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.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Presidential Caucuses Are Fading, But Iowa and Nevada Still Matter

Both national parties, but especially the Democrats, are prone to tinkering with the mechanics of the presidential nomination process in the period between elections, in a constant scramble to respond to various problems and complaints that reliably emerge during every competitive nomination contest. The Democratic National Committee's most urgent priority after the 2016 election was to remedy the perceived legitimacy crisis within the party that arose from the presence of unpledged superdelegates, which had caused a fair amount of public controversy during the Clinton-Sanders race that year. After considering a range of proposed reform measures, the DNC ultimately decided to keep superdelegates but deprive them of the power to cast decisive votes on the first presidential nomination ballot at the national convention.

But the party also approved another change to nomination procedures that has received much less attention so far. For the first time, the DNC passed an official resolution encouraging the use of presidential primaries rather than caucuses to select pledged delegates, and required states continuing to hold caucuses to allow a means by which voters could cast absentee ballots or otherwise participate remotely. With relatively little attention, this reform seems to have immediately produced a notable effect on the 2020 nomination process.

The case against caucuses contains several distinct arguments. Critics are fond of pointing out that the participation level in caucuses is much lower than that of primaries. Even the well-publicized Iowa caucus produced a turnout rate of just 16 percent in 2016, compared to a 52 percent rate in the New Hampshire primary the following week. In other, less-hyped states, the caucus turnout rate fell into single digits—8.1 percent in Minnesota, 5.5 percent in Kansas, 4.6 percent in Hawaii. Caucuses are also especially difficult for specific subpopulations to attend: service-industry workers; parents of young children; people with disabilities or limited transportation options. (Concerns about such inherent biases in the caucus system is what ostensibly motivated the DNC to mandate the availability of absentee ballots in future state caucuses.)

Notwithstanding the comparatively depressed participation rates, unexpected surges in turnout have sometimes strained the organizational capacity of the state parties that manage the caucuses, producing full parking lots, long lines, and procedural confusion once inside. Some Mainers waited for over four hours to participate in their state's 2016 caucus, while some Minnesotans had to vote using Post-It notes in 2008 because their caucus sites ran out of ballots.

A final strike against caucuses, at least from the perspective of traditional party leaders, is their tendency to benefit insurgent candidacies with high supporter enthusiasm over the party regulars favored by more casual primary voters. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in the first two caucuses of the year by narrow margins (0.2 percent in Iowa and 5.3 percent in Nevada), but Sanders proceeded to sweep the remaining 12 state caucuses on the calendar, losing only the 4 caucuses held in U.S. territories that lack representation in the electoral college.

Presidential primaries are already the norm in the most populated parts of the country. In 2016, Democrats employed caucuses in 3 mid-size states (Colorado, Minnesota, and Washington); 11 small states (Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming); and 4 territories (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas, and the Virgin Islands). A total of 561 delegates were selected in caucuses, representing 14 percent of all Democratic pledged delegates.

But as the 2020 nomination process comes into focus, it's clear that there will be notable movement away from the use of caucuses. According to political scientist Josh Putnam's invaluable FHQ website, which closely tracks such changes, all three of the most populous states that held caucuses in 2016 plus three more small states (Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah) have opted for government-run primary elections in 2020, with a seventh state (Maine) still considering whether to join them. The number of Democratic pledged delegates selected outside of state-operated primaries seems certain to decrease to less than half of its 2016 level, perhaps dropping to just 5 or 6 percent of all pledged delegates nationwide.

On top of that, a few of the remaining states that are not shifting to standard primary elections are still abandoning traditional caucuses in favor of a "firehouse" primary administered by the state party. According to Putnam, the state parties in Kansas, North Dakota, Alaska, and Hawaii are all planning such a change. These elections may wind up behaving like a cross between a primary and a caucus, with fewer balloting sites and shorter voting hours than a regular primary would have. But there seems to be a clear response at the state level to the DNC's post-2016 policy shift, with the pure caucus model of delegate selection suddenly falling out of favor in multiple places at once.

Does this mean that state caucuses are poised to be virtually irrelevant to future presidential nominations? From a purely mathematical perspective, it certainly becomes even less likely that the shrinking share of delegates chosen in caucuses turns out to represent the margin between national victory and defeat for a prospective nominee. On balance, that's mildly good news for "establishment"-style candidates (like, say, Joe Biden) and mildly bad news for "outsider" types (like, say, Bernie Sanders).

But the first and third states on the nomination calendar will persist in selecting delegates via traditional caucuses, and these states' temporal primacy gives them substantial influence over the outcome that is far out of proportion to the modest size of their convention delegations. As Putnam notes, both Iowa and Nevada have good reason not to abandon their caucuses for primaries, or even to lean too far in the direction of a caucus-primary hybrid: if they do, their jealous sibling New Hampshire would undoubtedly respond by claiming the right to push even further to the front of the line in order to defend its self-proclaimed perpetual right to hold the first primary in the nation. Unless the national parties act to disallow caucuses altogether, then, the distinctive demands that they place on candidates and voters will remain a key component of the highly complex and thoroughly unique manner in which American presidential nominees are chosen.

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 political 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.