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.