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.

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.

What Happened to Kamala Harris?

When this year began, I expected California Sen. Kamala Harris to be in the middle of the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination. But now, after months of campaigning and three nationally televised debates, Harris finds herself sitting in the second tier as she reorganizes her campaign and revamps her strategy.

Harris’s failure to launch has caused me to think about what went wrong and whether she will have a second chance to make a first impression.

Did those of us who expected her to be a formidable contender merely exaggerate this potential appeal, or did she fail to capitalize on her assets?

The California Democrat’s advantages were (and are) many. She’s a woman of color in a party where women and people of color are large and powerful constituencies.

Attractive, personable and well-spoken, she smiles easily and seems hip enough to appeal to younger voters. Turning 55 years of age later this month, Harris looks and sounds mature but is in her prime, far better positioning than the party’s front-running septuagenarians, each of whom seems a relatively weak contrast to President Donald Trump, who will turn 74 next June.

The calendar also looked like an asset, with South Carolina — home to a large number of African-American Democrats — an early test in February and the California primary following in early March.

Finally, her background as a former state attorney general seemed to be a general election asset, since it inoculates her against the inevitable GOP attacks that Democrats are “soft” on crime and generally weak.

Of course, Harris did have a moment over the summer when she seemed to take off.

After she confronted then-front-runner Joe Biden in the first debate, Harris’s poll numbers shot up.

A June 28-July 1 Quinnipiac poll found her in second place, trailing the former vice president by just two points, 22 percent to 20 percent. A June 28-30 CNN survey also found her second, with 17 percent to Biden’s 22 percent.

Harris started losing steam about a week later, but a July 7-9 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll still found her in the double-digits, at 13 percent.

That put her tied for third with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, while Biden (26 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (19 percent) led the field.

Since then, Harris has slipped in national polls, dropping her back to the single digits, generally drawing between 5 percent and 8 percent of the vote.

The RealClearPolitics average now has her under 5 percent and trailing former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Harris raised $11.6 million last quarter, a decent amount. But her haul was less than half of Sanders’s and Warren’s, and well below Buttigieg’s and Biden’s.

What happened? To find an answer (or answers), I turned to a number of veteran Democratic campaign consultants and strategists.

To be fair, as one strategist reminded me, Harris’s inability to show great movement in the national polls doesn’t make her unique.

Few hopefuls in the large field have moved much, which may tell us some things about the dynamics of a crowded contest. Still, Warren has shown movement — from the single digits in May to the 20s now — proving that movement, while difficult, was possible.

Many observers asserted that Harris’s message has been muddled. “What is Harris’s message? She doesn’t know why she is running,” argued one Democratic insider.

That view seemed to echo a comment from former Democratic pollster Diane Feldman on her website (viewfromthepearl.com) that Biden and Warren “are the two candidates who have presented the clearest rationales for their candidacy.”

Others argue that Harris, for all her smiling and “coolness,” isn’t very authentic.

Her attack on Biden in the first debate rubbed some the wrong way, and Maya Rudolph’s impression of the California Democrat on Saturday Night Live’s September 28th show suggested the senator was more Hollywood than Main Street.

Harris was clearly hurt by her performance in the second set of debates, at the end of July.

She took incoming fire early in the debate from Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who criticized Harris’ record as prosecutor, arguing “when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in people’s lives, you did not and worse yet in the case of those who are on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so. There’s no excuse for that and the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor — you owe them an apology.”

The attack seemed to catch Harris by surprise, and she never recovered. Polls quickly showed her sliding back to the single digits in national polls.

The California Democrat undoubtedly is suffering from her inability to attract black voters, who continue to support the former vice president (and didn’t like Harris’s attack on Biden in the first debate).

If she can’t attract blacks, wonder some Democratic strategists, how is she going to build momentum? And if she doesn’t show greater strength among whites, why would black voters see her as a viable alternative to Biden, the way they did Barack Obama after he proved his appeal in the 2008 Iowa caucuses?

Is Harris now toast, or will she get another look from Democratic voters?

It’s still “only” October, and the Iowa caucuses are almost four months away. Given that, and because of lingering questions about the top three in the Democratic contest — Biden, Warren and Sanders — I’m not ready to declare Harris’s quest over.

But it’s unclear whether she can compete in either the populist or the electability lane unless Warren or Biden stumble and offer an opening to her or someone else.

Most observers seem skeptical she can reboot her campaign. As one told me, “With so many options, you don’t get a whole lot of chances. If Biden were to falter, Mayor Pete would likely get a second look before Harris.”

Harris’s current standing in the race proves one thing: Checking the right demographic boxes may not be enough to make it into the Democratic presidential finals. The voters want more. We’ll see if Harris has more to give.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 8, 2019.

Beware Confirmation Bias with the 2020 Presidential Race

“The next debate is do or die for many Democratic hopefuls.”

Andrew Yang “is on fire.”

Elizabeth Warren is “surging.”

“It’s a three-way race.”

I’m betting you can think of a long list of other things you’ve heard on television or read in print to explain what is going on in the presidential race. Many of them will need to be revised eventually.

I’ve written often over the years — and even this cycle — that you shouldn’t believe the hype, so I don’t need to warn you about that again, right?

Just remember that people in the media covering elections invariably (with important exceptions) have an interest in showing “movement” and “change” — and they want to be the first to identify a trend and offer predictions — so tone down most of what they say.

Instead, I’ll merely look at where the Democrats stand now and how the president looks as he runs for another term.

And then there were …

One of the front-runners – former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — may well win the Democratic nomination, but it is still far too early to declare everyone else out of contention.

What’s the rush to label the Democratic race a three-person contest?

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar had strong third-debate performances, and California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have top-tier qualities that could help them emerge from the crowd, depending how the three front-runners perform in the months ahead.

Just as important, the Democrats’ top tier is, well, fragile.

Sanders received almost half of the Democratic primary vote in 2016 but is now stuck in the mid-teens, largely confirming the assessment of many party strategists that he won’t have the same appeal the second time around, particularly given the very different field.

He still affects the race, of course, because he shares his populist rhetoric and agenda with Warren.

Warren has had three pretty good debates, and slowly but surely, she has gained some ground in the imaginary Democratic national primary since she kicked off her campaign.

But she’ll need to demonstrate even broader appeal and prove that she can dodge the obvious Republican assault that she is too far left to win a general election. The stronger she looks, the more scrutiny she will receive.

Biden is the pick of many Democrats looking for a safe choice against President Donald Trump, but his performance has been inconsistent (including in the last debate) and plays to those who see him as part of the party’s past, not its future.

His supporters must hold their breath every time he answers a question. To be sure, it’s possible that grassroots Democrats will simply overlook his verbal stumbles, just as GOP voters gave George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush passes when they were sloppy with their language.

It’s simply too early to know, but Biden will be put to the test many more times in debates and on the stump.

The former vice president’s reliance on the support of the African American community is a red flag, given the presence of two well-credentialed black candidates in the race in Harris and Booker.

Should Biden lose a chunk of that support, his campaign would be in serious trouble. Hillary Clinton had excellent support in the black community until Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, for instance.

In spite of the national media’s infatuation with long-shot hopefuls, it seems unlikely that businessman Andrew Yang, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are going anywhere in the race.

Businessman Tom Steyer is both very wealthy and very annoying. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke could break out, I guess, but he still hasn’t established he has any gravitas apart from the gun issue, where he has probably taken his party too far left for general election voters.

So, Democratic voters are likely to take their time sorting through the very large field as they look for someone they like, someone who has their values and views, and someone who is likely to defeat Trump.

Iowa, the first real test of campaign organization and candidate appeal, is still months away.

Mr. Unpopularity

As for Trump, his national poll numbers from highly regarded pollsters remain stunningly bad. His job approval continues to sit in the 40 percent to 44 percent range, and his personal ratings are no better. His “strongly disapprove” job rating is near 50 percent, most polls show, a stunning number for someone presiding over a healthy economy with low unemployment and wage growth.

Hypothetical ballot tests show Trump trailing the top-tier Democrats most likely to be their party’s nominee.

A majority of Americans seem to have decided they don’t like Trump and they don’t like what he has done to the country.

That’s disastrous for a president who was elected almost three years ago and who dominates the news almost daily.

Trump will need to demonize the eventual Democratic nominee, making him or her unacceptable — which guarantees a scorched earth reelection campaign by the GOP and additional risk of an anti-Trump backlash.

The polling we need

But the most astonishing thing so far about the coverage of the 2020 race is the lack of major media polling in the handful of key states that are likely to decide the election.

Do we really need another national poll that shows how unpopular the president is or that the national Democratic race is stagnant?

What we should be getting from the major media are high-quality surveys in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia. What we have seen from those key states is very limited polling that shows Biden (and normally Sanders) significantly ahead of Trump — again, not where an incumbent would want to be at this point in the election cycle.

However, the one truth we can count on is that we don’t know what lies ahead — not in the Democratic contest and not in the general election.

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

Can a senator be nominated and win the White House?

The abundance of sitting senators running for president seems to confirm the old joke that a senator looking into a mirror sees a future president. But it doesn’t say much about whether the Senate is a good springboard to the White House. Historically, it has not been.

Sitting senators have underperformed in contests for presidential nominations, with only three of them moving directly to the White House — Warren Harding, John Kennedy and Barack Obama.

As University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden wrote in a 2002 Political Science Quarterly article titled “United States Senators as Presidential Candidates,” the Senate “has seldom been the presidential incubator or nursery it ought to be given the ambition, visibility, resources, and records of both current and former members of the institution.”

But that has not stopped a horde of senators from jumping into the 2020 Democratic race for president.

Sizing up the field

So far, six of them are pursuing White House bids: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bernie Sandersof Vermont.

In addition, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown could well join the field, and Oregon’s Jeff Merkley has been considering the race. (Note: Both Brown and Merkley took a pass on the race.)

Once again this year, senators are getting the lion’s share of the attention.

Part of this has to do with the national media’s familiarity with them, but, as Burden points out, senators have many assets, including campaign experience, the ability to raise large amounts of money, and name ID. And yet, he writes, “statistical evidence shows that poor performance of senators [in getting nominated for president] is more than coincidence.”

Of course, this year could be different, just as 2008 was, when two senators, Obama and John McCain, faced off in the general election.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime senator, is considering a bid this time, and he would automatically jump into the top tier of contenders if he runs.

But the rest of the current field, apart from the senators, look underwhelming.

It includes a mayor, a former congressman, a sitting congresswoman and a former Cabinet official. A handful of current and former governors are also expected to join the field at some point. And governors and former governors have a way of surprising.

Early in the 1976 cycle, few people gave Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter much of a chance, certainly not any of the five senators running — Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen and Robert C. Byrd.

And in 1988, while Massachusetts governor and eventual nominee Michael Dukakis was taken seriously, former Sen. Gary Hart and sitting Sens. Biden, Al Gore and Paul Simon got plenty of early attention.

This year’s potential crop of sitting and former governors who are considering the contest — Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jay Inslee of Washington and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia — seem likely to stress their pragmatism and electability, as well as their executive experience.

That message may not resonate with Democratic activists and voters, who appear more ideological and confrontational.

Past is prologue?

So, how should we evaluate the past performance of senators in presidential contests as we predict their potential for 2020? I looked at the last 15 presidential elections — meaning the last 30 nominees by the two major parties, going back to 1960 — and found nine nominees were incumbent presidentssix were current or former vice presidents, six were sitting or former governors, eight were sitting or former senators, and one was a businessman who had held no previous office.

It’s not surprising that sitting presidents and incumbent or former vice presidents would be successful winning party nominations.

Party activists and donors knew them, and their connection to a presidential ticket gave them a certain stature and experience that other hopefuls lacked.

That hardly suggests senators can’t be nominated or even that they face a substantial disadvantage. But can senators win if they are nominated?

Of the last 15 presidential election winners, six were incumbent presidents and two were sitting or former vice presidents.

That accounts for more than half of all presidential winners since 1960.

Of the remaining seven, four were sitting or former governors, two were senators and one had no previous political experience.

Of the 15 nominees who lost, three were incumbent presidents, four were sitting or former vice presidents, two were sitting or former governors and six were sitting or former senators.

That may reflect the challenge senators face explaining their records or doing their jobs while simultaneously running for the White House, but it hardly leads to the conclusion that senators can’t be elected president.

(For the purpose of those breakdowns, I used the most recent position held. So for instance, Richard Nixon, when he ran in 1960, was counted as a sitting vice president, even though he was a former senator. When Nixon ran in 1968, he was counted as a former vice president. And when he ran in 1972, he was counted as an incumbent president.)

Changing times

Given the onetime conventional wisdom that senators have a hard time getting elected president, I wondered whether that conventional wisdom still holds.

Sandy Maisel, a Colby College government professor and longtime student of American politics, doesn’t think so.

He told me American politics has changed in many ways, from fundraising to weaker parties and more media coverage, and those developments have changed the nominating process.

“The office you hold is no longer important,” Maisel says. “Can you excite people? Can you raise a lot of money? And, in a cycle like this one, can you find a niche that distinguishes you from the large field? That’s more important, not the office.”

Sounds about right to me.

 Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 26, 2019.