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.