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.

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.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

As "Mayor Pete" Shows, Some Democrats Just Keep Looking For JFK

An extremely long presidential nomination process, when combined with a large number of aspirants, is fertile ground for a series of boomlets in which successive candidates attract a burst of positive attention and upward motion in public opinion polls. The first such boomlet of the 2020 Democratic contest seems to have arrived right on schedule, though its specific beneficiary is more of a surprise. In a field crowded with members of Congress, it's Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana (population: 102,000), who has managed to capture the most early momentum.

Several recent polls have found Buttigieg running in third place behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (the only two Democratic candidates who have previously run for president), both nationally and in the early nomination states. Buttigieg also raised more than $7 million in individual donations during the first quarter of 2019, more than all but three of the other Democratic contenders (Biden, of course, was not yet a declared candidate).

It seems strange that a measurable segment of the party would already be throwing its support behind a midsize-city mayor rather than any of the many federal or statewide officeholders in the race. But Buttigieg projects a Kennedyesque persona, and a Kennedyesque persona is a valuable asset in a Democratic primary contest.

Kennedyesque politicians are youthful, personable, and confident. They compensate for their relative inexperience with well-hyped intellectual credentials: Ivy League diplomas, pet policy passions, authorship of "serious" books, public displays of erudition. Their bouts of earnestness are balanced by expressions of humor and self-awareness. They are masters of the rhetoric of idealistic generalities, leading audiences to find them charismatic or even inspirational, but they don't insist on doctrinal purity when it comes to the details. Indeed, the hope they offer—and "hope" is often what they explicitly promise—is that electing them will allow the nation to shed its messy ideological and partisan conflicts, progressing unencumbered into a new, brighter era of reason, civility, and mutual understanding. (One of the reasons why the Kennedy style doesn't have the same appeal within the Republican Party is that in the Republican version of utopia, political enemies are simply defeated, not converted.)

For decades, Democratic politicians with the capacity to do so have adapted themselves to the Kennedy model. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both found considerable success in Democratic presidential primaries by emulating Kennedy's approach, and even losing candidates like Gary Hart (1984) and John Edwards (2004) rode elements of the Kennedy persona to advance further in the nomination process than their other political virtues would likely have carried them. The fact that Clinton and Obama are the only post-JFK Democrats to be elected twice to the presidency reinforces the perception among electability-minded partisans that the Kennedy style can offer a strategic advantage that persists even after the primaries are over.

There are other recurrent archetypes in Democratic politics: the scrappy pugilist (Harry Truman, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders); the just-the-facts technocrat (Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Paul Tsongas); the political veteran who can work the levers of power (Lyndon Johnson, Walter Mondale, Hillary Clinton). But it's hard to imagine any of these other profiles being sufficient to launch a midwestern mayor into presidential contention against a raft of better-situated opponents. Buttigieg's electoral chances will depend on his ability to keep this precious persona intact as he weathers the added scrutiny that will inevitably follow his recent bump in the polls.

The interest that Buttigieg's campaign has already received is a testament to the warp speed at which today's political world operates. Except for Biden and Sanders, the other, more conventionally qualified Democratic candidates in the 2020 race are new faces on the national scene by traditional standards—yet much of the journalistic and social media realms are currently treating them like yesterday's news. It really wasn't all that long ago, in fact, that there was this other youngish candidate who suddenly emerged from obscurity to inspire Democratic activists across the country by seeming to personify a new, more hopeful kind of politics.

Had kind of a Kennedy look about him, too.

Beto something?

Whatever happened to that guy?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Donald Trump and the Electoral Benefits of Presidential Weakness

I recently argued that Donald Trump has been, so far, the weakest of the modern (i.e. post-FDR) presidents in exercising the power of the office on behalf of policy goals. Moreover, the Trump presidency does not appear to be gaining in capacity over time. Rather than learning from early failures and bringing in experienced Washington hands to steady the ship, as previous presidents like Bill Clinton did, Trump has opted instead to retreat further into a skeletal executive branch increasingly bereft of managerial talent and substantive expertise. The power of presidential speech has also been diluted to an unprecedented point, since attentive audiences within the political system—members of Congress, journalists, bureaucrats, even the president's own subordinates—have learned through experience that Trump's words often bear no relationship to his actions or those of his administration.

This is a prescription for nothing much getting done. Indeed, it seems as if progress on the president's agenda has either slowed or stalled on nearly every major policy dimension. Such a development is bad news for anyone invested in those policies. But it's probably good news for Trump's re-election chances.

One of the major lines of attack on Trump in 2016 was that he represented a potential threat to the survival of the nation, or even the globe. Jeb Bush called Trump a "chaos candidate . . . [who] would be a chaos president," while Hillary Clinton argued that "a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons." Some otherwise persuadable voters may have declined to support Trump over these concerns; as Clinton advisor Mandy Grunwald recalled after the 2016 election, "I don't think we ever had a focus group where somebody didn't say, 'He's going to blow up the world. I just can't do that.'"

Trump's administration may indeed be fairly described as chaotic, but he hasn't introduced the kind of visible instability to the nation, or the world, that swing voters might easily perceive and punish in 2020. The weakness of his presidency has prevented him from accomplishing major policy objectives that would also have been politically treacherous. For example, both the repeal of the ACA and the instigation of multi-front trade wars would have resulted in economic disruption within a significant segment of the national electorate, and it is surely to Trump's electoral benefit that neither goal has (yet) been achieved. Mass deportations of DACA beneficiaries would likewise have caused a political firestorm from which judicial intervention has, at least up to this point, helpfully protected the Trump re-election campaign.

Though he has failed to deliver on many other promises as well—he did not get Carl Icahn to negotiate new trade agreements with China and Japan, or end birthright citizenship, or bring back the coal industry, or invest an additional $1 trillion in infrastructure, or enact a federal child care plan designed by his daughter, or prove to be so dedicated a president that he was too busy to take vacations—Trump has remained overwhelmingly popular among his 2016 supporters. In addition, the president has benefited from a solid economy and strong record of job growth. Here, too, the frustration of his greater ambitions may have worked to his political advantage—what would have happened to the financial sector in the wake of, say, a hard exit from NAFTA rather than the quiet negotiation of a near-identical successor agreement?

Trump is now positioned to run for a second term less as a transformational figure continuing his project to remake American politics and society than as a defender of the status quo against what will no doubt be characterized as a radical socialist alternative. If he loses, it will be due more to his existing unpopular personal qualities than to any particular act that he committed while in office. The enduring weakness of his presidency may well prevent Trump from making much of a mark on history, but he could earn a second term if he's able to convince enough voters that they don't have much to fear from more of the same—and that it's the Democrats, instead, who offer a risk America can't afford to take.

Monday, April 08, 2019

A Historically Weak Presidency Just Keeps Getting Weaker

Donald Trump dominates the popular, electoral, and media landscapes of American politics like no other figure in living memory. Trump remains a ubiquitous presence in the daily press coverage of current events. The 2018 elections were almost entirely a referendum on Trump, with the various individual candidates running for Congress serving merely as proxy vessels for voters to register their approval or disapproval of the president amid record national turnout for a midterm. Many of Trump's supporters view him in admiring terms as something of a national savior, while his detractors accuse him of being a uniquely potent villain leading America down the road to authoritarian rule.

But in terms of actual effectiveness in using the tools of the office to achieve policy ends, the Trump administration so far ranks at the bottom among all the modern presidencies. Trump the political personality is historically strong, yet Trump the president is historically weak.

The evidence for, and reasons behind, this weakness have been catalogued by my political scientist colleagues Jonathan Bernstein (here, here, and here) and Matt Glassman (herehere, and here). One set of difficulties concerns Trump's personal qualities. This president is bored or impatient with most substantive policy questions or discussions. He seems unfamiliar with many aspects of how the government operates and uninterested in becoming educated on this point. And, crucially, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he cannot be trusted to keep his word either publicly or privately, which reduces his ability to negotiate productively with other power centers within the political system or around the world.

Another source of weakness is the executive branch surrounding the president. Trump promised during the 2016 campaign that he would select the "best people" who were "truly, truly capable" to serve at the senior levels of the government. But he has been unable to attract, or to identify, consistently skilled deputies across the various cabinet departments and within the White House itself; personnel choices frequently seem to reflect preoccupations with perceived loyalty or "looking the part" on television rather than actual talent. The high turnover rate of presidential appointees, extraordinary number of unfilled positions, excessive dependence on "acting" officials who lack the clout that comes with permanent status, and absence of a coherent policy-making process make it even more difficult for the Trump presidency to gain the deference from bureaucrats, judges, members of Congress, and other actors that is usually necessary to implement significant policy change.

Finally, Trump's unpopularity in the mass public—and the toxic levels of antipathy that he provokes among Democratic voters in particular—means that even ideologically moderate or electorally vulnerable members of the opposition party see little benefit in cooperating with the president. Trump's mediocre job approval ratings also led directly to the Democratic victories in the House last November that have further curtailed his legislative influence and handed investigative power to his congressional critics.

Some presidents suffer from a rocky start but get the hang of the job as they go on. The Trump presidency seems only to be getting more ineffective over time. Trump's greatest strength up to now has been his power within the Republican Party; other Republicans have generally been reluctant to become enmeshed in public disputes with the president for fear that their own party's voters will take Trump's side and wreak punishment on dissenters. Recently, however, Mitch McConnell responded to Trump's suggestion that Republicans turn their attention (yet again) to health care reform by flatly shooting down the president's declaration in the pages of the national press. Imagine Harry Reid doing such a thing to Barack Obama, or Bill Frist to George W. Bush, and it becomes clear what an unusual act this was for the Senate majority leader, who was surely speaking for his caucus as a whole.

It's also clear that the executive branch's management of immigration policy—a rare subject on which the president demonstrates substantial personal investment—is an outright mess. The forced resignation of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is merely the latest development in a chain of events that also included a lengthy federal shutdown that failed to secure border wall funding from Congress, the damaging revelation and subsequent public reversal of the practice of separating families seeking entry at the southern border, and the indefinite judicial suspension of the president's unpopular withdrawal of DACA protections in September 2017. Rather than identify hard-line aide Stephen Miller as a common element in his repeated failures to achieve lasting policy gains on the issue, Trump has apparently sided with Miller over Nielsen in one of many internal administration battles as Miller seeks to consolidate influence over DHS from the White House—which does not bode well for future success.

While Trump seems by now to have grasped that the job he has isn't the same as the job he thought he was running for in 2016, he hasn't managed to figure out what to do about it. If media impressions are accurate, the cacophonous frenzy of this presidency's early months—memorably marked by a parade of colorful characters constantly barging on- and off-stage—has evolved into a quieter, though not necessarily less chaotic, atmosphere structured (if that's not too strong a word) around the uneven energy of the president himself, who seems to oscillate between bursts of acute, though often unproductive, engagement and increasingly lengthy periods of retreat to television and Twitter. Even Trump's aggressive verbal taunting of potential Democratic opponents in a re-election contest that's well over a year away gives off the impression that the incumbent is somewhat unfulfilled by his governing responsibilities and yearns for the prospect of electoral competition to really get his blood flowing.

In other circumstances, a president who fails to deliver on major initiatives—and who prefers not to even show up at the office on the weekends, or in the evenings, or in the mornings—would inspire murmurs of discontent within the party whose platform forms the basis of his policy to-do list. Yet Trump has proven that the demands of today's Republican activist and voter base can largely be satisfied by symbolic appeals rather than substantive achievements. If his supporters ask of him only that he says the right things, and angers the right opponents, then it's possible for him to do the job they want him to do from the comfort of his couch at Mar-a-Lago. But as long as Trump himself continues to promise major policy change without demonstrating any idea of how to attain it, the strength that he so conspicuously attempts to project through his words will not be matched by his deeds.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Should Democrats Really Worry About a Contested Convention?

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report published an op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday provocatively titled "Why a Long Democratic Primary Slugfest Might Help Re-Elect Trump." In the piece, Wasserman argues that the Democratic presidential nomination race in 2020 could well turn out to be a protracted fight that exposes or exacerbates wide rifts within the party, that the identity of the Democratic nominee might remain unresolved until the national convention, and that internal conflict could prevent Democrats from unifying to defeat Donald Trump in the November general election.

At the foundation of Wasserman's case is an important observation: under the internal rules of the Democratic Party, winning a majority of pledged delegates requires attracting at least a near-majority of the popular vote in presidential primaries. That's because Democrats, unlike Republicans, mandate the proportional allocation of delegates; all candidates who receive at least 15 percent of the vote in a state or congressional district are entitled to a corresponding share of the delegates chosen there regardless of whether they place first. If there are multiple candidates attracting significant but not overwhelming popular support over an extended segment of the primary calendar, no single candidate will accumulate a majority of delegates, and therefore the national party might assemble in Milwaukee on July 13, 2020 without a certain nominee.

However, I think that this scenario is far less probable than Wasserman suggests—and that even if no candidate ends the primary season with a majority of delegates formally pledged to him or her, neither unusually bitter infighting nor ineffective opposition to the Republican ticket are particularly likely consequences. Here are some of the reasons behind this skepticism:

1. The early states will immediately cull the field. At the current preliminary stage of the process, it's relatively easy to envision a long competition with multiple strong contenders. But the early states invariably impose a deep and sometimes brutal mark on the race, reinforced by the news media's enthusiasm for branding candidates as either winners or (more commonly) losers. There have been 20 contested presidential nominations since the modern system was introduced in 1972, and the eventual nominee placed no worse than second in the New Hampshire primary in all 20 elections. Unsuccessful candidates may not immediately drop out if they do badly in the first few states, but unless they can consistently reach the necessary 15 percent threshold of popular support in the face of the resulting negative publicity or media inattention, they won't be able to deprive the front-runner of delegates.

2. Front-loading might end the race sooner, not later. Wasserman argues that the front-loading of the nomination calendar paradoxically increases the chance of a dragged-out competition, because many pledged delegates will be chosen at a point when multiple active candidates could potentially split the electoral map among themselves. It's possible to see things working out that way. But it seems equally plausible that the evolution of Super Tuesday into an early March quasi-national primary raises the level of financial and organizational resources necessary to run a viable campaign beyond the reach of more than a handful of candidates, and that the extensive media coverage required to catch the eye of voters tuning into the race after Iowa and New Hampshire will similarly be divided among just two or three main contenders. If the results of Super Tuesday and the two following weeks give one candidate a large enough lead in the delegate count, the front-loading of the calendar could produce an apparent nominee by March 17, since the combination of proportional allocation requirements and the lack of delegate-rich states voting later in the season makes it even more difficult for a trailing opponent to mount a second-half comeback.

3. The Democratic Party is not "highly fractious." Notwithstanding the wildly disproportionate fascination in some circles with a few backbench members of the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party is arguably as unified, at both the mass and elite level, as it's ever been in its history. There are important differences among Democrats, of course, and some of these differences will be publicly litigated over the course of the 2020 presidential nomination race. But there's little reason to believe that internal party divisions are any greater, or harder to overcome, than they were in 2008, or 1992, or 1976, or 1948, or 1932. Democrats universally dislike Donald Trump and are highly motivated to defeat him in 2020; no major candidate or group within the party will want to risk being forever blamed for Trump's re-election by stirring up trouble between the convention and the November vote.

4. A true contested convention is very unlikely, because party leaders will work hard to prevent it. Media discussions of hypothetical contested conventions often carry the whiff of hopeful anticipation; many journalists find today's scripted coronations to be impossibly boring and yearn to experience the excitement of yesteryear's dark horses and smoke-filled rooms. But party leaders have exactly the opposite view. They fear and despise the unpredictability and colorful in-fighting that media types live for; above all, they want an exuberant, harmonious, drama-free party. Democratic officials will therefore do everything in their power to prevent the kind of rollicking free-for-all that the term "contested convention" or "brokered convention" commonly connotes.

For risk-averse party leaders who are habitually obsessed with maintaining internal unity and popular legitimacy, the obvious path of least resistance in a situation where no candidate has accumulated a majority of pledged delegates is to close ranks around the first-place finisher in the delegate count. Secondary candidates could be pressured to release their own delegates and endorse the leader; alternatively, superdelegate votes could deliver him or her a numerical majority on the second ballot at the convention. Denying the nomination to the candidate with the greatest demonstrated popular support would risk a highly inconvenient public debate over whether the "voice of the people" was being silenced by the scheming of party "bosses," as the experience of the 2008 and 2016 superdelegate controversies demonstrated so memorably. At the same time, the Democratic leadership is quite unlikely to let a contested nomination play out without attempting to direct the proceedings in advance; it's not obvious how a modern convention could even be competently staged without a presumptive nominee to take charge of its organization.

Until such a turn of events actually happens, it's impossible to know whether the nominal majority requirement for presidential nominations is, as I suspect, closer to a plurality requirement in practice. But the prospect of a chaotic nomination process or national convention doesn't seem like a leading concern for the Democratic Party at this stage of the election. Whatever challenges Democrats may face in 2020, a deeply divided or unmotivated party base is unlikely to be one of them.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

In Fox Debate Flap, the Press Defends Its Power to Pick Presidents

It is widely accepted in most democracies that party leaders have a right to control the process of nominating candidates for elective office. Here in the United States, however, this proposition is not merely controversial but downright unpopular.

Even the hint that superdelegates might exercise their voting rights under party rules to support a candidate other than the narrow leader in the pledged delegate count provoked accusations in both the 2008 and 2016 Democratic presidential nomination contests that insiders had "rigged" the system in order to silence the voice of the people. These complaints forced a chastened Democratic National Committee to enact limits to superdelegate power in order to protect its popular legitimacy. Republican politicians in 2016 similarly looked on helplessly as voters delivered the nomination to a candidate whom many believed at the time to be a generationally disastrous standard-bearer for their party. Despite this broadly-shared judgment, attempts to force an alternative outcome at the national convention had little energy and soon fizzled out entirely.

But it's too simplistic to view struggles over control of nominations as only pitting party bosses against regular citizens. As critics like Nelson W. Polsby observed decades ago, the post-1968 reforms that created the modern presidential nominating process actually transferred crucial influence from one set of elites—state party organizations—to another set—the news media. Because voters in party primaries habitually act with limited information and weak preferences, especially when the field expands to three or more contenders, they can be decisively swayed by the volume and tone of press attention devoted to each candidate.

The post-reform era is littered with presidential candidacies made and unmade by media coverage. Ed Muskie outpolled George McGovern in both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1972, yet the press treated McGovern like the winner in both cases, setting him on a path to the Democratic nomination. Jimmy Carter received a similar publicity boost after finishing behind an uncommitted slate of Iowa delegates in 1976. Reporters and commentators accepted Bill Clinton's self-proclaimed persona as the "comeback kid" at the expense of Paul Tsongas, the actual winner of the 1992 New Hampshire primary. In the 2000s, media favorites John McCain and Barack Obama benefited from sympathetic coverage while the unlucky Howard Dean became a media dartboard for the sin of screaming too loudly in a concession speech. Donald Trump attracted far more press attention than any other candidate in 2016, to the frustration of rivals who found it much harder to get their messages out to the public.

Journalists sometimes resist acknowledging their sizable influence over nominations, and may not always be fully conscious of the central role they can play in determining the outcome. But when party leaders attempt to assert power at the potential expense of the media, members of the press quickly rise to defend the prerogatives of themselves and their peers.

The Democratic National Committee announced this week that Fox News Channel would not be authorized to hold a debate among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, in the wake of reports confirming the de facto alliance between Fox News and the Trump White House. Rather than respect political leaders' judgment about how their own party's nomination process should operate, prominent journalists immediately blasted the DNC, vouching for their Fox News colleagues in the face of a perceived affront to their professional rectitude. Some even accepted the DNC's premise that Fox would treat Democratic candidates with more hostility than the other news outlets hosting debates in 2020, suggesting that the gauntlet of a Fox-organized debate was not a trap to be avoided but rather a test of character that the party was failing.

 "If you can't answer questions—especially if they're not the questions you want asked—maybe you don't have good answers," snorted Jonathan Allen of NBC. "And if you aren't prepared for tough questions/subjects in a primary debate, how will you handle the general?" chided Zeke Miller of the Associated Press. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times preferred the ha-ha-you-suckered-yourself style of riposte: "it sends a message of being afraid of something. Which is what Trump feeds off in opponents."

Beneath this outburst of (self-)righteous indignation is a set of powerful assumptions: that the press—not voters or party leaders—properly holds the job of asking "tough questions" (and judging the worthiness of the answers) during the nomination process, and that televised debates are the most important venue for performing this critical task. Parties "expect the forums to produce infomercials that glorify their candidates, not journalistic grillings," taunted Jack Shafer of Politico, who went on to argue that any candidate who didn't want to participate in a debate sponsored by a disfavored cable network should "be disqualified from running" for the presidency—in case any doubt remained about where Shafer thinks the power to choose the nation's political leadership should rightfully reside.

One quirky attribute of American media culture is the consensus veneration of debates as a uniquely sacred exercise in civic enlightenment. The origin of this precept is somewhat mysterious; perhaps it's a romanticized legacy of Messrs. Lincoln and Douglas, or maybe it just reflects a collective belief that campaign events organized by the media are definitionally superior to those produced by the candidates and parties. In any case, a frank and unsentimental re-evaluation of its experiential soundness is decades overdue. It's not hard to recall important debates, or moments in debates, in both primaries and general elections. But nearly all of them involve candidate mannerisms, zingers, or gaffes (gaffe after gaffe after gaffe), not important substantive discussions or revelations. Is this really the best way to choose a president?

The Republican National Committee recently pondered this question as well. Republican leaders concluded that there were too many debates during the 2012 nomination season, which (in their view) gave an undeserved platform to secondary candidates while pushing their eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, into taking positions that were ultimately damaging to the party's general election chances (Romney's endorsement of "self-deportation" as an immigration policy, blamed in retrospect for costing him Latino support, was made during a Republican primary debate). In response, the RNC, like the DNC, acted after 2012 to limit the number of debates and take greater control of the sponsors and moderators.

The parties naturally perceive a strategic advantage in a nomination procedure that bolsters the chances of producing a nominee who can unify the party, be a formidable general election candidate, and possess the skills to govern successfully. But surely the American public would also be well-served by a choice of presidential candidates who possess such qualities. And it's not clear that the incentives governing the media's coverage of elections necessarily favor an equally desirable set of characteristics, despite the self-important proclamations of some self-appointed gatekeepers.

With the mixed track record of the media-dominated nomination process over half a century of history, perhaps both national committees deserve some deference to tinker strategically with aspects of the current system without facing attacks from journalists acting as if their personal honor has been outrageously besmirched by rank partisan interlopers. For some, it may not be easy to conceive of a situation where the interest of the public is not aligned by definition with that of the press, or is instead more closely matched with that of the perennially-maligned party organizations. But as Nina Simone used to sing, "it be's that way sometime."