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.