Just don’t call them stupid, please…

I haven’t posted in a while because I have no particular insights on the Coronavirus, which has been the virtually exclusive topic on most people’s minds. With a perception that the course of the virus and peoples’ attitudes toward policies to address it will remain volatile for some time, I simply have had little to say.

Also, the presidential election has been in stasis: Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee and Bernie Sanders has embraced unreservedly the need to win. Biden faces some difficult challenges on messaging without appearing to be posturing for political gain, and the convention, campaigning, and the realities of voting are all challenging but I have no particular insights to offer on any of that at the moment.

Here’s what I do want to say now: The 2020 election will pivot more on turnout than prior elections because of the complexities of process. It is therefore imperative that Democrats mobilize our vote but also that we avoid helping Trump and his allies mobilize theirs. Whenever we act like the party of elites – individually as well as collectively – we are helping Trump.

I understand the temptation to castigate the people who protest because they are putting everyone – not just themselves – at greater risk by congregating. However, those who overreact – and call them stupid – are putting all of us at greater risk by helping Trump mobilize right-wing support and increasing sympathy for the protests.

For the record, the protestors are right that their freedom of assembly is abrogated by restrictions on the number of people who may congregate. They are also right that they are being asked to suffer economically as a result of actions of governments that many do not support.

There are several ways of disagreeing with what they are doing that do not feed it or make opposition to it an issue on its own. Wisconsin operatives are suggesting that the protests are a partisan effort and the Mayor of Madison is saying they are manufactured, as reported in Reid Epstein’s excellent New York Times article https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/us/politics/wisconsin-coronavirus-protests.html, which also shows that those organizing the protests recognize the danger in their looking like the political ones. There is also the option to say that while people certainly should have the right to protest, we hope they recognize that they may be putting their neighbors and coworkers at risk as well.

When those who oppose the protests call protestors stupid or crazy, as many have on social media, you are making it easier to mobilize against a party – the Democrats – that many believe harbors people who think others are stupid, crazy, or otherwise deplorable in comparison to themselves.

Social distancing helps contain the virus. When voluntary, it is also an economic privilege. The personal and financial costs of staying home are hardly the same for all of us. Many people are torn between the health necessity and very serious personal economic costs. Don’t help make the protestors point by raising the flag of your own privilege. And don’t help Trump make the point that anyone needs liberation by your displaying heavy-handed self-righteousness.

Trump’s presidency is a tragedy. It is costing tens of thousands of lives. It has wrenched the country and deepened cleavages of race, class, geography and gender. It has tarnished and perhaps destroyed our nation’s reputation in the world. Democratic voters have chosen a candidate who promises healing, calm, reliance on expertise in making policy decisions, and a re-birth of respect for people and their views. He may not have always been my first choice, but he is now. Let’s not make it harder for him.

My Vote on March 10 for…

I had always planned to wait until the March 10 Mississippi primary in which I will vote to decide for whom I would vote. But I have now decided – and have surprised myself (and will surprise many who know me). I considered many factors, superficial and otherwise, before deciding that I will vote for Joe Biden.

I considered relationships with campaign operatives and even with some candidates. After spending 35 plus years in Democratic politics, I unsurprisingly know people in almost every campaign. I am probably closer to more people in Senator Klobuchar’s campaign than any other because of shared history in Minnesota politics, and I know Senator Klobuchar slightly and like and respect her. But that is not enough.

I also know slightly and very much like and respect former Mayor Buttigieg, who (with some gaps) has run a remarkable campaign.  For a short while, the former Mayor of South Bend was the delegate leader and is still solidly in the top three in delegates.  He has tremendous talent and smarts, a message of meaning and substance, and we do, indeed, need to bring a new generation of leadership into the Democratic Party.  But that is not enough.

If I could wave a magic wand and make one of the candidates president, it would be Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Her politics are closest to my own, she cares about the things I care about (and she even did a town hall in Mississippi).  I love her energy and I do so very much want to see a woman President in my lifetime.  My 35 plus years in politics only makes that drive stronger as politics is not a field where women are near equal to men in how we are treated or heard.  That should be enough reason to support Senator Warren but this year it is not.

Because this isn’t about me.  It is about our country, our system of democracy, and about people whose very lives (unlike my own) depend on the outcome in November. 

I am not hostile to Bernie Sanders, whose political ideas may be closer to mine than Joe Biden’s are.  I don’t blame him for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, which was far more complicated than that.  I will support him with enthusiasm if he is the nominee.  And I believe there is a chance he might eek out a victory if by November Donald Trump is less popular than he is right now.  But there is also a significant risk that he would lose and that he take down good people running for the Senate and the House with him.  That is too big a risk.

Then there is Michael Bloomberg.  I believe he is trying to do good in this race and in large part because he saw a gap that, before South Carolina, worried me as well.  But I believe he has the wrong positioning and politics for the task at hand, which is to defeat Donald Trump.

I support my candidate, Joe Biden, because it is, I believe, the right thing to do and that he is the right candidate for this time. It is not personal.  I have never met Joe Biden – we don’t share the same political space.  It may not be what I want but it is what we need:  A good and decent man, who listens to others, who wants to unite the country around shared ideals of democracy. 

He has my vote on March 10.

Failures of Punditry (and Polls)

As the year began I wrote what I called my New Year’s “irresolutions” – a set of observations on the Democratic field that I cloaked in uncertainty. I promised to come back and identify those that were wrong. There are two standouts in that regard: (1) Joe Biden’s staying power is far less certain – and I take little comfort in having been right about that before I was wrong; and (2) I now suspect that a Michael Bloomberg nomination is as likely as several other possibilities on the table.

I was not alone in being wrong and there are two core reasons for why so many were. The first is that the polls were wrong – not a single poll showed a Sanders-Buttigieg tie in Iowa with Elizabeth Warren in third; nor did a single poll show the Sanders-Buttigieg photo finish in New Hampshire with Amy Klobuchar in a strong third. In addition to the usual problems with polls (see prior posts and tweets), in Iowa, polls overestimated turnout and apparently underestimated the power of organization and the movement of late deciders. They included too many non-voters and too few who moved late to Buttigieg. In New Hampshire, there was not time for quality polling between the debate and the primary given issues with callbacks and weekend samples so most polling missed the Klobuchar growth. Additionally, those “future former Republicans” of Buttigieg’s may have been a bigger piece of the electorate than some foresaw.

The second reason pundits were wrong is that this is not an election like any we have seen before. Voters are seriously shopping for a candidate who can defeat Donald Trump. Like the pundits’, voters’ hypotheses about that shift over time, and so too do their candidate preferences. Debate performances, candidate message, perceived toughness, all matter. Since so many were so wrong, the impact of punditry seems to matter less although I am continually concerned that wrong polls can impact elections and, in their own way, thwart the voter will they intend to reflect.

The factors that made punditry and polls wrong in these first two states are operative in those that are coming up. There will not be time for quality polls between debates and primaries or between South Carolina and Super Tuesday. Voters may also change their minds about who is the strongest candidate and about what they will tolerate from candidates about whom they have mixed feelings.

Yes, polls do not show Buttigieg and Klobuchar to have much support from voters of color but usually these are polls with small and often unbalanced samples of voters of color. Besides, African American and Hispanic voters have in the past overlooked far more egregious violations on race than these candidates are accused of. I suspect most voters of color have concluded a long time ago that white politicians are imperfect on these issues. Additionally, I suspect these candidates will do some more outreach than perhaps they have to date and maybe (or not) to positive effect.

This is not a prediction that their support will grow – I don’t know – but there is no reason to rule it out either. Sanders is better known in those communities, and has a civil rights movement history from the 1960s. That doesn’t mean he has a lock on anything – and neither does Biden. Further, we have not heard yet from any voters in the south or in the southwest and we don’t really know how they are judging these candidates, or will after two more debates in their very different home states. We will have to wait and see. And the results of the next two states may or may not tell us much about Super Tuesday, when a third of delegates are chosen.

One element of current punditry I question is whether voter decisions are ideological. There is a conventional analysis that groups moderate candidates and progressive candidates and presumes some trade-off among them. The analysis is supported by voters’ second choices – as Warren is the more frequent second choice of Sanders supporters and vice versa. But some of that may reflect changeable theories of who can win. Further, there are perhaps gender dynamics in play – worth wondering whether Warren’s weakness in New Hampshire was in part attributable to Klobuchar’s growth. I don’t know.

One more irresolution I want to comment on: whether there will or even can be a first ballot winner. Multiple candidates and the deferral of the votes of super-delegates do make it less likely, as basic arithmetic and every model shows. But candidates can release their delegates before the vote; they can team up on prospective tickets too; but more importantly, the primary process is not linear, many things can happen, and a clear winner has time and space to emerge. We will see. The only thing I do know is that we should not pre-judge results because the situation and voters’ behavior is unique to this year and to the need to defeat Donald Trump.

Message Morphs and the Fifth Debate

The Iowa Democratic Party Liberty and Justice (LJ) dinner is a marker in the nomination process as candidates have the opportunity to show off their organizations and message positioning. New polling suggests shifting allegiances. With just 90 days before the caucuses, the shape of the race matters more now than it did over the summer. Candidates are also adjusting their messages and positioning, with new interplay expected in the next DNC debate.

Certain thematics are contested by multiple candidates:  At least Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar articulate that they can bring people together within the party and ultimately across party lines; both Booker in the past and Harris now claim the mantle of the candidate of justice; Buttigieg, in using language reminiscent of President Obama’s, is competing with Biden for the Obama meme, and both Buttigieg and Yang speak to generational change.  Sanders, Warren, and maybe Harris support bolder change on health care, while Warren and Sanders seem to share the reform lane with some Buttigieg and Harris incursions.  Buttigieg, Yang, and Steyer lay claim to outsider status.    

I am not aligned with any of the nine candidates who now look likely to make the debate stage this month (although neither do I feel a need to adhere to strict neutrality).   My thoughts on each begin with a recap, and what I will look for in the next debate from a message perspective. 

I begin with the Iowa top four based on the New York Times/Siena poll.  The Iowa caucuses are not the whole ball game but are likely to sort the “contenders from the pretenders,” as the role of the caucuses have been described.  Additionally, delegate math dictates a smaller viable field as soon as voting begins.  (See https://www.270towin.com/thresholds-for-delegate-allocation for a discussion of thresholds.)

The Top Tier:

Vice President Joe Biden – Biden’s message is not changing as far as I can tell.  He is competing on both the capacity to bring unity and on his ties to President Obama.  The sense that he is the candidate who would make the race a referendum on Trump and not on himself seems to be fading.  Voters seem to perceive Trump’s own fortunes as weaker (although they may well be wrong, particularly given this poll released today:  NY Times/Siena Poll ) and Biden seems less of a force than voters initially believed.   In prior debates, it was enough for Biden to hold firm on message and stay out of the fray.  If his Iowa and New Hampshire leads are as endangered as some polls suggest, he will need to fight back both to hold the Obama mantle and to be seen as a unifying force – morphing more to “strict father” than “Uncle Joe” in archetypal terms.     

Mayor Pete Buttigieg – Buttigieg has had a very good week, with polling that shows him in a very competitive position in Iowa and with an impressive show of force at theLJ.  His message, meanwhile, has shifted to a more moderate call for unity with an emphasis of his Midwestern roots, and away from some of his earlier progressive and values-based positioning.  Sexual orientation, age, and talent likely save him from appearing too moderate for the primary electorate.  Some of his tactics – character attacks on Warren (even with the disclaimer) and his campaign’s blaming African Americans for their lack of support for him are familiar and questionable tropes.  I don’t know that they damage him but it will be interesting to see whether they are repeated, or whether he grounds more thoroughly in his vision of a “new era” as he did at the LJ dinner.   

Senator Bernie Sanders – Sanders has the firmest support of any of the candidates and while it is not quite as broad as it was – and certainly narrower than it was in 2016– maintenance and turnout could produce a top three finish for him in early states. Being a vigorous and spirited Sanders, which comes naturally to him, is likely enough to hold his base.  One issue for him in the debate, is whether he creates any daylight between him and Warren on Medicare for All, which could help them both.

Senator Elizabeth Warren – Warren has moved into the number two spot, and some would argue the number one spot based on state polls.  Voters like her and her plans, and a shift in voters’ mood and her numbers has tamped down some of the concerns about her winability.  Still, many voters as well as party leaders are reluctant to see a campaign in which Medicare for All is the lead issue.  Her response is strong – that “hope and courage” win elections.  Her jobs moving forward are (1) to be the candidate of hope and courage and not the candidate of a single programmatic idea, even an important one; and (2) to draw a connection for voters between who she is now and her roots in non-coastal America.       

The Second Tier:

Senator Corey Booker – Booker’s message has seemed a bit transient and his positioning is not clear to me, unless it is in the personal appeal of his optimism.   He also sometimes emphasizes criminal justice reform in ways that compete with Harris.  Booker has a choice to make on whether optimism and emotionalism or issue comparisons with others will help move his candidacy forward.

Senator Kamala Harris – Harris has shifted the emphasis of her campaign to focus on Iowa and rolled out an altered message at the LJ.  Instead of starting with “as a former prosecutor,” she broadened her message to talk about justice and that she has always been “for the people” in an effort to bring them justice.  The messaging was very well received.  It certainly gives her a broader palette on which to portray her concerns about people and her core values.  Whether she can show the force of those values without appearing acerbic or tactical, remains to be seen.       

Senator Amy Klobuchar – Klobuchar is competing with Buttigieg on Midwestern cred, and with Buttigieg, Biden, and perhaps Booker as a unifying or anti-divisive force.  She has not thus far given a clear portrayal of what a Klobuchar presidency would look like, which may be her task in Debate Five.  She stood out on personal appeal in the last debate; in this one I suspect she needs to look the contender by saying how her presidency as well as her candidacy would be distinctive in the field.

Tom Steyer – Steyer is running as an outsider and a progressive.  But he entered late and his self-funding has both put him on the debate stage and is self-limiting.  Democratic voters are not in the mood for self-funding billionaires.   His efforts on impeachment have also been, perhaps, overtaken by the actual event.  Following the old rubric of Message-Organization-Money as key to political victory, Steyer seems stuck on the third.

Andrew Yang – Yang has an enthusiastic if small core of support, and the question is whether he can broaden his positioning.  The Buttigieg morph may give Yang a new opening to be more of the candidate of new ideas and a new generation, and compete with Buttigieg on those grounds. 

Conventional wisdom – which is sometimes wrong – dictates that there are no more than three tickets out of Iowa – that only three contenders have a real chance of the nomination after Iowa.  I suspect that whether there are three or four “tickets” depends on the rank order and level of support for the first three.  Five tickets requires difficult arithmetic since there is a 15 percent threshold for delegates, although five candidates bunched together is possible.  Additionally, particularly if Biden’s support fades in Iowa, South Carolina with very different demographics could have an especially important impact in making its own choice.  In any case, the race is far from over but the field of seventeen candidates is shrinking rapidly to a far smaller group that has any real argument for viability.  The November debate may be the last opportunity for the second tier to move up, and will certainly clarify message and positioning within the first tier of candidates.