Wednesday, August 12, 2020

More on the Vice Presidential Selection of Kamala Harris

I have a new piece today in the New York Times that focuses on what the selection of Kamala Harris tells us about Joe Biden. Over the course of his long political career, I argue, Biden has always been a man of his party. He thus was unsurprisingly sensitive to pressure (or encouragement, if you prefer) from within Democratic circles to choose a woman, especially a black woman, and especially Harris. And the undeniable similarities and parallels between the figures of Harris, now very much Biden's political heir apparent, and Barack Obama merely underscore the extent to which the Democratic Party is still forged in Obama's image.

There wasn't enough room for me to touch on it in the piece, but it's become clear that Biden's organizational ties to the institutional Democratic Party are also very strong—probably stronger than those of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. For example, while Obama mostly disdained and neglected the Democratic National Committee, preferring to build his own personal voter outreach structure (ultimately called Organizing for America), the Biden campaign seems to be closely integrated with the DNC and much more invested in its success. And the retrospective accounts of his vice presidential search process that are starting to pop up in the press all describe a very extensive and elaborate intelligence-gathering operation designed to synthesize input from a wide array of party actors and stakeholders.

Here are a few other final thoughts as another round of veepstakes draws to a close:

1. It's not entirely clear from the reports I've seen whether Harris was the front-runner from the beginning. But it does seem obvious that a decision was made fairly early in the process to prioritize black women and—critically—to leave other party members and the press with the same impression. Once you've signaled that you're so interested in a black running mate that you're considering multiple non-traditional picks like Susan Rice, Karen Bass, or Val Demings, you'd be running quite a risk of disappointment by settling on, say, Gretchen Whitmer instead.

2. This strategic framing by the Biden campaign is one of the reasons why the Harris pick has been described as "safe" and "obvious." She's certainly the safe choice in comparison to Rice, Bass, or Demings. But a campaign that had floated a different mix of finalists might not have produced the same response.

3. One of the important issues that this search process has demonstrated is the underrepresentation of women, especially women who aren't white, in the traditional vice presidential (and presidential) feeder offices. Harris is one of only two black women who have ever been elected to the Senate in American history (Carol Moseley-Braun, who served one term from Illinois in the 1990s, is the other), and no black woman has ever served as a state governor. In our current political moment, the demand for national elected leaders who are not white men—at least on the Democratic side—is exceeding the ready supply. If Biden had ruled out Harris, for whatever reason, he would have been faced with a real dilemma, forcing him to relax either his preference for a black running mate or the normal perceptions of the appropriate credentials for presidential office.

4. The press has made a lot of hay out of the Trump campaign's incoherent set of attacks on Harris as it simultaneously attempts to paint her, like Biden, as both a radical anti-police anarchist and an overly punitive agent of the carceral state. But my guess is that the bulk of Republican messaging, in paid advertisements and surrogate talking points, will emphasize the former claim, with the latter saved for a few targeted social media communications intended to decrease turnout on the left. As with much else in politics, follow the money: tweets are free, but TV ads are expensive.

5. The vice presidential selection is always good for a few days of media frenzy in an otherwise slow summer week for news, but it's worth remembering that running mates normally fade into the background as the fall campaign heats up (with one historical exception that is, above all, a cautionary tale). And the next VP debate to have an important effect on the presidential race will be the first one ever.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

A Few Thoughts on the 2020 Democratic Veepstakes

We've had a series of reports this week about the state of the internal deliberations over Joe Biden's selection of running mate, including from the New York Times, Politico, Politico again, Bloomberg News, and CNBC. These various accounts are consistent in some but not all respects; in particular, some suggest that Kamala Harris remains the clear favorite while others imply that her chances are fading. Here are the main points that I've taken away from the reporting so far:

1. The Biden campaign doesn't seem to be doing much to dispel the assumption that the final leading candidates are Harris, Susan Rice, and Karen Bass, with Val Demings and Tammy Duckworth still in the mix but as less probable alternatives. Of course, campaigns sometimes try to fake out reporters in advance in order to make a bigger splash when the announcement comes. But it would be an uncharacteristically risky move for the Biden team to leave the impression that they were probably going to select a black woman and then not do so.

2. There is real opposition to Harris within the party and to some extent within Biden's own orbit. This opposition is primarily personal, not based on strategic or ideological considerations. The criticism offered to the press this week that she was too "ambitious" landed badly because of its sexist overtones, but it also seemed like an intended euphemism for something more serious—selfishness? untrustworthiness?—that would have been too explosive an accusation to make without some additional evidence or corroboration.

3. But if Harris is not the final choice, Biden will need an explanation for why he preferred somebody else that can be made publicly to activists and voters, not just on background to journalists. This explanation doesn't need to be critical of Harris, but it does need to cite distinctive virtues of the alternative candidate that citizens can be expected to find duly impressive. Of the other apparent remaining contenders, Duckworth already comes with a readymade case for her selection, but the rest do not. While personal loyalty and collegiality are indeed valuable qualities in a running mate, the Biden camp would need a stronger justification than that for reaching down into the House rank-and-file or outside elective office, and one hasn't really been made so far.

4. Of all the "veepstakes" episodes in my memory, this one has been the least dominated by speculation about who might deliver a particular battleground state or key voting bloc to the national ticket and the most dominated by discussions about who might be the best vice president once the election is over. This is probably due in large part to Biden's steady lead in the polls—a rare luxury for a non-incumbent—but it is still a positive development. Whatever one might think about the way Harris or any of the other candidates have been treated, it is much better for the parties and the entire political system if leaders focus on the running mate as a potential governing partner and political successor, not as a mere tool of campaign strategy.

5. Many people seem to be operating under the assumption that Joe Biden, if elected, would not seek re-election in 2024. But it isn't very clear whether Joe Biden is one of those people.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

An Elegy for Old-Fashioned Political Campaigns in the COVID Age

The traditional campaign trail has become one of the political casualties of the COVID-19 epidemic. Joe Biden ceased holding large public events after he became the de facto Democratic nominee the week after Super Tuesday, just as the virus began its nationwide spread, and the Trump campaign has retreated to a similar policy after its comeback rally in Tulsa last month proved to be an over-hyped and under-attended disappointment. Even the president's most dedicated supporters turned out to be less enthusiastic about in-person electioneering in the midst of an uncontrolled national outbreak of disease.

It's become obvious this year how much of the standard press coverage of presidential campaigns is structured around the idea of a daily "top story" generated by the assignment of reporters and camera crews to follow the candidates around the country, ready to leap on anything that appears novel or unscripted amidst the otherwise repetitive cycle of stump speeches, rope lines, factory visits, and diner drop-ins. Most personal accounts of presidential elections written by candidates or journalists are blurry, weary travelogues that grudgingly acknowledge the democratic virtue of in-person politicking before returning to complaints about endless drudgery, exhaustion, and logistical snags.

But take away all that hopscotching from one battleground state to the next, and it's easy to wonder whether there really is a campaign at all. Joe Biden is continuing to hold virtual events and deliver policy speeches, but they simply don't seem as important—and certainly don't receive as much coverage—without big, cheering crowds and a chartered jet to schlep around the entourage. And Donald Trump's inability to hold his signature raucous rallies has helped to erase the line between presidential campaigning and presidential governing, as his COVID briefings and other White House events have come to serve as substitutes. Even if the virtual programs for the national conventions end up being snazzy productions, they will likely receive less attention than usual this year merely because they won't seem as momentous to the press or public as the in-person events of years past.

Might the lack of a traditional campaign trail affect the outcome of the election? Republicans are starting to worry that the result in November will wind up being a simple popular referendum on an increasingly unpopular admininistration—and not just in the presidential vote, but in congressional and down-ballot races as well. The Washington Post recently reported that many electorally vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents are challenging their opponents to an extensive series of debates with the hope that less-tested candidates will have a greater chance of screwing up in public, since the reduction of normal campaign events has also curtailed the usual practice of shadowing the opposing candidate with a "tracker" armed with a video camera to capture footage of any mistake. Meanwhile, Democrats have become concerned that their efforts to register new voters and mobilize sporadic participants will suffer from the relative lack of traditional grassroots activity this year.

Of course, the election was likely to serve as a referendum on Trump even before the onset of COVID, and the primary campaign arsenal of congressional candidates—paid advertising—remains unaffected by the current crisis. Interested would-be voters who have postponed registration so far may start to register in greater numbers as the election starts to approach, and the atmosphere of national crisis could also boost participation independent of organized get-out-the-vote initiatives. So the reduction of in-person campaigning this year may well have little effect on the outcome of the 2020 elections.

But the lack of so many familiar trappings of American political culture, from hand-shaking and small talk at midwestern state fairs and ice cream shops to the quadrennial spectacles of the national conventions, is still something worth mourning in our moment of disruption and isolation. Sure, a lot of this activity was formally obsolete and (for candidates, staff, and journalists) sometimes annoyingly inconvenient. But why should political campaigns necessarily be conducted for the maximum comfort or entertainment of their professional participants? Like so many other social rituals, these practices have taken on a meaning of their own as symbols of participatory democracy, and their absence—hopefully a temporary one—should rightfully be lamented as a small part of all that has been lost in this very sad year.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The South Is Still Very Republican—But Southern Democrats Aren't "Southern Democrats" Anymore

In an era of historically stable electoral maps, any hint of novelty is likely to attract a much greater degree of attention than its true importance would warrant. And so recent signs of an electoral trend favoring Democratic candidates in certain corners of the South have been repeatedly touted as earth-shaking developments; Friday's Wall Street Journal even refers to a potential "realignment" in the region. If the news media's prototypical voter of interest after the 2016 election was the (pro-Trump) working-class white resident of a small midwestern town, in 2020 the new objects of fascination are the (anti-Trump) well-educated professionals and voters of color populating the suburbs of large southern cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Houston.

But the South as a whole is still very Republican—in fact, it remains the main source of popular support for the national Republican Party. Among the 14 southern states (defined here as the 11 members of the former Confederacy plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma), Democrats have built an overall advantage in just one (Virginia), and in only Florida and North Carolina are the two parties closely matched at the state level. Across the rest of the region, Republicans control all 22 state legislative chambers, 9 of 11 governorships (having lost only Kentucky and Louisiana by narrow margins in off-year elections to replace unpopular Republican incumbents), 20 of 22 U.S. Senate seats (all but those held by Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, the last an accidental special election winner who is unlikely to retain his seat this fall), nearly every other statewide office, and 74 of 101 U.S. House seats.

The Democratic Party hit a historic low point in the South during the 2014–2016 period and has made a bit of a comeback since then, as it has elsewhere in the country. But this partisan rebound has so far been mostly restricted to a few major metropolitan areas, flipping some congressional and state legislative seats to Democratic challengers without yet dismantling the power of a formerly dominant state Republican Party. Yes, Beto O'Rourke in Texas and Stacey Abrams in Georgia represented tantalizing near-miss candidacies for Democrats in 2018, though both also benefited from flawed opponents and unusually favorable national partisan conditions—the same electoral assets that have so far kept Joe Biden within reach of carrying both states this year. But if national polls start to tighten before November, the Biden campaign will probably retreat to defend pivotal states elsewhere, abandoning the ambitious but unnecessary goal of making additional inroads in the South.

In general, the change so far in the southern Democratic Party's electoral strength has received too much attention and the change in its internal complexion has received too little. Old-style southern Democrats—the kind with rural constituencies, good-ol'-boy personas, and philosophical discomfort with the northern wing of the party on issues from abortion and gun control to environmental regulation and energy policy—are nearly extinct in elective office; Manchin, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, and one or two House members are just about the last of this breed above the local level. The newer generations of southern Democratic politicians are much more likely to be drawl-less metropolitans, often first- or second-generation transplants from outside the region. Many of them are members of racial minority groups, even in majority-white constituencies. And they are mostly not ideological misfits within the national Democratic Party, instead sitting squarely inside the prevailing Obama-Biden pragmatic liberal mainstream on economic and social issues alike.

When Democrats gained a majority in both houses of the Virginia legislature last November, achieving unified control of state government for the first time in decades, they immediately demonstrated how much the state party had evolved since the days when it was led by conservative-leaning figures like Harry Byrd and Howard "Judge" Smith. The burst of legislative activity that ensued not only raised the state minimum wage and imposed regulations on energy producers; it also loosened restrictions on abortion, banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, closed the "gun show loophole" by requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, decriminalized marijuana possession, and allowed local governments to remove Confederate monuments. This is the contemporary policy agenda of regular national Democrats, making few concessions to the distinctive cultural commitments of traditional southern politics, and any future Democratic majority in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, or Georgia is more likely to follow Virginia's lead than to attempt to revive the old style of governing.

Even if they benefit from another "blue wave" this year, Democrats are still a long way away from true competitiveness in most of the South. But the evolution of its main sources of electoral support in the region is important for the behavior of the party at the national level. Democrats elected from southern congressional seats are less likely to be as serious an impediment to the legislative agenda of the next Democratic president as they were to that of Obama or Bill Clinton, in part because the constituencies that they represent are less self-consciously "southern," less alienated from national left-of-center politics, and moving toward, rather than away from, the Democratic Party over time. Republicans are still very much the party of the South, but Democrats are hoping to eventually become the party of the New South.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Were Democratic Voters Right About Biden's Electability?

The idea that there is often a difference between the candidate you love the most and the candidate who has the best chance to win is a long-standing fixture of nomination politics, especially in the Democratic Party. But the assumption that "electability" is a quality shared by some potential nominees more than others, and even that it is a valid criterion of candidate selection, was disputed more than usual in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Though it requires diving back into what now seems like a long-ago pre-COVID political world, it's worth revisiting this debate from the perspective of the summer campaign and the current state of the general election race.

Electability was a fraught subject in the 2020 Democratic nomination contest partially because of the perception of a significant ideological divide within the party, made more salient by the viable candidacy of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders. Sanders's lack of defensiveness about his philosophical commitments made him an admirable figure in the eyes of his supporters, but also provoked considerable opposition to his prospective nomination among other Democrats—including most of the party's elected officials and a large proportion of its activists and organizational leadership.

Layered on top of this familiar debate over whether a tradeoff exists between electability and ideological purity was another set of concerns about candidates' social identities. Many Democrats had deduced from the racist backlash after Barack Obama's 2008 election and the unexpected defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 that non-white and (especially) female presidential candidates are likely to lose votes due to the persistence of popular prejudices. Even though they supported the general goal of increasing the demographic diversity of the nation's officeholding class, a number of Democratic primary voters proceeded to draw the natural conclusion that nominating a white male presidential candidate for the first time since 2004 would be the safest path to ejecting the hated Trump from office.

But the prevalence of this view dismayed some feminist commentators, who continued to ascribe Trump's political rise to the prevalence of misogyny in the American public but who objected when this argument was then cited as justification for supporting a male nominee to oppose him. In the young progressive circles that are disproportionately well-represented in the online world, it was common either to reject the electability logic altogether or to claim that it actually favored candidates on the left. The science reporter at a well-known "explainer" website even argued that because differences in the relative potential strength of prospective nominees cannot be determined precisely in advance, the entire concept was dubious even in the abstract: "it's subjective, not objective . . . electability ain't no science." (Normally, the scientific mode of inquiry tends to make a stronger distinction between the difficulty of measuring a phenomenon and the existence or absence of the phenomenon itself.)

Despite these assertions, a coalition of the Democratic Party's most pragmatic constituencies—including African-Americans, southerners, upscale suburbanites, and senior citizens—ultimately rallied behind Joe Biden's self-presentation as the safest choice to send into battle against Trump. Now that we're about midway between the point in March at which Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee and the date of the November election, it's time to re-evaluate the electability debate in light of how the campaign has proceeded so far.

From one perspective, the electability argument for Biden has been completely vindicated. Biden has opened up a bigger lead over Trump in the national popular vote than any candidate has enjoyed at this stage since Bill Clinton coasted to re-election in 1996, and he is so well-positioned in the electoral college that the battleground map has expanded into the traditional red territory of Arizona, Georgia, and even Texas. The Trump campaign has proven unable as of yet to land a damaging punch on Biden, and has even struggled to find a promising line of attack.

Biden hasn't been as invisible a candidate as some critics claim, but his campaign activities during the pandemic have not generated much sustained attention. Because journalists do not find the very familiar Biden to be a particularly fruitful source of interesting stories, the national media has been focusing instead almost entirely on Trump, and Trump's spiraling political problems, since the Democratic nomination wrapped up after Super Tuesday. The relative novelty of nearly every other major potential nominee—Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg—would have attracted more coverage from the media and pulled the spotlight away from Trump much more frequently.

On the other hand, Biden's current success surely reflects the sinking fortunes of Trump's presidency more than any particular attribute or skill of his own. Even more than most, this election promises to serve as a referendum on the performance of the incumbent; perhaps any plausible Democratic nominee would have opened up a steady lead after the events of the past few months. As Trump's approval ratings continue to slide, supporters of Democratic candidates who were deemed less electable in the primaries might justifiably feel in retrospect that 2020 may well turn out to be a missed opportunity. Perhaps the party could have taken the additional risk associated with a non-white-male or more left-wing nominee while still retaining a good chance of victory.

Because we lack access to the parallel universes in which other nominees were chosen, it's impossible to completely settle the electability debate. However, enough evidence now exists to shed light on two claims made by some advocates of non-Biden candidates in the 2020 Democratic primaries. One is that there are so few remaining swing voters in our current age of rampant polarization that mobilization of the party base is more productive than trying to achieve a broader appeal, and the other is that a Biden nomination would not excite enough voters on the left to stimulate this necessary mobilization.

Both of these claims have already been contradicted by the polls. Biden wouldn't have pulled into the strong lead he now holds if he weren't drawing significant support from previous Republican voters. (According to recent surveys by the New York Times, 14 percent of battleground state residents who supported Trump in 2016 are not supporting him in 2020.) After years of media stories about Trump’s skill in stoking the passionate devotion of his own party, the last few months have forced a widespread journalistic rediscovery of the importance of swing voters and the danger of Trump's declining popularity among this still-pivotal bloc. And while Biden himself doesn't inspire as much personal enthusiasm among Democrats as Trump does among many Republicans, overall levels of interest in the election are equal across party lines: Democratic voters are as motivated to vote against the president as Republicans are to vote for him.

There are still four months to go in the campaign, which is still plenty of time for the prevailing dynamic to change. Republicans have become concerned that Biden's status as a elderly white man who isn't a socialist means that the familiar playbook of accusing Democrats of supporting left-wing extremism or revolutionary social change won't work as well against him as it would have against other potential nominees. But Biden's to-be-announced running mate will be a woman, probably a woman of color, and quite possibly a woman of color with a more liberal record than his. It's likely that she will wind up serving as the target of these attacks, with Biden himself portrayed by the Trump campaign as too hapless and mentally impaired to prevent her from imposing her "radical" agenda on the nation if elected. Just because Biden won the Democratic nomination by promising to transcend divisions of race, gender, and ideology doesn't mean that the fall campaign won't once again be dominated by these highly-charged subjects.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Will 2020 Dim the Myth of the Campaign Guru? Let's Hope So

Michael Deaver. Ed Rollins. Lee Atwater. James Carville. Dick Morris. Karl Rove. David Axelrod. Steve Bannon.

Every recent president has had at least one top advisor who has been given generous credit for being the strategic mastermind behind his political success—credit that these operatives have seldom discouraged. As the conduct of campaigns has become more professionalized over time and the press has devoted more attention to the game within the political game, strategists and consultants have increasingly become famous in their own right. These figures are considered worthy of awe based on the assumption that the choices that they make during the course of the campaign—which messages to adopt, which ads to produce, which voters to target, how to attack the opposition—are likely to be crucial to the outcome.

These choices are important, and in a close election they might indeed be decisive. But there is reason to believe that the influence of campaign activity and strategy over electoral results is much more modest than it is often assumed to be, especially in the general elections for the presidency that command the most attention and publicity. For example, we can get a fair way toward predicting the final vote distribution in any particular election simply by accounting for a few basic variables like the state of the national economy, the identity of the party in power, and whether or not the incumbent is running—all factors that lie outside the campaign itself.

The quadrennial celebration of the key strategists behind the winning candidate as unrivaled masters of the political arts usually reflects an assumption that the outcome proved them to be savvier or more ruthless than their counterparts in the losing camp. But most of the time, there are equally smart and tough people on both sides of a race. One competitor will inevitably be elected and the other defeated—it's the nature of the business—but that doesn't mean that the winners are always geniuses and the losers always incompetents.

Interestingly, the 2020 election may be the first in a while that has not generated substantial press coverage of the top professional staffers in the two major presidential campaigns. Of course, there are other big stories to cover these days. But these stories have themselves managed to illustrate how elections can be powerfully influenced by forces independent of the campaigns themselves—forces like a pandemic, or a recession, or a newly energized social movement.

The 2020 race has also demonstrated how elections with an incumbent seeking another term in office tend to become a referendum on that incumbent's perceived performance. President Trump's strategic decisions have indeed had electoral effects, but those decisions do not appear to be guided by aides within his campaign apparatus. His current organization lacks a Bannonesque svengali figure able to provide a coherent intellectual frame to his quest for re-election. And since Trump's recent behavior has coincided with, and probably contributed to, a notable slide in the polls, there aren't too many subordinates eager to take credit for his candidacy's current trajectory in conversations with reporters.

And then there's Joe Biden. Biden engineered a fairly remarkable comeback in the Democratic nomination contest and has now pulled into a national lead unmatched at this stage of the campaign by any candidate in either party since Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election. Yet neither he nor his brain trust seem to be getting much credit in the media for this record of success: the resurrection of his primary campaign is mostly attributed either to Jim Clyburn throwing him a rope in South Carolina or to the fortuitous mistakes of the SandersWarren, and Bloomberg candidacies, and his growing lead in the general election race is similarly laid at Trump's feet. (I'd guess that even many regular consumers of political media would have trouble recalling the name of Biden's campaign manager; I certainly did before writing this post.) With the pandemic limiting his ability to wage a visible campaign, Biden has received a certain respect only for having enough patience and base cunning to stay out of the way as Trump's position deteriorates.

The press isn't being particularly unfair to Biden and his aides. But it has misled in the past by overstating the importance of strategic maneuvering by campaign gurus, excessively hyping the presumed architects of electoral victory while disparaging the unsuccessful team for supposedly blundering its way to defeat. If the 2020 election provides an unusually dramatic example of the fundamental importance of external factors and the limited power of short-term tactics, it will provide us with a useful lesson in the true nature of presidential campaigns. Yes, hiring a brilliant political mind can sometimes help win the White House. But with the most important factors remaining out of the hands of the candidates and their staffs, the biggest electoral asset of all remains sheer luck. Maybe what was needed to finally convince the media of this fact was Joe Biden—whom one prominent New York Times reporter recently called a “very flawed candidate running a flawed campaign”—nevertheless becoming a heavy favorite to be the next president.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"New" States Get the Hype, But the Electoral Map Hasn't Changed Much in 2020

To a certain type of election-watcher, there are few things more exciting than witnessing a state that was once loyally partisan transform into a fiercely contested battleground. Recent public opinion surveys suggesting that Joe Biden is running a close race against Donald Trump in Texas and Georgia—two traditional Republican bastions that have not been competitive in presidential elections since the 1990s—and now leads in Arizona, which has voted Democratic for president only once (1996) in the past 70 years, have, unsurprisingly, received widespread attention from political commentators.

But the complete picture of the emerging electoral map in 2020 reveals far more continuity than change. The current era of presidential elections is distinguished by a historically unmatched degree of consistency in state-level partisan alignments, as depicted in this chart from my book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics:

Of the 37 states (plus the District of Columbia) that voted for the same party's nominees in each of the five presidential elections between 2000 and 2016, Arizona, Georgia, and Texas seem to be the only plausible candidates to break their streak in 2020—unless the next few months turn so dramatically in Donald Trump's favor that he manages to carry Minnesota or Maine. But even the potential addition of new Sun Belt territory to the familiar Midwest-centered battleground state map doesn't mean that there has been a significant partisan realignment of the South or Southwest over the past four years. What the close recent polls in these states really indicate is not that Trump has developed an unusual regional weakness, but rather that Biden now has a national lead strong enough to pull a few Republican-leaning states into the "competitive" category.

If we compare the two-party popular vote outcome in 2016 with today's two-party polling margin as estimated by The Economist's daily forecasting model for the 16 states where both parties received at least 45 percent of the vote in the last election, we see (after accounting for sampling error and variations in data quality) what looks like a fairly uniform pro-Democratic shift nationwide:

New MexicoClinton +9Biden +13Change: +4 D
VirginiaClinton +6Biden +11Change: +5 D
ColoradoClinton +5Biden +14Change: +9 D
MaineClinton +3Biden +10Change: +7 D
NevadaClinton +3Biden +7Change: +4 D
MinnesotaClinton +2Biden +9Change: +7 D
New HampshireClinton +0Biden +6Change: +6 D
MichiganTrump +0Biden +8Change: +8 D
PennsylvaniaTrump +1Biden +5Change: +6 D
WisconsinTrump +1Biden +6Change: +7 D
FloridaTrump +1Biden +4Change: +5 D
ArizonaTrump +4Biden +3Change: +7 D
North CarolinaTrump +4Biden +2Change: +6 D
GeorgiaTrump +5Trump +0Change: +5 D
OhioTrump +9Biden +1Change: +10 D
TexasTrump +9Trump +3Change: +6 D
IowaTrump +10Trump +2Change: +8 D
NATIONALClinton +2Biden +8Change: +6 D

Polling estimates are, of course, inexact, and all three of the new Sun Belt battlegrounds had already swum against the national tide by becoming "bluer" between 2012 and 2016. But the best recent evidence indicates that these states remain more Republican than the national average, and are currently competitive mostly because Biden is well ahead in the overall popular vote. Even so, Biden appears to have a consistent lead only in Arizona, and he still trails Trump in Texas.

If Biden's current advantage is changing the electoral map in some ways, it's working against change in others. After Trump won Ohio and Iowa by unusually wide margins in 2016, some analysts speculated that both states would lose battleground status in 2020, conceded to the GOP from the start of the campaign. Ohio and Iowa remain clearly Republican-leaning in 2020 compared to the nation as a whole, but Biden's overall lead allows him to keep both states in play (at least for now), and the Trump campaign is indeed spending money to defend them.

A scenario in which Biden maintains or expands his current margin would allow Democrats to consider deploying campaign resources into these states in pursuit of a decisive national victory and gains in downballot offices. But if the race starts to tighten, diverting attention to red-leaning states will be considerably less appealing, and Democratic dreams of "expanding the map" will need to wait for a future contest. Either way, the electoral college outcome in 2020 is still likely to pivot on the four states that Trump carried by narrow margins in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida. And there's nothing new at all about those particular states deciding who the next president will be.