Iowa gave Barack Obama a resounding 9.5-point victory over John McCain in 2008. Four years later, Obama’s margin shrunk to 5.8 points against Mitt Romney. But in 2016, something odd happened.
Donald Trump carried Iowa by 9.4 points — a dramatic change in the state’s recent voting behavior and close to the same winning margin as Obama’s eight years earlier.
Iowa had gone Republican before, of course. It voted narrowly for George W. Bush in 2004, and it backed Ronald Reagan twice, in 1980 and 1984.
But Michael Dukakis carried it comfortably in 1988, and Al Gore’s narrow victory in 2000 seemed to suggest Iowa was shifting ever so slightly toward the Democrats. That is what made 2016 so noteworthy.
Did Trump’s solid victory say something about the state’s fundamental partisan bent?
Yes and no. As reporter Paige Godden and the folks at Iowa Starting Line note, a stunning 31 Iowa counties voted twice for Obama but flipped to Trump in 2016. Their statewide map shows the bulk of the shifts occurring in eastern Iowa (and particularly northeast Iowa), areas of traditional Democratic strength.
While much of western Iowa has more in common with Nebraska and South Dakota (including its Republican bent), northeast Iowa has more in common with Minnesota and Wisconsin, and eastern Iowa looks toward Illinois.
The shift in eastern and northeast Iowa in 2016 probably reflects the shift seen elsewhere among working-class voters who were once reliably Democratic but responded enthusiastically to Trump’s message.
According to a 2017 analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Iowa ranked third in the nation with blue-collar jobs as a share of total nonfarm employment in each state. (The group defined blue-collar jobs as those in goods-producing sectors — manufacturing, construction, mining and logging.)
Given that, maybe Iowa’s dramatic shift was not so surprising. But there is more to the story. And it suggests that the state’s swing was not quite as dramatic as it first looked.
Trump drew almost 801,000 votes in Iowa, more than 20,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2008 (823,000 votes) or in 2012 (829,000 votes).
Trump’s showing, in percentage terms, was right in line with those presidential nominees who carried Iowa in the previous five contests.
He drew 51.2 percent, while Obama drew 52 percent in 2012 (against Romney) and 53.9 percent in 2008 (against McCain). George W. Bush drew 49.9 percent in 2004 (against John Kerry) and Gore drew 48.5 percent in 2000 against Bush.
In 1996, Bill Clinton drew 50.3 percent in Iowa against Bob Dole.
So while Trump’s margin of victory was large (9.4 points), especially for a once-hypercompetitive state, the percentage of the vote that he received (51.2 percent) was not particularly noteworthy.
How could that be?
As in a handful of other competitive Midwest and Great Lakes states (see my July 19, 2019, column about Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), Trump’s margin of victory was more a reflection of Hillary Clinton’s weak performance than his own strength.
Clinton drew just 41.7 percent of the vote in Iowa, a showing far worse than those by other recent losing candidates, including Romney (46.2 percent), McCain (44.4 percent), Kerry (49.2 percent) and George W. Bush (48.2 percent).
The only recent losing nominees to draw a lower vote percentage in Iowa than Clinton were Dole (39.9 percent in 1996) and George H.W. Bush (37.3 percent in 1992), both of whom lost a substantial number of votes to independent Ross Perot.
Is this good news for Democrats, putting Iowa back in play in 2020?
Hillary Clinton’s showing in Iowa reflected a unique weakness, and Democrats have a chance to nominate someone who doesn’t have her baggage, which would improve their prospects in the state.
But Trump’s margin was substantial, and Democrats would need to bring out voters who stayed home in 2016 and also win back some former Democrats who backed Trump three years ago. That’s quite a challenge.
So far, there is little reason to believe that more than a trickle of 2016 Trump voters are ready to defect (or, more correctly, return to the Democratic Party), and that, plus the state’s rural Republican voters throughout the state, make it difficult to see Iowa supporting the Democratic nominee in November.
Of course, 2020 certainly should see a much closer race in Iowa if the Democrats nominate someone who can turn out new voters, rally the party base and appeal to swing voters upset with Trump’s language and governing style.
Trump’s margin in Iowa is likely to shrink in November to the mid- or even low-single digits. That means he is still likely to carry the state (barring new developments), but it also means that Iowa is worth keeping an eye on, if only as a test case as to whether Democrats are rallying behind their party’s nominee.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 22, 2020.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
There is no need to speculate about President Donald Trump’s strategy for reelection. He plans to — and needs to — destroy his general election opponent.
That’s the only way an incumbent president with a job approval rating in the low 40s and sitting at 40 percent in hypothetical ballot tests can possibly win.
Trump loves the combat and the name-calling. It wouldn’t matter if the Democrats nominated Mother Teresa (were she still alive). Trump would mock her, give her a demeaning nickname, portray her as selfish and self-centered, and brand her a phony. That’s what Trump does.
But don’t take my word for it. It was his wife, Melania Trump, who told a crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 2016, “As you may know by now, when you attack him, he will punch back 10 times harder. No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal.”
“Equal,” as in equally nasty.
Politics can be a rough game. I get it. I’ve been covering campaigns for the last 40 years. No, politics ain’t beanbag.
But in the old days, political dirt was shoveled under cover of darkness, circulated by whispering campaigns or anonymous handouts left on car windshields on Sunday mornings.
Trump has taken negativity to a new level.
He delivers the attacks himself, often during rallies or press events. So whether the Democrats nominate Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Steve Bullock, John Delaney or someone else, you can be sure that Trump and his allies will run the same slash-and-burn campaign they did in 2016.
Something on everyone
There are no flawless candidates this year or any year. Democrats shouldn’t be looking for one.
Obviously, some Democrats are carrying more baggage than others.
Sanders’ embrace of socialism, for example, may earn him points for being frank, but it’s a considerable liability in a general election.
Biden’s son Hunter’s membership on the board of a Ukrainian energy company is also a liability for his father, though not one so serious that it would define the former vice president’s candidacy.
We don’t now know what opposition research Trump has on each of the Democratic candidates, but Democrats would be wise to assume he has something on everyone — and if he doesn’t, he’ll just make something up, as he has done in the past.
He is, after all, trying to muddy the waters so that he wins a chunk of voters who don’t like him but dislike his opponent even more.
Remember, Trump won the 2016 election even though he had worse ratings that Hillary Clinton, according to that year’s exit poll.
Forty-three percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Clinton, compared to 55 percent who saw her unfavorably. Trump’s rating was measurably worse at 38 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable.
A solid 55 percent of respondents said Clinton had the right temperament to be president, while only 35 percent said the same of Trump. And while 52 percent of those polled said Clinton was “qualified to serve as president,” only 38 percent said Trump was qualified.
Clinton even bested Trump, albeit very narrowly, when it came to honesty and trustworthiness. Only one in three respondents said Trump was “honest and trustworthy,” while 36 percent said that that description applied to Clinton, who was carrying years of political baggage.
Given all of those numbers, Clinton should have won the election comfortably. But she didn’t, in part because many voters didn’t trust her, eight years of Barack Obama produced an anti-Democratic fatigue, and a slice of voters were so frustrated with unfulfilled promises that they took a flier on an outsider they hoped could change the trajectory of the country in a positive way.
Even if many voters had doubts about Trump — even if it was a gamble to vote for someone unqualified and with the wrong temperament — wasn’t it worth the risk, given the alternative?
Four years later
Trump’s problem is that the rhetorical question he asked of black voters in 2016 — “What do you have to lose?” — now has a different answer for many voters (regardless of race) than it did four years ago.
He will continue to run against the establishment, the Deep State, the national media, Obama, Clinton and his eventual Democratic opponent. But unlike 2016, when voters could vote for Trump in the hope that he would become “more presidential” and would “grow” into the office, those voters now see that the exact opposite has occurred.
And while millions of Americans who still support the president may like his political incorrectness and the chaos he produces on a daily basis, some of those 2016 supporters won’t want to stomach another four years of disarray and insanity. It is simply too fatiguing.
So the president has no option but to drive his opponent’s negatives higher. That means attacks on his or her character, judgment, health, integrity, intellect, family members, friends, business associates and personal behavior.
And yes, Trump will brand him or her a socialist who wants open borders and gun confiscation, and who supports closing all houses of worship, destroying the U.S. military, bankrupting the country and letting rapists and murderers run free.
And he’ll probably do all that before the end of September. Just imagine what the last month before Election Day will be like.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 15, 2019.