avoiding clear choices and generally muddling through. Past nominees like Barack Obama have often found success by finessing differences within the party rather than planting their flags firmly on one end of an internal debate. Kamala Harris, for one, is clearly pursuing a strategy of presenting herself as simultaneously more liberal than Biden and more electable than Warren or Sanders, and perhaps that will turn out to be the most effective approach in the end.

But the more serious danger is the underlying assumption that these are the only major considerations for primary voters as they deliberate over their preferred candidate. While both policy positions and electoral strength are highly appropriate grounds on which to evaluate candidates, they are not the only important attributes when choosing a nominee or potential president. Surveys and media accounts that presume otherwise thus present an oversimplified and distorted picture of presidential politics. And because voters in primaries are heavily influenced by media coverage, endless news stories that frame the race as fundamentally a tradeoff between just two criteria—idealism vs. practicality, head vs. heart, sincerity vs. calculation—could persuade many citizens to view their alternatives in precisely those terms, and to pay less attention to other deservedly relevant candidate qualities.

Like. say, competence.

Surely it's highly sensible to evaluate candidates in terms of who would, and would not, prove to be successful presidents if they wound up in the job. One of the benefits of the old system of presidential nominations is the influence it granted to politicians within the party who knew the various candidates personally and had previously worked with them in government. But the candidates' own records, as well as the kind of campaigns they run, can provide valuable evidence in this area, and voters should not be discouraged from placing effectiveness at the center of their considerations.

In this particular race, there are several candidates who lack the traditional credential of previous service in Congress or a state governorship, plus others who have served only for a brief time in federal office. Two of the candidates with the most experience are also approaching their 80s. At least one candidate seems to have chronic difficulties getting along with subordinates. Candidates also disagree over the optimal approach to accomplishing policy change: stakeholder compromise or mass mobilization? All of these factors and more seem highly relevant to the question of potential future success in the presidency, independent of the policy positions or personal popularity of the various contenders.

Discussions of competence can lack the drama of ideological battles or the savvy calculations of electoral strategy. But how—and how well—a president governs ultimately matters a lot. The more that voters, activists, and journalists acknowledge this truth during the nomination process, the healthier our political system will be.

Monday, July 01, 2019

The Return of Roy Moore

Today over on the Monkey Cage blog hosted by the Washington Post, I explain what the second Senate candidacy of Roy Moore tells us about the larger dynamics within the Republican Party today. President Trump has found himself in strong agreement with the traditional GOP officeholding and consulting class in opposing another Moore candidacy, but—tellingly—all these actors combined couldn't keep Moore from running again.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Once Again, the Debates Are Going to Cause the DNC Plenty of Grief

The Democratic National Committee faced a lot of criticism for the way it organized presidential nomination debates in 2016. Originally, the party only planned six debates (there ended up being nine), and the first event wasn't held until mid-October 2015—in contrast to the Republicans, who held a total of twelve debates beginning in early August. One of the Democratic debates was held on the Saturday before Christmas, and another occurred over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in January 2016. The Bernie Sanders campaign suspected that the DNC had intentionally scheduled the debates in order to minimize their likely viewership—and, not coincidentally, to deprive Sanders of a large audience for his challenge to the better-known front-runner Hillary Clinton. Complaints about the debates thus became part of the larger case that Sanders supporters built against the DNC for "rigging" the nomination process in Clinton's favor.

Desperate to preserve its popular legitimacy and prove its dedication to equality and inclusion, the DNC changed its ways in advance of the 2020 election. There would be twelve debates in all, and the first event would be held much earlier—in the last week of June 2019. And, importantly, the standards for inclusion in the June and July debates would be very forgiving, in order to forestall accusations that the party was being exclusionary or manipulative: candidates would need only to reach 1 percent in three polls of Democratic voters or to attract 65,000 financial donors. If there were too many candidates to fit in a single debate, the party wouldn't consign secondary candidates to a separate, lower-status "undercard" or "kiddie table" debate, as the Republicans did in 2016. Instead, each candidate would be assigned to one of two consecutive nights via a random draw, stratified in order to ensure that the top contenders in the polls didn't all happen to wind up on the same stage.

But as so often happens in life, maneuvering to address one set of problems can create a new, different set of problems—with no guarantee that the original set will indeed be solved. The scheduling of very early debates with modest eligibility requirements turned out to be something of an attractive nuisance, helping to draw into the race a record-breaking flotilla of candidates enticed by the prospect of national television exposure. With ten candidates participating in each of two 2-hour debates, it's likely that each individual candidate won't get much of a chance to make his or her case to the voters even as a lot of camera time will collectively be consumed by contenders with little or no chance of winning the nomination.

Acknowledging these inconvenient consequences of its own policies, the DNC has indicated that the inclusion criteria will become more stringent beginning with the third debate in September, requiring candidates to reach 2 percent in at least four polls and to receive financial support from at least 130,000 donors. But if a higher threshold succeeds in solving the problem of a debate stage too crowded with also-rans, it will simultaneously exacerbate the older problem of a party perceived to be favoring some candidates over others. Montana governor Steve Bullock is already complaining that his exclusion from next week's debates means that the party isn't hearing "different voices," and it's very possible that the DNC-is-silencing-me caucus could expand by the fall to include multiple sitting senators whose campaigns have yet to catch on with the public.

Maybe nobody will care much that candidates with little popular support aren't invited to future debates. But internal party warfare tends to attract substantial media attention, and frequent complaints from journalists that there are too many Democrats running for president hardly guarantee that they will come to the party's defense when it acts to further limit the number of debate participants. Voters could easily form a vague impression that something about the process was unfair without necessarily supporting, or even recognizing, any of the excluded candidates.

Media figures also love to hype debates in advance, even though they often turn out to be bored in practice by the rehearsed rhetoric and awkward one-liners that usually dominate the proceedings. Anything that dampens anticipatory excitement, then, tends to provoke a fair amount of journalistic grousing. The DNC attempted to ensure that the top candidates were evenly divided between the two debate events next week—but because it defined "top" as polling at only 2 percent or higher, it wound up assigning four of the five leading candidates to a single debate group. Even worse for media critics, the one candidate left out (Elizabeth Warren) is the trendiest at the moment, depriving pundits of the juicy prospect of potential Warren vs. Biden or Warren vs. Sanders in-person showdowns. Journalists responded to the announcement of the debate lineups last Friday with considerable disappointment on social media, despite the DNC's hopes of using the process to demonstrate its scrupulous devotion to fairness and equality.

The centrality of debates in presidential nomination politics is a fairly recent development; the 2012 Republican race is arguably the first nomination contest in which debates played a major role in influencing the dynamics. With their interests increasingly at stake in these events, parties have understandably responded by asserting more control over their production. But the Democratic Party in particular is also extremely sensitive to accusations that any new rules imposed on the process infringe on the sacred right of "the people" to choose a nominee without the stain of elite interference. The DNC is attempting to thread its way through the narrow straits separating excessive chaos from excessive order, but it seems unlikely to do so without attracting simultaneous criticism that it is being both too strict and too indulgent. When it comes to presidential nominations, it's impossible to satisfy everybody—and easy to satisfy nobody.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Could Texas Be a Swing State in 2020?

The well-regarded survey research center at Quinnipiac University released a poll of Texas on Wednesday that attracted some attention around the political world. It showed Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in the state by 4 percentage points (48 percent to 44 percent) in a 2020 trial heat, with other major Democratic candidates slightly trailing Trump by margins of 1 to 4 points. Texas has not been actively contested in a presidential election since 1992, and Barack Obama lost the state by 16 points as recently as 2012. But the Republican margin narrowed to 9 points in the 2016 election, and Beto O'Rourke's 2018 Senate campaign attracted more than 48 percent of the vote—the best statewide showing by a Democratic candidate in decades. Has Texas's long-predicted shift from red to purple finally arrived?

There are reasons to believe that Texas will be less enthusiastic about Trump's re-election than other traditionally Republican states. It contains both a large non-white population and a substantial number of white-collar voters residing in large metropolitan areas—a segment of the electorate that has been trending Democratic for years but is especially anti-Trump. Texans are also young, relatively speaking; the state has the third-lowest median age in the nation at a time when the partisan generation gap is at a record high.

In theory, the ability to put Texas's 38 electoral votes in play would be a major advantage for the Democratic Party; adding it to the states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 would give Democrats an electoral college majority without the need to flip Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Florida back from the Republican column. But it's much more likely that Texas would be a "reach" state at best for the party: still more Republican-leaning than the average, and truly up for grabs only in a situation where the Democratic ticket is already heading for a comfortable national victory. The state's very size will also dissuade Democrats from building an active campaign unless they really think they have a good shot at winning: to actually compete in Texas requires a multimillion-dollar investment in advertising and field organization. O'Rourke raised an astounding $79 million for his Senate race last year, and yet amassing the nation's biggest campaign war chest still wasn't enough to deliver him a victory.

It's more likely that any further immediate change in Texas's partisan alignment will register most visibly in the House of Representatives. In 2018, Democrats captured two seats long held by the GOP and held ten other Texas Republicans to 55 percent or less of the popular vote. A continued pro-Democratic drift in the suburbs of Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio would itself put enough new districts into play to provide Democrats with a valuable boost in their quest to protect or expand their national House majority in 2020.

For this reason alone, a Republican presidential administration would normally be reluctant to push too hard on policies that disproportionately hurt the Texas economy in advance of a major election. But the Trump White House, which (among many other idiosyncracies) lacks a conventional political shop with influence over top presidential decisions, is poised to impose tariffs on goods from Mexico as soon as next week, even though Texas ranks second in the nation in its economic dependence on Mexican imports. Texas is still very unlikely to actually turn blue in 2020. But if it were to occur somehow, such actions will look in retrospect like textbook cases of political malpractice.