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.

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.

Democrats Still at Square One

With two debates down and too many more still to go, Democrats are pretty much where they were before the June debates in Miami and the July debates in Detroit.

That shouldn’t surprise you. The Iowa caucuses are still almost six months away, and voters are just starting to tune into the campaign. They know full well they don’t have to embrace one hopeful now.

Instead, they can continue to comparison shop, evaluating performances in debates, on television interviews, on the stump and in the heavy news coverage.

And those who care about electability can watch the polls. After a rather combative set of debates — courtesy of CNN, which was more interested in roughhousing by the candidates than in uncovering their priorities and management styles — where does the Democratic race now stand?

President Donald Trump is still the egotistical, abusive promoter of division that he has been, which is one reason why his job approval ratings are so poor given low unemployment rates, substantial wage growth and a generally vibrant economy.

Sure, there are things to complain about — e.g., growing deficits and debt, trade wars and the growing wealth gap — but if Trump acted like a normal president, he would be coasting to reelection.

Instead, the president, who drew 46 percent of the popular vote in 2016, sits generally in the 40 percent to 43 percent range in hypothetical ballot tests against a variety of top-tier Democratic hopefuls.

Former Vice President Joe Biden performs best against Trump, but he isn’t the only Democrat to lead in head-to-head ballot tests.

Democrats have a number of ways of increasing their vote share in 2020, including attracting more base voters (who either didn’t turn out or voted for a third party candidate in 2016) and/or improving their showing among suburban women and women with a college degree, swing groups that turned more Democratic in the 2018 midterms.

If they improve their showing among one or both of those groups, the president will have a difficult time winning a second term.

Of course, Trump still has a narrow path to 270 electoral votes, and Republicans will try to demonize and discredit the eventual Democratic nominee, making him or her unacceptable to enough voters to produce another Trump victory.

Obviously, Trump’s chances of discrediting his opponent varies with that challenger. He’d use different tactics against Biden than he would against Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

But no matter whom the Democrats nominate, Trump’s campaign will be built around destroying him or her.

The Democrats will be in much better position if they can make the 2020 about Trump.

Sure, their nominee will need a positive agenda and appealing vision, and the party will adopt a platform in Milwaukee at next summer’s nominating convention.

But the Democratic nominee needs to spend much more time making the 2020 election a referendum on Trump than a choice between two ideologies.

Electability will become a bigger concern in the months ahead. But right now, ideological positioning, candidate skills and past records are more important.

So how have the Democrats fared so far? Not particularly well.

Biden, the early national front-runner, continues to be the best-positioned Democrat in the race.

As Barack Obama’s former vice president, he starts off with considerable support in the black community. But he also has a long-developed reputation for appealing to working-class white voters, like the ones in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who elected Trump.

A progressive with more than a mere touch of pragmatism, he has appeal to both his party’s base and swing voters.

But Biden received underwhelming reviews in Miami. He recovered somewhat in Detroit, but he didn’t appear agile during his second debate, stumbling more than a few times.

Yes, I know, we all stumble. But at 76, he (and Sanders, who is 77) are under a microscope.

Biden’s lengthy record continues to give plenty of ammunition to his opponents. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro all raised issues with him in Detroit that he either didn’t answer or was ineffective rebutting.

Fortunately for him, he will have more opportunities to put doubts about his campaign skills to rest. California Sen. Kamala Harris was the clear winner of her first debate with Biden, but she found out how quickly things can change.

Targeted by others onstage in Detroit, she was put on the defensive immediately about the latest version of her “Medicare for All” plan.

Quickly, Harris’ shoulders drooped, and her smile vanished. She looked at various moments deflated, bored and frustrated.

Yes, it is only one night. But it was a missed opportunity. With Biden and Harris having less than ideal nights, Sanders and Warren are, at least briefly, the short-term beneficiaries.

Both are passionate populists, with boundless energy and an unquenchable desire to bash corporations and the rich.

But Sanders embraced the “socialist” label years ago, and his agenda has not strayed fundamentally from that goal, leaving him open to Republican attacks that his election would destroy Trump’s greatest accomplishment — the economy.

Of course, Sanders leads Trump in most polls, and his supporters will argue that shows his electability, to say nothing of his appeal to progressives who never warmed to Hillary Clinton.

But the amount of opposition research on Sanders must be mind-numbing, considering that he is now 77 years old and his political activism goes back to the early 1960s. He first ran for office in 1971.

Warren doesn’t quite have Sanders’ baggage, but she is vulnerable to the same criticism.

Maybe more importantly, those hopefuls who embraced “Medicare for all” suddenly find themselves on the defensive against those defending Obamacare and those workers not eager to give up longtime union-negotiated health care coverage.

So, Democrats face an uncomfortable reality.

Trump is damaged goods, but most of their own top-tier hopefuls have their own liabilities — or at least have to worry about their ideological positioning, campaign skills and electability. Luckily, Iowa is still many months away.

Note: This column appeared initially on Roll Call on August 6, 2019.