Thursday, September 26, 2019

Impeachment Is Important—But Don't Expect It to Matter Much in 2020

Once Democratic control of the House of Representatives made the impeachment of Donald Trump hypothetically possible, discussion of the topic has been accompanied by a widespread assumption (held inside as well as outside the party) that pursuing impeachment is a high-risk political strategy with a very good chance of seriously backfiring regardless of its substantive justification. This conventional wisdom reflects the Washington community's collective memory of the events of 1998, which goes something like this: zealous Republicans insisted on impeaching Bill Clinton despite strong opposition from American voters, who exacted their revenge by raining electoral blows upon the GOP in the congressional midterms as Clinton snickered with delight.

But that's not really what happened. It's true that impeachment was unpopular, but the actual results of the 1998 election were hardly calamitous for Republicans. The party suffered a very minor loss of 5 seats in the House, while there was no net partisan change in the Senate. Republicans held a majority in both congressional chambers prior to the election, and they retained this majority afterwards with little change in their margin of control. The 1998 midterms were the epitome of a status quo election, with no measurable wind or wave in either direction.

There are two main reasons why the Clinton impeachment is misleadingly remembered as such a disaster for the Republican Party. The first is that most journalists and commentators assumed that Republicans would reap major political benefits from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal from the moment it first emerged in January 1998. Even when polls began to roll in showing that most Americans weren't outraged by the revelations—and certainly didn't believe they warranted removal from office—pundits repeatedly waved them off, insisting that the electorate would be properly scandalized once it learned more of the facts. For example, Sam Donaldson of ABC News was predicting as late as mid-October that the public was about to turn against Clinton for good, forcing his resignation from the presidency.

The written report of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, engineered by congressional Republicans to be released to the public in the midst of the campaign season in mid-September, contained a number of salacious details that consumed the news media for weeks. When combined with the "iron law" that the president's party "always" loses House seats in the midterm election (which had held true for every midterm since 1938 at that point), this well-timed additional exposé was supposedly poised to hand the GOP a major political advantage. So while the election itself hardly produced a Democratic landslide, the outcome was interpreted against a backdrop of contrary expectations as a decisive victory for Clinton at the expense of his partisan opponents.

The second reason why the Clinton impeachment went down in history as a political fiasco is the messy leadership succession that occurred after the election. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was immediately forced out by his own party, though the disappointing election returns represented the final blow to an already weakened Gingrich (who had faced an internal Republican coup attempt the year before) rather than the central factor precipitating his exit from the speakership. It was easy enough for media reports to frame Gingrich's downfall as representing Clinton's ultimate triumph over an arch-nemesis, but the abrupt withdrawal of the next prospective speaker, Bob Livingston, from consideration for the job several weeks later—Livingston had carried on an extramarital affair, which became disqualifying under the circumstances on grounds of perceived partisan hypocrisy—merely cemented perceptions that the whole production had turned into an utter wipeout for Republicans even before the Senate trial of Clinton ended in an anti-climactic acquittal early the following year.

But there is no clear evidence that Republican candidates as a group performed any worse, either in 1998 or thereafter, than they would have absent the impeachment push. Clinton was an unusually popular president due primarily to an unusually robust national economy, and many of the most promising congressional seat targets for the GOP had already been picked off in the 1994 or 1996 elections. Congressional elections expert Gary Jacobson of UC San Diego concluded at the time that "the results of the 1998 elections are in no way extraordinary. . . . [they] are about what we would expect if no one had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky."

If Clinton's impeachment didn't really matter much in the 1998 elections (Washington lore aside), there's little reason to believe that a potential impeachment of Donald Trump will be decisive in 2020. Trump is much less popular than Clinton was; public attitudes have become more consistently partisan and less malleable over the 21 succeeding years; fewer members of Congress are cross-pressured by representing a constituency that normally leans toward the opposite party; and even an impeachment process that stretches on for a few months will conclude well before next November. The currently developing scandal is important for a number of reasons, but it's very possible that its influence on future elections never extends beyond potentially pushing this or that odd congressional seat in one partisan direction or the other.

An impeachment proceeding is such a momentous, historic event that it's only natural to expect it to have a transformative effect on the attitudes of the American public. This was certainly a common assumption in 1998—how can such a big political story not produce a correspondingly big electoral impact?—and some analysts continue even today to treat impeachment as a perilous political proposition for one side or the other. But the Trump presidency has already generated more than the usual number of big political stories, and the effects of all of them on mass opinion have been modest at best. Americans have already made up their minds about this president, and it will take a truly dramatic set of future developments for most of them to re-evaluate his performance in office. That doesn't mean this isn't an important story—it surely is, just as Clinton's impeachment was. But not everything that's important in politics leaves a major imprint on the voting returns.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Yes, Some Suburbs Are Turning Blue—But Others Have Stayed Quite Red: New Op-Ed in the New York Times

The results of the 2018 elections have repeatedly been interpreted as demonstrating a weakened Republican Party in suburban America, as Donald Trump's antics are supposedly driving exasperated suburbanites into the Democratic camp. In my latest op-ed piece for the New York Times, I explain that this story indeed holds true for the nation's largest metropolitan areas. In the remainder of suburban America, however, where the electorate is whiter and more socially conservative, the GOP remains electorally dominant in the Trump era. The research paper upon which the article is drawn, "The Suburbanization of the Democratic Party, 1992–2018," also served as the basis of a recent column by Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and is available here.

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.