Monday, May 23, 2016

The Press Buckles Up for Six Months of Backseat Driving

As former Jeb Bush advisor Tim Miller recently revealed, among the unwelcome challenges faced by the modern presidential campaign is the relentless proffering of advice by top financial donors, who take the opportunity presented by personal access to the candidate or senior staff to promote their own theories on how best to win votes:

We could have probably had 19 full-time staffers dedicated just to the donor advice. . . . Donors had a lot of thoughts about [the candidate's] cable TV look. Donors are obsessed with cable TV. The most feedback we got was with regards to cable TV: Why aren’t you on enough? When you are on? Why is he not wearing a suit coat rather than a sweater? Can he get a new suit coat jacket?’

In some walks of life, professional expertise is given a modicum of deference; few airline passengers think that they know better than the pilot how to fly the plane, while most patients trust their dentist to fill a cavity correctly without the need for them to weigh in on the subject. Not so in politics. No record of previous experience or success is sufficient to insulate either politicians or their staff from the passing opinions of others, even if they are as ridiculous as the belief that entire elections can turn on the candidate's choice of suit coats.

Aside from wealthy supporters who are accustomed on a daily basis to being treated as if every utterance is sacred wisdom, a particularly rich vein of unsolicited input is supplied by journalists and pundits—especially if a candidate is trailing or falling short of his or her expected performance in the polls. Politicians also vary in the extent to which they are credited with political smarts by reporters and commentators, and those deemed less savvy are more likely to be the recipients of frequent second-guessing.

It's safe to say that very few members of the national media, whether liberal, conservative, or in between, are supporters of Donald Trump's campaign. In fact, many view him as a uniquely unqualified and destructive potential president. To these analysts, it is therefore critical to the health of the nation that Hillary Clinton defeat Trump in November. 

But Clinton is not particularly well-liked by the press in her own right, and her acumen as a candidate is routinely given little respect. Conditions are thus ripe for members of the media to spend the upcoming campaign picking over every strategic and tactical choice made by Clinton or her advisors, not only questioning the political wisdom of each decision but also suggesting that Clinton bears grave moral responsibility for keeping alive the possibility of a Trump presidency.

This behavioral tendency is already visible. On May 9, the New York Times ran a story about a series of anti-Trump attacks made via Twitter by Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. One might think that it would be unadulterated good news for the Clinton campaign that a well-known liberal Democratic senator popular with Bernie Sanders supporters (and formally neutral in the Democratic primary race) was leading a rhetorical charge against Trump, laying the groundwork for a united partisan front behind Clinton in the general election. But to Maggie Haberman, a reporter with the Times who contributed to the story, Warren's offensive was actually important because she was "maybe signaling she doesn't think HRC is doing [a] bang up job [attacking] Trump" herself. Thus an article about Warren's successful engagement with Trump to Clinton's potential benefit (which contained no direct evidence in its text supporting Haberman's suggestion that Warren was in fact unhappy with Clinton or her campaign) became one more supposed indication of Clinton's own political limitations.

In the same vein, a May 6 press release produced by the Democratic National Committee that referred to Trump as "Dangerous Donald" drew an unusual amount of attention among journalists. Receiving boilerplate press releases is presumably an unremarkable daily occurrence for political reporters and is rarely worthy of comment. This time, however, members of the media acted as if the Clinton campaign had settled on its primary anti-Trump message for the entirety of the election season, collectively judging said strategy to be hopelessly lame—which therefore represented an unacceptable case of political malpractice in the face of the Trump threat. Anti-Trump (and anti-Clinton) conservative David Frum sketched out a Trump victory scenario for the Atlantic which suggested that the Clinton campaign might be so incompetent as to drive significant shares of Obama-supporting racial minorities, ideological moderates, and college-educated whites into Trump's corner—a prediction that seems fanciful given current evidence about these groups' opinions of Trump but nonetheless was taken seriously by some analysts. (Trump has a chance of winning, of course, but not because he is likely to attract a large percentage of the Latino vote.)

Expect this dynamic to hold for the remainder of the presidential race. Any indication of a rise in the polls for Trump will inspire a frenzy of media analysis about what Clinton is doing wrong—even if she remains in the lead and a favorite to win in November—while a widening of Clinton's popular margin will be interpreted as reflecting Trump's weaknesses rather than the political effectiveness of the Democratic opposition. The chief strategic decisions made by Clinton and her advisors may not always be correct, but they will be based on opinion surveys, focus groups, and other forms of data employed by modern campaign professionals—yet they will be subjected to routine second-guessing by media analysts who lack confidence that Clinton will defeat Trump on the basis of superior political skill.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Process Obsessions Aren't Enough to Sustain Sanders Past June

Yesterday, I wrote a long post interpreting the melee at the Nevada state convention on Saturday as reflecting the broader tendency of liberals to get bogged down in process arguments when denied political success, which can often prove counterproductive to their long-term goals. The Bernie Sanders campaign has become increasingly preoccupied with procedural issues, citing them as excuses for their inability to defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

The New York Times provides additional evidence with an article eye-catchingly headlined "Bernie Sanders, Eyeing Convention, Willing to Harm Hillary Clinton in the Homestretch." The piece seems intentionally written to provoke nervous Democrats into uncontrollable bouts of hand-wringing over the possibility of an angry and undaunted Sanders waging a kamikaze mission against Clinton all the way to, if not after, the national convention this summer. Stripping away the various inferences, suggestions, and on-background complaints from the Sanders campaign, however, leaves us with the following on-the-record quote from Sanders strategist Tad Devine, which is hardly a call to storm the barricades:

The only thing that matters is what happens between now and June 14 [the date of the final primary]. We have to put the blinders on and focus on the best case to make in the upcoming states. If we do that, we can be in a strong position to make the best closing argument before the convention. If not, everyone will know in mid-June, and we’ll have to take a hard look at where things stand.

It seems more likely that Sanders and his top aides don't really know today what they'll do once the primary season is over, and there may be some internal difference of opinion on the subject. That they remain privately as well as publicly preoccupied with process questions is clear: the Sanders camp is still nurturing long-held grievances about perceived unfair treatment by the Democratic National Committee, and one suggested set of demands at the convention would involve unspecified "fundamental changes to how presidential primaries and debates are held in the future."

But complaints about nomination procedures, however valid they might be, are simply not important or motivating enough at the mass level to sustain a presidential campaign—especially a campaign that will not be able to claim the most votes or the most pledged delegates once the primary calendar is complete. Superdelegates, party activists, and Democratic voters are unlikely to view the Sanders campaign's gripes as justifying a post-primary battle over the nomination in the face of a general-election race against Donald Trump. It's one thing to continue a debate within the party over substantive policy priorities that might affect millions of people, but it's hard to run a serious campaign for the office of president of the United States that is primarily dedicated to the cause of exacting revenge on Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Why Bernie Sanders Loves to Argue About Process

The conflict that broke out last weekend at the Nevada Democratic Convention—which not only encompassed protests and physical altercations during the event itself but also included the subsequent defacing of the state party headquarters as well as multiple nasty phone and text messages directed toward the state party chairwoman and her employer—demonstrated that some liberal activists are neither as tolerant and cheerful as they might portray themselves nor as wimpy and passive as their detractors on the right might suggest. The nub of the disagreement concerned the procedural conduct of the convention itself, which was in charge of selecting members of the Nevada delegation to the Democratic national convention this summer.

Some Sanders supporters believed that the Nevada Democratic Party, which is under the firm control of Senate minority leader (and Clinton endorser) Harry Reid, had acted improperly in order to marginalize their candidate's strength (e.g. by rejecting the credentials of a few dozen would-be Sanders delegates). At issue was a handful of national delegate slots that might have allowed Sanders to gain a greater share of the Nevada delegation than he would normally be entitled to receive based on the results of the February caucus, which Clinton won by a five-point margin.

Though Reid strongly hinted after the rebellion in Nevada that Sanders would—and should—accept the results of the convention as legitimate and call on his followers to refrain from directing abusive behavior at the state party and its leadership, Sanders issued a statement that was relatively defiant, listing several grievances while minimizing the transgressions of his supporters. "If the Democratic Party is to be successful in November," he warned, "it is imperative that all state parties treat our campaign supporters with fairness and the respect they have earned."

These latest developments represent the fruition of a trend that has been building over the past few months. Ever since Sanders fell behind Hillary Clinton in the delegate count on Super Tuesday, his campaign has increasingly complained about matters of process, from the existence of superdelegates to the use of closed primaries (which prohibit participation by registered independents) in several states.

Liberals are particularly susceptible to process arguments for two reasons. First, liberal concerns about social equality more generally make it easy for left-leaning critics to accuse any disliked procedural attribute of being "unfair" and therefore unacceptable. For example, the Democratic National Committee's "Fairness Commission" prohibited the use of winner-take-all delegate allocation in primaries in the 1980s, on the stated egalitarian principle that delegates should properly be awarded in proportion to the popular vote, while Republicans—who are less deferential to claims that internal procedures are undemocratic—continue to allow states to use winner-take-all rules if they hold primaries after early March.

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, liberals tend to view themselves as self-evidently standing for the rights and interests of "the people" against the elites. In a democracy, of course, the many should rightfully prevail over the few—so any political battle in which the left suffers defeat is easy to dismiss as the product of an undemocratic process rather than revealing the limits of liberalism's popular appeal. It is very telling that the statement released by Sanders after the Nevada convention began by referring to "establishment politics and establishment economics" and criticizing "big-money campaign contributions." Some critics, such as Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, found this strange—"you open with your stump speech?" he asked Sanders rhetorically.

But from Sanders's perspective, it makes perfect sense: the economy is rigged, the campaign finance system is rigged, and so too are the state parties and the nomination process—all by the same dreaded "establishment" controlled by the "millionaires and billionaires." Otherwise, suggests Sanders, he would be winning—or would have already won, since the chief barrier to the implementation of democratic socialism in the United States is, in his mind, not the will of the American people but rather the illegitimate influence of moneyed interests. (He once remarked that the Republican Party would get only "5, 10 percent of the vote" if not for the behavior of the corporate media.)

This viewpoint also explains why the Sanders campaign has in fact been quite selective in its complaints about process. One could easily impugn the caucus system as undemocratic, yet Sanders's successes in caucus states make that argument an uncomfortable one. Even superdelegates, though a regular target of criticism from Sanders, are also cited by his campaign as representing their candidate's sole remaining path to a numerical majority, justifying his continued presence in the race. The events in Nevada arose out of an attempt to effectively overturn the results of the popular vote in the state on Sanders's behalf, which sounds undemocratic on its face—but if one views a Sanders victory as more legitimate by definition than a Sanders defeat at the hands of "establishment" figures Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid, such tactics begin to look increasingly justifiable.

Sanders is far from the only left-winger who believes that if the political system itself is reformed (by overturning Citizens United, easing voter registration requirements, prohibiting gerrymandering, eliminating superdelegates, and other measures), an endless parade of liberal victories would follow. This line of thinking greatly exaggerates the degree to which public opinion in America collectively lines up on the left side of the ideological spectrum. The fiction that only the likes of the Koch brothers stand in the way of implementing progressivism in the United States makes it easier for the left to claim righteously that it represents the true voice of the people against the privileged few, but also represents an overly simplistic view of reality that cannot, in the long term, be a solid ground on which to build a political movement.

Liberal preoccupations with process may be ultimately counterproductive to the political aims of the left in other ways as well. If the lesson drawn by Sanders and his supporters from the 2016 nomination race is "the fix is in" rather than "good start—let's get 'em next time," it will be harder to sustain momentum for their agenda within the Democratic Party and the electoral arena more broadly past the end of this campaign.

In part, this is because complaints about a rigged system may breed more apathy and cynicism than motivation to remain productively active in party politics. But blaming defeat on outside forces also discourages the kind of internal stock-taking and retrospective evaluation that can allow a political movement to learn from its mistakes and increase its future effectiveness. If the Sanders cause is to outlast the Sanders presidential campaign, it needs to put the process complaints aside and figure out how to win more votes.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Emotion Meets Calculation in Both Parties

Late spring is an odd time in every presidential election year. The presumptive nominees of the two parties have reliably emerged by this point (if not before), yet the schedule of primaries and caucuses continues at a slow, drawn-out pace, sometimes contested by an active opponent or two who can still score a few popular state-level victories despite the unforgiving arithmetic of the national delegate count. The leading candidates prepare to fight each other for the support of swing voters in the general election, even as they attempt to inspire unity and enthusiasm within the popular bases of their own respective parties. With six months to go before the election itself, the political press and other attentive observers follow every strategic move with great interest while most voters remain only intermittently engaged in the day-to-day combat of the campaign.

Things are even stranger than usual in 2016. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have both claimed an insurmountable lead in delegates—Trump is now running unopposed in the Republican race—yet visible segments of both parties have not become reconciled to their nominations, as demonstrated by the events of this weekend.

Saturday's Washington Post brought news of a draft campaign that is actively attempting to recruit an anti-Trump Republican to contest the general election as an independent candidate. The ringleaders of this scheme (Mitt Romney, Erick Erickson, and Bill Kristol, along with a few veteran Republican political consultants) appear undecided about what qualities they are looking for beyond (1) antipathy to Trump and (2) some commitment to run as a conservative—as is clear from the rather incoherent collection of names on their wish list, which includes John Kasich, Condoleezza Rice, ex-Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, first-term Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, a couple of retired generals, and even Dallas Mavericks owner (and reality TV star) Mark Cuban.

It's easy to understand the frustration felt by conservative elites who currently face the prospect of choosing among Trump, Clinton, and a pro-choice/anti-interventionist Libertarian Party nominee on their November ballots. But their lack of success so far at persuading any of their targets to volunteer for this mission isn't hard to figure out, because it would be a big mistake for any sensible politician to agree. Siphoning off Republican votes from Trump would clinch a sizable Democratic victory—ignore the nonsense about how it might throw the election to the House of Representatives—and ensure that the candidate would go down in party history as the Republican version of Ralph Nader. Ex-McCain and Jeb Bush strategist Mike Murphy's idea that an anti-Trump conservative might only contest a handful of swing states is even sillier; why would a significant share of voters turn out to support a candidate who couldn't even claim a hypothetical chance of victory?

On the Democratic side, the Sanders campaign and some of its most fervent supporters have largely declined to acknowledge the true state of the delegate math, instead nurturing unrealistic theories that superdelegates will overturn Clinton's victory in pledged delegates at the national convention this summer. Such hopes sit with a certain awkwardness alongside claims that dastardly Democratic "bosses" have illegitimately manipulated the nomination process to prevent a Sanders nomination—a point of view that even fueled open conflict at this weekend's state party convention in Nevada.

Once the primary season is over, however, the political environment will change in a way that will make the Sanders campaign's position strategically unsustainable. Many of the superdelegates who are now publicly undeclared will likely endorse Clinton on or shortly after the final primary date (as occurred in 2008, with Obama in the front-runner position) One of those undeclared superdelegates is Obama himself, who can be expected to offer his public support to Clinton once the primaries are over. Sanders's own backers among the ranks of Democratic elected officials and national committee members will then exert pressure on the campaign to begin the process of promoting party unity.

Sanders may well withhold his formal endorsement until he secures concessions from the Clinton camp at the convention itself. But any attempt to continue an active fight against her past the end of the primary calendar will leave him open to substantial criticism from within the party that he is becoming a spoiler in the Democratic Party's battle against a potential President Trump.

In both parties, resistance among the losing factions in the nomination contest is still unusually elevated at the moment, preventing each side from quickly uniting around its future standard-bearer. But the strong emotions of disaffected activists are beginning to collide with the cold calculations of actual and potential candidates, who perceive substantial political risk from maintaining or exacerbating divisions within the party as it turns to face the opposition in a general election in which the political stakes will be particularly high. By October, it is likely that most of the current intraparty strife will be a distant memory, and the population of Republicans who remain unreconciled to Trump (perhaps a smaller and less visible group than those who are currently vowing to stand in opposition) will probably lack a prominent candidate of their own, leaving them with an unappealing choice between voting for Clinton and sitting out the presidential race.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Indiana Recap: We Have a Republican Nominee

1. The decisive victory by Donald Trump in the Indiana primary knocked Ted Cruz out of the race and confirmed Trump as the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee. The magnitude of Trump's victory compared to previous results in neighboring midwestern states suggests that he has gained popular momentum over the past month or so, which would have put him well within reach of a pledged delegate majority even if the margin in Indiana had been closer than it was. With Cruz departing the contest and John Kasich receiving an embarrassing 8 percent of the vote in a state adjacent to his own, Trump now faces an open path to a sweep of the remaining states on the primary calendar and an uncontested first-ballot victory at the national convention.

2. While he had previously declared that the Indiana results would be decisive, Cruz's exit in the immediate wake of his defeat was not universally expected. But Cruz, unlike Kasich, is young enough to consider seeking the presidency again in 2020 or thereafter. Staying in the race with little prospect of victory might only alienate Republicans whose support Cruz might wish to seek in a future contest. A guaranteed Trump nomination is also a better outcome for Cruz, in a strategic sense, than the possibility of an open convention throwing the nomination to an alternative compromise candidate. Trump will probably lose in the fall, and Cruz can run again in the future on the premise that the party suffered defeat by failing once again to nominate a true, principled conservative.

3. All the best evidence that can be brought to bear on the question indicates that Trump begins the general election with little probability of victory. Of course, dissenters will reply that few political experts foresaw Trump's nomination in the first place. But primaries are much more unpredictable than general elections, and Trump's political weaknesses are more vulnerable to attack by Democrats than by fellow Republicans. The complicated strategic dynamics of the multi-candidate Republican nomination race allowed Trump to escape being the target of a sustained negative campaign, but the Clinton campaign and allied Democratic groups will begin firing attacks in his direction immediately, hoping to "define" him quickly as an unacceptable candidate.

4. Yet a long campaign contains inevitable ups and downs in the standing of the candidates, as measured by public opinion surveys or as sensed by the political pundit class. Any signs of competitiveness or "tightening" will probably be heavily publicized by the segment of journalists who find stable races boring, are unimpressed with Hillary Clinton, and/or view Trump as having the potential to fundamentally reorder the electoral coalitions of the two parties. It is also clear that Trump is, in effect, judged by a different set of standards than other candidates; if Clinton or Obama or Mitt Romney had personally accused a rival candidate's father of associating with Lee Harvey Oswald based solely on a report by the National Enquirer, for example, it would be the biggest media story of the month and widely treated as a self-evidently disqualifying catastrophe. Expect much of the press to leap on any sign that Trump has become more "serious" or "presidential" over the course of the campaign—not because journalists are intentionally slanting coverage to favor Trump, but because change is always a better story than more of the same and "both sides do it" is often the default presumption.

5. We should not make too much of declarations from Republicans at this stage of the race that they will not vote for Trump in November. No doubt some disaffected partisans will indeed refuse to support him, though staying home or skipping over the presidential race on the ballot are both more likely forms of Republican protest than actually crossing party lines to vote for Clinton. But general election campaigns are usually effective at rallying partisans around their nominee—if only by reminding them of what they dislike about the opposition—and, unless Trump completely implodes, he is likely to gain the support of the vast majority of Republican identifiers who participate (with the possible exception of Republican Latinos, who may defect at higher rates). Even if Trump suffers a decisive defeat, this residual party loyalty will prevent the Democratic opposition from winning a double-digit victory in the popular vote or carrying more than 30–32 states. There is almost no chance of a true national landslide on the scale of 1964, 1972, or 1984 in today's highly partisan electoral environment—especially when the Democratic nominee is not particularly popular in her own right.