Thursday, June 25, 2020

Will 2020 Dim the Myth of the Campaign Guru? Let's Hope So

Michael Deaver. Ed Rollins. Lee Atwater. James Carville. Dick Morris. Karl Rove. David Axelrod. Steve Bannon.

Every recent president has had at least one top advisor who has been given generous credit for being the strategic mastermind behind his political success—credit that these operatives have seldom discouraged. As the conduct of campaigns has become more professionalized over time and the press has devoted more attention to the game within the political game, strategists and consultants have increasingly become famous in their own right. These figures are considered worthy of awe based on the assumption that the choices that they make during the course of the campaign—which messages to adopt, which ads to produce, which voters to target, how to attack the opposition—are likely to be crucial to the outcome.

These choices are important, and in a close election they might indeed be decisive. But there is reason to believe that the influence of campaign activity and strategy over electoral results is much more modest than it is often assumed to be, especially in the general elections for the presidency that command the most attention and publicity. For example, we can get a fair way toward predicting the final vote distribution in any particular election simply by accounting for a few basic variables like the state of the national economy, the identity of the party in power, and whether or not the incumbent is running—all factors that lie outside the campaign itself.

The quadrennial celebration of the key strategists behind the winning candidate as unrivaled masters of the political arts usually reflects an assumption that the outcome proved them to be savvier or more ruthless than their counterparts in the losing camp. But most of the time, there are equally smart and tough people on both sides of a race. One competitor will inevitably be elected and the other defeated—it's the nature of the business—but that doesn't mean that the winners are always geniuses and the losers always incompetents.

Interestingly, the 2020 election may be the first in a while that has not generated substantial press coverage of the top professional staffers in the two major presidential campaigns. Of course, there are other big stories to cover these days. But these stories have themselves managed to illustrate how elections can be powerfully influenced by forces independent of the campaigns themselves—forces like a pandemic, or a recession, or a newly energized social movement.

The 2020 race has also demonstrated how elections with an incumbent seeking another term in office tend to become a referendum on that incumbent's perceived performance. President Trump's strategic decisions have indeed had electoral effects, but those decisions do not appear to be guided by aides within his campaign apparatus. His current organization lacks a Bannonesque svengali figure able to provide a coherent intellectual frame to his quest for re-election. And since Trump's recent behavior has coincided with, and probably contributed to, a notable slide in the polls, there aren't too many subordinates eager to take credit for his candidacy's current trajectory in conversations with reporters.

And then there's Joe Biden. Biden engineered a fairly remarkable comeback in the Democratic nomination contest and has now pulled into a national lead unmatched at this stage of the campaign by any candidate in either party since Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election. Yet neither he nor his brain trust seem to be getting much credit in the media for this record of success: the resurrection of his primary campaign is mostly attributed either to Jim Clyburn throwing him a rope in South Carolina or to the fortuitous mistakes of the SandersWarren, and Bloomberg candidacies, and his growing lead in the general election race is similarly laid at Trump's feet. (I'd guess that even many regular consumers of political media would have trouble recalling the name of Biden's campaign manager; I certainly did before writing this post.) With the pandemic limiting his ability to wage a visible campaign, Biden has received a certain respect only for having enough patience and base cunning to stay out of the way as Trump's position deteriorates.

The press isn't being particularly unfair to Biden and his aides. But it has misled in the past by overstating the importance of strategic maneuvering by campaign gurus, excessively hyping the presumed architects of electoral victory while disparaging the unsuccessful team for supposedly blundering its way to defeat. If the 2020 election provides an unusually dramatic example of the fundamental importance of external factors and the limited power of short-term tactics, it will provide us with a useful lesson in the true nature of presidential campaigns. Yes, hiring a brilliant political mind can sometimes help win the White House. But with the most important factors remaining out of the hands of the candidates and their staffs, the biggest electoral asset of all remains sheer luck. Maybe what was needed to finally convince the media of this fact was Joe Biden—whom one prominent New York Times reporter recently called a “very flawed candidate running a flawed campaign”—nevertheless becoming a heavy favorite to be the next president.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"New" States Get the Hype, But the Electoral Map Hasn't Changed Much in 2020

To a certain type of election-watcher, there are few things more exciting than witnessing a state that was once loyally partisan transform into a fiercely contested battleground. Recent public opinion surveys suggesting that Joe Biden is running a close race against Donald Trump in Texas and Georgia—two traditional Republican bastions that have not been competitive in presidential elections since the 1990s—and now leads in Arizona, which has voted Democratic for president only once (1996) in the past 70 years, have, unsurprisingly, received widespread attention from political commentators.

But the complete picture of the emerging electoral map in 2020 reveals far more continuity than change. The current era of presidential elections is distinguished by a historically unmatched degree of consistency in state-level partisan alignments, as depicted in this chart from my book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics:

Of the 37 states (plus the District of Columbia) that voted for the same party's nominees in each of the five presidential elections between 2000 and 2016, Arizona, Georgia, and Texas seem to be the only plausible candidates to break their streak in 2020—unless the next few months turn so dramatically in Donald Trump's favor that he manages to carry Minnesota or Maine. But even the potential addition of new Sun Belt territory to the familiar Midwest-centered battleground state map doesn't mean that there has been a significant partisan realignment of the South or Southwest over the past four years. What the close recent polls in these states really indicate is not that Trump has developed an unusual regional weakness, but rather that Biden now has a national lead strong enough to pull a few Republican-leaning states into the "competitive" category.

If we compare the two-party popular vote outcome in 2016 with today's two-party polling margin as estimated by The Economist's daily forecasting model for the 16 states where both parties received at least 45 percent of the vote in the last election, we see (after accounting for sampling error and variations in data quality) what looks like a fairly uniform pro-Democratic shift nationwide:

New MexicoClinton +9Biden +13Change: +4 D
VirginiaClinton +6Biden +11Change: +5 D
ColoradoClinton +5Biden +14Change: +9 D
MaineClinton +3Biden +10Change: +7 D
NevadaClinton +3Biden +7Change: +4 D
MinnesotaClinton +2Biden +9Change: +7 D
New HampshireClinton +0Biden +6Change: +6 D
MichiganTrump +0Biden +8Change: +8 D
PennsylvaniaTrump +1Biden +5Change: +6 D
WisconsinTrump +1Biden +6Change: +7 D
FloridaTrump +1Biden +4Change: +5 D
ArizonaTrump +4Biden +3Change: +7 D
North CarolinaTrump +4Biden +2Change: +6 D
GeorgiaTrump +5Trump +0Change: +5 D
OhioTrump +9Biden +1Change: +10 D
TexasTrump +9Trump +3Change: +6 D
IowaTrump +10Trump +2Change: +8 D
NATIONALClinton +2Biden +8Change: +6 D

Polling estimates are, of course, inexact, and all three of the new Sun Belt battlegrounds had already swum against the national tide by becoming "bluer" between 2012 and 2016. But the best recent evidence indicates that these states remain more Republican than the national average, and are currently competitive mostly because Biden is well ahead in the overall popular vote. Even so, Biden appears to have a consistent lead only in Arizona, and he still trails Trump in Texas.

If Biden's current advantage is changing the electoral map in some ways, it's working against change in others. After Trump won Ohio and Iowa by unusually wide margins in 2016, some analysts speculated that both states would lose battleground status in 2020, conceded to the GOP from the start of the campaign. Ohio and Iowa remain clearly Republican-leaning in 2020 compared to the nation as a whole, but Biden's overall lead allows him to keep both states in play (at least for now), and the Trump campaign is indeed spending money to defend them.

A scenario in which Biden maintains or expands his current margin would allow Democrats to consider deploying campaign resources into these states in pursuit of a decisive national victory and gains in downballot offices. But if the race starts to tighten, diverting attention to red-leaning states will be considerably less appealing, and Democratic dreams of "expanding the map" will need to wait for a future contest. Either way, the electoral college outcome in 2020 is still likely to pivot on the four states that Trump carried by narrow margins in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida. And there's nothing new at all about those particular states deciding who the next president will be.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Surge in Female Congressional Candidates Keeps Going in 2020—And Now It's Bipartisan

One of the major political events of 2018 was a sudden, historically unparalleled surge of women running for office—a development that reflected the energetic political mobilization of women within the Democratic Party after the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton two years before. The Congress that took office in January 2019 contained a record 102 female members of the House of Representatives  and 25 female senators. (Since then, the number of women has decreased by 1 in the House and increased by 1 in the Senate.) In both chambers, the partisan distribution is heavily skewed: Democratic women currently outnumber Republican women by a margin of 88 to 13 in the House and 17 to 9 in the Senate.

The congressional elections of 2020 have received much less notice than those of two years ago; apparently there are a few other big national stories to divert Americans' attention these days. But with slightly more than half of the year's House nominations having been decided by the primary voters of the two parties as of mid-June, it's worth checking in to see whether last election's explosive rise in female nominees has carried over to the current contest. As the figure below shows, the surge has not only continued among Democrats, it has spread to the Republican Party as well:

The share of female House nominees in the Democratic Party shot up from 29 percent in 2016 (itself a record at the time) to 42 percent in 2018; this year, it has increased still further to 48 percent as of this week—within reach of a numerically equal gender balance. The growth has been even sharper when incumbents, still a mostly male group, are excluded: from 27 percent in 2016 to 49.8 percent in 2018 to 58 percent (so far) in 2020. Whether or not the Democrats make history this year by nominating more total women than men for the House, they are on track to be the first party ever to nominate more non-incumbent women than non-incumbent men.

For Republicans, 2018 did not bring a sudden rise in female candidates. But 2020 very much did. So far this year, women constitute 21 percent of all Republican nominees for the House and 33 percent of all non-incumbent nominees—a dramatic increase from two years ago (when the final figures were 13 percent and 18 percent, respectively) and all previous years. The gap between the parties is still substantial, but is on track to narrow slightly from its 2018 size.

We'll need further research to know for sure, but I suspect that the dynamics driving these changes are somewhat different in each party. On the Democratic side, the Trump era has brought a sudden increase in women motivated to seek political power in response to his unexpected victory, combined with what appears to be an increasing preference among Democratic voters for female congressional nominees. In many strongly Republican districts that are not being seriously contested by the national parties, it seems that simply having a female name has often become a key ballot advantage for otherwise unknown Democratic candidates running among a field of equally unknown male primary opponents.

For Republicans, the new spike in female congressional nominees is more likely a product of initiatives by party leaders to recruit more women to run for office, in order to counteract a perceived reputation for demographic exclusivity. Republican officials have recently attempted to bring more gender diversity to the party, as reflected in the appointment over the past two years of three Republican women (Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Martha McSally of Arizona, and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia) to fill vacant seats in the U.S. Senate.

Though women are much better represented on the candidate slates of both major parties than they have been in the past, the November election is unlikely to produce a 2021–2022 Congress with a large number of new female faces. Most challengers in congressional races are perennially destined to lose, and 2020 seems likely to be a more friendly election for incumbents than 2018 was. A few seats now held by retiring male representatives are likely to elect women this fall, including Iowa-2, Illinois-15, and Texas-24, but a few others may well replace departing women with male successors, including Alabama-2, Hawaii-2, and New York-17.

And in the Senate, it's quite possible that the number of women will actually decline in 2021. McSally and Loeffler both face serious challenges by male opponents in this fall's elections (two other electorally vulnerable incumbents, Susan Collins of Maine and Joni Ernst of Iowa, would be replaced by other women if they lose in November). At least five sitting senators—Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin—are plausible choices for the vice presidential slot on the Democratic national ticket, with no guarantee that a victorious running mate would be replaced in the Senate by another woman.

The only seat now occupied by a male senator that is more likely than not to elect a woman in 2020 is Wyoming, where Republican Cynthia Lummis is a heavy favorite to succeed the retiring Mike Enzi. Elsewhere, the female candidate with the best shot of winning a seat currently held by a man seems at this stage to be Democrat Barbara Bollier of Kansas, but she remains a clear underdog whose chances of winning a normally red state probably depend on the Republicans nominating a weak opponent in the August 4 primary. So while this year's congressional elections are shaping up to be a notable milestone in female representation within both major parties, next year's Congress will not be in position to make similar history.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Trump, the Floyd Protests, and the End of Confident Conservatism

After Richard Nixon's 1968 election, many conservatives came to believe that their movement naturally represented the political views of most Americans. This conservative faith in the wisdom of the average citizen was cemented by Ronald Reagan's popularity in the 1980s, which was widely interpreted at the time (and not just by conservatives) as a decisive expression of the nation's exhaustion with both outdated New Deal economic policies and decadent '60s-era cultural practices. America's mistaken dalliance with liberalism was a passing phase that it was maturing out of, argued the Reaganites, and both the present and future belonged to the right. Reagan himself projected this sunny confidence in the nation's judgment, serenely dismissing liberal expressions of outrage in the same manner that he responded to the attacks of the hapless Jimmy Carter by half-chuckling "there you go again."

Bill Clinton's presidency temporarily shook, but did not ultimately damage, the confidence of the conservative movement. Conservatives found ways to explain away Clinton's electoral success, claiming that he only won because George H. W. Bush had betrayed conservatism by raising taxes, because Ross Perot's independent candidacies temporarily drained conservative votes away from the Republican Party, and because Clinton's slippery political style deceived the electorate about his true nature. Republican capture of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in four decades, combined with a similarly dramatic set of electoral gains at the state and local level, continued to suggest to conservatives that they represented the future of American politics, and several major milestones in the Clinton presidency, from the government shutdown of 1995–1996 to the impeachment of 1998–1999, were conflicts precipitated by conservative leaders who had assured themselves (sometimes incorrectly) that most of the public would side with them in a fight.

Despite the close margin, controversial resolution, and discrepancy between the popular and electoral votes, conservatives generally treated the 2000 election as something of a restoration after an eight-year usurpation, underlined by the fact that the new Republican president was the eldest son of the last Republican president. Especially after the declaration of the War on Terror, the presidency of George W. Bush styled itself as the authentic, patriotic voice of the vast American interior, and mocked its critics as a vocal but small group of coastal elites. Bush's top political aide Karl Rove repeatedly expressed ambitions to construct a durable Republican advantage in the manner of his political hero William McKinley, whose 1896 election marked the beginning of a 36-year stretch of Republican dominance of national politics.

With a few strategic concessions to the nation's changing demographic trends—education reform to appeal to suburban professional women, a softer tone on race and immigration to cultivate a Republican vote among Hispanics—the Bush program of "compassionate conservatism" envisioned a stable popular majority supporting a policy agenda of laissez-faire economics, religious traditionalism, and interventionist military engagements overseas. But the failures and misfortunes of Bush's second term opened the door to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In retrospect, this was a key turning point in the psychology of the conservative movement.

Obama represented a new and more serious challenge to conservatism's conception of itself as uniquely speaking on behalf of the American public. His race was an important element of this threat, but not the only one. In contrast to Clinton's "triangulation" strategies and propensity to echo conservative tributes to limited government and personal responsibility, Obama made few substantive or symbolic concessions to conservatism. His policies were farther left than his predecessor's, and he succeeded in enacting health care reform where Clinton had failed. He was from Chicago, not small-town Arkansas. And he rode into office on the support of younger voters who represented the generational future of American politics, and who seemed especially resistant to the appeals of his conservative opponents.

Conservative confidence in the nation's long-term direction became notably scarce in the Obama years, as widespread pessimism and fear replaced Reagan's cheerful assuredness. The popular backlash on the right against the "change" that Obama himself claimed to personify was stronger than it had been against Clinton, taking aim at the traditional leadership of the Republican Party as well as the Democrats. Rather than selecting yet another member of the Bush family to succeed Obama, Republican primary voters opted to nominate Donald Trump, an outsider candidate who had built his campaign around passionate contempt for Obama and the state of the nation under his watch.

But whatever expressive purpose the decision to elect him may have served, the current president is ill-equipped to usher in a new conservative age. Trump is not a friendly face with the charisma to increase conservatism's mass appeal, like Reagan was. He is not a man with a 40-year plan, like Rove was. And any hopes that his glowering demeanor and vengeful preoccupations would either intimidate liberals into silence or halt the progression of larger social changes have clearly not been realized. In part because Trump has inspired a backlash of his own, conservatives do not seem much more comfortable with the direction of America today than they were four years ago.

The waning confidence of the American right in its own popular standing has produced other manifestations as well. Its imprint can be seen in conservative opposition to measures designed to increase the ease of voting, in negative portrayals of "millennials" and college students in the conservative media, and in an increased emphasis on the unelected federal judicial branch, rather than the congressional legislative process, as an avenue for conservative policy-making. Perhaps most dramatically, it is expressed by the more frequent displays of firearms at conservative protest events—a clear suggestion that the use or threat of physical force might be necessary to compensate for losses in the court of public opinion.

The current crisis in the streets of America has roots that stretch in many different directions, but it has surely been exacerbated by the current administration's propensity for confrontation with the many perceived enemies that surround it. It's not especially important that Trump apparently moved briefly to the bunker under the White House last week in the face of protests outside the building—a subject of liberal mockery in recent days—but it's crucial that the administration's governing approach from its inception has reflected a bunker mentality. The protestors gathering daily outside the White House and in cities and towns all around the country since the George Floyd killing have come to embody the threat of cultural besiegement that many conservatives, including those in law enforcement professions, have been feeling since 2008.

Trump has started to echo Nixon's famous invocation of a supportive "silent majority." But he is the only president in the history of public opinion polling who has never had a majority of Americans on his side, even on his first day in office, and he has never shown much interest in courting skeptics rather than attacking them. Winning a second term will likely require him to eke out a narrow margin in the electoral college, very possibly without a popular-vote plurality once again. The current governing regime seeks to retain political power from behind barricades that are primarily psychological, separated in spirit more than in physical distance from a growing population of fellow Americans whom it no longer trusts to be on its side. When you see your own domestic political opponents as an irredeemably hostile force trying to destroy the country as you know it, perhaps it's only natural to fantasize about calling in the troops.