Monday, July 22, 2019

Common Sense Democrats: A Modest Proposal

Looking forward to 2020, Democrats have a lot of very important questions that can reasonably be debated, from the specific candidate to nominate to which issues to emphasize to the best campaign tactics. But there is a need for political common sense to undergird these debates. If polling, trend data, campaign history and/or electoral arithmetic make clear that certain approaches are minimum requirements for success, they should be front-loaded into the discussion. That way discussion can focus on what is truly important instead of endlessly relitigating questions that are essentially settled.
In other words, start with common sense and then build from there. There will still be plenty of room for debates between left and right in the party, but matters of common sense should be neither left nor right. They are simply what is and what anyone's strategy, whatever their political leanings, must take into account.
Let's call practitioners of this approach "Common Sense Democrats". Here are 7 propositions Common Sense Democrats should agree on.
1. Of course, Democrats need to reach persuadable white working class voters. There is abundant evidence that such voters exist, that they were particularly important in the 2018 elections, that such voters have serious reservations about Trump and that they are central to a winning electoral coalition in Rustbelt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Shifts among such voters do not have to be large to be effective.
2. Of course, Democrats need to target the Rustbelt. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were the closest states in 2016, gave the Democrats big bounceback victories in 2018 and, of states Clinton did not win in 2016 currently give Trump the lowest approval ratings.
3. Of course, Democrats need to promote as high turnout as possible among supportive constituencies like nonwhites and younger voters. But evidence indicates that high turnout is not a panacea and cannot be substituted for persuasion efforts.
4. Of course, Democrats need to compete strongly in southern and southwestern swing states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Recent election results, trend data and Trump approval ratings all indicate that these states are accessible to Democrats though less so than the key Rustbelt states. As such, they form a necessary complement to Rustbelt efforts but not a substitute.
5. Of course, Democrats need to run on more than denouncing Trump and Trump's racism. One lesson of the 2016 campaign is that it is not enough to "call out' Trump for having detestable views. That did not work then and it is not likely to work now. Democrats' 2018 successes were based on far more than that, effectively employing issue contrasts that disadvantaged the GOP. Trump will be happy to have a unending conversation about "the squad" and those who denounce his denunciations. Don't let him.
6. Of course, Democrats should not run against Trump with positions that are unambiguously unpopular. These include, but are not limited to, abolishing ICE, reparations, abolishing private health insurance and decriminalizing the border. Whatever merits such ideas may have as policy--and these are generally debatable--there is strong evidence that they are quite unpopular with most voters and therefore will operate as a drag on the Democratic nominee.
7. Of course, Democrats should focus on what will maximize their probability of beating Trump. By this I mean there are plenty of strategies that have some chance of beating Trump--if such and such happens, if such and such goes right. You can always tell a story. But the important thing is: what maximizes your chance of victory, given what we know about political trends and the current state of public opinion. In this election, we can afford nothing less.
Common Sense Democrats. Go forth and multiply.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

How the Electoral Vote and Popular Vote Could Diverge Once Again or The Inescapable Centrality of the Rustbelt

I don't think people pay enough attention to how possible it is that the 2016 divergence could occur again in 2020. The States of Change report from last year (Demographic Shifts and the Future of the Trump Coalition) pointed this out in some detail. Nate Cohn expands on this idea in a lengthy, data-rich article in the Times. Perhaps most intriguingly, he finds that this unpleasant scenario for the Democrats might actually be more likely in a high turnout election, typically viewed as a big thumb on the scales for the Democrats.
Here's Cohn's case:
"President Trump’s approval ratings are under water in national polls. His position for re-election, on the other hand, might not be quite so bleak.
His advantage in the Electoral College, relative to the national popular vote, may be even larger than it was in 2016, according to an Upshot analysis of election results and polling data....
For now, the mostly white working-class Rust Belt states, decisive in the 2016 election, remain at the center of the electoral map, based on our estimates. The Democrats have few obviously promising alternative paths to win without these battleground states. The president’s approval ratings remain higher in the Sun Belt battlegrounds than in the Rust Belt, despite Democratic hopes of a breakthrough....
Alone, the president’s relative advantage in the Electoral College does not necessarily make him a favorite to win. His approval rating is well beneath 50 percent in states worth more than 270 electoral votes, including in the Northern battleground states that decided the 2016 election.....
But Mr. Trump’s approval rating has been stable even after seemingly big missteps. And if it improves by a modest amount — not unusual for incumbents with a strong economy — he could have a distinct chance to win re-election while losing the popular vote by more than he did in 2016, when he lost it by 2.1 percentage points.
The president’s relative advantage in the Electoral College could grow even further in a high-turnout election, which could pad Democratic margins nationwide while doing little to help them in the Northern battleground states.
It is even possible that Mr. Trump could win while losing the national vote by as much as five percentage points."
Five points! Yup, it could happen.
But what about higher turnout you say. Wouldn't that solve the problem? Maybe....but then again, maybe not. Here's the deal:
"Many assume that the huge turnout expected in 2020 will benefit Democrats, but it’s not so straightforward. It could conceivably work to the advantage of either party, and either way, higher turnout could widen the gap between the Electoral College and the popular vote.
That’s because the major Democratic opportunity — to mobilize nonwhite and young voters on the periphery of politics — would disproportionately help Democrats in diverse, often noncompetitive states.
The major Republican opportunity — to mobilize less educated white voters, particularly those who voted in 2016 but sat out 2018 — would disproportionately help them in white, working-class areas overrepresented in the Northern battleground states...
In recent months, analysts have speculated about a 70 percent turnout among eligible voters, up from 60 percent in 2016.
In this kind of high-turnout presidential election, by our estimates, the tipping-point state would drift to the right as people who voted in 2016 but not in 2018 return to the electorate and nudge states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin toward the president. At the same time, the Sun Belt would drift left. Arizona could overtake Wisconsin as the tipping-point state. But even in this hypothetical high-turnout election, the president’s approval rating in Arizona would be higher than it was in 2018 in Wisconsin. It becomes harder for the Democrats to win the presidency....
Democrats could nominate a candidate who tries to win the presidency by mobilizing a new, diverse coalition with relative strength in Sun Belt states, while making little or no effort to secure the support of the white working-class voters with reservations about the president.
The Democrats could certainly win in the Sun Belt states, even in Texas. Perhaps this kind of Democrat could generate such a favorable turnout that it helps the party even in relatively white states.
But it’s also a strategy that would tend to increase the risk of a wide gap between the Electoral College and the national vote. It’s also hard to see how it would be the easier way forward for Democrats, at least as long as the president’s approval rating in the Rust Belt remains so much lower than in the Sun Belt states."
There's a lot more in the article, including detailed state by state approval ratings and a very interesting discussion of Trump's standing in Wisconsin overall and in the Milwaukee metro area in particular.eas
But would you like a very short summary of what all these data are saying? Here it is: fight like hell for the Rustbelt--especially Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin--or risk a second term for President Trump even as the Democratic candidate easily carries the popular vote.
About this website
Re-election looks plausible even with a bigger loss in the national popular vote.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

It's the Salience, Stupid!

I thought this was a very interesting essay from Sheri Berman on the Social Europe site. While her essay is focused on Europe I think there are some very clear lessons here for the left in the United States.
"Rather than rising numbers of immigrants or increasingly negative attitudes towards them, what seems to contribute most to populism’s success is the centrality of immigration to political competition. During much of the postwar period, political competition in Europe pivoted primarily around economic issues, and so voters who had conservative social views (for example, many members of the working class) didn’t vote on the basis of them. Over recent decades, however, political competition has increasingly focused on social issues such as immigration and national identity, leading voters to be more likely to vote on that basis.
When concerns about immigration are at the forefront of debate—in political-science terms, when immigration’s salience is high—the populist right benefits. This is because in most European countries right-populist parties now ‘own’ this issue: they are most associated with it and their voters are united in their views about it (whereas the left’s voting constituency is divided between social conservatives and social progressives). That populists benefit when the salience of social issues such as immigration is high explains why they spend so much time trying to keep such issues at the forefront of debate: demonising immigrants, spreading ‘fake news‘ about them and so on....
Parties succeed when the issues on which they have an advantage are at the forefront of debate: populists do well when attention is focused on immigration, green parties do well when attention is focused on the environment and social-democratic parties do well when attention is focused on economic issues and, in particular, on the downsides of capitalism and unregulated markets—assuming they have something distinctive and attractive to offer on the economic front. (This has not been the case for many social-democratic parties for too long but many authors at Social Europe are trying to rectify that.)
What the Danish elections should remind us is that politics is largely a struggle over agenda-setting. Defeating populism requires removing the issues on which populism thrives from the forefront of debate. But for the social-democratic left to succeed, it must do more than neutralise the fears populists exploit. It must also focus attention on the myriad economic problems facing our societies—and convince voters it has the best solutions to them."
Food for thought.
About this website
The populist right and the social-democratic left contest for the support of the popular classes but, Sheri Berman argues, it’s not a simple zero-sum game.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

How Trump Could Win

He is still the incumbent and the economy is still pretty good. So those are advantages. But I think the biggest problem for the Democrats is that they may not run a very smart campaign. In fact, it seems a distinct possibility that they will run a dumb one. Martin Longman at the Washington Monthly points this out in a good piece that echoes some of my arguments and adds some interesting observations concerning the two parties' coalitions:
"The Democrats have basically substituted their farmer/labor alliance for an urban/suburban one, and it may work out as a nearly even trade in the raw numbers but it has exacerbated the problem of having most of their votes concentrated into small areas while also creating an Electoral College challenge (see 2016).
The flip side of the Republicans losing all their moderates is that the Democrats are now living in a bubble. What they see as obvious is not obvious in most congressional districts. What they see as virtuous is not necessarily seen as virtuous, patriotic, or even sane in most congressional districts.
They are creating two problems for themselves. The first is a possible repeat of 2016, where they become perceived as so out of touch with the values and concerns of small-town and rural Americans that even a ridiculous man like Donald Trump seems highly preferable. The second is that they’re beginning to stress their suburban support with some of their policies, and the only way to offset rural losses is to do even better in the suburbs than they did four years ago. If Trump does as well or even better in his base areas than he did in 2016, and the Democrats do not improve on their suburban numbers, then the president will almost surely be reelected....
[Trump] does have a strategy and the strategy is correctly calibrated for the task at hand. He must racialize the electorate to maximize his vote in heavily-white communities and tap a wedge in between the urban and suburban Democrats so that the latter will defect in sufficient numbers for him to recover his losses. His problem is that efforts to maximize his white vote actually have the effect of pushing urban and suburban Democrats into a closer alliance. For this reason, he will fail unless the Democrats help ramp up his base numbers and depress their own.
This is where policies like free health care for undocumented people or abolishing all private health insurance are going to do damage. These things are not popular in general and are especially unpopular with the Democrats’ suburban base. A lot of the Democrats’ rhetoric on border issues is toxic not just in the sticks but also in the communities ringing our cities.
So, yes, the Democrats really could blow this election by running a non-strategic campaign based on abstract values against a campaign that is laser-focused on just the voters it needs to win.
This isn’t an argument for changing values, but it is an argument for not being too stupid to beat a man like Donald Trump."
This is all well-put and, like the prospect of a hanging, should concentrate the mind. I should add that Longman does not say he thinks Trump is likely to pull this off--merely that it is a distinct possibility given how most Democratic candidates are currently handling themselves.
I continue to hope for an outbreak of political common sense. Don't let Biden--a flawed candidate to be sure--have this "lane" all to himself!

About this website
He's running a campaign focused on the voters he needs to win, but the Democrats are talking only to their base.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Turnout Myth

No myth is stronger in left-progressive circles than the magical, wonder-working powers of turnout. It's become this sort of pixie dust that you sprinkle over your strenuously progressive positions to brush aside any questions of negative electoral effects from such positions. This quote from Saikat Chakrabarti, AOC;s chief of staff, encapsulates the theory of the case so many progressives hold dear.
"[W]e’ve got a completely different theory of change, which is: You do the biggest, most badass thing you possibly can — and that’s going to excite people, and then they’re going to go vote. Because the reality is, our problem isn’t that more people are voting Republican than Democrat — our problem is most people who would vote Democrat aren’t voting.”
This view, despite how much it warms of the hearts of many progressive activists, has remarkably little empirical support. Take 2018. Turnout in that election was outstanding and the demographic composition of the electorate came remarkably close to that of a Presidential election year. This was due to fewer Presidential dropoff voters and more midterm surge voters.
But despite this stellar turnout performance, the overwhelming majority of the Democrats' improved performance came not from less Presidential dropoff and more midterm surge but rather from voters who voted in both elections and switched their votes from Republican in 2016 to Democratic in 2018. When I say "overwhelming" I mean it: The Democratic big data firm Catalist-- whose data on 2018 are the best available--estimates that 89 percent of the Democrats' improved performance came from persuasion--from vote-switchers--not turnout.
Or take 2016. Analysis using States of Change data indicates that, even if black turnout in that election had matched turnout in 2012, Clinton would have lost the election anyway. On the other hand, if she had merely managed to reduce her losses among white noncollege voters by one-quarter she'd be President today.
But perhaps 2020 will be different, if Democrats can just get nonvoters to the polls in large enough numbers. Then Democrats won't have to worry about persuading Obama-Trump voters or any other voters in the much-derided "swing" category. Wrong! Nate Cohn of the Times brings a massive amount of data to bear on this question and finds the following:
"The 2020 presidential election is poised to have the highest turnout in a century, with the potential to reshape the composition of the electorate in a decisive way.
But perhaps surprisingly, it is not obvious which party would benefit. There are opportunities and risks for both parties, based on an Upshot analysis of voter registration files, the validated turnout of 50,000 respondents to The New York Times/Siena College pre-election surveys in 2018, census data, and public polls of unregistered voters.
It is commonly assumed that Democrats benefit from higher turnout because young and nonwhite and low-income voters are overrepresented among nonvoters. And for decades, polls have shown that Democrats do better among all adults than among all registered voters, and better among all registered voters than among all actual voters.
But this longstanding pattern has become more complicated in the Trump years. The president is strong among less educated white voters, who are also overrepresented among nonvoters....
Nationwide, the longstanding Republican edge in the gap between registered and actual voters all but vanished in 2018, even though young and nonwhite voters continued to vote at lower rates than older and white voters.
At the same time, the president’s white working-class supporters from 2016 were relatively likely to stay home. Voters like these are likeliest to return to the electorate in 2020, and it could set back Democrats in crucial battleground states....A large increase in voter registration would do much more to hurt the president in the national vote than in the Northern battleground states, where registration is generally high and where people who aren’t registered are disproportionately whites without a college degree....
The voters who turned out in 2016, but stayed home in 2018, were relatively favorable to Mr. Trump, and they’re presumably more likely to join the electorate than those who turned out in neither election. In a high-turnout election, these Trump supporters could turn out at a higher rate than the more Democratic group of voters who didn’t vote in either election, potentially shifting the electorate toward the president....."
Cohn's bottom line:
"The danger for Democrats is that higher turnout would do little to help them in the Electoral College if it did not improve their position in the crucial Midwestern battlegrounds. Higher turnout could even help the president there, where an outsize number of white working-class voters who back the president stayed home in 2018, potentially creating a larger split between the national vote and the Electoral College in 2020 than in 2016.
There’s nothing about the composition of nonvoters that means a higher-turnout election would invariably make it easier for Democrats to win the presidency, or for Republicans to keep it."
This makes clear the embedded assumption of the turnout-will-solve-everything crowd. If we polarize the election around our progressive issues, all of our nonvoters will show up at the polls but none of the nonvoters from the other side will. That is truly magical thinking. Democrats who want to win in 2020 should--must--discard this view.
About this website
Democrats typically gain from a broader electorate in presidential races, but that pattern is not assured in the Trump era.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

There Are At Least Two Things Wrong with Taking the Most Left Positions on Health Care and Immigration

First, and most obviously, votes will be lost in the general election among persuadable voters not in the Democrats' base. No group here is more important than white noncollege women. As Ron Brownstein notes:
"Political strategists in both parties agree that the promise to defend the ACA's guarantees for patients with preexisting conditions was critical to the Democrats' gains in the 2018 midterm elections. In exit polls, nearly three-fifths of voters said they believed Democrats would do a better job protecting patients with preexisting conditions -- and almost 90% of them supported Democratic candidates for the House.
The issue appeared especially important in propelling a modest but measurable Democratic recovery among working-class white voters, especially women. White women without college degrees have been a reliably Republican constituency in recent elections; their support in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin,
Pennsylvania and Ohio was key to Trump's victory in 2016.
But in 2018, those women divided almost in half over whether Democrats or Republicans would do a better job protecting preexisting conditions, according to detailed exit poll results provided by Edison Research, which conducts the survey for a partnership of media organizations that includes CNN.
Fully 90% of the working-class white women who trusted Democrats more on that issue also voted Democratic for the House."
Given that the Trump administration has doubled down on getting rid of the ACA, we now have a situation where the Supreme Court may be deciding, in effect, whether to get rid of the guarantees for patients with pre-existing conditions right at the 2020 campaign is in full swing. Sounds like an opportunity to keep those voters and get more. instead, a number of Democratic candidates propose to have a big argument about getting rid of private health insurance. Rahm Emanuel--who I don't often agree with--has the right of it here:
"Our message is if you work hard and have health insurance, not that we're going to improve it, we're going to take it away; but if you are undocumented we are going to give it to you."
This makes no sense. Don't these folks remember the 2018 election--a very successful, very high turnout election--and what Democrats actually ran on? Matt Viser of the Post notes:
"Democrats once touted their defense of those with preexisting conditions — a stance supported by the vast majority of Americans — but many leading presidential candidates now support ending the private insurance coverage on which most of the country relies. Democrats used to focus almost exclusively on reuniting migrant children and their families and protecting undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents; now many of the candidates are openly espousing making illegal border crossing a civil offense rather than a criminal one....
Last year, Democrats were rigorously disciplined with a consistent message, telling voters in race after race around the country that Republicans were set on destroying President Barack Obama’s health-care law and stripping coverage from needy Americans. In television ads and debates, Democrats made the case that Republicans were unfairly demonizing them as a party in favor of open borders. That successful strategy is, at least, threatened."
It makes you wonder: can't anyone here play this game?
But that brings me to the second thing wrong with taking the most left positions on these issues. The assumption always seems to be that, while you might lose some voters by taking these positions, you will more than make up for these losses by a tsunami of turnout from the Democratic base--young people, nonwhite voters, committed progressives, etc.
Oh really? Why should we believe that? 2018 was a fabulously high turnout election and, as noted above, it featured much more moderate positions on all these issues. And how do we know that, say, black voters will turn out for Medicare for All or decriminalizing the border? Or even Latinos for that matter. From a Karen Tumulty piece in the Post:
"While the Democrats hold an enormous electoral advantage with Hispanic voters, their turnout has traditionally lagged that of other ethnic groups. But last November’s midterms saw a 50 percent increase in Latino participation compared with the midterm elections four years earlier.
Despite expectations that Latinos will be a crucial constituency in 2020, LULAC President Domingo Garcia told me that he thinks Democratic candidates made a mistake at a recent presidential debate. All 10 candidates who were onstage for the second night of debate raised their hands to show they would support providing government health coverage to people who are in the country illegally. Most of the others who are running have also said they would support that idea.
Given the fact that many U.S. citizens — a disproportionate number of them Hispanic — still lack coverage, “that was not a good general-election position to begin with, and it does not win them many votes in the Latino community,” Garcia said....
Of late, there has been a rush to call for decriminalization of unauthorized border crossings, after that issue became a flash point between Castro and O’Rourke during the first presidential debate. O’Rourke argued that there are other ways to prevent family separations; Castro later chided that his fellow Texan “needs to do his homework.”
Cecilia Muñoz, who was a top Obama White House aide, told my Post colleagues that even having that discussion is playing into Trump’s hands.
“It allows him to make a claim that he is already making, which is Democrats are for an open border,” she said. “And it makes it harder to explain why that is not true.”
Look, I'm a pretty left kind of guy myself. But I really want to win this election. Really, really. Michael Harrington always talked about being the left wing of the possible. Alas, I fear many activists and candidates are paying more attention to the "left" part of that formulation than the "possible" part.
About this website
On immigration and health care, many of the party’s presidential candidates have moved into territory that could play into Republican criticisms.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Biden, Harris and Black Voters

The presumed theory of the case for Harris going after Biden on the busing issue is that, besides giving her an initial spike in the polling, it would pry black voters away from Biden, particularly in the South Carolina primary, the first primary where black voters will be important.
Well, there's no doubt that Harris has benefited in a general way from the busing hit, but in South Carolina perhaps less so. The recently-released Fox News poll of South Carolina voters has some very interesting data along these lines. (Note to those who would be inclined to dismiss a Fox News poll: this is a very good poll, coordinated by the excellent political scientist Daron Shaw and given an "A" rating by 538.)
In the poll, Biden is way ahead of the competition, with 35 percent first choice preferences to 14 percent for Sanders and just 12 percent for Harris. Even more interesting is the split among black voters, where Biden has 41 percent compared to 12 percent for Harris. Harris actually does better among white voters than black voters in this poll. Similarly, South Carolina black voters prefer Biden over Harris on racial issues, 28-18, while white voters are roughly the reverse.
Very interesting.