Bloomberg’s Counterattacks May Just Resonate with Democrats

I was struck by a Mike Bloomberg tweet responding to President Donald Trump Thursday morning.

Trump tweeted: “Mini Mike is a 5’4” mass of dead energy who does not want to be on the debate stage with these professional politicians. No boxes please. He hates crazy Bernie and will, with enough money, possibly stop him. Bernie’s people will go nuts!”

To which Bloomberg responded: “We know many of the same people in NY. Behind your back they laugh at you & call you a carnival barking clown. They know you inherited a fortune & squandered it with stupid deals and incompetence. I have the record & the resources to defeat you. And I will.”

Bloomberg adviser Tim O’Brien had his own response to the president’s attack on the former New York mayor: “Translation: I’m a gelatinous pile of greed and revenge fueled by low-boil resentments, burning insecurities, an empty wallet, and constant reminders to myself that my dad was self-made while I was born with a silver foot in my mouth. Where’s my cheeseburger?”

The Trump tweet is nothing out of the ordinary, but the responses were.

Democrats have been bemoaning Trump’s language and style for years now, complaining that he is vulgar, crude and undignified. He is all those things, of course. But hand-wringing about checks and balances, the power of an unbridled executive, the independence of the judiciary, the Founding Fathers and the role of the attorney general is one thing. Taking on Trump by calling him a fool, a liar, a fraud and an uneducated clown who failed in business is entirely something else.

Many Democrats are looking for a fighter, someone who won’t fold like a cheap deck of cards. The responses Thursday by Bloomberg and O’Brien demonstrate a different approach than that followed by most or all of the other Democratic hopefuls.

That is: Don’t ignore Trump or simply complain about his behavior. Mock him, belittle him and fight back on his lies.

Risks and rewards

Of course, this approach has risks. One Twitter follower responded that “much of the world is suffering from ‘Trump fatigue.’ They want inspiration and maturity not more name-calling.”

And Michelle Obama famously urged Americans to respond with dignity, with her “When they go low, we go high” comment.

Both of those views are thoughtful and understandable. Most Americans don’t want to engage in trash-talking and demeaning an opponent. Most of us were taught to be gentle with others, to encourage people to be kind and dignified. Disagreements shouldn’t degenerate into mean-spirited attacks and rudeness.

How has that worked out so far? While the Democrats are following Marquess de Queensberry rules, Trump is playing by the “rules” of WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment.

I’m not suggesting the Democratic presidential hopefuls adopt Trump’s language or his mendaciousness. They shouldn’t attack their Democratic colleagues the way Trump attacks them. Bloomberg certainly hasn’t.

But when Trump attacks, they ought to fight back, just like Bloomberg and his team are doing. They should fight fire with fire, or as some have put it, “You shouldn’t go to a knife fight with a nail file.”

Aggressive style

I’ve been skeptical about Bloomberg’s chances and remain so.

He has plenty of assets and liabilities as a Democratic candidate. But I’m at least a little less skeptical after seeing his counterpunching when attacked by Trump. Polls show that Democrats are “angry” with Trump, and a take-the-gloves-off approach has its appeal.

Bloomberg has serious potential in the Democratic race because he has the financial resources to answer Trump’s attacks — but also because he seems to have the will to do so.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters may never embrace Bloomberg because he is wealthy, and we’ll certainly have to see how the Democratic race unfolds with at least a handful of serious contenders still in the race after New Hampshire.

But Bloomberg’s aggressive style just might help make him a top-tier contender — and those billions don’t hurt either.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on February 14, 2020.

Three Political Handicapping Mistakes to Avoid

A few days ago, I heard a reporter who isn’t an authority on elections or voting behavior say that former Vice President Joe Biden’s problem is that his “message” hasn’t worked. Behold the first of three common political handicapping mistakes: putting too much weight into the message and not the messenger.

Yes, Biden’s message may be part of his problem, but it’s only a small part. He is a 77-year-old man who has been in politics forever and who looks and sounds less agile than what we expect from our political leaders. His age, experience and style all limit his message options.

Most importantly, Biden oozes moderation, the past and the “establishment” when many Democrats are looking for something different (dramatic change offered by Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren) or something new (former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, businessman Andrew Yang, Sen. Amy Klobuchar or possibly even former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg).

Sanders (born Sept. 8, 1941) is a little more than a year older than Biden (born Nov. 20, 1942), but he speaks with such energy and passion that he appears younger, even after a heart attack.

Bloomberg (born Feb. 14, 1942) is five months younger than Sanders and nine months older than Biden, but the media mogul and former mayor is running a stealth media campaign, with a record of success running an ungovernable city. Let’s see what happens when Bloomberg starts doing interviews and participates in debates, when voters can see him and hear him, not just learn about him in scripted 30-second TV ads.

So, sure, Biden’s message hasn’t carried him as far as it might have if he were 20 years younger and voters were satisfied with the status quo. But while it might sound like thoughtful political analysis to criticize Biden’s “message,” the former vice president has more fundamental problems that have limited his appeal, no matter how truly decent a person he is. At least so far. We’ll see whether Nevada and South Carolina remake the Democratic contest, resurrecting Biden’s campaign.

Gloves come off

The second mistake involves general election ballot tests. Beware of accepting them on face value now that the Democratic fisticuffs have begun.

We are at the point in the Democratic race when candidates will take more and more direct shots at each other to solidify their positions or shake up the standings. We saw that during the ABC News debate Friday, but we heard it even earlier last week when Biden started to be more explicit in his criticism of Sanders and Buttigieg.

These kinds of attacks, while inevitable and even necessary, can skew general election ballot tests. Supporters of individual candidates may become angry at other campaigns and other hopefuls.

Because of the bitterness, Biden voters may refuse to say they’ll support Sanders, and Sanders supporters may say they are undecided in a Biden-Trump matchup or a Buttigieg-Trump contest.

You’ll hear a lot of that on CNN and MSNBC as anchors regurgitate the same copy about the Democrats being divided and how this helps President Donald Trump’s reelection effort.

A divided Democratic Party certainly is a problem for their nominee and surely would improve Trump’s prospects, so in that respect the talking heads and TV anchors are correct. But one of the objectives during the post-convention period for the party not in the White House is to get unified.

Sometimes that unity comes quickly, and sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes it never happens, which inevitably dooms the party. But it rarely occurs during the primaries if the party has had an extended battle for the presidential nomination. Give the supporters of the losing candidates time to grieve — and time to come to terms with the new shape of the general election.

The best way to deal with this phenomenon is to watch Trump’s numbers in the ballot tests and only Trump’s numbers — while giving Democrats some time to unite before dissecting general election ballot tests. Watch Trump’s numbers nationally but also in the eight or 10 key states that are likely to decide the November election.

No good predictions

The third and final mistake made by reporters and campaign-watchers is repeated every election cycle. Even today, you can find people who have models that will allegedly tell you who is going to win in November. They may say there are no swing voters or two or three economic numbers foretell the future. They may tell you they have isolated the “keys” to the next presidential election. Be skeptical, very skeptical.

I remember years ago helping to discredit an academic who promised in a Washington Post op-ed piece that Twitter could predict elections. He got plenty of airtime on CNN and MSNBC, because we all want to predict the future. But, of course, his research eventually was refuted by veteran pollsters and analysts. There is no magic elixir for predicting an election a year out.

Ignore claims by these kinds of soothsayers. Candidates matter. Campaigns matter. And events that we cannot now anticipate sure as heck matter. Do they matter less right now than they did 30 or 40 years ago? Probably, because of polarization. But they still matter a great deal. They can still separate winners from losers, as a total of 77,000 voters did in three key states in 2016. There is no magic elixir for predicting an election a year out.

Moreover, some election cycles are fairly predictable. This one is not, as anyone who has watched Trump and the daily news chaos knows.

Don’t worry about not being able to predict the future. It will come anyway. Instead, relish the unpredictability. It’s one of the things that makes politics fun.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on February 11, 2020.

A Boost for Buttigieg and Concerns for Biden and Warren

One state down, and many states to go. In one respect, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg “won” the Iowa caucuses Monday evening regardless whether he finishes first in delegates or in the popular vote.

One year ago, Buttigieg was a mere asterisk in the Democratic contest. Then 37 years old and the gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg seemed unlikely to raise the necessary money or to excite Democratic voters, who were likely to gravitate to better known officeholders like former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Even former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, fresh off an unsuccessful but enthusiasm-generating Senate campaign in Texas, seemed like a potentially more significant hopeful in the Democratic field.

Veteran pollster Gary Langer described Buttigieg’s performance in the Iowa caucuses entrance poll as showing a “broad-based appeal,” while candidates like Sanders and Biden demonstrated much more narrow appeal.

Sanders did extremely well among young voters, but poorly among seniors.

Biden was strong with seniors but weak among younger voters.

Sanders did well among the most liberal voters, while Biden was strong among so-called moderates.

Iowa was not kind to Biden. His fourth-place showing was unimpressive, and while it is fair to note that the state is not necessarily ideal for him, his weak showing doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence in his ability to win the nomination.

As I noted months ago, he too often seems to lack agility and sharpness as a candidate.

Biden’s strategy continues to be surviving until South Carolina at the end of February, when African-American voters will carry him to victory in the Democratic primary.

But if he finishes behind Buttigieg in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday and underperforms in the Nevada caucuses on February 22nd, will the air completely come out of Biden’s balloon?

Biden isn’t the only hopeful who leaves Iowa with huge question marks.

Warren seems to have finished third in the caucuses, which gives her one of the “tickets” out of the state. That’s a solid finish, but remember: Warren was often credited with having the top ground game in Iowa.

More important, Warren is in a mini-race against Sanders, and the Vermont senator beat her in Iowa and appears to be running ahead of her in the Granite State (where both Sanders and Warren are neighbors), as well as in national polls.

If Warren repeatedly finishes behind Sanders, she will at some point need to explain how she can win her party’s nomination.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has reason to be happy with her relatively strong fifth-place showing (based on popular votes and delegates) in Iowa.

She clearly gained strength in the final weeks before the caucuses, and her message of pragmatism and electability certainly seems to resonate with some Democrats. But Klobuchar is competing with both Biden and Buttigieg for that Democratic “lane,” and her showing no doubt had something to do with the fact that Minnesota is an Iowa neighbor.

She won’t be able to repeat her “Midwest” message in New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, so even if Biden stumbles more, it’s unclear whether she can overtake Buttigieg in the pragmatic lane.

Buttigieg has both assets and liabilities as a candidate — including questions about his appeal in the minority community — but he is one of the few candidates who can appeal to a broad spectrum of Democratic voters.

That is, he seems acceptable to Democrats of various stripes, in part because he is relatively new to politics and is not burdened by a long record of recorded votes and political positions.

Finally, Biden’s showing had to make supporters of Michael Bloomberg feel good. The pragmatic lane remains fractured, and the former New York mayor’s money means he can run a first-rate media campaign in Super Tuesday states on March 3rd.

One caucus does not equal the Democratic nomination. But Buttigieg benefits most from Monday’s results. Now he has to take advantage of that showing.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on February 4, 2020.

With Iowa and New Hampshire Still Up in the Air, Democratic Race Has 2016 Echoes

Sometime soon, the impeachment trial of Donald John Trump will likely end and the Senate, notwithstanding who might get called as a witness, will acquit him.

The president, of course, will claim victory and, having escaped punishment, will presumably return to doing what he has been doing for months — looking for ways to discredit Democrats, even if it involves help from foreign governments. The rest of us will also jump quickly from impeachment and back to the presidential race, hardly missing a beat.

That means Iowa and New Hampshire. As I have been arguing for months, the early national polls were essentially meaningless.

Iowa will scramble the overall Democratic contest, since the fallout from caucuses will affect New Hampshire, fundraising, media coverage and the narrative about who is ahead nationally.

Up in the air

Given the wildly conflicting polls (and the difficulty in polling caucus attendees), we still can’t be certain who’ll win Iowa, what the order of finish will be or what the margins between candidates will look like.

So there is a lot up in the air.

On the other hand, the shape of the Democratic contest continues to look a good deal like 2016, though the current field is much larger than the two-person contest of four years ago.

Then, populist progressive Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who had support from much of the party leadership and establishment, finished in a virtual dead heat in Iowa.

Clinton drew 49.8 percent of attendees, while the Vermont senator drew 49.6 percent. She won 23 delegates to Sanders’ 21.

This cycle, the Jan. 20-23 New York Times/Siena College poll found the two populist progressives, Sanders (25 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (15 percent), drawing a combined 40 percent in Iowa, while the three “pragmatists” in the contest, former Vice President Joe Biden (17 percent), former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (18 percent) and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (8 percent), combined for 43 percent.

Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar actually are mainstream Democrats who generally hold liberal views but preach working together across the aisle, electability and the benefits of caution, which separates them from Sanders and Warren, who preach fundamental, structural change and never talk about the need to compromise.

So the divide in the state between the Democratic Party’s two wings echoes the conflict from four years ago.

Of course, the race could change over the next week, and how supporters of the candidates who don’t hit the 15 percent threshold behave during the caucuses could well determine who “wins” and what the various margins look like.

Members of the media tend to look for “winners” and “losers” in contests, so candidates failing to meet expectations will suddenly find themselves in a media feeding frenzy.

They will have to spend time explaining their performance and prospects instead of talking about health care, the environment and guns.

A Sanders sweep?

Four years ago, Sanders followed up his surprising showing in Iowa by beating Clinton rather soundly in New Hampshire, 60 percent to 38 percent. He earned 15 delegates to her 9.

Of course, New Hampshire voters always seem to enjoy being quirky, and Sanders benefited from geography (being from neighboring Vermont) and the fact that the Granite State allows independents to participate in either primary.

This year, Warren is also from a neighboring state, and other candidates (such as Buttigieg), could benefit from the state’s interest in new candidates.

The new NBC News/Marist poll from New Hampshire shows Sanders leading the field with 22 percent to Buttigieg’s 17 percent. Those results, along with Iowa’s, have journalists talking about Sanders’ “surge.”

But while Sanders leads in polls, he is nowhere near his showings of four years ago. (Readers beware: Journalists like to find “surging” candidates.)

While a Sanders sweep of Iowa and New Hampshire would give him momentum, help his fundraising and cause party pragmatists to start pulling their hair out, it wouldn’t put him in a very different place than he was four years ago. (Of course, the lack of a large bloc of superdelegates this time benefits the Vermont progressive.)

The next two contests in 2016 were won by Clinton, who bested Sanders narrowly in Nevada (53 percent to 47 percent) but clobbered him in South Carolina (73 percent to 26 percent.)

This year, party strategists continue to believe that Biden’s strength in the African American community is unassailable, making South Carolina the former vice president’s firewall. But will that firewall hold if Biden underperforms in the first two or three contests? Wouldn’t both black and white voters start looking for alternatives if Biden were to finish third or even worse in Iowa and New Hampshire?

And then there is Michael Bloomberg. He remains a curious contender who aims to jump-start his campaign on Super Tuesday’s March 3 contests. But his rationale continues to be based on Biden failing, and he continues to assume Democrats will embrace a billionaire businessman.

The greatest danger for each of the party’s two wings is for the opposition to unite around one candidate while it finds itself divided among two or three contenders.

For example, what if Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg are fighting it out in late March for the “pragmatic” lane, while Sanders emerges as the standard-bearer of all progressives? That would surely advantage the Vermonter.

While polls suggest Democrats care more about beating  Trump in November than having a nominee who matches their views, the fight between the two wings of the party could last for some time, possibly even until the Democratic National Convention in July. Obviously, the longer the battle, the greater chance for animosity, which would benefit only one person — Donald Trump.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 28, 2020.

It’s Still Difficult to See Trump Losing Iowa in November

Iowa gave Barack Obama a resounding 9.5-point victory over John McCain in 2008. Four years later, Obama’s margin shrunk to 5.8 points against Mitt Romney. But in 2016, something odd happened.

Donald Trump carried Iowa by 9.4 points — a dramatic change in the state’s recent voting behavior and close to the same winning margin as Obama’s eight years earlier.

Iowa had gone Republican before, of course. It voted narrowly for George W. Bush in 2004, and it backed Ronald Reagan twice, in 1980 and 1984.

But Michael Dukakis carried it comfortably in 1988, and Al Gore’s narrow victory in 2000 seemed to suggest Iowa was shifting ever so slightly toward the Democrats. That is what made 2016 so noteworthy.

Did Trump’s solid victory say something about the state’s fundamental partisan bent?

Yes and no. As reporter Paige Godden and the folks at Iowa Starting Line note, a stunning 31 Iowa counties voted twice for Obama but flipped to Trump in 2016. Their statewide map shows the bulk of the shifts occurring in eastern Iowa (and particularly northeast Iowa), areas of traditional Democratic strength.

While much of western Iowa has more in common with Nebraska and South Dakota (including its Republican bent), northeast Iowa has more in common with Minnesota and Wisconsin, and eastern Iowa looks toward Illinois.

The shift in eastern and northeast Iowa in 2016 probably reflects the shift seen elsewhere among working-class voters who were once reliably Democratic but responded enthusiastically to Trump’s message.

Blue-collar shift

According to a 2017 analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Iowa ranked third in the nation with blue-collar jobs as a share of total nonfarm employment in each state. (The group defined blue-collar jobs as those in goods-producing sectors — manufacturing, construction, mining and logging.)

Given that, maybe Iowa’s dramatic shift was not so surprising. But there is more to the story. And it suggests that the state’s swing was not quite as dramatic as it first looked.

Trump drew almost 801,000 votes in Iowa, more than 20,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2008 (823,000 votes) or in 2012 (829,000 votes).

Trump’s showing, in percentage terms, was right in line with those presidential nominees who carried Iowa in the previous five contests.

He drew 51.2 percent, while Obama drew 52 percent in 2012 (against Romney) and 53.9 percent in 2008 (against McCain). George W. Bush drew 49.9 percent in 2004 (against John Kerry) and Gore drew 48.5 percent in 2000 against Bush.

In 1996, Bill Clinton drew 50.3 percent in Iowa against Bob Dole.

So while Trump’s margin of victory was large (9.4 points), especially for a once-hypercompetitive state, the percentage of the vote that he received (51.2 percent) was not particularly noteworthy.

How could that be?

As in a handful of other competitive Midwest and Great Lakes states (see my July 19, 2019, column about Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), Trump’s margin of victory was more a reflection of Hillary Clinton’s weak performance than his own strength.

Clinton drew just 41.7 percent of the vote in Iowa, a showing far worse than those by other recent losing candidates, including Romney (46.2 percent), McCain (44.4 percent), Kerry (49.2 percent) and George W. Bush (48.2 percent).

The only recent losing nominees to draw a lower vote percentage in Iowa than Clinton were Dole (39.9 percent in 1996) and George H.W. Bush (37.3 percent in 1992), both of whom lost a substantial number of votes to independent Ross Perot.

Looking ahead

Is this good news for Democrats, putting Iowa back in play in 2020?

Hillary Clinton’s showing in Iowa reflected a unique weakness, and Democrats have a chance to nominate someone who doesn’t have her baggage, which would improve their prospects in the state.

But Trump’s margin was substantial, and Democrats would need to bring out voters who stayed home in 2016 and also win back some former Democrats who backed Trump three years ago. That’s quite a challenge.

So far, there is little reason to believe that more than a trickle of 2016 Trump voters are ready to defect (or, more correctly, return to the Democratic Party), and that, plus the state’s rural Republican voters throughout the state, make it difficult to see Iowa supporting the Democratic nominee in November.

Of course, 2020 certainly should see a much closer race in Iowa if the Democrats nominate someone who can turn out new voters, rally the party base and appeal to swing voters upset with Trump’s language and governing style.

Trump’s margin in Iowa is likely to shrink in November to the mid- or even low-single digits. That means he is still likely to carry the state (barring new developments), but it also means that Iowa is worth keeping an eye on, if only as a test case as to whether Democrats are rallying behind their party’s nominee.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 22, 2020.