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 poltiical 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.