The Steyer Boomlet

Once again, there’s a new “hot” candidate. This time it’s billionaire Tom Steyer, who hit double digits in new Fox News polls in Nevada and South Carolina, thereby qualifying him for Tuesday’s CNN/Des Moines Register presidential debate — the last debate before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.

Of course, other surveys show Steyer in the low-to-middle single digits in the first two states with Democratic contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, and weak showings in those two states could affect his standing in the subsequent state contests.

The reason the Democratic former hedge fund founder is anywhere in any poll on this planet is that he has spent millions of dollars in advertising, first to promote the impeachment of President Donald Trump and now his own candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Steyer has so far spent more money on his campaign than all of the other candidates combined except for Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who like Steyer is trying to buy the Democratic nomination.

If the Fox News numbers in Nevada and South Carolina are correct, they would at the very least suggest that Steyer could be mucking up the Democratic contest, adding yet another dose of uncertainty to an already uncertain race.

Some Democrats are still looking for a perfect candidate to defeat Trump, and a billionaire liberal businessman who says the entire system is “broken” might be appealing to some.

But, of course, there is plenty of reason to believe that this Steyer boomlet isn’t very meaningful and that if and when Democrats look at him at greater length, they’ll find him unappealing as the party’s standard-bearer in November.

Poll factor

Up to this point, the Democratic front-runners have ignored Steyer, but if they see him as a real factor in the race, he’ll get much more attention from them — and from the national media, in general, and the Iowa debate moderators, in particular.

Where did he get all his money? What businesses and companies did he invest in?

For a party that seems uncomfortable with millionaires and billionaires, Steyer would be a strange choice.

Yes, he can say that he has spent his money for good causes and to fix the system, but he is still a billionaire who is trying to buy the nomination.

Like Trump, Steyer thinks that government is broken and that only a radical remake of the country — its laws and the Constitution — will make the system open to the people.

One of Steyer’s wackier proposals involves his support for term limits. “You and I both know we need term limits … that Congress shouldn’t be a lifetime appointment,” he says in one TV spot that he rolled out in November to air in the four February states. “But members of Congress — and the corporations who’ve bought our democracy — hate term limits. Too bad.”

Much like Trump, who throws words around as if they have no fixed meaning, Steyer must know that members of Congress aren’t “appointed” and that they don’t serve for a lifetime, unless the voters continue to reelect them every two or six years, depending on the chamber.

They certainly don’t have a “lifetime appointment,” the way federal judges do. Moreover, where is the evidence that corporations “hate term limits?”

One of the reasons why limiting terms is such a bad idea — it was bad when conservatives promoted them as a way to create more open seats when they were in the minority, and it is a bad idea now that a liberal Democratic hopeful is proposing them — is that term limits would empower unelected Hill staffers and lobbyists, who would be the only people to understand the details of legislation and have policy expertise.

House members wouldn’t be in Congress long enough to become experts in most matters of public policy.

Trump 2.0

Steyer reminds me a lot of Trump. He’s never held elective office but thinks that he is his party’s — and the country’s — political savior.

Everything is broken. Everything is corrupt. Let’s throw everything out and start over. Representative government? Forget it. Let’s have a national referendum on issues (thereby empowering those who can dominate the airwaves during the national discussion leading up to the referendum).

From a purely handicapping point of view, I’m skeptical that Steyer has much staying power in the race. His anti-establishment, liberal message of the evils of corporations will resonate with some, but many of those Democrats already have their favorites (such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).

And once the media and the other Democrats turn their fire on Steyer — if they ever do — he’ll have to spend time on the defensive answering questions. That’s not an ideal situation for a billionaire former hedge fund founder running for the Democratic nomination.

Changes in key electoral groups between 2016 and 2019 also present problems for Trump. As the midterms showed — and polling conducted since then has confirmed — he has lost ground with younger voters, college-educated whites, suburbanites and especially white women with a college degree.

Finally, Trump’s prospects depend to a considerable extent on the Democrats — on whom they nominate, how united they are and how energized the party’s constituencies are. Some Democratic tickets would have a better chance of mobilizing the party base and reaching out to swing voters than others. In other words, candidates and campaigns still matter.

Trump’s path to a second term rests on larger losses in the popular vote and narrower victories in a few states with crucial electoral votes. That is a possible scenario, but hardly one that should leave Republicans brimming with confidence.

The president has damaged himself by alienating large chunks of the country, and his behavior over the next year is likely to give Democrats more ammunition to use against him. The only question is whether the Democrats will find a nominee who can take advantage of Trump’s fundamental weaknesses.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 13, 2020.

Lessons for Today from the Fight over Prohibition

It’s hard not to see the obvious parallels with today’s political situation after only a few moments watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s terrific 2011 documentary “Prohibition.”

The three-part series, which initially aired on PBS and is now available on Netflix, traces the growth of the temperance and Prohibition movements in the United States, noting the people and organizations that laid the groundwork for — and ultimately brought about — the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.

“Prohibition would pit the countryside against the cities, natives against newcomers, Protestants against Catholics. It would raise questions about the proper role of government, about individual rights and responsibilities … and who is — and who is not — a real American,” the narrator says, a little more than one minute into the first episode of the series.

“People found it necessary to believe that this was an Anglo-Saxon, white country,” journalist and writer Pete Hamill says in the documentary. “And suddenly, here were all these Catholics, these Irish and Italians. Here were all these Eastern Europeans, including large numbers of Jews, who were not like them. And they were changing the country.”

“In the small towns,” the narrator notes, “particularly of the Midwest, where native-born Protestants lived a very, relatively speaking, stable life, they saw the cities as these cauldrons of debauchery and of large number of votes that were going to change the country.”

Much of Donald Trump’s appeal is to white Protestants of the Midwest and the South who see the country changing in ways that scare them. Like the small-town advocates of Prohibition, Trump’s rural loyalists see the big cities as alien, filled with people who are less traditional in their views and behavior — and who don’t look or sound the way they do. That’s why Trump’s rural and evangelical supporters have responded so enthusiastically to his attacks on elites, Hollywood, immigrants and the national media.

What women wanted

The role of women, first in establishing Prohibition and then in repealing it, is also worth noting.

Initially, women like Frances Willard, a pioneer in women’s rights and the driving force behind the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, led the charge for temperance. Later, around the turn of the century, Carrie Nation smashed saloons, and in the 1920s, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, assistant attorney general under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, proved to be an aggressive defender of Prohibition and a Republican firebrand against Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith.

Women often led the fight against alcohol because their husbands and fathers spent so much time and so much money in saloons. Drunkenness was a national problem in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and it touched all groups, native-born and immigrant, white and black, progressive and conservative, the documentary notes.

But while women marched in the streets and called for temperance, it was the Anti-Saloon League, established in 1893, that ultimately spearheaded the Prohibition movement. “More or less modeled on the modern corporation,” the documentary notes, the Anti-Saloon League had a national headquarters, a salaried full-time staff, thousands of volunteers, deep pockets and a printing plant “that churned out 300 tons of propaganda every month.”

The group quickly became a political force that defeated its opponents and elected its supporters, making it a forerunner to the National Rifle Association, which itself was formed in 1871 but didn’t get involved in lobbying until the 1930s and election-related activities until the 1970s.

Proponents of Prohibition understood that the calendar was an issue, according to the documentary. “They had to get [the 18th Amendment] passed before 1920 because in 1920 there was going to be a new census. The cities, which were the wet parts, were going to have more representation in Congress and the small towns were going to have less representation in Congress.”

The more things change

Conservatives and Trump loyalists face the same problem, as demographic changes over the next decade or two will likely alter the balance of political power in this country.

While today’s Republicans seek to limit the number of polling places or place other burdens on voting, Republicans are unlikely to do what their ancestors did almost a hundred years ago — refuse to reapportion congressional districts so as to preserve the rural area’s majorities in a country where population growth in the cities was exploding.

In fact, Congress was not reapportioned between 1911 and the passage of the Reapportionment Act of 1929. Most Americans never wanted the blanket outlawing of alcohol, which explains the widespread flouting of the Volstead Act.

When supporters of Prohibition refused to modify that law, which enforced the 18th Amendment, it only played into the hands of Prohibition opponents.

Ultimately, Prohibition failed because the American public tired of the hypocrisy it produced, the organized crime it encouraged and the view that some people could tell others how to live their lives.

The Great Depression also helped kill it, since legalization and taxation would raise hundreds of millions of dollars needed to help people, and since hard economic times opened the way for Democratic gains in the 1930 and 1932 elections.

Prohibition also failed because the views of women changed. Pauline Sabin, a “very wealthy, blue-blood New York socialite” and the first woman on the Republican National Committee, quit the RNC, and her party, to lead the fight against Prohibition. “For more than a century,” the documentary notes, “women had been essential to the struggle to impose Prohibition. Now they were becoming central to the struggle to end it.”

Same divisions

This year, we will once again witness a political fight between urban (and increasingly suburban) America and rural America.

We will also see a fight between conservative, white evangelicals and secular, non-Christian and non-evangelical voters. We will also see women again as a key voting group — they helped Trump win in 2016 but were responsible to a considerable extent for the Democrats’ large midterm House gains just two years later.

Of course, 2020 isn’t likely to replicate 1932. Times are very different, and there are more than enough political wild cards this year to produce unexpected outcomes.

My advice is simple: Watch the documentary on Netflix and enjoy a bit of American history presented in an engaging yet educational way. And think about why and how Prohibition came about and why and how the country ended up rejecting it.

Oh, and bartender, I’ll have another, please.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 7, 2020.

Impeachment? Yawn. Next.

Brad Parscale, President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, staked out his position on the impact of impeachment when he tweeted in early December, “Nancy Pelosi is marching members of her caucus off the plank and into the abyss,” adding, “Impeachment is killing her freshman members and polling proves it.”

Yawn.

The alleged nervousness of some Democrats in swing districts and New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s switch to the GOP have added to the sense of risk that Democrats are facing by impeaching the president.

Like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, I initially thought that impeaching Trump was an unnecessarily risky step for congressional Democrats.

Trump has always been the issue for many Americans who find his personal behavior and/or his policies offensive, so why complicate the narrative by adding a step that puts the onus back on Democratic lawmakers?

But Trump’s behavior involving Ukraine forced Pelosi’s hand. With her members up in arms and the party’s grassroots demanding action after new detailed evidence of wrongdoing, the speaker had few options other than to greenlight the impeachment process in the House.

Given Republicans’ lockstep position, Democrats are stuck with a partisan impeachment that has no chance of a Senate conviction next year.

The question is whether Trump’s impeachment and subsequent vote in the Senate not to convict changes the political calculus for 2020, for both the presidential election and the fight for control of Congress.

Politicians have a right to be worried about the political unknown, since they won’t know how voters feel about their individual members until after the impeachment process finally ends. But there is plenty of evidence that the polarization we already see in national polling on the president’s job performance and on impeachment as an alternative suggest that most minds already are made up.

The Dec. 8-11 Fox News poll showed 50 percent of registered voters said Trump should be impeached and removed, while only 41 percent said he should not be impeached. In late October, an almost identical 49 percent said he should be impeached and removed.

The new Fox News poll also showed Trump’s job approval stood at 45 percent, with 53 percent disapproving — little different from his 43 percent approve/54 percent disapprove in late January.

Yes, we all know that Trump says his polling is great, but we also all know that he simply makes up stuff, including poll numbers. So he isn’t a credible source.

I don’t see much reason to believe that impeachment has enhanced his chances for reelection in 2020. Nor is there much evidence that the process has undermined his prospects.

That puts me in complete agreement with my friend Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, who observed that “by the time we hit the summer of 2020, the issue of impeachment will just be one more in a string of unprecedented, presidency-altering events that have come and gone in the mind of voters.”

Some Democratic incumbents in pro-Trump and Republican states and districts will lose their seats next year, but they probably would have lost them even if their party had not pursued impeachment. But many Democrats in swing seats who were first elected in 2018 because of voters’ animosity toward Trump should not find themselves in difficulty next year primarily because they supported impeachment.

The disruption and chaos that Trump brought to the presidency, and to our politics, has resulted in more anger and name-calling, additional partisan polarization and a growing sense that the 2020 election will be crucial to the country’s future, no matter which side you are on. But it also means that the battle lines for 2020 have already been formed, and both sides have more than enough ammunition.

If Trump’s comment about grabbing a women’s private parts didn’t sink his 2016 campaign and his awful general election debate performances didn’t sink his candidacy, there is almost nothing that he could do over the next 11 months that would automatically destroy him or his party next year.

Conversely, if a strong economy, including a stunningly low unemployment rate and a booming stock market, isn’t enough to get the president’s job approval up to 50 percent, nothing will.

Critics of the president already have enough reason to find him “deplorable” and vote to replace him in November.

Now, in the middle of the impeachment process, impeachment looks like a defining event of 2020. But by the time we reach September, impeachment will likely look like a mere bump in the road.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on December 17, 2019.

Rothenberg’s Best & Worst of 2019 Year-End Awards

It’s December, and that means it’s time for another of my “Best & Worst of the Year” columns. And since it has been a pretty awful year, there should be a lot of worsts.

As always, I’ll offer a set of nominees for each category. Then I’ll pick my winner. But you too can play along at home by selecting your choices. If you disagree with me, I really don’t care. Amuse yourselves, and send any complaints about my categories or my “winners” to Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia.

Most obnoxious Republican member of Congress

The nominees:

  • Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida
  • Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio
  • Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas
  • Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas
  • Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York

My winner: So now you know how difficult this can be to pick only one. It’s really a matter of personal preference.

Louie Gohmert is, well, Louie Gohmert, and that’s sort of sad, so maybe we ought to give him a break and eliminate him.

For me, this category comes down to Gaetz and Jordon, both of whom are incredibly smug.

I think I’m going with Jordan because he won’t wear a jacket and yells too much for my taste.

But I can’t argue with you if you picked Gaetz.

Most annoying Democratic member of Congress/Faux Democrat

The nominees:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont
  • Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York

My winner: I’m going with Ocasio-Cortez, who never passes up an opportunity to inject herself into controversy.

Bernie comes in right behind her because he takes himself way too seriously.

Biggest political tongue-twister of 2019

The nominees:

The winner: Quid pro Buttigieg

Most predictive Democratic electoral performance in 2019

The nominees:

  • Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s reelection
  • Andy Beshear’s victory in the Kentucky governor’s race
  • Virginia Democrats win both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly
  • Republican Dan Bishop’s 51 percent to 49 percent victory in the special election in North Carolina’s 9th District

The winner: This isn’t close. Virginia, where the results reinforced the narrative about suburban voters and add to questions about President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects.

Kentucky was mostly about what a jerk Matt Bevin is, and Louisiana showed only that an anti-abortion, pro-gun rights conservative can win in the Pelican State. Few Democrats will be running on that message in 2020.

Most frustrating allegedly “moderate” or “nonpartisan” person of the year

The nominees:

  • Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins
  • Stuart Rothenberg
  • Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III
  • New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik

My winner: Well, Stefanik turns out to be a Trump robot, so she is out of consideration.

For me, the choice comes down to either Collins or Mueller.

I’ll go with Collins, I think, because she is a member of Congress and has built a career on being a moderate who bolts her party.

Mueller remains merely a disappointment.

Worst presidential campaign of 2019

The nominees:

  • California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris
  • Former South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford
  • Former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke
  • Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg

The winner: An interesting category with some competitive nominees.

Harris battled criticism of her campaign for months before dropping out, while Sanford was barely in the GOP race before he ended his bid.

O’Rourke saw his stock plummet early on and never recovered, while Bloomberg hemmed and hawed before finally getting in late.

I’m going (surprisingly) with Bloomberg, who really has no “campaign” even now. What he has is a national media buy.

Worst political coiffeur

The nominees:

  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
  • Stuart Rothenberg
  • President Donald Trump
  • The late Rep. Jim Traficant (perennial nominee)
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden

The winner: It all depends on the meaning of the word “worst.”

Most likely to be “Anonymous”

The nominees:

  • White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway
  • George Conway, husband of above
  • Kellyanne Conway and George Conway
  • Some guy you’ve never heard of
  • First lady Melania Trump

The winner: I’m not at liberty to tell you.

Presidential sycophant of the year

The nominees:

  • Vice President Mike Pence
  • Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
  • Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani
  • Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy
  • Acting White House Chief of Staff and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney

The winner: Congrats! A five-way tie!

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on December 10, 2019.

Why Do So Many People Believe Trump Will Win?

I often hear people predicting President Donald Trump’s reelection. Some are conservatives and Trump supporters who echo the president’s unfailing optimism. But others are Democrats who can’t resist embracing a gloom-and-doom scenario.

I usually ask those people why they think Trump will win a second term.

They sometimes mention Russia or the makeup of the Democratic field or the economy. Often, they point out that Trump’s base remains solid and that angry white men will carry him to a second term.

I understand those views, but I was trained as a political scientist to look at the empirical evidence, not my hopes or fears.

The problem, of course, is knowing exactly which empirical evidence is predictive and which could be misleading.

In 2016, many of us looked at the wrong evidence — national public opinion polls that accurately found Hillary Clinton winning by at least a couple of points (she won by 2.1 percentage points) — but we ignored the states, figuring that a 2-point victory would automatically translate into an Electoral College win as well.

It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption, considering that Al Gore won the popular vote by just over 500,000 votes in 2000 but lost the Electoral College by a few hundred Florida chads.

Clinton won the popular vote by just under 3 million votes, a far more substantial popular vote victory than Gore had, yet she lost more crucial states than Gore did.

Lesson learned. The focus this cycle is much more on the Electoral College and the key states that add up to 270 electoral votes. We now have plenty of data to help us examine the president’s reelection prospects. But do the Democrats have anyone who can take advantage of Trump’s political problems?

Long way to go

As everyone knows, the Democratic field is a mess. All the hopefuls have serious blemishes or huge question marks about their appeal.

Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem dug in too far on the left, while former Vice President Joe Biden doesn’t show the sharpness and agility that Democrats are looking for.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a terrific speaker, but he’s young, and nobody is sure whether minority voters will ever get excited about his candidacy.

Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris haven’t gotten traction so far, and while Sen. Amy Klobuchar is well-positioned for a general election, it’s hard to see her breaking out from the pack.

There are others, of course, including Michael Bloomberg, but all have a very long way to go to win the Democratic nomination.

But Democrats who whine about the field and its uncertain fate against Trump ought to remember that most fields seeking to challenge a sitting president look unimpressive.

The contenders invariably look too old or too young. They’re mediocre speakers or political lightweights without the necessary experience. They lack charisma or carry personal or political baggage. Or they have bragged about grabbing women in their private places.

None of these hopefuls could win — but, of course, some did.

The party’s eventual nominee will answer some questions simply by winning the nomination. And the general election campaign will likely answer the rest.

In poll position

But even with the Democrats’ problems, polling doesn’t offer many reasons to believe that Trump will win a second term — or that his electoral fate is sealed.

Virtually all the reputable national polls show the president is in serious trouble, and I’m not just referring to his job approval numbers in the low-to-mid 40s.

Apart from Emerson College polls showing a virtual dead heat between Trump and Warren, most national surveys show Warren leading the president by 5 to 8 points.

Those same polls show Biden leading Trump by 10 to 12 points.

Even Sanders, who is outside the political mainstream, leads Trump by 6 to 9 points in most surveys (again excluding Emerson, which always seems to be an outlier).

There are a few polls showing trial heats of Trump-Buttigieg, but the few reputable surveys suggest anything from an even race to Buttigieg up by a half-dozen points.

Of course, we all have discounted national polls because of what happened three years ago. But if the Democratic nominee wins not by 2 points but by 6 or 8, it would be difficult for Trump to win at least 270 electoral votes.

Democratic nervousness seems to stem primarily from a handful of polls in a few crucial states, including the three key Great Lakes states that Clinton lost: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (They seem to ignore Arizona and Florida, two interesting states that offer Democrats serious opportunities next year.)

There are relatively few highly regarded polls in these and other swing states, and that undoubtedly has added to Democratic anxiety.

So has a series of New York Times/Siena College polls showing close races for various challengers to Trump.

But again, we are talking about a handful of polls in states that are not early in the nominating process.

In other words, states where swing voters have not really focused on the candidates.

The state polls show mixed results, some showing Trump ahead and others suggesting that Biden, at least, has a narrow but clear general election advantage.

For now, there is simply no empirical reason to believe that Trump will win next year.

In fact, the evidence is not compelling in either direction. A strong Democratic turnout, including votes from people who voted third party the last time or skipped the presidential race entirely, would put the president in a substantial electoral hole.

On the other hand, poor minority turnout would create a challenging environment for the eventual Democratic nominee.

For the moment, all we can safely say is that polls continue to confirm that Trump is in deep trouble, with a job approval rating that no incumbent president seeking reelection would want.

So regardless of whether you support the president or oppose him, put aside your hopes, dreams and phobias for at least another few months, when we may have a better handle on the Democratic race and the general election.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on December 3, 2019.