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.
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.
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.
Is the Democratic race for president — and possibly even the 2020 general election — going to boil down to a choice of aged front-runners (or incumbent) versus a younger challenger who represents generational change? It’s certainly possible.
President Donald Trump, the oldest person ever to assume the presidency when he was inaugurated in 2017, turns 72 in June. It wouldn’t be without precedent if Democratic voters — and eventually the electorate as a whole — saw the 2020 election as an opportunity to make a statement about the future and generational change.
It has already happened a couple of times in recent memory.
President Dwight Eisenhower left office in 1961 at the age of 70 after serving eight years in the White House. His successor, Democrat John F. Kennedy, was just 43 when he was elected president the previous year.
The contrast between Eisenhower and Kennedy was obvious, as was the charisma gap between the Massachusetts Democrat and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, who was only 47 but represented continuity.
Thirty-two years later, in 1992, another Democrat ran for the White House on a message of generational change. Bill Clinton was 46 when he was elected president, making him the first baby boomer in the White House.
The Republican incumbent Clinton defeated, President George H.W. Bush, was 68 when he sought re-election. He had also served two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan, whose presidency ended when he was 77 years old.
Again, there was an obvious charisma gap between Clinton and Bush.
Now, 28 years after that 1992 election, Democrats face a quandary: Do they nominate a senior citizen or someone much younger who can portray the sitting president as part of the past?
The answer, to some extent, depends on the kind of campaign Democrats want to wage. Do they want a contest about ideology, issues and policy or about change, hope and character?
Four announced Democratic hopefuls are old enough to collect Social Security: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (age 77), Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren(69), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (68) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (67). And that doesn’t count former Vice President Joe Biden(76), who is widely expected to enter the race.
On the other hand, two hopefuls are under 40 — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (37) and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (37) — and three others are in their 40s: former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (44), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (46) and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (49).
Six announced candidates and potential hopefuls fall between the two extremes: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (52), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (52), Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (54), California Sen. Kamala Harris (54) and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (62).
Of that latter group, Harris offers the greatest contrast with Trump, a younger, female, multiracial Californian.
The Feb. 24-27 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked voters how comfortable and enthusiastic they would be with a potential nominee who had certain characteristics.
Only a third of those responding said they would be comfortable or enthusiastic with someone over 75 years of age. On the surface, that’s not great news for older hopefuls, especially Biden and Sanders.
But there is no way of knowing how many voters are so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate in his or her mid-70s, especially since recent ballot tests have shown the two oldest names tested, Biden and Sanders, leading the pack.
Not the norm
But Trump is not Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan or George H.W. Bush.
He is relatively new to elective politics, and he has a certain kind of charisma — at least to about 40 percent of the public. And unlike Nixon in 1960 and Bush in 1992, Trump doesn’t yet represent the status quo, even though he is the incumbent.
His entire message is about disruption, destroying the “deep state” and sticking it to the elite and the establishment.
That means Trump might not be as vulnerable to some form of “change” message as Nixon and Bush 41 were.
There is another side to that coin, of course. Polls consistently show a plurality (often a majority) of voters won’t vote to re-elect Trump next year, and the enthusiastic response among Democrats to O’Rourke and Buttigieg can’t be ignored.
Neither man is a typical politician or presidential hopefuls, and they have different styles. The Texan asks a lot of questions but provides few answers (at this point), while Buttigieg has been more combative against Trump and explicit about his views and personal values.
Harris remains the most interesting case. The California senator (and former state attorney general) is relatively new to national politics, having been elected in 2016, and has plenty of charisma.
Half Tamil (Indian) and half Jamaican, she is a woman of color who projects a knowledgeable and substantive view of politics and policy.
She will certainly have great appeal among women and nonwhites, two demographic groups that are crucial to winning her party’s nomination next year and to turning out base voters next November.
But would she do better than Hillary Clinton did among white, working-class voters, particularly in the Great Lakes states?
Depending on the economy, the Democrats may be able to run a basic “change” message in 2020. But party strategists can’t count on that being enough.
They may well need a nominee, and a ticket, that can offer a much bigger message about the future and what kind of country most voters want this to be.
In theory, any of the candidates can offer that kind of message, since Trump’s America is so different from what we have come to expect over the last six decades, from both parties.
Democrats need to figure out who can best deliver that message and inspire voters — Democrats, independents and non-Trump Republicans — about the future and what form that “change” message takes.
Note: This column appeared initially in the April 2, 2019 issue of Roll Call.