Sifting through the evidence from the 2022 election reveals that Democrats' better-than-expected performance didn't reflect a turnout advantage over Republicans, but instead resulted from a historically unusual success among independent voters. Although it's fashionable to view the American public as divided into two implacable partisan sides, the remaining slice of persuadable voters can easily prove decisive in a highly competitive electoral environment, as I discuss further in today's piece for Bloomberg Opinion.
Tuesday, December 27, 2022
Sunday, December 11, 2022
Georgia's Senate runoff was resolved much earlier this year than it was last time, when it wasn't held until January. But this change reflected how often the rules that govern our elections are changed and changed again as the party in charge seeks a crude strategic advantage. And in this case, it didn't even gain that advantage—the Georgia Republicans who moved up the runoff date to cut down on early voting lost on Tuesday, just as they did in the 2021 runoff. In my latest piece for Bloomberg Opinion, I pine for the day when both parties accept a stable set of rules and focus on the much nobler task of persuading and mobilizing voters.
Saturday, December 03, 2022
Voter turnout in the 2018 midterms reached 50 percent of eligible citizens, a modern record. This year, it stayed nearly as high (47 percent), indicating that the voter surge last time was more than simply a "Trump effect." I consider what the rise in turnout says about today's American politics in my latest piece for Bloomberg Opinion.
Saturday, November 26, 2022
The disappointing results of the 2022 midterms have awakened concerns among some Republicans about their party's occasional tendency to nominate weak candidates in key races. Some of these party leaders now fear that another Trump nomination in 2024 will drag down their party once again—but as I observe in Bloomberg Opinion today, Republican voters aren't nearly as accustomed as Democrats to accept that a tradeoff exists between electability and other party goals.
Sunday, November 13, 2022
The Republican Party's unexpectedly disappointing performance in the 2022 midterm elections has inspired some finger-pointing at its flawed slate of Senate nominees in key states (and the former president whose endorsement helped these candidates gain nomination). But as I argue in a new piece for Bloomberg Opinion, candidate quality was not the only reason why the GOP underperformed last week. The results are consistent with a larger party image problem that extended beyond a few unappealing candidates.
Monday, November 07, 2022
Today in Bloomberg Opinion: We Know More About Our Candidates Than We Ever Did Before—But It Matters Less
One of the main story lines of the 2022 election has been the question of whether the Republicans have squandered a favorable general climate by choosing a weak set of specific nominees. In my final pre-election piece for Bloomberg Opinion, I explain that while the proliferation of information makes it easier than ever to learn about the qualities—including the foibles—of individual candidates, the power of partisanship is so strong these days that these considerations mean much less than they once did.
Monday, October 31, 2022
With all the increasing attention that debates are getting as our politics becomes nationalized and social media-driven, their actual substantive value to citizens remains dubious. In my latest column for Bloomberg Opinion, I lament the way debates are covered in the media and conclude that we're actually much better off if elections aren't decided on the basis of candidates' debate performances.
Friday, October 21, 2022
Thursday, October 20, 2022
In today's column for Bloomberg Opinion, I investigate the Republican Party's proclaimed "divorce" from big business. Corporate America and the populist Trump-era GOP have indeed found themselves on opposite sides of the culture war. But they still have much to agree on when it comes to economic policy, so their relationship looks more like a strained marriage than a permanent split.
Tuesday, October 11, 2022
As Biden's New Drug Policy Shows, When It Comes to Legalization It's the Political Leaders Who Are Being Led
For anyone who is old enough to remember the aggressiveness of the government’s anti-drug campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, the prospect of federal marijuana decriminalization is a notable milestone. And the fact that Biden is the president overseeing this policy change seems even more remarkable. Although he was a young left-of-center adult during the 1960s, the teetotaling Biden has never exhibited any whiff of the counterculture, and his record in the Senate—especially while chairing the Judiciary Committee between 1987 and 1995—was marked by repeated support for toughening federal penalties for drug-related crimes.
Friday, September 30, 2022
Kevin McCarthy and the House Republican leadership recently released their "Commitment to America," the latest in a series of successors to Newt Gingrich's 1994 Contract with America. Today in Bloomberg Opinion, I argue that the minority parties engaging in this strategy are making two flawed assumptions: that voters will care (or even know) about these manifestos, and that they will help nationalize the election. Because today's congressional elections are already nationalized, these policy plans are mostly an exercise in redundancy.
Monday, September 26, 2022
The number of women running for Congress and governor spiked upward in 2018 among Democrats, and then rose again in 2020 within both parties as Republican leaders responded by recruiting their own slate of female candidates. It remains high in 2022, even though the original cause of this surge—the presidency of Donald Trump—no longer exists. For Bloomberg Opinion this week, I consider whether an enduring rise in the number of office-seeking women will turn out to be an important legacy of Trump's election, and identify two reasons why it may well rise even higher in 2024.
Monday, September 19, 2022
Today in Bloomberg Opinion: Why the Democrats' Policy Accomplishments Don't Necessarily Help Them Win This Year
In my newest piece for Bloomberg Opinion, I explain that Democrats should not expect to be rewarded by voters for their recent policy accomplishments this fall, as voters have historically turned against the ruling party in midterm elections regardless of—and sometimes because of—its legislative productivity. For Joe Biden, the political payoff from policy changes like the climate change bill and the student debt forgiveness plan is more likely to arrive when he asks his fellow Democrats to nominate him a second time in 2024.
Tuesday, September 06, 2022
In my latest piece for Bloomberg Opinion, I explore how the retiring Anthony Fauci—who started off as a universally admired voice in the early weeks of the COVID pandemic—became a partisan figure in American politics. The root of this evolution lies in the two parties' differing attitudes towards experts who draw on their credentials to assert authority over policymaking; Democrats are inclined to defer to "the science," while Republicans are likely to rebel against what they see as liberalism in the guise of objectivity.
Monday, August 22, 2022
I have a new piece in Bloomberg Opinion today that explains why moderate members of Congress continue to exert strong influence over federal policy—such as the recently-enacted Inflation Reduction Act, a bill shaped much more by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia than by the president or congressional leaders—even in an age of polarization when the number of moderates in office continues to dwindle.
Wednesday, August 03, 2022
1. Since the Roe v. Wade decision, the typical American's position has been "abortion should be legally permitted for some reasons but not others." This remains true even in many conservative-leaning states, like Kansas, where a majority of elected representatives are pro-life.
2. Neither party fully represents this view, but the Dobbs decision has abruptly shifted the terms of political debate from whether abortions should be made modestly harder to get (a somewhat popular position) to whether they should be banned almost entirely (much less popular). This puts Republicans in a riskier position than they were in before Dobbs.
3. Republicans could partially mitigate this risk by moderating their abortion positions. But the trend within the party has instead moved toward greater ideological purity. Not only are there fewer pro-choice Republican candidates than there used to be, but a growing number of pro-life Republicans now oppose carving out exceptions to legal prohibition (e.g. to protect the woman's health) that were once considered standard doctrine within the party.
4. The abortion issue will almost certainly work to the net advantage of Democratic candidates this fall compared to an alternative timeline in which the Dobbs ruling did not occur. Dobbs forces Republicans to defend a less popular position than before, and it also provides an extra motivator for Democrats to turn out in a midterm election when they otherwise might have felt some ambivalence. How much of an advantage, however, is unclear; odds are still against it having a transformative effect on the overall outcome.
5. The overturning of Roe also makes abortion a much bigger issue in state and local politics than it ever was before. We will now start to find out what the effects of this change will be. They, too, are difficult to predict with confidence.
6. By increasing the electoral salience of abortion, an issue on which higher levels of education are associated with more liberal views, Dobbs will probably work to further increase the growing "diploma divide" separating Dem-trending college graduates from GOP-trending non-college whites. The best-educated county in Kansas is Johnson County (suburban Kansas City), where 56 percent of adults hold at least a bachelor's degree. Johnson County voted for George W. Bush in 2004 by 23 points, for John McCain in 2008 by 9 points, and for Mitt Romney in 2012 by 17 points, but was carried by Joe Biden in 2020 with an 8-point margin over Donald Trump. It voted against the pro-life referendum on Tuesday by a margin of 68 percent to 32 percent.
7. After the unusual national focus on politics during the Trump years, it would be reasonable to expect a bit of a collective withdrawal—a "vibe shift," perhaps—as Americans adjusted to the less aggressively newsworthy Biden presidency by spending more of their time and attention on other matters. But the remarkably high turnout rate for the Kansas referendum (held at a normally sleepy time of year for politics) raises the possibility that mass political engagement will remain at elevated levels despite Trump's departure from office. It's another thing to keep an eye on as we head into November.
Tuesday, June 28, 2022
In the Atlantic on Monday, David Frum argued that the rise and fall of the Prohibition movement provides a useful historical parallel to the likely trajectory of abortion politics in the United States a century later. Prohibition sentiment grew steadily for decades after the Civil War, culminating in the nationwide banning of alcohol sales in 1919 via constitutional amendment and congressional legislation. Once imposed, however, the policy proved sufficiently unpopular that Prohibition was not only repealed within 14 years via a second constitutional amendment, but the entire national debate over the legality of alcohol was also permanently resolved. According to Frum, last week's Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health could well play an analogous role to the enactment of the Volstead Act: an apparent breakthrough victory for restrictionists that will turn out to presage a more enduring retreat.
This seems unlikely. Abortion and alcohol are sufficiently different—as are the 1920s and 2020s, for that matter—that the comparison feels imperfect in many respects. Yet Frum makes a perceptive observation that is crucial for anticipating how much of a backlash the banning of abortion is likely to provoke, even if the end result is not the fading conflict and stable compromise he envisions. As the piece explains, a powerful source of mobilized opposition to Prohibition came not merely from the immigrants and laborers whose reputation for intemperance (and resulting social disorder) had been the principal justification for its initial imposition, but also from influential middle-class metropolitans, accustomed to living mostly as they pleased, who became annoyed by the newfound restrictions on their own autonomy once the policy swung into place.
Now that a legal ban on abortion is moving abruptly from hypothetical objective to practical reality in much of Red America, the question of how it will be implemented becomes newly salient. The younger and lower-income women who are the primary population of abortion seekers, but who are not especially politically mobilized, will inevitably be the most directly affected by the Dobbs decision. But the stricter the enforcement regime, the more its effects will climb up the ladder of age and social status to reach citizens with greater political power and firmer standing expectations of deference from the world around them.
Will married thirty-something women of the bourgeoisie be left with permanent physical damage as a result of medical complications that could have been avoided with access to abortion procedures? Will their miscarriages be subjected to criminal investigation? Will they be denied fertility treatments, such as in-vitro fertilization, that involve the destruction of embryos? Will they be sent to prison for procuring illicit mifepristone pills, or face lawsuits for driving their daughters to clinics across state lines? The more the answer to these questions is yes, the more that dissatisfaction is likely to build across these women's well-connected social networks and provide fodder for news media stories and campaign commercials that portray them as victims of injustice.
Frum expects red-state officials to implement uniformly aggressive enforcement measures, which leaves him relatively confident in predicting a powerful backlash that will steadily undermine the strength of the pro-life movement. But our legal system gives substantial discretion to individual officials in charging and sentencing defendants. It's quite possible that abortion prohibitions on the books will be most strictly enforced among populations with the least political power. When combined with the fact that (unlike the Prohibition case) the regions of the country where opposition to restriction is the highest are, at least for now, free from being directly subjected to the same legal constraints, such selective implementation might keep popular opposition from becoming sufficiently strong to disrupt the close balance of electoral power between the two sides that has already endured for the past 30 years.
Moreover, many of the authorities now in position to enforce the new restrictions are not themselves conservatives. The local district attorneys and judges elected in pro-choice communities, such as most large metropolitan centers, will face strong personal incentives to use their discretion to minimally enforce the law, especially against politically sympathetic subgroups. Over time, red-state legislatures may respond to this shirking by transferring enforcement responsibilities from local to state-level officials elected by majority-Republican constituencies. But the questions of who will get punished how for what are, at this stage, unresolved and unclear, with a palpable tension arising between the substance and the politics of the abortion issue: strict enforcement of the bans would work to the electoral advantage of the pro-choice movement while lax enforcement would be relatively favorable to the political interests of the pro-life cause.
Until we have a better sense of how the post-Dobbs world will actually operate in practice, forecasting the larger consequences of the decision remains very difficult. But history can be a reliable guide in one respect. The amount of political risk incurred by proponents of a new policy often reflects how much the highly efficacious members of the American upper middle class view the change as disrupting the lifestyle of people like themselves.
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
I recently spoke with Graham Vyse of The Signal about the state of Joe Biden's presidency in the spring of its second year. We covered Biden's depressed approval ratings, the political implications of the continued COVID-related economic disruptions, what makes Biden different from Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and why his presidency so far has disappointed some of the people who voted for him in 2020. You can read a summary of our conversation here.
Thursday, April 14, 2022
Tuesday, March 01, 2022
In the early weeks of Joe Biden's second year in the presidency, the nation he governs is by some important measures moving in the right direction. Job, wage, and economic growth are all positive; the prevalence and deadliness of COVID-19 is (at least for now) fading rapidly; and there are no ongoing domestic crises or major scandals. But the national mood has become increasingly sour over the past year, a pessimism reflected in Biden's declining job approval ratings and an emerging Republican advantage in midterm election polls.
Biden's State of the Union address contained a familiar sequence of policy proposals and details—the "laundry list" approach to speechmaking that is especially beloved of leaders in the Democratic Party, where many different constituencies all demand recognition. (And it won't be hard to find complaints that he didn't say enough about this or that pet liberal priority, as if these speeches are capable of exerting transformative effects on the policy agenda of the American public.) Biden's own communication instincts were reflected in his emphasis on economic issues over cultural matters; his aversion to overly abstract or metaphorical oratory; and his regular claims to stand for bipartisanship, pragmatism, and common sense.
Biden's State of the Union address did not "make news" in the sense of revealing a major new initiative or governing approach; even the planted media hints from earlier in the day that he would be signaling a redoubled focus on deficit reduction or inflation-taming seemed to oversell the novelty of the speech. What the address seemed to represent, most of all, was something like a national halftime pep talk. "I want you to know that we are going to be okay," Biden said while discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though this sentiment seemed to apply to his message on the economy, COVID, and domestic policy as well. Rather than invoke the constitutional purpose of the annual address near the beginning of his remarks, as most presidents do, Biden saved his "report . . . that the State of the Union is strong because you, the American people, are strong" for his conclusion of his speech, adding, "we are stronger today than we were a year ago and we will be stronger a year from now than we are today."
While the White House would be happy to convince anyone of this view, there's little doubt that a particularly important audience for Biden's words are the members of his own party, who are less enthusiastic about the Biden presidency than they once were and whose energetic mobilization will be necessary to avoid a national Republican sweep in the fall midterm elections. Biden cannot count on the personal devotion or symbolic importance that his immediate predecessor enjoyed. His voters will not reward him for merely picking a fight on camera with a reporter or mocking an opponent at a rally; they expect much more tangible returns on their support.
And so even the opening language in tonight's speech that detailed the Biden administration's efforts to assist Ukraine and punish Russia, for all its appeal to national and political unity, had a clear second meaning that extended to later passages on infrastructure and COVID. You can be proud of your president, they said; all things considered, he's doing okay. So cheer up a little, America—and cheer up a lot, Democrats.
Thursday, January 13, 2022
News broke on Thursday that the Republican National Committee was threatening to require its future presidential nominees to pledge to boycott general election debates organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has produced the debates every four years since it was formed by representatives of both major parties prior to the 1988 election. This threat, conveyed in a letter to the debate commission from RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, is being made amidst a set of demands for changes to the commission's membership and policies (the complete letter is available here). Republican dissatisfaction with the debate organizers has been apparent since at least 2016, and is in some ways a manifestation of the Trump-era party's larger suspicion of political institutions that are not under its direct control.
It's possible that this means there will be no fall debates in 2024 for the first time since the 1972 election. But we're still far from that point—despite some headlines suggesting otherwise—for a number of reasons.
First, the RNC is making demands that, in principle, the debate commission could find a way to satisfy, including an earlier start to the debate schedule, term limits on commission members, and public neutrality of commission members toward the candidates. The commission will be understandably reluctant to look like it's acquiescing to threats from one of the parties; on the other hand, in the end it would rather hold debates than not hold them. Nothing in McDaniel's letter looks like an ultimatum that would be impossible for the commission to address in some form.
Second, the parties lack control over the presidential nominees once they have been formally selected at the national conventions. Party organizations can require all kinds of signed pledges or commitments from candidates, but they lose the ability to enforce them once the nomination is granted. (If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination in 2024, and then decides he wants to attend the fall debates, would he let a previous pledge to the RNC stop him?) Responding to McDaniel, debate commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf—himself a former RNC chair—noted that the commission communicates and negotiates directly with the campaigns themselves, not the national parties: "we don't deal with the political parties [and] never have . . . we work only with those candidates for president and vice president who meet the criteria" for participation.
Finally, winning the presidency is the primary purpose of the national party committees, and has been since these committees were formed in the 1800s. Once the national ticket is selected, parties pursue this goal by becoming the loyal agents of their candidates. If participating in a debate boosts the campaign's chance of victory—perhaps the nominee is running behind in the polls and needs an opportunity to shake up the race—it would be entirely out of character, as well as an act of political malpractice, for the party to attempt to deny the candidate such a strategic option or to publicly criticize him or her for taking it.
This post is not intended to be an expression of reassurance. Honest Graft is a long-standing source of skepticism questioning the value of televised debates, swimming against an endless tide of debate-hyping voices in the news media who insist on treating as sacred civic rituals a series of events that have seldom proven edifying or substantively valuable in practice. If no debates occur in 2024 because the RNC, the debate commission, and the Republican nominee all choose inflexibility over compromise, American politics will not suffer. But—for better, or maybe for worse—we're still a long way from that point right now.