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.

What Do Democrats Want in a President? Part I

Democrats have a hoard of hopefuls aiming for their party’s 2020 nomination, so what qualities and characteristics are Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees likely to value?

Electability is certainly a factor, but what makes a potential nominee electable?

I’ll save the all-important ideology question — does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters or move left to energize core constituencies? — until my next column, but there are plenty of other questions that Democratic voters must address over the next 12 to 15 months.

Here are a few:

Can a candidate be ‘new’ more than once?

When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 race on April 30, 2015, he wasn’t taken very seriously by political handicappers. He seemed too far left, couldn’t match Hillary Clinton’s fundraising machine, wasn’t even a Democrat and appeared too disheveled for this media age.

But Sanders caught on as an “authentic,” quirky, progressive alternative to the “establishment” Clinton. He was passionate and sincere, a fresh voice with principled ideas.

Is Sanders still the candidate of change, new ideas and authenticity, or did his magic potion have a 2016 expiration date?

Can he really compete with other, newer, younger candidates — like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former San Antonio Mayor/former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro — who will attempt to carry the mantle of change, energy, progressivism and authenticity?

Count me as skeptical that it’s now possible to be “new” more than once.

Of course, in the past, some unsuccessful presidential hopefuls proved resilient.

Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic nominee in 1956 after losing decisively in 1952. Republican Thomas E. Dewey lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 but was nominated again four years later — and lost to Harry Truman. And Richard Nixon lost in 1960 but won the GOP nomination and the presidency eight years later.

But those were different times. Barack Obama never could have been nominated back then. Nor could Donald Trump.

We live in impatient times. Candidates don’t want to wait their turn, and the party establishment has withered.

Fundraising has changed, as has media coverage. That’s made charisma and oratory more important than preparation for office, longevity and maturity.

I expect there will be a new “Bernie Sanders” this cycle, but it’s unlikely to be Bernie Sanders.

I’m even skeptical about Joe Biden’s chances, even though he starts at or near the top in most polls, and even though I believe he would have won the White House had he been the 2016 Democratic nominee.

Selecting Biden as the party’s nominee may seem too much like going backward instead of marching into the future to Democratic voters.

Must the ticket include a woman? An African-American?

The eventual Democratic nominee will need to roll up big margins among women and non-whites, two groups that make up the backbone of the party.

Clinton carried women 54 percent to 41 percent and non-whites 74 percent to 21 percent in 2016, but two years later, Democratic House candidates carried both groups by even wider margins — winning women 59 percent to 40 percent and non-whites 76 percent to 22 percent.

Given Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s successes battling Trump, the victories by female candidates in 2018 and the infusion of energy provided by progressives of late, I simply can’t imagine a Democratic ticket without a non-white or a woman.

Both groups are crucial in offsetting the GOP’s advantage with men and whites.

The more important question is whether the party needs both a person of color and a woman on the ticket. I start off thinking the answer is “probably.”

A party that stands for diversity and inclusiveness must prove its commitment when putting together a national ticket.

This certainly doesn’t mean that a white man can’t be nominated for president or vice president by the Democrats — or win the White House.

Biden, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, O’Rourke and others have obvious assets in a crowded contest. But female and minority voters will have such a large role in selecting a presidential nominee that they may well prefer to nominate someone who looks like them.

And a ticket with a woman and/or an African American could help turnout among those crucial groups. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is black, Indian-American and a woman, checks a number of boxes.

Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar must also be in the conversation as appealing to women, just as Booker will have appeal to black Democrats.

Is experience an asset or a liability?

Obama jumped into the 2008 presidential contest on Feb. 10, 2007, about two years after he became a senator.

Trump never held elective office (or even a significant appointed post) when he won the White House. He defeated a woman who had been first lady, senator and secretary of State, and who was making her second run for president.

Does experience matter at all to Democratic voters? Or do they care only about speaking ability, charisma, newness and enthusiasm?

Is having served three terms in the House and a few years on the El Paso City Council enough (O’Rourke)? How about serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pete Buttigieg)? Is a couple of years in the Senate enough if you were previously attorney general of California (Harris)?

Newer contenders have shorter voting records, or none at all. Some have had little or no connection with Washington or Congress.

Is that what Democrats are looking for, or after Trump do they want someone who knows the ins and outs of legislation and D.C.?

If experience is still an electoral asset, Biden, Brown, former two-term Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and even Sanders have an important credential.

But if it isn’t an asset, other hopefuls may be better positioned.

These three questions are only the tip of the iceberg as we try to answer the question “What matters to Democrats as they put together a national ticket?”

In my next column, I’ll look at some other considerations, including ideological positioning.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 29, 2019.