Tuesday, April 06, 2021

2020 Was as Geographically Polarized as 2016, But Biden Did Just a Little Better in the Right Places

The idea of Joe Biden as a depolarizing figure, someone who aimed to transcend rather than exacerbate the nation's political divisions, was both a dominant rhetorical theme of his campaign and a major strategic premise behind his nomination. In particular, Biden was supposed to be uniquely appealing to the type of white, older, modestly-educated, socially traditionalist voter who had wandered away from the Democratic Party sometime between Barack Obama's first victory and Hillary Clinton's last defeat. A candidate who won back a significant share of this electoral bloc while receiving the energized support of the groups alienated by Trumpism—cultural liberals, metropolitan professionals, young people—would be in excellent position to gain the kind of decisive national victory that many polls suggested Biden would achieve.

In the end, that didn't happen. Whatever demographic and stylistic differences distinguished Biden from Clinton or Obama failed to change enough votes to reorder the fundamental electoral constituencies of both major parties. The geographic polarization that has defined 21st century American politics remains fully intact—but a few incremental improvements in Democratic performance turned out to be just strong enough, and well-located enough, to eke out an electoral college majority.

Most states continue to be faithfully Democratic or Republican in presidential elections. By 2016, statewide popular margins had grown to differ with the national popular vote by an average of 20 percentage points, meaning that an election in which the candidates split the national vote 50-50 would produce a typical state margin that was a 60-40 landslide for one side or the other. Biden didn't succeed in healing this particular national divide, as the average state margin remained at 20 percent in 2020:

Below the state level, geographic polarization has been primarily fueled by a widening partisan gap between large metropolitan areas turning deeper blue and rural counties turning brighter red. This divide also remained virtually unchanged between 2016 and 2020. Biden very slightly outperformed Hillary Clinton in the nation's 20 largest metro areas, winning 62 percent of the two-party vote there—the best performance since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But he only improved on her 2016 showing in non-metropolitan counties by half a percentage point—33.7% to 33.2%—despite expectations that he would prove to be a much more appealing candidate among the whites without college degrees who dominate most rural electorates. Trump nearly matched his own record rural performance of four years before, winning a greater share of the non-metro vote than even Ronald Reagan had received in his 49-state landslide of 1984:

The main reason why Biden didn't do even better than he did within Top 20 metros was a pro-Trump national shift among non-white voters, especially Hispanics. His biggest single underperformance compared to Clinton in 2016 occurred in metro Miami, but he also lost ground in greater Los Angeles, San Jose/San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Orlando. This trend helped to put Florida and Ohio out of reach for the Democratic ticket, but it was otherwise concentrated in non-competitive states where the party could well afford to lose votes.

In fact, a countervailing rise in Democratic support in 2020 among the voters of metro Atlanta, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Detroit helped Biden narrowly carry four pivotal states that Clinton had lost, while improved Democratic performance in metro Washington, Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Boston gave Biden more electoral breathing room than Clinton had had in Virginia, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Hampshire—all virtually must-wins for a Democratic presidential nominee. So while the overall Democratic vote share in top 20 metro areas only increased very slightly between 2016 and 2020, it was more fortuitously distributed from the perspective of electoral college strategy.

As the second figure above reveals, the biggest aggregate movement toward the Democrats in 2020 occurred within metro areas outside the Top 20. These other 251 metro areas cast somewhat fewer collective votes (41% of the total two-party vote in 2020, compared to 45% for the Top 20 metros). But their lower levels of racial diversity meant that the ongoing pro-Democratic trend among college-educated whites was less likely to be numerically counteracted by racial minorities' movement towards Trump. 

Biden rarely exceeded Clinton's vote share by a dramatic amount in the smaller metros, but he consistently outperformed her by 1–3 percent across the nation (except for a few heavily Hispanic areas in Texas and California). His modest improvement in places like metro Pittsburgh and Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), Grand Rapids and Lansing (Michigan), and Milwaukee and Madison (Wisconsin) turned out to be critical elements of his precarious electoral college majority, and he was also able to carry the single Nebraska electoral vote from the metro Omaha-based 2nd congressional district that, under a plausible alternate scenario, might have given him exactly the number of electors needed to win the presidency.

It's possible that Trump had a unique appeal to certain small-town voters who might be more open to voting Democratic in future elections when he isn't on the ballot. But Democrats' retrospective interpretations of 2020 are more likely to focus on the apparent patterns of defection among urban minorities than the attrition of rural whites, which is a longer-term trend with fewer obvious implementable solutions. The continued decay among less-educated white citizens presents Democratic leaders with serious challenges in building a sustainable national electoral advantage, given this constituency's especially important geographic distribution. But if the culture wars have so alienated these voters that even Scranton Joe can't win them back, Democrats may conclude that, win or lose, the party's future inevitably lies in another direction.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Can Republicans Win Back Congress Next Year by Running Against "Cancel Culture"? Sure They Can

There's a popular view of the last few weeks of American politics that goes something like this: Under Joe Biden's leadership, the Democratic Party is not only easing the current national crisis by handing out $1400 checks and distributing COVID vaccines to American citizens, but has also already enacted some of the most ambitious liberal policy change since the Great Society, making Biden a potentially transformational president after just two months in office. And what are Republicans doing while all this historical achievement is going on? Ranting and raving about "cancel culture."

This account isn't necessarily wrong as a simple description of recent events, though it's really too soon to evaluate the long-term importance of a American Rescue Plan Act that has been law for less than a week. As I recently remarked to Jeff Stein of the Washington Post, the lack of a sustained conservative attack on the bill eased the political pressure on moderate Democratic members of Congress who might otherwise have worried about its $1.9 trillion cost: "the case against Democrats [right now] is being made on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, not the debt." Leading conservative media voices and prominent Republican politicians alike have rallied to the defense of these pop-culture figures and other symbols of traditional Americana supposedly in danger of permanent suppression by the censorious left; Rep. Jim Jordan argued last month that "cancel culture . . . is the number one issue for the country to address today."

But the cancel-culture preoccupation isn't necessarily a mistake for Republicans—at least if their main objective is electoral success, not substantive influence. Polls have consistently shown that Biden's COVID response efforts gain wider popular approval than any other major policy or presidential quality. Meanwhile, as Harry Enten of CNN recently pointed out, the assertion that political correctness has "gone too far" receives broader agreement from the American public than the Republican Party's positions on many other political issues. Rather than trying to convince voters that legislation containing immediate four-figure cash payments for everyone in their family is actually a bad idea, it's strategically easier to simply move the partisan battle to more favorable terrain.

Democrats are hoping that the Republican politicians who opposed the Rescue Plan will be punished at the polls next year. But history suggests that voting in favor of an unpopular bill is more likely to inspire a backlash than voting against a popular bill—especially one that passed anyway. Members of congressional majorities often hope to be rewarded by the public for enacting the policies they like, but anger tends to be a much stronger political motivator than gratitude. And the margins of control in the House and Senate are so narrow that even a mostly content electorate that was not particularly outraged by the supposed extermination of certain favorite childhood possessions could still easily hand power back to the GOP in 2022.

The Republican pivot to "cancel culture" outrage may not matter much for the party's immediate electoral fortunes, and might even be a better strategic option for a midterm message than the alternatives. But it's much more noteworthy as a marker of what GOP sees itself as standing for these days. Since Obama's second term, Republicans have increasingly retreated from offering specific alternatives to Democratic domestic policies, and have invested much more energy in emphasizing symbolic cultural differences between the left and the right. Whether or not this shift influences the outcome of any particular election, it has very significant implications for the manner in which both parties govern when it is their turn to lead the country.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Of Course Biden Is Running for Re-Election

The Washington Post ran a story on Tuesday about Joe Biden's decision to house his political operation within the Democratic National Committee instead of creating a parallel organization as Barack Obama had done. Obama never had much affection for the DNC, which was not exactly a center of support for him when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2008. But Obama's neglect of the party's institutional strength while president in favor of the personal vehicles Organizing for America and Organizing for Action ultimately neither provided major electoral payoffs nor won him appreciation among Democratic politicians and committee members. A party regular through and through, Biden has decided that his interests are best served by remaining integrated with the traditional Democratic organizational apparatus heading into the 2022 midterms, rather than siphoning staff members and donor money into a separate political structure.

The Post report mentions, almost as an aside, that while Biden will wait until after the midterms to build a formal re-election campaign and publicly declare his candidacy, his advisors are "working under the assumption that he will once again top the Democratic ticket in 2024." This might be shocking news to some; I have encountered multiple politically aware people since Biden first entered the 2020 race who presume that he would only seek to serve a single term. But it shouldn't be a surprise at all.

The idea of the self-declared single-term president has had a romantic appeal to editorial-page writers (and few others) since well before Biden became the oldest person in history elected to the job. Like many other ideas with romantic appeal, it is disconnected from political reality. Declaring oneself a lame duck from the early days of an administration is not an effective strategy for a president to build or maintain influence, both inside and outside the party. The perception that you might be there awhile is a much better way to attract talented subordinates, pursue ambitious goals, and pressure members of Congress for support, and the inability to seek re-election is one reason why modern presidents' second terms tend to be less focused and successful than their first.

The main point made by the Post article—that Biden is at heart a loyal party man—also applies to the re-election question. Unless an unforeseen governing disaster occurs, Democratic leaders will perceive that they are far better off with Biden running again, and presumably benefiting from the electoral advantage that incumbents normally hold, than with the risk of a damaging internal fight over the 2024 nomination. Even if Kamala Harris were able to quickly consolidate support within the party as Biden's heir apparent, she would still stand in the general election as both a less tested national figure and as a liberal woman of color seeking the presidency in a highly polarized era.

Leading Democrats who have their president's ear are thus very likely to encourage his intention to seek a second term—and to be terrified that a premature Biden retirement would only further increase the chances of a Trump comeback in 2024. Even if Biden were to have doubts about his ability to serve a full eight years, a successful re-election and subsequent mid-term handoff to Harris, setting her up as an incumbent in her own right before she had to face the voters, would be a much more desirable solution according to prevailing Democratic calculations. And Biden has already shown that he's the kind of president who cares a lot about what other people in his party think.

Yes, health considerations or other events may alter these plans. It's certainly possible that Joe Biden will not still be running for a second term when we get to 2024. But right now? Of course he's running. He's already started.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Biden's Early Moves Reflect the Declining Strength of the Center-Right

The predominant media storyline of the new Biden presidency so far is that it is surprisingly liberal and surprisingly partisan. A Washington community that has long viewed Biden as an instinctive ideological moderate who prides himself on his ability to work with members of the opposite party, and that interpreted his nomination as a decisive defeat for the purist left, has been forced to recalibrate its perceptions in the face of his early governing choices. Progressive observers have found much to cheer so far in Biden's policy and personnel decisions, with some even indulging the hope that his presidency might represent a historical turning point in American politics. Meanwhile, conservative critics have already begun to complain that the new chief executive is failing to live up to his own calls for political unity.

The "moderate" label was always a poor fit for Biden, used mostly as a facile shorthand to denote that his politics differed from those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. As I observed after his selection of Kamala Harris last August, Biden's actual career-long persona is "regular Democrat," with issue positions and priorities that have evolved over the decades in parallel with the mainstream of his party. The appointment of progressives to multiple administration positions—especially at the sub-cabinet and agency levels—and the ambition of Biden's major proposals in a range of policy areas can be viewed as a simple reflection of a recent leftward shift within the Democratic Party as a whole.

But there's another change that's important here. Biden and his team aren't just being pulled by internal partisan dynamics toward a strengthening left wing. They are also much less motivated than previous Democratic administrations to court the approval of the ideological center-right.

Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama appointed Republicans to their administrations and pursued bipartisan policy solutions in part to build reputations among political elites as mature statesmen capable of rising above mere partisan loyalties. Their primary audience for these decisions was an "official Washington" composed of media thought leaders, think tank staffers, executives and lobbyists, and other political actors who had become accustomed to view Republican rule of the executive branch as the natural order of things (Republicans held the presidency for all but 4 years between 1968 and 1992, and all but 12 between 1968 and 2008) and to venerate right-of-center figures like Colin Powell and Alan Greenspan as the ideal personifications of public service. Much of this official Washington applauded Clinton's and Obama's "responsibility" and "toughness" when they departed from traditional liberal doctrine to pursue deficit reduction at home or military intervention abroad, and sympathetically portrayed non-Democrats within their administrations like David Gergen, Bill Cohen, and Robert Gates as the adults in the room keeping a necessary check on liberal naïveté.

Expectations that the Biden presidency would follow a similar path had caused a certain anticipatory disaffection on the left. But Democratic veterans of the Clinton and early Obama eras see a very different Republican Party when they look across the aisle today. The last decade of American politics, marked by the Tea Party movement and ascendancy of Donald Trump, has convinced even "establishment" Democrats that making concessions outside their party doesn't provide them much benefit—for either producing major policy achievements or realizing significant political advantages. And official Washington has discarded the once-prevalent assumption that the Republican Party is a valuable source of expertise and experience upon which Democratic presidents should productively draw. After the last four years, which party has a better claim to be the adults in the room?

If Biden had defeated Trump by a landslide margin in November, it might have paradoxically tempted him to govern in a more cautious style as a way to keep a wave of new defectors from the GOP inside his coalitional tent. But the last two elections have demonstrated that the anti-Trump Republicans who populate high-status editorial pages and Beltway professional circles are not representative of a numerically populous mass constituency; their approval might make a positive impression within a limited peer group, but it simply doesn't sway many voters. As long as the Republican Party remains devoted to Trump's style of politics if not Trump himself, Democrats may calculate that moderates and conservatives who find Trumpism intolerable will have little choice but to root for Biden's success even if his record is more liberal than they'd like.

The new opportunities for influence granted to the American left by the decaying position of the center-right may turn out to be one of the most unexpected political legacies of the Trump years. Center-right elites used to see themselves as the natural leaders of a "center-right nation." But today they are increasingly abandoned by both partisan sides, facing the realization that they speak mostly for themselves.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

In the End, the Trump Presidency Was a Failure on Its Own Terms

The most surprising political development of the 21st century was that Donald Trump became president of the United States. The least surprising development was that he turned out to be bad at the job.

Evaluating presidential performance can be difficult. Some presidents' qualities only become clear long after they leave office, as previously unknown information comes to light and the revelations of history render their decisions more or less justified than they seemed at the time. Ideological predispositions inevitably color our views of political figures, who sometimes rise or fall in retrospective estimation as subsequent intellectual trends shift the grounds on which they are judged—like the renewed emphasis in recent years on the importance of civil rights that has bolstered the reputation of U. S. Grant among presidential scholars while damaging that of Woodrow Wilson. And there is no consensus, even among experts, on what the responsibilities of the president are and what standards are appropriate to determine success in office.

Regardless of these challenges, the general verdict on Trump among historians and political scientists, reporters and commentators, and most of the Washington political community (including, at least privately, many Republicans) is guaranteed to range from disappointment and mockery to outright declarations that he was the worst president in American history. And there is little reason to expect that the information yet to emerge about the internal operations of the Trump administration will improve his reputation in the future. Instead, it's far more likely that there are stories still to be told about the events of the last four years that history will find just as damning as today's public knowledge.

Trump's defenders will respond that the scholars and journalists who claim the authority to write this history are fatally corrupted by hostile bias. It's certainly true that these are collectively left-leaning professions, and that the Trump presidency treated both of these groups as political opponents from its earliest days. So what if we tried for a moment to give Trump the benefit of the doubt by attempting to evaluate his presidency as much as possible on its own terms? Did Trump succeed in achieving what he wanted to do, even if it wasn't what others wanted him to do?

One approach to answering this question involves returning to the 2016 campaign and comparing the positions of Trump the candidate to the record of Trump the president. Trump did deliver on some of his promises once in office: he cut taxes and regulations, he strengthened barriers to immigration and travel from overseas, and he appointed a large number of conservatives to the federal judiciary. But his signature proposals were never enacted, including the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, the significant renegotiation of international trade agreements, a major federal infrastructure investment, and a wall spanning the nation's southern border funded by the Mexican government.

There was also a more general set of failures that didn't concern specific policies as much as a basic approach to the job. While a candidate in 2016, Trump presented himself as an energetic deal-maker who would fight harder than his predecessors in both parties for the interests of the American people. But he turned out to be much less invested in his official responsibilities than in spending his daily "executive time" watching cable television and his weekends playing golf; he was sufficiently self-conscious about this lack of work ethic to inelegantly deny it in public ("President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings") but not to actually alter his behavior. 

Trump's pre-election suggestions that he would attract an all-star team of executive personnel to join the government similarly stood in sharp contrast to the actual staff of his administration, which was by some distance the least qualified and talented group of subordinates assembled by any modern president of either party. (And many key positions were filled by acting appointees or were simply left vacant for months and even years.)

With Trump's evident lack of interest in substantive details, his instinct for combativeness (a universally-acknowledged personal quality which many of his supporters admired), and his apparent difficulties in grasping the motivations of others, the promised knack for deal-making never materialized either. Both major legislative achievements of his presidency—the 2017 tax cut bill and the two rounds of COVID relief in 2020—were, by all accounts, developed and enacted with minimal direct involvement by the president. When Trump did insert himself in legislative negotiations in late 2018 and early 2019 by demanding that Congress approve funding for his border wall, the result was a prolonged government shutdown and subsequent retreat after Senate Republicans abandoned their support for his position.

Of course, politicians occasionally have been known to make promises on the campaign trail that they do not expect to keep if elected. Maybe it's inaccurate to treat public commitments in the midst of a tough electoral race as evidence of a president's true goals. So, based on the actions of the Trump administration once it began, what can we conclude about what it wanted to do and whether it succeeded in doing it?

The primary animating force of the Trump presidency, the juice that fueled the president and his subordinates every day, was the waging of a permanent political war against an array of perceived enemies. The Democratic Party was one such enemy—this was by far the most thoroughly partisan presidency in memory—but hardly the only one. The news media, career bureaucrats, intellectuals and educators, the entertainment industry, and any insufficiently supportive Republican were all dependable targets.

This war was unrelenting, but achieved few victories outside the bounds of the Republican Party (where Trump's influence and threats were most effective at punishing dissenters). Trump's critics spent the past four years feeling sad, angry, offended, and even fearful about the potential destruction of American democracy. But it's hard to make the case that their political or cultural power was weaker at the end of his presidency than it was at the beginning.

Trump succeeded in preventing Hillary Clinton from leading the country, but he wound up empowering Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer instead. He railed against liberal elites who predominate within social institutions like universities, media organizations, and technology companies, but his time in office only saw a continued progression of leftward cultural change in American society and a parallel departure of highly-educated voters from the Republican Party. The conservative intellectual project has not suffered as much damage in many decades as it did over the past four years; conservative thinkers and writers were internally divided into pro- and anti-Trump factions, were exposed as holding a limited ability to speak for the conservative mass public, and were deprived by Trump's behavior of a precious claim to moral superiority over the left. And the fact that the Trump administration is leaving office complaining of being "silenced" and "canceled" by a multi-platform social media ban imposed on its leader is evidence enough of its lack of success in gaining influence over the tech sector.

A final, inadvertantly-acknowledged testimony to the failure of the Trump administration was its prevailing communication style. Both the outgoing president and his succession of spokespeople stood out for two distinctive traits: a lack of commitment to factual accuracy and a perpetually grouchy demeanor. The typical public statement from this White House was a misleading claim delivered with a sarcastic sneer. Of course, no member of the administration would admit on the record that the Trump presidency was anything less than a parade of unparalleled triumphs. But it doesn't make sense to lie so much unless the truth isn't on your side, and there's no good reason to act so aggrieved all the time if you're really succeeding as much as you claim.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Two Weaknesses Exposed on Capitol Hill

The most prevalent conspiracy theory within the Republican Party, promoted for decades by many of its elected officials and opinion leaders, holds that the Democratic opposition regularly steals elections via organized plots of fraudulent balloting and ballot-counting. On Wednesday, January 6, this theory took human form and broke down the doors and windows of the U.S. Capitol in Washington as the officers of the American government fled in fear for their safety, and even their lives.

It's impossible to know for sure how many Republicans actually believe these claims of widespread Democratic voter fraud, how many do not, and how many land somewhere in the middle. But even those who are not sincere adherents can find conspiracy theories to be quite useful. For decades now, accusations and insinuations of electoral dishonesty have accompanied Republican resistance to Democratic initiatives aiming to lower the administrative burdens of voting, and have justified the imposition of voter identification requirements at polling places in a number of states. (Both parties tend to believe, accurately or not, that measures making it easier to vote work to the advantage of Democratic electoral fortunes.)

The results of the 2020 presidential contest supplied even more reasons for Republicans to promote stories of a stolen election. This claim could provide a psychologically satisfying explanation for why a president whom many conservatives admire to the point of hero worship nevertheless failed to win a second term in office. It could allow other figures in the party to demonstrate their solidarity with the president in question, who is well-known for demanding regular gestures of personal loyalty. And it could fuel a simmering anger among conservative voters at the supposed illegitimacy of the incoming president, which could helpfully stimulate high engagement and turnout in future elections.

But when a large population of citizens is told repeatedly by authorities they trust that political power is being improperly seized by a nefarious cabal, many will naturally start to think that they should do something drastic to stop it. And so whatever strategic cleverness might have inspired the repeated promotion of this and other conspiracy theories has been abruptly joined this week by what might be euphemistically called the corresponding downside risk.

The past five years have been especially valuable in revealing where power within the Republican Party does and doesn't reside. Republican members of Congress enjoy substantial internal influence in certain areas: they largely controlled the party's legislative agenda and shaped much of the policy-making during the tenure of the outgoing administration. But in the realm of rhetoric and communication, of speaking for their party and guiding its members, congressional Republicans are clearly at the mercy of a conservative media apparatus that has achieved the ability to dictate what the Republican Party should and shouldn’t publicly stand for.

If being a true conservative requires refusing to deny that the 2020 presidential election was rigged by treacherous Democrats, then Republican politicians will, regardless of their private views, be reluctant to defend the integrity of the electoral system, will support the disenfranchisement of voters from multiple states merely on the basis of improbable claims and rumors dismissed in courts of law by judicial appointees of both parties, and will pile on to demand the resignation of a fellow Republican elected official who was baselessly accused of mismanaging the administration of his state’s election once it became clear that the Democrats had narrowly won there.

The personal calculation at play here is obvious enough, and politicians of both parties can be expected to protect their own interests. But what do these acts add up to, in the end, if not the willful spreading of untruth, and the cession of massive national power to a set of voices who hardly even claim to prize or reward anything more than victory over their political adversaries? Recent events raise the question of whether the inarguable failure of security forces to defend the Capitol has been mirrored by an equally damaging weakness of responsible leadership from those who are supposed, at least some of the time, to lead. Can our form of government count on faithful protection from its stewards regardless of the partisan winds of the moment? Or are civic values, like the buildings that so often symbolize them, vulnerable to being smashed to pieces by those angry that they lost the last fight?