For the 2020 Democratic field, ‘electability’ doesn’t mean much — for now

Most discussions about “electability” boil down to what path Democrats need to take to win the White House.

Do they need a presidential nominee who mobilizes the base (including nonwhites, younger voters and those on the left) or one who attracts white, suburban swing voters and maybe even a 2016 Trump voter or two?

The ideal Democratic nominee — the candidate with the best chance of winning an election — would appeal to both groups, as Bill Clinton did. But what if no candidate shows that breadth of appeal? Or if more than one hopeful (following different paths) looks able, or even likely, to defeat President Donald Trump?

Defining ‘electable’

Many on the left take issue with the concept of “electability” at all. They argue that it’s just a rationale for supporting old, white men.

As a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List told Vox, “Metrics like authenticity and likability and electability are just code that we use against candidates who are not like what we are used to.”

There is a kernel of truth to that, but it’s mostly poppycock.

The Democratic field has both men and women who are likable (California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden) and unlikable (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren).

The same goes for electability. Candidates have different assets and liabilities, though it certainly is true that observers sometimes err in evaluating the importance of both (as we did with Trump in 2016).

Each Democrat will have his or her own reasons for thinking this hopeful or that one is most “electable.”

Some of those reasons will constitute wishful thinking, while others will merely confirm preferences.

Undoubtedly, some calculations will be based on the candidates’ race or gender, or on their age or ideological positioning.

Over the long haul, survey data will establish a pecking order in the Democratic contest that will separate the wheat from the chaff, the electables from the unlikelies. And that’s when we will know the most electable hopeful — or, more likely, the handful of hopefuls with the best chance of winning next November.

Who is the most electable Democratic hopeful right now? It’s Biden, obviously.

He performs best in head-to-head ballot tests against the president, both nationally and in key states, and he has potentially broad appeal.

But Biden may not look like the strongest Democratic challenger to Trump three weeks from now, three months from now or next March. The campaign will affect the public’s perception of his appeal.

Crowded at the top

The early polls raise a more interesting and complicated issue. What happens if multiple Democratic hopefuls lead Trump in head-to-head matchups? What if three or four or five Democrats look “electable?”

In most polls, Biden does better against Trump than do other Democratic hopefuls.

But Sanders also bests the president in most national and key state polls, and other Democrats are running even or slightly ahead of Trump.Top of Form

In the June 9-12 Fox News poll of registered voters, Biden led Trump by 10 points, Sanders did so by 9 points, Warren by 2 points, and Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg by 1 point .

A June 6-10 Quinnipiac poll found Biden leading Trump by 13 points, Sanders up by 9, Harris by 8, Warren by 7 and Buttigieg by 5.

In Michigan, which Trump narrowly won in 2016, a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll found both Biden and Sanders leading Trump by 12 points, with Buttigieg, Warren and Harris holding leads in the low- to mid-single digits.

Biden’s electability argument weakens noticeably if he and at least one other Democrat look roughly equally strong against the president.

Does it really matter to Democrats that Biden beats Trump by 10 points but Sanders beats Trump by “only” 8 or 9 points? Probably not.

Deciding factor

Ultimately, the question of electability will likely come down to how people see the Biden path to election and the Sanders/Warren/Harris path.

Do they believe that the most progressive voters in the Democratic coalition would stay home if Biden, one of the more pragmatic liberals in the 2020 field, is nominated?

Would those voters risk the re-election of Trump because Biden isn’t progressive enough? That seems unlikely.

Or, do they believe that working-class whites will stick with the president and moderate, suburban female voters will return to Trump (or at least stay home) if their only alternative is someone like Sanders or Warren, two progressive ideologues?

Traditionally, nominees move to the middle during a general election because that’s where most of the persuadable voters are.

In spite of all the recent focus (since 2000) on “the base,” swing voters still determine who wins most competitive elections. That’s why Biden seems more electable now, and his path to the White House appears easier than Sanders’ or Warren’s.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 25, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

How Many Ways is Michigan In Play in 2020?

Michigan is surprisingly relevant in 2020.

The Democratic presidential nominee almost certainly has to carry the state next year to have any chance of denying President Donald Trump a second term. And Republicans are eyeing the seat of first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.

Democrats must net three Senate seats next November and win the White House to take control of the chamber. That is almost impossible if Republicans swipe two Democratic seats.

Alabama is an obvious GOP target and a likely flip. But there are a handful of other Senate seats that look appealing for Republicans, including Minnesota, New Hampshire and Michigan.

Trump won only one of those states, Michigan, which puts the state at or near the top of the Republican Senate takeover list.

A turnaround?

Last year was a banner year for Michigan Democrats. They won races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, the state board of education and the Michigan State board of regents.

Democrats also picked up two U.S. House seats, and while Republicans retained control of both the state Senate and House (largely because Michigan is heavily gerrymandered in their favor), their margins shrunk dramatically.

But some Democrats remain nervous about their positioning in the state, particularly among white working-class voters.

In the 2016 exit poll, nonwhites accounted for 29 percent of all voters nationally but only 25 percent of Michigan voters. White men without a college degree — Trump’s core supporters — constituted 16 percent of voters nationally but 20 percent in Michigan.

Trump carried Michigan 47.5 percent to 47.3 percent in what was widely regarded as a stunning surprise.

Two years later, underdog GOP Senate nominee John James lost his challengeto Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow by only 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent.

James is running again this cycle, hoping to upset Peters.

For Republicans, these two results demonstrate that Michigan can and will be competitive next year, with both the president and Peters on the ballot.

Numbers tell the story

A more detailed look at Michigan election results, however, demonstrates that the GOP has a steep hill to climb in both contests.

No Republican presidential nominee has drawn a majority of the vote in Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988 (54 percent).

His son, George W. Bush, took 48 percent in 2004 — three-tenths of a point more than Trump — but he still lost the state by 3 points.

In the four presidential elections immediately before 2016, the GOP nominee received 45 percent (2012), 41 percent (2008), 48 percent (2004) and 46 percent (2000).

Given those numbers, Trump’s 47.5 percent does not look so different, except in one way — he won.

Trump’s victory was more about Hillary Clinton’s weaker-than-normal showing rather than his own performance.

The last Republican Senate winner in the state was Spencer Abraham in 1994, when he flipped a Democratic open seat by a comfortable 9 points.

Of course, that was during Bill Clinton’s rocky first midterm election, which produced a Republican wave.

Since then, Democrats have won eight consecutive Senate elections, including Abraham’s unsuccessful bid for re-election in 2000, when he drew 48 percent while losing to Stabenow.

In the last three Senate contests, the GOP nominee received 46 percent (James in 2018), 41 percent (former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in 2014) and 38 percent (Rep. Peter Hoekstra in 2012).

The 2014 race, during President Barack Obama’s second midterm election, should have been the Republicans’ best chance in recent years to win a Senate seat in Michigan. Instead, Peters ended up winning by 13 points.

The point is clear: Michigan remains a difficult state for the GOP in statewide federal races.

2020 realities

Trump carried the state by a mere 10,704 votes and didn’t come close to winning a majority of the vote.

James’ showing last year was better than the performance of most recent Republican Senate nominees, but that isn’t saying much.

Given all that, and considering Clinton’s relatively casual attention to Michigan three years ago, 2020 will be a challenging test for the GOP in both the presidential and Senate contests.

Democrats took Michigan for granted in 2016 and lost it to Trump. They are not likely to repeat it, though they will need strong turnout among minority and younger voters.

James looks like a credible contender next year. But he’ll need to outperform Trump’s 2016 showing and, like the president, avoid any defections in the suburbs and from white women with a college degree to have any chance of winning.

Michigan could be competitive again next year, but it probably is more likely that the Great Lakes State reverts to its traditionally Democratic bent, as it did in 2018.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 18, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

The 2020 Race: Still Tilting Democratic

There has been plenty of attention recently on economic models that show President Donald Trump holding a huge advantage in the 2020 presidential contest. But it’s not that simple.

Like alchemists hunting for the secret recipe that transmutes lead into gold, media personalities, political junkies and veteran analysts seem bewitched by the idea that they can divine the political future. I’m always skeptical of such claims.

I still remember the silliness of an Indiana University sociologist, who knew nothing about politics, arguing in The Washington Post and on television that Twitter could predict elections.

The latest version of this search for prophesy is Steven Rattner’s May 27 New York Times column about “models” that give the president a “formidable 2020 tailwind.”

An earlier Politico piece by Ben White and Steve Shepard teased, “How Trump is on track for a 2020 landslide.”

No matter how many economists, political scientists or investment bankers are involved, predictive models based solely on economic data miss the point because they look at only one aspect of a presidency and only one facet of a presidential election. My column from Sept. 18 last year, “Why it’s NOT the Economy, Stupid,” sought to explain why the economy would not be decisive in the midterms and why it might well be less important than usual next year.

Models predicting a Trump wave strike me as more about clicks and being contrarian than about taking a dispassionate look at the 2020 election.

A second look

In my Jan. 3 column this year, I considered a number of factors — including the impact of the nominees, the economy, recent election results, issue salience, key voting groups and Trump’s performance in office — before calling the race a Toss-up that tilts toward the Democrats.

Now, I thought I’d take another look at where the 2020 race stands, acknowledging again that it’s still very early and the trajectory of the race is likely to change more than once before the Iowa caucuses, let alone Election Day.

In spite of all the Sturm und Drang about the Democratic contest and the media’s suffocating coverage of the 2020 race, not a lot has changed since the start of the year.

Democrats have a number of additions to their field, including the early front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, but the basic shape of their race is holding firm.

Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, and, surprisingly, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg seem to constitute the top tier, with many others hoping to break out during the first debates at the end of this month.

Trump, of course, remains unchanged. He is the same person he has been, and there is no reason to believe that he will change.

Key groups

Party coalition groups (on both sides) are essentially holding, and the recent controversy over abortion, which is almost certain to remain a significant national issue from now to next November, makes it difficult for Trump to expand his support or win back college-educated white women, the election’s crucial swing group.

Not all women favor abortion rights, but the legislative actions taken to restrict abortion in Missouri and Alabama surely elevate the issue and create greater risk for Republican candidates in many suburban areas.

The movement to the GOP of white men without a college degree and the realignment of college-educated voters to the Democrats remain significant stories for the next presidential contest.

Trump’s tough talk on tariffs and immigration resonates well with many of his most loyal supporters, but it clearly has caused some heartburn in rural America, where trade is so important.

Whether tariffs and trade cost Trump a state or two in next year’s elections is now unclear, but the risk surely is greater for the GOP than for Democrats.

From time to time, Trump talks about unemployment in the minority community or the need to improve the nation’s infrastructure, but his overall nationalist, populist message — and decisions taken by various government officials — invariably make it easy for Democrats to paint the administration as insensitive to the less fortunate, beholden to conservative evangelicals, overly protective of the wealthy, and generally uninterested in diversity and tolerance.

Polls generally show Trump’s job approval between 40 percent and 46 percent. At best, that puts him about where he was in 2016, and at worst it shows him at least a few points weaker than he was.

Equally troubling for Republicans, national polls and key state surveys have initially shown Trump trailing Biden and Sanders.

Another four years?

Questions about the Democratic field — and particularly about the party’s eventual nominee — remain unanswered.

Biden’s positioning as a pragmatic liberal is ideal. But it isn’t clear whether he will be his party’s nominee or whether the party will select a more progressive (and riskier) standard-bearer next year.

A strong economy surely gives Trump good talking points and a rationale for re-election, but a clear plurality of Americans (maybe even a majority) now believe the country cannot take another four years of him, no matter how low the employment rate falls.

They are concerned about his character, judgment, intelligence, integrity, churlishness and lack of empathy, as well as the chaos and controversy that follow him.

Dozens of important questions remain unanswered, but the 2020 contest still looks to be more of a referendum on the president than anything else. And because of that, and the polarization evident in the nation, a close race is likely.

Given Trump’s inability to broaden his appeal and the likelihood that Democrats will be more united and energized than they were in 2016, the Democratic ticket deserves to be given a narrow but clear advantage.

“Tilting Democratic” still seems a reasonable rating to me at this early stage of the race.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 11, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

The 8 Senate Races Likely to Determine Control of the Chamber

The fight for the Senate starts off with only a handful of seats at risk. And that’s being generous.

A few other states are worth your attention because of their competitiveness or questions about President Donald Trump’s impact, but almost two-thirds of Senate contests this cycle start as “safe” for the incumbent party and are likely to remain that way.

Of course, a retirement or a public scandal could create a contest where one should not exist, and an implosion of the Trump presidency could create an opportunity or two for Democrats.

But the nation’s polarization and intense partisan divide, combined with the fundamentals of the 34 states that will have a Senate race next year, suggest that only a few states — and a few voters — will decide which party runs the chamber in 2021.

The Senate now stands at 53 Republicans and 47 in the Democratic Conference. So Democrats need a net gain of three or four seats to win control, depending on who wins the White House (since the vice president, as president of the Senate, casts tie-breaking votes).

Seven of the dozen Democratic seats up this cycle are in strongly Democratic states and not competitive: Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Rhode Island. Even Sen. Tom Udall’s retirement does not put New Mexico into play.

Among battleground states with Democratic incumbents, Virginia has been moving toward the Democrats as the Washington, D.C., and Richmond suburbs have grown. And Hillary Clinton’s 5-point victory in the state in 2016, combined with the following year’s gubernatorial result, suggests Trump is likely to be an albatross around the neck of the eventual GOP Senate nominee in the Old Dominion.

Minnesota and New Hampshire are competitive states that Democrats cannot afford to lose. (Clinton carried each narrowly.) Both states bear watching, though Democratic incumbents Tina Smith of Minnesota and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire start off with clear advantages.

In Michigan, a state surprisingly carried by Trump in 2016, freshman Democrat Gary Peters starts off with the advantage but must also prove his mettle. Again, his seat is a “must hold” for Democrats.

On the GOP side, 15 of the party’s 22 seats up next year are in states Trump won handily in 2016.

All are both Republican enough and conservative enough to not likely be competitive next year: Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The eight key races

That leaves eight Senate races for 2020 worth mentioning — two in states won by Clinton (Colorado and Maine) and six in states that backed Trump (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina and Texas).

Alabama, won by Trump by 28 points in 2016, is all but lost for Democrats.

Alabama Republicans would have to nominate Judge Roy Moore again to have any chance of losing this race, and while that’s possible, it’s unlikely.

Losing Alabama means Democrats will need to swipe four Republican Senate seats and win the presidency to regain control of the Senate. That’s a challenging task, but far from impossible.

Colorado and Arizona remain the Democrats’ top two targets.

In 2014, I repeatedly noted what a strong candidate Cory Gardner was and what a perfect race he ran, but 2020 is likely to produce a very different political environment in Colorado.

Gardner was an outsider who ran as a pragmatic conservative. He benefited heavily from Democratic incumbent Mark Udall’s ill-advised campaign, including his focus on reproductive rights.

Gardner ended up winning by just under 2 points. But two years later, Trump lost Colorado by 5 points, and the state’s growing suburbs clearly are not advantageous territory for him, as evidenced by former GOP Rep. Mike Coffman’s double-digit loss and Democrat Jared Polis’s double-digit gubernatorial victory in last year’s midterm elections.

Democrats look headed for a primary, but Gardner has not done enough to demonstrate his political independence.

While handicapping websites like Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all start Gardner’s race off as a Toss-up next year, the Colorado Republican is really more of an underdog in his bid to win a second term. (Check out my March 5, 2019, column about his prospects.)

Trump carried Arizona by only 4 points in 2016. The GOP retained the governorship last year, but Republican nominee Martha McSally narrowly lost her Senate bid, and she is likely to be her party’s nominee again next year.

Democrats have come up with an interesting and potentially formidable candidate in former astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, was shot during a campaign event in 2011.

Kelly isn’t a politician by trade, and he’ll need to prove that he has the candidate skills necessary to win. But he has a great story, and Giffords’ presence on the trail should be a huge asset.

North Carolina looks like the Democrats’ next best shot at a takeover. Trump carried the state by 4 points, a similar margin to Arizona. But that was a stunning disappointment for Democrats, since most Tar Heel State polls conducted between mid-September and late October showed Hillary Clinton ahead by at least a couple of points, sometimes as much as by 6 or 8 points.

The incumbent, Thom Tillis, is a generic Republican who has generic Republican appeal. That should be good enough if Trump carries the state, but North Carolina could well be a presidential battleground.

Tillis unseated Democrat Kay Hagan 49 percent to 47 percent in 2014 (Barack Obama’s second midterm election), so he doesn’t have much margin for error.

The GOP’s fourth headache is Maine, where Republican Susan Collins has survived difficult challengers and hostile political environments.

She has built up personal relationships over the years, and she’ll point to instances where she has split from her party to show her independence.

But can Collins survive again after her vote supporting Brett Kavanaugh? We will have to see.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon clearly is interested, but others have also been mentioned. Democrats must make the 2020 Senate race in Maine about Trump, Kavanaugh and control of the Senate, while Collins will try to make it about herself.

Democrats may well need to defeat Collins to have a chance of taking over the Senate, so this is one of the top races to watch.

Longer shots

Meanwhile, Democrats cite three long shots to watch: Texas, Georgia and Iowa.

Trump won Texas and Iowa by 9 points, and Georgia by just 5 points.

Democrats will need a big Hispanic turnout in Texas and a continuation of the anti-Trump trend in Georgia’s suburbs to put those Senate contests in play.

They’ll probably need a rural revolt against Trump and the GOP, and a blue-collar swing back to the Democrats, to put Iowa in play.

And Democrats need to defeat Trump to have a chance at flipping the Senate. That would require strong Democratic turnout and possibly some additional defections from the GOP.

If the president loses re-election, the fight for the Senate is likely to come down to North Carolina and Maine. The Senate is broadly “in play,” but Democrats need things to break just right to flip the chamber.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 4, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

Will the Supreme Court Save the GOP from Itself on Abortion?

Social conservatives cheering the rash of state laws limiting legal abortion might want to be careful what they wish for.

That’s because Democratic prospects for 2020 are likely to improve as uncertainty about the future of Roe v. Wade grows. And uncertainty will grow as more and more states impose restrictions on legal abortion.

Republicans need a net gain of 18 or 19 seats to win back the House — a difficult task but certainly not an impossible one. And the party can lose a net of three Senate seats (if they keep the White House) and still maintain control of the chamber in 2021.

But magnifying the debate over abortion rights could well put the House out of reach next year for the GOP, put the Senate at much greater risk and further undermine President Donald Trump’s already iffy re-election prospects.

New motivation

Democrats’ successes in 2018 were built on two very different groups — core party supporters, including progressives, minorities and younger Americans; and swing voters, including college-educated whites (especially college-educated white women), who have often been attracted by the GOP’s stances on taxes, spending and business regulation.

Both sets of voters turned out for Democratic House candidates last fall, which is why Democrats gained a net of 40 seats in the chamber.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the same two groups are likely to be motivated by the abortion issue in 2020.

Women went for Hillary Clinton over Trump by 13 points in 2016, 54 percent to 41 percent, largely on the basis of her strength among non-whites. Two years later, the national House exit poll showed Democrats carrying women by an even larger 19 points, 59 percent to 40 percent.

Trump actually carried white women comfortably by 9 points in 2016, 52 percent to 43 percent. Two years later, white women split evenly, 49 percent to 49 percent, wiping out the president’s advantage.

College-educated white women went for Clinton in 2016 by a relatively narrow 7 points, 51 percent to 44 percent. But two years later, Democrats won white women with a college degree by an overwhelming 20 points, 59 percent to 39 percent.

The Democratic surge among college-educated white women was unmistakable, and it did not occur by chance.

White women in general, and college-educated white women in particular, came to dislike Trump’s style and language, as well as elements of his agenda.

Now, with the economy generally strong and swing voters free to think about things other than jobs and interest rates, college-educated women who supported Trump in 2016 but voted Democratic two years later will again feel free to send a message about culture and values, not taxes and government regulation.

The last word?

Obviously, a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would further elevate abortion as a defining issue in 2020, giving more energy to the abortion rights movement.

Conversely, a Supreme Court decision reaffirming Roe and rejecting the constitutionality of the kind of restrictions on abortion that states are now imposing might actually breed complacency among those who support abortion rights.

But it’s unclear when or whether the nation’s highest court will deal with new state restrictions on abortion before next year’s general election. Given that, supporters of abortion rights are likely to focus on the more “extreme” proposals that seek to circumscribe Roe, just as critics of Roe — including the folks at LifeNews.com — have often portrayed abortion rights activists as supporting infanticide.

The problem for Republicans is that they are likely to go into the 2020 election dragged down by an issue on which they are too easily portrayed as extreme and insensitive to women.

Yes, they will have their arguments assembled as to why that is not the case, but the bigger the issue becomes, the more likely 2020 becomes a fight over culture and values that benefits Democrats, not the party of white evangelicals and white men without a college degree.

Historically, Republicans have benefited from abortion because of the intensity of the support from those who oppose legal abortion. Even though polls generally show more voters back abortion rights, those people don’t vote on the issue, as is illustrated by polling on abortion and Roe v. Wade by Gallup.

The increased salience of abortion as a voting cue is likely to benefit Democrats because it will energize voters who favor abortion rights but have assumed up to now that they are not under serious attack.

The greatest danger for Democrats is that a John Roberts-led Supreme Courts reaffirms Roe and looks unkindly on state restrictions intended to dramatically limit, or eliminate, legal abortion in some states.

That would be a loss on public policy for Republicans going into 2020, but it would be the better electoral outcome for the party.

Note: This column appeared initially in the May 21, 2019 issue of Roll Call.