Thursday, July 30, 2020

An Elegy for Old-Fashioned Political Campaigns in the COVID Age

The traditional campaign trail has become one of the political casualties of the COVID-19 epidemic. Joe Biden ceased holding large public events after he became the de facto Democratic nominee the week after Super Tuesday, just as the virus began its nationwide spread, and the Trump campaign has retreated to a similar policy after its comeback rally in Tulsa last month proved to be an over-hyped and under-attended disappointment. Even the president's most dedicated supporters turned out to be less enthusiastic about in-person electioneering in the midst of an uncontrolled national outbreak of disease.

It's become obvious this year how much of the standard press coverage of presidential campaigns is structured around the idea of a daily "top story" generated by the assignment of reporters and camera crews to follow the candidates around the country, ready to leap on anything that appears novel or unscripted amidst the otherwise repetitive cycle of stump speeches, rope lines, factory visits, and diner drop-ins. Most personal accounts of presidential elections written by candidates or journalists are blurry, weary travelogues that grudgingly acknowledge the democratic virtue of in-person politicking before returning to complaints about endless drudgery, exhaustion, and logistical snags.

But take away all that hopscotching from one battleground state to the next, and it's easy to wonder whether there really is a campaign at all. Joe Biden is continuing to hold virtual events and deliver policy speeches, but they simply don't seem as important—and certainly don't receive as much coverage—without big, cheering crowds and a chartered jet to schlep around the entourage. And Donald Trump's inability to hold his signature raucous rallies has helped to erase the line between presidential campaigning and presidential governing, as his COVID briefings and other White House events have come to serve as substitutes. Even if the virtual programs for the national conventions end up being snazzy productions, they will likely receive less attention than usual this year merely because they won't seem as momentous to the press or public as the in-person events of years past.

Might the lack of a traditional campaign trail affect the outcome of the election? Republicans are starting to worry that the result in November will wind up being a simple popular referendum on an increasingly unpopular admininistration—and not just in the presidential vote, but in congressional and down-ballot races as well. The Washington Post recently reported that many electorally vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents are challenging their opponents to an extensive series of debates with the hope that less-tested candidates will have a greater chance of screwing up in public, since the reduction of normal campaign events has also curtailed the usual practice of shadowing the opposing candidate with a "tracker" armed with a video camera to capture footage of any mistake. Meanwhile, Democrats have become concerned that their efforts to register new voters and mobilize sporadic participants will suffer from the relative lack of traditional grassroots activity this year.

Of course, the election was likely to serve as a referendum on Trump even before the onset of COVID, and the primary campaign arsenal of congressional candidates—paid advertising—remains unaffected by the current crisis. Interested would-be voters who have postponed registration so far may start to register in greater numbers as the election starts to approach, and the atmosphere of national crisis could also boost participation independent of organized get-out-the-vote initiatives. So the reduction of in-person campaigning this year may well have little effect on the outcome of the 2020 elections.

But the lack of so many familiar trappings of American political culture, from hand-shaking and small talk at midwestern state fairs and ice cream shops to the quadrennial spectacles of the national conventions, is still something worth mourning in our moment of disruption and isolation. Sure, a lot of this activity was formally obsolete and (for candidates, staff, and journalists) sometimes annoyingly inconvenient. But why should political campaigns necessarily be conducted for the maximum comfort or entertainment of their professional participants? Like so many other social rituals, these practices have taken on a meaning of their own as symbols of participatory democracy, and their absence—hopefully a temporary one—should rightfully be lamented as a small part of all that has been lost in this very sad year.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The South Is Still Very Republican—But Southern Democrats Aren't "Southern Democrats" Anymore

In an era of historically stable electoral maps, any hint of novelty is likely to attract a much greater degree of attention than its true importance would warrant. And so recent signs of an electoral trend favoring Democratic candidates in certain corners of the South have been repeatedly touted as earth-shaking developments; Friday's Wall Street Journal even refers to a potential "realignment" in the region. If the news media's prototypical voter of interest after the 2016 election was the (pro-Trump) working-class white resident of a small midwestern town, in 2020 the new objects of fascination are the (anti-Trump) well-educated professionals and voters of color populating the suburbs of large southern cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Houston.

But the South as a whole is still very Republican—in fact, it remains the main source of popular support for the national Republican Party. Among the 14 southern states (defined here as the 11 members of the former Confederacy plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma), Democrats have built an overall advantage in just one (Virginia), and in only Florida and North Carolina are the two parties closely matched at the state level. Across the rest of the region, Republicans control all 22 state legislative chambers, 9 of 11 governorships (having lost only Kentucky and Louisiana by narrow margins in off-year elections to replace unpopular Republican incumbents), 20 of 22 U.S. Senate seats (all but those held by Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, the last an accidental special election winner who is unlikely to retain his seat this fall), nearly every other statewide office, and 74 of 101 U.S. House seats.

The Democratic Party hit a historic low point in the South during the 2014–2016 period and has made a bit of a comeback since then, as it has elsewhere in the country. But this partisan rebound has so far been mostly restricted to a few major metropolitan areas, flipping some congressional and state legislative seats to Democratic challengers without yet dismantling the power of a formerly dominant state Republican Party. Yes, Beto O'Rourke in Texas and Stacey Abrams in Georgia represented tantalizing near-miss candidacies for Democrats in 2018, though both also benefited from flawed opponents and unusually favorable national partisan conditions—the same electoral assets that have so far kept Joe Biden within reach of carrying both states this year. But if national polls start to tighten before November, the Biden campaign will probably retreat to defend pivotal states elsewhere, abandoning the ambitious but unnecessary goal of making additional inroads in the South.

In general, the change so far in the southern Democratic Party's electoral strength has received too much attention and the change in its internal complexion has received too little. Old-style southern Democrats—the kind with rural constituencies, good-ol'-boy personas, and philosophical discomfort with the northern wing of the party on issues from abortion and gun control to environmental regulation and energy policy—are nearly extinct in elective office; Manchin, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, and one or two House members are just about the last of this breed above the local level. The newer generations of southern Democratic politicians are much more likely to be drawl-less metropolitans, often first- or second-generation transplants from outside the region. Many of them are members of racial minority groups, even in majority-white constituencies. And they are mostly not ideological misfits within the national Democratic Party, instead sitting squarely inside the prevailing Obama-Biden pragmatic liberal mainstream on economic and social issues alike.

When Democrats gained a majority in both houses of the Virginia legislature last November, achieving unified control of state government for the first time in decades, they immediately demonstrated how much the state party had evolved since the days when it was led by conservative-leaning figures like Harry Byrd and Howard "Judge" Smith. The burst of legislative activity that ensued not only raised the state minimum wage and imposed regulations on energy producers; it also loosened restrictions on abortion, banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, closed the "gun show loophole" by requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, decriminalized marijuana possession, and allowed local governments to remove Confederate monuments. This is the contemporary policy agenda of regular national Democrats, making few concessions to the distinctive cultural commitments of traditional southern politics, and any future Democratic majority in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, or Georgia is more likely to follow Virginia's lead than to attempt to revive the old style of governing.

Even if they benefit from another "blue wave" this year, Democrats are still a long way away from true competitiveness in most of the South. But the evolution of its main sources of electoral support in the region is important for the behavior of the party at the national level. Democrats elected from southern congressional seats are less likely to be as serious an impediment to the legislative agenda of the next Democratic president as they were to that of Obama or Bill Clinton, in part because the constituencies that they represent are less self-consciously "southern," less alienated from national left-of-center politics, and moving toward, rather than away from, the Democratic Party over time. Republicans are still very much the party of the South, but Democrats are hoping to eventually become the party of the New South.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Were Democratic Voters Right About Biden's Electability?

The idea that there is often a difference between the candidate you love the most and the candidate who has the best chance to win is a long-standing fixture of nomination politics, especially in the Democratic Party. But the assumption that "electability" is a quality shared by some potential nominees more than others, and even that it is a valid criterion of candidate selection, was disputed more than usual in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Though it requires diving back into what now seems like a long-ago pre-COVID political world, it's worth revisiting this debate from the perspective of the summer campaign and the current state of the general election race.

Electability was a fraught subject in the 2020 Democratic nomination contest partially because of the perception of a significant ideological divide within the party, made more salient by the viable candidacy of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders. Sanders's lack of defensiveness about his philosophical commitments made him an admirable figure in the eyes of his supporters, but also provoked considerable opposition to his prospective nomination among other Democrats—including most of the party's elected officials and a large proportion of its activists and organizational leadership.

Layered on top of this familiar debate over whether a tradeoff exists between electability and ideological purity was another set of concerns about candidates' social identities. Many Democrats had deduced from the racist backlash after Barack Obama's 2008 election and the unexpected defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 that non-white and (especially) female presidential candidates are likely to lose votes due to the persistence of popular prejudices. Even though they supported the general goal of increasing the demographic diversity of the nation's officeholding class, a number of Democratic primary voters proceeded to draw the natural conclusion that nominating a white male presidential candidate for the first time since 2004 would be the safest path to ejecting the hated Trump from office.

But the prevalence of this view dismayed some feminist commentators, who continued to ascribe Trump's political rise to the prevalence of misogyny in the American public but who objected when this argument was then cited as justification for supporting a male nominee to oppose him. In the young progressive circles that are disproportionately well-represented in the online world, it was common either to reject the electability logic altogether or to claim that it actually favored candidates on the left. The science reporter at a well-known "explainer" website even argued that because differences in the relative potential strength of prospective nominees cannot be determined precisely in advance, the entire concept was dubious even in the abstract: "it's subjective, not objective . . . electability ain't no science." (Normally, the scientific mode of inquiry tends to make a stronger distinction between the difficulty of measuring a phenomenon and the existence or absence of the phenomenon itself.)

Despite these assertions, a coalition of the Democratic Party's most pragmatic constituencies—including African-Americans, southerners, upscale suburbanites, and senior citizens—ultimately rallied behind Joe Biden's self-presentation as the safest choice to send into battle against Trump. Now that we're about midway between the point in March at which Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee and the date of the November election, it's time to re-evaluate the electability debate in light of how the campaign has proceeded so far.

From one perspective, the electability argument for Biden has been completely vindicated. Biden has opened up a bigger lead over Trump in the national popular vote than any candidate has enjoyed at this stage since Bill Clinton coasted to re-election in 1996, and he is so well-positioned in the electoral college that the battleground map has expanded into the traditional red territory of Arizona, Georgia, and even Texas. The Trump campaign has proven unable as of yet to land a damaging punch on Biden, and has even struggled to find a promising line of attack.

Biden hasn't been as invisible a candidate as some critics claim, but his campaign activities during the pandemic have not generated much sustained attention. Because journalists do not find the very familiar Biden to be a particularly fruitful source of interesting stories, the national media has been focusing instead almost entirely on Trump, and Trump's spiraling political problems, since the Democratic nomination wrapped up after Super Tuesday. The relative novelty of nearly every other major potential nominee—Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg—would have attracted more coverage from the media and pulled the spotlight away from Trump much more frequently.

On the other hand, Biden's current success surely reflects the sinking fortunes of Trump's presidency more than any particular attribute or skill of his own. Even more than most, this election promises to serve as a referendum on the performance of the incumbent; perhaps any plausible Democratic nominee would have opened up a steady lead after the events of the past few months. As Trump's approval ratings continue to slide, supporters of Democratic candidates who were deemed less electable in the primaries might justifiably feel in retrospect that 2020 may well turn out to be a missed opportunity. Perhaps the party could have taken the additional risk associated with a non-white-male or more left-wing nominee while still retaining a good chance of victory.

Because we lack access to the parallel universes in which other nominees were chosen, it's impossible to completely settle the electability debate. However, enough evidence now exists to shed light on two claims made by some advocates of non-Biden candidates in the 2020 Democratic primaries. One is that there are so few remaining swing voters in our current age of rampant polarization that mobilization of the party base is more productive than trying to achieve a broader appeal, and the other is that a Biden nomination would not excite enough voters on the left to stimulate this necessary mobilization.

Both of these claims have already been contradicted by the polls. Biden wouldn't have pulled into the strong lead he now holds if he weren't drawing significant support from previous Republican voters. (According to recent surveys by the New York Times, 14 percent of battleground state residents who supported Trump in 2016 are not supporting him in 2020.) After years of media stories about Trump’s skill in stoking the passionate devotion of his own party, the last few months have forced a widespread journalistic rediscovery of the importance of swing voters and the danger of Trump's declining popularity among this still-pivotal bloc. And while Biden himself doesn't inspire as much personal enthusiasm among Democrats as Trump does among many Republicans, overall levels of interest in the election are equal across party lines: Democratic voters are as motivated to vote against the president as Republicans are to vote for him.

There are still four months to go in the campaign, which is still plenty of time for the prevailing dynamic to change. Republicans have become concerned that Biden's status as a elderly white man who isn't a socialist means that the familiar playbook of accusing Democrats of supporting left-wing extremism or revolutionary social change won't work as well against him as it would have against other potential nominees. But Biden's to-be-announced running mate will be a woman, probably a woman of color, and quite possibly a woman of color with a more liberal record than his. It's likely that she will wind up serving as the target of these attacks, with Biden himself portrayed by the Trump campaign as too hapless and mentally impaired to prevent her from imposing her "radical" agenda on the nation if elected. Just because Biden won the Democratic nomination by promising to transcend divisions of race, gender, and ideology doesn't mean that the fall campaign won't once again be dominated by these highly-charged subjects.