Friday, September 13, 2019

Democratic Debate Analysis: Who Has the Right to Question Biden's Competence?

It's likely that even those analysts who love to declare winners, losers, and game-changing moments (a practice largely eschewed here at Honest Graft) won't find all that much fodder in Thursday night's Democratic debate. The biggest pre-debate media hype focused on the opportunity for a dramatic personal showdown between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, who were appearing on the same debate stage for the first time this year. But no major conflict arose between the two, and for sound strategic reasons. Biden is still ahead in the race, while Warren seems to be steadily gaining support, and so neither candidate has much incentive to rock the boat—at least not right now. Aiming a sharp personal attack at the other might only backfire among the large share of Democratic voters who have positive views of both candidates.

Even those contenders who are far behind in the polls, and thus have more reason to adopt a risky, attention-grabbing debate style, mostly played nice—at least with each other. (Some mockery lobbed in Donald Trump's direction, especially by Kamala Harris, was seemingly designed not only to play to the crowd but also to potentially bait the president into responding on Twitter.) The biggest exception was Julián Castro, who directly challenged Biden on at least two occasions. Castro provoked the most comment during an exchange on the subject of health care, when he claimed that Biden had contradicted himself about an aspect of his reform proposal. "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" Castro asked Biden.

Anyone paying even modest attention to the news coverage of the 2020 Democratic nomination race is likely to have encountered the implication from multiple corners of the national press corps that the front-running former vice president is not operating at peak performance these days. Biden has long been treated by many reporters, fairly or not, as an undisciplined speaker with an unremarkable intellect, but something of a collective judgment has formed that even by his own standards he's lost a step or two, mentally speaking, as he approaches his late 70s. When combined with Biden's digital illiteracy and propensity to tell stories about the mostly-forgotten senators he served with 45 years ago, this has led to an unmistakable theme running through reporters' coverage of Biden that their subject is a man whose time has come and gone—a pattern that Biden's own orbit recently complained about to Ryan Lizza of Politico.

One might think that the potential competence of would-be presidents would be a critical topic for primary voters to consider—or, at the least, fair game to contest in a debate. But from the perspective of a rival candidate, it's a very tricky issue to raise. And Castro missed the mark: his accusations that Biden had misstated, or "forgotten," his own health care plan were simply not true.

Candidates who make false attacks on their opponents are being unfair and deserve criticism. But multiple media assessments faulted Castro not only for making a false attack—something that has been known to happen from time to time in debates—but also for engaging in underhanded if not offensive insinuations about Biden's cognitive acuity: a "low blow," "playing the age card." Yet later in the debate, Biden gave a somewhat meandering answer in response to a question about Afghanistan and made a non sequitur remark about "having the record player on at night" as (apparently) a suggested means for parents to improve the verbal skills of underprivileged children. Both of these comments provoked immediate media mockery in the familiar "Uncle Joe is losing it!" genre that has become a staple of campaign coverage this year.

One need not agree with Castro's specific line of attack—which was clearly erroneous on the facts—to wonder whether the national media are in danger of adopting a kind of double standard under which reporters and commentators can openly ridicule Biden's outdated references and freely speculate about potential senility while simultaneously pronouncing any political competitor who suggests the same to be guilty of ageism or other out-of-bounds transgressions. This is a complicated and delicate subject, and no clear rule book applies. But if journalists are as concerned about Biden's fitness to serve as they appear to be, they should allow the issue of competence to be openly litigated during the nomination campaign. It's an important attribute for a president to have, and voters should be allowed—and even encouraged—to take it very seriously.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Is the Nationalization of Politics Hurting Favorite Sons and Daughters?

Over the weekend, a new poll of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race was released. It showed Joe Biden in first place, Elizabeth Warren in second, and Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris following—with no candidate other than these five at more than 2 percent. The poll's findings are quite consistent with the results of other recent surveys, but they are noteworthy in one respect: the poll was conducted in Massachusetts, where Warren has twice been elected to statewide office (most recently last November). Why isn't the Bay State resident far in the lead among her own constituents despite running a highly competitive national campaign?

The question of why Warren isn't more dominant in her own political backyard has occasionally attracted interest from followers of nomination politics. This article by Vox's Ella Nilsen (in which I'm briefly quoted) focuses mostly on her unremarkable level of popularity among the Massachusetts general electorate, but some of its explanations could apply to the Democratic primary as well: Warren has a polarizing persona; she hasn't focused much on cultivating an identity as a fighter for Massachusetts rather than for national causes; she suffers from voter sexism in a state that lacks a history of electing women regularly to high office.

But maybe it's misleading to focus solely on Warren, as if coolness to a home-state candidate is a phenomenon unique to her. How are other serious Democratic presidential contenders faring with the voters who presumably know them best? Reliable public polling at this stage is limited, and its availability varies significantly from state to state, but we have enough evidence to draw some preliminary conclusions.

Let's start in California, where Harris has been elected three times statewide since 2010 (as state attorney general twice and U.S. senator once). The latest public survey by CBS News/YouGov, from July, found Harris running neck-and-neck with Biden (24 percent for him, 23 percent for her), with Warren and Sanders close behind at 19 percent and 16 percent, respectively. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted around the same time found Harris with a slender lead over Biden, 23 percent to 21 percent, with Sanders at 18 percent and Warren at 16 percent.

It's clear from these results that Harris does somewhat better in her home state than elsewhere in the country (she's never received more than 20 percent in any national poll since the start of the race). But she was not able to establish an unambiguous lead in California even during the few weeks after her attention-getting performance in the first Democratic debate, a moment that appears to have been a temporary peak for her candidacy (Harris briefly hit 15 percent in the national RealClearPolitics average in mid-July; today, she's down to 7 percent). So even if she was barely winning California in July, she almost certainly isn't winning it now.

What about Beto O'Rourke, the hero of Texas Democrats for waging a near-miss Senate campaign last year? A July poll by CBS/YouGov found him running in second place in his home state, though barely so: Biden 27 percent, O'Rourke 17 percent, Warren 16 percent, Sanders 12 percent, Harris 12 percent. A more recent survey by Texas Lyceum seemed to confirm this arrangement of the candidates, albeit with a small sample size of Democratic voters (N=358): Biden 24 percent, O'Rourke 18 percent, Warren 15 percent, Sanders 13 percent. (The other Texan in the race, Julián Castro, has failed to reach 5 percent in any public poll of the state.)

It's hard to know how seriously to treat the online polls conducted by Change Research without a longer track record of forecasting success, but in two states where no other nomination polling exists, Change Research results follow the same pattern. A June survey found Amy Klobuchar in fourth place in Minnesota, though only 5 points behind the leader. An August poll of New Jersey found Cory Booker struggling badly there, placing sixth with only 5 percent of the vote.

Taken together, these results suggest that the "favorite son/daughter" phenomenon, in which voters begin a presidential nomination campaign by voicing support for a serious contender from their home state, is not playing a major role in structuring the 2020 nomination race. It's possible that this pattern reflects the nationalization of American politics: voters are paying more attention to national media, national issues, and nationally prominent political figures than they once did, which reduces the relative power of their home-state loyalties.

All else equal, such a development would work to the advantage of Biden and Sanders, who come from very small states but have big national profiles. It's not very good news for Harris and O'Rourke, who could find it more difficult to leverage what would otherwise be an important strategic asset (assuming either can survive the gauntlet of Iowa and New Hampshire): home-field advantage in the two largest states of the country, each sending hundreds of delegates to the national convention. If Elizabeth Warren's decision to devote more energy in office to raising her national visibility than to tending her Massachusetts constituency has hurt her a bit in one state while helping her in 49 others, right now that looks like a sound strategic choice.

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.