Thursday, April 02, 2020

Time Passes Slowly Under COVID—So the Political World Should Adjust Accordingly

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect daily life in the United States, it has distorted the nation's collective sense of time. Many people have observed in the last few days how long the month of March 2020 seemed to last; the events of its first week, such as Joe Biden's electoral success on Super Tuesday and the withdrawals of Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren, now seem to have occurred in a long-distant era. This makes psychological sense: the world has fundamentally changed, that change is highly unpleasant and anxiety-provoking (if time flies when we're having fun, it crawls when we're miserable), and the measures imposed to control the spread of the virus confine most of the population to a limited set of spaces, activities, and companions.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of this development is its exacerbation of the American political class's existing preoccupation with immediate daily or even hourly developments at the expense of long-term perspective. The disinclination to think beyond the moment at hand has been a signature characteristic of the Trump presidency from its first day of existence, and the serious risks and dangers that accompany this aversion to planning and foresight have become excruciatingly obvious in the current crisis. Repeatedly dismissing the coronavirus as a non-threat or even non-issue in the early weeks of the pandemic may have fleetingly avoided spooking the press, the public, or the markets, but in retrospect it seems like a tragic error in both policy and political terms.

Trump's habit of governing with eyes fixed on the daily rhythms and pet subjects of television news coverage is commonly framed as an indictment of him, though it's equally an indictment of television news coverage. And social media, though it can do a better job of disseminating information than the average cable talking head-fest, operates with an even greater degree of transience. The emergence of the COVID-19 epidemic has only magnified this moment-to-moment mentality.

Rather than directing all of its energies towards developing and implementing an aggressive federal policy response, the White House has succumbed to the temptation to treat the pandemic as a public relations problem that needs a public relations solution (to paraphrase a previous president mischaracterizing his own presidency-defining crisis). Its daily press conferences are organized less to provide useful facts to the public than to allow Trump to engage in personal credit-claiming and subordinates or allies to bestow additional credit on him. Inevitably, these events attract considerable media attention, which just as inevitably provokes frustrated liberals to blast journalists for providing Trump positive publicity and allowing him to spread misinformation—even as Trump himself uses the platform to lob attacks at disfavored reporters. Meanwhile, in a particularly silly testament to the growing political time warp now in effect, a few days spent out of public view turned out to be long enough for a coalition of journalists, Republicans, and Bernie Sanders supporters to treat Joe Biden as if he had virtually forfeited the 2020 election.

The Trump administration, its opponents on the left, and its targets in the media have become locked in a cycle of perpetual mutual obsession that has not proven healthy for anyone concerned. Despite their many conflicts, all of these actors share the view that there's usually nothing more important than today's news. But the coronavirus does not abide by the same rules of time. It may have seemed to arrive quickly, but it is not likely to depart quickly. And so it renders the day-to-day preoccupations of the political world even more peripheral than usual.

In general, the rhetoric of political leaders, the testimony of scientific experts, and the coverage of media sources have done an increasingly effective job of persuading citizens of the potentially catastrophic effects of COVID-19 on both public health and the national economy. But there has been less open acknowledgement of the sheer length of time that it may take for daily life to approach relative normality. Trump, of course, went so far as to suggest last week that public institutions could reopen by Easter, for which he received considerable criticism before retreating from this timeline in recent days.

But even the University of Washington's frequently-cited projections of future infection and mortality frequencies, as foreboding as they may be in forecasting imminent emergency in much of the country, take on a reassuring bell-curved shape with the patient caseload declining rapidly in May, reaching minimal levels by mid-summer. However, these estimates assume the indefinite maintenance of maximal social distancing practices. It's likely that crisis conditions will continue until a vaccine or major treatment breakthrough arrives, and rules governing access to public spaces will need to reflect the ongoing presence of the threat. How can anything close to normal life resume before the virus is eradicated or the effects of infection become manageable?

For those who have found the last two or three weeks to be slowly-paced, the prospect of months or even years of continued restrictions—as casualties mount and the economy deteriorates—may seem hard to contemplate. But that's why the attention of politicians, journalists, and citizens alike should be trained squarely on potential paths to long-term solutions (or, at least, long-term ameliorations) rather than getting caught up in momentary dramas. If Trump indeed cares more about his own re-election chances than anything else, as many detractors charge, it's still true that his path to a second term runs through winning a war on the virus, not the daily news cycle.

Even analysts who are focused on the November election need to remind ourselves that seven months is a very long time in politics (seven months ago, for example, the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump's impeachment had yet to surface), and the next seven months will feel especially long. We all might as well settle in as best as we can, because we're going to be stuck here for a while.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Four Reasons to Be Cautious About Trump's Approval Ratings

Ever since the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis began to accelerate a couple of weeks ago, political obsessives have wondered about the likely effect that it would have on President Trump's job approval ratings—and, by extension, his chances of re-election in November. The few surveys that have been conducted over the past week or two don't show any dramatic movement—the FiveThirtyEight model currently estimates Trump's national approval at 43 percent, which is more or less where he's been since the end of the government shutdown in February 2019. But the lack of any apparent decline, combined with recent surveys that showed more respondents endorsing Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak than disapproving so far, have inspired some analysts to argue that the president may actually be benefiting politically from the crisis at the expense of the Democratic opposition.

Perhaps that's true. But realistically, it's far too soon to glean much about either the American public's ultimate response to Trump's management of the pandemic or its implications for the upcoming election. Here are four good reasons to exercise some patience before jumping to conclusions:

1. Political leaders' popularity often rises temporarily after the onset of a crisis. Political scientists call this pattern the "rally effect," and it's been documented many times over decades of history; most dramatically, George W. Bush's job approval shot up from about 50 percent to about 90 percent virtually overnight after the events of September 11, 2001. There are several plausible factors contributing to this phenomenon: citizens close psychological ranks around their national leaders in a moment of uncertainty and fear; they evaluate these figures on different criteria than they did before the crisis erupted; and the normally critical opposition party (sometimes) mutes its attacks on the incumbent. Both French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte have enjoyed spikes in popularity during the current coronavirus outbreak, despite (especially in Italy's case) substantial national dislocation and tragedy.

But these popularity bumps fade with time. Either the crisis is soon resolved and citizens turn their attention to other things, or it is not, in which case they start to grow impatient with the effectiveness of their leader. The 2020 general election is still far enough away that even if Trump were to benefit from the rally effect in the short term, it wouldn't be a very reliable signal of his popularity more than seven months in the future.

2. Americans are still learning about the severity and likely duration of this crisis. National journalists are closely following each development of the coronavirus outbreak; most also live in places like New York and Washington where daily life has already been dramatically changed. But large sections of the country aren't as strongly affected so far, and the less obsessively attentive typical resident of middle America will not have experienced the same degree of disruption. Many Americans are presumably still unaware of the probable length of time before things get visibly better, much less return to normal—for example, while it seems quite apparent based on the trajectory of infection that many public school systems that are now closed are unlikely to reopen before the end of the academic year three months from now, few state authorities have yet acknowledged as much in public. Citizens who anticipate that the crisis will only last a matter of a few weeks may see little reason at this point to re-evaluate their opinions about the president, but they may start to feel differently if the inconvenience persists for longer than they first assumed.

3. Americans already have strong opinions about Trump, and most of them disliked him before the crisis. Trump has never consistently exceeded 50 percent job approval as president even during three previous years of relative peace and prosperity. His approval rating among Democrats has seldom reached double digits—it stood at 7 percent in the last Gallup survey—and his approval among independents (as measured by Gallup) has generally stayed between 35 and 40 percent for most of his presidency. The only way that his popularity could fall much further would be for elements of his remaining base—consisting almost entirely of habitual Republican voters—to become disenchanted with his performance, but these citizens are unusually resistant to changing their minds about him. Their partisan alignment means that they are already predisposed to support a Republican president, they are prone to discount criticism from Democrats and mainstream journalists, and they are disproportionately exposed to Trump-friendly messages from conservative media sources.

The good news for Trump is that he may be spared significant erosion in his popularity by the strong loyalty of his fellow partisans. But a steady approval rating could also be a problem, because he's already in a vulnerable position heading into re-election and is consistently running behind likely opponent Joe Biden in national polls. Even if the crisis were merely damaging enough to prevent Trump from boosting his public support by November, that itself might turn out to be a decisive factor in the election.

4. It's not the virus, it's the economy (stupid). The most worrying component of this crisis for the Trump administration and re-election campaign isn't the spread of COVID-19 itself and the casualties that it leaves in its wake. Instead, it's the larger impact on the economy. While the specific quantitative estimates of current forecasting models should be treated with skepticism in such an unprecedented and fast-moving environment, it seems inevitable that there will be a sudden and catastrophic economic shock that will at least temporarily push the U.S. into a recession.

Trump and his supporters will argue, with justification, that it would be unfair to blame him for the economic misery that a worldwide pandemic is poised to inflict on the nation. But voters tend to reward presidents for good economic times and punish them for bad times regardless of the incumbent's actual responsibility for either outcome. It wouldn't be surprising if Trump's popularity remained stable or even rose a bit over the next few weeks during (presumably) the strictest anti-COVID remediation measures, only to decline later in the year once the larger consequences, especially declining income and employment, became more visible to average citizens. He therefore has every reason to wish not only for a shallower economic plunge than most analysts now foresee, but also for a historically rapid national rebound once the worst is over.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Nelson W. Polsby's Analysis of Presidential Nominations Still Applies After 37 Years

Today at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, I reflect on the continued relevance of Nelson W. Polsby's 1983 book Consequences of Party Reform for the events of the last several weeks. The media-driven ups and downs of the Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 election illustrate the enduring insights of Polsby's research, as does his newly-resonant concern that excluding party leaders from playing a central role in selecting nominees increases the risk of electing a president who is unable to meet the expectations and challenges of the office.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

March 10 Primary Review: From "Contested Convention!" to "Over Already?!?"

It wasn't all that long ago that the prospect of a contested Democratic convention was every savvy Washingtonian's favorite topic of conversation. Traditional political journalists, who are habitually bored and irritated by the smoothly stage-managed and substantively anticlimactic nature of modern conventions, seem to envy the days when their forerunners like H. L. Mencken witnessed the excitement of a political party actually resolving its nomination contest in a blur of stem-winding speeches, repeated roll-call votes, and dark-horse bandwagons. But their predictable musings, usually accompanied by ill-disguised hope, at the beginning of every nomination season that the imminent primary race could easily produce such a thrilling grand finale received reinforcement this year from the ranks of the cutting-edge quantitative analysts. According to the FiveThirtyEight forecasting model, the probability of no single Democratic candidate receiving a majority of delegates spiked after this year's Iowa caucus, briefly rising well over the 50 percent mark prior to Super Tuesday.

Of course, that all seems rather quaint now. Joe Biden's remarkable resurgence, beginning with his modest second-place finish in the Nevada caucus and picking up rocket fuel the following week in South Carolina, extended through another week's worth of elections this Tuesday night. Barely a month after his damaging losses in Iowa and New Hampshire seemed to bring his campaign to the edge of a cliff, Biden is poised to assume the mantle of presumptive Democratic nominee.

What's more, the procedural mechanism that previously made a contested Democratic convention seem so very possible—the party's requirement that delegates must be allocated in proportion to the popular vote in individual states and congressional districts—is the same thing that will now help Biden's campaign make the case that the race is effectively over. At the beginning of the primary sequence, with so many active candidates dividing voter support, it's only natural to suppose that no single contender may be able to attract an outright national majority of delegates. Republican candidates can quickly amass a strong advantage even without a popular majority by placing first in multiple states that award delegates in a winner-take-all fashion, but national party rules close off that path for Democrats.

At the current stage of the nomination sequence, however, proportional allocation becomes a Democratic front-runner's best friend. Biden's lead in the delegate count, though it may not appear numerically lopsided at first glance, has in fact become sufficiently large that only a series of crushing defeats in state after state would seriously endanger it. A Republican candidate in Sanders's position could conceivably ride victories in multiple winner-take-all states to make up ground quickly in the back half of the primary calendar, but the Democratic Party's proportionality requirement dramatically blunts the impact of upsets late in the process. Both Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 notched some notable wins in populous states during the final phases of the primary season, but they had both already fallen far enough behind their opponents that anything short of repeated landslides wasn't going to throw the final outcome into doubt.

And so, like in many other years, the 2020 presidential nomination system has quickly transformed apparent chaos and uncertainty into order and predictability. There are still more states to vote, more questions to resolve, and more strategic choices ahead for both Biden and Sanders. But unless a truly extraordinary disruption occurs in the race, the process has now foreclosed any other outcome than the one that now stands before us.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Super Tuesday Review: Biden Back in Front

The vote-counting from Tuesday's elections will continue not only through the night but also, in California anyway, for a couple of weeks to come. Yet the overall picture is relatively clear. Joe Biden appears to be the winner in ten states (Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia). Bernie Sanders has placed first in four states (California, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont). Mike Bloomberg won the caucus in American Samoa, and Elizabeth Warren finished no better than third in every state or territory—including her home state of Massachusetts.

Here are some of the most important implications of the Super Tuesday results:

1. All of a sudden, Biden is once again at the front of the Democratic race, in what might be the most dramatic apparent comeback in the modern history of nominations (no candidate has previously survived finishing fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire to vault back into the lead). The Biden surge of the past week was spread across the entire nation, and only the prevalence of early and mail voting in California, Texas, and Colorado kept him from amassing a near-decisive lead in delegates.

2. We won't know the final results in California for a while, and it's possible that Sanders did well enough there to keep the total Super Tuesday delegate margin between him and Biden from becoming too lopsided. But the most damaging result for Sanders on Tuesday wasn't the delegate count—it was his unexpected losses in Massachusetts and Minnesota. Beginning with next week's primaries in Michigan and Missouri, many of the key states in the post-Super Tuesday phase of the nomination calendar are urban states in the Northeast and Midwest, including New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. Had Sanders been able to confine Biden's victories on Tuesday to the string of states from Virginia to Texas, he could have argued that Biden's strength was mostly regional and unlikely to endure once the contest moved northward. But Sanders's losses in two medium-sized, mostly white urban states where Biden didn't even campaign or spend money are much more troubling omens for his candidacy.

3. These results show why a truly contested convention—despite dominating media speculation in the early stages of every election season—is unlikely to occur except under very unusual circumstances. Nearly always, nomination contests naturally narrow down fairly quickly to one or two viable candidates; it's very hard for three candidacies to sustain themselves through the entire gauntlet of primaries. With only two contenders (at most) left standing by the end of the schedule, one or the other can count on a first-ballot majority at the convention, even if the arithmetic technically requires a bloc of delegates previously pledged to withdrawn candidates to pitch in enough votes to put the leading delegate-winner over the top. (Before a recent round of rules changes barred their participation on the first ballot, superdelegates could also perform this service, as they did for Barack Obama in 2008.) Democratic voters in the first 18 states have reduced what was once a large field of candidates to two plausible remaining options—Biden and Sanders—and the role of Democrats in the remaining 32 states is to determine which of these two will be the nominee.

4. Biden's now the favorite once again, but Sanders is by no means out of the running. More twists and turns are still quite possible, if not likely. But this is usually the kind of defeat that compels a candidate to make adjustments: tweak the campaign message, revise the strategy, target a new constituency. A key question hanging over the rest of this race is whether Sanders, who prides himself on his consistency, will rethink his approach or simply plow ahead on his current path.

5. A lot of people seem to have drawn the conclusion from the last few days that campaign ads and field organizing have become fairly meaningless in modern elections, since Biden engineered his historic surge while being massively outspent and out-organized by Sanders and Bloomberg. The reality is probably more complicated. It's certainly true that national media and social media are more important factors in the nomination horse race, and local organizations less important factors, than they once were. But Biden also has a unique advantage: everybody already knows who he is, and Democrats already have positive views of him, so television ads and campaign mailers are much less necessary to boost his name recognition or get his message out than would be true for other candidates.

In fact, it's very possible that Biden's lack of money and organizational capacity severely damaged and almost ended his candidacy in Iowa and New Hampshire—especially in Iowa, where the caucus system rewards candidates who have the infrastructure to identify supporters, drag them to the caucus meetings, and keep them there until the voting is complete. Similarly, while Bloomberg's money wasn't sufficient to deliver him the nomination, one glance at the Super Tuesday results is enough to confirm that he was able to buy himself a significant, though ultimately insufficient, amount of popular support simply by spending at unprecedented rates.

Rather than decisively declaring one factor "the real story" and other factors "worthless," we analysts should acknowledge the extraordinary complexity of multi-candidate nomination contests. It can be tempting to declare Biden's comeback inevitable now that it's happened, but nominations are much less predictable and more contingent than that. All of us are students rather than masters of this subject, and the unusual events of the past few days have shown how much there always is to learn.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

South Carolina Primary Review: Biden's Back in the Game, But He's Not Winning Yet

The one silver lining in Joe Biden's weaker-than-expected performances in Iowa and New Hampshire was that they gave him the chance for a "comeback" in South Carolina, where he retained a potential reservoir of support among the black and moderate white voters who dominate the state's Democratic electorate. Biden's advantage was temporarily shaken—several polls after New Hampshire showed his lead in South Carolina narrowing to single digits—but a combination of his second place finish in Nevada last Saturday, sharper-than-usual debate performance on Tuesday, and key endorsement from veteran congressman Jim Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, on Wednesday helped propel him to a victory of nearly 30 points.

It's likely that Biden will benefit from a few days of very positive media coverage heading into Super Tuesday, and that a number of elected Democrats will rally around him as the most viable remaining alternative to Bernie Sanders. But Biden still has a ways to go before he reclaims his position as front-runner in the race. Sanders will probably win a decisive victory in California on Tuesday, where much of the vote has already been cast by mail and is thus insensitive to a Biden surge, that may alone provide him with a significant lead in the national delegate count. It's also unclear what proportion of any last-minute decline in support for Warren, Buttigieg, or Bloomberg will migrate to Biden, and how much will be transferred to Sanders instead.

It does seem as if the Democratic contest is quickly heading toward a showdown between Sanders and Biden, though polls suggest that Bloomberg is poised to accumulate a chunk of delegates on Super Tuesday that could conceivably matter to the final outcome. (A two-candidate race would provide some clarity to the question of whether there will be a contested convention, since one or the other will have a majority of delegates.) But can Biden, who suffers from a much smaller war chest and weaker campaign organization than one would expect a two-term vice president to have, actually keep up with Sanders once the election calendar accelerates from Tuesday onward? The answer to that question may well hold the key to the nomination.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Democratic Debate Review: A Telling Final Question

The news media didn't take very long Wednesday night to settle on a consensus interpretation of the evening's Democratic presidential debate. Before the first commercial break had been reached, the conventional wisdom had already swept across Twitter: the evening was a victory for Elizabeth Warren and a defeat for Michael Bloomberg. There were reasons to expect such a storyline even before Warren used her first statement of the debate to launch a direct attack on Bloomberg: the press has been stung all week by accusations that it hasn't been granting Warren the attention she deserves, and Bloomberg, who has has been looming over the race for months but hasn't yet competed for votes or participated in any debates, was facing the difficult task of living up in person to a set of rising poll numbers fueled by an unprecedented advertising blitz.

Whether Bloomberg experiences a serious popularity reversal as a result of the night's events is difficult to predict. He's likely to suffer negative news coverage over the next few days, but he doesn't have to worry about his funding sources drying up, and it's not clear that the specific subject that was the main source of contention at the debate—the use of non-disclosure agreements by former employees of his media company—will resonate strongly with the segment of the Democratic mass electorate otherwise open to supporting his candidacy. Warren can count on a temporary boost in positive publicity and fundraising, but with two early states that should have been relatively favorable ground already behind her and a much less friendly geographic path laying immediately ahead, she probably needs more than one strong debate to remain in serious contention.

All this is pretty good news for current front-runner Bernie Sanders, who mostly escaped attacks from the rest of the field on Wednesday and who has the least of all the candidates to fear from a continued media focus on Bloomberg. (The biggest threat to Sanders would be a resurgent Joe Biden, but while many media observers thought Biden's performance was stronger than usual on Wednesday, it won't be the major story coming out of the debate.) In fact, the final question of the night revealed the strength of Sanders's position: he was the only candidate to agree that if no single candidate wins a majority of pledged delegates, the candidate with the most delegates should receive the nomination.

This is, of course, partially the Sanders campaign's recognition that he is unlikely to be a compromise choice or the preferred nominee of Democratic superdelegates in the event of a contested convention. But it's also a signal to the party made from a position of strength. The Sanders camp is betting that there's a good chance that they will have at least a delegate plurality, and they want to warn Democratic leaders at this early stage that they will denounce any attempt to deny him the nomination under such circumstances as an illegitimate usurpation of the process.

The fact that the rest of the Democratic field responded to the question by defending the right of the party to select a different nominee reflects the extent to which contestation rather than an outright delegate majority is, in their minds, a live possibility even with 48 states and 7 territories still to vote in this race. Of course, we can expect any of them to make the same argument that Sanders is currently making if they wind up with a delegate plurality instead. But more than a third of the total national delegate count will be selected within the next two weeks, and it's quite possible that we're not very far away from a situation where a contested convention is the only numerically plausible alternative to a first-ballot Sanders nomination. With such a front-loaded nomination calendar, it gets late early out there.

Monday, February 17, 2020

There Are *Still* No Lane Markers on the Road to the White House

Almost exactly one year ago, when the 2020 Democratic primary field was still forming, I published a post here at Honest Graft entitled "There Are No Clear Lane Markers on the Road to the White House." The piece criticized the practice of sorting candidates in party primaries into simplistic "lane" categories as a means of identifying their sources of voter support, most threatening competitors, and degree of strategic advantage or disadvantage.

As I argued then, this metaphor distorts the actual behavior of voters, whose preferences in multi-candidate primary elections are much weaker, less predictable, and more open to other sources of influence than the "lanes" theory allows. I even suggested that the unjustified popularity of this concept had contributed to the widespread failure to anticipate Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 Republican primaries. Other candidates, consultants, and pundits alike misinterpreted Trump's early success as mostly reflecting the inability of a hypothesized "establishment lane" to coalesce around a single opponent, and they incorrectly anticipated that Trump would eventually hit a hard ceiling of support in the Republican electorate before he won a majority of delegates.

In a testament to the intellectual influence of this blog over the American political universe, the "lanes" conception of nominations has exploded in popularity over the year since that post was written. In fact, it's become inescapable. The conventional wisdom now blaring from nearly every political analyst with a prominent media perch suggests that the Democratic race can be fairly described more or less as follows:

1. Democratic voters and candidates fall into one of two main categories corresponding to ideology—left (Sanders and Warren) or center (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg). Voters can be assumed to prefer any candidate within their ideological lane over any candidate outside it.

2. In the national Democratic electorate, the center lane is at least as large as the left lane. However, Sanders has successfully consolidated most of the left behind his own candidacy, while the center remains split among multiple candidates without a clear favorite.

3. The unity on the left against divided opposition in the center represents Sanders's most important strategic advantage in the race. If he wins the nomination, this will be the biggest reason why.

Devotion to these three assumptions has become so prevalent that it's common to see journalists on Twitter simply aggregate the vote shares of candidates in each "lane" after the results arrive in a primary or caucus, as if the two sets of contenders are fishing for votes in two completely different lakes. On Sunday, NBC News published an analytical piece by Sahil Kapur and Ali Vitali based on the premise that these two ideological lanes had become battle lines in an intense factional fight among Democrats, and that candidates who tried to bridge the supposedly vast expanse between "left" and "center" risked satisfying nobody in the party—the doomed fate, they claimed, of early dropouts like Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker.

And yet, there's plenty of evidence that things are just not that simple.

Political scientists have long known that ideology does not play nearly as strong a role in the thinking of regular citizens as it does in shaping the perceptions and preferences of political elites; in fact, this finding is one of the most foundational insights of the academic study of public opinion. Democratic voters, in particular, are likely to view politics through a lens of group identity and interest rather than ideological abstraction. It can seem almost inconceivable to those who spent their days and nights absorbed in politics, and who are socialized into forming a fundamentally ideological conception of the political world, that plenty of rank-and-file Democrats might be deciding between, say, Warren and Klobuchar, or might fail to recognize the existence of a massive philosophical difference between "Bernie" on one side and "Mayor Pete" on the other. But reporters who speak to attendees at candidate rallies regularly encounter such voters—sometimes to their amazement—and they are even more prevalent among the segment of the public that isn't sufficiently engaged in politics to spend their leisure time at campaign events. According to the polling firm Morning Consult, 23 percent of Sanders supporters ranked Biden as their second choice in early February, 28 percent of Biden voters chose Sanders as their second choice, and 29 percent of Bloomberg supporters chose either Sanders or Warren.

On Friday, Yahoo! News released survey results measuring Sanders's head-to-head performance against each of the other major Democratic candidates. As the accompanying article noted, these findings contradicted the idea that Sanders has a natural ceiling of support short of a national majority, or that he would necessarily face a disadvantage in a one-on-one race against anyone from the "moderate lane." But the results also demonstrated that there was a significant segment of the Democratic electorate that preferred Biden to Sanders at the time of the survey but also preferred Sanders to Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Bloomberg. In one single blow, then, the Yahoo! story undermined all three of the common assumptions listed above. Yet its publication doesn't seem so far to have inspired major media authorities to abandon the "lanes" theory of the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Sanders currently holds a favorable position, but it's not because he's united his own ideological "lane" while his opponents are dividing theirs. Sanders is in good shape at the moment because there is no other single candidate who can boast the same combination of strengths—personal following, financial resources, organizational capacity, and early-state success—that are traditionally associated with victorious presidential nomination campaigns. The candidates who are best-known and best-equipped to compete with Sanders nationally (Biden, Warren, and Bloomberg) underperformed by media consensus or declined to compete in Iowa and New Hampshire, while the candidates who have overperformed so far (Buttigieg and Klobuchar) can't match his national support or fundraising ability. Thinking in terms of "lanes" not only misrepresents the true state of the race, but also underrates Sanders's chance of victory by characterizing it as a function of divided, rather than weak, opposition.

Sanders's advantage may not last. A rival candidate could catch on or bounce back; these things have happened before. But the "lanes" theory suggests that his candidacy would be threatened merely by the consolidation of the rest of the field, and there's good reason—from recent survey data to the Republicans' experience in 2016—to reject that assumption. Presidential nominations are highly dynamic processes, and imposing excessive analytical order from above on voters' behavior is introducing rules that are just meant to be broken.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

New Hampshire Primary Review: Bernie's Biggest Win Wasn't His First-Place Finish

Bernie Sanders's performance in Tuesday night's New Hampshire primary isn't likely to impress the news media much. Sanders won New Hampshire for the second straight election, but he received less than half of his 2016 vote share (26 percent, as of this writing, compared to 60 percent last time) and edged Pete Buttigieg by less than 2 percentage points, in contrast to his 22-point margin over Hillary Clinton four years ago. Both Sanders and Buttigieg will receive the same number of pledged delegates from the state. Unsurprisingly, a New York Times reporter proclaimed the 2nd- and 3rd-place finishes of Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to be the top two stories of the night, rather than Sanders's nominal victory.

But those two results are themselves very good news for Sanders's ultimate chances of winning the nomination. Had it been Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren who received 24 and 20 percent of the vote in New Hampshire to Sanders's 26 percent, Sanders would be facing two rejuvenated opponents who would have the name recognition and resources to compete with him once the race opens out into a quasi-national contest on Super Tuesday, and Biden in particular would be back in position to enter Super Tuesday with a campaign-stabilizing victory three days earlier in the South Carolina primary.

Instead, Biden and Warren have been seriously damaged by their descent into the high single digits in New Hampshire, and the media death watch over both campaigns that will probably ensue won't make it easy for them to rebound. Buttigieg and Klobuchar can expect a short-term publicity boost after their overperformances on Tuesday, but they will need to quickly build Super Tuesday-caliber campaign operations around themselves over the next three weeks in order to avoid being drowned out by Sanders's financial and organizational advantages in expensive, delegate-rich states like California and Texas. And the fact that each of them is competing against the other as well as against Sanders (Buttigieg, in particular, was a repeated target of critical remarks from Klobuchar in last Friday's debate) makes their tasks even more challenging.

Much has been made of Sanders's relative weakness among black voters, which was a pivotal impediment to his campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. But while Joe Biden was previously considered a heavy favorite against Sanders in South Carolina and other Deep South states due to his supposedly strong personal support among this constituency, there's no reason to believe that Sanders couldn't attract a significant share of the black vote if Biden were seriously weakened or driven from the race and Sanders’s main opponents were instead Buttigieg and Klobuchar—neither of whom has yet invested much, or demonstrated much success, in courting black leaders or citizens.

A national Quinnipiac poll released on Monday showed Mike Bloomberg's level of black support approaching Biden's, 27 percent to 22 percent, suggesting that Biden's continuing decline might benefit Bloomberg most of all among black Democrats. (Bloomberg has recently spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign featuring video footage of Barack Obama praising him by name.) But in an utterly inexplicable strategy, Bloomberg has opted not to contest South Carolina, even though it votes only three days before Super Tuesday and will undoubtedly influence those results. While the current state of the race in South Carolina isn't clear, it's quite possible that Sanders could be very competitive there if Biden continues to fade, and a Sanders victory followed by a successful multi-state Super Tuesday performance would make it difficult for any other candidate to catch him in the pledged delegate count absent an extraordinary turn of events.

So it's probably wise to discount media talk that Sanders has had trouble growing his coalition. No other single candidate has done any better at winning votes so far, and there are good reasons to believe that his major advantages have not yet been activated. Of course, there's a long way to go in the delegate race, and strange things can and do happen in nomination politics. But the two candidates who once loomed as Sanders's strongest rivals are starting to look like they won't be the ones to stop him—if anyone does.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Democratic Debate Review: If Klobuchar "Won," Sanders Actually Won

Friday night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire mostly rehashed the participants' past arguments and rhetorical styles, and it didn't generate a dramatic candidate confrontation or meltdown despite repeated attempts by the moderators to incite conflict or trap a candidate in a "gotcha" moment. Amy Klobuchar seems to have been anointed the winner by prevailing news media sentiment, but this evaluation was based more on the perception of a series of fluid, well-crafted remarks rather than a killer moment destined to be frequently replayed on cable news or spread widely on social media.

Most likely, that means the evening's proceedings won't have much of an influence on the polls. A debate's impact on the horse race tends to be maximized when it generates a single attention-grabbing segment, and only one of the seven previous debates this election appeared to produce a clear subsequent shift in candidate support: the first debate last June, when Kamala Harris attracted widespread publicity for challenging Joe Biden over his school busing positions in the 1970s. It's hard to think of many past examples of a candidate who gained a significant post-debate bounce based on a general media judgment that he or she just "did the best" over the course of the evening.

But if Klobuchar indeed gets a popularity boost in the final days before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, it's most likely to work to the ultimate strategic advantage of one of her opponents—in particular, Bernie Sanders. As a conventionally partisan center-left woman, Klobuchar's profile overlaps less with Sanders than with any other major candidate in the race. A last-second Klobuchar surge could deal major blows to Pete Buttigieg (by potentially denying him a valuable victory in New Hampshire) and/or Joe Biden (by relegating him to a fourth- or even fifth-place finish in the state), who at this stage must be considered Sanders's two main rivals for the Democratic nomination.

Sanders didn't seem to get much credit from the media for his performance in Iowa; the press had expected him to win, weighed Buttigieg's apparent narrow edge in the state delegate count much more heavily than Sanders's larger margin in the raw vote totals, and was enticed by the novelty of the Mayor Pete phenomenon. But the damage that Iowa inflicted on Biden's campaign arguably left Sanders in the best position of any candidate in the race at the moment. At the very least, Sanders is currently likely to finish either first or second in each of the first three early states, he has what appears to be the best-funded and best-organized national campaign (not counting the untested Bloomberg operation, which is hamstrung by its risky "wait until March" strategy), and he would benefit the most from a prolonged multi-candidate race in which two or more non-insurgent opponents jockeyed with each other for support.

Of course, the outcome is still unclear. Today's polls suggest that Sanders is in danger of losing New Hampshire to Buttigieg, which the press would interpret as a serious setback considering his 22-point victory there in 2016, and Biden could yet rebound if he can manage to survive until the race moves to the friendlier terrain of South Carolina. But without much reason to believe that Klobuchar has more than a minimal chance of launching herself into actual contention for the nomination at this stage, any temporary good fortune for her is probably even better news for Bernie.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

It's Time to De-Hype the Iowa Caucuses

The Iowa Democratic Party certainly deserves plenty of blame for the disastrous problems with the delayed tabulation of the results from Monday night's caucus. The all-too-predictable failure of a new, untested reporting app was compounded by the state party's idiosyncratic devotion to a uniquely complex two-stage public preference declaration process that required the chairs of 1,700 precincts statewide to all simultaneously report three sets of distinct but necessarily compatible numbers to state party headquarters. This new mandate for numerical transparency came at the behest of the Democratic National Committee, which responded to widespread suspicions that Bernie Sanders actually received more popular support than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 caucus by requiring Iowa to release raw vote totals for the first time as well as the traditional delegate counts.

Still, there was something a bit unseemly about major media figures taking to cable news and social media to blast the state party for failing to satisfy their curiosity about the outcome on a more personally convenient schedule. For it was the media that turned the Iowa caucuses into a decisive event in presidential politics beginning in 1972, when journalists interpreted George McGovern's third-place finish in a sparsely-attended vote (behind Ed Muskie and "uncommitted") as a game-changing moral victory, and it's heavy media coverage every four years that gives what might otherwise be an obscure and unimportant event its outsized influence on the behavior of voters in subsequent contests, setting some candidates on a path to the White House and driving others out of the race entirely with 99 percent of the national delegates still unselected.

Naturally, Iowa's leaders have scrambled to defend this quadrennial importance, in desperation to retain the massive publicity that comes with the first slot on the nomination calendar—even as the shortcomings of its caucus mechanics, and the limited organizational resources of its state parties, have become impossible to ignore in the age of ubiquitous cameras and smartphones. The rules that govern the Democrats' two-stage voting process aren't always easily understood even by the officials supposedly in charge, and are open to various kinds of clever manipulation—Candidate A sending some support to Candidate B in order to deny a delegate to Candidate C, deemed a more serious threat—that are absent from the simple primary elections that stand as alternatives to the caucus system. But Iowa cannot abolish its caucuses without risking its first-in-the-nation status, since New Hampshire claims the perpetual right to hold the first primary, and so the caucus tradition remains in all its increasingly apparent awkwardness, unless and until the national parties decide to forbid it.

There was a lot of big talk as the hours ticked by on Monday night about the current debacle putting an end to the Iowa caucus forever. We'll see—these are the kinds of things that impatient journalists say in the heat of the moment, forgetting that the political world will soon enough move on to other preoccupations and that party reformers find it easier to agree on what they dislike about nominations than on what the preferable alternative should be. But whether or not the national parties force Iowa to give up its caucuses in 2024, influential media authorities should use this opportunity to consider whether such a strange little system—one that, among other quirks, produces four sets of results and thus, potentially, four different winners—deserves the tremendous investment of attention, resources, and hype that they direct Iowa's way every four years. If the Iowa caucus were granted press coverage in better proportion to the number of delegates at stake, the representativeness of its electorate, and the distinctiveness of its electoral procedures, these sorts of screwups wouldn't seem so monumental—and the entire nomination system would be much better off.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Media Expectations Game Usually Hurts Nomination Front-Runners, But Not in 2020

The history of presidential nomination politics suggests that it's a mixed blessing for a candidate to be considered a front-runner by the national media heading into the primary and caucus season. Of course, it's better to be doing well in polls and fundraising, the usual metrics of pre-primary success, than to be doing badly in either. At the same time, front-runner status usually comes with expectations for a dominant performance in the early states. These expectations can produce waves of damaging news coverage for a candidate who fails to meet them, driving voters away and scaring off financial donors—while rivals who appear to "beat the spread" in Iowa or New Hampshire receive a major publicity boost. From Ed Muskie in 1972 to Howard Dean in 2004 to Hillary Clinton in 2008, pre-primary favorites have repeatedly suffered major damage from early-state results deemed by the shapers of conventional wisdom to be insufficiently impressive.

But something's different in 2020. Joe Biden is the Democratic front-runner by media consensus, and for understandable reasons—he's a former two-term vice president who's consistently led the national polls. Yet journalists and commentators don't seem to be treating Biden as especially likely to win either Iowa or New Hampshire. This is an unprecedented situation in the modern (post-1968) nomination era; there have been previous races without a single clear pre-Iowa favorite, but none in which a widely-acknowledged front-runner isn't assumed to enjoy an advantage in at least one, and usually both, of the first two states. Only South Carolina, the fourth and final pre-Super Tuesday contest, is by general agreement a place where Biden needs a victory (and probably by a double-digit margin) to avoid a serious media backlash.

There are a few reasons for this unusual state of affairs. One element of pre-election expectations-setting is poll numbers, and Biden hasn't had a consistent lead in either Iowa or New Hampshire since the early fall, which has helped lower the perceived benchmark for him in both states (though a few recent polls, especially in Iowa, still show him narrowly ahead). Another reason is demographics. Influential media voices have become increasingly sensitive to the fact that the racial composition of the Democratic Party in Iowa and New Hampshire differs significantly from that of its national membership, and are well aware that Biden runs better among non-white voters than he does among white liberals. Finally, the 2016 election offers what seems like an instructive parallel: Hillary Clinton failed to meet expectations in both of the first two states, barely defeating Bernie Sanders in Iowa and then losing New Hampshire to him by 22 percentage points, but she quickly managed to rally in Nevada, South Carolina, and the southern Super Tuesday states. If Biden loses the first two states to Sanders, it will seem to many analysts more like a rerun of the last Democratic nomination race (with Biden in the ultimately successful Clinton position) than a clear indicator of an imploding candidacy.

As my political science colleague Seth Masket notes, some Sanders supporters are frustrated that the media isn't currently giving their candidate a better chance of victory. Of course, the logic of nomination dynamics suggests that being underestimated at this stage is actually a strategic advantage, so perhaps it would be savvier for them to stifle their complaints for now.

Still, they have a point. Sanders is in a kind of inverse, but complementary, position compared to Biden: expectations for his performance in Iowa and New Hampshire are higher than his perceived chances of actually being the Democratic nominee. He therefore needs to win New Hampshire, and probably Iowa too, to convince the media that he has a shot at winning a majority of national delegates. But if he can claim those early victories—and this week's polling in both states suggests that it's quite achievable—the electoral terrain quickly shifts to South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states, where it will be much easier for Sanders to "overperform" (and thus impress the media) than for Biden to exceed what will be rising expectations on his own side. Sanders is also extremely well-funded for the quasi-national campaign that Super Tuesday requires. And if he can break through in California and Texas, there will be a fair number of delegates in his pocket after the first week of March, plus the potential for a self-subsidized Michael Bloomberg candidacy to cut into Biden's advantage with party moderates.

While Biden and Sanders have both been able to keep media expectations in check despite favorable polls and fundraising success, the rest of the field faces a tougher challenge. It's quite possible for one or more of them to outperform their current polling numbers in either of the first two states. But for midwesterners Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, anything short of a first-place finish in Iowa will raise the question of where they can win if they can't win there, and the same logic will be applied to New Englander Elizabeth Warren in the New Hampshire primary the following week. It can seem strange that a nomination contest that began with more then 20 active candidates might narrow to a functional two- or three-horse race after a handful of state contests, but the number of serious contenders in this election who didn't even make it as far as Iowa demonstrates how effectively and unsentimentally the sequential nomination process culls the field before most voters get the chance to register their preferences.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Do Democrats Have a Diversity Problem in 2020?

The news on Monday that Cory Booker was suspending his 2020 presidential campaign has led to expressions of frustration within many left-of-center corners of social media over the supposed lack of diversity in the Democratic field. Booker's withdrawal follows closely on the exit of Kamala Harris and Juli├ín Castro, leaving Democrats without an African-American or Latino candidate except for former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick—a last-minute entry who has failed to attract much attention to his candidacy.

Parties and party organizations are the habitual scapegoats of American politics, and some critics are automatically inclined to leave blame for these developments at the feet of the Democratic National Committee. Booker (and Castro before him) had been excluded from both the last and the next televised debates due to popular support that failed to meet the DNC's enforced standards, which in turn made it very difficult to achieve the visibility necessary to increase such support. But, of course, a more lenient set of standards that allowed Booker and Castro to participate would also have led to the presence of multiple secondary and tertiary candidates, limited camera time for each contender, splitting debates into two nights, and other measures that people similarly love to complain about. "The DNC should let the specific candidates debate whom I think deserve it, and exclude the ones I don't want to hear from" is a popular sentiment, but it is in no way a workable policy.

Booker, Castro, and Harris are out of the race not because of a feckless or malevolent party committee, but because—like the vast majority of people who ran for president before them—they never caught on with enough activists or primary voters. It always seems unfair to many observers that Candidate A, who seems by general consensus to be perfectly qualified and reasonably appealing, gets driven out of the race while the much more polarizing Candidate B does not. But the nomination system encourages—indeed, it requires—candidates to evoke personal enthusiasm among a critical mass of party members. Being many voters' second or third choice doesn't help a contender unless he or she is also some voters' first choice.

The combination of disappointment and bafflement over the recent withdrawals of three non-white presidential candidates has been compounded by the growing prevalence among writers and thinkers on the ideological left of a political philosophy centered around social identity that defines increasing the descriptive representation of certain social groups in high-status positions (from government office to Oscar nominees) as a, if not the, primary proper objective of political activism. In this view, the failure of a handful of presidential candidates inevitably becomes a powerful symbol of a wider systemic injustice.

But out in the mass Democratic Party, the pursuit of group interest is only sometimes channeled through supporting members of the group for elective office, and most citizens are resistant to—or even offended by—assumptions that they will or should line up behind a particular candidate simply because of shared social identity. Much has been made of Joe Biden's success among black Democrats so far, persuasively explained as a combination of these voters' collective ideological moderation, political pragmatism, and affection for Biden's service under Barack Obama. But even the decidedly non-moderate and non-Obamaite Bernie Sanders was winning substantially more black support than Booker was before his withdrawal, just as Biden, Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren all easily outpolled Castro among Latino Democrats.

Mass-level Democratic voters of all races simply are not currently placing descriptive diversity above other priorities—defeating Donald Trump, achieving policy goals, ideologically recalibrating the party—to the same degree as the disproportionately audible voices of the journalistic and academic left. The historical milestone of Obama's presidency has removed some urgency, at least in the short term, from efforts to elect another non-white candidate, and perceptions that women face a greater challenge than men in winning the presidency seem to have worked to the disadvantage of the female candidates in the 2020 race—perceptions that some feminist commentators have themselves unintentionally promoted. And the remaining Democratic field is not short on demographic diversity by traditional standards: Warren remains a leading contender, two major candidates are Jewish, and one is openly gay (it is, perhaps, a testament to the recent successes of the gay rights movement that much of the trendy left doesn't celebrate Pete Buttigieg as a pathbreaking figure but instead mocks him as a square, co-opted incrementalist).

The demographic diversity of the 2020 presidential contenders in fact compares quite favorably to the larger officeholding class in American politics, where severe proportional discrepancies in social group representation remain rampant. (For example, Harris and Booker are two of only three black senators currently in office, and Patrick is one of only two elected black governors in the modern history of the nation.) On this issue, as on many others, the presidency receives excessive attention from American culture at the expense of the rest of the political system. But there is surely a distinction worth making between voters freely choosing across lines of group membership not to support a particular candidate or set of candidates in a large and wide-ranging field, as has occurred so far in 2020, and the more formidable social inequities in electoral politics that continue to shape the composition of the larger pool of political leadership in America.