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.