Political Animal

2020 Could Set Records for Voter Turnout

Talk of the 2020 election has focused primarily on polling, whether it involves the Democratic primary or potential face-to-face match-ups with Trump. But Ron Brownstein took a look at something equally important: voter turnout. Political scientists are forecasting a veritable tsunami.

Signs are growing that voter turnout in 2020 could reach the highest levels in decades—if not the highest in the past century—with a surge of new voters potentially producing the most diverse electorate in American history…

With Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency stirring such strong emotions among both supporters and opponents, strategists in both parties and academic experts are now bracing for what Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who specializes in voting behavior, recently called “a voter turnout storm of a century in 2020.”

In a recent paper, the Democratic voter-targeting firm Catalist projected that about 156 million people could vote in 2020, an enormous increase from the 139 million who cast ballots in 2016. Likewise, Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican polling firm, recently forecast that the 2020 contest could produce a massive turnout that is also unprecedentedly diverse.

McDonald is forecasting that two-thirds (67 percent) of eligible voters will cast a ballot in 2020. Here is how that compares with recent history.

Since 18-year-olds were granted the vote [in 1972], the highest showing was the 61.6 percent of eligible voters who showed up in 2008, leading to Barack Obama’s victory. And since World War II, the highest turnout level came in 1960, with John F. Kennedy’s win, when 63.8 percent of voters participated.

It is worth noting that in both of those cases a young, dynamic Democrat was running against an older establishment Republican. In one instance, the Democrat went on to become the first Catholic president in the country’s history, while the other became the first African-American president.

Recent predictions are based on data points like the number of small contributions to presidential campaigns, cable news viewership, and polls indicating a high degree of interest in the election. But it also reflects what happened in the 2018 midterms, in which 35 million more people participated than in 2014. Here is the good news for Democrats.

McDonald estimates that the number of eligible voters increases by about 5 million each year, or about 20 million from one presidential election to the next. That increase predominantly flows from two sources: young people who turn 18 and immigrants who become citizens. Since people of color are now approaching a majority of the under-18 population—and also constitute most immigrants—McDonald and other experts believe it’s likely that minorities represent a majority of the people who have become eligible to vote since 2016.

However, that only matters if the newly eligible voters actually turn out on election day—which is exactly what happened in 2018.

Turnout typically falls for all voter groups in midterm elections compared with the previous presidential race, but that falloff was much smaller than usual last year. Moreover, while turnout surged across virtually all groups, it increased most sharply among the voters who historically have participated at the lowest levels.

In addition to voter suppression, here is what Republicans are counting on.

The electorate is not diversifying nearly as fast in the three Rust Belt states that Trump dislodged from the Blue Wall—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those states, for years to come, will remain older and whiter than the nation overall, meaning that to win them, Democrats have to run better with older, whiter voters than they do in most places.

But Trump faces an uphill battle in those Rust Belt states right now, where his approval rating stands at -7 in Pennsylvania, -12 in Michigan, and -13 in Wisconsin. He’s going to need to energize a lot of angry white non-college-educated males in those states to turn that around.

Maybe It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

When pundits talk about a presidential election, the state of South Dakota never enters the conversation. That’s because it only has three electoral votes, which have reliably gone to the Republican nominee since 1968, often by 20-30 points.

Given that Trump handily beat Clinton in South Dakota, it is likely that the state will cast its three electoral votes to reelect him in 2020. That will happen despite the fact that Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) recently told Mike Allen that the presidents trade war with China has “caused the price of his state’s soybeans to plummet 20%, costing South Dakota half a billion dollars.”

Few states are more rural than South Dakota. It ranks as the fifth least densely populated state in the country. In addition to the service industry and government spending, agriculture is critical to the state’s economy. In other words, when it comes to the urban/rural divide, South Dakota clocks in at the extreme end of the continuum.

If, as expected, this overwhelmingly rural state continues to support Donald Trump, even as he decimates their economy with trade wars and funnels farm aid to corrupt foreign companies, it would be a clear signal that the president’s rural base supports him for reasons that have nothing to do with their economic interests. So keep an eye on South Dakota in 2020.

Kellyanne Conway Shouldn’t Be Exempt from the Hatch Act

Back in 2014, the Republicans had accused enough members of the Obama Administration of violating the Hatch Act that the Washington Post decided to publish an “explainer” of the law.

The Hatch Act, also known as An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, is designed to prevent members of the federal government who do not have explicitly political roles — like the president or vice-president — from engaging in political activity.

That means that if you are Secretary of Transportation, for example, you can’t hold a fundraiser for the incumbent House member in your hometown. If you are a mailman, you can’t run for the state Senate. You can’t wear a “Steven Colbert for President of South Carolina” button while working at the National Archives.

The law was reluctantly signed by Franklin Roosevelt back in 1939. It was really a reflection of some growing divisions within the Democratic Party. At the time, FDR was battling some of the more conservative Democrats in Congress. It was also damage control from a scandal that had arisen during the 1938 elections.

Widespread allegations that local Democratic Party politicians used employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the congressional elections of 1938 provided the immediate impetus for the passage of the Hatch Act. Criticism centered on swing states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. In Pennsylvania, Republicans and dissident Democrats publicized evidence that Democratic politicians were consulted on the appointment of WPA administrators and case workers and that they used WPA jobs to gain unfair political advantage.

You can consider it an anti-cronyism bill, but it was difficult to craft something that would crack down on people using their offices for political advantage without unduly curtailing citizens’ free speech rights. The Democrats never seemed to like the bill. In the 1970s, they tried and failed to exempt postal workers and the liberals on the Supreme Court dissented from a case that upheld the law. House Democrats passed a law to allow federal employees to run for office, but the Senate took no action.

In practice, it seems to be enforced against civil servants but rarely against high-ranking members of the cabinet or administration. Enforcement is the responsibility of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which is a permanent and distinct office from Robert Mueller’s operation. The Office has just taken the highly unusual step of making a referral to President Trump recommending that his adviser Kellyanne Conway be terminated for being a “repeat offender” of the Pernicious Political Activities Act.

“Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions. Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system—the rule of law.”

“If Ms. Conway were any other federal employee, her multiple violations of the law would almost certainly result in her removal from her federal position…Never has (the office) had to issue multiple reports to the President concerning Hatch Act violations by the same individual.”

Conway was aware that her conduct was under scrutiny, but she was completely dismissive of the law.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said May 29th when she was asked about the Hatch Act by reporters at the White House. “If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”

The White House has already responded to the referral by accusing the U.S. Office of Special Counsel of being a bunch of agenda-driven liberals.

“The Office of Special Counsel’s unprecedented actions against Kellyanne Conway are deeply flawed and violate her constitutional rights to free speech and due process,” spokesman Steve Groves said. “Others, of all political views, have objected to the OSC’s unclear and unevenly applied rules which have a chilling effect on free speech for all federal employees. Its decisions seem to be influenced by media pressure and liberal organizations – and perhaps OSC should be mindful of its own mandate to act in a fair, impartial, non-political manner, and not misinterpret or weaponize the Hatch Act.”

It’s relatively easy to run afoul of the Hatch Act, especially for a political adviser like Conway. It usually results in a mild rebuke and an instruction to knock off the political commentary. What’s different in this case is that Conway has refused to modify her behavior. For example, she was chastised in March 2018 for weighing in on the primary candidates in the Alabama special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate. Yet, she went on to comment on numerous Democratic candidates for president.

At issue are Ms. Conway’s media appearances attacking Democrats running for their party’s nomination to challenge Mr. Trump next year. The Office of Special Counsel concluded that she “violated the Hatch Act on numerous occasions by disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.”

Among other instances, the report highlighted Ms. Conway’s comments on Fox News attacking candidates like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel took particular offense to her dismissive “Blah. Blah. Blah” comment back at the end of May, and they let the White House know about their displeasure.

The recommendation that Conway be dismissed carries no force of law and will of course be ignored, but almost all government employees must abide by these standards or risk unemployment. It would be one thing if the White House said that it understood the message and would rein in Conway in the future, but its position is that she doesn’t need to change her behavior at all.

If that’s the perspective of the White House, it should move to amend the Hatch Act. As long as the law is on the books and is applied to other people, Kellyanne Conway shouldn’t be exempt from its requirements.

Have Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg Mastered the Moment?

Despite the fact that public surveys failed to predict the winner of the 2016 election, polling stories still dominate news coverage of the emerging 2020 race. A few days ago, everyone was discussing a poll out of Iowa and today people are examining a new poll out of California. The survey was conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, and it found five aspirants polling in double digits: Joe Biden (22 percent), Elizabeth Warren (18 percent), Bernie Sanders (17 percent), Kamala Harris (13 percent),  and Pete Buttigieg (10 percent). Even though there are 19 other declared candidates, none of them attracted more than three percent of the voters’ support.

California has the largest haul of delegates in the nomination fight, and they’ve moved their contest from the very end to the beginning of the process, making it truly important for the first time. Home state senator Kamala Harris is counting on a win there to propel her into the top tier, and she may be somewhat disappointed to be polling in fourth place in this survey. On the other hand, not a lot separates the top five, so she can comfort herself that she’s in the mix. Some of her colleagues in the Senate, like Cory Booker, Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar aren’t so fortunate.

The New York Times has noticed the rise of Elizabeth Warren and also the surprising inclusion of little-known South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg in the competitive tier. They explain this as a consequence of their unique understanding of the political moment.

Unlike many of their rivals, who built their political careers in the era of carefully chosen, less-is-more press interaction, the two have placed their fate in the hands of TV bookers and the gods of online viral content.

While going about it in different ways, both candidates have succeeded in getting mentioned more than their competitors.

Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren began their rise in the public polling as they became more frequent presences on cable TV. Since April 1, the most-mentioned Democratic presidential candidates on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg, according to data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive.

This presents a chicken-and-egg question. Are they polling well because they’re on television or are they on television because they’re polling well? Given that their rise in the polls seems to have followed their coverage rather than preceded it, I think one could argue that they’re taking off because they’re getting exposure.

But there’s another related question. What did they do to merit the extra attention? Why did they get booked rather than other candidates like Governor Jay Inslee of Washington or Beto O’Rourke of Texas?

In Warren’s case, it’s easy to credit her early strategy of rolling out position papers at regular intervals. It’s harder to understand why the media became so fascinated with Buttigieg.

Whatever the explanation, it will now become self-reinforcing. There will be more stories about Buttigieg because he’s clearly a contender based on the polls. He seems relevant while Montana Governor Steve Bullock and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio do not. So, Buttigieg is up in the polls because the media covered him and now they will cover him because he’s up in the polls.

Something like this phenomenon has been blamed in many quarters for catapulting Donald Trump over his rivals in the 2016 Republican contest. The media covered him so much that it was like free campaign advertising, and it drowned out what his competitors were trying to say.

This makes it imperative that presidential candidates have a good media strategy at the beginning of the process. It’s not exactly the best way to determine who would be the best president, but at least Elizabeth Warren has found a way to win the game by using substance. She gets attention by talking about her detailed plans rather than by insulting her rivals and giving them nicknames. It’s quite an accomplishment to win the superficial battle by waging an intellectual one.

On the other hand, the candidates who are wallowing at the bottom of the field can comfort themselves that they might be one good viral video away from launching themselves into contention. In this social-media-driven day and age, it’s probably their only hope.