Monday, September 28, 2020

If We Must Have Debates, Let's at Least Make Them Smarter

The closest that this blog comes to a pose of assertive contrarianism is its consistently dismissive attitude toward the staging of televised debates in presidential campaigns. Debates are a well-established quadrennial tradition that are often treated as sacred rites of civic virtue; self-righteous outrage predictably ensues upon any suggestion that a candidate might or should refuse to participate. The political world is filled with people who are invested in puffing up debates, many of whom were no doubt captains of their high school debate teams. But there's a pretty strong case that their actual value to the democratic process is often zero and sometimes negative. 

There are two main problems with debates. First, they are framed in advance as valuable exercises in political deliberation and public edification even though they are actually treated as a form of entertainment and as one more arena of partisan competition. Second, the media commentators whose interpretations affect public perceptions of the outcome often decide who "won" and who "lost" on fairly silly grounds. Cracking a pre-written joke, sighing into a microphone, having too much on-camera energy or not enough—are these really the moments upon which the leadership of the nation should properly turn?

If debates are here to stay, which they are at least until a future candidate is bold enough to boycott them, they could at least be smartened up a bit. Here are three specific areas that could badly use improvement:


1. Before the debates: ignore campaign spin. 

When it comes to debates, media commentators not only admit to being influenced by campaign spin, but even judge the performance of the candidates against the prior claims of their opponents. For this reason, the Trump campaign's repeated attacks on Biden as mentally enfeebled—often accompanied by suggestions that the debates will dramatically expose his incompetence—strike some analysts as a serious strategic error that will make it easy for the media to declare Biden the winner. Since Trump has suggested that Biden can't make it through a 90-minute live event without embarrassing himself, or at least without the use of surreptitious pharmacological assistance, he has presumably set a very low bar for his opponent to clear.

Maybe Trump didn't play the spin game well. So what? There's no good reason why independent observers' judgments about debate performance should be shaped by whatever the nominees or their flacks say beforehand. (And note the recent Washington Post story quoting anonymous Democratic sources trying to lower expectations in their own way by claiming to worry about Biden losing his temper in response to Trump's provocations.) The excessive importance of prior "expectations" means that debate participants are often not compared with each other, but are judged instead against the caricatures of themselves that already exist in the minds of media analysts. Indeed, if Trump were simply to behave 30 percent less combatively than normal tomorrow night, he would earn some of the best press coverage of his entire presidency even if his performance were otherwise unmemorable.


2. During the debates: ask questions designed to illuminate important subjects for voters, not just play gotcha with candidates.

Debate moderators sometimes fall into the practice of choosing what they think of as "tough" questions: questions that try to catch a candidate in some kind of exaggeration or hypocrisy, or that effectively restate whatever attacks the opposition is making at the time. There is a place for such questions. But they seldom produce interesting responses, in part because candidates anticipate them and rehearse a deflection, and the debate can easily become stuck on a topic that doesn't ultimately have much to do with the job the participants are seeking.

Intended "gotcha" questions should be better balanced with more open-ended, less overtly antagonistic questions that invite candidates to envision the future as well as defend their past, and that focus as much as possible on the presidency's actual powers—which are more expansive in the realms of foreign policy and public administration than in the well-trod ground of legislator-in-chief—as well as its limitations. If debates are to be a kind of public job interview in which the audience actually learns something about the applicants that is relevant to their potential future responsibilities, the questions need to reflect what the job actually is. And any "fun" or "unconventional" question—"what do you do to relax?" or "can you say something nice about your opponent?"—is always an insulting waste of time, a smarmy condescension to Middle America in the guise of artificial folksiness. (Whenever regular citizens have the opportunity to address presidential candidates, they nearly always ask questions that are serious and policy-focused.)


3. After the debates: coverage should focus on what was said, not how it was said.

The history of debates is strewn with supposed candidate gaffes, but very few of those identified by media critics involve truly troubling mistakes—the misstatement of an important fact, the outright smear of an opponent, an insensitive remark directed towards a social group. From Richard Nixon's physical appearance to Mitt Romney's inelegantly-phrased description of his governorship's female staff recruitment efforts, nearly all of the best-remembered debate "blunders" over the years remain firmly at the who-really-cares level of substantive importance. Even the ability of a candidate to recover from a "bad" performance in one debate with a "good" showing a week or two later, as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all did in their re-election campaigns, merely proves how unreliable it can be to judge potential presidents based on their personal demeanor in any particular circumstance. Besides, we already know plenty about what kinds of people these candidates are. Let's focus on what they say they will do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

2020 Has Quietly Become Another "Year of the Woman"

The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for election every two years. But congressional elections tend to lead the news only every other cycle, when there isn't a concurrent presidential contest. James Madison may have believed that the "legislative authority necessarily predominates" over the executive, but most Americans don't seem to behave accordingly; a development or trend in congressional politics that would be treated like a big deal in a midterm year will always receive much less attention if it happens to coincide with the selection of the president.

In 2018, the leading story of the congressional midterms was the anti-Trump backlash that handed control of the House of Representatives to the opposition Democrats. The "resistance movement" widely credited with fueling the Democratic victory was distinctively female in its complexion—not only among voters and activists but also at the level of the candidates themselves. A record number of women sought public office in 2018, and a record number were elected to Congress.

Though it hasn't received the same degree of notice this time around, the records broken in 2018 will be broken again this year. With yesterday's Delaware primary election marking the end of the congressional nomination season, the numbers are now available to make full historical comparisons. Among Democrats, 48 percent of all House nominees in 2020 are women, exceeding the all-time high of 42 percent set in 2018. And for the first time in history, a majority (58 percent) of non-incumbent Democratic nominees are women.

An even bigger change has happened on the Republican side this year. The mobilization of women was a single-party phenomenon last election, but now it's become bipartisan. The share of female Republican House nominees grew from 13 percent to 23 percent between 2018 and 2020, and the share of women among non-incumbent nominees surged from 18 percent to 33 percent—not only easily outpacing any previous election for Republicans, but even exceeding the Democratic rate in every year before 2018.




The picture in Senate and governors' races is less dramatic, but still shows an upward trend over time in both parties. The total number of female Democratic nominees declined a bit between 2018 and 2020, but that reflected a more heavily male class of sitting senators seeking re-election this year; the share of women continued to rise slightly among non-incumbent Democrats. In the Republican Party, 2020 did not produce the same abrupt spike in Senate and governors' contests that it did in House elections, but the party still narrowly set an all-time record with women constituting 19 percent of all nominees (up from 17 percent in 2018).





Most female congressional candidates won't win in November, since most non-incumbent nominees suffer defeat regardless of gender. Even so, it's likely that there will be a modestly higher number of women in the 2021–2022 Congress than there are today, especially since Republican women are sure to increase their representation in the House from the mere 13 now serving. With the possibility of a first-ever female vice president winning office as well, 2020 could quietly turn out to be the biggest electoral "year of the woman" yet.

Monday, September 14, 2020

If Trump Has Money Problems, They Won't Matter Much

Several prominent media reports emerged over the past week or so telling a similar story: the Trump re-election campaign is in financial trouble. On September 7, the New York Times warned of a "cash crunch" due to "squandered costs" that was forcing the Trump campaign to "slash" its advertising budget. Three days later, a Washington Post story used similar language, describing a campaign "facing tough budgetary decisions down the stretch" that has Republican strategists "alarmed" as "Democrats take over the airwaves." Politico suggested that Trump was compounding this apparent disadvantage by misdirecting his funds to target the already supportive national audience of Fox News Channel, allowing a Biden advertising barrage to court swing voters in swing states without sufficient contestation.

These articles all adopt a "WARNING: Crisis in Progress" tone that runs a bit ahead of the specific facts provided. A careful reading of the evidence reveals that the Trump campaign is far from broke (in fact, Trump raised $200 million in August, a historically staggering sum). What's really happened is that Trump's anticipated financial advantage has disappeared because Trump spent a chunk of money early in the race that is naturally unavailable to him now, and because his opponent has found even greater recent fundraising success (Biden raised over $350 million in August, a historically staggering-until-you-fall-over sum).

It's true enough that Biden is currently outspending Trump on swing-state television. But these reports also suggest that Trump's newly-installed campaign manager Bill Stepien has made the strategic decision to save money for a final barrage later in the race. Perhaps this choice is somewhat born of necessity; if the Trump campaign had no realistic limits on its financial resources, it would presumably be matching Biden right now. However, that doesn't mean the strategy will fail. Trump had an overall financial disadvantage in his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton, but his campaign actually outspent hers on television ads from mid-October onward and received considerable last-minute help as well from Republican-aligned super PACs.

The articles are also peppered with examples of supposedly wasteful expenditures by the Trump campaign. But $150,000 for airplane-towed aerial banners or $100,000 for cell phone security containers, whatever their usefulness or lack thereof, are petty cash-level sums in an operation on track to raise and spend well over a billion dollars in total. These factoids must be viewed within a particular context: there has been a change in leadership within the campaign, and the current Stepien-led regime has every reason to plant unflattering tidbits in the press about the decisions made during the tenure of predecessor Brad Parscale. If Trump makes a comeback in the final weeks, Stepien and company will gladly take credit for turning around the ship; if Trump loses, they will be happy enough to suggest that Parscale left them an unsalvageable wreck.

Even if Trump does face a financial disadvantage from now until November, this is very unlikely to be an election decided by money—especially his money. Most Americans' opinions about the incumbent, whether pro or con, are so strongly held that they will be very resistant to being swayed by advertising, and ad messages must compete with news media coverage to serve as information sources for the remaining bloc of undecided voters. Though he is being outgunned on the airwaves at the moment, Trump has already spent a lot this year on ads in both the television and digital realms, and these efforts didn't seem to exert a measurable effect on the horse race. The main Republican lines of attack since Biden became the apparent Democratic nominee in March haven't significantly damaged Biden's vote share or personal favorability rating, so it's not clear that putting more ad dollars behind the same message would make much of a difference.

Campaigns running consistently behind in the polls are always subjected to press coverage portraying them as organizationally incompetent, just as the strategists behind victorious candidates are always celebrated as political geniuses. Four years ago, media story after media story chronicled the chaotic, amateur-hour nature of the sure-loser Trump campaign (in contrast to the confident, professional Clinton operation) up until late in the evening on the night of the election, when commentators suddenly discovered that the Trump crew had been smarter and savvier than the Clinton team all along. It's obvious enough that Trump's second presidential campaign, like his first, has squandered advantages and misallocated resources. But elections are rarely decided by these factors, and it's hard to make the case that any significant share of voters won't have become very familiar with Donald Trump's campaign message by the time they cast their ballots.