Biden, Unions and the Politics of 2020

Shortly after former Vice President Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he received his first union endorsement. “I couldn’t be more proud to have the International Association of Fire Fighters on my team,” Biden tweeted in response. “Unions built the middle class in this country — and as President, I’ll fight to strengthen them and grow the backbone of this country.”

As CNN noted, “Biden has long enjoyed close ties to labor groups and often attributes his political ascent to unions, referring to them as the ones who ‘brung me to the dance.’” But while Biden’s strength among working-class voters is one reason some observers see him as potentially able to win back Democrats who defected to Donald Trump in 2016, his initial comments about the IAFF endorsement at least raise a question about priorities and strategy.

Biden was born in 1942 and was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Unions were a strong economic force then, and they carried significant political clout, with large, politically active memberships and financial muscle. But the percentage of American workers belonging to unions peaked in the mid-1940s and has been falling ever since.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.5 percent of wage and salary workers were members of unions in 2018. Many of them were in government, so union membership among private-sector workers was a microscopic 6.4 percent.

Of course, the distribution of union members around the country is not uniform. Most union members live in states that are already normally Democratic.

Of the 11 states where union membership in 2018 constituted at least 15 percent of the employed, Hillary Clinton carried nine: New York (23.8 percent), Hawaii (21.3), Washington (18.8), Connecticut (16.9), New Jersey (16.2), Rhode Island (16.1), California (15.5), Minnesota (15.2) and Illinois (15.0).

Trump won two of them, Alaska (18.1) and Michigan (15.6), which is normally a Democratic state.

Union membership as a percentage of all employed stood slightly above the national average in one key swing state, Pennsylvania (12.0), but it was well below the national average in three other states that could decide the presidency in 2020: Wisconsin (8.3), Florida (5.6) and North Carolina (3.4).

Appeals to unions and union members may be effective in many already rock-solid liberal and Democratic states — making unions still relevant in Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses — but it is hard to see how organized labor will change the political equation for 2020.

Of course, in a general election against Trump, Biden’s pro-union, pro-working-class message could appeal to some Americans who are not union members (or union households) but have a favorable view of unions.

An April 25-May 1, 2018, survey by the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of adults had a very or somewhat favorable view of labor unions, while only 33 percent have a very or somewhat unfavorable view of them.

And when Pew followed up by noting the decline in union membership and asking whether that development has been “mostly good” or “mostly bad” for working people, 51 percent said “mostly bad” and 35 percent said “mostly good.”

Trump surely will run on the economy, and a Democratic nominee who is too far to the left on the issue, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would make it easy for the president to argue that Democrats will drive the economy into a ditch.

Biden should be more difficult to paint with that broad brush.

But it’s difficult to believe that any Democrat is going to win the White House by focusing on the economy — not with an April national unemployment rate of 3.6 percent and strong gross domestic product growth.

No wonder 51 percent of respondents told the April 26-May 1 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that they approved of Trump’s handling of the economy.

Instead, the Democrats’ best path next year appears to be on cultural issues and non-economic concerns, including health care, gun control and climate change, as well as the president’s personality and character issues, and “change.”

Those issues energized core Democratic groups and swing voters in 2018.

The question is how Biden addresses those concerns and whether Democratic voters can get excited about him and his agenda.

Unions surely continue to be a part of the Democratic coalition, and any Democratic nominee who can improve on Hillary Clinton’s showing with blue-collar workers and whites without a college degree will be formidable next year.

But Democrats are probably better off trying to turn out their 2018 coalition again in 2020 than trying to recreate the non-college/working-class coalition they relied on before Trump. And that may require Biden to be the proverbial old dog who learns new tricks. He’ll need to avoid falling into old patterns and relying on old messages, even as he appreciates those who initially brought him to the dance.

This column appeared initially in the May 7 issue of Roll Call.

House Midterm Outlook: Look for a Democratic Flip

Are we still headed for a Democratic wave in the House next month? That all depends on how you define a wave. But one thing is clear: Democrats are still likely to flip the chamber even after all the buzz about a post-Kavanaugh Republican bounce.

A wave occurs when a large number of one party’s seats flip to the other party, invariably because of a national political figure (the president, usually) or a national issue. Many competitive seats change hands, and at least a few entrenched incumbents suddenly find themselves in trouble.

How many seats need to flip to constitute a wave? 20 seats? 30? 50?

The best way to answer that unanswerable question is to look at history.

During the 17 midterm elections that have occurred since 1950, five have produced single-digit changes, while another four have been in the teens and low double digits. Three elections have produced net changes from 26 to 30 seats, while five more have produced gains of 48 to 63 seats.

The single-digit changes — in 1962, 1986, 1990, 1998 and 2002 — clearly were not waves. One party cherry-picked enough seats to make a net gain, but there was no sign of national political momentum.

The teens/low double-digit change elections — in 1954, 1970, 1978 and 2014 — may have reflected one party’s advantage, but for me, the net changes don’t constitute a substantial enough surge for one side to be defined as a wave election.

Not a science

I’ve always used 20 seats or even 25 seats as the minimum number of seats that a party needs to gain before calling an election a wave, though I don’t think there is a magic number.

In part, the number of seats that need to switch depends on where the two parties start.

Moreover, not all waves are alike. There are smaller waves (20-30 seats) and larger ones (48 seats each in 1958, 1966 and 1974) — and there are tsunamis, including 1994, when Republicans gained 54 seats, and 2010, when they gained 63 seats.

This cycle, a modest wave has been developing for months. President Donald Trump’s job approval has been low, and voters have told pollsters they want a Democratic Congress as a check on him.

Trump’s job approval climbed in the Oct. 14-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but that survey also gave Democrats a 9-point advantage (50 percent to 41 percent) in the generic ballot among likely midterm voters. And while Republican enthusiasm has grown over the last month, it fails to match Democratic enthusiasm.

Women and college-educated whites have moved strongly toward the Democrats, and younger and minority voters appear unusually energized.

More important at this point of the election cycle, surveys in individual congressional districts show GOP-held suburban districts like Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th (Mike Coffman), New Jersey’s 11th (retiring Rodney Frelinghuysen’s open seat) and Kansas’ 3rd (Kevin Yoder) poised to flip.

Incumbents in these and similar districts have proved that they can win even in difficult political environments, but a wave is an entirely different matter since it makes the election about someone else (in this case, Trump and Republican control of the House), not the individual Republican nominee or member of Congress.

Of course, not all seats behave the same way even during a political wave. Not even all suburban seats behave the same way.

Candidates and their campaigns matter. Strategists from both parties have very different views of the current House playing field and how it has changed.

GOP strategists generally express confidence that the party’s “worst case” scenario has been avoided, thanks to the confirmation fight surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

They once feared losses of 40 to 50 seats, but now generally expect somewhat fewer losses, probably in the 30-40 seat range.

A veteran Democrat I spoke with laughed at the prospect that Democrats were ever going to win 50 seats, insisting that 30 or 35 seats was always a more reasonable number.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales has projected Democratic gains of 25-35 seats, a “Category 1” hurricane that would produce a wave that would cost Republicans the House but wouldn’t produce anything close to a 1994 or 2010 tsunami.

Holding steady

In an early September column, I found Democrats heading for a gain of about 30 seats, with larger gains very possible, though I have generally been saying that I expect Democratic gains in the 30-40 seat range. I see no reason to alter that expectation.

Others, of course, have suggested that Democratic prospects in the House were much greater a month ago and have dimmed of late.

Some districts do look worse for Democrats, while others suddenly look intriguing, but that is the nature of campaigns — and of political handicapping.

Moreover, it is quite possible that some of those who once expected greater Republican losses were overly optimistic about Democratic prospects.

Pennsylvania, California and New Jersey continue to be prime Democratic targets, but there are many races that are still competitive, including Kansas’ 2nd District, Maine’s 2nd, Kentucky’s 6th, Florida’s 15th and 26th, New Mexico’s 2nd, Virginia’s 2nd and Iowa’s 3rd.

Republicans, on the other hand, will win a Pennsylvania open seat and are likely to swipe one or two pro-Trump districts in Minnesota.

Although I have watched House campaigns and elections closely for almost four decades, I’m less confident I know how this cycle will end.

Trump, after all, is an untraditional figure, and that makes his impact uncertain. But for now, just two weeks before Election Day, the contours of the 2018 midterm elections haven’t changed dramatically in the House.

The focus remains primarily on suburban districts, college-educated whites, younger voters and minorities, not on rural and evangelical voters or whites without a college education. The House is still poised to flip party control.

This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 23, 2018.

Breaking the Midterm Mode: Both Parties Make it About Trump

For decades, the rule of thumb for campaigns during midterm elections has been the same: When the president is popular, the president’s party tries to nationalize the election, and the opposition attempts to localize it. On the other hand, when the president is unpopular, his party’s nominees try to localize while the opposition tries to make the election a national referendum on his performance. Perhaps not surprisingly, 2018 has broken that mold.

Both sides are trying to nationalize the November election.

President Donald Trump’s job approval rating sits somewhere between 38 percent and 42 percent, a level that in the past would have kept him locked up in the White House or doing private fundraising events throughout the election year. And yet, the president continues to fly around the country to attend rally after rally.

True, the rallies tend to be in pro-Trump areas, but the coverage of those events and the president’s public schedule make him the center of attention nationally.

Moreover, Trump goes out of his way to argue that the midterms are about him, that voting for Republican candidates is the same thing as voting for him.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that Trump wants to make the 2018 elections about him. He seems to think that everything is about him.

Anyway, this odd situation whereby both parties are trying to make the upcoming election about Trump obviously follows from the polarization in the country.

Both approval and disapproval of the president are stunningly intense.

Three out of four respondents in a Sept. 16-19 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll either strongly approved or strongly disapproved of Trump’s performance.

Because of that — and because of the Senate map, which includes a number of pro-Trump, pro-Republican states with Democratic incumbents — both national parties essentially are trying to nationalize the election.

For years now, party strategists have been obsessed with base turnout. While Trump lost the popular vote two years ago, his Electoral College victory and his reliance on higher turnout voters (e.g., white voters and older voters) have fueled GOP optimism about 2018.

Many Republican strategists have argued that if they can get their voters to turn out, as they did in 2016, the party can hold the House and expand its Senate majority.

Democrats, on the other hand, believe that weaker-than-anticipated base turnout last time cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, and the party needs only to boost its numbers among younger voters, minority voters and progressives to produce a blue wave — particularly if college-educated, suburban women are fleeing GOP candidates this year.

Given strategists’ assumptions, nationalizing the midterms seems to accomplish what both parties want — to encourage turnout among base voters.

But the nationalizing strategy has also made it much more difficult for party officeholders in the political center and who need to localize their races if they are going to have any chance of winning.

Republican incumbents in non-Trump districts, such as Virginia’s Barbara Comstock and Colorado’s Mike Coffman, have no chance of surviving a nationalized election next month.

They — and two-dozen other House Republicans seeking re-election or open seats — need to run on their own accomplishments and personal connections to district voters, but they can’t do that if the entire midterms are about Trump.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already run a TV spot mocking Coffman’s promise to “stand up to Trump,” as well as a spot that labels Comstock “Barbara Trumpstock” because of her support for the president’s agenda.

DCCC ads in two Twin Cities districts, held by Republicans Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, specifically link those two incumbents to the president. And those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Trump has essentially thrown pragmatic incumbent House members under the bus by making himself the focus of the midterms.

At the same time, of course, Trump has made it more difficult for Democratic senators seeking re-election in GOP-friendly states such as North Dakota and Missouri.

Heidi Heitkamp won election narrowly six-years ago by portraying herself as a “North Dakota Democrat,” not a “national Democrat,” but that is a much heavier lift this year, when everything is about Trump and the two parties.

I recently wrote that this election will rob the GOP of many of its more moderate and pragmatic members, making the party more conservative and less willing to compromise. The Democrats may become a more diverse group because the party will add both suburban pragmatists and progressives who embrace “social democracy.”

But the election will do something else. It will pull the two bodies of Congress further apart. The Senate majority will be even more the chamber of Trump, while the House will lead the opposition to him. In a system of checks and balances, that is not a prescription for getting legislation enacted.

This column appeared originally in Roll Call on October 15, 2018.

Polling Still Points to Rough November for Republicans

If you trust the July 9-11 Fox News poll and the July 15-18 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey — and I have no reason not to — the GOP still looks headed for a difficult election and the likely loss of the House.

No, President Donald Trump’s voters are not fleeing him, and his personal poll numbers have not cratered even after his behavior at the NATO summit in Belgium and his Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin. So, maybe he really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. But that says something about Trump’s supporters, not the overall electorate.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the combination of national and state polling continues to show the party’s vulnerability as November approaches.

The most recent Fox News poll of registered voters found Trump’s job approval at 46 percent, while the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of registered voters put his approval at 45 percent. Both numbers are up a point or two but generally within the low- to mid-40s range where they have been for most of this year. Trump, of course, drew 46.1 percent of the popular vote in 2016.

Fox showed Democrats with an overall 8-point advantage on the congressional generic ballot, while NBC News/Wall Street Journal put their advantage at 6 points.

Both surveys are well within the midrange of recent national surveys and approaching the +10 to +12 range Democrats probably need to flip the House.

The president’s standing among independent voters is of particular concern to Republican strategists. (I wrote about why in a May 30 column.)

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed Trump’s job rating among independents at 36 percent approve/58 percent disapprove, while Fox News found it at 40 percent approve/48 percent disapprove.

In both surveys, the president’s standing among independents was worse than among all voters.

In the congressional generic ballot, Fox News found independents now preferring Democrats by 13 points, 32 percent to 19 percent, while the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed them backing a Democratic Congress by more than 20 points.

Two years ago

Both numbers stand in sharp contrast to the 2016 national House exit poll, which found independent voters went Republican by 6 points, 51 percent to 45 percent.

The most recent Fox News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys give us some other interesting numbers to chew on, especially in light of the 2016 national House exit poll.

That poll showed whites voted Republican by 22 points (60 percent to 38 percent) in 2016. But the most recent Fox News survey showed the GOP’s generic ballot advantage among white voters this year is down to single digits, 49 percent to 41 percent.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found whites preferring the GOP by a nearly identical 9 points, 50 percent to 41 percent.

Older voters could be crucial in November, since they tend to turn out in high numbers.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed voters 65 and older giving Trump a job rating of 44 percent approve/55 percent disapprove and preferring a Democratic Congress by 11 points (52 percent to 41 percent).

In contrast, the 2016 House exit poll found voters 65 and older backed the GOP by 8 points, 53 percent to 45 percent, in that election.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found key demographic groups — younger voters (ages 18-29), independents, suburban voters and white women — all looking very likely to perform the way they did in 2006, a Democratic wave year.

Keeping the base

To be sure, Trump remains strong among his core constituencies — white men, white men without a college degree, self-identified Republicans and rural voters, for example — but none of those groups are normally considered swing voters, though a strong turnout by those groups would obviously benefit the president.

A handful of state and district polls over the last month also showed surprising Democratic strength in the Senate races in West Virginia and Tennessee, California’s 48th District, North Carolina’s 9th District and even West Virginia’s 3rd District.

Clearly, the political landscape remains dangerous for the GOP, though Democrats can’t claim victory yet. This cake is not yet baked.

So far, there is no evidence of wholesale defections from Trump among those who voted for him in 2016.

The president has generally played to his base, and most true-blue Trump loyalists are so invested in him that they would not even consider voting Democratic in the fall.

But Trump has done nothing to improve his standing with voters who supported Hillary Clinton and progressive Democrats who couldn’t make themselves vote for her.

At the same time, the president’s policies on trade, his incomprehensible delay in blaming Putin for interfering in the 2016 election, his positions on guns and immigration, and his insensitive comments about race may eventually cost him some support among those who voted for him (even if they are not yet ready to bolt Trump now).

But Democrats don’t need the votes of Trump loyalists to ride a political wave into the House. They merely need to turn out Democrats and win independents by a substantial margin.

Any additional leakage of GOP voters to the Democrats in November — or a drop in Republican turnout for the midterms — would make the wave bigger.

Events could change the election’s trajectory, of course, and the president is likely to have a few ups and a few downs between now and November.

But it’s more likely that the daily dose of chaos from the White House that surely will continue to Election Day will produce more fatigue with the White House on the right and in the center than on the left, where enthusiasm remains high.

The column appeared originally in Roll Call on July 24, 2018.