Political Animal

The Volatility of the Electability Argument

The writers at New York Magazine’s Intelligencer page had an interesting discussion about whether Democrats are too nervous to nominate a woman in the 2020 primary. Early on in the conversation, Jonathan Chait extended the question to race as well.

My initial reaction to the question was to wonder if any of them had paid attention to what happened in the 2018 midterm elections when a blue wave, fueled primarily by women and people of color, elected the most diverse House Democratic caucus in the country’s history. But Irin Carmon shared some quotes from voters that seemed to reinforce the assumptions behind their discussion.

Irin: Anecdata: I just had breakfast with a bunch of Democrats in Trump-won coastal NC, supporters of Planned Parenthood who I spoke to about my book last night, and every single one was either Biden or Beto because “we have to be pragmatic.” Fear is driving this…

Irin: One (white) woman was like, “Everyone is asking whether we should focus on the South or the Midwest. Well, I’ve lived in the South my whole life, and my answer is the Midwest.”

The pragmatic nature of the argument zeros in on electability—which puts the focus on two of the white men in the race.

Peter Beinart takes on the whole electability argument and compares it to an attempt to predict someone’s future from their zodiac sign. I found the subhead of his piece to be interesting: “When pundits anoint Biden—or Sanders or O’Rourke—as the likeliest to beat Trump, they’re making lots of dubious assumptions.” Other than running in the Democratic primary, one of the only things those three candidates have in common is that they are white males.

So both the pundits, as well as the voters Carmon talked to, are making an electability argument based primarily on a candidate’s race and gender.

One of the points Beinart addresses goes directly to the concerns discussed by the Intelligencer staff.

[E]ven if Biden did prove better able to win back working-class whites than his competitors, could he rouse the Democratic Party’s African American and female base? The fact that his advisers are reportedly considering asking Stacey Abrams to be his running mate suggests that they themselves have doubts.

If Biden needs an African American woman on the ticket in order to be electable, what does that say about the electorate and their concerns about women and people of color?

In making his argument against a focus on electability, Beinart reminds us of how we’ve all been wrong in the past.

In 2016, very few political writers, myself emphatically included, thought Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. Very few thought Bernie Sanders would win 23 states and 13 million votes in his Democratic-primary battle with Hillary Clinton.

The voters were lousy prognosticators too. Although polls generally suggested that Sanders would fare better against Trump, voters overwhelmingly believed Hillary Clinton had a better chance of winning the general election. And in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, they overwhelmingly predicted that Clinton, not Trump, would triumph.

All of this takes me back even farther in history to what transpired in the 2008 Democratic primary. At this point in that race, Hillary Clinton was the front-runner and most people assumed that the only real challenge to her nomination came from John Edwards, who eventually dropped out due to scandals. Almost no one was paying any real attention to that guy with the funny name—Barack Obama. After all, he is African American and would therefore not be electable.

On January 3, 2008, something happened that altered the course of the primary: Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus, beating both Edwards and Clinton by almost nine points. For many Democrats—especially African Americans—that changed their calculation about electability. If the black man with a strange name could win in a primarily white state like Iowa, maybe he had a chance. A few months later, Nate Silver put together a chart tracking Clinton’s support among African American voters, which demonstrated the dramatic shift.

Here is what that meant for the race.

Overall, Clinton lost 100 points of support among black voters in about 120 days: a truly remarkable achievement. Since black voters make up about 20 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, a 100-point swing among black voters translates to a 20-point swing among all voters. And that, essentially, was how the primary was lost.

I wouldn’t suggest that is predictive for 2020 because it happened twelve years ago and a lot has changed since then. But to the extent that Democratic voters are currently nervous about nominating a woman or a person of color, it wouldn’t be the first time that happened. What we saw in 2008 is that a strong candidate with an effective ground game was able to overcome those concerns. We’ll have to wait and see if there is a candidate like that in the 2020 field.

Ensuring the Right to Vote Is the Cornerstone of Progressive Change

I thought I’d seen everything when it comes to ways in which data from the 2016 presidential election has been sliced and diced. But Ron Brownstein noted something fascinating that hadn’t shown up in any other analysis of that race.

In a recent paper, Schraufnagel and two colleagues ranked the 50 states based on ease of voting: Of the 20 states they identified as making it most difficult to vote, Trump carried 17. Hillary Clinton carried 12 of the 20 states where it is easiest to vote.

When confronted with data like that, it is always important to remember that correlation is not causation. One of the reasons why Trump carried so many states that make it difficult to vote is that voter suppression is an agenda embraced by Republicans these days. So it makes sense that in states where they have the power to accomplish their goals, Trump would win. What we don’t know is whether the outcome would have been the same if the barriers to voting hadn’t been there.

That is precisely why Brownstein’s article is titled, “The battle over the voting booth is just beginning.”

The battle over voting access has become a critical front in the larger struggle over the nation’s direction between what I have called the Democratic coalition of transformation — centered on groups most comfortable with the demographic, cultural and economic changes remaking America — and the Republican coalition of restoration, most uneasy about those changes.

Particularly in states across the Sun Belt — from North Carolina, Florida and Georgia to Texas and Arizona — the electoral competition is shaped by a stark demographic divide. In all of those states, Democrats are increasingly reliant on growing populations of younger and nonwhite voters. But in each of those states and others demographically similar to them, a Republican coalition almost entirely dependent on white voters — especially older, blue-collar and non-urban whites — still has the advantage, particularly in state elections.

In each state the Republican majorities have used that power to approve either restrictions on voting — such as tougher voter identification laws — partisan gerrymanders or both, making it more difficult for that emerging nonwhite electorate to overturn their dominance…

Though the minority population isn’t growing there as fast, the same dynamic is present in Rust Belt states where Republican legislatures and governors empowered by the 2010 GOP landslide imposed new restrictions on voting or severely gerrymandered the lines for state elections, such as Wisconsin.

What all this means is that a movement for voting rights across the country—but especially in Sun Belt and Rust Belt states—will be critical to creating the kind of Democratic majorities necessary for progressive change.

That is precisely why the For the People Act (H.R. 1), with its emphasis on expanding access to voting, has become a Democratic priority. It is also why the bill was supported by every Democratic member of the House and opposed by every Republican: H.R. 1 defines the fault lines that will determine the outcome of what Brownstein calls the larger struggle between the “coalition of transformation” and the “coalition of restoration.”

Six years ago Rev. William Barber proposed that the country was in the midst of the Third Reconstruction.

Everything we’ve experienced since then reinforces his assessment. Following the election of this country’s first African American president, we are witnessing a face-off between the most openly sexist and racist president in recent memory and the most diverse House Democratic caucus in the country’s history.

As has always been the case in the past, the “coalition of restoration” is attempting to hold onto power by making it more difficult to vote. It is up to the “coalition of transformation” to remove barriers to voting and assure every citizen that their vote counts. Progressive change will be possible when that American ideal is guaranteed.

Sarah Palin Broke the Republican Party

If you’re old enough, you surely remember when Katie Couric interviewed Sarah Palin shortly after she had been named as John McCain’s running mate back in 2008. It didn’t go well, primarily because it became obvious not only that Palin did not read any magazines or newspapers, but that she was lying about it. It hurt early perceptions of her candor and character, and it also made her look woefully unprepared to potentially become the president of the United States. The interview definitely had a big impact, in large part because it served as a first impression of Palin for most of the nation.

Looking back, Katie Couric isn’t so sure that today’s candidates would be hurt by doing a similar face-plant in a debut interview.

TV news veteran Katie Couric says she’s not sure if the question about reading material she famously asked Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential election would have the same impact in 2019 due to what she said was a “concerning” rise in anti-intellectualism.

Palin’s fumbling nonanswer when Couric asked her about what newspapers and magazines she read that had shaped her worldview — “All of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years” — was met with mockery, but also raised serious questions about her suitability for the number two spot on Sen. John McCain’s ticket…

…But Couric said that she’s not sure the controversy would have the same effect in the current political environment.

“I’ve thought about that and have wondered, actually — that was in 2008 — if now in 2019 if someone didn’t know the answer to that question, or didn’t know the answer to a lot of other questions, if it would matter,” she said

“I think there’s such a reverse snobbery about intellectuals that I think it would almost be seen as a badge of honor. I think that’s really concerning.”

The former Today show host attributed this to an increase in anti-intellectualism and populism around the world.

“There’s kind of reverse snobbery, weirdly, about scientists, academics, elitists — whatever you want to call them,” she said. “So, I think it’s permeating our perceptions of what science is and what it can do for the world.”

There’s definitely a major uptick in populist/anti-elite sentiment that’s being felt globally, but it’s also doubtful that Palin was hurt as much as a lot of people think. She immediately became a hero to a big percentage of the people on the right precisely because she’d been made to look stupid for not doing things the elites thought she should do. These people identified with Palin and saw Couric as a snob.

What I think changed is that more mainstream, upscale Republicans found it necessary to defend Palin (and McCain, for selecting her) in an effort to avoid a complete collapse at the top of the ticket. It wasn’t just her performance in the Couric interview that they had to defend. They also had to defend her performance in the vice-presidential debate. Throughout her brief time on the big stage during the campaign, she repeatedly demonstrated her lack of preparation for the presidency, and the Republican elites simply made up excuses for her and defined down the minimum expectations people should have for a vice-presidential or presidential candidate.

I’ve long argued that this dumbing down of expectations broke something in the Republican Party. The Tea Party revolution that emerged the next year seemed to flow seamlessly from the breach.  The GOP reverted a bit to form in 2012 by nominating Mitt Romney who no one loved but was unquestionably qualified.  But the voters had been primed by Palin to resist any standards about what a nominee should know or even about how they should act.

So, in a way, I don’t think the times have changed so much since Palin ran for vice-president as Palin’s candidacy changed everything that came after it. After having to defend her, the Republican establishment was powerless to defend itself against the Tea Party or Donald Trump.

Rubio’s Hypocritical Concern About Political Tribalism

There has been some chatter among Democrats about the idea of adding seats to the Supreme Court.

There is nothing in the Constitution mandating that the Supreme Court have nine members, and a simple act of Congress could increase that number to 11, or 15, or even more. That effectively creates a way for a political party in control of the House, Senate, and presidency to add a large number of ideologically sympathetic justices to the Court, all at once.

To many leftists and left-liberals, such drastic action is needed if any progressive legislation in the future is to survive.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) decided to do some pearl-clutching about political “tribalism” in response.

At this moment though, our institutions are suffering a crisis of confidence as families fragment and communities crumble. And most Americans view every branch of government with disdain.

As we have seen, these problems do not necessarily fade from one election to the next. In fact, they may intensify. The path forward will require Americans, their political leaders, the news media and countless others to set aside the political tribalism that dominates today’s culture.

Americans need to view one another as friends, neighbors and coworkers – not Republicans or Democrats…

To this end, I am proposing a constitutional amendment to prevent the next political and cultural flashpoint: the packing of the Supreme Court for partisan gains…

Our nation may not be on the brink of civil war or dissolution, but we are suffering a crisis of confidence and we cannot withstand further erosion of trust in one another and our institutions.

Got that? When it comes to the Supreme Court, political tribalism is very bad for America because it erodes trust in our institutions.

Could it be that it was only three years ago that Sen. Marco Rubio joined with his Republican colleagues to deny a hearing or vote on a Supreme Court nominee put forward by a Democratic president, the first time that has ever happened in the history of our country? Here’s your answer:

Asked by reporters about President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination, Rubio went beyond the party line to express outright opposition to Judge Merrick Garland.

“I mean, I don’t see the point of it,” Rubio said of the nomination. “I know enough about his record to know I wouldn’t support him and I know enough about the position in general to be able to say, number one, I don’t think we should be moving on a nominee in the last year of this president’s term — I would say that if it was a Republican president — and number two, even if this was the third year of this president’s term, this is not someone I’d support.”

The fact that Rubio didn’t support Merrick Garland is irrelevant—even though a Republican colleague had once called him a “consensus nominee.” Nothing triggered a bigger “flash point” of political tribalism than the Republican effort to deny a sitting president’s Supreme Court nominee a vote, much less a hearing.

So when it comes to pearl-clutching about maintaining trust in our governmental institutions, Sen. Marco Rubio can have a seat, as they say these days. We’re not interested in hearing any moral lectures about political tribalism from the likes of someone with his record.